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.

Embodying the mind

A common phrase these days is the “embodied mind,” and make no mistake, I am for it even though its epistemological basis is murky, for the use of ‘embodied’ carries the implication that the mind was embodied by nature, when it was, truth be told, embodied by us and that only recently in any rigorous sense beginning with Darwin’s statement that the human mind is different from the minds of other animals only by degree and not in kind. Before Darwin established that profound truth, for many centuries and countless generations, we, except for a few skeptical geniuses in ancient Greece and others like Spinoza, disembodied the mind by believing it was a spiritual manifestation from one’s god(s). I will explain below that we continue to disembody the mind today despite the advances of neuroscience, even in its service.

I have begun reading Frans de Waals’ newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In the text he says that the title should read ‘how smart other animals are’, and that he uses ‘animals’ as shorthand for all of our relatives. I must say I love his writings; he has broad humanistic knowledge and he is an excellent and rigorous scientist.   And while I acknowledge that mentioning humans and animals as if they were two separate categories is one of my pet peeves, I want to argue that the title is actually quite apt.

De Waals quotes Werner Heisenberg, one of the giants of 20th century physics as saying, “What we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. Here is an important epistemological observation (I think it is clearer if instead of ‘to’ he had used ‘by’ our method of questioning). Heisenberg ‘discovered’ that the act of measuring imposes limits on what can be known (either location or mass but not both) and that the act itself changes what is measured. This, it seems obvious to me, applies to our understanding the mind, so when de Waals asks if we are smart enough to understand animal intelligence, while he is mainly referring to our denigration of other animals’ minds, I think the question also includes our own minds, and our measurements are often specious given our narrow perspective. And given our current culture, especially its lack of intellectual depth as seen in our political discourse and the media’s reporting of it, I have my doubts.

When we disembodied the mind as something from god, all knowledge came from god and so we have most of medieval philosophy trying to reconcile that with Aristotle who, of course, knew different gods. Quite a dilemma. Then sometime after the Copernican revolution we went the other direction and disembodied the mind by pretending it was rational and orderly. Thus the English, who knew they were the most logical because their trains ran on time, could justify bringing civilized order to the rest of us, and now we have gone even further by disembodying the mind to be an information processing machine, i.e., our minds run by some logical algorithms, even though Freud had thrown a monkey wrench into those works a century ago when he pointed out the power of the subconscious.

I struggle to understand how so many discussions seem pointless as we talk past one another, have no common factual frame, and rarely adjust our thinking given another’s input. (Of course looking at some of that input, I wonder that we even listen). I remember Thomas Kuhn’s books on the Copernican and scientific revolutions where he says that a new paradigm comes to predominate only when the older generation who espoused the old paradigm dies off. I do understand how Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist studying moral and political discourse, came up with his article, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail,” thereby saying the tail wags the dog, i.e., logic over emotions, albit very poorly. These days I watch how our current political discourse confirms research findings that out of 32 or so modernly advantaged nations, the USA ranks 30th in educational achievement. Actually I wonder if it is really that high.

It seems clear enough that our knowledge does not come from god nor is it rational or logically based; those views arise when we disembody the mind. When we embody the mind (more on that in a future post), we find that our minds are indeed a muddy mess with all epistemology suspiciously complicated. How smart are animals? Without the talents for symbolization and making it up, other animals seem to have a clear, clean intelligence that serves them well enough to escape our clutches when they can. With those talents, whereby we disembody the mind and believe that we are more intelligent than we really are, not so much.

In my clinical training and practice I learned and endeavored to see the object whole, to stay close to the data in my interpretations, remembering by what I measured and how my perspective was lacking. Yeah, I know I will come back soon enough to how our empathy and symbolization are strengths, but right now, those are not particularly manifest in the data. So with this road sign lit up rather brilliantly by the road, “Caution: human minds at work,” travel on.