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 ( 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.
PM seemed to me akin to a mob intent on destroying science and its notions of arriving at ever-improving knowledge about nature and humans in society because they, the PMers, had failed to destroy those ideas and methods through argumentation and evidence. Language to them was the obscuring enemy that gave a false confidence to scientific knowledge and progress, not the essential medium for engaging and defining natural and social realities and for improving those notions through debate and testing. Perhaps PM was good for criticism within the humanities where it had its beginning, but came undone when it was applied to the scientific pursuit of the hard realities of nature and society.
I share Ruse's disdain for the new atheists' shrill attack on all religions and all of religions' content, including the many good (humanistic) works of the religious. I also agree with him that evidence is an acceptable (necessary and sufficient) criterion for believing or not believing. 

My only issues with Ruse's essay are his rhetorical use of the complexity-design notion in a way that lends credibility to the believer position, and his making an equivalence between the rationales of believers and non-believers. He writes:

"One doesn’t expect something like this [the universe and life], with its astounding interdependency and innumerable complex parts functioning in service of the whole, to just happen. ... Can such a wonderful universe be entirely without point?"

I think one can expect such and I don't see a need for a point beyond the meaning we each give to our lives. Perhaps he is knowledgeable of the biological argument for unexpectedly complex things to eventually happen in an infinite universe but doesn't say so, and it's his way of introducing the believer design counter-argument.

But he continues with: "Is everything we humans do ... nothing but a cosmic game?" Again, a rhetorical presentation of the believer position?

I guess so because he sums up by taking a strong stance in favor of evidence in the scientific sense of the term. Then, in a cute little twist says that atheists are no different from believers in that both "believe" what they do based on, in his view, insufficient evidence.

I am a strong agnostic yet a pluralist, by default. There is insufficient evidence to be certain that God exist or doesn't exist. That being said, I do not agree with Ruse's obvious conclusion that, therefore, atheism and theism are equally flawed and thereby have equal explanatory power.

The appeal of natural science evidence compared to the "evidence" (weak argumentation, really) of theism is in my view profoundly conclusive in favor of atheism. So, though a strong atheist I have to go with the atheists when the choosing of one side or the other is required.

Ruse strikes me as a weaselly semi-closet theist trying (unsuccessfully) to cleverly lower the atheist position while simultaneously trying to raise the plausibility of theism.

I fail to see any good for Humankind coming from his approach and doubt I'll read him again unless he comes to and brings a better point of view.
Talk about mythologizing, here's a retro approach:

I hope the writer is wrong about the future when he claims: "But in the decades to come, I expect the line between those who seek transcendence in [science and] technology and a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ to become increasingly blurred."

Then again, I've never had a problem taking a dose of awe and enchantment along with my experience of Nature through science and reason, except when it's forced on us in science classrooms and from the halls of power. 

We are certainly rational creatures but at the same time we, on occasion, dare to dream and think magically. And that's a good thing.



I liked the writer's preferred burial method for himself. See the end of the section on Hamilton.


Here's a tear-down of my support of Sam Harris and Michael Shermer's effort to derive a morality "ought" from the "is" of science. See link.

Even I have been troubled by a flaw in my position - namely, my view that moral guidance is inherent in scientific facts about good and harmful ideas and behaviors. Certain things are just bad (harmful or counter to human well-being) regardless of their cultural or temporal setting.

To look at a certain way of thinking or behaving and declare it bad in the above sense is, yes, to impose my personal, Western-influenced values and moral system. But deriving a global morality seems achievable despite allowances for cultural/moral diversity through time. We have enough accumulated knowledge about the full range of human ideas and practices through time on both the harm and well-being scale, as well as our after- or long-term judgments of such ideas and practices in and beyond their cultural and temporal contexts, to conclude that certain ideas and practices should be included in a universal or global morality and others not. Slavery and the Holocaust come to mind as examples of bad ideas and behavior that are universally rightfully deplorable despite their "appropriateness" to the times and values of European planters in the antebellum
Americas and that of German nationalists in the 1930s.

I can't shake off my view that there is a universal, global morality to be found through the science of human behavior. That is, despite the complexity and slipperiness inherent in language, beliefs, values, and the notion of cultural relativity, at present and throughout history and prehistory.


A good book review on kindness, a frequently abused virtue in modern U.S. society's culture of outrage, cynicism, and competition.


“In many indigenous teachings, the world’s movement is a contest for moral balance and understanding toward greater unity, and realization of the moral and human balance and harmony within the cosmic order comprised of all the nations of beings and powers in the universe."

I might quibble over some things in this short essay but not with its support for pluralism. Discussing what pluralism means and should mean, and what moral systems and virtues should be followed and which ones should not would be a huge if not impossible undertaking. A book that has a similar theme is Indigenous African Institutions by Ghanaian political economist George Ayittey. Both give good reasons for paying attention to the potential value of respecting and learning from long-standing indigenous cultural beliefs and values.


Intro to the latest issue of Philosophy Now magazine, an issue dedicated to science and morality. Am interested in particular about specifics on the process for deriving moral ought from a scientific is brought up at the end. I like Shermer's take on doing this (explained in detail elsewhere) and Sam Harris's (not mentioned in the essay). For that middle step what criteria should be used? Who would decide? How does the UN establish the moral positions it uses as foundations/justifications for its conventions and protocols? Surely scientific data, legal precedents and processes, and "reason" come into play. When scientific evidence on harm, well-being, fairness, planetary health, for example, are analyzed there surely follows a point where the UN drafts a resolution and later puts it up for a vote. That middle step between is's and oughts seems to reside in the moral makeup of the resolution drafters and in the decision-making processes of those who vote on it. So, yes, there is no inherent moral ought in a scientific is, but surely we have a rational means for bridging the gap and unifying science and morality. The fact that there is no consensus on the meaning of harm, well-being, fairness, etc., does NOT seem to me to be an insurmountable obstacle, nor should the fact that the politically and economically powerful usually dictate moral systems keep Humankind from trying to devise better ones.


I agree. No ideology or belief should be regarded as being beyond examination, challenge, or civil critique – be it religion, science, or anything between or beyond. Regrettably, in most of sub-Saharan Africa challenges to widely accepted belief systems and ancient social norms are still too often repressed by members of society and governments. This is especially true in politics but almost equally so regarding religion. The vast majority of the Africans I have met over the course of my 35-year residence in and involvement with the continent who have been highly trained in the medical, engineering, agricultural, and biological sciences are staunchly religious. Also, science education even at the highest levels in Africa, though very good from a technical methodological standpoint, rarely involves training in critical thinking. I would even argue that Gould's non-overlapping magisteria approach to science and religion is equally if not more widely accepted in Africa than elsewhere in the world. I admire Leo Igwe's courage and determination to raise the level of critical thinking, skepticism, and secularism in Africa. Though sometimes strongly passionate, he nevertheless consistently uses a civil, reasoned approach.


For the past six months I've been reading about and trying to incorporate Stoicism into my worldview and behavior. Reading the extensive recent writings on the subject of philosopher and biologist Massimo Pigliucci at CUNY brought my attention to the ancient Greek school of thought.

There is much in Stoicism that is intellectually stimulating. It also contains suggested ways of thinking and behaving that are practically and personally helpful. One of the most interesting topics is the approach Stoicism takes to spiritualism and materialism as approaches for understanding and explaining the processes and meanings of the universe.

The discussion is often couched in terms of the processes of the universe being the outcome of providence or atoms. Providence is used here in the broader naturalistic and less theistic sense. Atoms refers closely to what we think of as the materialistic approach of modern science.

My position on the question? Atoms, provisionally. That is, until I am persuaded by a better argument for it, the providence understanding seems to me to be an after-the-fact, anthropocentric projection of wished for cosmic intentions. What do you think?

Here are two essays in support of both positions and something I wrote on Marcus Aurelius's advice on the matter:

I agree. To extractive versus productive economics, so-called international development, foreign aid and the dumping of consumer goods, and bad African governance and corruption must be added Islam and Christianity. Christian Missionaries in Africa are also part of this problem. The attribution of success and failure to adherence to the two Abrahamic religions by the African masses and the politicization of this by their leadership draw attention, energies, and resources away practical sustainable solutions.


Best essay I've read this year on consciousness, the mind-body problem, physicalism (materialism), science, and the self. The only ideas missing were those of Thomas Nagel. What really struck me was the notion of the brain as a receiver, filter, and reconfigurer, not generator, of mind; an organ that is capable of drawing from its experience and the knowledge, beliefs, and values of the ethnosphere (and perhaps a cosmic consciousness, hmmm) for its construction and projection of a self. A much different, in fact opposite, view from that currently at the forefront of neuroscience research. Fascinating read!


Good essay on levels of organization in complex biological systems. Although the writer mentions it he does not discuss if his approach supports strong reductionism or not.


Please consider what this essay is telling us about our times - not only our zeitgeist but the behaviors we engage in. There's a lot said and I took a number of positions while reading through it.

First, I was happy to find someone willing to stick a fork in postmodernism and declare it dead. Then, when told about pseudo-modernism, that which we are supposedly now experiencing, I thought either the present is a wasteland where little we say or do will take root and expand (improve?) the ethnosphere, or the writer and I are just smugly stuck in our modernist worldview nattering away at this current cultural crest of human flourishing(?) as our parents did when they heard us listening to Bob Dylan.

Or, and this is where I ended up, the human experience, throughout history and across most cultures, has and continues to be a wild thundering herd of ideas and behaviors that the most powerful, wealthy, intelligent, and compassionate among us have had a minimal impact in terms of focusing the herd's energy, much less taming the nasty rambunctious lot of us.

Why surely the entirety of human existence has been and continues to be just a batshit-mad stampede into the uncertain unknown. Where death, preferably in our 60s to 90s, or any time really, is a sweet release from Humankind's mental and physical mosh pit back into eternal unconsciousness. [For a refreshing counter-view of Humankind's scientists' finding meaning, and perhaps beauty, in the universe, see the subject book of this overly harsh review:]

But back to the essay on postmodernism. Say it ain't so, that there really is meaning in the human evolutionary experiment. Or say it is merely the unsurprising way an emotional, language-bearing, highly adaptable primate would be expected to think and act. That what we experience in our blink of individual existence is the symbolic seethings and horsey lurchings of a creature that the Earth and Universe have provided for yet will ultimately destroy, not rightly or wrongly but naturally.

The only meaning that ever existed, exists, or will exist arises in the present, from our genes and in the selves that our individual bodies (brains) create from the material we are able to snatch from the ethnosphere. All else is atoms.


I found some wisdom in this article that addresses my, as you rightly call it, perfectionism. But should I act upon it? Hmmm.

The essay talks about whether moral ethicists are more moral than others then delved into whether we should pursue moral improvement in ourselves.  It concludes that we should try and improve ourselves when we study moral philosophy but not expect it to be an easy journey or that we'll succeed, and they if we fail we hove only ourselves to blame.  The writer also gives a cautionary note on seeking/expecting A+ moral perfection individually and, I infer, in others including Humankind as a whole.

My question of whether I should act on what the article offers or not pertains to doing what others do, e.g., settling for moral mediocrity despite knowing a better way of being, or trying to align my moral beliefs, values, and behavior with the best moral teachings I can acquaint myself with.

I see nothing wrong with the latter path which I think I'm trying to stay on, and that's okay as long as I don't expect moral perfection in myself and others and the world at large. [Yes, there are some societal and parental  shoulds in my motiviation but there's a lot of my own shoulds, too.] This means, yes, I will eat the occasional steak and barbecue pork sandwich, judge others, and loose my temper and patience occasionally.  When I do, I musn't wring my hands and tear my hair over my failing.  But at the same time I can't settle for mediocrity because that's the norm or for any other reason. Aim high, you said, when I was applying for graduate school. I think the same applies to matters of character and behavior. I don't see any other option.

On that dour note let me add: a sense of humor is a must.


Here is an outstanding critique of new atheism and its strong scientistic materialism. 


Good interview on race and slavery (link below)....

The interview did not include the following about the origin of and justification for colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade:

The 15th-century Portuguese exploration of the African coast is commonly regarded as the harbinger of European colonialism. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas, granting Afonso V of Portugal the right to reduce any "Saracens, pagans and any other unbelievers" to hereditary slavery which legitimized slave trade under Catholic beliefs of that time. This approval of slavery was reaffirmed and extended in his Romanus Pontifex bull of 1455. These papal bulls came to serve as a justification for the subsequent era of slave trade and European colonialism. Although for a short period as in 1462, Pius II declared slavery to be "a great crime".[67] The followers of the church of England and Protestants did not use the papal bull as a justification. The position of the church was to condemn the slavery of Christians, but slavery was regarded as an old established and necessary institution which supplied Europe with the necessary workforce. In the 16th century, African slaves had replaced almost all other ethnicities and religious enslaved groups in Europe. (Wikipedia)


Nothing new here but nevertheless a good summing up of much of our current evidence-based understandings and speculations. The regrettable dualistic question of inevitable versus luck aside, the fact that what has happened in the past can influence the subsequent direction of evolution within certain determinative contexts is discussed. Also, complexity, emergence, and agency are hinted at. Certainly good luck, or what I like to think of as favorable contingencies, played a huge role. An inevitability? Maybe, but so far there's no convincing evidence for it.


We help our neediest relatives as best we can afford but could probably do more to reduce harm, relieve suffering, and increase well-being among needy non-family members. Interesting essay. I had not heard this about millennials. What do you think of the essay's ideas? Perhaps you are already giving charitably through effective altruism or are thinking about it. The writer mentions a few good options for giving but I'm sure there are many more. Interesting.


Here's a very good article on new research into how childhood abuse/neglect can contribute to adulthood physical diseases and mental disorders, and what the afflicted and their doctors and therapists can do to address these problems when they arise later in life.




Peeking into the brain's filing system.  Neuroscientists are building up a surprisingly clear picture of exactly where our memories live.


Here's an interview of Condé Nast CEO Jonathon Newhouse on how he uses Stoicism in his daily life, the practical application of the Stoic way.


Best book review I've read in a very long time. The year 1966, when Alan Watts' The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are was published, was a time of transition in my life. I began the year as a student at the University of Maryland at Munich but by May was academically dismissed. That summer I worked as a forklift driver in a U.S. government warehouse at Mainz, West Germany wondering what was next in my life. My military draft reclassification from 2-S (student) to 1-A (body bag fodder) was in the mail. Later that year I enlisted in the Air Force and after boot camp and technical training ended up early the next year at my first duty assignment typing war plans at Yokota Air Base, Japan. Had I seen a copy of Watts' "radical" book any time in '66-'67, would I have read it, much less understood it? Highly doubtful. I was a typical post-adolescent, pre-adult blur of emotional and hormonal confusion. My highest priority was finding some meaning and purpose for my life that would alleviate the anxiety and depression caused by my condition. I chose a palliative approach involving certain legal beverages and other recreational social activities while off duty, and waited and hoped better days would somehow come. They didn't arrive for a very long time. I am certain Watts' "radical" book was not to be found in the military base library. It might have led young airmen astray from their duty to help project military power to support US nationalism, geopolitics, and to defend "freedom." ...  Have you read Watts' book and if so, what did you think of it? It sure seems to very well capture the problem of the self, its  place in the world and universe, and the difficulty most humans have resisting the push and pull of the beliefs and values of society and its institutions, no matter how harmful they might be to a person, humanity, and the planet. Interesting book. Just bought the Kindle version. Check out the following review:


How to put Stoicism into practice - becoming more virtuous and less like Basil Fawlty....


The writers argue that fear of death is why we humans are 'embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability.'

"'The terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science,'" they write. "'It raised the pyramids in
Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It contributes to conflicts around the globe. At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it.'"

Seems to me a better argument can be made that there is a more immediate and practical reason for individuals to do these things than a fear of death. Namely, what doing so might gain them in terms of rights and privileges they could obtain from their group for doing so, such as psychological security and material prosperity.

Also, if their theory is correct, what must we conclude about those who live lives of Stoicism whereby they pursue virtuous personal order, meaning, and stability in order to live well in the present, individually and socially? This a Stoic does not because s/he fears death rather because s/he accepts it as reasonable that the pursuit of virtuous personal and social well-being is a life preferable to one without personal virtue and replete with social disharmony. For a seriously practicing Stoic death is not feared and therefore a motivator, it is simply accepted as a cessation of opportunities to live well in the present.

"Knowledge of death 'arose as a byproduct of early humans' burgeoning self-awareness,' they write. 'That knowledge could have incapacitated people,' they say, 'without simultaneous adaptations to transcend death.' So early humans invented a supernatural world in which people do just that. The groups of humans who 'fabricated the most compelling tales' could best cope with mortal terror, function effectively, and pass on their genes."

"'Psychologically fortified by the sense of protection and immortality that ritual, art, myth, and religion provided, our ancestors were able to take full advantage of their sophisticated mental abilities,' the authors write. 'They deployed them to develop the belief systems, technology, and science that ultimately propelled us into the modern world.'"

Being the self-absorbed primates that we are and always have been I would say that the pursuit of food, safe shelter/physical security, and sex we the real motivators for ancestral individual behavior as well as the adherence to cultural norms, not melancholia over one's ultimate death.


It may just be my unrealistic desire for perfection of my self and Humankind, or just the latest fad or focus among certain vision-questing Western intellectuals, or that Stoicism is merely a form of common sense or pragmatism, or that it is the seldom acknowledged basis of the better current CBT approaches. Maybe all of the above are true. Regardless, Stoicism has much to offer.

I've read a lot about Stoicism for a few months now and have been trying to apply to my daily living its principles on cultivating personal virtues and living well with others. I have found it to be easy to understand, compatible with or at least not in conflict with humanism, agnostic-atheism (taking the Stoic God as Spinoza's God), and Buddhism. I am also noticing gradual improvement in my contentment with my self (warts and all) and my ability to accept and not be debilitated by my past and the complexity of social life. Also, try as I may as a strong anti-dogma skeptic, I have been unable to find fault in any of the Stoic principles. I even find it to be compatible with what many might think is Stoicism's opposite, Epicureanism.

At bottom, Stoicism makes good sense compared to so much of the woo in the world. Best of all it, more than any other approach I've tried in the course of my life, is helping me to work on my personal shortcomings and at the same time be, not perfect, but for most of my waking hours, reasonably content with me in the here and now. Life is too short to be otherwise, right?

I kindly recommend reading (or re-reading) about Stoicism even to my admired friends who seldom struggle with their self and others. Perhaps doing  so would be a kind affirmation for you. Here's a good essay on Stoicism and cognitive-based therapy:

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