Humans do wander and seek

Our ancestors wandered far and wide, seeking something new, and these migrations had consequences for our genetic pools.  I have seen several reports of an archeological find in China (  Check out the cliff the archeologists had to scale for this research) of tools estimated to be around 2 million years old.  This means that one of our ancestral lines left Africa much earlier than previously thought and traveled 8,000 miles east.  These are categorized as hominins, precursors to genus Homo, but still bipedal with a brain beginning to enlarge.  Paleoanthropologists have found fossils in China of Homo erectus that are 1.6 million years old.  Fossils of hominins in Africa date back to over 6 million years ago.

Repeated migrations over the aeons carried different genes to different populations.  Consider the gene for lighter skin colors that spread in northern populations or the genes enabling lactose digestion that appeared in Europe that spread in a variegated manner.  My favorite is a gene first identified in the Denisovans from central Russa that some migration carried to Himalayan populations; this gene helps form the special type of hemoglobin that enables better adaptation to life at high altitudes (see post 7/4/14). I have wondered if some of the peoples that escaped to live in the high Andes also had such a gene.  I say ‘escaped’ because of a find of a small site from ancient times in the Andes where life would not have been easy because game and edible plants were sparse. (See post 10/27/14) Why live there?  The best hypothesis would seem to be escape from another tribe whose aggression was unbounded.  Anyway, our ancestors clearly wandered the land over many generations seeking opportunities and avoiding negative exigencies.

I have been reading some research by Shinobu Kitayama and colleagues that is quite interesting about the cultural differences between Asian and American peoples. These seem to be fairly well established by multiple lines of research with different samples and different methodologies.  In brief people from Asian cultures see themselves and the world as more interdependent (Americans see it as more independent), focus more on context than on a lone figure, define the self in relation to social relatedness rather than individual achievement, seek to accommodate rather than to be an agent of social change, de-emphasize individual achievements by focusing on their own faults and attributing success to social connections, think holistically rather than linearly, etc.  Looking at this list you can see that Americans are quite different culturally, thinking linearly, highlighting personal achievement, valuing competition and social friction a bit more, etc.  Just to speculate a bit more based on some lectures on Eastern intellectual traditions by Grant Hardy, the Western endorsement of desert monotheism and the Eastern endorsement of ancestor worship along with values of social order and justice that are accompanied by a flexible notion of deity would seem to reflect our different cultural ways of thinking evident 2-3000 years ago.  Dr. Hardy says Christian efforts to convert China failed when the Pope and the Dominicans condemned ancestor worship as idolatry.  That turned out to be an unacceptable violation of cultural mores and did not fit with the Asian understanding of what a deity is, so they rejected missionary efforts (and then the British gunboats showed up).

Kitayama and colleagues have begun to study how acculturation leads to changes in the brain, so that different cultures lead to different brain organization, thus the cognitive differences noted above.  These differences arise from genetics to developmental epigenetics and acculturation experiences early on life.  This makes perfect sense.  The question arises for me of how migrations have contributed to these differences and how once the differences were initiated the differences became self-sustaining.  Many peoples have revered their ancestors; the Chinese have maintained that even in the face of Christian zealousness.  Certainly part of the answer here is the lack of intermarriage and the protection of the gene pool through isolation.

Consider one final example cited by Kitayama.  Some significant percentage of Americans has a gene allele that promotes increased impulsivity and risk taking; this may contribute to a higher incidence of ADHD (as well as substance abuse, etc.?).  This allele is virtually unknown in the Chinese population. Should there be more intermarriage, that might change.  Why do we have that allele, or how did our migration pattern contribute to its presence? That brings to mind an old joke told at psychology conferences years ago.  A prominent ADHD researcher, in the effort to make fun of the image of Californians, speculated thusly:  The Europeans who populated North America were rebellious, impulsive risk takers—who else would sail across the Atlantic in small ships on a perilous voyage?  And then from that population the even bigger risk-takers, impulsive people migrated west, so that Californians represented a genetic ‘distillation’, as it were, of impulsivity.  Ha-ha.

Jaak Panksepp in Affective Neurosciencedocuments quite clearly how our mammalian heritage includes a proclivity for exploring in our neural systems for seeking and anticipating.  Like a good many traits we have accentuated I think humans have a rarefied impulse to go beyond; this involves some risk but the species that spread across the globe and then went to the moon can manage a good deal of risk. Humans do wander and seek.  We intermarry and that contributes to the flow between gene pools.  We don’t intermarry and otherwise conserve our cultural heritage.  Asians are indeed different than Westerners.  As a member of the latter group, I think we could learn a thing or two from the former, e.g., mindfulness, the greater value of interdependence, the importance of contextualized thinking, etc.  But for now I will travel on.


My creed: the fruit of our biological roots

Today, July 15, 2018, we humans have come just so far in our understanding of ourselves and our world, and I think this fact deserves an updated spiritual creed.  I offer this:

My Spiritual Creed

I keep a simple faith.

I believe in the presence of spirit.

I follow an ethic of knowledge.

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.

I refer you to the past 3 posts for an exegesis of these sentences.  And now we resume our regular, irregularly scheduled secular programming.  Travel on.

Creed part 3

Continuing from last post, the last statement.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.  

         I came to this final statement recently as I worked on finishing my book (now begins the tedium of preparing for publication), but I know that I have sought something like this since mid-adolescence in some inchoate incipient manner.  This developed into a steady intellectual curiosity in college when I read Cassirer and Langer, so that in both bouts of graduate school and out in the professional world I have always listened, read and learned with this in mind.  I came to this idea once I had retired from my day jobs of serving children and families through teaching, speech and language therapy and clinical psychology; now farming infuses my philosophy, and though I have less time and energy during the growing seasons for reading and writing than I might like, winter is a joyful scholarly season, a special time for seeking the deep aesthetic.

Regular readers know I lean on Aquinas via James Joyce for the basic formula:  a beautiful form has integrity of wholeness, coherence of its elements, and luminosity of . . . .  Well, that is the critical question, I think: what is this luminosity?  Aquinas thought it supernatural and sourced from god.  Ho-hum.  Joyce, I think, struggled to go much beyond his Jesuit education and orthodoxy, but he still managed to focus on what the artist instills in his work, what the audience manages to find there, and the fine, sublime beauty of true and deep art that creates a stasis, i.e., a moment of epiphany and insight, as opposed to an emotionally evocative dynamism such as propaganda or pornography involve. The old humbug, Harold Bloom, in one of his last books, The Daemon Knows:  Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, refers to beauty, i.e., luminosity, as the sublime, an expression of the artist’s daemon, which from my perspective begs the question.

Art comes in two forms.  The first is what Ellen Dissayanke calls ‘making special’—the artist creates an artifact or decoration that is an expression by the self of the self.  This art form is akin to a bird’s plumage or song or dance in that it serves as an individual expression of some unique facet of identity.  The second is more akin to what Joyce and more rigorously Langer conceived of as art—the artist creates an art form that is an expression by the self of the self’s experience.  It expresses some import not about the artistic individual but about that individual’s vital experience.  This is Langer’s idea of a presentational symbol that renders the artistic import intuitively through the self’s vision and voice; it is a complex form composed from otherwise meaningless elements into a coherent and unified form that carries its import to its audience, i.e., it shines with its aesthetic luminosity.

Both of these art forms are a manifestation of the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind as are, indeed, many of the other dynamic aspects we find as we seek to understand what is happening here on Gaia.  Monod gives a careful and detailed exposition of how gene regulation and protein synthesis is carried out through chains of biochemical reactions dependent solely upon thefitbetween the shape of one stereospecific molecule complex and its substrate; if the molecule fits, an energetic reaction carries forward the vital processes, i.e., it shines.  If it does not fit, the molecules lie inert and the process is stymied.  This sort of operational feature operates in genetic replication, e.g., the double helix unzips and only reconstitutes through fitting specific amino acids into the proper place and sequence, as well in the molecular chemistry involved in the cellular machinery.  While we may not think of this as an aesthetic, Monod was quite sensitive to the beauty of these operations, and as cited above, understood that the marvelous complexity, integrity, and endurance of life in this regard fully justified his assertion that this is the true nature of spirit’s presence within us.

So I argue here that one prime property of life that emerges at different levels of biological organization is this special fitness, i.e., an aesthetic, of components interacting in an energetic chain that once engaged, pressures life forward; once this property stops its operation at this basic level, life stops. Further, the reason I now include my seeking to understand this in my creed is that this pressure forward of vitality engenders and guides our sense of future experience.  It is how we feel the immanent future and its possibilities. Some examples come to mind.

Consider first listening to music, the art genre Langer says renders its import in a virtual form of complex and many layered time.  When we listen we form expectations about what notes may come next.  This is especially true when we are familiar with the music but also when the music is novel.  Some notes feel right while others feel wrong, this according to some fitness standards that are culturally shaped to some degree.  Stravinsky’s Rites of Springviolated those expectations and energetic riots ensued, but a new aesthetic was engendered.  Some modern music seems atonal or in some way not musical to old fashioned tastes and it is hard to feel the flow forward.  When the composer is working on a piece, what has come before gives him or her a feel for what could and should come next. Again, some notes feel right, others don’t, and so the composition continues until the composer feels it should end, i.e., the form is complete.  And some endings also violate expectations.  A similar example is language and syntax.  Discursive forms are different than presentational ones but still what comes before determines what can come next and fit into the syntactic frame or structure.

I understand that the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind operates, then, on multiple levels in our experiential passage through time and that is what I seek in reflection and meditation.  Indeed, it engenders our sense of some future possibility as it comes to fruition in the present moment.  I think our sentience and consciousness follows along this operation, or better, along this path or way, like when our hippocampus processes what is old and what is new information or we form expectations for what will happen next. Our intellect is filled with such things going on mentally.  In this respect, then, life and mind are like water running downhill—downward in the stream of time where the past determines where we run next, i.e., what is ‘downhill’ in a negentropic energetic sense.  Our deep aesthetic, then, is seen in our vital and mental sense of life’s ‘gravity’; each life draws a next experience as its past experience warps what can come next in a fitting way.  Monod says each life abides by the law of entropy even while seeming to break it like Maxwell’s Demon.  Each life is a negentropic energy pool downhill from the rest of the universe. Like Maxwell’s Demon that mysteriously decreases entropy and increases information (negentropy), each of Dawkins’ replicators, as he conceptualized them in his book, The Selfish Gene, is also a daemon of this sort that, like art, operates to contravene the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics for its lifespan.  That is the source of the deep aesthetic I seek.

Much more could be said, but I will keep it this simple right now and travel on to the next post simply stating this creed.

Part 2: Creed

Continuing from last post:

I follow an ethic of knowledge.

         Jacques Monod followed his scientific quest for understanding life and ourselves with enough rigor to see that science offers virtually no guidance as to values because its prime assumption of objectivity sees what is statistically possible, i.e., chance, and what any statistical result entails as then necessary. In other words in its objectivist stance so necessary for and inherent in scientifically based knowledge, science provides no ethical mandates except one and that is to study and understand, i.e., an ethic of knowledge.  This prime directive seems and is quite straightforward:  establish empirically validated factual knowledge, develop theories with enough coherence to ‘explain’ those facts, and ascertain the limits such facts and theories meet as we extend them in practice.  William James in his wonderful book, The Varieties of Religious Experience,followed such an ethic of knowledge.  He sought to understand the human religious experience up until the point of death, admitting that the mystery of what happens thereafter must endure somewhere beyond the realm of objective knowledge. Like Iris Dement in her simple and delightful song, “Let the Mystery Be”.

Another example of such a limit is our effort to understand ‘evil’.  Simon Baron-Cohen addresses this in his book, The Science of Evil,as he seeks to understand the origins of cruelty not as a spiritual failure but as a failure of our biological nature as empathic, altruistic social creatures.  One example he uses is Hitler and Nazi Germany, which certainly qualifies as evil, and one can say so deeply so that we can justifiably say some spiritual animus took over some humans back then, and continues to do so today.  But Dr. Baron-Cohen rejects the notion of spiritual evil as an explanatory construct and instead looks at how a scientific effort could lead to a deeper understanding and perhaps better efforts to contravene the rise to power of such an animus.  (Oops, it seems to be rising again in this country and in Europe). The phenomenon of Hitler’s Nazi movement might have seen itself as mystic in origin but in the prosaic light of day, Baron-Cohen has much to say about how such cruelty developed.  In this he echoed many who lived through those times, including Jacques Monod and Albert Camus.

Back in the recent USA some have called the individuals who perpetrate mass shootings ‘evil’.  The young men who killed worshippers at the Charleston Church and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not rise from the spiritual realm to murder. When I worked as a clinical psychologist, I saw many young men who could have become such murderers and I came to understand some of the genetics, family circumstances, idiosyncratic events that influenced their development one way or the other, the cultural streams that they followed as enabling, and the failures of different social systems that then failed to help them and protect others.  The resurgence of public demonstrations of racist ideology, e.g., Nazis and fascists, their visibility a measure of the validation they feel coming from our President and others, and the rise in hate crimes of all sorts are, again, quite evil, but we can and should study and understand how this is happening.  Our congress failed to follow an ethic of knowledge when it denied funding a few years back to any scientific endeavor to study empirically (you know, like gathering data and analyzing for deeper understanding) gun violence.  Evidently some thought that studying such ‘evil’ would violate 2ndamendment rights (and cut into gun manufacturers’ profits and so reduce funding for the NRA).  So I follow an ethic of knowledge and work to understand the complexities of modern life.

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I take this from Monod as well.  Yes, science may only give us one ethical rule to follow, but it covers most domains. Values and ethical mandates that humans have attributed to god(s) are here understood to be sociobiological phenomena arising from our evolution.  Several other thinkers are relevant here.  First, the existentialists and their partner in the absurd, Albert Camus, assign the responsibility for our values and actions back on us.  Yes, many claim to follow some religious precepts here and there, but these in our current analysis are man-made.  Yes, their origins may be lost in the mists of time; all these precepts are ancient and our biological roots run deep and back aways. Our sociobiological evolution sets up historical trends and traditions from which we can escape only through an ethic of knowledge and the consequence knowledge of ethics.

Second, Michael Tomasello has written an eminently plain-spoken and sensible book on this issue, The Natural History of Human Morality, in which he examines our sociobiological heritage to understand our evolutionarily inherent proclivities, e.g., we are cooperative, empathic and follow the Golden Rule, as these operate under the cultural overlay that all too often institutionalizes tribal good us vs. bad them, inequitable resource allocation, and social governance favoring a few elite, be they inheritors of special status, wealth and power or those who usurp democratic ideals through religious demagoguery and/or secular power and aggression.  Tomasello follows an ethic of knowledge that helps us with a knowledge of ethics.  So does Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21stCentury, a marvelous compendium of data keenly analyzed that demonstrates how wealth has been socially ordained to be inequitably distributed in modern societies.

Finally I want to mention Jonathan Haidt who examined our political differences in his book, The Righteous Mind.  Following the understanding developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky about the severe and nearly invisible limits of our rational considerations, Dr. Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and its rider, the rider being our conscious processing and the elephant the enormous sub-conscious processing of which we have little to no consciousness.  He quite correctly, I think, says that we form most of our political (and other ones as well) opinions subliminally, automatically and without much conscious reflection, i.e., the elephant, and then we rationalize the basis for those opinions after the fact, i.e., the rider.  Here the elephant goes where it wants to go and the rider explains how he was in charge the whole time.

We have so much science and medicine these days that supports such a view of our mighty intellect as an oftentimes foolish facade.  In addition to the understanding given us by Kahneman and Tversky of how we use errant heuristics, we also have mental phenomena documented by scientist-practitioners like the great late Oliver Sacks.  Yes, there was a man who calmly and rationally thought his wife was a hat, and there are people who argue that their paralyzed arm belongs to the doctor or who argue that a healthy limb needs to be amputated and split-brain patients who try to smoke a cigarette with their right hand while their left hand smacks it away and they talk on rationally while ignoring what is happening.  These examples are akin to the passionate conspiracy theories all too many find ‘rational’.

Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow,posits a System 1 (fast) very prone to error and System 2 (slow) where errors are monitored, corrected, and a rational accurate process can ensue.  Jonathan Haidt thinks something like that operates in our political thinking and discourse.  This brings me back to this precept,

I grow with a knowledge of ethics.

This not so much about knowing more stuff as about understanding how to interact with people more respectfully and compassionately while deliberating conjoint actions to solve social dilemmas.  I have found this to be a life-long lesson.  More recently I have focused on acknowledging others’ narratives, e.g., racial, gender, religious, etc.  more clearly and leaving myself and my preconceptions out of it.

One of my interests in understanding our humanity is how we can differ so much in our understanding.  I am thinking here of our political divisions but also, and perhaps more importantly, about our self-righteous prejudices, fanaticisms and conspiracy theories. Mexicans are good people.  Females deserve equal and full rights.  Human mutilation and torture cannot be justified. Violence in the name of god serves only the dark side of human intelligence.  How can ‘rational’ humans think otherwise?  How can people forsake their reality orientation and empathy in order to be as ignorant as they want to be and mistreat others to gain selfish advantage? More to the point, what is my ethical guidance for treating with them? Other than setting a contrasting limit, I don’t yet know.  I watch my wife and marvel at her ability to engage another in terms of their narrative even as she respectfully disagrees with them.  I am not there yet, but I do know I will not abandon my ethic of knowledge and I want to grow in my knowledge of ethics.  That said, I have one more precept coming up in the next post.


Part 1: an old man finds his creed finally

Many years ago my then wife announced apropos of nothing at dinner with my parents that I was an atheist.  I was the most surprised person at the table because I had never applied that label to myself, always holding that to define beliefs by what you didn’t believe was a bit spurious.  I was reluctant to use agnostic even though that came closer to reality because I thought, again, it said nothing of what I did believe and expressing my ignorance seemed obviously redundant.  My parents were not surprised, having known I had ‘left’ the church a long time before but they did take this occasion to debate whether my baptism at age 9 would still get me into heaven.  Their answer seemed to be no, I was condemned to hell.  They did not think to ask what I did believe, which was just as well because my beliefs at that point were still entirely inchoate.

Over the intervening years I have pondered and developed some sort of belief that I might could hold.  My now wife Betty has helped with her rich humanity, my pursuit of poetry and art through Langer has helped with the conceptualization, and more recently I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  Better late than never, I now think I have developed a creed that renders my spiritual beliefs with some adequacy.  I call it my creed but actually it is only an incipient one because I think a creed by definition is shared by others.  Oh well, I never claimed to be orthodox about anything, so I will now go over my creed giving an exegesis line by line before writing it down as I recite it in my daily meditation.

I keep a simple faith.

I have always believed in KISS: keep it simple, stupid.  This derives in part from an agnostic tendency, i.e., the thought that in the last analysis we do not know anything about what lies in the mystic beyond, as I have come to term the domain we apprehend of (or make up the sense of) what used to be termed supernatural, because, as should be clear to regular readers, I hold everything in every domain to be natural.  This also comes from my reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, one of the earliest and still one of the highest expressions of mysticism.  Consider the 14thchapter:

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.

Never, oh, never,

Can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

To unbeing.

Call it the form of the unformed,

The image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

We can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

We hold the thread of the Tao.

What lies beyond our ken is important (we should appreciate our ignorance more fully); it is ancient, enduring, and except for this book of Lao Tzu’s, nearly impossible to characterize through our intellect. When I keep a simple faith, I admit my ignorance of greater things while acknowledging my sense of something beyond and so maintain a boundary to my knowledge, to what I really know.  As Lao Tzu says in #71:

To know without knowing is best.

Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness

Is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.

They are sick of sickness,

So they are well.

I, too, at least, am sick of sickness.  And, as I see it, even thinking about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, much less debating or fighting over it, is stupid (and sick), and as I said in my last post, I avoid the land of Stupid as best I can.

I believe in the presence of spirit.

I have long had some apprehension of the mystical beyond; beginning in my boyhood, expanding in my late teens and early 20s, and steadying in its course as I studied symbolization and aesthetics (thank you, Susanne Langer), I sensed the presence of spirit.  My wife Betty helped me to see this gift whole, a necessity for filling in the blanks. I think of spirit (not to get too complicated here, remember, KISS) in various guises: the Tao (the Way) of course, but also, following Einstein, who said he believed in god if it was Spinoza’s god.  Spinoza in the 16thcentury developed a remarkable understanding of the universe as a lawful, regular and integrated entity; in its processes lie the sweep of fate.  Good thing he kept this under wraps because the religious authorities at the time claimed to know how many angels danced on that pinhead and burnt people alive for disagreeing with them.  I also think of spirit in a somewhat animistic sense (still keeping it all natural) in what Amerindians referred to as mother earth, not our property to do with as we please but to carry out our responsibility as stewards; of course I now think of this as Gaia, the planet earth infused with life glowing blue and green in our region of the cosmos.

With my re-reading of Monod, however, I came to a more definitive understanding of spirit.  A famous Catholic of his day, Francois Mauriac, said of Monod’s definition of spirit that it “is far more incredible than what we Christians believe”.   This is what is so incredible:  Monod considered that we have a duality within us, a physical body and brain that operates mechanically according to physical laws and a mental consciousness seemingly(I echo Monod by saying ‘supposedly’) independent of such mechanics.  His and others’ objective analysis shows this to be an illusion,

“But it is so well within, so deeply rooted in our being, that nothing could be vainer than to hope to dissipate it in the immediate awareness of our subjectivity, or to learn to live emotionally or morally without it.  And besides, why should we have to?  What doubt can there be of the presence of spirit within us?  To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

So yes, I believe in the presence of spirit and must acknowledge that this spirit as conceived as Monod did is so incredible that ‘belief’ is a more appropriate word than ‘know’.

I wrote these first two precepts of my creed to use in a poem (I might post it someday soon) around 1995.  The next two I developed from reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity, but travel on for awhile before the next post.

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.


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 ( 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.