How the Seven Deadly Sins Progress Civilisation

The Seven Deadly Sins are the engine of society.

In his book, Sex, Bombs & Burgers, Peter Nowak describes how the world as we know it is shaped by the three primal forces of lust, aggression and gluttony. This is not a new notion, as more than 2500 years ago, Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus wrote:

War is father of all things  (Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι)

Nowak takes the old saying from the ancient one a step further and adds lust and gluttony as major drivers for technological advancement. He argues that if it wasn’t for sex, bombs and burgers, what he calls the ‘Shameful Trinity’, we might all still be living in caves. From cars to high-definition televisions, from website logins to microwave popcorn, the origins of all technological advancement can be traced to sinful behaviour.

This books shows that progress is not driven by rational drives for progress itself, but that we are driven by our emotions. We can take dig a little deeper into Nowak’s Shameful Trinity and uncover what since early Christian times has been called the Seven Deadly Sins. Although Christian theology tries to eradicate these seven aspects of humanity from our lives, they are actually what drives us to be who we are. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the seven sins as:

Gula (gluttony)

Food is our primary need and has for millennia been the source of many innovations. Our stone age ancestors invented farming and started the neolithical revolution. An in our current times, high tech genetic technology is used to ensure people’s survival and high profits for food companies. The other innovation that food technology has introduced to contemporary society is the strict implementation of scientific management, following in the footsteps of Frederick Taylor. In fast food outlets every second counts and companies such as McDonalds have pioneered many management techniques that shave of those extra few seconds to deliver their fast ‘food’ even faster.

Luxuria (extravagance)

The original list of sins included fornication. But in AD 590 the pope of the time replaced it with extravagance. Lust, or porneia (Πορνεία) in ancient Greek, drives much of our culture. The pornography industry has played a major role in the proliferation of many technologies. Not as the progenitor, but as an early adopter and influence of the market. In the 1980s, when the Betamax and VHS video formats were battling it out for supremacy, the pornography industry played a big role in making VHS the most popular format. A similar ‘battle’ is currently being waged over which of the two blue-laser DVD formats — Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD — will replace DVDs for high-definition content.

Avaritia (greed)

Unrestrained accumulation of wealth is the basic premise of capitalist philosophy. The idea of unbridled economic growth logically requires an unrestrained desire to buy stuff. Adam Smith postulated an invisible hand. This principle is what allocates resources in society through the conjunction of self-interest, competition and supply & demand. That this invisible hand can not fully self regulate has become apparent in the Global Financial Crisis, which was caused by greed in an unregulated financial system.

Acedia (sloth)

Sloth is a major driver in our quest for technology. Palaeolithic people decided it would be much better to stay in one place rather than moving around all the time so they invented farming. Technology is supposed to make our lives easier — from reclining chairs to snowmobiles, technology allows us to be extremely lazy.

Ira (wrath)

Wrath is the justification for many wars. The first World War started because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the current Middle Eastern wars are caused by the wrath incurred because of the terrorist attacks in 2001. The causes of war are, however, mostly more complicated. Long term motives such as colonial expansion in the first and the thirst for oil in the second examples,are possibly the real causes.

Invidia (envy)

The state of envy can be an amazing motivator to improve your own existence. Envying your bosses’ position might drive somebody to perform better and undertake further studies to improve the chances of a promotion. Envy can of course also result in destructive behaviour and is one of the causes of war. Germany envied the allies because of the wealth accumulated through their colonies and thought it would be a good idea to start a war.

Superbia (pride)

Last but not least, pride is one of the great drivers in the fashion industry. Sociologist Goffman agreed with Shakespeare that all the world is but a stage. Goffman described the world as one large play in which we are all actors. As such we need props to communicate our identity to the outside world. In an society where the old anchors have been cut everybody has to seek their own identity and shopping provides the perfect replacement for tradition and religion. We buy certain brands, nit because they are necessarily better than another brand, but because we identify with it. It is the pride in ourselves that is one of the major drivers in our shopping behaviour.

Beyond good and evil

You might think that I have a negative view of humanity by claiming that our lives are driven by what are commonly considered sins.

But this post is not about what is good or bad, it is merely stating the sociological facts of the human condition. The facts are that not our quest for world peace or the admirable aim to make poverty history are the real drivers of progress. It is those behaviours and states of mind that some seek out to eradicate from humanity that makes us human.

This illustrates that the world is much more complex than simple religious philosophy could ever encapsulate.

The boundaries between good and bad are often faded and we need to seek beyond good and evil to find philosophical truth.

Know Thyself: Personality Tests are Worthless

One’s own is well hidden for one’s
own; and of all treasure troves, one’s
own is the last to be excavated …

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The importance of self-knowledge has been acknowledged through the ages and across cultures. A visitor to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece was commanded to “Know Thyself” and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that “self-knowledge is enlightenment”.

Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of the objective world. It is, by definition, subjective and is thus not easily obtained, as illustrated by the epigraph. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century, theorised that people have a hidden personality of which they are not aware. It is this hidden, subconscious, nature of personality that creates epistemological hurdles and makes self-knowledge a difficult to obtain treasure.

Many different psychometric tests have been developed to determine a subject’s personality or other aspects of the self. These tests are used in clinical settings and research, but are also widely used for recruitment and leadership development.

For my MBA studies I was asked to undertake a battery of personality and motivation tests in an attempt to improve my self knowledge. The main question to be answered is whether this myriad of numbers and classifications actually describe me as a person and whether they can provide a deeper self-knowledge to enable me to be a better manager.

Numerous studies have shown that psychometric tests can be used to make predictions about behaviour of individuals and job performance. There are, however, many situational variables, such as organisational culture, which influence behaviour and research indicates that personality plays the greatest role in situations where there are no social clues on how to behave .

Some of the often used methodologies are scientifically problematic. There is little empirical evidence to confirm the validity of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Also for Theory X/Y and ERG Theory there is little or no evidence to confirm the validity of their assumptions.

Problematic aspect of self administered psychometric testing is a high level of inherent confirmation bias, also known as the ‘Forer Effect’. Am I really very conscientious, or do I perceive myself to be conscientious? Am I really an extroverted person, or is it my high level of energy which subjugates any innate introvertedness? Do the results of these tests provide a picture of my inner self, or are they a reflection of my perceived self?

The test results do not actually reveal any information beyond what has been entered by me, because the results are only a linguistic rearrangement of the answers. This is confirmed by recent research that showed that most people are able to guess the outcome of personality tests without actually undertaking them.

Comprehensive self-knowledge can thus not be obtained by completing surveys because they can only reveal the perceived self and are not capable of unearthing the inner (subconscious) self. Psychometric tests are suitable only as a vehicle for introspection, providing an entry point for reflecting on one’s self. This introspection can, however, not occur without life experience to reflect on.

Obtaining self knowledge, considered essential for leadership development, requires something deeper and more substantial, as alluded to by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this blog entry. As our behaviour is predominately controlled by situational variables, the only way to obtain self-knowledge is life experience.

Only by being exposed to a multitude of situations and challenges can we know what our personality actually is. As we gain life experience, our inner and perceived selves slowly converge. Maturity is the situation were the inner self and the perceived self are almost identical and self-knowledge becomes apparent. Even the most carefully designed personality test can not leapfrog the knowledge obtained through life experience. Carl Gustav Jung, who inspired development of the MBTI recognised this when he wrote:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche … would be better advised to abandon exact science … and wander with human heart through the world.

This foray into psychometric testing leaves me to conclude that no psychometric test can ever replace the fullness of life experience to obtain true self-knowledge. Experiences such as exposing oneself to a challenging situations, occasionally exploring the boundaries of morality, experiencing different cultures or going through emotional turmoil are the only meaningful ways to gain self-knowledge.

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?

Is academic philosophy Exsanguinated?In one of the university texts I have been reading recently, the author often writes that a certain philosopher is being ‘over-sanguine’ in his approach. I thought this was a strange word to use as I found out it means ‘passionate’.

Can a philosopher be accused of being too  passionate? I don’t think this can be the case. Philosophy often deals with very important questions—the meaning of life, what ought we to do and other such life changing questions. How can one not be passionate?

Academic philosophy seems a bit exsanguinated at times. The main reason for this, I believe, is that too many academic pursuits are judged by the same standards as exact science—philosophy is an art form, not a science. Most academic philosophy could do with a blood transfusion!

The distinction between passion and reason is a very old one. In moral philosophy it has often been contended that passion conflicts with reason and that the latter should always have preference. Plato’s myth of the charioteer in the Phaedrus illustrates this idea. The charioteer is the soul of man, while the two horses represent reason and passion. Plato’s preference for reason has dominated Western culture for a long, long time.

If philosophy is an art form, we should listen to Nietzche, who teaches in Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik that there is no Apollo (reason), without a Dionysus (passion).

The Philosopher and the Mystic: On the role of logic as the pathway to truth

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

A portrait of Indian philosophy saint Adi Sankara.

Academic philosophy and mysticism do not go hand in hand. One of the first subjects in any philosophy course in the analytic tradition is logic. Students are taught the strict rules of reasoning, as applied by philosophers for about 2500 years. Students are also taught that every philosophy must comply with these rules.

These strict rules of logic are many times at odds with what mysticism teaches us. One of the foundation rules of ‘proper thinking’ is that there can be no internal contradiction, e.g. either A or not A—there is no third option. Mysticism, however, unites the dualism of opposites into a wider embrace, a higher truth.

As I wrote earlier, academic philosophy is forced through the politics of funding by governments to stick to the accepted rules of scientific logic. Mystical philosophy can therefore not be taught at university level, besides in neutral, non engaging, exsanguinated way.

One of the questions to be asked is whether philosophy can be merged with mysticism. Can the philosopher and the mystic be one and the same person?

In classical Indian Philosophy, tension between religion and reason is not as pronounced as in the West. Reason and religion were in a constant debate, which has led to a philosophy with clear strands of mysticism.

Philosophy and mysticism have been separated in the Western tradition since the beginning of philosophy. Early Greek philosophy contained some kernels of mystic thought, but slowly but surely, mysticism has disappeared from the philosophical landscape.

Can a truly mystical philosophy exist? The problem with mysticism is that anything seems to be allowed and every utterance can be true, as there are no rules concerning how to determine what is true and what is not. But maybe, the strict rules of logic accept to little as true knowledge? Many people find strength and inspiration in the mystic realm. The big question to be asked next is what is truth anyway? Isn’t truth just whatever complies with basically arbitrary rules?