November 21, 2013

The Righteous Mind By Jonathon Haidt: Critique Postscript

There’s so much to be said about moral psychologist Jonathon Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). I have had my time upon the stage in my critique of the book and am grateful to those who read my post. Let me take things a bit further, however, and discuss one other matter that puts me off about Haidt's work, something I did not address in my critique.  That is, his interpretation of his data on the Left and why members of the Left score as they do on his tests.

Haidt’s portrayal of the Left is incomplete. His claim may be supported by his moral foundation questionnaire but he fails to explain why those on the Left hold the moral positions they do. For example, Haidt claims that members of the Left do not value loyalty as much as members of the Right. Yes, that is true. But the facts of his test result are not sufficient. The matter doesn’t end there. The reasons members of the Left score lower on the loyalty foundation is crucial to understanding the difference between the Left and the Right, and the nature of morality generally.

November 2, 2013

Good And Evil: Hardwired, Learned, Or Both?

by Piercarlo Valdesolo
Scientific American, October 29, 2013

"The longer we cling to strong beliefs about the existence of pure evil, the more aggressive and antisocial we become.  And we may be aggressing towards individuals who are, in fact, 'redeemable.'  Individuals who are not intrinsically and immutably motivated by the desire to intentionally cause harm to others."

What if our strong reductionistic, deterministic scientists some day establish an irrefutable gene, gene complex, and/or a neural basis for evil? Would redemption, atonement, and rehabilitation still be possible? Why bother? What would become of societal values, moral codes and laws, of individual deliberative judgment?  Would we regard them simply as post hoc rationalizations of what our genes and brains direct us to do? Would the social sciences become mere descriptions of artifacts and a cataloguing of individual, societal, and global events that genes and brains have dictated?

September 28, 2013

Culture As Superorganism - Neurobiologist's Speculation Is Misleading

I don't mind when I read an occasional knocking us humans down a peg or two, or the elevation of other creatures in our estimation.  In fact I also find it useful and enjoyable to occasionally point out our sweaty, butt-scratching animalness.  I have not read evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi's book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man but his essay linked above, which explains the main theses of his book, shows a most glaring misunderstanding of culture and cultural evolution on his part.

August 29, 2013

Something From Nothing?!

From this, the empty set, nothing:

{   }

to this, a lot of something:

(Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California,
Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)

by Robert Lawrence Kuhn
eSkeptic, August 28, 2013

I have read this essay twice. The following excerpts make very little sense to me and seem like woo. The only way I can understand what is being said is if I substitute a different word for "nothing," such as "reality." Even then I have difficulty understanding or accepting what the author is trying to communicate. I have put my specific reactions in brackets after each excerpt.

What the author is calling "nothing" really isn't a space, state of existence, or condition with no thing. In his purported nine levels of nothing, for example, only the ninth can truly be said to have no thing. The other eight have things and therefore are really not nothing.

August 28, 2013

Secular Truth And Morality: Being Virtuous, Happy, And At Peace Without God and Religion

Proceeds from the sale of this book go toward paying school fees and living expenses of children in Uganda.

To buy this book, click here.

From the description:

In this book, his first, American anthropologist James E Lassiter offers an alternative to the absolute truths of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – for understanding our place in Nature, and how we might behave more humanely and responsibly toward each other and the planet. He describes scientific truth, upon which secularism is founded, in comparison to religion, as a far more apt corollary to and explanation of the evolution of the Universe and Life itself.

July 31, 2013

Life In America Can Drive You Insane, Literally

Cropped from “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” [Allegory of the Triumph of Venus] by Angelo Bronzino (1503-1572)

by Bruce E. Levine, The Alternet, July 30, 2013

“The reality is that with enough helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, we rebel and refuse to comply. Some of us rebel by becoming inattentive. Others become aggressive. In large numbers we eat, drink and gamble too much. Still others become addicted to drugs, illicit and prescription. Millions work slavishly at dissatisfying jobs, become depressed and passive aggressive, while no small number of us can’t cut it and become homeless and appear crazy. Feeling misunderstood and uncared about, millions of us ultimately rebel against societal demands, however, given our wherewithal, our rebellions are often passive and disorganized, and routinely futile and self-destructive.”

"At Eternity's Gate, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

July 22, 2013

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting - New UN Report

New UNICEF report on female genital mutilation/cutting: Turning opposition into action UNICEF Report on Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and Abuse, July 22, 2013

“FGM/C is a violation of a girl’s rights to health, well-being and self-determination,” says UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta. “What is clear from this report is that legislation alone is not enough. The challenge now is to let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned.”

"UNICEF published its first statistical exploration of FGM/C in 2005, helping to increase awareness of the magnitude and persistence of the practice. This report, published eight years later, casts additional light on how the practice is changing and on the progress being made. The analyses contained on the following pages show that social dynamics favouring the elimination of the practice may exist even in countries where the practice is universal and provide clues on how they might be harnessed. The report also makes clear that, in some countries, little or no change is apparent yet and further programmatic investments are needed.

"As many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade if current trends persist. UNICEF will continue to engage with governments and civil society, together with other  partners, to advance efforts to eliminate FGM/C worldwide. If, in the next decade, we work together to apply the wealth of evidence at our disposal, we will see major progress. That means a better life and more hopeful prospects for millions of girls and women, their families and entire communities.

Geeta Rao Gupta
Deputy Executive Director, UNICEF

What you can do, now:

Facebook:  STOP FGM NOW!

July 6, 2013

"Humanities Crisis?"

 Makonde carving, East Africa

The Decline of the Humanities - and Civilization by Rosanna Warren, The New Republic, July 17, 2013

Who Ruined the Humanities? by Lee Siegel, The Wall Street Journal, The Saturday Essay, July 12, 2013

"A digital environment also stresses quantitative thinking, and perhaps that helps explain why the most exciting cultural advances are now in science and medicine.

"It is hardly a surprise that in this atmosphere, college students choose to major in fields that are most relevant to the life around them. What a blessing that is on literature. Slipping out from behind ivied prison doors, where they have been forced to labor as evaluative "texts," the great thoughts and feelings made permanent by art can resume their rightful place as a unique phase of ordinary experience."


Humanist: Heal Thyself
by Russell A. Berman
The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 10, 2013

I don't see a humanities crisis as this and other recent essays* try to argue. Fewer humanities majors than in the past? Such can only be a problem of staffing and salaries at universities, or a problem of society where there ostensibly needs to be a certain critical mass of humanities educated US citizens. 

The first problem is really not one for the academy. Declining humanities majors and attendant faculty positions are accompanied by increases in science and other areas. The academy is neither in crisis nor endangered by this.

The second problem, harm to society, is likewise not significant. That a society might become less able to appreciate art, music, literature, and history and therefore become less humanistic and less humane due to the lack of university-educated humanists flies in the face of what we know of the nature of Humankind. 

Humans direct and shape culture to suit their perceived needs, usually for the short term. Regardless of what majors US college students choose, the future of Humankind's thinking and behaving humanistically and humanely is not something to be worried about. Currently, the global trend is for societies to fashion and support cultures that have beliefs, values, and behaviors that are predominantly secular-scientific. Implicit in worries over the future of university humanities is a fear that ever-growing scientific-secularism and materialism are increasingly harmful to Humankind. There is no historical or anthropological evidence to justify such fear. The most atrocious behaviors of all time have been derived from quests for power, wealth, and religious hegemony - not a lack of knowledge about the humanities.  Humaneness will not decline because fewer humanities degrees are awarded in the US and elsewhere. In fact, a strong argument could be made that far more acts of humaneness have been committed, historically and currently, by illiterate humans than by all the world's humanities graduates combined.    

June 23, 2013

New Freethinkers

Owl & Ibis – A Confluence of Minds represents one among many new approaches being tried alongside contemporary and more popular freethinker groups. This new direction derives from and has its precursors in the humanistic thinking of John Dewey, Paul Kurtz, Isaiah Berlin, and many others. Owl & Ibis, as a learning endeavor, is interested in and respectful of all civilizations, societies, cultural traditions, and belief systems but professes to none. It holds in high esteem secular-scientific thinking yet is committed to pluralism and tolerance regarding all other modes of thought. At the same time, it will critically assess and when necessary vigorously challenge the beliefs and values of persons and groups that advocate and carry out harm* against persons, peoples, and Humankind as a whole. This includes challenging efforts to place religious beliefs in the curricula of public-funded science classrooms, and in legislation drafted by otherwise secular governments. Both actions, when successful, are regarded as harmful to Humankind. 

Many freethinkers often become zealous about their views regarding science and atheism, and descend into "scientism" and religion- and believer-bashing. When this occurs freethinker understandings of science’s methods become dogmatic and science’s provisional knowledge becomes misconstrued as absolute. Such a freethinker worldview becomes similar to that of the very religious fundamentalists they most abhor such that both defend their respective beliefs as absolute truth and their methods for arriving at them as superior to all others.

June 22, 2013

Ultimate Knowledge

Philosopher in Meditation by Rembrandt

by Stephen Wolfram

The importance of this article is its accurate description of the great promise of applying the natural sciences and mathematics to human behavior, AND their limitations. Wolfram's comment toward the end on taking a certain comfort that there will most likely never be an ultimate, totally predictive knowledge of human behavior and the processes of the universe should not cause discouragement. Nor should the unlikely attainment of such a perfect knowledge cause us to abandon the focusing of the natural sciences on Humankind. Acceptance of the unlikely emergence of a complete, deterministic natural science of man is an acceptance of the reality of the complexity of the universe and in turn the complexities of the affairs of Humankind. I am comforted by the provisional scientific knowledge we continue to build, not by a desire or need for an absolute knowledge. The former seems a better fit for the provisional, evolving universe we are in.

June 21, 2013

Natural Science, Certainty, And Widget Factories

by Gary Marcus

My posts against scientism are cautionary comments motivated by my love of and respect for science and Humankind. It is disheartening that so many of my fellow humans, such as Donald Brooks mentioned in the essay linked above, take criticism of neuroscientism as a justification for condemning and ignoring the important work and findings of the brain sciences.

It is becoming more and more apparent that we in the West, and most acutely those of us in the US, have sunken into an age of reactionary extremes where certainty, bombast, and outrage are our favored and most often only modes of expressing our views and reacting to the views of others. Umbrage, indignation, and knee-jerk conclusion jumping, such as that of Mr Brooks and others such as politicians, are in vogue and too often taken as signs of the correctness of the position taken by such persons regardless of whether they have any expertise in the matter they speak of or not. Fortunately, discerning minds easily recognize cautionary comments for what they are and can look beyond the bluster and fury of self-appointed experts and windbags.

All will eventually be well and this age of certainty, determinism, and absolutism - among the believers AND secular-scientific thinkers, and among the left AND right - will pass into another age. Hopefully, it will be an age of tolerant pluralism where we must work harder at finding common ground and ways forward for Humankind and forsake the easier work of expressing certainty, outrage, and intolerance. We will need many more discerning minds to express themselves than are currently doing so to take us toward a new age with a viable and sustainable global morality and civilization at its core. The current age of zero-sum certainty and bombast is divisive, inclined toward conflict, and intellectually sterile. Humankind can and will do better, if we don't self-destruct along the way.

*           *           *

Materialism, reductionism, and determinism are essential to the scientific method. But also essential to scientific methodology is the recognition that complex structures and functions, beyond atoms, molecules, tissues, and organs and what they do, represent and require different and more complex levels of analysis.

June 9, 2013

The Two Greatest Inventions

Printing Press With Movable Type, Johannes Guterburg, c. 1440

The above link takes you to the opening essay of the New York Times Magazine, Innovations Issue of June 9, 2013.  The answer to the Times' rhetorical question about the greatest invention in history shouldn't surprise you.  No, it isn't the printing press with movable type pictured above.  The greatest invention ever was the first stone chopping tools used by our ancestors 2.6 million years ago.

Olduwan Stone Chopping Tools, East Africa

These simple, modified pieces of rock in themselves are not so great to us modern humans when we compare them to subsequent inventions, innovations, and discoveries.  It is true that fire usage, metal tools, the wheel, writing, mathematics, architecture, industrial manufacturing, electricity, the internal combustion engine, airplanes, atomic energy, medical science and technology, electronic computation, and others have been greater in terms of their power to manipulate the environment and their ability to improve human living conditions.

The greatness of these first hominin (humans and their close extinct relatives) tools is in what they contributed to if not on their own precipitated - a new type of survival strategy in the natural history of animals commonly known today as "human cultural adaptation."  These rudimentary tools our ancestors made, used, became dependent on, and gradually improved upon stand as our most important invention, ever.  The subsequent impact of this new hominin way of life of which tool use was inseparable is still being powerfully applied to Earth, its environment, and all its life forms.

Stone chopping tools, used for butchering scavenged carcasses in East Africa 2.6 million years ago, are the oldest of our ancestors' tools to be preserved and later discovered in the archaeological record.  Stone tool manufacture and usage helped initiate an unprecedented evolutionary adaptation in the natural history of animals.  Hominin cultural adaptation did not emerge suddenly or fully formed.  It is a set of innovations in hominin evolution comprised of the following:  tool manufacture and reliance, upright walking, high protein consumption, social group innovations, increased brain size, and language.  It is this adaptation complex - an ecological-behavioral niche that we gradually created and continue build upon - that allowed us to survive and upon which we still depend today.

This complex is an emergent baseline bio-cultural foundation that made possible and sped up the emergence of all subsequent human inventions, innovations, and discoveries.  Without the advent of this tool-centered adaptation complex the subsequent social, technological, and scientific advances humans have made would have been unlikely if not impossible.  For further reading on how Phase I, the human cultural adaptation complex, came about and what it has led to see The Driving Forces Of Human Evolution - A Reading List and The Case For Human Evolution, Science And Reason - A Reading List.

June 3, 2013

Scientism And The Humanities


"Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles  certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic, question.

"Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance."

June 2, 2013

Science And Morality

A must read complement to Michael Shermer (The Science of Good and Evil) and Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) on science and morality.  All three are excellent treatments of this subject.

April 12, 2013

Am In Uganda, The Pearl of Africa, And Loving It!

Wanale (Nkokonjeru), a major rock prominence in the western
shadow of Masaaba (Mt. Elgon), Bumasaaba, the homeland
of the Masaaba people of eastern Uganda

Have been at my second home in Uganda since February 1.  Been visiting relatives and friends and completing the preliminaries for research for a book I'm writing, The Bamasaaba or Bagisu of Uganda: An Historical Ethnography.  Will resume posting in May.  Cheers!

January 10, 2013

Brain Creates Self, Self Becomes An Emergent Agent That Connects Brain To World

Art by Mark David Dietz, used with permission

If the self is a delusion, as many tell us, who or what is it that is being deluded? The self is produced by the brain based on inherited biological potentials and the brain's interactions with the environment via the senses. It is maintained and projected socially by the brain throughout our lives. It is that which the brain creates and imposes on the local and global community of minds we are born into, a community that also provides access to the thoughts of minds from the past. It is not a stand-alone dualistic soul, homunculus, or ghost in the machine. Nor is it solely a collection of impulse discharging nerve cells in the brain. It begins at birth and ends at death. Look for the self in what a person says and does in between. ... As for changing or improving one's self, here's a great, somewhat tongue-in-cheek article by journalist Kathryn Schulz on the self-help industry:

Also, there is this:  the archaic mammalian SELF at the sub-cortical level -  One cannot help after observing the individual and social behavior of reptiles and birds that there must also be a reptilian and avian SELF, and a SELF at work in all sentient beings.  When a bird, for example, flees at the approach of what might be danger to its well-being and continued existence it appears to be doing so as a deliberative response to a remembered experience of one or a number of characteristics the danger possesses.  The bird appears to have "decided" this particular danger is a threat and responded in a manner it believes is in its best interest.  This postulation and its resulting decision is made with reference to its remembered individual experience and its remembered observation of other animals' fleeing or making referent calls in reference to the same danger.  We've all seen birds and other animals respond to danger and non-dangerous others and situations - most times appropriately, sometimes inappropriately, and sometimes in a confused, undecided manner.  The fact that they don't always respond appropriately seems to me to support the idea that their deliberative sometimes breaks down from the lack of full information about the threat or a misinterpretation of full information.  Stealth, camouflage, mimicry, and other traits and tactics on the part of dangerous others, such as predators, are used to confuse the deliberative process in their prey.  Predator animals likewise engage in deliberative processes in their decisions to pursue or not pursue prey, and in what manner they will do so.

In light of the research and thinking presented in the above paper by Stephen T. Asma and Thomas Greif, a synthesis of neuroscience, philosophy, and social science regarding the human self could be expressed as follows:

The self, at the cortical level in humans, is an evolutionary emergent elaboration along the continuum of the mammalian self. What we humans have is a mammalian self at the level of the mid-brain that is augmented and elaborated by the cortex using language. It is this enhanced self we create and use to engage the global community of minds, past and present - a self that is both biological and social.

Perhaps the most important question for which Humankind remains in search of an answer, after why there is something rather than nothing in the universe, is how, exactly, the brain creates a self at the sub-cortical and cortical level?  This will require a detailed accounting of how the neural matter of the brain gives meaning to the sensory experiences of the individual, including the individual's experience of the meanings of others' sensory experiences as found in their speech, writing, and behavior.  Studying the formulation and projection of a self by other sentient animals may help lead to a breakthrough among neuroscientists who are at an impasse in explaining human consciousness.  An explanation my very well lie outside the human brain.  It may be a more common experience than we are at present willing to admit.  A form of consciousness and the continual creation and projection of a self appear to be characteristics of all sentient life on Earth.

Consciousness, to one degree or another, and self creation and projection appear to be far older and more widespread than their manifestations in the human brain and in the relatively brief experience of Humankind.

January 6, 2013

Is Self Or Personhood Dependent On Memory?

Amnesia and The Self That Remains When Memory is Lost

In response to scientistic (strong reductionistic/deterministic) claims that we have no free will and that the self is a delusion I always argue for the emergent, agent self/person being a real entity and part of the global, prehistoric, and historic community of minds. That a person is defined by him/herself and his fellow humans by his/her connection to this domain of dynamic, remembered ideas.

The article above argues that our self remains when we lose our memory.  However, it doesn't really provide evidence that the man with the brain tumor has a self independent of his memory. In fact, his memory in large part remains intact.  One, he remembers that it is important for him to do work he enjoys. Two, he has not lost that crucial part of his memory that he uses for the various aspects of language he learned during his life, and still remembers.

For me, if he had lost his memory of all the knowledge, beliefs, and values he had acquired during his life, and his memory of all aspects of language/speech comprehension and production, yet remained physiologically vegetatively alive, we could say his self/personness had ceased to exist. Fortunately, we would still respect his humanness and his inclusion as a member of Humankind, as we do a newborn who has yet to learn a language or acquire beliefs and values.

See the following link for a brief discussion of the legal and philosophical understandings of personhood.  Those quoted say little to nothing about memory being an essential part of being a human being. Their emphasis is on consciousness (which is reliant on memory) and biological processes.

Archive for "Being Human"