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.

time to update timeline

A story on science news.com gives an accessible account of an article published in Science about a genetic study from the genome recovered from a boy who lived in southern Africa 2000 years ago:  https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-boys-dna-pushes-back-date-earliest-humans.  The methodology here is way beyond my ken but it involves comparing this genome to others recovered all around Africa and Eurasia from different time periods and figuring out rates of genetic change that would account for its composition some 2000 years ago.  The scientists concluded that the essential genome for us, Homo sapiens, coalesced around 350,000 years ago; that is a 100,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Putting some of the reports together, it seems that humans in Africa long ago traveled the  length and breadth of the continent and intermarried for many thousands of years ago before modern humans migrated to Europe, maybe influenced by climate changes..  My 6/19/17 post was about a Moroccan fossil that also put Homo sapiens origin around 300,000 years ago.  For reference DNA studies indicate that Neandertals and Denisovans (our kinfolk in Europe and the Russian steppe;  homo sapiens did not arrive in Europe until around 30,000 years ago) split around 640,000 years ago.

Adding to a post from some time back check out these dates listed as years ago:

3 million—gene appears promoting brain enlargement

2 to 2.8 million—tools that were worked and shaped

1.8 million—fire and cooking (homo erectus)

before 640,000-Neandertal and Denisovan genomes took shape

500,000–phonological study’s estimate of origins of modern language

350,000-Homo sapiens genome took shape

130,000-eagle claw necklace from southern Africa

40,000 to 100,000—burials

45,000—paintings, good painting they are too

43,000—bone flutes

40,000—dogs domesticated

40,000—modern humans arrive in Europe


9,000—dog burials (just found that one)

6,000—glyphs and a new learning curve

500–modern science took hold

And so we travel on.

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


WP on art and the brain

So we have a wonderful audiovisual piece on art and the brain from the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/lifestyle/your-brain-on-art/ . I think it gives a good accounting of how our brains do art, though of course I have some quibbles. This work gets right its emphasis that art connects us to something larger, that it uses the mirror system, that narrative is important, that key elements serve to evoke emotions and that when those elements are congruous, the emotions are evoked more strongly, and that art serves a shared consciousness.

They understand that empathy is an important component to this process. We mirror emotions just like we mirror the ballet dancer’s movements and the quality of those movements convey different emotions. Though cited without any explanation or hint as to its complexity, metaphor is deemed critical to art. They understand that we feel more strongly (by some measure—I could carry on about this a bit but not now) with tragedy. They even speak about how a “performer’s separate motions [are] one psychologically rich phrase”, which is a dim echo of Langer’s discussion of art and rhythm. Perhaps the strongest message here is that while art is “the domain of the heart” science can and should help us understand the phenomena. And I would add that understanding only increases appreciation.

Being quite prejudiced, I noticed several instances where acquaintance with Susanne Langer’s philosophy would have clarified and emboldened their explication. In a silly pique I took exception to the phrase “wordless language of symbols” when Langer gives us plenty of conceptual support to talk about presentational symbols apart from discursive linguistic ones and I think the difference is important, as you know if you have followed this blog much at all. Likewise Langer talked about artistic import (vs. linguistic meaning) emphasizing the rhythmicity of the artistic gestalt and its elements, the interplay among different artistic forms, e.g., why happy dance and sad music might not kindle the same strong emotion as sad dance and music would but then art is not about purity of emotion, is it? Perhaps most importantly she emphasized the unity of the artistic piece and the rendering of personal experience into a vital experiential gestalt; the artistic form regardless of the medium must be unified, coherent and luminous. Oh, how I wish we would understand how our scientific understanding of the roots of our humanity is traveling towards what Langer has already elucidated; progress would be surer if we followed her guidance.

One more quibble, and please remember that I do appreciate this report more than almost any other I have seen for a long time, is that this story brings forth the notion of ‘neuroaesthetics’. Yes, neuro stuff is all the new sexy rage, but I am old school, really old school and a bit cranky at that, and so make two points. One is that ours is an embodied mind, as in my basic concept here on this blog of soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN, and so art, as a symbol of vital experience, is also embodied in its operations. Sure, our brain and MEMBRAIN are mighty conductors of communal experience but that experience is lived in the soma, i.e., the body. Watch dance, ballet, modern, flamingo or otherwise without body awareness and you will have missed the point.  Parsing the soma out of art is just another example of cognitive distortion towards the discursive and rational excluding emotion and irrationality.  This brings me to my second point which is that we never should have segregated aesthetics from its biological role in the first place; then we would never have the need to for it to be neuro because of course it is—it is biological. So, just ‘aesthetics’ will do nicely, thank you very much, because I understand the biological context of human culture and its roots in empathy and symbolization. Travel on (and look at the Post piece).

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.

Thanks, Cassini, for the data

and thanks to your team who worked so assiduously and intelligently for this most successful mission.

On September 15, 2017 our Cassini spacecraft with its energy almost out will crash into Saturn, sending data back until the very end. Here is a link to an EarthSky post that gives a good timeline for the event: http://earthsky.org/space/cassinis-saturn-plunge-september15-mission-milestone.  Here is composite photo from Cassini images.


Saturn from Cassini

More than a decade in design and construction, Cassini launched in 1997 and traveled millions of miles flying by Venus and Jupiter on the way, indeed using Jupiter’s gravity to sling around and pick up speed, before arriving at Saturn in 2004. In December 2004 Cassini released a probe, name of Huygens, that landed on the moon, Titan. Huygens sent back data to Cassini that relayed it back to earth. Since that time Cassini has been assaying Saturnian phenomena and now its nuclear fuel is running out so the last data will be collected on a suicide mission. Over 13 years of data gathering! That is truly remarkable ingenuity. Consider one more detail. Huygens landed on Titan within a kilometer of its planned site 1.2 billion kilometers away from Earth after a 7 year trip. Some people with excellent math skills worked together very hard to accomplish something incredible.


Surface of Titan photographed by Huygen probe

An astounding number of beautiful photographs have been sent back and enough data, I am sure, to keep scientists busy for awhile. I try to imagine how the Cassini team feels as their long term endeavor comes to an end, a remarkably successful project that shows the power of math, engineering and science, not to mention human cooperation. I don’t think ‘bittersweet’ would be the apt term but I am sure they will miss the work of tending their craft way out in space even as they celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of their mission. I hope NASA televises the control room on 9/15—I will watch in the early morn if they do.  Here is a photo Cassini took this year of our home planet.


Bright dots are Gaia and moon photographed by Cassini from just below and behind Saturn and its rings. Beautiful photo and beautiful work to take it.