Can We Ever Truly Judge One Another?

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"We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It's one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it's another to think that yours is the only path." ~Paulo Coehlo (Novelist)

I recently saw this quotation from a friend's Facebook profile and it made me think. I don't want to seem overly critical or self-righteous here, but I have some questions about the perspective advocated in this quotation.

Basically: Is this really the deepest truth?

If we meditate on this quotation for a few moments--is this really true?

I don't ask in any mean-spirited fashion, hell-bent on tearing down another's views in order to look more spiritual or elevate myself or whatever. I feel like words get tossed around, especially around things spiritual (for lack of a better word) and I have found it a helpful practice in my own life to really sit and inquire, to feel into a saying and really ask, "Is this right?"

So: Is this right?

I have to admit--I have my doubts.

I feel the view expressed in this quotation, while on the surface appearing tolerant and wise, is actually underneath pervaded by a deep pessimism.

religion bumper sticker

To begin to unpack why I feel that way, I'll start with that last sentence. I understand Coelho to mean that a person does well to accept as true that there is no one single path for all people, in all times, in all places and it's an arrogant perspective to believe otherwise. Even worse than believing that there is only one path is to be totally convinced that one's path is that one and only path and all others are therefore deficient.

I take that last sentence, in other words, to be a critique of religious and spiritual fundamentalism. In that sense, I totally agree. Unspoken (but I think clearly implied) is that "it's another thing to think that yours is the only path" refers to everyone else "it's another thing to think that yours is the only path for everyone else." Again, if that is the implication (and I think it clearly is) then yes, this is wise counsel.

But I wonder about the use of the word 'feel' in that sentence. "It is one thing to feel that you are on the right path..." Given the assumed negative or critical edge to the second half of the statement, I take it Coehlo means that feeling that you are on the right path [for you] is a legitimate enterprise. Ok. But are we only ever to feel we are on the right path? Can we ever know that we are indeed (even if only for us) on the right path? The use of the word 'feel' there softens it, perhaps helpfully perhaps unhelpfully.
Feeling seems to be valued over knowing. The contrast seems rather black and white between feeling (good) and thinking. Thinking seems to be more in the line of judgmentalism (bad).

And that brings us to the first sentence, the one I have the most questions about and problems with:

"We can never judge the lives of others because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation."

What does Coehlo mean by judging the lives of others?

What constitutes the lives of others? Their actions? Their attitudes? Their personal philosophy? Their politics? Their ethics? The quality of their relationships? All of above, none of the above, some other elements entirely?

lives of others

If we say that the lives of others consist of their actions and the way they relate to other beings (perhaps us), how can we say that we have no right to judge another? At the most basic legal level this is an absurd notion as the entire legal system depends on the notion of people being responsible for their actions and therefore able to be judged for having violated agreed upon social statues—e.g. not stealing someone's possessions or defrauding them or assaulting them.

If we say, on the contrary, the lives of others consist of some deeply private, inner experiences and sense of self (and this is why it cannot be judged), then I worry we are really isolating people and creating a destructive duality between a person's inner world and their outer actions.

So why is it that we can never judge the lives of others?

This last question for me is the most difficult to grasp. I'm not sure I totally understand the thought at all. I'm not sure what link Coehlo's is making between the individual nature of our pain and renunciation and the inadmissibility of judgment by others (because of that unique pain and renunciation).

Think of the kind of self that is being assumed in this point of view. It seems to me quite alone and unable to connect with other beings. To me that's a very despairing view.

Now I do agree that a person can only truly know their own pain and renunciation. For that matter, that same thing likely holds for a person's joy and hopes. At least in a kind of ultimate sense—we can never get completely inside the skin, the personal-ness of another and totally absolutely be them.

On the other hand, is it really right to say we can never (at least to a significant degree) know the pain and renunciation of another? Consider the example of Alcoholics Anonymous. The whole premise (a valid one I believe) of the group is that people who suffer from the same basic disease will be better able to support one another because they in fact know each other's pain. In the case of alcoholism, alcoholics will be able to resonate with each other's sense of the craving, the inability to have one drink and stop there. Many will know the hurt and pain they have caused loved ones.

support group

This idea basically holds for any kind of support group—e.g. parents of children with autism, or people grieving over the loss of a spouse or parent, on and on. Isn't the whole point of such groups the hope that a person can finally find someone who can hear their pain, who knows what it's like, and (hopefully) has come out the other side, learning to deal with that particular trauma in a life giving way? Isn't it precisely knowing each other's pain and renunciation that draws such groups together?

It's healing to be truly heard and embraced by another person who has walked the same road.

I seriously wonder if that type of healing is being dismissed outright by this line:

"We can never judge the lives of others because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation."

Having said that though, for a moment I want to give Coehlo's quotation some due. I'm trying to see the world from (what I take to be) his view, to hold multiple perspectives in mind simultaneously (and I encourage the reader to join me in this exercise).

I thought of this example. At a previous church I used to attend there was an individual whose personality was quite grating. This person talked down to people, talked over others, and was personality-wise quite unpleasant (to put it mildly). I later learned this person had experienced some truly horrendous traumas (a number of them actually).

Knowing that experience of this person's pain--not from the inside of course--did change the way I viewed this person. I didn't know their pain and renunciation and therefore I didn't have that context when judging their actions. I've never had (and hope to God I never have to) deal with the horrible experiences this person has had to face. Unless such horror occurs to me, I will never know from the inside that kind of pain and renunciation.

But again—for those who've gone through similar traumas, would they not know the same (or basically the same) pain and renunciation?

This is an important question because as it turns out in this case there was another person at the church who went through a very similar (almost exactly the same in fact) traumatic experience, a terrible and truly tragic one. Person #1 (the difficult personality) interacted with Person #2 (the second one to go through said tragedy) and Person #1 was not only not helpful to Person #2 but Person #1 actually further traumatized Person #2. Of all the people in the world who should've known how to respond to such a person in such a crisis, one would have thought Person #1 would have been the ideal candidate (having gone through much the same thing). But that sadly was not the case. Doing nothing at all would have been better than what that person did.

In such a situation, is there to be no judgment? Now we might say I'm not in any position to make that judgment, having not gone through that set of experiences (fair enough), but that argument can't hold for Person #2 right?*


Which leads us back to the difficult question of judgment. What is judgment?

Does the idea that we cannot completely know the pain of another keep us forever separated from one another, unable to live in judgment with each other? Can't judgment be loving, merciful, or healing? Judgment can certainly be shameful, destructive, and unjust to be sure. But are all kinds of judgment therefore wrong?

In our postmodern globalized world, judgment is almost always considered a negative thing. People who judge are thought to be cruel, hypocritical, self-righteous, unloving, and (worst of all) intolerant. I think Coehlo's quotation fits basically within that cultural framework. But in other cultures judgment does not carry such an inherently negative connotation.

In that light, I found it instructive to pair Coehlo's statement that we can never judge the lives of others with a famous saying from Jesus:

"Judge not lest you be judged. For the measure by which you judge another will be the measure by which you are measured." --The Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 7, verses 1-2.

On first glance this would seem to mirror and support Coehlo's quotation perfectly.

But this is the same Jesus who also said the following:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." The Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 23, verse 27

Whatever else we say about that statement, it's clearly judgment. So what gives?

If we look at the full context of that first quotation from Jesus we get the following:

"Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Let me take the speck out of your eye", while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye."  (Matthew 7: 1-5)

One reading of that passage is we're always going to be judging each other and the question is how to do it rightly. In that frame, the idea of someone being (altogether) non-judgmental is a nonsensical statement. A non-judgmental person would be (if this other line of thinking holds) someone who has abdicated a fundamental mature human responsibility: namely to judge well rather than to judge poorly (not judging would not be an option in this case).

The wrong way is to judge others for faults which one has oneself. Hence the fact that one should take out the log in one's own eye (a log is huge by the way) rather than the speck in the brother's. Jesus is clearly using hyperbole to make the point. But nevertheless we are supposed to help our brother get the speck out—we are supposed to "see clearly". And notice this is meant to be a helpful way of relating (judging), getting a speck of dust out of someone's eye is helpful to their vision (clearly a metaphor for spiritual seeing as well as perhaps meant literally).

And yet there may be one other way to understand this saying:

Judge not lest you be judged. For the manner in which you measure, will be the manner by which you are measured.

This second (and I think complementary yet distinct) reading might validate a part of Paul Coehlo's quotation (if I'm not reading too much into his statement).

Namely that we are not in the end God and it is not our role to judge the ultimate state or destiny of any soul. This is where people who hold signs up about how others are going to hell for doing such and such (whether it's destroying the earth or being gay) are so wrong. If this is what Coehlo means, then I'm with him after all.

But even if that is what he means (and I'm not really sure it is), I think he would do well to specify between this absolute level of judgment (we are not the Ultimate Judge of the Universe) and the relative level of judgment, where yes in fact we are always already going to be judging as well as being judged by others and the question is not really how to be "non-judgmental" but rather how to be deeply welcoming and accepting and also open to deep relationship where we challenge each other, hold each other accountable in love and are in turn held in loving accountable by others. How, in other words, we gain wisdom—that is true judgment.


I think this confusion between the Absolute and relative forms of judgment lies at the heart of the postmodern confusion and reticence towards the subject. It is based, I think, in a deeply sincere intention to include beings. The traditional cultures of the world were (and still are) full of such destructive, de-humanizing judgment. The modern era grew as a revolt against that traditionalism, emphasizing the rights of individuals. The key cultural concept for modernity to really take hold is toleration—the practice of letting other individuals be in different social worlds so long as their freedom does not harm mine (and vice versa).  See for example, John Locke's landmark Letter on Toleration.  The postmodern world has extended modernity's practice of toleration to previously subjugated populations: e.g. women, the earth, aboriginal peoples, gays and lesbians, etc. So much good and the reduction of so much harm has occurred through this practice of toleration.

And yet....and yet toleration is not able to bring beings into anything other than a superficial form of relationship (i.e. not harming one another, allowing each other space, and being accepting of one another). Toleration—the hallmark of the modern and postmodern worlds—has left us deeply fragmented from one another and unclear within ourselves how best to live our lives. [Into that existential void has swarmed marketing and consumerism.]

While the postmodern tendency to critique judgmentalism is based in a sincere and good intention that beings not have their dignity taken from them, I think it's still (partially) flawed in its outlook.

The post-postmodern insight responds to the postmodern wariness towards judgment in five ways.

1. Judgment is never Absolute. No being stands in Absolute judgment of another.

2. What can (and should be) judged, with compassion, are the attitudes, actions, thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, worldviews, opinions, and so on of another. The post-postmodern world does not define a person as simply their actions or beliefs.

3. All judgments are by nature provisional. They are to be understood as means of entering into dialogue and conversation. They are an invitation to grow together and to give the other a space for feedback, counter-criticism, and clarification.

4. The post-postmodern worldview realizes that we are inherently in relationship with one another. We inter-exist and therefore however conventionally necessary and helpful the practice (and legal basis) of toleration might be, it is not true of our human reality. We are intrinsically part of one another. Judgment is a piece (and only one) of the mature realization of living an ethical, political, social life with other beings.

5. The post-postmodern world (in contradistinction to both the modern and postmodern worlds) holds that we can come to know each other deeply from the inside.  Of course we are talking about the process of ever-moving into deeper and deeper connection and mutual knowing, but we are not as spiritually, emotionally, physically, and cognitively separate from each other as Paulo Coehlo's quotation suggests.    


With these five foundations, a new ethical world beings to open up.  One that I sense and experience as requiring a much greater degree of freely chosen responsibility.  There is more awareness in this post-postmodern space of judgment and therefore more required of those whose eyes, minds, and hearts are more open.  

Contrary to Paulo Coehlo I would say:

We can and must judge the lives of others and leave our own lives open to their judgment in turn.  We do (or at least can) know the pain and renunciation of others and they in turn can know ours, until we begin to realize these are different manifestations of the same underlying processes, much greater than any individual person (though including them).  If we journey into this other world, we may find at times we no longer even feel we are on the right path (much less knowing we are on it), but find ourselves rather living in a place of hope, reaching out beyond our conditioned knowing and feeling, living in a place of trust in the Creativity that lies at the heart of every moment.

In that space and way of life, we seek out trusted, wise judgment from as many sources as possible.  We want our pain and renunciation to be known intimately, so that we may receive guidance as to how to move forward.  


* Br. Trevor adds:

Not only that, but a person still has to responsible for their actions, no matter how much trauma they've undgergone. Hurting others and generally disrupting relations is not cool and should be judged. We can have compassion for the person not be harsh or mean in our criticism/judgment, and handle them with care, but I think judgment is completely valid. How else are we to evolve, to achieve new levels of depth and care in our interactions? No judgment means no evolution, no growth, no discernment of better or worse.

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  • Comment Link Paul Paddon Monday, 13 June 2011 19:58 posted by Paul Paddon


    If I understand your article, you appear to be trying to reclaim the word “judgment” in a new sense from a post-post-modern perspective. I applaud the effort.

    To me the core issue is as you wrote:

    “how to be deeply welcoming and accepting and also open to deep relationship where we challenge each other, hold each other accountable in love and in turn held in loving accountable by others.”

    The trouble for me is that judgment is such a loaded word that I'm not completely with you. The fact that you must qualify “judgment” with “compassion” (insight 2) perhaps highlights the issue. *Any* judgment without compassion is a problem, I suspect.

    I would offer that a much better stance to get to deep relationship – and ultimately wisdom - that you speak of is openness and curiosity.

    Your analysis (as described and interpreted by me, anyway) of Person #1 and Person #2, seems to lack compassion for Person #1. How awful must it be for Person #1 to act this way? What do they believe about themselves inside that has them do that? Did they really intend to traumatize P #2?

    No, you and me are not in any position to make a judgment about P #1. Nor can we say whether P #1 is capable of consciously knowing that they “should” be acting differently. Hence, for me, Coehlo’s quote is right on.

    If our intention is to help, coming up with more sophisticated judgments I doubt is the way. Entering relationship from the point of view of curiosity will serve better, I think.

    I also, think transcending judgment has to do with being able to take a wide enough perspective to see that forgiveness and peace lie in this wider lens. And then there’s the old Zen story of the farmers “misfortune”…

    Contrary to Trevor, I suspect evolution and growth can happen organically without judgment. Am I mixing metaphors here if we take a look at the first 4 billion years of evolution on this planet and see no judgments? Maybe. But I think that by holding ourselves accountable in love we do teach that skill to others more effectively than through our judgments of them.

    I appreciate you opening this dialogue.


  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 13 June 2011 21:40 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the note.

    The way I see judgment is really in the mode of copmassionate, wise justice.

    For example, this line sticks out for me:

    "Mercy and truth have met each other. Justice and peace have kissed." Psalm 85:10

    I think when we talk of compassion without the sense of justice/judgment, then we end back up in a toleration only mode.

    In the Biblical tradition, which is more where I come from on these types of things, I've always found it fascinating that people in the Bible welcome judgment. Judgment is a good thing. In the Biblical worldview, judgment is when God clears away evil and destruction and love, peace, and justice come to be established.

    For people who are in positions of being oppressed, I would imagine they desire judgment--it speaks to their hope of liberation and release. I find it intriguing that the populations that seem to have the most difficulty with judgment are the ones that tend to have the most social and economic power (i.e. secularized West).

    And in relation to P#1 and P#2, I guess I go back to the idea that the judgment is not judging the person but their actions. Otherwise I have some concerns we may not be holding each other to responsibility.

    I thought that was an interesting example because there was this piece I learned of great trauma in the person's life--not knowing their pain and renunciation (in support of Coehlo's point) and yet at the same time this other thing occurs and (as I understand it) by Coehlo's assessment that piece (to me) seems left out.

    Thanks for the comment.


  • Comment Link Lindsay Monday, 13 June 2011 23:38 posted by Lindsay

    Great article Chris. Thanks for exploring this topic.

    What I like most about this piece it that it highlights that there are different kinds of judgement (good, bad, healthy, unhealthy, and in-between), and that there are different ways of acting on our own judgements, and different ways of dealing with being judged. It's the beginning, but the not end, of a great discussion on this topic.

    While reading this, I had many thoughts and even more questions. It may make more sense to have a conversation in person about it so that subtlety and nuance can be included, but I'll try to address some of it as other readers may have similar thoughts or questions.

    My first question is about the five ways that the "post-post modern insight responds to the wariness towards judgement..." Which sounds like a really great set of guidelines to actively judge, and be judged, with compassion, intention, and for a Greater purpose. But is that implying that only those operating at post-postmodern level of development are capable of judging in such a way? If so, what's the best approach to judging for those people, or cultures, who are operating at modern or postmodern level? Or those in transition? All humans, at all levels of development judge. It's a human response, good or bad (designed for good I believe), so then shouldn't there be a 'better' way of judging at all levels? There should definitely be a critique of the modern and postmodern 'style' of judging, but what's hard for me to wrap my head around is the implication that the post-postmodern way of judging = right, and the modern/postmodern way of judging = wrong. And if the majority of our western culture is modern/postmodern, wouldn't it be more affective to encourage the best ways of judging at the modern and postmodern levels?

    To try and clarify what I'm getting at, this piece seems to point out the issues with the modern and postmodern approach to judging, which I believe is totally fair and accurate. But then goes on to explore the best way to judge from a post-postmodern perspective, while seemingly skipping the best or healthiest way to judge from the modern and postmodern perspectives? This is think is extraordinarily important step, as a full and healthy expression of a developmental stage is completely necessary for evolution and growth towards the next.

    Also, I agree that people who have suffered similar traumas, or are struggling with similar addictions/diseases are in a better position to understand and support each other. But does that really mean that they are more capable of a healthy judgement of each other? Even if they are more familiar with that other persons pain. Two people could have suffered the same trauma, but one of them had better coping skills, or more loving support during the trauma. One could have eventually grown from the experience, and the have not. I think that someones level of health, and how Present they are, is a better indicator of their ability to judge in productive, compassionate and healthy way.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 14 June 2011 05:57 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for the fantastic comment. There's a great deal in it and I really appreciate the nuance of it.

    In terms of those 5 ways I mentioned, one is that those are open to anyone to take up (and perhaps add ones I'm missing). So it's not only post-postmodern people (whatever that is, whoever they are) can do it, but a means for all of us of entering (via practice) into that space.

    As regards healthy judgment in modern and postmodern contexts, I think toleration is a form of judgment. I think it's actually a more evolved form of judgment than previous dominating forms of society--so in that sense already healthy. I think multiculturalism is as highly developed extension of that basic frame of toleration--again very good in nature and also a form of judgment. If someone(s) decide that certain actions are in the mode of toleration, clearly actions opposed to that way of being are going to judged (i.e. labeled) as intolerant.

    The problem arises, I feel, when terms like non-judgmentalism get thrown around. The intention and even the practice behind them (in many regards) is very valid, but in a certain logical framing, is a non-sensical or self-contradictory statement. The postmodern world struggles here with a way of expressing itself. Judgment is seen I think by many solely in the form of the negative, oppressive judgments of much of the traditional world--which the modern and postmodern worlds have rightly rebelled against. And in those rebellions have made clear judgments as to right and wrong, good and bad.

    I'm not sure why the traditional worlds still seem to hold most of the power over the term judgment--both for those in it and those outside it. But I think it does and the consequence is that modern and postmodern values struggle to gain a foothold I think.

    There maybe other forms of judgment in those worlds--e.g. in modernity a value on efficiency, massive scale, etc. and in postmodern an emphasis on sensitivity, mutuality, overturning hierarchies. Judgments that accord with those values may be seen as of more truth in those worlds.

    But for simplicity I tend to categorize modernity as one of toleration and then post-modernity as extending that into cultural spheres.

    However we label that form of judgment, I think that form reaches a terminal point. In Wilber's words I tried in this article to speak both to the truth and the partiality (as I judge it) of both the modern and postmodern forms of judgment.

    My assumption (which is open to debate for sure) is that such a frame would allow people to own more their intrinsic activity of judgment. In the Big Mind process, for example, I always find it so interesting that by owning a voice, the voice "settles down". Like if I own the thinking mind, my mind actually relaxes. I feel like owning the voice of judgment, would actually lead to much more compassionate, open ended, relaxed beings.

    In that paradoxical sense, I think we need more not less judgment. Or rather more honesty about our inherent activity of judgment and then having admitted that, we can begin to talk about which ways of judgment are more life-giving and which less so.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 14 June 2011 06:01 posted by Chris Dierkes


    And in relation to the people in traumas, struggling with difficulties, that's an interesting point you raise. I wasn't bringing up that example per se to argue they are in a better position to judge each other. Though in some ways perhaps they are--or at least perhaps sound judgment is more likely to be heard and accepted and acted upon when the person giving it is seen to have 'street cred' for the person on the receiving end.

    I brought up that example in as a counter to Coehlo's assertion that we can never know each other's pain and renunciation. I think we can--always in terms of our own filters to some degree to be sure. But legitimately I think we can discuss more or less degrees of mutual comprehension. I don't think that automatically gives one the capacity for better judgment--as mothers always say you don't have to jump off a bridge to know it's a bad thing to do. But I do think it sets a space where we can connect with one another and have less fear or resistance (in relation to each other) around judgment. I hope that makes sense. I'm not totally sure I articulated myself there as best as I could.

    Thanks again for the stimulating comments.

  • Comment Link Paul P Tuesday, 14 June 2011 16:45 posted by Paul P

    Hi Chris,

    I am going to take another stab at this because this topic has been on my mind lately.

    You bring up “wise justice” in your comment in the context of how you see judgments. By this do you mean moral goodness? So are your talking mostly about moral judgments then?

    I guess what confuses me is in other places is you seem to lump together of all forms of evaluation, discernment, decision making, toleration and so on as “judgment”. With this catch-all approach, then of course “non-judgmentalism” seems non-sensical.

    But if we take judgment as an evaluation within a context, then maybe it’s not so non-sensical in the way the Coehlo states. Our understanding of the context of other lives is always limited and I think it is this that can make judgment by others unhelpful. His use of the word “never” is what strikes me as edgy, and at the same time I think it points to something profound.

    If we look at the evolution of judgment, as you nicely outline, from traditional (say absolute judgment where punishment is the result), to modern (where toleration of rationality is the norm) to post modern (where toleration of cultural perspectives is extended), then I think we see that the trend in the evolution is one of widening the context in which the evaluation is being made. I don’t know if this reaches an endpoint at all but rather points to the fact that we cannot actually see the widest context.

    Of course we must make evaluations, discernments, decisions on a day to day basis. But what purpose does judging another’s life serve?

    I agree with you that we should not be judging the person, and it is fair to judge actions (within a context). However, you list a lot more in your point #2: thoughts, beliefs, opinions, worldviews. In what sense “should” we be judging these? This is not clear to me.

    Your idea that judgment can lead to deeper connection is intriguing but I don’t see how it works. You seem to suggest without judgment we are left in separation. And this is backwards to me. My experience is that judgment leads to separation and this is why I find this topic so interesting, personally. I don’t think that if I start judging, it’s going to lead to deeper connection. I’m not trying to be trite here. Do you mean we should be open to feedback from others? Or something else?

    Feedback is more like information, to me. I’m open to information about my behaviour, how it impacts you (which I cannot always predict due to my limited understanding of your pain), and how it impacts others, and so on. And I can draw my own conclusions about my next choices, decisions, and actions from the information about how my behaviour impacts you.

    So as I write this am I judging your article? I wouldn’t use that terminology – I may be sharing my perspective, giving you feedback, entering dialogue with you, but I am not throwing up a metric within a context and moralizing which is better (at least that is not my intention!!)

    I don’t think toleration necessarily leads to separation, as you suggest. We can, and may agree to disagree here in this thread. And does that leave us only at the surface level of connection? (Sure, we’re not that deeply connected as we’re online, but you may get the gist of what I mean.) Do we have to have the same beliefs in order to connect deeply? Isn’t it possible to truly love someone who believes something different?

    So what’s interesting to me is that I don’t see Coehlo’s quotation suggesting that we are separated at all. Quite the contrary, to me it’s because we are, as you say “different manifestations of the same underlying processes”, that we should not judge each others’ lives. Who is to say if these processes are good or bad?


  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 14 June 2011 19:43 posted by Chris Dierkes


    I really appreciated your response. It really opened layers of subtlety that I hadn't considered in my own initial thinking. Thank you.

    Partly I think I used judgment to stir the pot and so I'm glad to see you responding and bringing out differentiation and new forms of inter-relationship. But I think it is fair to say that I was combining a number of terms under the label of judgment that could be parsed out and deepened one by one.

    As a practical matter, you may be ultimately right that the word judgment is so trashed and carries such baggage that it is unable to be redeemed.

    I appreciate how you described specifying contexts as that was more implicit rather than explicit in my piece (re-reading it now in light of your comments).

    In the context of coaching or therapy or in my role of say pastoral counselling, it doesn't make sense to go for judgment. As you say in those contexts there is evaluation, feedback, questioning, offer alternative perspectives, all within a frame that is ultimately held in a caring, accepting (non-judgmental in the best sense), frame. I think more people in "normal" human interactions during the day might learn that skill.

    Still, with all that (and again I found the clarifications really helpful), I still think there is something to the term. Looking at etymology online, judgment came to imply the meaning of discernment from around 1530s on. [Last night Sarah Olson said I should just the word discernment instead of judgment to make my point, so there's that.]

    So the way I'm using judgment includes morality but I think includes other elements as well. Elements that are difficult to capture in words--which is why I used terms like worldview, attitudes, etc.

    I think if we take the contexts of counselling, coaching, and related fields, there's always a certain distance for the purposes of the process. That distance is valid and totally necessary in that context. But the onus is really on the client --the listener/counsellor/coach is always in the position of being an aid but realizing the client is really the one behind the wheel. There's always a safety for both parties--which again is totally necessary.

    But in a life, outside that specific context, I mean judgment as opening oneself up to be completely seen by another. To me a stronger word is necessary there than feedback, evaluation, reflection, etc.

    As crazy as it may sound, with someone whom I'm come to trust as wiser than I, I want to be judged. Not judged in the sense that we hear the term of morally disapproved of, but finally held in the fullness of being (as much as anyone of us can see that of ourselves and each other) and given a proper "reading" of.

    In my life there was a time when I desired to meet a person who I could open myself to and trust they would love and accept me. I feel very grateful to say I've experienced that with my wife and then later with good friends.

    I realize there's not yet a real social context for what I'm talking about. To your point that in each stage of development, the context shifts, I totally agree with that. The word I used as I tried to move out into that sphere is judgment and it may turn out we need to coin a term for what it is. If that turns out to be, I'm fine with dropping the 'j' word. What I'm more interested is the cultivation of this form of social interaction, rather then the term per se.

    I hope that makes sense. I realize thee's a lot in that comment and I'm not entirely sure my flow makes total sense.

  • Comment Link Paul P Wednesday, 15 June 2011 19:19 posted by Paul P


    Thanks for your response. I’m getting a better sense of your intention with the article. I too am interested in cultivating and fostering the type of inter-relation that allows for opening oneself up to be completely seen by another. And clearly if “judgment” is feared than this fear becomes a barrier to that.

    I am not suggesting we remove challenging each other from our interactions. This is certainly part of masculine archetypal energy which has its place in the cosmos. (Or perhaps call it the consciousness-agency archetype, as in your other article here on Beams, although here masculine may not be so contentious?).

    What I am suggesting is that actually applying judgment in relationship – regardless of whether there is care/concern balance or imbalance – is very tricky because the context must be understood by the person on the receiving end. So if you have a prior relationship that is understood to be friendship, and a prior agreement in place that direct feedback is ok, then you can leverage that context and have at it!

    On the other hand, I don’t think it makes sense for people to go around wide open, receptive to anyone’s comments, criticisms, analysis, or even feedback. Much of the time, unless a person is highly aware and has done their shadow work, the comment or feedback is quite likely a projection anyway!

    When you say that there is someone you trust as wiser than you, my heart sinks a bit. I believe this type of thinking is fraught with peril. And I hear it as a harsh self-judgment. (Disclaimer: I have been known to judge myself at times, so add grain of salt here) Who is wiser than you about your life? No one!

    And this is perhaps a corollary to Coehlo’s point: I can only take in what another says and *discern* for myself (a looking inward) whether this outside perspective provides me with some information that I want to somehow integrate into my being. The other’s outside perspective is partial too. And I always have choice. For me, I am happy to have someone I trust (and drop the evaluation).

    I appreciate getting to know you better, Chris, through this dialogue.


  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 15 June 2011 21:45 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I just wanted to add a couple of other angles to the discussion here. I appreciate the important conversation around judgment and interpersonal relations, and am appreciating the nuanced dialogue around that, but want to offer a couple of other angles around the overall tolerance/non-judgmentalism meme that arose during the modern to postmodern period.

    I agree with Chris that 'not judging' one another can actually introduce separation. We now leave each other be- we can't judge or have a view on the other- and this creates a paradoxical alienation from one another. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has been consistently critical of the value of tolerance, and how that can play out culturally and politically. Here's a couple things he's had to say:

    "If you look closely at it, tolerance is a very suspicious notion. It means, yes, 'let's tolerate each other,' but it also means, 'don't harass me,' which means 'remain at a proper distance from me.' If you scratch the surface you will also discover that the 'other' that more liberal multi-culturalists are ready to tolerate are (what I ironically refer to as) the 'decaffeinated other.'

    You know, we have products deprived of their poisonous substance; decaf coffee, beer without alcohol, fat-free chocolate and so on -- and it seems to me that people also want 'decaffeinated other'; this mythic, holistic 'good other' and so on and so on. So tolerance is for me a very confused, disorienting term. I don't like it so much. I don't want tolerance, I want military spirit; struggle -- but for a good cause.... The only way to light is courageously confronting darkness.

    To my mind it is the nature of that confrontation that is a key question, but I certainly agree that a bland and confused notion of 'tolerance' is not strong enough to sustain a society that can deal equitably and compassionately with today's problems".

    "Liberal attitudes towards the other are characterized both by respect for otherness, openness to it, and an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the other is welcomed insofar as its presence is not intrusive, insofar as it is not really the other. Tolerance thus coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the other effectively means that I should not get too close to him or her, not intrude into his space—in short, that I should respect his intolerance towards my over-proximity. This is increasingly emerging as the central human right of advanced capitalist society: the right not to be ‘harassed’, that is, to be kept at a safe distance from others."

    So the overemphasis on tolerance has had some pretty subtle and very problematic effects on the interpersonal relations in our liberal societies. But even further than that, it's led to some deep political problems too, which Zizek is also quick to point out these days. In Europe, several nations have been having problems with how to respond to the rise of fundamentalist Islam for one, and to a rise in anti-immigration sentiment. The liberal (ie. modern to postmodern) camp can't find a way to judge the culture and views of the fundamentalists, they are tongue tied by their own (perhaps by now buried and unexamined) value of tolerance. So into this vacuum has stepped far right-wing quasi racist parties to make those judgments (one that many in the populace are feeling, and rightly so I may add), and they are winning considerable seats and political power. And as Zizek points out, this is a recipe for Fascism to return.

    What's also happened amongst this quagmire, is that the German Chancellor Merkel said that "multiculturalism has utterly failed" ( and British PM David Cameron said "multiculturalism has failed" ( I think this is precisely where a post-postmodern or integral view is desperately needed, because we can see the true but partial nature of the value of tolerance and non-judgement. There are aspects of culture and consciousness that we want to transcend (or negate as Hegel better put it), and this allows for the cultural critique or judgment to be made. Beating your women, for instance, is no longer ok, period. That's not something we're "including" anymore. But if this voice of judgment and critical discernment is not allowed to speak (if it continues to tie the tongues of the liberal class), then we're going to lose the partial truths and gains of the modern-postmodern moment, as we are seeing in the European situation.

    So this whole problem of judgment and tolerance is a crucial issue that needs to be examined, and I'm glad we're having a discussion about it here because it seems to be mostly working unconsciously and having some very negative affects.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 15 June 2011 22:33 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Here's another angle to consider. There was another modern-to-postmodern value that also added to and strengthened this culture of non-judgment, the value that the good life should be individually chosen. An individual (via the thought of Rousseau and others) should be free to choose the life they want to lead, and the values they want to pursue. But listen to what the philosopher Charles Taylor has to say about where this leads when pushed into a totalizing life-value:

    "It may be important that my life be chosen, as John Stuart Mill asserts in 'On Liberty', but unless some options are more significant than others, the very idea of self-choice falls into triviality and hence incoherence. Self-choice as an ideal only makes sense because some issues are more significant than others...Which issues are significant, I do not determine. If I did, no issue would be significant. But then the very ideal of self-choosing as a moral ideal would be impossible". (Malaise of Modernity, 39)

    So when I hear Paul say something like "Who is wiser than you about your life? No one!”, I get deeply concerned that this is sliding dangerously toward some sort of solipsistic relativism. I've personally read lots of authors who were a whole lot wiser about what my life could be than me, I got a bookshelf full of them (from Lao Tzu to Joseph Campbell), and I appreciate the (universal) wisdom and what it's added to my life.

    This is why I like when Chris says, “In the Biblical worldview, judgment is when God clears away evil and destruction and love, peace, and justice come to be established”.

    In general I would say an overemphasis on toleration and non-judgment (and the related individual personal choice) creates an atmosphere where we lose track of the Absolute dimension of reality, we lose sight of the true, the good and the beautiful, things get reduced down to the relative side of the street.

    So when Paul says- “Our understanding of the context of other lives is always limited and I think it is this that can make judgment by others unhelpful.”- what I hear is an overemphasis on the relative dimension of reality. It's an important point as far as it goes; but I don't need any context to recognize beauty when I see it, or Spirit shining through someone. Conversely, I don't need context to know when injustice is being committed, when say I turn a city corner and see a women being beaten in an alley, or an old lady getting mugged. Context may help me be compassionate to those committing the crimes, and what lead them there. But Spirit is Spirit, and justice is justice, regardless of context in my view. I'm obviously showing my strong Platonic streak here. :)

    What I'm (hoping) to draw out here is the tension between the Absolute and the relative. How I understand the evolutionary goal of life is to bring more of the Absolute into the relative, to evolve self and society toward more depth and more of the true, the good and the beautiful. To usher in something like what Jesus called 'the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth'. And this requires an active sense of discernment/judgment. In this regard, I like what Bergen writes in piece about the Taliban:

    "I believe we can reject regressive forms of religion, for example, without becoming bigots or rejecting religion entirely. We might call such a thing inspired intolerance: intolerance born from an authentic wish to realize the full potential of human capacities and powers in this evolving universe. It would take courage, but could offer a healthy balance to the hard-won relativistic tendencies of postmodernity".

    This seems right to me. Anyway, this comment is long enough. This is a topic I've been passionate about for a long time, and is dear to my heart, so I appreciate the chance to work through it with everyone here.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 16 June 2011 16:06 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Great to have this dialog.

    While Trevor has taken a more social/philosophical view of the matter, I've been thinking about this more in a person to person setting.

    In that light, I think the nuance you've brought is really helpful. The heart sinking passage is quite interesting. Certainly on the level of day to day affairs, my history, etc. I'm the best judge of my life (or me along with trusted friends/advisors).

    Thinking in that context, I can see how you might interpret my words to be overly self-critical and disempowering, by projecting my own agency onto others. [I suppose that would also be a recommendation for potential lack of self responsibility.]

    I wasn't referring to those, but your clarification helped tease out what was otherwise ambiguous in my piece.

    But I do think there is another way to read what I said (what I intended anyway) wherein someone may see something of (for lack of a better term) the essence of my being. They may see sides of myself (both good and bad) that I"m hiding from myself or not even aware of.

    I agree that this shouldn't be some willy nilly process with any old person. But I do think this kind of life in relationship is one of, if not the, next great adventure in the spiritual life. But you are right it requires shared agreements and contexts in order to activate this process.

  • Comment Link Paul P Thursday, 16 June 2011 17:03 posted by Paul P


    I admire your willingness to be open to what you call “judgment”and I think I understand what you mean when you use the “j” word now. And I agree that the kind of relationship that openly invites in another’s perspective can indeed be a great spiritual adventure. On this path, I still caution the over-reliance on others for judgment, or any aspect of others “telling” us what is best for us. This could undermine self-knowledge and discernment and foster dependence on these external judgments. I think what we are aiming for is a balance between self and other. And I hear that in your voice too.


    Lots of great points in both your comments.

    I am curious of your view of “military spirit” and the need for struggle to confront darkness. Is this how you see it? Can you say more? Isn’t it possible to negate darkness by simply shining light?

    As to solipsistic relativism, I don’t see it that way. I am not saying that only my experience matters. Implicit in “Who is wiser than you about your life?” is You. Your experience matters as much and equally to mine. From a trans-personal perspective, I see your interests as the same as my own. I’m no philosopher, but to me that isn’t solipsism.

    As to your bookshelf, I don’t believe you’ll find any wisdom there. Only pointers to it. And what little wisdom I have hasn’t come through reading; it has come through my experience. (I love the great scene in the park of Good Will Hunting.) How has reading all those books has added to your life? Isn’t it because you have tried out the teachings and discerned for yourself those which work for you? Or something else?

    So my strong Aristotlean side (coming from the bottom up) is showing perhaps. And as you come from the top down, I’m sure there’s a place we can meet in the middle.


  • Comment Link Paul P Thursday, 16 June 2011 22:22 posted by Paul P

    I’ve been ruminating over Inspired Intolerance:

    “intolerance born from an authentic wish to realize the full potential of human capacities and powers in this evolving universe. “

    In the big picture we don’t really know which way the “full potential” is in the evolving universe. I know – Absolute reality and Platonic ideals – but go check out the Hubble 3D
    IMAX Movie and get back to me about whether you think that we really have even a clue as to what the “full potential” in this universe is. 100 billion stars in our galaxy times 100 billion galaxies creates one hell of a lot of possibilities! Numbers don’t do justice to the experience of vastness the images in the movie evoke. Highly recommended!

    Secondly, I’ve become interested the Big History movement lately (I think you mention it elsewhere on this site) and as I was checking out the origins of life part for our planet I was struck by the fact that life was created on this planet (so the best scientific theory goes) before there was any oxygen on it. Some amino acids get together to form RNA, then DNA, (I’m simplifying greatly) and we have the first prokaryotic cells (single cell bacteria) near ocean vents about 3.8 billion years ago. 300 million years or so later a photosynthesizing bacteria (algae) appears and starts producing oxygen and starts “polluting” the mostly nitrogen atmosphere. For many prokaryotes, oxygen was poisonous! Some evolutionary biologists call this the “oxygen holocaust.” Oxygen starts collecting in the atmosphere over a period of a few 100 million years and after that only organisms that could thrive where those that could tolerate or use oxygen.

    So from the prokaryotes point of view, this was not a “good” change. After being the dominant “culture” for 2 billion years, they were relegated to living under rocks and other places where there isn’t any oxygen. Eukaryotes emerge, perhaps through the symbiotic merging of two independent prokaryotes, they learn how to have sex and we’re off to the natural selection races.

    I don’t mean any of this to be taken as necessarily applying literally to political or social situations. And I get the point of not wanting to regress via naïve tolerance. But I think the above can be seen as a metaphor which may help us pause and reflect when we start to think that we really know which way the full potential of the evolutionary process lies.

    I question the notion that we do know – not as a polemic – but simply in awe of the vastness of the universe relative to our tiny place in it.

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Saturday, 18 June 2011 21:44 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hey all, fantastic conversation you're having here. Noticed my name was dropped and couldn't help but throw my hat in the ring.

    First off Chris, love the article. And Paul, I like where you've gotten things more clear about what we're actually talking about when Chris was using the word judgement - nice mining there!

    As I was reading through the comments a lot of points jumped out at me so this comment will speak to those and the next to the specific point in which my name was mentioned.

    I think that Chris was right to write this piece and question our assumptions about judgement. Those who demand that they not be judged offer a kind of entrenched position that says "No! How I am right now is the only way I'll be and I never want to change. Don't tell me to change, because I don't want to!" It's a bit crazy when you think about it. There's a pride in that that leave no room for one's own personal growth. Refusing to be judged is an adamant stance against the possibilities of growth in an interpersonal setting.

    Of course, we don't want to go around judging people all day, because as Chris' Christ quotes say, it's much easier to point out the flaws of others. But to take judgment off the table entire is equally flawed in my opinion.

    Maybe a better question is: What's motivating our judgement? and why are we choosing to air it in a particular moment.

    The truth of the matter is that we are CONSTANTLY judging people in every moment. It's a lie to say otherwise. In fact, I'd argue that its impossible not to judge people. The judgement will arise automatically in your awareness - it's the reality of the experience of being a separate individual living in a culture: you're always comparing. Where you do have a choice, however, is your reaction to the judgement that has arisen in your mind. Do you act on it? Speak it? or ignore it? I'd say that the answer will depend on context and likely change as we ourselves grow and develop.

    Paul says: "When you say that there is someone you trust as wiser than you, my heart sinks a bit. I believe this type of thinking is fraught with peril… Who is wiser than you about your life? No one!"

    Good god man! This is exactly what Chris is talkin' about in the Coehlo quote! :P The way I see it, this line of thinking (not you Paul, just the comment) is full of pride and fear and even a bit of arrogance, all cloaked in some sort of hyper-personal worldview which see's one's own experiences as unique and special when in fact it's not. There's always people who feel the same and have experienced the same. To think other wise is to completely miss the reality of the impersonal nature of human experience. It's hiding out in a separate bubble (the separation that chris is talking about) and thinking that we're unique and special individuals that no one else can understand. The pride is thinking we're someone very special and no one can understand our experience. The fear is not wanting to be confronted about it. And the arrogance is thinking that we're too good to be judged. (As I said, no personal attack on you here Paul, just going for the sentiment you expressed. I think it's such a subtle thing that we don't even notice the implications of it - hence, Chris' pointing it out in his essay)

    Interestingly, this comment also conflicts with the notion of shadow, one you seem to champion. The shadow view holds that we are blind to certain aspects of ourself. Thus, we may NOT actually be most "wise about our life" in the way we assume/imagine.

  • Comment Link Paul P Saturday, 18 June 2011 23:22 posted by Paul P


    Thanks for jumping in. No personal attack taken!

    Let me try to get across the sentiment that was actually behind my remark. When someone says that they want to be judged by someone wiser then they are, what I hear is an inner critic and a disempowered plea. This is why my heart sinks and my emotions in response to this, shares a little bit about me, and does not indicate that Chris is actually disempowered. Telling people that they should look to others for judgment could engender a lack of self-reflection and dependence on others to compensate. Hence the peril…

    If someone is completely grounded in their own resources then “looking for judgment” can be icing on the cake of their resourcefulness, which is essentially my understanding of what Chris is speaking about in his main article. However, I think a better way to say this, and one that actually is empowering for an individual is: “asking for help.” Asking for help has the person define their own issue, seek feedback, and integrate what is actually useful for them.

    I agree with you that there is an impersonal component to being human – and this is only partially true. We are also unique and individual selves having unique and individual experiences. One of life’s paradoxes. To me, the “sameness” lives on a deep level. One needs to cut through a lot of the “story line” – the level at which most judgment occurs – to get to the sameness at our core.

    The fact that judgment of others occurs “automatically” in our minds is a result of conditioning and not fundamental to our nature, I believe – unless again you are lumping together all forms of sensing and sorting out of our experience as “judgment”. Though, I find that general use of the word not really helpful. Avoiding the semantics, I agree that there is always choice in how we respond to any given situation.

    Not sure how I became the shadow’s champion in your view, but I will say that in my experience, a little self-knowledge goes a long way. I am also not sure what you mean by your last sentence. Are you suggesting that we are wise if we ask others for judgment to avoid our blind spots so that we avoid certain experiences? An alternative view would be that we become wise by learning from our mistakes.


  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Sunday, 19 June 2011 01:46 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Great thanks for getting back so quickly and sorry I had to step away before posting my follow-up reply to "Inspired Intolerance" as I said i would...

    In response to Paul's most recent comment, I'm in total agreement when you say: "Asking for help has the person define their own issue, seek feedback, and integrate what is actually useful for them." I'm still compelled to add that sometimes things need to be said, even if they're not asked for, like in Trev's woman in the alley example. But that's probably an obvious point.

    And yes, didn't mean to make you the shadow champion (ha), it was a poor choice of words - I only meant that you had brought it up in an earlier comment and seemed to agree with some principles of that view.

    What I meant in my last sentence regarding the shadow was that if we agree that something called shadow exists (and I think we agree) then we contradict ourselves by also subscribing to the Coehlo-esq "nobody can judge me because only I know me life best" argument. Because clearly, there will be instances where we DON'T actually know what we're up to or see what our motivations are (shadow). When this is the case we don't then know ourselves as well as we think we do. Others with a more objective view of us may see us better - and are therefore in a position to judge (if it's appropriate). Does that make sense? Anyhow, not a super important point, only an observation..

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Sunday, 19 June 2011 01:54 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Was also very interested to read Paul's feedback on my 'Inspired Intolerance" quote. Honestly it was difficult to write and took some grappling to feel okay about. In Canada we're just so conditioned to resist passing judgement on another culture or people that attempting to do otherwise brings up all sorts of self-doubt. But the longer I sit with it, the more confident I now am that it's barking up the right tree (just like the essay above!).

    First off - awesome that you (Paul) recommend the Hubble IMAX! Trevor, myself, and some friends went to see it last month and it blew our socks off. I honestly felt like it was a religious experience - and I grew up completely secular! I do believe that Br. Trevor has seen it twice :) So glad to know that we weren't the only ones impacted by it.

    Here's a short bit I wrote awhile back about why I think it's the future of religion…

    You question this part of the statement: "intolerance born from an authentic wish to realize the full potential of human capacities and powers in this evolving universe."

    Your question, I think, is how can "we really know which way the full potential of the evolutionary process lies?" Good point. I think you're very right in the sense that we can have absolutely no way of knowing where we'll end up. But I believe that we can look back and see where we've come from, and in doing that we can infer some basic ideas about which direction - very generally speaking - we're headed, and therefore how we might act in accordance with the whole process.

    Generally speaking, it's been pointed out by many others, far smarter than me, that the universe seems to be evolving into greater and greater forms of complexity. As the great Brian Swimme recently said in a quote I love:

    “You have molten rock, and then all by itself, it transforms into a human mother caring for her child. That's a rather astounding transformation. Of course, it takes four billion years.”

    And if we speak strictly in Earthling terms (no telling for other planets, unfortunately), it seems clear that as a species, cultural evolution - i.e. interpersonal complexity - is also occurring. There's evidence for this in the way that humans evolved from living in small bands to megacities, and also in the development of the modern human ego, which apparently didn't even come online until around the time of Gilgamesh. The ego itself seems to be evolving somewhat as well; cultural historians have pointed out that the human capacity for perspective taking and empathy seems to be increasing. Of course, I'm speaking in very broad strokes here and I'm in agreement with you that it would be hard to tell if at any given time evolution was occurring in a certain direction or in a way that we'd expect. But nevertheless it seem to be occurring.

    Seeing all this, we have keep reminding ourselves that WE are actually evolving too. We're wrapped up in this whole process, it's not separate from us, in fact we ARE it. That's pretty tripy if you ask me. And the more I think about the implications, the more I feel that we have a responsibility to make sure that the human experiment actually succeeds. If we don't, if it fails, then we're responsible for ending this particular stream of evolving universe.

    This is where my quote comes in. "An authentic wish to realize the full potential of human capacities and powers in this evolving universe" is a wish to see this puppy through. To not let it die out in ignorance of the reality of what we really are. It's hard not to be inspired about one's own life and development when reminding ourselves that we're part of an evolving universe. Personal and communal growth then becomes an expression of the process that is already occurring in and through us. It's aligning with God's will, to put it in theological terms.

    And so if we're committed to "realizing the full potential of human capacities and powers" that means we ourselves have to grow. At times that's going to be messy, at times we won't know if we're on the right path (as Paul reminds us), and at times it's going to take judgement. Not in a mean or self-righteous way, but in the way that we've all been describing above.

    Anyhow, I look forward to your thoughts on this, if anyone has any. Thanks for engaging thus far Paul, thanks Trev for the hat tip to that quote, and thanks Chris for the great conversation starter. Cheers!

  • Comment Link OV Monday, 20 June 2011 16:47 posted by OV

    The article at the link below was published at about the same time as Chris's. It's theme is that whatever you judge you are, you fear or you lack, and the value lies in how you respond to this and what you learn from it. I don't know if this is "true" or not, but it's something to thing about. Labeling something as either good or bad, doesn't leave much options about what to do with this, other than perhaps destroy whatever we have labeled as bad.


  • Comment Link OV Friday, 01 July 2011 21:31 posted by OV

    I'll try a new tack. What do you think is the relation between empathy and judgment?

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 04 July 2011 19:54 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hey OV,

    Sorry I missed your earlier comment, my apologies. I hadn't seen that one. Thanks for trying to restart the dialog.

    In terms of your first comment--without being an expert in the philosophical system within which the person is writing--I would say that there is a difference between unconscious judgment and conscious judgment. Re-reading my piece, I suppose this distinction (and advocation for the latter rather than the former) is implicit rather explicit, so thanks for bringing out another piece of the puzzle.

    I guess I would (off the cuff) say that unconscious judgment follows the pattern laid out by the author you linked to. But I sense that the author is conflating unconscious and conscious judgment and seeing all judgments as of the unconscious variety. reagards to your second comment--that's a very good question (re: empathy and judgment). As I said back in an earlier comment to Paul in this thread, I think in Biblical terms about justice and peace/mercy kissing. So I see empathy (or compassion or some related term like mercy) as the complementary twin to judgment.

    Judgment without compassion is unmerciful.

    Compassionate ("being with the suffering of others") without a strong push for justice ("why are they suffering in the first place?") I think can lead to a passivity.

    In terms of the Gospel depictions of Jesus he is shown clearly able to express mercy and judgment. His judgment is usually reserved for those who are hypocritical--judging in the negative sense of not holding oneself to the same standard as another and/or creating useless and burdening forms of judgment.

    Does that respond to your question?

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 05 July 2011 00:19 posted by OV

    Thanks for your reply Chris. After reading it I read through your article again, and so many places to tangent from, so forgive me for not encompassing every one of them. You did respond to the question, and in turn it raises even more questions, which is very much in alignment with the quote by Coehlo that you started with. That quote sounds profound until you start to ask what it actually means, which you have demonstrated in your first pass unpacking exposes a complexity explosion of further questions. All of which uncover a multitude of implications for the second pass. Probably more koan than profound truth.

    My recent comments are primarily about this conscious and unconscious judgment. But also about what judgment is along with its intent and function; for example substitute in "evaluation" and approach from an information systems requirements analysis perspective and it unpacks totally different.

    My last comment on empathy stems from a book which I've read in the last few days, "Social Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman, which is based on data obtained in the last couple of decades, using MRI scans, on locating which parts of the brain correspond to particular mental functions. It seems most people decide if they like somebody (a judgment) in the first tenth of a second and everything that consciously follows is a rationalization of that decision. We also have mirror neurons that enable us to physically experience (feel) what another person is experiencing; two people both connected to MRI show similar neural pathways. Modern science would disagree with Coehlo first sentence. Empathy is in fact an empirical reality. One of the themes in the sermons at Canadian Memorial lately is that even though the reptilian and mammalian instinctual parts of the brain are alive and well, the actions that we choose to take can still lie in the most recently evolved prefrontal cortex (provided that is that we can collectively stay out of a state of fear).

    Like most things that are important, and I consider this issue one of them, if we were to dig around and talk about this long enough we would see a huge empty spot where there should be lots of information but there is none. This is the area of taboo. The taboo behind this question, imho, is what is the role and purpose of humans and their free will in the ongoing evolution of this universe, and I think it is precisely to be "the Ultimate Judge of the Universe".

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 05 July 2011 00:32 posted by Chris Dierkes


    The neurological issue is a good one--thanks for bringing it up. I was wondering if you could elaborate on your last sentence--unpack what you mean by human/evolution/ultimate judge.

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 05 July 2011 05:54 posted by OV

    It was an intuitive statement that would require a lot of background to rationally support. Might even say that it gets into metaphysics which is a taboo in some circles; a myth in the sense that it is nonsense and nonexistent. Which is ironic since originally myth was a language for discovering meaning in the apophatic traditions (thanks be to Karen Armstrong's "A Case For God").

    I think that humans have a covenant with the divine which can be seen in legal terms as a contract where each party must have something to contribute to the other; otherwise its just a charity. I think what human's unique role is that of story teller, which is what supplies meaning. At some point when there was eternity contemplating omnipotence and omniscience but without matter this didn't mean much since these two powers only apply to that which is, and not to what could be. Jump ahead with big bang, evolution and up to time of man and we have systems and structures, but no way of knowing if they would be worth living in, which is where man comes in to evaluate the type of world that he would love to live in. Compare this to a system like bacteria who are content and sustainable eating shit. Who's to say which is better. The role of humans to come up with the meta-narrative that provides something better than that. Humans have the capability of imagination which allows possibilities beyond what is, which for most living systems is eat and procreate before you die. For humans we have our culture with its basis in creation stories, which for Judea-Christian concentrates on the first three chapters of Genesis with it's theme of punishment for disobedience, and I think we need to spend more study on the evolution of society in the world and delve into what's behind chapters four to eleven. We are the ultimate judge of this world by the culture we create that gives meaning to our life and coordinates our actions.

    Our purpose is one of discovery, to learn how to create a world in which we can all live in, and to do that we need to imagine, build, test, repeat as necessary. Until you put it to the test it is all just words and speculation. The transcendent can conceptualize but the immanent is needed for the affirmation.

    I wish I could explain this with an experience that doesn't involve words. Sorry about that.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 07 July 2011 02:12 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Thanks for that. I get a much better sense of what you are talking about--no apologies for words. I like words as much as they are always tricksters.

    I like your distinction around myth and metaphysics there.

  • Comment Link Paul P Thursday, 07 July 2011 04:21 posted by Paul P

    Hi OV,

    Just want to respond to a passing comment you made:

    "Modern science would disagree with Coehlo first sentence. Empathy is in fact an empirical reality."

    While certainly the firing of mirror neurons is part of what happens in the brain when one is being empathic, this is far from the whole story. And I think it is a big stretch to say that modern science would disagree with Coehlo's first sentence based on this. I doubt the case could be made anyway because part of being empathic requires openness and receptivity towards another - this is *not* a "judgment" stance.

    What we feel when being empathic are our feelings and *not* the other person's feelings. My take on what "modern science" would say is that we can only "simulate" another's feelings within our own experience. Therein lies the risk of judging by our own experience - our simulation could be wrong.

    Thanks for mentioning Goleman's book; I've been meaning to read Social Intelligence for some time and you have inspired me.

  • Comment Link OV Thursday, 07 July 2011 04:52 posted by OV

    "What we feel when being empathic are our feelings and *not* the other person's feelings."

    Replace empathic with emotional and I'd tend to agree with you but it seems to me that you have reversed the definition of empathy. My dictionary says that empathy is entering into the feelings or spirit of others; and I'm thinking that others is those that are separate from ourselves.

    Maybe we are just playing with semantics here. Same as with "judgment" I'm wondering if our language and culture can think of this word in any way other than punitive. I've heard that English is a contractual language and everything done in this language takes the form of contract, and this might be why there is the big push to make it the universal language. Imho, the jury is still out on this awaiting further data.

    I don't have personal experience with empathy, it's all intellectual for me, and going solely by characteristics and responses I would probably be labeled "psychopath". What distinguishes me from a typical psychopath is that I have a "service to others" orientation that overrides everything else, and if I didn't have that I think I could be extremely ruthless. The point being, that although I am very interested in learning what makes humans tick, I can only do it by reading a wide variety of sources by people that appear to know what they are talking about.

  • Comment Link Paul P Thursday, 07 July 2011 19:53 posted by Paul P

    In the sense in which modern science deems empathy to be empirically real there is no magical entering into another person's anything. Your brain simply uses data from your senses to simulate and anticipate another's state and mirror neurons do fire in correlation with this. Close your eyes and plug your ears, etc. mirror neurons don't fire and "empathy" naturally disappears. You don't have direct access to another's feelings (unless you take controversial psi experiments as providing empirical evidence - and I don't.)

    I'm not trying to play a semantic game here; I am trying to be clear on what the empirical reality (as currently understood in modern science) of empathy actually is .

  • Comment Link OV Monday, 11 July 2011 02:32 posted by OV

    I wouldn't say it was magic, but that it was subliminal, that it operates below the level of the conscious mind.

    A recent piece of data on this, from page A22 of the Vancouver Province Friday July 8th. A new device enables the amplification and interpretation of facial expressions, revealing the extent to which the person is engaged or bored, by using a camera the size of a grain of rice to transmit data to software analysis which passes on results auditorily by a bluetooth headset. It says it was developed to assist people with autism who do not have this capability of facial recognition (I suspect it will land up in homeland security applications). Software designed to monitor the subliminal sounds pretty empirical to me.

    In last Thursday's Georgia Straight this short article on a book that considers lack of empathy a serious brain defect.


    Doesn't get much more "pop culture" in Vancouver than the Province and the Straight, and both have articles on the empirical reality of empathy. So Paul, is it my use of empirical that you object to, or just the very notion itself?

  • Comment Link Paul P Tuesday, 12 July 2011 19:27 posted by Paul P


    I'm not really following you here.

    I'm not familiar with the device you mention. I will say, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that I don't read the Vancouver Province for my updates on science. But I would guess it would be easy to fool such a device by pretending to be engaged when bored, for example. But what this has to do with empathy, I don't know.

    My point all along has been about what modern science would say about Coehlo's statement. And that from a modern science perspective, the empirical evidence for empathy, which certainly exists, does not contradict Coehlo.

    Even more so, it would seem a psychopath, lacking compassion and empathy for others, would do well to heed Coehlo's advice!

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 12 July 2011 22:23 posted by OV

    The Vancouver Province imho is one of the most useless newspapers you can find, but we get it at work and the comics are kind of worthwhile and a quick glance at the headlines is enough to give me my daily dose of outrage. But I did mention it as a bit of a coincidence that this article should appear at the same time we are having this discussion.

    The point about empathy is that it is subliminal, below the level of human consciousness, and anything that is faked is not going to be in that same category. This level of communication goes on regardless of the desires of the conscious mind.

    All I know about Coehlo is the quote that Chris forked off into so many questions. I think that it is an opinion, and not an opinion that I particularly like. Another related opinion, which I do agree with is "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Elites tend to like the former and dislike the later quotes. I have no idea where Coehlo stands on this point.

    As for Coehlo's advice, I think the second sentence is sound advice, but I don't see how it follows the first sentence.

  • Comment Link Paul P Wednesday, 13 July 2011 07:33 posted by Paul P


    Thanks for pursuing this as you are opening up a bit more for me.

    Let’s say I watch an episode of Criminal Minds and I experience fear as I observe some psycho-killer stalk his victim. A modern science perspective on what is going on is that my perception of the victim’s state activates my corresponding representations for being in that state. This then activates somatic and autonomic responses in my nervous system. Perhaps the activation process can start subliminally but if it’s a good episode, no doubt the fear is going to reach my conscious awareness. This is emotional empathy.

    This process is not unique to humans. Experiments on rats watching other rats getting electrocuted show that they become fearful, even if the observer rat has never experienced a shock. So in that case, how do you interpret it? To me, the fearful rat is not actually feeling the other’s pain. How could it if it has never had that experience of being shocked before? It’s probably saying to itself, holy shit, that’s not cheese! Gotta get outa here!

    Human’s are also capable of cognitive empathy because we can take the other’s perspective and imagine ourselves in the place of the other. That is, I can consciously choose to imagine what it would feel like if that psycho-killer was out my window right now instead of on TV! (Oooh, a tingle up my spine.) This is a conscious process.

    So is all fear the same? Is all pain the same? Or are there different qualities of it?

    Here science does not weigh in on the subjective aspect; it can’t. And so initially I was responding to the use of science (or empirical evidence) to say that we can feel another’s pain. We can feel what we think their pain is.

    From a philosophical perspective, and to paraphrase Nagel in his “What is it like to be a bat?” essay: the more different from oneself the other is, the less likely one can expect to get it right. I tend to agree. And perhaps some of us are similar enough to each other to get it right Maybe the old saying, walk a mile in another man’s shoes first before judging, is better advice than Coehlo. At least that way, you have a chance of having similar mental representations for various emotional states to draw upon empathically. Variation of mental representations may also explain why it is more difficult to be cognitively empathic cross-culturally. But I’m speculating here…


  • Comment Link Paul P Wednesday, 13 July 2011 07:40 posted by Paul P

    haha "... you are opening IT up a bit more for me..."
    (can't connect empathically over the web)

  • Comment Link OV Wednesday, 13 July 2011 22:13 posted by OV

    Glad to see that I'm opening up Information Technology a bit more for you. I think both of us are opening up a bit more to each other. If we have enough discussions eventually we will get to understand where the other is coming from.

    When you say "watch an episode" I'm assuming that you are talking about television. I don't do that anymore, not even on the internet, and a couple of years ago I stopped watching movies as well. I've read some studies that show that the physical reaction of an event seen on TV is the same as if the person were watching for real; the emotional brain can not distinguish between reality and what's on the screen. Visual images enter directly into the mind before being analyzed. Text on the other hand has to get past the defense mechanisms before entering the mind. Not sure on the details but I think it has to do with the short term memory function of the hippocampus. Point being, that visual and text are handled differently. Text is entirely cognitive, but once an image has been formed in the brain then it can affect the emotions. Visual first creates an emotional response and then the higher cognitive provides a rationalization for that response.

    Rats. Appears that mirror neurons are part of the mammalian brain. Some responses can be inherited, for example mice have an aversion to cat urine (a common method of directing mice through a maze) even though it may have been many generations since either cat or cat urine has been encountered. Seems to be a similar cross cultural aversion to snakes in children.

    Thanks for the reference to Nagel. I've read through the Wiki brief and I want to read more of this.


    Key items were the distinction between the subjective and the objective; and the motivation to action by moral judgment. Also, transparency and intention.

    Martin Buber, and the I-Thou, is another name that I've encountered lately in a number of places and I need to read more about this concept since I think it is relevant to this topic.

  • Comment Link Paul P Friday, 15 July 2011 20:10 posted by Paul P

    Here's an interesting experiment in which scientists demonstrate that moral judgments can be influenced by disrupting a particular region (temporo-parietal junction - TPJ) in the brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

    "In both experiments, the researchers found that when the right TPJ was disrupted, subjects were more likely to judge failed attempts to harm as morally permissible. Therefore, the researchers believe that TMS interfered with subjects' ability to interpret others' intentions, forcing them to rely more on outcome information to make their judgments."

    This lends some empirical weight to the idea that empathy is needed for moral judgments.

  • Comment Link OV Saturday, 16 July 2011 02:39 posted by OV

    interesting article Paul. I can see how empathy would facilitate moral judgment, classical golden rule and all, but I can't see why the will alone couldn't come to a moral judgment even without empathy. I'll have to ponder this.

    There was lots of data new to me that I found disturbing:

    Executive decision making functions are not limited to the prefrontal cortex, but can even occur in the back regions of the brain which I had previously thought were only for the utility type programs of the human operating system. If executive decisions reside solely in the front part of the brain, then one only needs to stay out of fear to be fully functional, but as always it appears to be more complicated than that.

    If disruption of the TPJ results in morality based only on outcome then morality would only come in to play in hindsight and not during the decision on how to act. Only the guilt part remains, that which would preempt is disabled. If the TPJ was disrupted would this morally legitimize any might is right philosophy?

    This condition can be caused by magnetic fields. EMF pollution is a growing concern with more cell phone towers going up all the time. Even worse the TPJ is behind and above the right ear, just about where the antenna on the cell phone would be. I wonder if there have been any studies done on whether making moral decisions are impaired when talking on a cell phone.

    I've heard there are over five billion cellphones. And I don't have one. With so many people so poor they can't buy food why are there so many cellphones?

  • Comment Link Paul P Saturday, 16 July 2011 18:05 posted by Paul P

    I find it interesting to see where science is at with these questions. And I interpreted the experimental results to speak to the more conscious type of empathy that requires perspective-taking to enact.

    It most certainly is more complicated than simply looking at what one brain region does versus another to understand neural networks. The fMRI measurements of neurocorrelates in the brain have a resolution on the order of 0.5mm and, as you may know, this measures only blood oxygen levels. In about the size of a grain of rice there are 10000 neurons with up to 10000 synapses each. So to say we know what the TPJ region in the brain (or any region) is really for and how it works in relation to other regions is sort of like saying that we can understand New York by checking a low res satellite image of the planet for the amount of light emitted from the city. That’s not to say that interesting results are not coming forward (personally I find it fascinating), just that the neural correlates approach in science is at very early stages of development.

    There is one group I am aware of that is doing something quite different in the Blue Brain project:

    I was completely blown away by the scope of this project to build a super-computer model of the brain by reverse engineering it. Here’s a 2009 TED talk by Markram as well.

    Your other question: “If the TPJ was disrupted would this morally legitimize any might is right philosophy?” is interesting too. Some neuroscientists predict that as we increase our understanding of the brain, our laws may need to change to address what “culpability” means (another big related topic).

    As we increase our ability to say there is something “biologically wrong” then the line between “what is your fault” and “what is not your fault” moves toward nothing being your fault (the defense being, it’s your biology’s fault). Here, surely an Integral perspective will become critical.

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