I have not seen much science news about our humanity lately and my regular reading has gone a bit off the path, so I will write about some tidbits gleaned therefrom.

I mentioned Nietzsche a few days back for his early understanding of the complex depth in any adequate notion of the will. I was reading Beyond Good and Evil at that time and have done the unusual thing of putting the book down without finishing it. I may go back but I found I could not understand why he was writing the later sections that were so sarcastic and belittling to other ideas, mostly the progressive ones for his age. If that is all he had to say I had no reason to read it. Then I remembered that this was probably his last book before (I think I have the timing right here) he went insane and spent the last decade of his life in an asylum. I have not read an account of that except some speculation of mania or syphilis, but his sister edited and published his writings posthumously, reportedly changing them according to her extreme Germanic Aryan views. Somethings today sound similar to that.

On a more positive note I am reading Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture on the nature of time, physics, the cosmos and ontology. The early stuff on philosophy I found tedious but reading on as I like to do, I found some of the good stuff to highlight when he came to his specialty in physics. One of my recurrent themes here is the human genius for matters of scale; we want to understand from small to large in our perceptual world and now in modern scientific times beyond. Carroll writes this: “Claim: The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known”. He understands quite well that this statement is a mite strong, and he further articulates that saying the laws are known does not entail that we know all the details about all the levels of scale, especially about how matter and energy organizes to become life and then conscious life. Still he makes a good case that for phenomena within the scales of our ‘everyday life’ we kow the physics and that our understanding of these laws might be modified in the time to come but not undone. Pretty amazing progress made essentially over the last 4-5 centuries.

What about beyond the scales evident to our senses? Another theme I periodically highlight here is that over the course of hominid evolution we have assiduously pursued and explored the extreme limits of our environment. Early humans in the Andes set up camps in the rarefied heights. Early humans in the Himalayas adapted to extreme elevations with a genetic mutation first evident in the Denisovans of central Russia for more efficient hemoglobin enabling breathing that thin air. Some adapt to the extremes of the Sahara or Mongolian steppe. My own ancestors retreated reluctantly, or so I fantasize, before the glacial ice age and happily chased the ice north when Gaia warmed. Now we pursue outer space and the ocean depths. Carroll reports that our known laws of physics operate quite reliably between the two extremes of scales, the upper end defined by the energies we are able to measure and the lower boundary defined by distances also within our empirical ken. As I understand this, we have a handle on energies up to the strength of the strong force holding particles together but there may be stronger forces we are currently unable to probe and we have a handle on everything larger than the distance among sub-atomic particles. And here is the point, humans are not content to live within these boundaries; we continue to push our experimental prowess to go beyond. That does seem to be a consequence of our evolutionary abilities.

Carroll also introduced me to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, the daughter of the exiled king of Bohemia who was highly educated for anyone back in her day, much less for a woman, and entered the Herford Abbey in 1667 to live most of her adult life. She was a friend of William Penn and the Quakers, though she was a Calvinist, and she had a long correspondence with Renee Descartes, you know, the guy who said ‘I think, therefore I am’ and  set up the duality between mind and body that haunts us to this day. Well, Princess Elisabeth challenged him on that and other matters, saying that the two things had to be one nature, or else he needed to explain how the mind controlled the body and vice versa, i.e., by what means or energies they interacted. Thank you, Princess Elisabeth.

I hope you have heard the story from the early 20th century about Henrietta Leavitt and her fellow women astronomers who were not allowed to be professional astronomers because, well, you know, they would be out unsupervised at night and all that, but who still by studying photographic plates diligently with great patience and care discovered the means by which we measure the distances to stars. That was in the early 1900s and they worked for James Pickering who ran the Harvard observatory. If they weren’t astronomers, what were they? Their title was ‘computer’ because they measured and computed. Sure, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

If you have seen that most marvelous film, Hidden Figures, you know where I am going with this. The 3 women whose story that film tells were also called computers and this in 1961. Despite the racism and sexism rampant then and now, these three were so bright and bent on doing smartly, on contributing to our exploration of space, that they with their genius were irrepressible. Here I will leave you for the day with the understanding that humans, empowered or repressed, will seek to push beyond the boundaries on matters of scale and on matters of justice. Travel on (and if you have not seen Hidden Figures, turn off the machine and go right now).


Let us wander around in here and . . .    


and out here and . . .


not forget anyone like the brilliant mathematician, Katherine Johnson, and the astute 17th Century philosopher, Princess Elisabeth.

Praxis and beyond

So I am thinking about lateralization in order to understand better how the left hemisphere is better at operating with displaced information and the right better with the immediate moment. I have periodically written about that here and so here we go again but I will end up somewhere beyond.

My idea is that while the hippocampus constructs relevant situations from old and new perceptual elements, cortical processes construct situations from variant and invariant subjectively produced (Langer’s autogenic) information, and that this is more fully realized in the left hemisphere, though long cortical fasciculi on both sides function to organize invariant forms, such as our favorite one, the arcuate fascicles. One early function to emerge here is handedness wherein certain actions become invariant through practice and inculcation as a skill, e.g., writing, playing the piano but also speaking, etc.

I first learned about the neurology of this as a speech-language pathologist under the rubric ‘praxis’. Adult stroke patients sometimes show apraxia or dyspraxia. Ask them to show you how to brush their teeth or pour a cup of coffee and their movements are disorganized. This results primarily from insults in the left temporal-parietal junction. Some of the children with articulation disorders with whom I worked had difficulty of a mild sort uttering sounds clearly whose distinctive features were consistent with the invariant forms of a word’s phonological form, and some had a more challenging difficulty with the rapid, highly organized movements for speech. Adult stroke patients also show dyspraxia of speech usually from more anterior lesions. So praxis involves movement organized for skillful repetition; the motor engrams, as the movement memory is sometimes termed, represent invariant forms that can be recalled and enacted with some variation as needed, e.g., a different keyboard or hammering a nail in an awkward space.

To aid my thinking I looked up ‘praxis’ on the internet and don’t I love Wikipedia (be sure to give a donation sometime to help them along). There I read some of what I already knew when I saw a reference to Hannah Arendt, whom I had just read about in The Existentialist Café, a group biography of the early existentialist philosophers, especially Sartre, de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, and others. Hannah Arendt was a younger member of that group who studied with Martin Heidegger. She was born in Germany to a Jewish family and emigrated to the US in part to escape the ravages of WWII and the holocaust.

The others may be more famous but Ms. Arendt is top-notch. On the praxis page she is noted to have criticized philosophy as focusing too exclusively on the ‘contemplative life’ and not enough on the ‘active life.” I would imagine this idea was part of her existentialist stance. So praxis, the doing of life, for her was critical to the human mind, not praxis as I have been discussing it but a more generalized way of looking at our actions.

She evidently thought of herself as more a social/political thinker than as a philosopher. Sartre and de Beauvoir both emphasized social engagement in their philosophy. Arendt, given her time in history and the freedom in the US to pursue her ideas intellectually and also to cover certain moments like the Eichmann trial as a journalist, has much to offer us today on totalitarianism. She coined the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’ to capture how we can grow numb to or normalize evil developments. And then I found these two pictures with quotations on line which, I thought, had special relevance to this week.  I will let you make of them what you will.


or at least, their labor is not their own




Travel on.

The difference between rational and irrational?

What the pros call folk psychology has been taking a beating for quite awhile when it comes to our decision-making, the integrity or lack thereof in conscious processes, and the will. I will cite some Nietzsche in a minute to show that but I have been thinking about a couple of more modern ideas. Remember that my favorite philosopher, Susanne Langer, elucidated how symbolic thought is by nature only loosely connected to reality or some version of truth conceived as such. Thus, we think crazy thoughts all the time, from the Atargatis religious perversion (see my post on that) to the Mayan culture which sacrificed so many humans that it contributed to their decline to the anti-science unbelievably extant today here and around the world. Oh, and our political discourse currently at an all time low though still nothing really new about that when you look back at our history.

So two recent books have contributed some important specifics to this ongoing examination of ourselves and our minds. The most recent is Michael Lewis’s (what a great writer) The Undoing Project about the friendship and collaboration of two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The research of these two showed fairly clearly that our usual intuitive decision making (and yes, that would include when we consider all the options, pros and cons) is fraught with mostly unconscious biases, fears, wishful-thinking, etc. and errs quite often in all but humdrum affairs. The most reliable way of improving this is to rely more on algorithms and to stay close to data based considerations.

The other book is a few years old now, Blink: The power of thinking without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he discusses research also showing that our considered decisions, counter to what most people think, are really shallow intuitive considerations that deserve little faith in their adequacy. He does, though, discuss, some who are better thinkers than most who do so by selecting key data points and organizing them into a coherent pattern. Now some expert opinions are expert and some just flash in the pan. I am reminded of research showing that experienced well-regarded therapists can detect lying no better than the general public, which is at a chance level. The only group who were good at lie detection was specially trained FBI agents and they did so better than chance but not approaching certainty. I am also reminded of micro-emotions, emotional expressions that flit rapidly across our faces, imperceptible to all but a few talented individuals who can note and read them, integrate them into decision making and so have more accurate empathic intuition of others’ intentions. This last is actually a very specific keen instance of data based thinking.

So now when I remember medical tales of patients who have lost sensation and control of a limb through a stroke or other neurological insult who maintain that they are not impaired and explain that the inert arm is not theirs but someone else’s like the doctor interviewing them, I think that is actually standard operating procedure for us rational creatures. Consider as well that in subjects undergoing functional brain imaging like EEG, researchers can see a decision to move a hand made in the premotor cortex before the subject is conscious of that decision and moves. And one more, consider Jonathan Haidt’s findings that we develop a rational for our moral and political stances after we arrive at them.

So back to Friedrich Nietzsche. What a cranky guy. Reading Beyond Good and Evil published in 1886 at the time Freud and William James were just starting out (and shortly before Friedrich himself went crazy, to use a colloquialism) forces me to consider what he was arguing against and for, because our understanding of psychology was so very different than now. Still, Nietzsche saw the human will very differently from most others back then (& now), including other philosophers. Consider these quotes:

-Willing seems to me to be above all something complicated, something that is a unity only in name

-the will is not only a complex of sensations and thinking, but it is above all an emotion

-Freedom of will is the expression for the complex state of delight of the person exercising volition [my note: a wayward two year old comes to mind]

-we act once more as we have always acted—mythologically.

These perspectives put human behavior in a different light than that in which most people view it. It seems that resistance to this understanding, which after all counsels us to be more careful, considerate, data based, and democratic in the sense of scientific consensus, is rock solid, ongoing and blindly so. For example, look at who we elect, at how the media covers news (my favorite analogy is of a dog yapping at every leaf fall), and at our failures to address problems effectively.  Drawing rationality from irrationality continues to be a challenge.

So if you see any Mayan priests with bloody knives or Atargatis initiates holding their testes looking for a good dress to wear, tell them we will probably be joining them sooner than later in the halls of the failed ideas. And if you see Friedrich Nietzsche wandering the asylum, tell him that some in the future heard him loud and clear but to little avail so far. Travel on now to firmer ground.


Young Friedrich