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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

a cultural tidbit

I have been thinking of culture again for some reason probably having to do with reading about neuroanthropology and their emphasis on how our brains do culture, and thinking more about Bourdieu’s habitus as the cultural way of doing things and how that does not seem to capture the knowledge structures that also contribute to culture, e.g., our values.  Along with this I continue to ponder with reverence Monod’s analysis of religion, science and values and his exhortation that an ethic of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics.  And being a modern American I frequently worry about the media term, ‘culture wars’, as I resist the notion that people with conflicting values necessarily must clash and war over them and search for other metaphors to capture this phenomena.

I recently read a Vanity Fair article about Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, who advocates for acculturation as a way of assimilating the dispossessed, including immigrants, into mainstream society.  That is an interesting contrast with some in this country (and others) who assume that others must adopt on the own and immediately the general culture and its values to some specific degree or else be rejected as outsiders and alien.  Macron wants to help those who do not already participate in the majority’s cultural tradition to appreciate what he considers to be a friendly French culture and to incorporate new aspects from the cultures these ‘others’ bring with them. Sounds so very civilized, even normal, including the criticism that Macron is focusing on the cultural facet enjoyed by the more highly educated, even Parisian as some gasp, and that his effort to assimilate some cultural bits from others amounts to appropriation by the dominant majority (elite).  While I still think his effort to be inclusive is laudable, this notion of ‘high’ culture is what stimulated Dorothy Parker to pun, “You can lead a horticulture [whore to culture] but you can’t make her think”.  I think my country is now demonstrating that being an advanced nation with great material culture, even an educational system once held in high esteem, is no guarantee of intelligence, especially of a critical sort.

I also think that this notion of culture is like icing on a cake, lovely icing sometimes, not too sweet, but it is the cake underneath that is the basis of culture. This is why Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus is so apt, i.e., the habitual way a cultural group does things.  This applies to such things as eye contact, e.g., what is respectful between children and adults or younger adults with their elders, physical distance when conversing, e.g., Americans stand a couple of feet way, many Europeans move closer, emotional expression, e.g., boys don’t cry, some Asian societies maintain impassive expressions, how children are disciplined, etc, etc., etc.  Bourdieu did much cultural research into how marriages are arranged and determined to be good for both families in some Arab societies.  Look at how different cultures manage what are acceptable roles for females or the role of fighting between young males or more generally what is respectable or orthodox.

I read in The Encultured Brain, a primer for neuroanthropology, that some less modern cultures regard knowledge of healing practices as secret and that if shared outside the healer-patient relationship, the knowledge becomes useless, i.e., the practice consisting of magical chants will not be effective. Contrast this with western medicine where healing knowledge is publicly disbursed and evaluated so it may be made more effective.

Then I also read there:  “Long term neurological and perceptual adaptation to the tasks we set ourselves is a form of enculturation”.  In a chapter about how equilibrium varies among cultures Greg Downey focuses on his training in capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts, where it seems you spend some time upside down or sideways and must keep you eyes on your opponent, thus you cannot use vision to maintain balance but must train your body to rely on body awareness and vestibular feedback.   Acknowledging that maintaining one’s equilibrium is not really a conscious task, i.e., the more you have to focus on balance, the less you can focus on otherwise, he maintains that equilibrium is a learned skill and that makes it a cultural one (I am not sure about that).  He cites research showing that toddlers just learning to walk use vision more to right themselves; older kids rely more on vestibular sensing; again this seems biological more than cultural.

He also mentions that many Japanese walk using more of a lower leg focus, e.g., knee to foot, while many Westerners organize their gait from their hips and so take longer strides.  I found this interesting for a couple of reasons.  I spent my teenage years in Japan and remember that many used a more shuffling sort of gait, i.e., short steps, coming down less severely on the heel, almost stepping flat-footed but not quite.  This was more prominent with elders and with women and I attributed this to the constraints of their clothing and their wooden sandals that have two vertical strips of wood underneath the flat bed rather than a raised heel, instep, etc. like our shoes do.  (These sandals seemed especially apt on rainy days.)  Any way, another cultural feature is that they never wear shoes in the house, only slippers.

Another reason is that with two joint replacements and a bit of age on me I find walking in the dark more difficult, harder to maintain my balance without visual input.  And our farm here in a high mountain valley has no level or even ground anywhere except garden patches, so I find that a knee to foot gait with shorter steps and less emphasis on heel-toe ala Japanese is quite adaptive to maintaining balance on this terrain.  Now here is my question:  What is the distinction among cultural phenomena, adaptive skills given age, terrain, etc., and training specific abilities to a higher level?

Culture is an amorphous concept with many levels, from the high culture historical identity, the arts, key values, and form of governance down to more basic levels in roles ascribed to females, males, etc., and body language and social mores.  A martial art such as capoeira is certainly cultural, so I guess the subsidiary training for proficiency is also cultural, but I also wonder if skill development should really be termed cultural.  Sure play and sports contribute to culture because they are social forms (mental, behavioral, cognitive) that are shared amongst members of the group. A kid on the playground practicing dribbling with either hand and between the legs or a farmhand working to pick faster with both hands while still handling the fruit carefully do not, to my thinking, share cultural forms as much as they concentrate on one’s individual ability.  True that ability is for cultural practice but that seems to me a social frame or role. Otherwise I think everything we do might be called cultural when I think everything we do is biological and culture should be reserved for the social constructs governing our participation in group interactions, i.e., habitus, or this is how we do things and how you perform some of those things is your own making special your performance.

Complicated issues here and I must say these are my first thoughts upon reading in The Encultured Brain.  One sign of a good book is what thoughts it provokes and I am enjoying reading it.  Think about this a little bit before traveling on.

no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.

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In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from Earthsky.org: http://earthsky.org/earth/whales-dolphins-live-human-like-lives. This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/science/chimpanzees-goodall.html. This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.

 

Grammatical feelings and cultural senses

I continue to work my way through Pierre Bourdieu’s Toward a Theory of Practice. Apart from the anthropology, including studies of an Arabic culture, with which I am not familiar, the dense conceptualizations he presents, and his tortured syntax, I would breeze through it, I am sure. His syntax is difficult because many sentences have many clauses embedded into the main proposition, these extra clauses reiterating previous statements to ensure, I guess, proper presentation of the complexity involved, and also enlarging upon the place of these ideas in the literature of his discipline and in a broader philosophical tradition. So, a read that demands patient energy to enjoy. With gardening season in the dog days, I have some of that some days sometimes. I keep on to understand as best I can his concept of the habitus, which is, as I have said earlier (see post 8/13/17), his take on culture, a hot topic in my mind these days.

One of his ancillary purposes here, though, is to remind us that our theories about human activity involve transforming that activity, necessarily washing out the particularities manifest in practice so as to have cleaner conceptualizations. Or as Yogi Berra said, to paraphrase, ‘In theory there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is’. Bourdieu uses examples in this regard from structural anthropology, e.g. Levi-Strauss, whom I did read long ago, say 1970, but he also mentions in this regard, linguistic theories. Now I come to known territory; old posts ride again.

Indeed, I posted about grammatical feelings on 10/12/14. (I will say that 2014 looks like it was a very good year for my blog; see post previous to this one as well as the 2014 post on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror neurons, and memes, a post that continues to get several hits a week—hey now!). Here is an excerpt on language: Now grammar, at its inception, derives from feelings of fitness ranging from very awkward and frozen to quite comfortable and fluent. Consider your feelings of laterality, e.g., handedness. Cross your arms, right over left then left over right. One will feel more comfortable than the other. You can repeat this with folded hands (which thumb is on top?), crossed legs, kicking a ball, swinging a bat or pulling a rake, using one eye to view through a telescope, etc. A grammarian or linguist says a sentence and then intuitively tests its fitness in a similar fashion [which is more comfortable or feels more fit?]. These feelings vary across languages and within languages by dialect and social class. We can get creative violating grammar as in Yoda-speak. These feelings of grammaticality are how we apprehend the rules governing the linear construction of words and sentences as we formulate our thoughts for communication. My old English teachers taught grammar prescriptively, helping me fit into an educated class no doubt, but linguistics uses grammar more as a descriptive tool to trace relationships among languages, the nature of embedding and recursion, historical shifts within and between languages, etc. We have been doing so for a long time. The earliest recorded grammars were by Sanskrit scholars in 6th-7th century BCE India.

My point here is to use grammatical feelings of fitness as a general analogy for how we sense what is true, what fits together better, even best, and that this is as good, as knowledgeable about truth as we can be. Science uses mathematics to test our intuitions and confirm facts objectively (consensus or probabilistically) but even here, scientists operating under different paradigms have different intuitions of fitness. Thomas Kuhn illustrated this in his writings on scientific revolutions. For many years, the mathematical differences in accuracy between the Ptolemaic solar system and the Copernican one were negligible, but the latter felt more fit and upon further study proved to be truer.   [Kuhn also said that a paradigmatic shift is not complete until the old generation dies away.] Last century physicist Paul Dirac is famous for a set of equations predicting previously unknown phenomena like the positron that were confirmed 20-30 years later, but he said at their initial formulation that they were “beautiful” and so he knew they were true. Even today some physicists challenge the standard model because some features do not feel right, and of course, our mathematical theorizing and ability to measure at increasingly smaller and larger scales has helped engender quantum physics, which leaves much of our intuition far behind. Extrapolating just a little from William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, religions (and gods) have changed over the course of human history to meet the changing demands of humans and our society—the new ones have a better fit than the old, e.g., a spoken prayer over a blood sacrifice for example (you do prefer the former, don’t you?).

Back to 2017. I will return to Bourdieu’s habitus after this bit from Jacques Monod from my post on 3/10/17: Fitness is not just a concept of evolutionary viability anymore. It would seem to be functional principle in life’s operations, from the replication and transcription of DNA and proteins described above as based on stereotaxic fit between molecules to the grammatical compositions we use for communication (and so much more). I am fascinated by aesthetic fitness, by how the elements of an artistic work fit together coherently to form an integrated whole that shines somehow with felt life. Great art, as I think Aquinas noted so long ago, works with unity, integrity and luminosity. Not so great art misses on one or more of these three dimensions. Bad art simply appeals to some shallow stereotypical emotional response. And somehow, like linguistic structures, aesthetic works result from a composite of neural processes working together in a fit manner.

So today in 2017 we have the idea that feelings of fitness are important to our minds and further, that these feelings are strongly influenced by and are derived from our acculturation, a rich biological phenomena. Bourdieu says the habitus is an acquired set of predispositions that enable us to solve new problems in socially prompted ways; the habitus, he says, helps set what is possible, impossible, probable and acceptable in our minds. Further, he sees the habitus as bodily, as postural, or a way of living in our culture prepared to adjust from our current stance. Eye contact may be respectful, disrespectful, or incidental according to your culture and the situation.

I am fond of the phrase “embodied mind”; Bourdieu uses the phrase “socially informed body” to mean that culture begins with the social transformation of body awareness. This is very similar to Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. We use body orientation to map reference to many concepts, e.g., truth and heaven up, lies and hell down, time progresses front to back as in what lies ahead and what is behind us now, and this list goes on quite a ways right-left, male-female, etc. And just like grammatical feelings or the stereotaxic fit between proteins, whether we operate from our socially informed body or our embodied mind, we sense what our culture tells us, so whether it feels right or wrong or on or off, we know the way of our culture by sensing the fitness. Bourdieu gives quite a list of these senses because human culture is so unbounded and diverse; he lists “ a sense of necessity and the sense of duty, the sense of reality and the sense of direction, the sense of balance and the sense of beauty, come sense and the sense of the sacred, tactical sense and the sense of responsibility, business sense and the sense of propriety, the sense of humour and the sense of the absurd, moral sense and the sense of practicality, and so.” Our ability to order the world through some sort of logic and categorization is based upon “what might be called the sense of limits and of the legitimate transgression of limits.”

This is quite a different perspective on culture than the one offered by memes as units of replication. In Bourdieu’s view culture is an internalized set of predispositions and just that as they guide our actions into culturally modeled channels. Some actions are distinctively cultural, e.g., ways of shaking hands or greeting with a kiss on both cheeks, etc., and some result in cultural products, e.g., art, laws, marriages, etc. Memes, here in this view then, are cultural artefacts, the detritus of cultural processes. Yes, they morph and evolve, but this only a reflection of the changing deep and surface structures of actual culture, the socially constructed and shared ways of thinking, feeling, and acting among the group, in much the same way language does. Reflect on the change in English terms, “named” and “yclept” that mean mostly the same thing, though naming has changed quite bit since Chaucer’s day as well, or on the difference in languages where some have nouns that are masculine or feminine.  Cultural changes are analogous to these.

I am beginning to think that ‘fitness’ is a basic feature of biological activity as I consider Monod’s stereotaxic fit between molecules that functions as the binary operations of life, thus reinforcing the idea that life is an information machine, and then evolution’s genetic change in which new genes must fit with the old ones and then must help increase adaptive fitness in order to replicate and spread, and onward to linguistic and cultural changes. Bourdieu also sees this idea as central. He says that the basic feature of all of our cultural senses is whether the action under consideration fits within the normative predisposition or outside its pale. I would add that this is yet another aspect of our biological roots. Travel on.

Conservative, progressive and the habitus

I am reading out of field again, struggling through the complex syntax of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice from 1977. He is an anthropologist-sociologist-philosopher; I saw a brief reference to him a few weeks back, specifically his concept of a habitus, and thought I would like to read about this from the source. The habitus is his anthropological take on culture; it is a group’s set of shared predispositions on how to handle socially defined situations through practiced actions. Now he formulates this concept through his study of marital arrangements in, I think, an Arab culture, where ‘important’ marriages are arranged through a careful process of intermediaries by males and ‘lesser’ marriages by females talking with one another. Of course, the important marriages are made so because they either consolidate property and material within the family or they increase political capital through alliances with other families. All very interesting, I am sure, and I can better appreciate finding myself in a culture where the marital couple determines their own match. We find our way over a landscape of love more than a political terrain, but all humans have their habitus to steer their practices into socially defined and acceptable channels according to their cultural tribe.

While Bourdieu does not, so far as I have read at least, relate habitus to a biological frame other than control of kinship, resources, and genetic pool, he does speak in terms I understand as easily translatable to neuroscientific ones. He says, “The habitus, durably installed generation of principles of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in [the performance in context]. Translated to BRoH speak, culture is an acquired set of learned invariable proclivities, that operate to guide our actions in key situations according to social mores and traditions. Remember the previous post about the natural history human morality and consider how we come to act in accord with our conventional notions of ethics and honor, e.g., sometimes we act humanely according to the golden rule and sometimes we abrogate that rule for strategic purpose and act disregarding the common good. The habitus, Bourdieu asserts, “harmonizes” our experiences and thus our attitudes and actions whether these are marital arrangements, workplace etiquette, hospitality towards strangers, the inclusion-exclusion of the ingroup, the mores of authority, etc.

Remember, now, a couple of things I have often mentioned here before:

  • Susanne Langer posited that society changed through a dialectic between the individual and society, sometimes learning and following the conservative traditions and sometimes creating new ways but always, one hopes, preserving the coherence and integrity of the culture. The individual also experiences a dialectic between the imaginative and practical; again balance is necessary.
  • Since the early days of psychology with Freud and James steady progress has been made in understanding that much of what we think may come from conscious deliberations actually comes about from unconscious processes. See, for a recent and most cogent example, the book, The Undoing Project, about the collaborative work between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on human decision making that found our conscious heuristics riddled with biases and errors.
  • Taking this further, several scientists, like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, have found that our political leanings and judgments stem from unconscious automatic processes, i.e., that political attitudes derive from deeper in human nature than from well-considered deliberations.
  • Mind is embodied through the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. We acquire and develop our special competence, e.g., linguistic and cultural, through largely incidental experiences, a largely unremembered history of learning the cultural and linguistic invariant forms needed to act and interact effectively in the social domain.

 

All of these ideas are commensurate with Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus. He makes a statement that seemingly takes all these factors into account, that generational changes in the habitus, culture if you will, come about because each generation finds different “conditions of experience” and these impose “different definitions of the impossible, the possible, and the probable” and these differences lead one group to “experience as natural or reasonable practices or aspirations which another group finds unthinkable or scandalous, or vice versa”. (For some reason John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ comes to mind). Our parents’ habitus initiated our acculturation, we developed our own habitus as our own current experiences led to different practices and predispositions, and we brought this newly rejuvenated habitus to acculturate our children, and so on into the future.

As I read this I wondered about the changes in visual art affected by photography or scientific progress or in what constitutes ‘appropriate’ content from religious images to natural scenes to abstracted experiences to what some consider obscene. (Oh my, Joyce’s Ulysses is such a case in point). I also remembered something I read long ago in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is that a change in paradigm, say from the Aristotelian solar system to the Copernican universe, is never a simple progression based upon consideration of data and the revolution is never complete until the practitioners who maintained the old paradigm have died off. And of course I wondered about my youth in the 60s growing up with the possibility of nuclear war, the upsurge in consciousness resulting from the civil rights struggle, and the changes in the workforce and gender roles engendered by females working more in WWII and then reproductive freedom helped along by birth control pills. Then what about my daughter’s habitus now with computers, internet, rapid cultural change, gender equality and the degradation of our politics along with the earth itself?

So cultural change occurs as each generation encounters new “conditions of experience”, and what one generation finds natural and reasonable is rejected by another, e.g., Elvis and rock and roll, divorce, abortion, the right of all to medical care, the equality of opportunity and justice to all groups regardless of race and gender, or what constitutes an acceptable gap between the rich and the rest of us. While our activities will change the conditions the next generation experiences, our activities are rarely done with that strategic purpose in mind; our actions are rarely that powerful in isolation, and much change comes incidentally or as unintended consequences. That gives me pause as to how I understand human intelligence and action in all domains, e.g., marriage, justice, economic, political, etc.

Finally I have been thinking a good deal most recently about how our minds handle temporal parameters, especially the loops, you know, like feedback, feedforward or feedsideways. Our different political biases, being based more in our human nature than our conscious deliberations, also show the importance of how we handle time and change. The basic division for so very long has been conservative, i.e., slow change and preserve old values, and progressive, embrace change and improve values. We also have reactionary, i.e., go backwards (and sorry that is a strategy of failure), and revolutionary, i.e., enact drastic change (and sorry, that is often a strategy of chaos at least in the short term and a process liable to be hijacked by charismatic miscreants or ruthless reprobates). Cultural change, i.e., change in the predispositions composing the habitus, happens incrementally through an astoundingly large exchange of social quanta that sometimes organizes into social movement. The dialectic underlying human society and culture bespeaks the importance of maintaining integrity and coherence of past practices while developing and incorporating the creativity that serves human progress. In vol. 3 of Mind: An essay on human feeling Langer details many cultures that have failed to sustain this dialectic and so passed out of existence. Somehow, to this ole man, weaving conservative and progressive threads into the social fabric used to seem easier. How and why have our predispositions changed so that pragmatic, grounded action feels so alien? And will our next generation form a habitus that is more viable and if so, how? Travel on.

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 culture of faces

Please buckle your seatbelts—I want to cover a good bit of ground rapidly. The impetus for this journey comes from two reports of recent research about (1) facial recognition and (2) differences in facial processing between autistic toddlers and ones developing normally. For more context (that is my plea every time I seek out news but alas it is rare) remember these facets of our humanity that I have posted about in the past. First, one of the earliest advances of our mammalian brains came with the evolutionary appearance of the hippocampus, that started remembering locations, then experiences and then social objects, e.g., conspecifics (see post 5/27/16 and others about hippocampus). Second, remember that the right-sided processing focuses more on the immediate concrete context while the left focuses more on information displaced in time and space primarily through language. This suggests that we perceive something happening now with a more right-sided bias and then process verbal associations about that perception with a left bias. Third and associated with #2, facial recognition of people met in the past, even including family and friends, happens on the right side. A specific lesion there can lead to prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize familiars even though the systems for processing faces is intact, e.g., the person knows it is a face, can often read its emotions, etc.; the person with prosopagnosia just does not recognize people he or she knows. This can happen as a result of brain injury, e.g., stroke, or sometimes occurs developmentally. Fourth, faces are important. Eric Kandel in his very interesting book (see all too brief post 8/27/14) The Age of Insight says that “face perception has evolved to occupy more space in the brain than any other figural representation”.  More from him later. Finally, consider the place of faces in human relationships beginning with the attachment and bonding (see post 1/24/14) between infant and parent and on into every relationship afterward. Whew! But wait, there’s more.

Our brains can recognize faces from many angles and even with a face partially hidden; our brains know a face as an invariant form. Our brains then also process a face’s variance, those features expressing current emotion even of those people we have never met though perhaps without the same accuracy as those we know intimately. Some people are able to process micro-emotions. These are expressions that flit across a face that are all but imperceptible to most of us; perceiving these accurately is a fairly rare talent. However, most of us apprehend the major emotions as a person’s facial expression manifests them. Kandel cites research by Paul Ekman that indicates that the upper half of the face, primarily the eyes, features more prominently in expressing sadness and fear, while the lower face, primarily the mouth, conveys happiness, anger, or disgust. And if you want to know if a person’s smile is genuine, you look back at the eyes (a real smile is accompanied by eye crinkling in a particular way).

The faces we find most attractive are more symmetrical; most of us have faces that have significant differences between right and left halves. For example, most of us find the right side is more emotionally expressive. (Remember that the right side of the face is controlled by the right side of the brain; the crossover [decussation] happens lower down the spinal cord that is responsible for right hand-left brain control). For purposes of sexual selection most of us find faces that are symmetrical or at least an ideal face comprised of average features right and left more beautiful (related to my recent post 6/19/17). Similarly most people find faces of people more closely related to them in race and ethnicity more attractive than those less so. So faces again are a big deal.

Science News of 7/6/17 gives a short report of scientists who diligently studied how monkey brains process facial information. The NYT gave a slightly longer version a few weeks back here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/science/facial-recognition-brain-neurons.html. Using a variety of techniques, including monitoring the electrical firing of individual neurons, these assiduous folks teased apart how the monkey brain sees faces. They understood this so well that they could assemble how the face looked by examining the brain’s firing pattern. This is remarkable work, I think, because it enabled them to be able to ‘read’ what the monkey was seeing by analyzing brain functioning quite accurately. Look at the NYT piece for the pictures demonstrating this; it is impressive. This science shows how our perceptual system gathers sensory data and assembles it analytically to perform the basic functions of identifying that the eyes are seeing a face, that invariant form, as a precursor to remembering or recognizing that face as familiar.

The next study shows the variability among people in how we examine and process facial information. This was recently reported in the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/12/health/autism-faces-genes-brain-development.html. These results showed a significant difference in how toddlers with and without autism deal with faces. The experimental set-up involved showing toddlers a video and tracking their eye movement. Normal developing children looked at faces more than objects, autistic children more at objects, this to a significant degree. The scientists found that identical twins looked at faces the same way, looking at the eyes and shifting their gaze to take in the whole picture at the same rate. Fraternal twins matched some but not as much. Randomly paired children matched very little. The article also cites research showing that we all have our characteristic ways of looking at faces, some at the eyes and upper half of the face and some at the lower. We tend to go for the eyes to establish recognition, I think. Anyway this study shows a deep genetic influence in how we perceive faces. That, like most mental functions, is complicated, as we construct our percepts using foveal vision (the focused point of view) to gather the details and peripheral vision to help assemble the whole gestalt of the figure (Thank you, Dr. Kandel, for explaining that).

This study is important because faces are so important to our social-mental development. Consider what I call Empathy Central (EC) that the academics call Theory of Mind (ToM), the locus of which is in the right posterior hemisphere and surely feeds off the process of both facial recognition and reading emotional expressions, i.e., empathy. When facial processing is diminished, the development of EC would also be affected. And some differences in the development of facial processing would lead to different personality styles. Remember that reading facial expression connects to the mirroring system via the arcuate fasciculus (or if no recall, see my most read post on the arcuate fasciculus and mirroring from 4/24/14, still read each week by several folks from all over the world), and mirroring (see 9/27/15 post) is also important. Indeed, some of the more effective therapies for autistic spectrum use imitation to stimulate mirroring. By the bye, I read a report in developing this blog that people who are attractive, i.e., have symmetric or the idealized average face (both sides the same) tend to be extroverted, a trait that happens to be quite stable over the life span. Extroverts tend to relax through social contact like, I guess, looking at other faces (or listening to voices over the phone), while introverts tend to relax through quiet withdrawal. You can see how pervasive the place of faces plays in our minds.

Onward from personality and cognitive style to cultural manifestations. Consider that different cultures tend to enhance or diminish facial expressiveness from exuberant to poker faced. Consider the role of faces in art, a subject much discussed in Dr. Kandel’s book, The Age of Insight, where he discusses the stew of ideas in early 20th century Vienna and how these affected painting and how we understand art. (Reviewing this book to help with this post I concluded that I must re-read it in the near future). Dr. Kandel won the Nobel in 2000 for his research in how neurons help us remember. He co-authored one of the first big books on neuroscience I read back in the day, Principles of Neuroscience (1981), and his 2012 book Age of Insight on art, the brain, and the unconscious is very special.

Eric_Kandel_1978

Eric Kandel 1978 Thanks, Dr. Kandel

Finally, consider how female faces are treated differenetly in cultures around the world in, for example, our magazines (oh so attractive sells the most) and quite stringently in Islam, where some version of the burka covers the body and especially the face, excepting the eyes sometimes, whenever the woman is in public. Faces go from the sexualized advertising in our media to the binding of personal expression in social interaction, and that is quite a range of manipulating the roles ascribed to females through their faces. Males, not so much. Another aspect of this is from an article I read a long time ago entitled “Perfidious Female Faces” that reported that female faces sometimes conveyed confusing signals when they are angry, i.e., the mouth smiles as other features signal anger, another example of cultural shaping. Anyway, a varied culture of faces, so now we can travel on.