In 1982 as she finished the third and last volume of Mind: An essay on human understanding, Susanne Langer noted that our symbolic capabilities were both powerful in rendering reality exploitable and destructive when our symbolizations exceed the capacity of our reality testing, i.e., we tend towards BS. She discussed several civilizations that declined in part because their symbolizations and cultural constructs became maladaptive. One example was the Maya, who sacrificed so many people, especially young ones, in their bloodlust belief that such a ritual brought great power that they used up all the slaves they could conquer and steal and their own youth. Ouch!
Consider in this regard psychiatric illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, that involve symbolization run amuck. In the former a self-sustaining feedback loop of negative thinking dissociated from reality based processes debilitates the energy needed for positive action, while in the latter the symbolization process itself runs unconstrained and generates internal experiences incommensurate with objective social reality, though these can contribute to social reality, e.g., Joan of Arc or Joseph Smith and many others. Not saying that religious beliefs are crazy, just that they exceed the usual constraints imposed by reality testing, sometimes adaptively and sometimes not (e.g., see previous posts about Atargatis).
So our symbolic capabilities allow us to formulate conceptions with great precision, such as when we send the Rosetta spacecraft many millions of miles to orbit and study a comet for two years before softly landing on it at a speed of 2 miles per hour. Our symbolic capabilities also allow us to leave positivist reality behind and render experience in aesthetic forms that can nurture the blossoming of our humanity. And, as Langer suggests, our symbolic capabilities, when used to impress, say through exaggeration, or manipulate, say through falsehood, begin the journey to fraud and demagoguery.
And that brings us to the fragile psychological and social processes underlying political discourse. Not that I am cynical this election season, oh no, but I remembered an old Jefferson Airplane song, “Crown of Creation,” and reflected on Frans de Waals’ wisdom in rejecting humans as the top rung in the ladder of life, and our persistent belief (and it is only a belief) that mankind is progressing towards better ends. Maybe our evolution has brought us to the place where further random mutations, as almost all mutations are, even those effected purposefully by us, will increase our adaptive powers even more. But I would not rush to judgment on that one, not when I consider our history and then look down the road ahead from where I sit and see what I see. Better travel on.