How we might think about biology and beauty

I have been thinking about this article in the NYT for a few weeks now.  I feel I should write about it but what?  So here goes. This is another story about the orthodox notion that beauty is not actually a product of evolution, but wait a minute, maybe it is:  Ferris Jabr wrote this longish piece and it is worth reading.  He highlights a number of examples of beauty in the animal world and one scientist in particular who believes that some other animals besides humans have a sense of aesthetics.  Most other researchers scoff at this notion because beauty seems to play so little a role in evolution, believing, I guess, that what we perceive as beauty in nature is more a simple byproduct of other adaptations.  This falls, then, into one of my favorite categories these days, that of an evolutionary spandrel.

What is that, I hear some ask?  The concept of a spandrel is borrowed from architecture where it denotes the space between an arch, ceiling and any supporting pillars.  As such a spandrel does not contribute to the structure, though architects soon learned to fill the space with decorative art.  Here is a diagram:


So an evolutionary spandrel is an ontogenetic structure that does not contribute to the organism’s successful adaptation and continuance of the genetic stream.  A simple example I have read is the color of our blood.  The redness has no adaptive significance; it is a spandrel to the use of iron-based hemoglobin for oxygen transport.  If we were a lobster, that has a copper based blood, we would have green blood.

A prominent example under discussion here is the bowerbird.  The male builds an elaborate nest that is used only to attract a female’s attention and not for egg laying.  Once the female approaches the male’s nest, and they are elaborate with many bits of shell, pebbles, and whatever can be found to decorate the approach, the male must then dance successfully enough to entice the female to copulate.  Then another nest is built.  Does the male bowerbird’s nest building contribute to its reproductive fitness, albeit by increasing chances of mating, or is it a spandrel?  Nest building is metabolically expensive and this kind attracts predators as well as females.  Could it be an anachronism left from an earlier adaptation wherein the male actually built a functional nest, i.e., used for egg hatching and young rearing, which was replaced by a behavioral dance?  That is the tenor of this debate.

Orthodox theory has it that sexual ornamentation, which can be quite extreme, e.g., bird of paradise and peacock tail feathers, and sexual signaling, e.g., the grouse dance, indicates the robust health of the male, i.e., a better mate. This would mean these features contribute directly to evolutionary fitness and so would not be a spandrel. To say, as Richard Prum does, that these features are a contribution to the evolution of beauty elevates beautiful features to a non-spandrel level.  And surprisingly, I learned from Jabr’s article that Darwin himself did not think that evolutionary fitness was useful in explaining all adaptive features. He thought that besides natural selection, sexual selection played a significant role in shaping organisms; indeed, that males developed ornamentation and signaling behaviors to fit or match the females’ “standard of beauty”, as Darwin put it.  There you have it, from the godfather of evolutionary science himself, though most scientists beginning even back then through today scoff at the notion.

There are two issues for me here.  One is the nature of beauty, of how we perceive it and what makes something beautiful, and the other is the nature of art, which I take to be a symbolic form, i.e., it has a surface structure composed by us (could be other species’ partake of this effort as well like the whale songs from last post) and a deep structure of some vital import about our experience.  Now consider Jabr’s words:  “There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”  Oh boy, that is exactly the issue here, i.e., the hidden links between surface and deep structures.

Consider seeing something beautiful in nature, like a sunset or storm over the sea or a striking bird.  Here are some photos of mine to ponder:


Odysseus watched the sunset from Calypso’s isle yearning for home.


Odysseus struggled through storms to reach his home on Ithaca.

The surface structure is the image but what is the deep structure?  What is the basis for our aesthetic appreciation of such scenes?  Further, how does a poet, e.g., Homer, transmute this into a beautiful image composed of words?  Here is another of an indigo bunting that visits our farm in the spring-how is it we see its beauty and how do the female buntings view it?


A handsome and rare indigo bunting

To be clear, I do not know the answer here, but I have adopted two canalizations for my thinking about these sorts of issues.  The first is, of course, Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a vital form, symbolic certainly but what makes the form art is its conveyance of vitality, e.g., the experience and energy of a particular life.  The second I extrapolate from Jacques Monod’s understanding of life processes as furthering itself through fitting components together, i.e., a molecule fits with another and contributes to energy control.  Many molecular combinations fit with others to contribute to life’s complexity, and to further the stream of life, each fitting must fit with many others in a sort of closure achieved by completing an image, like the Necker cube, only this closure is the underlying form of a biological organism.  Showing even more complexity, following Susan Oyama, the organism’s form and place in the hereditary stream is a complex fitting of a developmental system comprising life and niche, the means by which ontogeny progresses along “life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future” like a musical symphony advances some grand waves of temporal experience through auditory forms.

Vital import and fitness certainly seem relevant here, but consider another concept, that of intentionality, because it plays an important role in the linkage between surface and deep structures.  Now I gather that ‘intentionality’ in philosophical parlance is a loaded term (first clue: Daniel Dennett wrote a book on it), but I want to use the term more as a contrast to ‘incidental’.  We act sometimes incidentally, e.g., our intent is to get a glass of water and we have to walk incidentally to the kitchen.  I distinguish between the two by asking with what intent is our volitional, i.e., for initiating behavior, energy mobilized.  We can formulate an intention and plan for its implementation but enactment starts when volitional energy is summoned.  From this perspective I guess you could call incidental actions behavioral spandrels but they would clearly be instrumental.  So indeed all spandrels are, just that, instrumental; it is just that by definition evolutionary spandrels do not contribute (directly) to adaptive fitness—they are, shall we say, instrumental gaps.  (Blood’s redness here is more an incidental reflection of the instrumental iron). But by Darwin’s reckoning some do serve to facilitate reproductive success, so something must be working here.

At any rate, art certainly requires intentionality in its production—intentionality is a necessary feature of our shaping the art form to express our intended import.  Again the surface form belies the complexity of our import.  But does the apprehension of beauty, by us or any other species, require intentionality?  Consider again the images above of a sunset, storm and bird.  I hope you agree that they are beautiful but beyond the glory of nature, what might be their import?  And does fitness of even some vague sort contribute to their loveliness?  While they are not produced intentionally, we may attribute some intentionality to these images in a mythic function, like we say they reflect the glory of nature or god or we see some notion of life’s temporality rendered thereby or interpret what we see as an immanent portent. In this regard I think the sunset or a peacock’s tail is beautiful but not art.

The question Jabr reports on is how other animals see natural phenomena like another’s plumage, song, or dance. He writes, “Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”  And further, “Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful ‘in the struggle for life,’ Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being.”  Is this really a sense of beauty?  Again, I don’t know.  I have asked several birds around here but they have not answered; the clouds, though, they say ‘yes’.  That some perceptual features ‘fit’ another’s sense of  ‘appealing’ is fact.  But consider bird song where ornithologists studying male song measure its power by counting the number of copulatory postures elicited in the female.  The more postures seen the better the song is presumed to be.  A song, thus is boiled down to hormonal activity.  (Don’t want to go so long here but consider if dreaming is adaptive or spandrel, and remember that other animals do seem to dream:

I have long wondered when it is that a bird stops building its nest but have never seen any research on this.  If indeed they do have some sense of aesthetic, I would assume that the bird builds until it is satisfied with the construction.  If not, I would guess that the bird builds until the eggs are laid. Likewise consider the bowerbird. Does he work continually on his nest until he attracts and mates with a female, or does he come to a moment when he feels the nest is just right, sort of like us decorating the walls of our house, e.g., these pictures and tapestries do the job?

Finally I just read an article about a Duke researcher, Steve Nowicki, who tested the hypothesis that the more complex a bird song the better the bird brain has developed.  Knowledgeable females then would pick the male with a more complex song because of his greater intelligence.  So far, Nowicki’s research has not shown this to be the case.  Good songs from good brains do not win the day.  I remember from way back research showing that some birds raised in isolation sing the best songs, i.e., the females respond with more copulatory postures, but that other males then attack this prime singer, who can survive if he is the best fighter or if he modifies his performance and sings a lesser song.  There is a lesson for us all in this finding about the importance social niche plays in our development.

In the whole wide world many things fit together.  Some fit with the spark of life shining forth.  Each life shines with its own energy and some shine brightly beyond their own time and place.  Life, as we know, abides by the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics with its own particular slight of hand.  Life is an energetically exuberant process controlled as it advances ecologically in time. And, it seems to me that this exuberance manifests in many ways with each life form and generation rising.  Finding beauty in our surrounds shows our sensitivity to this and art is a supreme expression of that exuberance. That this metaphor seems a bit out of the loop empirically, I think, is only because so many fail to recognize some features of reality, e.g., finding beauty and artistic experience given and taken, as facts worthy of study, believing that the orthodox constraints to our science are more important than our imaginative seeking beyond what we know (always I come back here seeking a balance).  Read Jabr’s article about the beauty debate and see for yourself.  This is what I had to say about it.



Or could it be that even spandrels, those empty spaces in our structure, contribute to life’s vitality?  That elements that contribute empty spaces are important to life’s functioning?  What does the Tao Te Ching say about that again?  Say in chapter 11?


Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.


Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.


Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.


So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.


(Many thanks to Ursula K. LeGuin for this version) With that it is surely time to travel on.

biological machines or mechanistic life?

So periodically I read something that refers to us, i.e., living beings, as machines.  More often than that I read about our brains as machines, i.e., computing machines, hard-wired, programmable, etc., and I have written here my thoughts about using that metaphor to capture neurological functioning (see posts 2/12/15: “dried neurons?” & 7/28/14: oh me, oh my!).  But considering biological entities, e.g., organisms, to be machines is something different and a bit more complicated because there is some literal truth to it.  Essentially I see two issues here:  1) how are we to understand the biochemical activity composing life given that such chemistry is governed by laws which operate mechanistically and we consider life to be vitally free from such constraints, and 2) what are the critical differences between organic and inorganic forms?  Read on with the understanding that I do not have the answer to those questions.

I am reading an old essay (1995?) by Nicholas Humphrey, a theoretical biologist at Cambridge U., entitled “The Uses of Consciousness”.  Spoiler alert: the primary use is to understand the subjective musings of another by examining our own—a fairly apt answer, that one.  He brings up several interesting ideas, one of which is this notion that organisms are machines.  I was interested in his several referrals to Denis Diderot, a French writer of some renown of whom I know little.  He refuted Descartes idea of humans having two ‘substances’, body and soul, in classic fashion, i.e., there is no evidence for soul and no ideas about how spirit and matter could interact and fuse into one.

Now over my years I have read about Descartes repeatedly, especially his “Cogito ergo sum” business, and not until now (or in 1995 if I had been paying better attention) did I learn that his learned contemporary found his formulation “deplorable”.  This confirms my worry that our intellectual heritage and educational system has grown thin, emaciated even, as we focus on the catchy phrases and ‘stars’ and leave out contrary views, even when those views are more in line with our modern truths. Oh well, at least I was lucky enough to learn about Spinoza awhile back.

Back to mechanistic life.  Humphrey takes a practical, everyday approach to such issues.  I follow the great Jacques Monod in this from his landmark book, Chance and Necessity: yes, biochemical activity is mechanistic and yet biological processes are not “deducible from first principles”.  Monod gives a beautiful exposition that life evolves by chance and replicates its structure by necessity, and indeed, any feature of life would seem amenable to this analysis.  As I understand it, modern chaos theory follows along here—chaotic systems slowly organize in an unpredictable manner but that organization bespeaks future developments.

Humphrey refers to stalwart philosopher Daniel Dennett as one proponent that life is a machine, and further, that our consciousness is mechanical.  Dennett (per Humphrey) believes that in principle a machine could be constructed that would mimic us closely enough so that we would be ‘fooled’ into thinking that the machine is conscious.  Indeed, Dennett thinks that is what we already do with one another—we believe others are conscious based on our inferences from their behaviors but without any direct, real knowledge of their subjective domain, i.e., we are fooled into thinking others have minds.  Humphrey counters that this ‘problem’ of another’s private subjectivity is actually overblown and that philosophers would do well to read more biology on this matter.  Subjectivity is a natural consequence of being an organism, i.e., it is a fact to be understood and does not present a barrier to knowledge of each other.  I do like a common sense approach.

Go back, though, to the thought experiment of how to tell if an object is a living organism or an artifact mimicking life.  Monod addresses this early on in Chance and Necessity. An organism comes about through autonomous morphogenesis; it is a self-constructing machine that owes next to nothing to anything outside itself to its own creation.  Further, an organism comes with its own purpose; it projects that purpose through its genesis and life span.  Life is not teleological, i.e., growing to some endpoint as Teilhard de Chardin believed, but it is teleonomic, per Monod:  this ‘thing’ with its internal autonomous determinism carries forward its project of invariant reproduction.

So how to tell machine from organism?  Study “its origin, its history, and for a start, how it has been put together” (Monod, p. 13) and you cannot fail to notice that the machine was assembled from and by forces outside itself and the organism by forces internal to its own somatic creation.  And that seems to me the incipient quality necessary for subjectivity.  Yes, we are assembled through biochemical, mechanically governed processes, and yes, we do it ourselves, autonomously.  While we could theoretically construct a machine that mimics that closely, its history betrays its lack of autonomy and thus its lack of subjective integrity.

Biology also fosters the notion that subjectivity is no great decider of our success.  Rather, it is the linking of subjectivities that contributes evolutionary force to our lineage.  Remember that mammals are especially remarkable for our sociability and that we humans are amongst the most social of all.  Do I know that you have a subjective domain?  Yes, I do; I can sense it through our empathic relatedness. Do I know what is in your subjective domain?  Only by reading your signals and comprehending your symbolic communication. Humphrey clearly understands this as a primary function of consciousness, and to give him credit, he knew this before we had any good understanding of our neurological mirroring systems.

This view supports the notion that our consciousness derives from social interaction and that our identity, our self, comes about as we differentiate and integrate our early relationships.  It also supports the notion that other animals have some form of consciousness to the degree that they are sociable.  Again, this seems to accord with Humphrey’s common sense approach to these issues.  For a different approach, read about a panpsychical approach at ( where two psychologists speculate that consciousness is based upon the vibrational resonance between particles, so that everything in the universe can be seen as conscious because everything vibrates at times resonantly and there is little difference between vital and inert forms.  Amusing, perhaps, and curious, but not very nutritious.  Humphrey cites Diderot (was this man ahead of his time or what?) as saying, “One day it will be shown that consciousness is a characteristic of all beings”.  That is ‘beings’, you know, living things.  Though Humphrey disagrees with this statement, I think it is closer to the truth than some other views like panpsychism.

I will conclude with two thoughts.  One is my old idea that we should distinguish between sentience as life assaying the ambient, which is a property necessary at some level for adaptive success, and consciousness as the organism’s autonomous contribution to its apprehension of its own experience, including the ambient yet still independent of external stimulation.  Thus, I would say all life is sentient and any life that is social may develop consciousness.  I have written several posts about this before; see for example 4/21/16: “conscious or not?”.

The second idea is the importance of grounding our ideas in our biological nature. The guiding principle here is that our minds are embodied. Even at the highest levels of our intellectual production our minds rely on somatic experience for reference points.  This seems to me to be quite remarkable and important.  We might be machines of a special sort but we use our physical presence as a way to understand ourselves and our universe, and we do this with the power of metaphor, which is not exactly a mechanical  process.  I refer you to two books by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live Byand Philosophy in the Flesh, both of which but especially the latter explain very clearly cognitive processes by which our embodied minds build upon somatic experience to conceptualize and abstract through metaphor as we seek greater understanding, you know like comparing life to a machine. Travel on.

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.


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.

An insomniac’s reverie

Nights can be full of adventure for an insomniac living in the country. I recently connected some dots on a side trip from my main journey, thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin for the first time in a while, Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus which I reflect on periodically, and Monod’s Chance and Necessity, which is a daily meditation. When I finally did fall asleep I descended through a lovely vision of Gaia covered with artistic impulses flashing, some darkly and some lightly, strongly sensed by some of us here on earth, perhaps hardly seen from a distance into space. Art has migrated from its inception around communal fires, deep in caves and ‘making special’ many activities and objects (thank you, Ms. Dissanayake for documenting the ubiquity and importance of art) to illuminating the noosphere with its luminous light.

Remember that colorful priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who helped discover Peking Man and whom the Vatican prohibited from writing and teaching philosophy? (See post 12/17/16). He developed a conception of Gaia as first a geosphere, the dynamic rocky planet earth, then a biosphere as life evolved and spread over our planet, transforming it into Gaia, and then the noosphere, where human knowledge analogously covers the planet. Some say his vision contained the world wide web in its view, but at the least he thought that we humans would continuously connect and those connections would self-organize into a more inclusive society. (Never mind about his theory about we are evolving to join with the divine at the Omega point. I don’t think that he would have thought that if he had known about how civilization would foment the conflicts and wars over the last 70 years or the degradation of American politics today).

Monod propounded a brilliant version of the biosphere when he wrote about “an intuitive global picture of living systems whose phenomenal complexity defies assimilation”. Consider the variety and spread of life here from single cell organisms on up through multi-celled ones including us: the soil on our farm is full of microbial fertility (as are we—check your biome), many of our trees are herd creatures needing conspecifics nearby for vital resiliency (see The Secret Life of Trees), fungi inhabit the earth’s surface in a astonishing net of somas and spores, etc. Consider the number of cellular generations over the past 4+ billion years and Monod’s idea “of the extent of the vast reservoir of fortuitous variability contained with the genome of a species—again in spite of the jealously guarded conservative properties of the replicative mechanism” when he estimates for modern humans with a 1970 population of then some 3 billion “there occur, with each new generation, some hundred billion to a thousand billion mutations.” Wow, that is some ‘reservoir’ of chance and necessity that supplies our evolution.

No wonder, then, that he can say, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the 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.” I will only add the comment that Monod here fulfills Chris Hitchens’ dream (before he even had it—see post 11/17/14) of bringing the noumenal out of the supernatural realm into the natural one. If it exists, it is natural; if it is not natural, it does not exist except in our imagination, which of course is natural.

Now remember an image of all the lights we have on earth at night as seen from space, you know, the maps showing cities as bright blotches, rural areas as darker, and North Korea as unilluminated. Now consider that every organism, small and large, comprises many energetic transactions in the course of its life, each a chemical spark of vitality brightening its drops of water, and you can glimpse how Gaia glows in the cosmos, our precious blue ball hurtling through space. Finally imagine all the human endeavors creating art that make the noosphere glow with a luminous aesthetic as we share our complex vital experiences of life’s opportunities and hard exigencies. You might ken then an old farmer-philosopher’s insomniac reverie while watching the land on a snowy spring night.

4th Anniversary #4: Some of my basic lessons

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. Over the course of these past four years I have learned some wonderful basic lessons. Some have come directly from my reading. I re-read Langer’s Feeling and Form to gain more insight into art and presentational symbols. I re-read her Mind, vol. 3, and understood more about two important dialectics. The first is within the individual between the need for reality orientation and the pleasure of unbounded symbolic creativity. The second is within society between its need for each member to commit resources for group maintenance and to carry traditions forward for continuity and the need for individuals to be creative and innovate to maintain social vitality.

I understood from Chris Hitchens the possibility of the natural noumenal, i.e., a noumenal realm filled with the shadowy ideals and mystic forms not in some supernatural domain but in this positivistic one. And of course, this past year I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity to find that the ethic of knowledge directs us to the natural spirit inherent in the descent of genetic forms evolved through countless random events beginning with the appearance of life on Gaia. Along with that I read Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality that confirmed two ideas, that an ethic of knowledge leads to a knowledge of ethics and that our cultural values, while distinctive, are based upon some continuity with the rest of the animal world. Our humanity is indeed rooted in empathy and symbolization.

One of my evolving lessons comes from long efforts at understanding how our mind works. Since my first stint in graduate school in speech and language pathology in the mid 1970s, I had pondered the role of old and new information, beginning with hippocampal functioning but going on to how our brains define or create the categories and how they are transformed, i.e., old becomes new and new sometimes becomes old. Over the past four years I have realized that these processes are actually embedded in the larger functions producing variance and invariance. Remember William James’ characterization of consciousness as the “remembered present” or someone’s phrase the “specious present”. It takes some short passage of time before information from the retina or cochlea or skin reaches the brain and then is processed enough to be available for sentient awareness. (Another of my lessons is that I came to differentiate sentience as deriving from perceptual impact and consciousness as deriving from autogenic, i.e., self generated, information). Thus the information of which we are aware is necessarily old. New information comes about when we notice change; this is seen perhaps most importantly in hippocampal processing where change=new information (or sometimes no change violates expectations for change and that also equals new) which triggers theta processing, i.e., a new focus and situation is engendered. Along with this remember that recognition occurs when new information is ‘recognized’ as old and recall occurs when old information is ‘recalled’ as new, and that this is based on memory, i.e., past experience is held as an invariant form.

I have come to understand that variance/invariance is an extremely basic, even essential, concept for our understanding of life. I started down this trail upon reading a research article on the dual loop hypothesis of language. The loops are a dorsal one composed, I think, of cortical tracts that maintain primarily invariant information and a ventral one composed of cortical tracts involved in the processing of variant information. Consider the writing process or any example of verbal composition. Some invariant bits, e.g., words, are assembled according to syntactic rules to convey a new and variant message. This has always impressed me, that while we have formulaic speech for social purposes, e.g., “How about this weather?” most of our utterances are novel. While maybe the sentence’s propositional form follows an old/new pattern in subject/predicate or topic/comment, this serves the basic ongoing hippocampal processes of contextual generation of usefully defined situations, which for linguistic performances, must be a relatively rapid process in order to facilitate the intentional guidance of expression.

But variant/invariant can operate independently of temporal parameters, e.g., old/new, and so is important for our mental displacement of information divorced from current time and space. This seems to me now to be yet another manifestation of the basic biological processes underlying life. As we humans have extended our knowledge by understanding larger and smaller scales, e.g., cosmic and quantum, we again come around to Herodotus’ dictum that you can never step into the same river twice. Change and flux seems to be the basic order of the universe as it runs down to some entropic end. Life’s vital processes hold this procession in abeyance, the soma a protected environment where flux is background noise. We have come to understand that life is defined by our genes holding still as invariant forms, albeit with important random and rare mutations, replicating through generations. Thus Monod characterizes the forms of molecular biology as irregular crystals. That our minds operate to hold information in invariant forms, e.g., memory, is only another version of that tale.

Monod starts his book giving us the source of his title from Democritus, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” This from the man who around 400 BCE understood that atoms were a basic element of our universe. Monod found that evolution proceeds through chance or random events but that once a new gene passed two challenges, fitting into the coherent whole of the genome and then promoting adaptability of the organism, the new structure continues by necessity. Our brains and MEMBRAINs carry that feature through our mentality. Life in essence operates to mitigate exigencies and to exploit opportunities. No surprise that our minds do the same. Consider this example from current events: once we form an opinion we tend to preserve it despite new contradictory information. Invariance is naturally a conservative process. Cultural orthodoxy, especially religious, maintains invariance; rebellious hereterodoxy promotes variance until it succeeds in transforming views. The beauty of science lies in how it handles errors, i.e., variance, in its practice and theory and in how it institutionalizes the disjunction between our conceptual world, i.e., the doxa, and reality or nature, thereby making the empirical process necessary for objective and reliable understanding, so the need for our ethic of knowledge.

As I have studied our roots, some questions have come unanswered. What was the chemical process initiating life? How did sexual reproduction start and take hold? What were the genetic springs that fed the streams leading to humanity? Were the dominant ones for empathic and cooperative relationships or ones for control of displaced information? Are our distinctive mental faculties based upon cognitive advances, i.e., the orthodoxy, or are these advances really to serve a remarkable blossoming of empathy, i.e., heterodoxy? How is the self composed from the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN? Why were some of the earliest artworks hidden deeply within caves? What led to our awareness of a noumenal domain and then to its reification as supernatural? And how is it so much ugliness is tolerated by a species that developed such a keen sense of aesthetics?

In the course of writing these anniversary posts I realized more explicitly than I had previously why I have always written “soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN.” While the MEMBRAIN understood simply and basically as an exaptation of the brain, the MEMBRAIN is strictly speaking not of the soma or its brain. It is rather a construction based solely on social interaction; it is necessarily a social organ embodied in many conspecific somas. It comprises the self of social individuation based upon attachment and socialization and not just the self of agency and autobiography. It comprises the self as presented socially through various roles as well as the self hidden behind those presentations. Of paramount importance it comprises the self’s adoption of the habitus, the cultural mores and practices that knit the social organism together.

One final lesson for me from me: the dialectic between positivism and mysticism that operates as my mind finds its way to understanding. In these posts I have focused more on the former and now I will conclude with the latter. The ancient Greeks thought that the universe was composed of 4 elements: water, fire, air, and earth, and this conceptualization served them well for a time. Before I travel on, here is a scientifically transformed elemental prayer.

Elemental Prayer

Let me hold this water I use today

Remembering its earthly passages

And wondering how it came here.

Let me burn this energy I use today

Remembering its finitude between earth and sun

And wondering at its myriad forms.

Let me breathe this air I use today

Remembering that I am a human

And wondering how the fire burns within.

Let me walk this path I find today

Remembering those here and passed

And wondering at Gaia’s kindness.

4th Anniversary: 1-Heroes

I look at what we humans do every day all day long in the course of living and see biological marvels. My heroes are the guideposts steering me to scenic overlooks. I will present 4, William James, Susanne Langer, Noam Chomsky, and Jacques Monod and mention incidentally Christopher Hitchens and Pierre Bourdieu. Though not mentioned I also thank Claude Shannon, Jaak Panksepp, Jerome Bruner, A. R. Luria, L. S. Vygostsky, Wilder Penfield, the pioneering ethologists, the great primatologist Frans der Waal, and many, many more, including artists like James Joyce, more indeed than my old self can recall at any one moment and many more than would be interesting to read.


Susanne Langer

I first wandered down this path reading Susanne Langer’s Mind: An essay on human feeling, volumes 1 and 2. It validated my vague sense that I was an animal and that my mind, including its contents and my cultural surroundings, was biological. Easy to say and seems obvious, but I have found a surprising number of instances when talking about such matters, i.e., our humanity, that people balk or skip over that detail. If you have followed my blog for much time at all you know that is my primary pet peeve is the catergorical error when anyone, and most everyone does, says, “humans and animals”.

Langer’s earlier books, Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form, ultimately have interested me more in recent years. (And this winter I will start her text, Symbolic Logic, that she wrote early on in her career). Her examination of aesthetics I find profound in its simplicity, and yet as I read more of aesthetics, especially those claiming to be biologically oriented, I rarely find her mentioned. Even more puzzling is the absence of her work on symbols. Langer explicated two types of symbols, presentational and discursive. The former are exemplified by art, the work is all of a piece or a unified gestalt, its elements have no meaning outside of that gestalt, and the complexity of thought cannot be translated into simpler linear forms. The latter, exemplified by language, is linear, its elements (words) have meaning independently of the current form (sentence), and its thought can be expressed in many different ways. Presentational symbols carry import, Langer says, to differentiate it from linguistic meaning.

Langer’s work followed in the tradition of those who sought to understand symbols like C. S. Pierce’s semiotics and Ernst Cassirer’s development of symbols, because they are key to understanding our humanity. Prior to her comes William James whose broad understanding of psychology, philosophy and biology was astounding given his time period around the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries. While he realized that our conscious was really a “remembered present” and so his psychology reflects that insight, I also remember him for his book Varieties of Religious Experience, where he examines the data of religious experiences, not in terms of belief or disbelief, but in terms of psychological implications. His empirical rigor led him to say that while we cannot know what happens to a ‘person’ after death, we have a responsibility to understand what happens up until that moment.


William James

In the last decades of her career Langer worked on Mind, the 3rd and last volume published in unfinished form after her death. These volumes were then and still are not well received and I understand a bit why. Her research predated most of the transformation of biological science by the insights of genetics and information theory/technology. These left her last books with a certain quaint status.


Noam Chomsky 1977

Beginning in the 1950s and exploding in the 60s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics and biology. His early book, Language and Mind (1967), pushed Skinner and his radical behaviorism to the side of the road (though that did not stop some in clinical psychology from denying that we have a mind for many years; fortunately they discovered that we do have a mind some time in the late 80s, wow, really good work there). Chomsky formalized all three branches of linguistics, syntax, semantics and phonology, in ways imbued with information science. His work led to the realization that language was innate in some shape or form and biology has more or less upheld that thought. In my blog I depend on his differentiation between surface and deep structures of symbolic thought, deep being the meaning (or import though he does not apply this to art) and surface being the phonological form uttered (or the artistic medium used for art creation). Syntax is important because it governs the transformation between deep and surface structures. This is a very helpful notion.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

Now I come to Jacques Monod, a prime example of why re-reading a work years later is important. I read Chance and Necessity (1970) shortly after it came out and understood its solid argument that life and mind is a biological phenomena based solely upon the chemical machinations of DNA and proteins. I read it again last year and understood as well this time the paradox that an ethics of knowledge yields a mystic view, e.g., apprehending our genetic history resulting from countless random genetic events over 3 billion years brings us to encounter the true mystery of life and humanity and not any of the mythic versions out there over our history.   This might also be the time to remember Chris Hitchens not only for his wonderfully clear prose but also his unorthodox casting of the noumenal in natural light, no longer relegating it to the supernatural because the supernatural is no longer closely related to any truth based on objective reality, instead being only a truth from our cultural imagination. (And no, our discernment of reality based truth is not a culturally imagined one; it derives from an ethic of knowledge that ensures we understand that in the realm of possible discourse [doxa] we do not mistake culture for the ‘true’ state of things, as well analyzed by Pierre Bourdieu.

So many minds bent on the same destination and offering guideposts to us all. Travel, really travel, on.