August 6, 2015

Epistemic Roundabout III



GETTING DOWN TO THE “ROOTS” OF HUMAN NATURE – REALLY?

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.


  

HOW DARWINIAN IS CULTURAL EVOLUTION?

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.

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1642/20130368



WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?




RETURN TO REALISM

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

Epistemic Roundabout II


A CRACK IN CHINA'S ATHEIST EDIFICE?

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.


HOW AMERICA FAILED

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


ORIGINAL POST:


by
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

Epistemic Roundabout I


COSMOLOGY

"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....


EARTH

"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.

July 9, 2014

Anti-Intellectualism In American Life - Excerpts And A Comment


The further I read in this great, Pulitzer Prize winning book the more amazed am I that the principles of the Enlightenment – the improvement of society through reason; the challenging of ideas grounded in tradition and faith; and the advancement of knowledge through skepticism, scientific method, and intellectual interchange - have not by now been completely rooted out and discarded by mainstream America and the politicians that prey upon, serve, and ultimately rule them. [Perhaps this is in fact the real American story, that Enlightenment principles remain in place at all.]

Maybe we are experiencing the last chapter in the current conservative, Christian, Republican effort at such an eradication and societal takeover.  For the holders of this vision seem to be ever-more numerous, determined, and entrenched in power. If they ultimately succeed, and current events in the US continue to strengthen my belief that they might, a new and much more brutal Dark Age will soon and surely follow.

June 8, 2014

Suffering And Injustice - Whose Awe, Truth, And Hope Will Prevail?



I am not angry at God and certainly do not fancy myself being him, as some I’m sure accuse me. In fact, I would never want to be God and have and use his imputed power and knowledge. Not even for a moment in which I might rid the world of, say, human suffering and injustice. The responsibility for such an act aside, removing suffering and injustice and all that causes, attends, and follows from them would be an unprecedented intervention in the unpredictability of the Cosmos. 

Eliminating any of the unpredictability of the Cosmos would forestall the possibility of certain serendipitous events taking place in the future. A look at the list of past serendipitous events and conditions that contributed to the origins of the Earth and life upon it, including our own, though a rare but not necessarily extraordinary occurrence in the vastness of the Cosmos, should make one, especially a God-for-the-moment human, hesitate to make any wholesale changes in how it all works. A cosmic intervention would also require certain violations of the predictable laws of the Universe that we are aware of - gravity, for example - and a number of others we so far have not discovered but would be briefly known to me, the God of the Moment, The Great Intervener. My mere tinkering, which is what it would be for such an omniscient and omnipotent one as me, would redefine every thing and every process, everywhere, forever.