I think I see the problem here

It has come to my attention yet again that my society and culture are operating with less than optimal intelligence.  This would be a meta-level of analysis derived from several different data domains, including our dysfunctional government (as measured by the pragmatic goals of caring for social needs, maintaining our infrastructure, and proper stewardship of our planet), a loss of civility, what is called the polarization of politics and other issues of divisiveness such as dishonest efforts to win elections and accrue wealth/power, fair and equal justice for all, worsening inequality of wealth, falling science IQs, and rabid rise of conspiracy theories.  Some blame this on our electronic mediums, and surely, I think, these accentuate our faults more than our virtues, but are not the actual source of the problem. Some blame human nature and its legacy of aggression and greed, but, as it turns out, our nature is much more cooperative, egalitarian, curious and honest.  It seems more apt to say that our cultural and social developments have gone down a road into a future now where our intelligence has become polluted, i.e., compromised.  We have wandered into some perverse La Brea tar pits of our own inept creation.  Will we escape them?  I personally doubt it, but in the spirit of spitting into the wind joyfully, let explicate my vision.

My complaint is not that we have become simpletons; simple people actually display a good deal of common sense, honesty, humility, compassion and humor. Nor is that we have become shallow, though many more today seem hardly able to get their feet wet in the intellectual pool. My complaint is more that our intelligence suffers from several depressing Ds: dilapidated, derelict, delusional and decrepit.  While we are not simpletons, we have great difficulty dealing with the slightest complexity, i.e., we talk and think in simple sound bites and think we have covered the topic.  Oops! We have a thought, which is really a cognitive figure emerging into consciousness from a subconscious ground, and forget that the figure-ground relationship is definitive.  This deficit degrades much of the due diligence required for clear thinking.  We accept statements and stories without considering their wider context, a context which can amplify or reduce their importance and which can provide much fodder for further cogitation necessary for critical thinking.  Yes, we have lost some ability to think critically but that, I assert, is due to more primary deficits.

I have recently run across several instances where someone asserted that one’s perception is what matters.  Well, perception does matter.  I only wish that they had been talking about perception at the time, but what they really expounded upon was someone’s narrative.  Now this is tricky, in the sense that it requires some patience with complexity.  Let me use a fairly simple and neutral example (as opposed to one involving racial or gender issues), science theory and practice.

In recent posts I have mentioned how many scientists, including Einstein and Susan Oyama especially in detail, understand that theory, i.e., narrative, largely determines how facts are interpreted and what facts are looked for/found empirically.  The usual example here is from Thomas Kuhn’s idea on scientific paradigms; the observations of the sky was ‘explained’ by Ptolemaic ideas.  We perceive the sun arcing across the sky.  The ancient narrative was that the sun went round the earth; now we moderns have a more accurate narrative.  Einstein conducted only thought experiments, yet his theories have led to practical findings of light bending around galaxies and time dilation affecting GPS satellites that require mathematical accommodations to stay accurate.

The point here is that our minds perceive according to our accepted narratives, and changing narratives is not simple or easy, nor do narratives extend into the future with failsafe adequacy.  Even though many of us now carry forward with narratives recognizing the pervasive racism and gender discrimination of our culture, contrary to what might have been the orthodox views taught us growing up, perceiving actual incidents is not straightforward—we sometimes see racism and discrimination where a fuller narrative would reveal other factors. For example, a person might be fired for discriminatory reasons or for performance ones.  Sometimes our narratives are prejudicial against such facts and subtleties.

How do our electronic mediums affect this?  In the 1950s/1960s thinkers like Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson developed cybernetics and that theoretical framework allowed us to study how systems function.  One key construct was the notion of positive and negative feedback controls.  Negative feedback works to keep the system functioning around a mean; think about your house’s thermostat working to keep your house at a certain temperature.  Positive feedback, however, works to amplify.  Sometimes this serves to elevate helpful concepts and messages, e.g., the pay it forward movement, but at other times it produces a vicious circle wherein some crank idea goes viral, e.g., conspiracy theories like pizzagate or Obama born in Africa.  In my youth I heard a good deal about the Golden Mean and the value of keeping steady, not too high or low.  Is that still taught, and if so, what does it mean in our electronic age?  Cultural waves rise and subside, some grow appropriately, ecologically through reasoned considerations but others become tsunamis, all too destructive of coherent, rational discourse.  I think our electronics usage exacerbates the latter phenomena.

A further point comes to mind here.  Many media types, e.g., news and sports publicists, play on a burgeoning cultural tendency to amplify whatever they are talking about.  I hear this in many musical performances, e.g., compare the strained emotionality of country pop to the more authentic classical country or Americana.  I watch sporting events and news shows that frame everything by hype.  Every sporting event is a gladiatorial thunder dome (“two teams enter, one team leaves”) and every political debate is a “circular firing squad”.  I would mention how every news story is, no matter how stale or moldy, “breaking” (and yes, we all know the news is broken) or how they hype a single story for hours without providing anything new or, the horror of it, more context, but I think this is not just a lost cause, but a leading cause of our intellectual decrepitude.  To be clear, it is not fake news, just news very poorly done and quite incomplete.

Again I think all of this highlights our failure to appreciate the importance of the story-context relationships.  We construct reality through a figure-ground process.  We rely on orthodox narratives and other heuristics to facilitate this process.  Still we should understand by now (indeed, since Aristotle and Plato) that the figures we resolve are not final and are un-interpretable absent contextual considerations.  This prevents us from responding in measured ways.  An old colleague who was an expert in treating sex offenders worked mightily to train judges, attorneys, law enforcement, legislators and the public that “one size does not fit all”.  Some sex offenders are more, indeed some few much more, dangerous than others, and some pose little (but not zero) threat at all to re-offend.  Differentiating legal consequences and treatment options is only rational.  The ‘one size does not fit all’ applies to many all too common incidents of racism and sexual harassment and abuse.  Marching in Charlottesville, chanting white supremacist slogans and instigating violence is different (though still racist) from the governor having a black face person in his yearbook from over 30 years ago.  How may we deal with the differences?  Consider the contexts of the actions.  Similarly, Al Franken was hounded from the Senate because of a puerile photograph from some years back despite having no history of abusive behavior and plenty of history otherwise, while others (and you know who they are) with an extended history of abuse/harassment are excused to carry on. We currently have very limited options, e.g., courts for legal matters, for understanding the differences and implementing measured actions.  Why? Because we don’t even understand that these are in some serious sense false equivalencies, that there is at least a continuum of egregiousness, and that we need a reasoned method for their evaluation.  One size does not fit all.

My list of our intellectual derelictions goes on to cloudier areas. We moderns often lose sight of the complexity of life, of how Gaia is a whole organism that provides a nurturant ecology for life’s continuance.  Yes, many of us hold this narrative close to our hearts, but how is it that Americans, who once led the scientific community and whose educational system was exemplary, now have the highest percentage of climate change deniers?  How is it that diseases that were once well managed are re-emerging now due to the anti-vaccine delusion which itself seems contagious?  How is it that fewer Americans seek STEM careers while other peoples sacrifice much to order to gain them?  (Oh, let me not forget how many of us denigrate scientists and others as nerds.)  How can we tolerate the political appointments of people who are woefully ignorant and anti-science to head up agencies that demand a high level of scientific and technical expertise?  Because we think a thought about a scientific finding and then think that the complexity behind such findings is irrelevant to our firmly held figure of belief.

But wait, there’s more:  We seem uninterested in discriminating between actual/authentic and virtual/façade. We seem unconcerned about the effects of population growth on obvious matters like water and land usage and unaware of the understanding that population density leads to increased anonymity and that anonymity permits egregious behaviors, e.g., political and economic malfeasance, to flourish.  When humans lived together in a community where individual contact happened more widely and readily, many social constraints acted to mitigate selfishness.  Make the one per-centers live with those they exploit on a daily basis (take the kings out of their castles) and watch their shame rise just like in other primate societies, or have their asses handed to them in a sling.  (Thanks to Frans de Waal in his interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air for this keen observation of us primates).

Finally and what I have mentioned here many times over the years, we fail to appreciate our ignorance.  Our addiction to simplification and hyperbole, our tunnel vision focused on one figure exclusive of contextual ground, and our impatience with complexity really only hide our failure to appreciate our ignorance.  That scientists deal constructively with ignorance as a matter of course many choose to forget (Choose, you may ask?  Why yes, all of this is willful albeit cultural ignorance). When at their best both science and religion appreciate our ignorance before the mystery of the universe and understand the consequent necessity of cherishing the fragility of knowing and the importance of a process for establishing a consensual and adequate basis of fact for action.  (Science is better than religion at this because, as I have again written about many times before, science sees mistakes as opportunities for learning and not sins).

In a recent post I said that the sine qua non of intelligence is appreciation of one’s ignorance.  We only understand so far and so well at any one moment.  That we do not move through life more mindful of the issues inherent in our search for understanding and the shaping of our actions self-creates our own intellectual tar pits wherein our minds are trapped and stultified so that death comes to our culture.  Can we escape?  Sure. Will we here in America? Doubtful.  Hopefully some other people will rise to the challenge we seem to have abdicated and nurture healthy intellectual and social traditions.  What people and what culture will understand anew what true intellect requires and instigate a renaissance for the information age?  ?  ? ?  I hope they step up soon.

And so having spit once again into the wind, I happily travel on.

chimpanzee-personality

I have considered your idea and found it lacks contextual ties to reality. What now?

Now that’s a big human sacrifice

I am working mostly on longer posts about linguistic change and about cultural devolution (sort of) but I keep seeing some news reports that are well worth mentioning.  Today comes a PLOS article I found about archeologists studying a mass sacrifice of children in ancient Mesoamerica.  The orthodox narrative for why some of these cultures disappeared, or at least became less prominent in the social organization of the peoples there, relates to weather, drought, internecine warfare, etc.  You know, the usual stuff, but let us not forget we are talking about humans, so existential challenges from climate, weather and geological events can be met with adaptation or with maladaptation.  We currently seem bent on reducing glacial melt that future generations will need and submerging low lying islands and coastal areas from Bangladesh to Venice.  The Dutch have a long history of mitigating against this threat but who knows what the future will bring, or at least, how bad it will be.  Farmers are already scrambling to adapt to new drought/flood conditions and heat.  Our farmer friends in North Carolina report that tomatoes, for example, are getting hard to grow because they will not set fruit when the temperature is too high. Also, ranchers are watching to see what breeds can prosper in these new conditions.  Finally, a consideration dear to my heart, the great wine growers of France (and California, etc.) are working to accommodate their methods of growing and making wine as their weather patterns shift ominously.

My point here is that humans work to manage challenges sometimes better than at other times.  Cultural beliefs play a large role in whether our efforts are successful or not.  Currently our culture seems intransigent in the face of the change needed to cope more directly with climate change for several reasons, especially due to financial powers holding on to maladaptive profit making and our own attachment to modern conveniences.  We have the scientific and technological know-how to do better but the cultural terrain is slow to shift.

In ancient times humans developed irrigation systems, terracing, and ways to keep crops warm, and they also took some magical approaches.  I think my ancestral Celts sacrificed a king or some other royal personage during sustained periods of crop failure.  Part of the Arthurian legend includes the notion that the land and king exist in synchrony—if the king is wise and just, the land will prosper and if the land is not prosperous, something must be wrong with the king, so better get a new one.  Oh well.  “To whom much is given, much is expected,” I think is a relevant phrase.

Somehow in ancient Mesoamerica they hit upon using human sacrifice as a way to meet natural exigencies.  Indeed, some peoples, like the Mayans and Incas, seem to have sacrificed so many young people that their population declined in vitality.  So the orthodox narrative that their society retreated in the face of natural challenges is only part of the answer; the other part is how they chose to meet the challenge.  Check out this PLOS article for some interesting findings about the sacrifice of 140 children and 200 assorted camelids, e.g., llamas, in pre-Columbian (around 1450 CE) South America: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0211691.

The article is fairly technical but for someone like me what is fascinating is how much science they can muster to glean information about the subjects, methods and other features of the sacrifices, e.g., genetics, careful and detailed archeological excavation, analysis of bones, dirt, burial artifacts, isotope analysis for diet, etc.  Here are some highlights.

An Inca tribe in Peru sacrificed these children, gathered from several populations from coast to mountains, and camelids at one time.  The researchers believe the most likely hypothesis for why is a natural disaster; some evidence points to heavy rains and flooding.  The children and camelids were marched to the burial site and then killed.  Most (both humans and llamas) had their chest cut open and spread to suggest that their hearts were removed.  The clean cuts and lack of false starts indicate that some skill was involved (yeah, I know, ugh!).  The llamas were also young and immature.  Some of the children had been painted with various pigments, e.g., different ochres, or dressed in special cloth.  Analysis of their diets suggested that these were not just children from lower social strata.  The victims were grouped and oriented in various ways, children to the sea and camelids to the mountains.  Finally, the researchers compared this sacrificial site to other sites in Mesoamerica and found some differences but again, many societies here sacrificed humans, especially children, to propitiate their gods.  Early Spanish invaders wrote about this.  Camelid sacrifice was evidently practiced into modern times.  Hoo boy.

This sacrifice would seem to have been a massive undertaking.  140 children and 200 camelids killed and partially dissected, arranged, and buried is no small offering, so the people clearly believed some event and god needed serious propitiation.  Even the gathering of the victims took some effort and organization. Why children?  The researchers suggest that children are an in-between group and so more pleasing to gods.  My cynical self says okay, plus they are easier to manage.  I also have to wonder if anyone had an empirical bone in his (why do I assume male priests?) body and wondered about the actual efficacy.  And while we modern humans have moved on from such rituals, somehow I think our humanity includes still a dark side whereby we mistreat the young and weak, less brutally to be sure and now with civilized reasoning.  Better travel from here.

Part 1: an old man finds his creed finally

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

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

I keep a simple faith.

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

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.

Never, oh, never,

Can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

To unbeing.

Call it the form of the unformed,

The image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

We can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

We hold the thread of the Tao.

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

To know without knowing is best.

Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness

Is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.

They are sick of sickness,

So they are well.

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

I believe in the presence of spirit.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Autism, religion and the frame of discourse

In his book Neurotribes Steve Silberman details the divergent views of the two pioneers who early on recognized autism as a syndrome.  Briefly, Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger saw autism as an outlier on the spectrum of normalcy and believed that some of its traits/talents, e.g., focus on patterns, mental obsessiveness, contribute to many achievements in art and science.  American Leo Kanner saw autism as strictly pathological that resulted from deficient parenting by a cold mother.  I have posted before about my disdain for Kanner’s approach (see review of Neurotribes9/13/15).

I bring this up to emphasize that how we frame a topic determines to some large extent how we go on to think about it, e.g., normal or pathological, multi-factorial genesis or blame the mother.  I go back to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the doxa, i.e., the entire realm of discourse, its accepted partition into an orthodox domain, and the rest is heterodox.  Historically religious authorities have treated heterodox thinkers harshly. Science is better but even scientific orthodoxy can limit what heterodoxical views and work can be admitted into the realm of discourse.  Remember Naomi Oreskes‘ work showing how American geologists regarded European Alfred Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics as crackpot (he was not a trained geologist, oh, the horror) only to be proved wrong and Wegener prescient. Also remember that behaviorism in its heyday greatly constrained research into mental phenomena, you know like thoughts and feelings.  Thankfully great scientists like Karl Pribram, A.R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, J. Piaget and Noam Chomsky evicted behavioral theory from the house of orthodoxy.

Now I read a curious chapter in The Encultured Brainon autism and religion that asks a heterodoxical (to me at least) question about how people with autism view god and religion.  I had never considered (surprisingly in retrospect) that autists may think of god differently because they think of the world and people differently, but it makes sense, sort of.  How to frame this investigation?  Rachel Brezis studied this question through a neuroanthropological approach.  Evidently J. Bering had proposed earlier “that our ability to infer others’ thoughts and intentions (theory of mind) served as the evolutionary basis for our automatic search for meaning and agency behind events in the world (existential theory of mind).”  Further, given that autists have different/diluted theory of mind, they would have trouble forming a personal and lively relationship with god and discerning the deity’s presence in the world.

Long story short, Brezis research casts doubt on that presupposition.  Studied more systematically autists showed quite robust religious beliefs similar to non-autists.  She thought that maybe the deficit lay in autists’ self knowledge, not knowledge of others.  The frame here is important.  I have not read the background material, e.g., Bering’s hypothesis that our theory of mind, i.e., what I call EC or Empathy Central, influences our relationship with a god that controls the universe, but from Brezis’ summary, this effort seems based upon a Christian, even an evangelical, frame.  Ask a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Taoist or even Spinoza about their personal relationship with a deity and most likely they will stare at you as they wonder just how answer such a primitive question. Brezis did part of her research with Jewish youth who certainly showed that they had inculcated their tradition in forming their beliefs but in my admittedly few conversations with Jewish people, I cannot remember any of them espousing a personal relationship with Yahweh; they are fully engaged with their tradition but this relates more to the Torah, ritual and community than the Baptist tradition I was raised in where personal acceptance of Jesus, etc., was a requirement for membership.

Empathy Central involves social understanding and social skills through empathic feelings and kinesic communication.  How this develops in each of us greatly influences our personality and interpersonal functioning.  This stems from a deep and old biological root and I find our notions of god(s) rather historically irrelevant to this.  Remember the Atargatis (see a post on 11/10/14).  This was a goddess of fertility in the Middle East also around the time of Jesus that even had a coin minted in her name.  To become a priest, the novitiates (all males) worked themselves into a frenzied state of mind, ran through the streets naked with a knife, cutting themselves to be bloody, and at the right moment, castrate themselves. They then chose a house to throw their genitals in the door and that family was required to give the newly minted priest female clothes.  (I have always assumed they chose families whose ladies were fashionable dressers). Now I am not sure what kind of relationship they had with Atargatis but I myself would not call it a ‘personal’ one despite the intimate sacrificial gift.

Our modern notion of god, especially in cultures where scientific and technological advancements have been incorporated, must be quite different from the pagan and animistic religions of the past, including those later polytheistic ones and I have to wonder about the early days of any monotheistic beliefs, not to mention the Buddhist and Hindu beliefs of 2500 years ago.  My point is that “a personal relationship with god” based upon a person’s functioning Empathy Central is not really an adequate frame for discussion.  Humans have evolved a powerful EC; our capacity for empathy and intimacy is in the rarefied zone but it is still closely tied to our mammalian heritage and operates with kinesic information focused on the present, specious as it is, and its higher level integrations are about our real relationships.  What this frame of EC lacks is the understanding that spiritual beliefs and religious institutions are evolutionarily more recent and are based primarily upon our symbolic capabilities and their transformation of our intellectual abilities much more than our EC.

Spiritual beliefs, from which religious institutions emerged with all the features of any other human institution, derive, I think, from a deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and this aesthetic in a spiritual domain operates on a symbolic level.  It is an aesthetic that enables us to find patterns, to complete incomplete patterns, to imagine patterns that are nowhere apparent, and to apprehend somehow where a pattern should be but isn’t.  This last one is key because it presages our sense of the mystic beyond and the universe, large and small, beyond our phenomenal apprehension or science’s ken.  Further, the deep aesthetic includes our sensitivity to the fitness of a pattern internally and in context and, here is the crux of the matter, to the energy or beauty or luminosity of that pattern. (Remember the 3 aspects of an aesthetic: integrity of parts fitting together, unity of the whole, and luminosity of the form as composed by the artist and then beheld by the audience).

This is quite a different frame from seeing spiritual beliefs as reflecting our ‘personal relationship’ to a god.  High functioning autists of the sort assayed in this study are generally keenly sensitive to patterns in all their aesthetic grandeur, even though they may not rhapsodize on their beauty as some of us (like me) might, and even as their engagement in the empathic side of relationships is a little thin.

Let me end by suggesting another frame. Jacques Monod attributed humans’ proclivity to religion and spiritual beliefs to 1) our discomfort in apprehending our solitude in the grand scheme of the universe and within our own subjective isolated domain, and 2) our insatiable appetite for final certainty. People of all sorts vary in their anxiety about being alone and in their need to know for certain (even when it is wrong, like conspiracy theories).  Maybe someone could study these psychological variables and their relationship to religiosity.  If I were younger, I would consider it, but I am not, so I take my approach from Monod’s colleague, Albert Camus, and say, “Yes, we are alone, so what?  That just makes it all the more important to abide by the golden rule, to treasure your loved ones, listen to the music, and cherish our lovely Gaia carrying us around in space.  And yes, there is no certainty, get over it and get along with what you have to do to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance.”  This, I think, follows from Monod’s postulate of an ethic of knowledge and its corollary that we grow with a knowledge of ethics.

I will reiterate that that The Encultured Brainis a positively provocative book and add that at least in some respects it carries a fault common to many recent books and intellectual traditions in its failure to recognize the importance of symbolization as a basic concept.  Up until the 1980s or so, we had a strong tradition of considering symbols as basic to our mind’s functioning, from C. S. Pierce through Ernst Cassirer to Susanne Langer, and then for some reason associated, I think, with the developing power of machine intelligence and the incredible understanding brought about by genomic science including molecular biology, we forgot in our rush to advance.  Travel on, I hope, to a place where symbols and their remarkable functional complexity are remembered.  No need to hurry.

 

the doxa, orthodoxy and thinking we are right

I have been reflecting on the Boudrieu’s lessons about the doxa (see post 9/6/17) as any bona fide skeptic must. Remember that the doxa is the field of discourse that composed of two levels: the words and concepts we use to talk about the world, i.e., our culture or habitus, and the world, i.e., objective reality. Most of the time we casually assume that our cultural concepts match the world, i.e., they are isomorphic with each other. When intellectual rigor is important (and when is it not if we humans are to survive), we must carefully disabuse ourselves of that notion and so understand that what and how we think and talk bears only some indirect relation to reality (for most of us; for some politicians and their supporters the two seem never to be related at all).

This is analogous in physics to operating everyday according to Newtonian physics, e.g., we sent Cassini-Huygens to Saturn using Newtonian calculations, but physicists will tell you that Einsteinian and quantum mechanics are actually more accurate (but much more involved so Newton’s way of figuring wins out because it is adequate and much simpler). Now the important perspective here is that we have two or more symbolic systems that both correspond to the world reality and that we choose between them based upon utility, accuracy and their aesthetics. We do not assume that a particular cultural conception captures reality in a singular manner because we operate from the scientific axiom that our knowledge only approximates an ultimately unknowable world. The scientific method institutionalizes the disjuncture between our cultural conceptions and the world that compose the doxa and this leads to Monod’s important proposal towards an ethic of knowledge. We must seek to know in order to understand our conceptions, our world, and the relation between them.

Imagine yourself as an early Hominid maybe some 250,000 years ago as our kind embarked on symbolic thought and communication. An easy and relatively safe assumption is that we assumed that our culture and the world were one; the doxa was undifferentiated and so we had little capacity to see that our conceptions were arbitrary constructions about the world with many alternatives abounding. This would render our mentation magical: we think it and it is real. Oh boy! Over time with continued evolution, both genetic and cultural, Homo sapiens came to realize that the doxa was not undifferentiated, i.e., that our cultural conceptions were just and only that—they reflect the world but are not isomorphic with it, i.e., our concepts are at their base arbitrary. Plato’s parable of the cave is an astounding statement of that understanding. And I have to wonder about the role of writing in this evolution where the earliest examples are lists of things, then laws and then narratives before philosophy began to address the partition of the doxa into orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Our Greek forbears were especially important for the skepticism of their thought about our knowledge.

chimpanzee-personality

“Make it rain? Why, yes, I can, and for only $100” said the priest.

And now we come to religion, which does assume their conceptions are divinely privileged renditions of reality, and my recent encounter with the wonder that is St. Augustine. What a guy. Read his biography and you will see a good example of how mania fuels productivity along with some pretty maladaptive personal behaviors and relationships. That I have known for awhile; then I read last week this quote of his from the 4th century and knew wherein religion and science differed in critical detail: “unless thou believe thou shalt not understand.” Our skeptical, scientific, and modern ethic of knowledge stipulates that we understand before we assemble our beliefs (theories, etc.) while religion ala Augustine (and much of Christian thought follows his lead) stipulates that we must first believe the religious tenets because all knowledge follows therefrom and must be judged accordingly. This is what kept the Copernican solar system at bay for many years, what kept the earth flat, what put Galileo in house arrest, what promoted the inquisitorial methods, what sustains climate change denial, etc. And abandoning this has made modern medicine and science/technology possible.

I use ‘religion’ as a stand-in for all rigid orthodoxy and ideology, i.e., for all systems of thought that presume to know the facts beforehand and that assume that their cultural conceptions bear some special, even divine, relationship to some sort of truth, i.e., their facts cannot be invalidated. That is why religion can be dangerous, why heterodoxy and skepticism are critical to our intellectual integrity, and why the ethic of knowledge is now very, very important. This also why our political discourse suggests our culture is doomed. Travel on now and enjoy a respite visit to some noumenal realms of reality.

salient point

A skeptic’s guidepost, but follow or turn away, that is the heterodoxical question

 

ReReading Monod: part 2

In the current debate between the religious side and those arguing for science, at least as I see it generally represented in the media and at local events, the former stand on the need for divine guidance and validation of values, else we devolve into uncivilized and evil acting animals (I am still not sure how that would be different in many instances), while the latter argue for the evolutionary basis of values derived from our ancestral past (ancestry defined broadly). Jacques Monod had something intelligent to contribute to this debate in 1971.

Monod saw that with the advent of science human epistemology changed because science, with its axiom of objectivity, separated knowledge from values, i.e., science contributes knowledge about this objective reality but values must come from human decisions and actions because, looked at objectively, the universe is more machine-like than god-like with no absolute or divine values to be found. Before the 16th century both knowledge and values were generally from one domain labeled religion with perhaps a tad of secular philosophy thrown in by Plato and Aristotle. Since that time we have developed a powerful practical means of knowledge (I hope all would agree that science is eminently successful in solving problems and extending our capabilities) that indicates that our ethical values are “sociobiological” in origin and are an emergent feature of our extended and extending conspecific relationships.

Monod goes further with this analysis, saying that actually the distinction between values and knowledge derives from the Catholic distinction between the sacred and the profane. As human society shifts from animistic to scientific, an ethics of knowledge will develop that will include a knowledge of ethics. (Consider the current outcry against the American Trump administration for their desertion of the ethics of knowledge). To be authentic (and here is a modern civilized value), then, requires one to think and act clearly about value held/acted upon and judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. (Now consider again our current politics in a more general sense whereby many elected officials assess reality according to their political and economic convenience in contrast with others, including bureaucratic data driven stalwarts, who assess reality in order to intervene on a factual basis and move society towards adaptive and democratic values).

Does this sound so arcane as to be trivial? Consider the ‘debate’ about whether substance abuse problems are a matter of character/spiritual flaws or an illness. Consider the incorporation by legal authorities of neuroscience findings indicating that the adolescent brain is not fully mature or functioning rationally for fully responsible action. Consider the issues raised in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (see my posts on 5/11/14, 7/15/2014 & 7/28/2014).  Consider the changing approach to autism spectrum disorders, especially in how and what supports we fund for our fellow citizens over their lifetime. Finally, changing tack a bit, consider the remarkable economic data covering 300 years that Thomas Piketty gathered and analyzed for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the analysis and values he offers in contrast to so many others who talk about economic and tax policy based upon political dogma (see post 11/25/2016).

Monod argues for a society organized around an ethics of knowledge and a clearly asserted presumption of values. In this he leans left towards civic governance that ensures that the essential needs, including adequate wealth and medical care, of all citizens everywhere are met. He says he knows this will be seen by some as utopian but asserts that this is our choice, if ever we can rise to such a conscious choice, and in this he echoes his old comrade in the French resistance, proponent of clear social responsibility unsullied by claims to the divine, and fellow Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.

A final word about skepticism and existentialism vs god. (In our free country, you may believe in any god you wish; there are plenty to choose from, though quantity does not imply quality. What is not free at the moment is to require non-believers to think and act as you would like.) I recently heard again the old argument that without faith in god, humans would do whatever they want and that is not good, but it seems to me, again looking objectively around the world and through history, that even with faith in god, humans still do whatever they want, oftentimes not good, only now they feel righteous. Oh, and I have posted about righteous indignation before, see post on 5/16/2014. Well, time to travel on.