I read and question and worry

I am finally reading the whole of Michael Lewis’ book, The Undoing Project, about the work and friendship of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Their collaboration and friendship seemed unlikely to others because they were so different in personality, but they worked closely, intensely and brilliantly for many years before they broke up in a storm of resentment. Their simitlarities are also important. Both were descended from Russian Jewish emigres, were atheists, served in the Israeli army in several wars, and were keenly interested in how the mind works and found insight through studying human errors. Both were incredibly intelligent and creative; Tversky was more outgoing and happy while Kahneman was more reclusive and described as depressed. Tversky was gifted as a mathematical psychologist and Kahneman was gifted as an applied psychologist. He advised the Israeli army on several issues over the years about training and selection of talent for military specialities. Together and singly they made pioneering contributions to the founding of behavioral economics. Tversky won a MacArthur genius award but died before receiving a Nobel and Kahneman won a Nobel prize for economics. One of the many who followed their inspiration, Richard Thaler, was just awarded the 2017 Nobel in economics. What I like about their work is that they demonstrate that our rational mind makes mistakes because of cognitive biases, i.e., our rationality is riddled with irrationality. Once again it seems that we can see plenty of truth, none of it absolute, if we look carefully.

The biases they uncovered operate on two levels. The first is ongoing across many situations and the second operates with each framing of a situation. In the first instance they found that people did not respond logically according to a cogent analysis of probabilities. That may be no surprise but they extended their research to include professional statisticians and found the same biases leading to the same errors and that is interesting. Many of their experiments involved posing scenarios and offering choices as to winning/losing/risk/certainty money and I confess this old clinical psychologist found them to be a bit arcane and begging for ecological validity. Still their results have been shown to be robust and to operate somewhat in the real world outside of the experimental design.

They described several biases, which they termed heuristics (a question here later) underlying these cognitive errors. One of these is availability, i.e., judgments and decisions are made with the information easily available, and I would add, given the ocean of information in which we moderns are drowning, information that is easily selected and usually in accord with our given beliefs. Another is representativeness, i.e., how prototypical is the phenomenon under review. This matters a good deal because we tend to think we know what will happen or what is going on if some similarity exists between phenomena. Kahneman and Tversky listed several other heuristics about base rates (failing to understand the frequency of categorical occurences in estimating deviation), sample size (believing small samples are valid), misunderstanding randomness (plenty of patterns to find though not significant), and anchoring (judgments made relative to starting point), and so on, you get the idea. They, especially Kahneman, also saw the influence of emotions. (Again, this is not news to clinical folk).

For the second level they investigated the influence of framing, i.e., how a situation is defined, and found, for example, that if a choice was framed in terms of financial loss, people took greater risks, and that if that same choice, i.e., exactly same outcomes, was framed as a gain, people were risk aversive. Again, many cognitive psychologists and pollsters understood this to be the case. Part of Kahneman’s and Tversky’s impact was based not on their rigorous systematizing and generalizing their ideas but on the fact that they were entering into the field of economics where tradition held that people, like the economists themselves of course, acted rationally. Discounting the fact that economic theories fail repeatedly to be predictive, in part because of irrationality in the system and in larger part, I think, because they are certain when they should be doubtful. (Ah, I hear the whisper of a tale about yet another civilization coming to an end.)

As I read along I wondered this about heuristics and framing: are they innate, based upon some neural algorithm or grammar like linguistic syntax, are they cultural developments like the acquired predispositons of the habitus? Are there individual variations even then? How we frame situations would seem cultural but also affected by personality, e.g., pessimists frame one way, optimists another, reclusive creative Kahneman one way, blithe and logical Tversky another. The judgment that something is an heuristic that serves us well except in key situations is based upon a knowledge of statistics and probability, and these are modern refinements of cognitive operations. It is telling that those whose intellect has been trained in statistics make the same mistakes as those who have not.

The larger issue for me is that we are animals, that our native talents for logic etc. are biological, and that our feelings, however inaccurate they may be in some modern situations, are the evolved basis of our intellect. To understand the embodied mind requires an understanding of our biological roots, how our capabilities are adaptive and maladaptive. Heuristics are both.  Consider this speech given by Kahneman in 1974 entitled “Cognitive Limitations and Public Decision Making,” where he said he worried about “an organism equipped with an affective and hormonal system not much different from that of a jungle rat being given the ability to destroy every living thing by pushing a few buttons.” Further, “crucial decisions are made today as thousands of years ago in terms of intuitive guesses and preferences of a few men in positions of authority” and “the fate of entire societies may be sealed by a series of avoidable mistakes committed by their leaders.”

Consider a message Tversky gave to historians, essentially that as they formulate the patterns of history, seeking to explain what, why and how events transpired, their efforts are marked by the same heuristics and biases as any other such efforts. Tversky’s and Kahneman’s research had shown that two more biases important in this field. One is that once people form an intellectual product they hold on to it despite evidence to the contrary. The other is that people think their predictions based upon hindsight are more certain than they really are. Further, Lewis states that their work countered Santayana’s famous dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” because knowing the past actually contributes to repeating it, i.e., making the same mistakes again. And that makes a lot of sense to me.

My intent here is always to understand how our humanity arises through our biology, hormones, emotions, heuristics and all but especially our empathy and symbolization. Tversky and Kahneman have little to say about our biology but their work points to the messiness of our biological selves and contributes importantly, I think, to Monod’s ethic of knowledge. Now I live in 2017 America where many citizens and leaders do not understand the fragility of life and society, do not understand the importance of making decisions through a rational decision-making system that takes into account the vulnerability and limitations of our mind, and all too many actively reject an ethic of knowledge. Oops! How has American society come to this (end)? Travel on while still we can.

the doxa, orthodoxy and thinking we are right

I have been reflecting on the Boudrieu’s lessons about the doxa (see post 9/6/17) as any bona fide skeptic must. Remember that the doxa is the field of discourse that composed of two levels: the words and concepts we use to talk about the world, i.e., our culture or habitus, and the world, i.e., objective reality. Most of the time we casually assume that our cultural concepts match the world, i.e., they are isomorphic with each other. When intellectual rigor is important (and when is it not if we humans are to survive), we must carefully disabuse ourselves of that notion and so understand that what and how we think and talk bears only some indirect relation to reality (for most of us; for some politicians and their supporters the two seem never to be related at all).

This is analogous in physics to operating everyday according to Newtonian physics, e.g., we sent Cassini-Huygens to Saturn using Newtonian calculations, but physicists will tell you that Einsteinian and quantum mechanics are actually more accurate (but much more involved so Newton’s way of figuring wins out because it is adequate and much simpler). Now the important perspective here is that we have two or more symbolic systems that both correspond to the world reality and that we choose between them based upon utility, accuracy and their aesthetics. We do not assume that a particular cultural conception captures reality in a singular manner because we operate from the scientific axiom that our knowledge only approximates an ultimately unknowable world. The scientific method institutionalizes the disjuncture between our cultural conceptions and the world that compose the doxa and this leads to Monod’s important proposal towards an ethic of knowledge. We must seek to know in order to understand our conceptions, our world, and the relation between them.

Imagine yourself as an early Hominid maybe some 250,000 years ago as our kind embarked on symbolic thought and communication. An easy and relatively safe assumption is that we assumed that our culture and the world were one; the doxa was undifferentiated and so we had little capacity to see that our conceptions were arbitrary constructions about the world with many alternatives abounding. This would render our mentation magical: we think it and it is real. Oh boy! Over time with continued evolution, both genetic and cultural, Homo sapiens came to realize that the doxa was not undifferentiated, i.e., that our cultural conceptions were just and only that—they reflect the world but are not isomorphic with it, i.e., our concepts are at their base arbitrary. Plato’s parable of the cave is an astounding statement of that understanding. And I have to wonder about the role of writing in this evolution where the earliest examples are lists of things, then laws and then narratives before philosophy began to address the partition of the doxa into orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Our Greek forbears were especially important for the skepticism of their thought about our knowledge.


“Make it rain? Why, yes, I can, and for only $100” said the priest.

And now we come to religion, which does assume their conceptions are divinely privileged renditions of reality, and my recent encounter with the wonder that is St. Augustine. What a guy. Read his biography and you will see a good example of how mania fuels productivity along with some pretty maladaptive personal behaviors and relationships. That I have known for awhile; then I read last week this quote of his from the 4th century and knew wherein religion and science differed in critical detail: “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” Our skeptical, scientific, and modern ethic of knowledge stipulates that we understand before we assemble our beliefs (theories, etc.) while religion ala Augustine (and much of Christian thought follows his lead) stipulates that we must first believe the religious tenets because all knowledge follows therefrom and must be judged accordingly. This is what kept the Copernican solar system at bay for many years, what kept the earth flat, what put Galileo in house arrest, what promoted the inquisitorial methods, what sustains climate change denial, etc. And abandoning this has made modern medicine and science/technology possible.

I use ‘religion’ as a stand-in for all rigid orthodoxy and ideology, i.e., for all systems of thought that presume to know the facts beforehand and that assume that their cultural conceptions bear some special, even divine, relationship to some sort of truth, i.e., their facts cannot be invalidated. That is why religion can be dangerous, why heterodoxy and skepticism are critical to our intellectual integrity, and why the ethic of knowledge is now very, very important. This also why our political discourse suggests our culture is doomed. Travel on now and enjoy a respite visit to some noumenal realms of reality.

salient point

A skeptic’s guidepost, but follow or turn away, that is the heterodoxical question


Arrivederci, Cassini

Tomorrow morning Cassini dives into Saturn and burns up to avoid contaminating any of the moons.  NASATV is running many programs about the mission and will broadcast the end of mission tomorrow beginning around 6 or 7 AM EDT.  Here is a picture of Cassini-Huygens as a brand new machine before launch so many years ago.


NASA has released some numbers about the mission:

4.9 billion miles traveled, 294 orbits of Saturn completed, 2.5 million commands executed, 635 gigabytes of science data collected, 453,048 images taken, 3,948 science papers published, 27 nations participating and two oceans discovered.  At a cost of $2.5 billion to build and launch Cassini and Huygens, split between NASA, E.S.A. and the Italian Space Agency, and another $1.4 billion to run them for 20 years in flight, that seems money well spent.

The NY Times has composed a magnificent set of pictures illustrating the mission:  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/14/science/cassini-saturn-images.html?hpw&rref=science&action.  Make sure to watch the video at the end.  Wow!  Thank you again Cassini and NASA.

culture and the connectome

I have finished, sort of, Pierre Bourdieu’s A Theory of Practice. I say ‘sort of’ because towards the end his prose became quite ridiculous and somewhat redundant so I skimmed. My wife is fond of quoting W. C. Fields, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Truth be told, Bourdieu does both in this book. Also, to be clear, I do not think he had any real notion of seeing his work in the light of biological science, but I sure do.

First, consider his idea of the culture as the habitus, i.e., an acquired set of predispositions that guides our actions in new situations according to socially developed and learned ways of responding. These predispositions would cover quite a variety of activities, from body language and emotional expressiveness to methods of farming and cooking to ritualized social actions like marriages and hospitality to sex and gender roles, to, well, the list goes on quite a while. Bourdieu studied and found great differences between traditional agrarian societies and modern ones as well as among those dominated by industrial capitalism and ones more conscious of social equality. The habitus changes as each generation encounters new kinds of experiences, and the rate of cultural change seems to have accelerated over the past 120 years for obvious reasons.


Our connectome with many systems lit

Remember the connectome, that patterning of neural connections and firings responsible for virtually everything we do and are, like when a young lady dies in icy waters and is resuscitated several hours later and then over time recovers her pre-morbid functioning, i.e., her identity, her habitus and her professional abilities (see post 1/10/15 ‘Death and the connectome’: https://biologicalrootsofhumanity.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/death-and-the-connectome/). She had acquired her cultural predispositions mostly early in life; they were maintained in some sort of invariant form and then implemented flexibly and this was carried out through the connectome over her life span before and after dying. Our language and its pragmatic use, our personality and its acculturated form, and our habitual ways of engaging in important social activities are manifestly inherent in our biology.

Next, consider another idea from Bourdieu, the doxa, and this is a mite subtle, so please bear with me. The doxa, in Bourdieu’s view, is the realm of discourse. It has two contributing components, one the natural reality of the world and the other our social, i.e., cultural, conceptions. In the doxa in its plain, simple, and incipient state, these two components are identical, or close to it, but this is based upon a shared illusion, a lie as it were, because our cultural conceptions are arbitrary constructions. They could be, and indeed are, composed any number of ways, while natural reality is simply that, real and without versions (or such is the orthodox view but don’t get me started). With the doxa we pretend that our concepts are identical with reality; that is the source of their truth and validity, but that is a lie we share, e.g., it goes without saying people are free and god grants them their freedom. In natural fact people are quite constrained and god contributes nothing except what we create in our cultural domains.

When people realize that the cultural conceptions are arbitrary and that there is more than one way to go about inhabiting the realm of discourse, say through contact with strangers or travel to foreign lands, the doxa becomes segregated. Now the predominant cultural view is orthodoxy while the rebellious alternative is heterodoxy. Like the doxa, orthodoxy determines the realm of discourse, e.g., what is considered true, possible, probable, etc., and thereby relevant for discourse while heterodoxy challenges that arbitrary conceptualization with another deemed more accurate or valid, or at least corrective. We can see this in many examples from the religious domain, e.g., Martin Luther, and we can also see this in politics, where conservatives and progressives each see their views as orthodox with some 3rd parties being heterodox, in social movements, e.g., Realpolitik where aggression and war are natural and necessary vs. the Peace movement (I like John Lennon’s “Imagine”) and in science, e.g., different paradigms like Ptolemaic vs Copernican.

I would add here that how we view humanity is important for both the habitus and the doxa: are we a member of the animal world or something different. Are there ghostly spirits? Are there subspecies of humans? I remember during my graduate work in clinical psychology (late 80s) some faculty and many students thought studies from other animals were irrelevant to human psychology. The most glaring example was in ADHD where much work is necessarily done with other species if we are to understand the neurological processes of attention and concentration and their dysfunction. There were times I felt like a congenital heterodox because not only did I think animal research applied to humans, it included humans, and in what I am sure was viewed as absurd, that the department of psychology should be in the school of biology. Oh well, crank or ahead of my time, their imaginings or mine? Neuroscience has had a lot to say on this matter since then.

Two final points here. First is that the cultural doxa, along with its segregation into orthodoxy and heterodoxy, determines what is admissible into the realm of discourse and this channels how we think about the world. This entails that the connectome functions more fluidly with orthodox notions [lights up with many more and more stable connections] and must accommodate its habitus in order to consider any such heterodoxy [lights up with far fewer and less stable connections and even those deemed at least somewhat invalid] fully. An example from our history is that enslavers held the orthodox view that people of color were an inherently different and substandard species. In fact many who were against slavery held some version of that view. The heterodoxical view that Africans were equal in their humanity, both in intelligence and capability of culture, was inadmissible to many, especially to the enslavers in the south. Who espoused the heterodox view that blacks were like us? Abe Lincoln had his doubts; John Brown did not. His plan at Harper’s Ferry was to foment slave rebellion and include the enslaved in the process because they could be equal contributors. Not many, even on the Union side, held that opinion. The connectomes of the people back in the day, like everyday, were bound by the constraints of the habitus and the doxa’s admissibility of concepts into discourse.

My second point is this: THE PRESUMPTION OF CONCORDANCE BETWEEN NATURE (or reality or god’s way) AND THE TERMS OF CULTURAL DISCOURSE (i.e., the doxa) IS DANGERGOUS, because that presumption leads to the ideological and fanatical disregard of the arbitrariness of cultural conceptions and of another’s truth. Someone can bring up a heterodox challenge but it is disregarded because with that presumption of concordance, the essentially arbitrary nature of our cultural constructions is ignored and false beliefs are sustained. (Science is important because it institutionalizes the discordance between our conceptions and nature.)  Consider again the historical example of enslavement. Some of my relatives some 100 years after the Civil War still held that African-Americans were inferior and they could not, i.e., would not, admit any difference between their orthodoxy and reality. Still to this day consider the rise of white nationalism.

Boudrieu’s dazzlement with the habitus and doxa is a brilliant achievement and most helpful as we try to understand humanity today and its biological roots. And remember Mark Twain’s words: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Travel on then.

Old posts ride again . . . .

Old posts ride again about the biological roots of inhumanity as enacted by fascists, racists, gangsters, thugs and other fanatics including ‘true believers’.

Back on 5/11/14 and 5/14/14, I posted about our human capacity for self-righteous indignation and sustained hatred based upon the neuroscience of how emotions affect our thinking and vice versa. The basic point is that we humans with our symbolic capability can construct a mental image that self-stimulates and continues to echo, even reverberate with amplification, some perceived cause and justification for anger, and that maintaining the reverb of a self-made emotion can become an addiction. This is not adaptive both because it prolongs an emotional stance and emotions function best when passing with experience and because such a reverberating loop interferes with reality oriented cognition. I wrote about this in response to violence instigated by Mexican gangs against citizens dedicated to peace and justice (and poetry) and to a deranged man in Kansas City who killed 3 people outside a synagogue in his anger against Jewish people (and none of the 3 were Jewish).

Recent events have again brought these same issues to importance, i.e., the rise into the public forum of groups dedicated to hate, their words and actions against people of color and Jewish beliefs (and all non-Christian beliefs for that matter. That they have not condemned the Dalai Lama I am sure is an oversight on their part), and their murder of a young lady in Charlottesville, VA. With this introduction, then, I will copy from those earlier posts some relevant passages; they will not necessarily flow in a coherent narrative but you can still get the picture given this background. (The original full posts are also interesting to read including about co-opting images to justify violence).

From 4/11/14: [The newspaper story covers] the history of the man accused of shooting 3 people outside a Jewish center in Kansas City.  Wow, talk about a life of hate.  Do we think his blood sugar was low?  At times, sure, but his history illustrates how hate can be sustained over years if the person works at it hard enough.  Emotions such as anger are appropriately fleeting responses to experiences.  The feeling rises and falls and the person moves on to the next experience.  Humans with our symbolic capacity have another option–we can construct mental situations, remembered or imagined, that then generate particular emotions.  I think it is actually more complicated than that.  We have our personal proclivities for certain emotions and at times our mind constructs situations corresponding to the right frame for that emotion to be expressed and then felt.

Sentient animals, like especially mammals, must be reality oriented in order to adapt and survive.  We humans ignore this basic premise at our, and others’, peril.  The Kansas City shooter reportedly self-identified with Nazis and worked at constructing and maintaining a reality commensurate with sustaining that particular brand of hate.  Simon Baron-Cohen gives a detailed picture of what we know biologically about this phenomena in his book, The Science of Evil.  Hate is maladaptive in two very basic ways.  As already implied, it is a feeling without end and that cannot be reality oriented.  Further, such disregard for reality leads to stupidity and failure.  The shooter killed people who were not the objects chosen for his hatred.  The problem with stereotypical, prejudicial thinking is that it is wrong way more frequently than it is right.  Not reality based. The second maladaptation is that hate overrides the basic function of empathy (a deeply biological instinct) which should lead us to understand the other person fully, to see the object whole as it were, and then on to compassion.

Baron-Cohen talks about a science of ignorant, even malicious non-empathic, non-realistic functioning not to negate criminal culpability but to encourage further understanding of how such phenomena come about and then to work to mitigate it.  We have more than 150 years since Darwin and Wallace helped us find this path to understanding our biological selves.  In the first decades of the twentieth century James Papez proposed the Circuit of Papez as the neurological substrate for emotions.

He focused on the hippocampus and the associated structures we now know as the limbic system.  We now know that this circuit has more to do with memory and novelty than emotion but it was a natural mistake for Dr. Papez to make, given the research technology of his time, because the structure central to emotional valence, the amygdala, is next to the hippocampus.


And the amygdala is closely tied to the neuroendocrine system for stress response, including fight/flight, and this is certainly sensitive to blood sugar.  Adaptive, well functioning animals have brains that are stable in energy, reality oriented, and empathic towards the other.  Dr. Papez’s misconception helped us (well, Paul MacLean’s correction really) find a better understanding; that is how science operates.  Unlike hatred, which runs itself and its animal into the dust.  Our capacity to construct a different reality is a two edged sword, one edge which cuts destructively and rather indiscriminately and one which self corrects and follows into the future to find understanding.


From 4/14/14: Now a side trip to the neuroscience of addiction.  In the mid 1950s James Milner and Peter Olds found that rats would press a lever almost interminably even to the point of death to gain electrical stimulation in the lateral hypothalamus and septum.


This area has subsequently been found to be part of a circuit involved in addictive behaviors.  The original idea for many years, still maybe to some, is that these areas are pleasure centers, i.e., that the stimulation was so pleasurable that the animal would keep pressing the lever (or taking the drug) to gain satisfaction.  Jaak Panksepp in his wonderful book Affective Neuroscience (to which I have often referred) cites further experimental work and another interpretation.  Briefly, animals (rats mostly) that engage in pressing the lever for self-stimulation do not show the usual signs of pleasure following gratification such as grooming and other post consummatory behaviors.  Instead these animals continue in appetitive or seeking behaviors, so that rather than seeing this circuit as one of pleasure, it is more one of seeking pleasure.  Thus addiction is always seeking reward but never really gaining it.  Seeking behavior is a remarkable and ubiquitous presence in our mentality and more could be said here.

Now on to righteous indignation.  I have long noticed in my personal life and my old profession as a psychologist that when people experience righteous indignation, they often sustain their anger through imagined moral outrage and use this to justify a range of poor and mostly destructive behaviors.  This is different from the moral outrage, say, of the civil rights movement that is different in many ways as it avoids the irrational and unmodulated anger, the focus on retribution and revenge on individuals, and actions more destructive than remedial.


This shows hippocampal connections to the limbic system but not its cortical inputs and outputs which are also very diverse

Self-righteous indignation is more of a closed loop reverberating with a singular emotion, self-sustaining through stereotyped cognitive inputs, and can lead to actions that are ineffective, destructive, and lack the human touch of empathy, forethought, and perspective. We can simplistically look at the limbic system as that closed loop, operating off of one cognitive, mnemonic set shut off from inputs that would help gain perspective, a rather ugly feedback loop like when the microphone is too close to the speaker and that awful wail ensues until either the mic or the speaker is turned off.  So political demagogues and gangsters run amuck in similar gutters.

Back to 2017: Demagogues, racists and fascists look to sustain their fantasies of power and purity despite our long human history now of inclusive justice and morality extending to all. Their fantasies will never verify just like an addict’s cravings will never relent. That is why government policy is so important to curb the legal theft of our labors by oligarchic capitalists and the espousal of hate by fascists and racists, because they will keep on pushing that lever for more until they die.

Finally, Thank you, Heather Heyer, for your spirit that carries on, and to her mother, who is a wonderfully grounded, moral, and delightfully articulate in a plain spoken way lady. Namaste.

Now we travel on together.

Review: The Natural History of Human Morality

Our gardens are taking much of my energy these days, but I sometimes reflect on my biological preoccupations while I am out there. For example, why am I currently focused on the biological roots of human values? Two main reasons. First, I live in an area where strong fundamentalist, even evangelical, religion fills people’s minds and our media. Associated with that comes a nostalgia for the Confederacy. I often read locally that god (take your pick of the many iterations out there) is the source of values, so our American separation of church and state is misguided. Oh, so wrong, even looking at the beliefs of our founding fathers (and mothers). Plus, I have just finished a magnificent book, The Half Has Never Been Told, about how our capitalist and wealthy society rose up on the backs of slaves, and that was a value preached from the white pulpit. Values are man-made, so to speak, and biological in origin even when they are perverse and distorted.

Second, for a rational source of values, go back a few posts (6/28/17 & 7/8/17) where I reveled in Monod’s exposition of spirit conceived of as inherent in our biology. I find his thinking a clear guide to true and humane values, so back to Monod’s ethic of knowledge and the knowledge of ethics. The basic biological value is to promote the generational advancement of a species, i.e., replication of genes and the evolutionary descent from life’s inception until now. All life is local and flows into the future as best it can. If you have followed my blog over the past year or so, you know my supposition that life’s basic task, then, is SWP (Solving World Problems), i.e., the job of gaining what is needed from the world to fulfill that basic biological value, and SWP engenders the ethic of knowledge. The better we know the world, the better we can SWP. You also know that early on in Gaia’s evolution sexual reproduction appeared and that increased the force with which life flows into the future because it increases the pace of new genetic combinations and most significantly for our humanity, it engendered a new set of values for CR (Conspecific Relations). CR transformed the biosphere with the advent of mammals and their remarkable evolution of family relations and empathy. Finally you know that very recently in Gaia’s past SWP embraced CR as a way of organizing the group for success and CR embraced SWP as a way of developing more powerful actions together. In more concrete terms conspecifics became adept at learning and cooperating with each other to mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities, thereby increasing survival rates, and also turned their impulses to SWP to focus on group organization and governance. That, for me, is a decent summary of the evolutionary descent of humans as we developed a cultural world and an awareness of our humanity.

Many values develop from there, and I appreciate Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Morality, for illuminating this important phase of our evolution. His basic method is to compare empirical studies of moral actions between simians and toddlers, reasoning that any differences shown thereby through similar or analogous designs would highlight the evolution of human morality as distinct from that of apes and as independent of cultural entrainment, i.e., the toddlers would not show much effect of acculturation because of their age and development so any differences could be seen more surely as our evolutionary genetic heritage. Simple and brilliant. And he cites a good deal of research showing some distinct and important differences.

The basic difference is that apes are more competitive than cooperative while toddlers are more cooperative than competitive. Simians will cooperate in order to win a competition, perhaps against one stronger because their social order and interaction are based upon force to a large degree. (If I remember correctly I think Frans der Waal reports some simian relationships are also based upon age, history of interaction, family relations, what I might call simian social wiles and empathy so Tomasello may be overselling the simians’ lack of caring.)  Tomasello does look at some distinct differences to be seen between young humans and mature simians and these highlight the reliance on force used by the great apes in varying degrees, bonobos less than chimps, in contrast with the care and comfort offered by human infants, social behaviors not seen in the simians. For example, human infants as young as 14 months will help others, even strangers, when they perceive their frustration at a task by doing some action to solve the challenge to the goal. They will help spontaneously without incentive. Likewise, they will comfort others who are distressed; the higher the level of distress, the more likely the toddlers respond to soothe. They also show satisfaction when another person provides the soothing, and this seems to me clear indication of the mirroring system establishing a loop of a right brain leading with the warm social reaction to a vicariously experienced social situation. Whoa! These sorts of behaviors are by and large absent in the simian repertoire.

Tomasello goes further and argues that human morality is thus shown to be distinctive very early on, and that argues for a strong genetic influence. He then incorporates more observations as he explicates how our morality changes from our early empathy guided behaviors to the more sophisticated mores established through acculturation. This early empathy (my term, not his) provides the substrate upon which self-other equivalence is developed, and from there the next step to self-other morality, i.e., the same rules apply to each, is tangibly realized. Here, if you will, is the biological origin of the golden rule: do to others as you want done to you.

Part of this shift in human development involves the widening of the empathic circle to include non-kin and even strangers and this comes along with our cooperating with just about anyone really to do necessary tasks, tasks that cannot be performed without competent cooperation and that are important to the selves and their group(s). Herein grows the expectation and obligation that everyone is expected to perform competently in attaining their goal and the same rewards and penalties apply to everyone. These social mores develop incidentally, more or less, until their codification and increasing social complexity demand conscious consideration. Tomasello explains this in some detail and brings up an idea from his earlier work, that these new ways of interacting brought about new ways of thinking. I am still considering how to understand what he means there and so will post on that later, I hope, and I have purchased his earlier book, The Natural History of Human Thinking.

I find much support in this book for my notion that the evolution of empathy and symbolization form the roots of our humanity. I especially appreciate the good science in demonstrating how our empathy is different from that of other animals and how that has led to a moral dimension of culture. Our empathy is indeed very powerful and pervades all of our mental development. Our special sense or intuition of another’s intent and mental states/processes allow a grand expansion of cooperation, especially as this also leads to symbolic communication about our subjective experience, thoughts and feelings. (Remember, sometimes empathy+symbolization=art.)

I also find some clues about how to understand phenomena like slavery or its modern incarnations in the ways the rich steal the fruits of working people’s labors. The enslavers and the powerful wealthy elite operate with a morality more akin to the simian’s reliance on force: if I can gain resources from the community for myself by force and manipulation of law (and values), ignoring the empathic connection so strong in humanity, I am successful and dominant. The next time you see an ‘alpha’ male gloating over power and wealth, picture a simple ape standing over his pile of bananas while others look on empty-handed and wonder how some can depreciate our distinctive values arising from our biology. Finally, consider how the cultural mind-set of power, e.g., colonial imperialism, is so prominent in some nations and classes and resistant to change (talk to a Scotsman about the English, talk to the 99%ers about the 1%, read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, listen to Noam Chomsky).

I learned a good deal from this book and will learn more by re-reading some passages and maybe one day soon (like winter time when the garden lies mostly fallow) I will re-read the entirety. That said, I want to recommend this book with a quibble: the prose is academic and at times oh so tedious. I understand the academic culture and social styles; I struggled with writing in accordance through two graduate degrees. I got better with the help of my excellent advisers, who, I am sure, found my natural style very un-academic and prone to ambiguity, obtuseness and metaphorical extension. Kind of like here. So read this book patiently, being forewarned of potential difficulty, and consider what this means about us humans in the grand scheme of life.

a positivist genesis myth

[This is a very long post. I considered breaking it down into 2 but did not like the results so here it is. Having read the previous post would be helpful and acquaintance with some of the threads running through my blog may help this post be more understandable. Thanks in advance to anyone who reads to the end.]

What do you call a genesis myth without the supernatural? Au naturel, of course. And I use the term myth loosely, meaning an allegorical narrative symbolically capturing an explanation of nature that is, when objectively considered, unexplainable in its totality. Thus we have gods creating each other and the cosmos and humans. We also have the mystic apprehension of the unexplainable universe; one of the first and to my mind still one of the best is the Tao Te Ching (and I really love the translated rendition by sci-fi hero, Ursula K. LeGuin).

I have written here about the ocean of experience surrounding each of us, meaning that domain where the two great genetic watersheds (Solving World Problems (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR): see post 4/7/17 ) run to confluence and form an estuarine island of life and mind. A mystic stands on the shore, a being nakedly aware of the generational and temporal flow through to this moment, then this one, and oh, you know, and watches the weather, tides and the waters wave and glisten on the shore, content with just that apprehension, finding that experience a full one, and assured that the knowledge mirroring the experience is meaningful and insignificant. A genesis myth is valuable, even necessary for carrying that apprehension forward into meeting life’s probabilities and necessities.

Though a positivist genesis myth may be paradoxical, when we consider the scientific basis of our genesis presented below, I think that mythic aspect will be apparent because our understanding has come through increasingly sophisticated mathematics and information processing. Most of us cannot really comprehend how the numbers show their truths as the mathematically keen scientists do see them. In this sense scientists are like the seers, shaman and priests who created and developed the supernatural myths: only the initiated have access to the genesis esoterica as gleaned from either the mathematical domain or that learned through communication with the supernatural divine. Scientists talk with numbers and priests with angels. (I pass over the crucial differences in replication, falsifiability, and transferability between the two). We may not usually think of science in this way but in truth the majority of the people on Gaia evaluate positivistic myths and find them much less comprehensible than their religious mythology.   Conversely those of us initiated into this scientific world view, both the lay and the practitioners, can still find some truth about humanity in the old myths but little fact, certainly not enough to guide our pursuit of knowledge. Religious myths are at this point best seen from without, i.e., as data as we seek to understand our humanity.

In my last post I talked about Monod’s ethic of knowledge, and so to journey even further above my pay grade, this constitutes an epistemological effort that needs some supporting concepts about reality; about what is it we are learning? How did it come to pass and what is my relation with it? My bias is that any statement about the ultimate nature of reality, i.e., metaphysics, ultimately and necessarily given the scale and scope of our capabilities relies upon, revolves around and devolves intellectually into mystic apprehension. The question here is how from a cold, mechanical and valueless though lawful universe can life evolve with its values, as it has clearly done here with us on Gaia? That is, how to account for both our knowledge (true knowledge formed from an ethics of knowledge based upon empiricism) about the world and our values as both are clearly, as Monod demonstrated, sociobiological in origin. So again, what is it we know and value?

Human culture, though composed from both knowledge gained and values held, is a virtual world imagined among group members that helps to govern or to channel how each individual goes about life and supports the group. Over the past few thousand years, cultural parsing has held knowledge as more secular and values as coming from a supernatural divine. The ancient Greeks attributed some values, e.g., hospitality to strangers, respect for the dead, obedience to the king, acceptance of fate, to their gods, while they initiated a grand tradition of intellectual effort, i.e., philosophical and scientific knowing. The ancient Israelites certainly attributed their values to Yahweh and I believe follow a more secular and pragmatic approach to knowing. The Taoists stand on the shore and seek the Way. We don’t know about the people who painted the caves 40,000 years ago, much less about the earliest Hominids who buried their dead, but we do know that from them and since the advent of agriculture, civilized knowledge and values have grown to compose today’s cultural worlds.

Accept for a moment that all culture is learned and that we acquire culture through mirroring, empathy and symbolization. Assume even further that we can understand how we benefit from experience in such a way that cultural invariants form inter- and intra-personally that then guide how we relate, communicate symbolically, conceptualize with words, use metaphor, govern individual actions and relationships, organize socially, etc. Understand that early groups form on the basis of kinship which yields a natural historical narrative through their ancestry, while other groups form through social roles irrespective of kinship, and so must bond through constructing and sharing relevant narratives, some literal or empirically based, e.g., a flood, and some mythically based, e.g., the afterlife. All this to say that our philosophy as currently conceived results from a long history of cultural development (or is that evolution? Erwin Schrodinger, for one, wondered if humans were done evolving, i.e., we would stay in roughly the same biological form now into the future, sort of like sharks and insects have been the same for roughly 200 million years, so any further evolution for us would have to be cultural).

John Locke said the human infant was a tabula rasa, i.e., a blank slate, upon which experience writes its tale. Today we understand much more about what the child brings to the table and that there is no ontogenetic blank slate. But this idea covers only a very short time scale of one life. Monod from his scientific perspective seems to endorse John Locke’s tabula rasa, i.e., blank slate, but says the blank slate has been written on by the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” So our capabilities flow from incipient life some 3.5 billion years ago. Yeah, it was a blank slate then, but much has been written on it since and much has been edited, erased and replaced.

As I discussed in the previous post on Monod’s book, our evolutionary experience has led to two cultural facets from which mythic values seem to arise. One is an inborn fear of solitude; we are social animals and do not do well in isolation. Our contemplation of the cosmos along with our knowledge gleaned so arduously through empirical efforts indicates that our place in the universe is indeed lonely; we are warm-blooded strangers in a cold place, each conscious of our irrevocable solitude within our own MEMBRAIN, and constantly filling our mental void with all kinds of energies. The other facet derives from the first; we have, Monod says, a “need for a complete binding explanation” of our existence, and that includes the gaps before birth and after death. How have we come here now to stand on the beach of the ocean of experience? Both of these facets are inherent in life as it has developed on earth; they are inherent in Gaia’s character, i.e., they follow from life holding forth through negentropy amidst a universe flattening out in entropy. Each soma operates to replicate the passage of genes while mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance opportunities until its lapse into the final entropy of death.   This view of life is consistent with Susanne Langer’s idea that human consciousness arrived with the understanding that our life is one act that begins and ends and that within that frame each of us lives alone. Also consider Camus’s Absurd and the myth of Sisyphus and most especially Chris Hitchens’ proposal to separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see post 4/13/17).

It is as I have pondered Monod’s Chance and Necessity and sought its relations to other readings, e.g., Langer, Dawkins, James, Whitman, Hawking, etc., that I have developed a frail metaphysical myth to support this ethical epistemology, keeping consistent with my basic approach to the biological roots of our humanity and moving forward through a dialectic between positivism and mysticism (see posts beginning 11/15/15). To be clear, I believe any truth of which we are capable of apprehending is a gem with many facets, some more transparent and therefore practical or at least knowable than others; the goal is to see the gem whole even given our limited access to various facets. The metaphysical and epistemological answers to the questions of solitude and significance that used to be answered by animist myth with reference to the supernatural (and these serve us well for some purposes still, like artistic imagery or, as indicated, anthropology) are now superceded by positivist myths with reference to the natural world (and these can serve us better if we develop and use an ethics of knowledge to organize our culture and civilization). So to give an abstract rendition of a positivistic genesis myth:

  • Consider the big bang, or any theorized notion of this cosmic course through time, e.g., expansion and contraction, parallel universes, multiple dimensions beyond 4, etc.
  • These refer to the void beyond our comprehension and how the universe developed in ways we can comprehend.
  • A void filled by energy that illumines no forms =>
  • Higgs field appears whereby energetic matter gains mass (see delightful illustration at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/10/08/science/the-higgs-boson.html.)
  • Matter and mass, though we apprehend them through our senses on some macro level, actually operate on a micro level through quantum waves of probability =>
  • These waves swell, subside, interfere +/-, and break into present reality: this is the first level of chance and necessity, i.e., quantum probability reduces to a certainty, e.g., Schrodinger’s cat is either dead or alive but not both because that wave has crested and broken on the shore
  • Matter with mass coalesces and clumps even as the incipient energies undergo entropic dispersal
  • The clumps accrue in the spacetime continuum =>
  • Gravity is a manifestation we can discern of this negentropic building process, i.e., against or resisting entropy; the spacetime curves according to this history of amalgamation
  • Gravity assembles cosmic structures that become elemental forges, e.g., stars burn and synthesize heavier elements: this is a next level of chance and necessity in that cosmic structures, e.g., gas clouds, galaxies, stars, planets appear by chance and then follow a time line ruled by necessity
  • The next level still of chance and necessity is when some combination of the products of these elemental forges coalesce through a gravitational eddy to generate life, e.g., planet Earth becomes Gaia.
  • Once begun life evolves according to chance and necessity.

This would be our genesis story if it were constructed as an anthropomorphic narrative; it is more detailed than animist origin myths because it is empirical and dynamic; the big difference is, of course, that this genesis details a cold, mechanical, and valueless universe from which life evolves with its own sociobiological values. Religious people may find that a problem but those who pursue an ethics of knowledge do not, because we realize that any and all value appears through and from life. Consider these incipient values I find apparent in Gaia’s biosphere:

  • Of course the first value, though perhaps one of the last to be understood, is to understand the world through realistic means and action.
  • Life’s projection into the future through replication, e.g., procreation is good for many reasons
  • Generational replication via somas is quite conservative by necessity and its sensitivity to chance events allows evolution to proceed in two ways:
  • One, variant genes must fit coherently into the whole genome or they will not continue
  • Two, having done so these variants become invariant and must pass muster through environmental interaction by demonstrating the same or increased adaptability
  • Each and every soma operates to minimize exigencies and to exploit chance
  • Their capability to do so speaks to their evolutionary potential.
  • Somas with brains do better than those without, somas with strong social relationships, i.e., have MEMBRAINS, do the best.
  • All life is interconnected
  • All life is local and Gaia is the location; each soma participates in the ecological balance
  • We must respect Gaia, understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that our actions even if performed authentically with sound knowledge and conscious values have many intended and unintended consequences.
  • Our ignorance is greater than our knowledge, e.g., standard theory of physics about 10% of the universe and the rest dark
  • Finally, while we accrue our knowledge through scientific means, both empirical and theoretical, our values continually emerge from the ancestral history of our species. I hope to expound upon this more in later drafts.

With this first axiom of procreation (replication) and its two corollaries of mitigating exigencies and exploiting chance, our frail metaphysic grows strong enough to support a new domain of values instigated and developed through evolution with conspecific relationships. With our heightened empathy and symbolization, we become conscious of greater questions, that of our solitude and of our significance, that can find only partial answers through our ethics of knowledge and development of values.

We have no way of comprehending this richness of life on Gaia. We may work on constructing our ethics of knowledge based on a positivistic genesis myth for our metaphysics, which can lead to a knowledge of ethics and a better understanding of our values. That effort, for me, resolves to a dialectic between my biological mysticism and my intellectual pursuit of knowledge. If you have read all of this, I again thank you. Linger here if you like watching the ocean waters wave and glisten upon your shore or travel on the Way.