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.

October 27, 2014

Evil – A Supernatural Force Or Just A Label For The Very Bad Things We Think And Do?

“The Truth About Evil” by John Gray, The Guardian, October 21, 2014

Above is a link to an article on evil, that is, a force, idea, or action of highest compassionless cruelty. I find little to quibble with in Gray's notion that evil is part of the full range of potential human behavior - we've proven it over the millennia. His rebuke of some who paint as evil those who do not conform to Western liberal notions of the inevitability of Enlightened progress toward more widespread democracy, equality, and justice, also seems well founded. There is potential for evil thoughts and behavior in all of us. But there is insufficient reason or evidence to conclude that evil is an independent supernatural force or that as such it can “inhabit” a person or group.  Without human thought or action evil disappears along with all our other labelled categories for reality and human experience.

October 4, 2014

A Rite Of Passage And School Of Life For Adulthood – On Their Reinvention And Reestablishment

Photo by Amy Grubb, The Guardian

by Luke Cunard
The Guardian, October 3, 2014

The above-linked article about a young Englishwoman marrying herself grabbed my attention in an unusual way.  The subject of the article, Grace Gelder, regards the novel notion of self-marrying, which she undertook in March 2014, as a pact with herself.  That is, a promise to herself to strengthen her commitment to personal self-awareness and development, including improving her relations with others, then "somehow enacting that in how you live your life from that day on."

Such a crucial rite of passage for acknowledging personal growth and strengthening social well-being, though universal in ancient and likely prehistoric societies, is now not only sorely and almost totally lacking in the secular West, it is also gradually being given up elsewhere in the world. The current high level of personal discontent and social un- or dis-ease, in the West and increasingly elsewhere, warrant the reinvention and reintroduction of such a rite.

Such a renewed rite of passage with its attendant ceremonies and rituals would need to be voluntary.  How else could it be palatable to and binding upon the modern, Enlightened individual?  Successfully completing the rite would be contingent upon the initiand having undergone self- or institutional-instruction in such subjects as critical thinking and applied personal and moral philosophy, especially that found in Stoicism and Epicureanism.  It would also entail at least a minimal exposure to a significant portion of the world's other moral philosophies, including the moral teachings of the world’s religions. A tall order, you say?  Yes, but something this good could not and should not come easy.  Some would fail, others would succeed partially, and still others would succeed fully.  Still, this would be a great improvement over the current lack of such a rite and its attendant personal and societal discontent palpable in the ever-growing secular population of the world.

A public ceremony would give the rite social affirmation and validation. During this ceremony vows would be made based on a credo of humane personal virtues and moral principles the initiand would choose, write down, and commit to, and thereby be something to return to for guidance throughout his/her life.

September 10, 2014

Baseline Melancholia - Don't Worry Or Be Happy, Be Content

UPDATE - More and more on happiness....

In Praise of Melancholy and How It Enriches Our Capacity for Creativity by Maria Popova, November 28, 2014

Happiness Expert Paul Dolan: What Makes Me Happy by Paul Dolan, November 22, 2014

Take the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire by Argyle, Hills, and Wright, November 3, 2014

From Ptolemy to George Eliot to William Blake, A Private History of Everyday Happiness by Maria Popova, October 20, 2012

An Equation That Predicts Happiness by Cari Romm, The Atlantic, August 6, 2014

Against Happiness: Why We Need a Philosophy of Failure by Andy Martin, Prospect, August 1, 2014

How to be Happy:  A Guide Through Ancient Philosophy

What Happiness Conceals by John Quiggin, Aeon, March 27, 2014

The Meanings of Life - Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning, by Roy F. Baumeister, Aeon, September 16, 2013

Learned Optimism: Martin Seligman on Happiness, Depression, and the Meaningful Life by Maria Papova, BrainPickings, June 28, 2012

The Neuroscience of Happiness by Lucy McKeon, January 28, 2012

7 Essential Books on the Art and Science of Happiness by Maria Papova, January 25, 2011


Yuval Noah Harari
The Guardian, September 5, 2014

I shouldn't be so cynical when it comes to essays about happiness, but I always am. Harari's essay, though, is a good one.

I tend to think less about my happiness and more of my qualia (inner, personal states) such as freedom from pain or fear, or the level of my general wellness. Pain, fear, and well being apply to the in-the-present condition of all sentient animal life forms. Happiness as humans define it seems to ask for too much. I can reasonably conclude that a chimp or goose, for example, is experiencing pain, fear, or well being based on its behavior. However, only humans, using language, tell each other or write, in excruciating detail, about their inner states. That is, to what degree they are experiencing or not experiencing pain, fear, and well being in terms of their happiness.

September 5, 2014

Roundabout I


"The Mathematical World" by James Franklin, April 7, 2014

I've read this essay once. My thinking the first time through kept me going to my effort some time back to understand the concept of time in a universe where humans did not exist -http://jameselassiter.blogspot.com/2011/05/time-does-not-objectively-exist.html?m=1 

On that occasion I felt somewhat comfortable that time is indeed an artifact with no objective existence prior to its invention by humans.

But the present essay has me fairly well convinced that mathematics, at least the natural shapes and processes it accurately accounts for, exists independent of humans inventing it. As I read with that notion under tow, I began to think that perhaps time might also exist independent of humans "discovering" it. The intervals between cosmic and quantum events are real. Call them time if we must.

I can ease my dilemma if I couch these notions in an explanation/understanding that acknowledges that both exist - objective mathematics and time on the one hand AND the artifactual constructs we create and use to think about and discuss them on the other. This seems to square with modern science - the objective existence of preexisting regularities (predictabilities) in the universe AND the formulation of laws, equations, and descriptions that represent and explain those conditions.

Then again, without our "mathematics" and "time" the universe would only be matter of various types, combinations, and shapes, in motion. Certain outcomes of this motion would repeat themselves (events we would describe as being in conformity with natural laws) and other motion outcomes would be novel or emergent. Period.

Let me read it once again....


"Our Lonely Home in Nature" by Alan Lightman, May 2, 2014

"Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us."

Really?! Lightman does place human empowerment a far second from the power of nature. The problem with his conclusion is his, I think, unfounded assumption that nature can withstand whatever humans do.