When 1 +1 = 3

Actually I am just playing around here; I do not think the above equation is ever correct, but I am exercising my brain by pretending so. Though, now that I think more about it, sometimes we do take one idea and combine it with another and so develop a third that is greater than the sum of its parts.  Let’s try it and see.

Georg Streidter in his text Principles of Brain Evolutionwrites that, though the idea is too general to offer much guidance for research, it is true the larger the brain, the more capable the species is in adapting to other niches, and that the larger the brain, the more the species engages in play. General yes, but also intriguing. Playful behavior speaks to a flexibility of behavior and indicates that the animal has greater degrees of freedom in developing actions that exploit opportunities and ameliorate exigencies, and that helps in adapting to the changing contingencies of the world. Plus, Jaak Panksepp in his book, Affective Neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions, writes that rough and tumble play, e.g., mixing it up with conspecifics in various ways, promotes joyful feeling.

So we have the ideas that a larger brain relative to body size increases behavioral degrees of freedom, enables greater adaptation in the face of environmental challenges, and leads to greater play and that helps to generate joyful interactions with conspecifics.  Now consider my idea about our lateralization, i.e., that the right hemisphere generally focuses on the current situation, especially the activity in the social domain, and the left hemisphere generally focuses on information displaced in time and space, especially information controlled through linguistic symbols.  One observation neuroscientists have made is that, again generally, the emotional valence of right sided processes is somber, maybe sad but at least seriously practical, while the emotional valence of left sided processes seems lighter, even happy.  I think this might be because right sided considerations concern the current activity where the situation is delimited and possible actions are proscribed, i.e., behavioral degrees of freedom are fewer because of the practicalities involved. Left sided considerations, concerned with some abstracted and symbolically constructed situation, involves many more degrees of freedom because the situation is fluid and possible actions open to creative solutions.

Going a bit further, this difference seems to reflect the distinction between serious, practical engagement, e.g., work, and light-hearted speculative engagement, e.g., play.  Now consider the famous masks of drama, tragedy and comedy, and how the plays end.

theatre-masks-happytheater-masks-silhouette---free-clip-art-19tqgcvz

A tragedy usually involves a final action with little possibility for further development; the play ends with virtually no behavioral degrees of freedom for the characters.  A comedy is the opposite; the characters leave the field of play, i.e., stage, to live happily ever after—the future is wide open with many degrees of behavioral freedom.  Classical dramas followed this convention fairly closely.  When we approach modern times, drama begins to reflect the curious muddle of our lives today.  Just how does Waiting for Godot end for these characters of limited repertoire?

One more idea seems relevant here, at least to me.  I am reading The Embodied Mind: Cognitive science and human experienceby Francisco Varela, Evan Thonpson, and Eleanor Rosch, a fascinating book in which they seek to bridge the quite recent positivistic efforts of cognitive scientists and the understanding of human subjective experience as understood by long-standing Buddhist traditions (a slow, deep read for many reasons).  Deep into their analysis they assert that analysis of the visual and other neural systems shows that the bottom up flow of information, e.g., from the retina through the lateral geniculate nuclei to the visual cortex, which we think is decisive in determining our perceptions is actually exceeded by the top down flow of information from higher neural centers.  These processes from above contribute to determining perceptual forms, figure-ground, attention and focus, and more we have yet to understand.

Let me imagine just a bit further that the bigger the brain, the more top down processing flow there is (because that is where the enlargement is) and that is what helps to develop greater degrees of freedom, increase adaptive flexibility and empower playful action.  Now consider the idea I have promoted here about how to define sentience and consciousness.  The general orthodox definitions show that the terms are conflated, i.e., used as synonyms, but for a variety of reasons I have given before (e.g. see post on 4/21/16, or 11/30/17), I think they are better distinguished as follows.  Sentience grows as the basic function of an organism in apprehending its ambient; this is based upon perceptual organs and is what Susanne Langer called impactive activity, i.e., neural action engendered by energies and material impacting on the soma from without.  Neurologically this is what Varela and colleagues call the bottom up processes.  In my heterodoxical view consciousness is autogenic (Langer’s word for the autonomous and independent activity of the brain); it is the top down processes cited by Verala et. al.  Consciousness is what we bring to sentient processing that is not engendered by the current perceptual processes but by our own shaping of our sentient domain and even more for humans by the displaced information remembered, imagined, and controlled through symbolic processes.

So our bigger brains have allowed us to bring more to the current social situation, what I have characterized as heightened empathy leading to deeper intimacy, and more to our interaction with the world at large through our symbolic control of information that we apply to our experiences of the world around us and ourselves.  Take a couple of ideas, add them together, and get something more, eh?  Time to travel on, playfully.

Let’s go beyond stale and dismal science vs religion juxtaposition

I have been feeling a wee bit cranky recently.  It probably has something to do with changing weather patterns that make this old man work extra hard to manage the farm and with the ongoing realization that the intelligence of the American people either has always been low and the mask has recently slipped off (again, I hear H. L. Mencken say) or it has devolved down to a level hitherto unseen in human history (probably with the aid of electronic media and machine intelligence). I listened to our president and his advisers a few days ago and I said to my wife, “I have heard farts that sounded more intelligent, though few have stunk like that”.  I try to avoid any visit to the Land of Stupid; now I see all too many go there as tourists, some on extended vacations.  Our leadership looks to have emigrated and taken up residence there full-time.

Anyway I had recently been feeling better.  The weather improved and I turned off the TV, and then I read a NYT Stone (their philosophical forum) article (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/03/opinion/why-we-need-religion.html.) about religion and feelings, and boom, back came my crankiness when I read this:  “My claim is that religion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not.”  My primal scream at that point was that we do not access emotions, we feel them and that science and religion are so different in their inception, in the consequent institutions, and in their management of knowledge, ignorance, and consensual activities that comparing them for their ‘management’ of emotions is a false comparison (see posts 4/4/17,9/28/17).

After a bit I realized that my crankiness had led me to perhaps overreact negatively to this essay, so I read it again more carefully.  I still do not like it because I am quite tired of reading variants of the science-religion topic when so few of them seem to lead anywhere new.  Mr. Asma uses some of the same old tropes to make the case that religion helps us manage our emotions while science does not (of course he does not mention anti-depressants, etc.).  He presents an anecdote showing how a woman’s religion helped her cope with the despair she felt from the brutal murder of a son. He argues in short that religion is primarily therapeutic and the most powerful cultural analgesic we have for the painful vicissitudes of life, and that the atheists who “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee” fall short of the mark.  More on that in a moment.

Mr. Asma shows great command of the obvious in some generalizations that are so muddled that they have left any truth behind.  One is that emotions are from the old “operating system” (regular readers know I find such hard wire metaphors cringe worthy) in the limbic system while rationality (I guess he means science in this regard—he does not seem to differentiate here) comes from the “more recently evolved neocortex.” Going further he says that, “Religion irritates the rational brain because it trades in magical thinking and no proof, but it nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty”.  Now here is one of my major criticisms.  It should not be a news flash that religion being a cultural and symbolic activity is also associated with neocortical functioning. Religion can facilitate emotional balance; indeed most cultural activities contribute to balance in one way or another, as does walking your dog, listening to music, grooming a fellow chimp, stretching, sleeping, watching a sunset, good food, sex, friends, etc.  (Mr. Asma does have the grace to admit that religion can disrupt emotional and cognitive processes.  Reverting to my initial outrage at his idea of religion accessing emotions, my first image was of an ISIS recruit ‘accessing’ his murderous rage through religious belief).  This means that religion is as much a part of the rational brain as is science.

Science and rationality are not synonymous; science is a method for ensuring our rationally conceived ideas match reality as best we can at this time (See my posts on 1/7/17).  Rationality is the humdrum everyday thinking that we carry on and it is notoriously unreliable, ergo the need for empirical validation.  We have known for a long time that our rational processes are unreliable, at least since Freud showed the influence of unconscious processes and more recently with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (see Micheal Lewis’s The Undoing Projector Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow) showing how our brains, even highly educated brains, use heuristics that are quite fallible.  And I would think Mr. Asma might be interested in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind that demonstrates how we rationalize and justify our political and religious beliefs after we intuitively decide what to believe.  I do not want to go further now into how cortical and subcortical systems interact to contribute to emotional processes and intellectual ferment, but they do, and Mr. Asma’s reification of their differences is, at this time in our scientific understanding, deplorable.

My other major complaint is his characterization of atheists and their (or anyone’s for that matter) rejection of religion.  To repeat from above, Mr. Asma says atheists “dismiss religion on the grounds of some puritanical moral judgment about the weakness of the devotee”. I have read Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, and my favorite, Christopher Hitchens, and I cannot recall them talking about the moral weakness of  devotees.  Hypocrites, certainly.  Superstitious, yes.  Taking false comfort, ok.  Chris Hitchens in his book, God is Not Great, assesses that the destruction waged in the name of god exceeds the good religion does.  Further, religious people do not behave better despite their claim to moral authority.  I find particularly onerous religious attempts to obfuscate science, e.g., design and anti-vaccination biases, and to impose their morality on others, e.g., women as second class citizens or worse, as male property, or condemning those of racial or gender differences.

I live on a farm in the country.  Religion is strong here mostly, I think, because the dispersed population needs a sense of community as they depend upon each other.  And yes, religion does help people cope.  I found it laughable, though, when Mr. Asma says that Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson dropping by to discuss the physiology of suffering would not be helpful in consoling victims, thereby presupposing that true consolation rests solely with the religious.  I am sure Mr. Nye or Mr. Tyson would be a good friend to help someone get through hard times.  They are good, sensitive and intelligent humans.  And science?  Understanding Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving has helped many people cope with terminal illness and loss.

Probably the thing that upset me about this essay even more than Mr. Asma’s trivialities, distortions, and misappropriations, was that he adds nothing to this rather stale and dismal juxtaposition between science and religion (see post 2/4/14).  My context is this:  Religion, or rather spiritual beliefs, has contributed to human culture (see post 7/8/17: a positivist genesis myth) for at least 100,000 years if you go by archeological evidence of burial practices.  Spiritual beliefs have evolved over the eons since then and religious institutions have proliferated with a fecundity of gods.  Humans have always had a reality orientation and some leaning towards empirical studies.  Ancient astronomers were quite knowledgeable, as were farmers and metal workers. Science as a rigorous system of knowledge was born in magical alchemy and grew into a mature epistemology with the Enlightenment and now with even more rigor with the development of positivism and modern mathematics, e.g., Boolean logic, statistics.

Here is my point:  Religion is a part of our cultural evolution; if it disappears that will be a result of further cultural evolution.  If it stays, same thing.  In either case it will not be because of our willful intellectual manipulation of ourselves nor of our society.   Our task, as I see it, is to further our cultural development through the fermentation and distillation (wonder why I used that metaphor?) of our understanding. Atheists, too often defined by a negative, are at their best when they proffer something positive and religion is at its best when it offers a meaningful way forward through the knowledge of our time.  I hear some ask who does this?  The current Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of this.  As I have written about before (and will do so again next post), Jacques Monod carried this forward (see post 3/25/17).  In his own way because of the integrity of his intellect I think Chris Hitchens did as well (see post on natural noumenal 4/13/17).  I am talking here about the dialectic between mysticism and positivism, neither complete in and of itself, the dialectic providing the means to move forward (see posts 2/4/16 & 11/15/15).

To recapitulate:  I have been in a sour mood.  When I read an essay purporting to provide balance in the debate between science and religion, I reacted quite negatively.  Recovering my own emotional balance I considered the essay in more detail and found that while my mood contributed to the intensity of my initial appraisal, my reaction was authentic, reasonable and accurate.  And I felt my feelings and thought my thoughts with my whole brain, cortical and subcortical, without needing religion to ‘access’ them.  Travel on.

Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.