June 24, 2016

Roundabout IV


This post is not about politics, it's about events in US social history and the response within US society. The NRA and firearms industry have fueled and capitalized on that response. All three need our attention - how we respond to social problems; the NRA; and firearm makers and dealers. The first is what most needs our attention - how we as an enlightened, humane society respond to social problems and the conditions that cause them. It's the best essay I've found on the subject of guns in modern US history. There may be a pay wall so here are some excerpts.

"The story of how millions of Americans discovered the urge to carry weapons—to join, in effect, a self-appointed, well-armed, lightly trained militia—begins not in the Old West but in the nineteen-seventies. ... In 1977, more than half of all American households had a gun in the house. By 2014, it was less than a third. Each gun owner now has an average of eight guns, according to an industry trade association. ... In 1977, a third of all adults lived in a house with at least one hunter, according to the General Social Survey; by 2014, that statistic had been halved. [Gun dealer Mike] Weisser said, 'The gun industry, which had been able to ride on an American cultural motif of the West, and of hunting, is realizing that’s gone. Plus, you’ve got the European guns coming in that are so good that the U.S. Army is even using them. Jesus Christ Almighty, we’re fucked.' In 1998, an advertisement in Shooting Sports Retailer warned, 'It’s not who your customers will be in five years. It’s will there be any customers left.' Richard Feldman, a high-ranking N.R.A. lobbyist in the eighties, who worked as a liaison to the industry, told me that companies looked for ways to make up for the decline of hunting: 'You’re selling whatever the market wants. It doesn’t matter where you make your money. It’s irrelevant.' ... Much as the industry capitalized on the Los Angeles riots, it has excelled, since 9/11, at tapping into the fear of terrorism. ... In recent years, the gun industry’s product displays have become so focussed on self-defense and 'tactical' gear that some hunters feel ignored. After a trade show in January, David E. Petzal, a columnist for Field & Stream, mocked the 'SEAL wannabes,' and wrote that 'you have to look fairly hard for something designed to kill animals instead of people.' The contempt is mutual; some concealed-carry activists call hunters 'Fudds,' as in Elmer. ... The chances of being killed by a mass shooter are lower than the chances of being struck by lightning, or of dying from tuberculosis. The chance of a homicide by a firearm in the home nearly doubles the moment that a firearm crosses the threshold."


Let's see if I correctly understand the recent article on guns I posted. Many white folks in the US were alarmed over black folks and their supporters demonstrating and rioting in the '60s and '70s. Many of these people became fearful, judgmental, resentful, and blaming. Instead of seeking an understanding of why blacks were complaining and rioting, and, if any of their complaints had merit, what if anything might be done to address their grievances, many whites decided to call the disturbances a law-and-order matter with an often unspoken undertone of group-blame based on racial prejudice and bias.

A large part of their response to this perceived threat to their person, property, wealth and power was to buy guns and shoot blacks and anyone else who might try to rob or harm them. This, such whites thought but most would not say, would help protect themselves and their stuff, and slow down or stop the ongoing erosion of their societal power and privilege.

Let's now consider what happened next. Most Republican politicians and key fundamentalist Christian leaders quickly jumped in and proclaimed their strong support for this kind of thinking and action. Underneath it all they knew it was a quasi-law and order response yet they went along with it and festooned it all with religious righteousness and patriotism.

Now, let's see how this response to America's social and cultural evolution toward a more just, humane, rational society worked out. Well, we now have a society where gun selling, buying and use are, for all practical purposes, poorly controlled to the point that a significant number of preventable deaths of innocent people cannot be stopped. Worst of all, the majority of a major political party and their base of supporters are on the verge of putting forward a vulgar, race-baiting, misogynist, laissez-faire uber-capitalist for the US presidency.

How did all this happen? Go to the top of this post and the essay and start over. What can we do? 1) Do not confirm Trump as the GOP nominee. 2) If he's nominated, vote against him in November and encourage others to do the same. What about the problem of choosing inappropriate responses to social problems? Support people at all levels of society and circumstances who offer societal and individual responses and solutions based on reason, unbiased research evidence, and critical thinking; and oppose in all forums and situations those who act on, feed into, racialize, politicize, profit from, and supernaturally sanctify our emotions and fears.



Here's another description of the complex relationship between religion and secular states. And we think the US situation is a mess.

It seems the relationship between these two core cultural domains, politics and religion, has become more complex and turbulent during cultural evolutionary prehistory and history. This seems especially the case following their institutionalization within pre-modern and modern nation-states in the West such as Tudor England and late-19th century Italy.

In earlier, tribal or ethnic-centered societies, political leaders were usually dominant and religious practitioners, military experts, and other specialists and elders occupied subordinate positions on their councils. There nevertheless was fractiousness early on. For example, when a religious councilor sought to direct the forces of the supernatural or his kit of potions and poisons against the leader, or a general sought the paramount chieftaincy, or when the two conspired to usurp power.

It seems fractiousness, at all levels of social size and complexity, has always been an inherent characteristic of the relationship between the various cultural domains - politics, religion, military, economics, technology & invention, etc. It seems it is yet another part of the price we pay when individuals live in groups - a vying for dominance between the ambitions of individuals and the need to live in groups for mutual enhancement and protection from each other and other groups.

Your thoughts?

The dynamics of individual and group needs in cultural evolution is a topic I addressed within a paper I wrote in the early 2000s on African culture and personality - asq.africa.ufl.edu/files/Lassiter-Vol-3-Issue-3.pdf.

The study of cultural evolution has been in the news recently. Some have pointed out what they see as an absence of a good theoretical framework - Massimo Pigliucci https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/…/the-complexities-of-…/ and http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/…/why-is-ancient-philosophy-still…; and others https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/…/how-darwinian-is-cul…/.

Still others are trying to step up efforts to establish such a theory and method framework: https://evolution-institute.org/…/society-for-the-study-o…/….

Aside from Stanley Diamond's and Yuval Noah Harari's respective books, does anyone have suggestions for good books or articles on cultural evolution, especially theories, grand or particular?


"Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God [er, no, again Caesar], the things that are God's" - Matthew 22:21



How you react to this essay is telling. If you can give assent to it or not, with emotional detachment, your practice of Stoicism is thriving. If you do give assent to it you are in a position to consider the merits or shortcomings of the arguments the author makes; and based on that add to or subtract from your understanding of what knowledge and truth should be, and how they may be improved upon and expanded.

If you choose not to give assent to the essay, you have refused to consider that the atheist-naturalist-materialist understanding of all knowledge and truth and its means for obtaining them may be less than necessary or sufficient.

In this essay, the strongest arguments for considering if the atheist-naturalist-materialist worldview is necessary and sufficient pertain to the cultural constructs, meanings and values of the ethnosphere - that totality of Humankind's mental accomplishments across space and time, so far:

"There is nothing in our experience of the world to suggest that the physical world is the terminus of our experience and cognition. In fact, the progress of science itself will likely render scientific naturalism and its reductive tendencies obsolete. To develop a complete model of the way in which human beings experience and interpret the world, naturalists must reject the twentieth century model that science is the world explaining itself to us in a special language. The model itself eerily echoes the one promoted by Egyptian and Canaanite priests in the 1st millennium BCE. Instead, they must look more closely at extended worlds, imagined worlds, and non-physical reality which have provided both knowledge and meaning necessary for human and cultural survival and progress. We have really just begun to explore these worlds and do not possess a sufficient calculus or language for the study, but as learning progresses, the fate of the atheo-scientist, secure on his island of experimental knowledge, is unclear."

Your thoughts?



Iain McGilchrist, in his 2010 book "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World," claims that we in the West have come to a point where we put too much emphasis on the abilities of the left hemisphere. [This book is currently the topic of an Owl & Ibis discussion (http://facebook.com/owlandibis) led by Judith Moore.]

Here's how Wikipedia accurately describes the author's approach to brain lateralization: "McGilchrist digests study after study, replacing the popular and superficial notion of the hemispheres as respectively logical and creative in nature with the idea that they pay attention in fundamentally different ways, the left being detail-oriented, the right being whole-oriented. These two modes of perception cascade into wildly different hemispheric personalities, and in fact reflect yet a further asymmetry in their status, that of the right's more immediate relationship with physical bodies (our own as well as others) and external reality as represented by the senses, a relationship that makes it the mediator, the first and last stop, of all experience."

Now, below is a recent essay in The Atlantic that in a way echoes McGilchrist's concern. Here's an excerpt:

"We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. ... [T]he less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.

When Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term 'meritocracy' in 1958, it was in a dystopian satire. At the time, the world he imagined, in which intelligence fully determined who thrived and who languished, was understood to be predatory, pathological, far-fetched. Today, however, we’ve almost finished installing such a system, and we have embraced the idea of a meritocracy with few reservations, even treating it as virtuous. That can’t be right. Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth."

Your thoughts?

September 6, 2015

The Self And Its Brain

It can be argued that there are at least three popular, contradictory notions of the self or person. First, a major tenet of Western philosophy is the existence and importance of a self - the Delphic dictum "know thyself," Socrates's "the unexamined life (of a person) is not worth living," and the Stoics' emphasis on cultivating personal virtues as a means to achieve individual happiness and social harmony. The Enlightenment notion of individuals (persons) not only existing but having certain rights must also be included here. 

Second, Buddhism also acknowledges the existence of the self but this religion's path to happiness and social flourishing involves meditation emphasizing an abandonment or transcendence of self, or a submerging of one's self into Nature.

Finally, the idea that the self is an "illusion" is a popular notion promoted by neuroscientists and a few psychologists and philosophers. That is, the self is an illusion arising from the brain (where does it exist and who/what is having this illusion?) that the "owner of a brain" (another interesting notion), and other brains and their language facilities and bodily speech organs, falsely claim is a self. 

I fully accept that the self or person is somehow a product of and exists initially within the electro-chemical workings of brain tissue. That the self is neither a ghost nor homunculus in the cranium nor an eternal soul existing independent of the living embodied brain.

August 6, 2015

Roundabout III


This article begins by describing neural pathways associated with empathy then goes on at great length to describe empathetic processes at higher levels of analysis. These levels - the psychological, social, and cultural - provide a number of explanations of empathetic processes. These include the formation of concepts of self that have greatest meaning within social contexts and that are fed, maintained, and changed by cultural beliefs and values; the display of social actions based on varying notions of self and others; and the power of cultural concepts to define and animate, and motivate selves and groups.

The key researcher admits this but insists that the solution is in the brain, not in modifying or "renovating" notions of self, others, beliefs, values, and social norms. He writes:

"[T]he picture remains incomplete. We still need to map a host of other empathy-related tasks — like judging the reasonableness of people’s arguments and sympathizing with their mental and emotional states — to specific brain regions. And then we need to figure out how these neural flashes translate into actual behavior: Why does understanding what someone else feels not always translate to being concerned with their welfare? Why is empathizing across groups so much more difficult? And what, if anything, can be done to change that calculus?"

It is implied that psychological and social efforts to introduce more empathetic beliefs, values, and social norms in the hope of achieving more empathetic behavior have failed. In the short-term cases he mentions, he's correct.

However, if his implication of the failure of cultural renovation is meant as a statement about human nature and history, or an indictment of human agency and culture for failing to be determinative, re-/innovative evolutionary forces, then we need to reconsider our entire understanding of the past 200,000+ years of human cultural evolution. That the emergence of symbolic language was an act of brain physiology not a socio-cultural innovation. That the invention and spread of complex tool use was driven by the workings of brain meat not innovation and cultural diffusion. That agriculture, urban living, laws, treaties, International protocols and conventions, and the liberating and humanizing principles of civilizations, including those of the Enlightenment, arose from the brain and not from the efforts of embodied yet socially defined and culturally motivated selves. That the matter of "just" wars against fascism, movements for racial liberation and human rights, for example, leading to psycho-socio-cultural transformations and the opening of new pathways toward the betterment of Humankind are, at their root, brain activity. 

"I get that these are complicated problems,” he told me. “I get that there isn’t going to be any one magic solution. But if you trace even the biggest of these conflicts down to its roots, what you find are entrenched biases, and these sort-of calcified failures of empathy. So I think no matter what, we have to figure out how to root that out.”

Ah, yes, tracing human behavior "down to its roots." Identifying "Entrenched biases" and "failures of empathy" and figuring out "how to root them out."

I think a better argument can be made for investigating the psychological make-up, the child rearing experienced, and the social and cultural transformations persistently worked for by persons who have had the greatest impact on Humankind - Spinoza, Lincoln, Twain, Churchill, the Roosevelts, Nyerere, King, Mandela, and many, many other men and women. It is in their embodied socially active selves, their deep inner personal commitments to humanity and humaneness, and the actions they took that we can expect to find the roots of empathy, and the means of understanding and addressing the conditions under which it flourishes and fails.

By all means, study the brain and reveal its relationship to the higher, more complex levels of being human. It is, I believe, from studying this relationship that further and better knowledge will be developed about complex human behaviors - from the mind-body problem to or place in the universe - not in reducing complex human thought and behavior to the properties and processes of bodily matter.



Understanding culture and the beliefs and values of specific cultures from a strictly Darwinian selection point of view is not a new approach.

The most recent attempt was by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene in which he coined the term "meme" as the basic unit of cultural evolutionary selection and set in motion the study (I hesitate to call it a discipline or sub-discipline) of memetics. British psychologist Susan Blackmore (
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Blackmore) is for Dawkins what Thomas Huxley became for Darwin.

I didn't jump on the memetic bandwagon at first because, well, it was a bandwagon. But mainly I didn't and still don't like the approach because it smacks of the old, unsubstantiated Kroeberian and Whiteian take on culture as having a superorganic existence and processes of its own, independent of its symbiotic hosts, the minds of individuals.

Scott-Phillips of
Durham University, is an anthropologist.




Here’s a good essay on the return of realism and the end of postmodernism and its attack on the natural and social sciences. How so many bought into the PM notion that reality is nothing more that our linguistic formulations is beyond me. Yes, we use mind-imbedded language to engage the natural and social worlds but that does not justify the PM conclusion that that engagement is the only reality.

November 12, 2014

Roundabout II


The best thing the Chinese government is doing is not cracking down on Christianity. Cracking down would tie Christianity to the struggle for freedom from state repression and thereby ennoble it, make it modern and "enlightened," and encourage its growth. Letting Christianity run its course should lead to its eventual fall from its tendency toward decadence and corruption and its vulnerability to a science-driven decrease in "gaps" for God to fill. Then it would be replaced by atheism as is happening in Europe. Or, it will morph into evangelical science and reason denialism and somehow be usurped by conservative politicians as we have seen happen in the US, for now but hopefully not forever. Enlightenment science, reason, and humanitarianism may be slow to spread and take root but they are proving to be highly potent in the long term. Let's hope the long term is long enough.


This interview, especially the book How America Failed it focuses on, presents a serious challenge to freethinking humanism as received from the Enlightenment. Science, reason, and humanitarianism may, repeat may, be succeeding globally in the long term but they are clearly failing in the US. What, if anything, can be done when the best ideas and methods Western civilization has produced for governance and social life are willingly and knowingly rejected by the majority in the most powerful, wealthiest, and most highly "educated" country in history? I tend to agree with the book's author, Morris Berman. Nothing. We're screwed. The blind thundering herd of selfish greedy individuals is taking us all over the cliff and into the abyss. Not so, you say?  Please explain.