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?



First, there were those of African ancestry, then the Catholics, Irish, Chinese, and Japanese. Now, the vilified and politically exploited other or people of difference in the US are the LGBTs, Mexicans, Muslims, progressives, humanists, and refugees. What group will be next? It could be any of us as long as we continue to tolerate a politics of fear, divide and exclude in order for some to retain power and privilege. That is tyranny, not humane, principled democracy.



Let's see, Republicans generally don't like people who don't work and receive welfare. People who don't work and receive welfare, more often than not, are not highly educated or trained. The more highly educated or trained a person is, the more likely they will be employable and find work. Those who find jobs don't take welfare. Republicans should be happy if as many people as possible were educated, put into the nation's work force, and removed from the welfare rolls.

To do this the US government could make a four-year university education or equivalent training available to every American upon their completion of high school.

This year, four million 17 year-olds will turn 18 and complete high school. The US College Board says the national average cost for four years of education at a public university in the US is $37,640. The total cost to university-educate or otherwise train this year's 18 year-olds for four years would be $152 billion, or $38 billion per year.

The federal budget for 2016 is $3.75trillion. The annual cost to provide a university education or training to every US citizen who completes high school would be 1% of the federal budget. That money could be easily obtained through relatively small reductions within the federal budget. The money could be taken, on a pro-rated basis, from the five major budget categories - pensions, health care, education, defense, and welfare.

If implemented, this plan would totally transform the society and culture of the US for the better.
Oh, but wait. The Republicans rely on the votes of a certain group of relatively lower-educated, under-skilled Americans to stay in office. Do they really want to fund education and training for everyone, including this key constituency? I don't think so. Oh well, it sure seemed like a good idea.

Your thoughts?



What a crock, especially the first half of the book excerpt up to the advent of agriculture. There I identified at least a dozen speculations about prehistoric behavior, "human nature," and the social, moral and technological innovations that "must" have arisen from our ancestors being disgusted. Here's the first and the rest are worse:

"Yet sometime deep in our past the same feeling that makes us cringe at touching a dead animal or gag at a rancid odour became embroiled in our most deeply held convictions – from ethics and religious values to political views."



We've all heard the adage "Spare the rod, spoil the child." How about, "So you were abused or neglected by your parents? Bullied, beaten at school? Get over it!"

Maybe we respond in these ways because we think someone is asking for special treatment for the kind of harm life inflicts on a lot of us. "Hey," we may say, "I had it rough too but I turned out okay." Or, "I sucked it up and thrived without whining, harming others or asking for special treatment." These responses may in many cases contain some truth.

There's another way to look at it. Maybe the damage the "complainers" incurred was an unnecessary part of life. Maybe what we consider a weakling whining to be pampered is in fact a damaged person crying out for help, love, or a simple reassurance that someone, anyone cares about them.

Here's a very good essay on these matters by an anthropologist using an evolutionary perspective to understand, explain, and address these problems. An excerpt:

"So, children, born to be prosocial, just, brave, loving, trusting, kind, helpful, and generous, can be turned into selfish, nasty, destructive, hate filled, and even murderous creatures with no capacity to love or empathy. All it takes is a cultural system that teaches that giving pain is a sign of love, that morality must be punitive and unyielding, and that transgressions of even the most minor kinds are to be met with the most ferocious of punishments.



A good review of a new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Caltech physicist Sean Carroll.

"Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.
"Human beings are not blank slates at birth, and our slates become increasingly rich and multidimensional as we grow and learn. We are bubbling cauldrons of preferences, wants, sentiments, aspirations, likes, feelings, attitudes, predilections, values, and devotions. We aren’t slaves to our desires; we have the capacity to reflect on them and strive to change them. But they make us who we are. It is from these inclinations within ourselves that we are able to construct purpose and meaning for our lives.
"Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world." - Sean Carroll



Ever wonder why Africa is the most religious region of the world? Poverty has a lot to do with it but there is more. Here is a short but very useful treatment of the subject by George Ongere, Kenyan atheist, humanist, and activist. Ongere also offers suggestions for increasing humanism in Africa. I recommend this Kindle book, a quick easy introduction full of useful information and insights on the power of religion and paucity of secular Humanism in Africa.



Some of the language in this essay is unnecessarily coarse but he makes some good arguments against Rand's objectivism and laissez-faire capitalism. Your thoughts?





Despite the misleading title, here’s a convincing argument on how the brain does not work:
"Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

"But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

"We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not."
"The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell?"
"As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: (1) we observe what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens); (2) we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars); (3) we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways."



An indictment of the moral shortcomings of religion, nationalism, and science. The following is an example of wise and courageous leadership toward a global morality and civilization:

"How often does material advancement or social innovation blind us to this truth? How easily we learn to justify violence in the name of some higher cause.

"Every great religion promises a pathway to love and peace and righteousness, and yet no religion has been spared from believers who have claimed their faith as a license to kill.

"Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different.

"Science allows us to communicate across the seas and fly above the clouds, to cure disease and understand the cosmos, but those same discoveries can be turned into ever more efficient killing machines.

"The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well."
"We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

"For this, too, is what makes our species unique. We’re not bound by genetic code to repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn. We can choose. We can tell our children a different story, one that describes a common humanity, one that makes war less likely and cruelty less easily accepted."









Tools. We've come a long way, very fast. Imagine a future when the real-time language translators in this link might become inexpensive brain or under the skin implants. Or when such an implant might allow us to actually speak and understand any language directly. Both possibilities might be gateways toward a sustainable global morality and civilization. After all, the first step toward empathy, true understanding and cooperation, toward finding common ground among the world's diversity of meanings, beliefs, values, and behaviors, is truly understanding what each of us is saying.



On liberty, courage, and tolerance. A comparison of Christopher Hitchens and Isaiah Berlin. My mind, my incredulous view of most religions, and my sense of humor, yes humor, cannot help but embrace Hitchens. But my heart is with Berlin.

I addressed Berlin's tolerance and pluralism in a postscript to a blog post in 2011: http://jameselassiter.blogspot.com/…/secularism-theism-and-…

Below is a good short essay comparing Hitchens and Berlin. Here are excerpts:

"The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias. Who can doubt that Berlin was filled with that spirit of liberty? But Hitchens was filled with a spirit of liberty too."
"Hitchens exemplified courage; Berlin, tolerance. Hitchens was outspoken, outrageous, never afraid to offend, impressively undeterred by Islamist death threats. ... But he was brave, and utterly consistent in his defense of free speech.
"Berlin was not notable for his courage. Yet Berlin was one of the most eloquent, consistent defenders of a liberal­ism which creates and defends the spaces in which people subscribing to dif­ferent values, holding incompatible views, pursuing irreconcilable political projects — in short, the Hitchenses and the anti-Hitchenses — can battle it out in freedom, without violence. Berlin personified not merely tolerance but also an extraordinary gift for empathy, that ability to get inside very different heads and hearts which is a distinguishing mark of the liberal imagination."



Here's a very good book on human evolution and migration for high schoolers. I was a pro bono consultant for the later drafts of the book. Part of my review is printed on the back cover. The publisher says the book is for 12-15 year-olds but I think the book's vocabulary and the topics listed in the contents, glossary and index indicate it would also be a very worthwhile read for 16-18 year-olds. It was published by Nomad Press in Vermont and printed in Canada. I highly recommend it.



On anger and forgiveness, a review of brilliant philosopher Martha Nussbaum's latest book.
"We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.” - James Baldwin
"[D]espite anger’s long cultural history of being seen as morally justifiable and as a useful signal that wrongdoing has taken place, it is a normatively faulty response that masks deeper, more difficult emotions and stands in the way of resolving them. Consequently, forgiveness — which [philosopher Martha] Nussbaum defines as 'a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition' — is also warped into a transactional proposition wherein the wrongdoer must earn, through confession and apology, the wronged person’s morally superior grace."



"What is profound about Reséndez's argument isn’t simply that there was a kind of slavery older, more widespread and more pernicious than African slavery (or that it continued longer) but that there is a clear and direct relationship between the two. 'In 1865-1866,' he writes, 'southern states enacted the infamous Black Codes aimed at restricting the freedom of former slaves. Adopting tried-and-true tactics such as vagrancy laws, convict leasing, and debts, white southerners sought to nullify the provisions of the Thirteenth Amendment.' The tactics he lists were pulled from the playbook that had kept Indians in servitude in the West and in Mexico long after slavery had been made illegal."
"[T]here is a larger point hiding in these pages that has everything to do with the world in which we live today: The institution of 'the other slavery' — the thinking behind it, the ways in which laws were passed and interpreted, how the practice of slavery itself took on many different guises — is alive today and in a world where the richest people exercise so much authority (in the form of political influence, economic power, and cultural capital) over a vast (and growing) underclass; where more and more jobs are in the service sector; where the poor are subjected to so many disproportionately onerous taxes and fines and fees. To think about the enslavement of Indians over the last 500 years can help us think about the ways in which people are enslaved today."



Yes you can. It's about far more than YOU and your brain.

"[W]e really have no clue what we’re talking about, even when we think we do, and so on."
If this and what the rest of this hyperbolic essay claims represent an necessary and essential truth about the totality of human experience, our species would have become extinct long ago. There is more to it than found in this essay.

Human brain anatomy and physiology and their attendant psycho-social functioning have proven necessary and sufficient for over 200,000 years despite the shortcomings and inaccuracies this writer seems to enjoy pointing out. I'll take what we have, warts and all, over a construct of Humankind as narrow as the one he would like us to accept.

The sum of our physical, psychological and social existence through time, as individuals and as groups, is far more than our individual neurological misperceptions and inaccurate and incomplete understandings. A view of Humankind such as this writer's may be intended in part to objectively show our inefficiencies and this is always a good thing to keep in mind. But fortunately the side of the ledger with our individual and group successes at flourishing far outweighs our neurological shortcomings.

How can that be, that we flourish despite our physical foibles, one might ask? Remember, biological evolution works on bodies. But it, and cultural evolution especially, also works on groups and ideas. If humans lived simply as an aggravate of bodies reliant solely on our sometimes inefficient brains and senses, we would indeed be a pitiful, vulnerable mob of creatures. Fortunately, we have, since the evolutionary emergence of language, cultural transmission, and cooperation nearly a quarter of a million years ago, become extremely efficient at compensating for the inefficiencies of our senses and brains. What we miss as individual globs of meat is made up for by the corrections and accommodations made by the content of the accumulated and shared knowledge of the ethnosphere.

Cheer up, "We" have and will continue to flourish despite the limits of our anatomy and physiology. There is far more to understanding the human condition than that provided by neuroscience alone.



This is the best analysis of contemporary politics in the US I have read. Frightening, whether you are a Democrat, Independent or Republican, a liberal or conservative. It reinforces my dark vision of an unavoidable bad time ahead and leaves me with a feeling of powerlessness to do anything to stop it.

I am an eternal optimist based on our cultural evolutionary track record of relying on reason and mutually beneficial cooperation over brute force, unfettered emotion and selfishness. But sadly I have lately become more and more convinced things in US society, and subsequently the rest of the world, are going to get worse, much worse, before they get better.

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
- Yeats

I don't expect a Second Coming but I do now expect dire circumstances ahead for Humankind. That is, if we continue to indulge and act on our emotions and our fear, and our blame and hatred of the other. Perhaps this is the beginning of the time of Humankind when a catastrophe is about to happen - that pivotal disaster where the center of our Humanity will fail to bind us any longer. That destruction and pain I and others have long and often thought necessary if reason, cooperation, compassion and compromise were ever abandoned. A truly cataclysmic social upheaval before there could finally be, from within our crippled state of societal collapse, a true awakening. That being a national and global rebirth of clarity and focus where we come to our senses about who and what we and the planet really are, and what needs to be done to maximize human and Earth flourishing and avoid extinction.

One night before I left Swaziland Southern Africa in 1983, after teaching at a rural high school in that kingdom for over three years, I enjoyed numerous bottles of beer and calabashes of homemade millet brew under the moonlight. I was sitting on the ground behind our tiny local bottle store overlooking an expansive valley of Swazi subsistence homesteads. I was with a small group of my best African guy friends. Finally, after hours of raucous banter and levity I asked my friends what message they would most like me to take back to my US compatriots. The atmosphere turned solemn as each of them thought. After a moment one friend, a Zulu refugee artist and musician from South Africa, said: "Tell them to continue with their pursuit of wealth and their efforts at global domination until they are finally satisfied. Just hurry and get it over with. Maybe then something better will come about in the world." Maybe this is what it will take when reason and compassion fail us, or we fail them. My friend has since passed away but his sad and sobering message of resignation, his wish and vision, still inspires my hope and optimism.



"The flow of time is certainly one of the most immediate aspects of our waking experience. It is essential to how we see ourselves and to how we think we should live our lives. Our memories help fix who we are; other thoughts reach forward to what we might become. Surely our modern scientific sense of time, as it grows ever more sophisticated, should provide meaningful insights here.
"Is our experience of time’s flow akin to watching a live play, where things occur in the moment but not before or after, a flickering in and out of existence around the ‘now’? Or, is it like watching a movie, where all eternity is already in the can, and we are watching a discrete sequence of static images, fooled by our limited perceptual apparatus into thinking the action flows smoothly?
"For most of the past few centuries, conscious awareness has been considered beyond the pale for physics, a problem too hard to tackle, postponed while we dealt with other urgent business. As scientists drove ever deeper into the nucleus and out to the stars, the conscious mind itself, and the glaring contrast between our experience of time’s flow and our eternalised mathematical theories, was left hanging. How did that come to pass? Isn’t science supposed to test itself against the ground of experience? This disconnect might help to explain why so many students not only don’t ‘get’ physics, but are positively repulsed by it. Where are they in the world picture drawn by physicists? Where is life, and where is death? Where is the flow of time?"



"Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely."



"[N]ew theories and evidence arriving from modern research suggest that the heart of our experiencing self, the unique natural phenomenon we have called ‘consciousness’, is more than an incidental emergence in the human animal, it reflects something fundamental about the way reality is organized. ... The self-realizing, self-referential qualities unique to consciousness may also be necessary to explain why anything at all exists. ... There is a profound and consequential distinction between the old materialist view, in which we are isolated fragments of illusory experience in a doomed and meaningless universe, and the now emerging view, in which we are each of us truly conscious participators in an on-going unfoldment of cosmic creativity."

This short essay is fuzzy and unconvincing. At certain points it reads like woo. But it's ideas about the self, consciousness, and the nature of reality are appealing to me. They appeal to my respect for yet skepticism about materialism and my conviction that the self is not simply an illusion that materialism will eventually reduce to biochemistry. Surely, consciousness was not inevitable in our universe though it is essential to our understanding of the universe. Maybe in his new book Adrian Nelson explains how consciousness is an integral part of or is in any way connected to the quantum physics of the cosmos. Nelson is not alone in looking into this. There are nearly 4,000 books at Amazon.com under the search topic "quantum consciousness." For now, I'm very skeptical.



Maybe work in the AI field of robot ethics can help provide a means of overcoming Kant's is-ought proscription against using science to inform and guide the development of moral systems, in particular, the knotty problem of coming up with a global yet pluralistic morality to guide a global worldview and civilization.

I agree with and have often written about and supported Michael Shermer and Sam Harris's respective but similar views that such a science-informed morality is possible and desirable. And that arriving at such a world unifying morality and civilization is likely to be the only option for our species' survival and a sustainable future of human and planet flourishing. The following essay is encouraging. What do you think about any of this?

"[T]hough we may not want to leave the most advanced ethical decisions to machines just yet, work on robotic ethics is advancing our own understanding of morality. ... [J]ust as computers advanced the philosophical understanding of the mind, the same will become true for robots and the study of ethics. ... [T]he history of ethics shows a steadily building consensus—and work on robot ethics can contribute to refining moral reasoning.





Here's a novel approach to inequality and the current and widely popular yet unsustainable economic growth model. Makes good sense to me. But can you imagine throwing this slab-of-red-meat idea into the Republican election primary cage match they're having? They'd go wild! Can you visualize them climbing all over each other to be the one to scream loudest about the increases in taxes, socialism, illegal immigration, etc., such an approach to poverty and welfare would cause? I can. Such a thought would be funny if not ludicrous but it's really not - nearly half our country thinks like those candidates do and seems incapable of thinking any differently even when it just might be for their own good. What a selfish, hateful, willfully misguided lot they are, IMHO. Thoughts?



This is not a partisan political post. It is about society, culture, and humanistic freethinking.
In terms of the Enlightenment principles we humanists adhere to - individual freedom and dignity, justice, human progress, and a preference for objective reasoning and the secular-scientific assessment of all things - would someone kindly explain to me how anyone can legitimately claim that Barack Obama is the most divisive president ever? Even somewhat objective CNN calls him such (see report below and Marco Rubio's post-SOTU assessment reported separately).

Why is divisiveness laid at Obama's doorstep based solely on poll data showing how many Democrats versus Republicans support him? I think a good case can be made for better measures of divisiveness/inclusion/exclusion - 1) Women, progressive-thinking white males, blacks, Latinos, Asians, recent immigrants, the young, the poor, and wealthy progressives have all found common ground among themselves as a result of Obama's unifying leadership; and 2) Conservative Republicans have chosen to distance themselves not been pushed away by Obama, and have abandoned humanist thinking as well, for that matter.

Maybe Wittgenstein was right, we are all victims of the meaning- and symbol-bending language games we culture-bearing primates depend on. These are the very games members of the verbally skilled and powerful political class use to manipulate and control us. All politicians are masters of these games but conservative Republicans are the most egregious and obvious distorters of language, meanings, and symbols. Where's my baloney/BS detection kit?

Thoughts anyone?



This is a great essay on racism in US society and culture, and how it is expressed politically. Regrettably, things are likely to get much worse before getting better, IMHO. But, I feel confident they will eventually get better, if not by a gradual spread of informed, reasoned thinking about human nature then by attrition and the eventual dying off of racists.

We are a better species and worthy of a future ruled significantly more by our intellectual powers than our emotions of fear and anger. The condition of racialized, white privilege-protecting politics we currently suffer from is inhumane and therefore contrary to what we are capable of in our nature.

Happily, the good we are capable of has triumphed more often than not over evil in our evolutionary history. The current state of political affairs in the US will one day in the future be looked back upon as part of a still very primitive stage in our growth and development as a species. I hope we all live long enough to be here when that assessment is made.

"By well into Obama’s second term – in other words, now – went the thinking back then, the country should find itself beyond race. Obama’s presence in the Oval Office, and his demonstrated competence as the nation’s chief executive, would make whites more comfortable with blacks. As a result, racism would begin to fade away, eventually disappearing.

"It hasn’t happened."



Another perspective on a discussion I've had with many of you - ultra-reductionism/determinism vs complexity, emergence, agency.

Massimo's articles on this in Human Prospect and TPM (linked in this essay) are also worth reading
"Yes, of course biological organisms are made of molecules, which are made of atoms, which are made of subatomic particles, the behavior of which can be explained in physical terms. But it is equally obvious to any biologist that if you simply describe the physical-chemical behavior of living organisms and their parts without also asking why they are the way they are, you are missing the entire point of doing biology."
"Teleonomy is the appearance of purposefulness that results from some type of natural process, chiefly (exclusively, really) natural selection. That’s where the difference between physics and biology resides, as Darwin explained: physical systems are not teleonomic, while biological ones are. And then there are conscious agents like us, who are not just teleonomic, but capable of teleology: when we make an object, a machine, we do it with a purpose in mind, not just the appearance of a purpose. And that is what further separates biology from the social sciences (psychology, sociology, economics): in the latter one cannot make sense of things without invoking purpose."



Here’s a good antidote to the ultra-reductionists, especially Jonathan Haidt and his insistence that emotion rules and reasoning is for the most part post-hoc rationalization. Seems, yes, emotions get things started but, fortunately, they are mediated by reasoning as a precursor to action. Imagine yourself on the African savanna in the late Pleistocene. A lion startles you. You tense up and prepare to run, your eyes fixated on the lion's eyes. As your legs, driven by emotion alone, tense up and begin to flex, you begin to move away as your reasoning instantaneously begins telling you "Yep, she's looking at and moving toward and in fact stalking only me. Better speed up my retreat or do something." Emotion is adaptive as a warning and prep mechanism. Reasoning decides on the appropriateness of action/no action and what specific action is taken if action is judged to be warranted. This conscious reasoning process is informed by the emotional warning alarm and facilitated by the pre-action bodily potential emotion sets in motion. If it was emotion in charge we'd be in an almost constant state of flight or fight in response to everything we encounter in the course of our daily lives on this rough and tumble planet, including the often bizarre and freaky behavior of our fellow humans. Looks like a very good book.



"I have spoken with many young [English literature] academics who say that their theoretical training has left them benumbed. After a few years in the profession, they can hardly locate the part of themselves that can be moved by a poem or novel. It is as if their souls have gone into hiding, to await tenure or some other deliverance."

This essay focuses on the current state of English literary criticism. It is an indictment of an ongoing debasement of the self, humanism, and love that the writer says is widespread within the humanities.

Post-modernism is troubling in that it is destructive to our humanity yet, in exchange, offers nothing. The PM assault on modernity - science, humanism, progress, individualism, the self and morality - is misplaced. Their target should be the perverted misuse of these core Enlightenment ideas. That is, the exploitative, earth-degrading pursuit and projection of private wealth and nation-state power. PM's approach is a throwing out of the baby - our basic human nature of reliance on culture, the body/group/planet-embedded self, and consensual, collaborative morality - with the dirty bath water of self-destructive economic and political pursuits. PM is akin to an enraged mob intent on destroying itself.

PM's attack on the excesses of modernity is justified and in many ways potentially corrective, but it's attack on our primary evolutionary adaptive strategy, our humanity, is neither just nor helpful.

If this essay is an indicator of the future of a humanism sans the self and morality, then the academy, and maybe Western civilization itself, has a much worse problem than I thought.

Have a look...



Seems to me the use of anthropology in missionizing is somewhat like physics and the Manhattan Project. In both the pursuit of a science of Humankind and a science of matter one has little to no control over how the religiously and politically powerful will use your methods and knowledge and to what end. Talk about going from an "is" to an "ought!" It is doable but only if you use a belief or values "filter."

Thanks to Ronald Boyd for informing me of these two. Below is another example, a book I bought not long ago at a yard sale in good old Fayette County! Grrrr!



"Like the ancient Romans in the aftermath of the Germanic invasions, many of us today in the West now live in an atmosphere of fear and anger. The desire to eliminate threats to our physical safety and to punish those who assault us is natural. As the ancient Stoics admonish us, however, we must not allow primordial passions to guide our thinking, but reason and practical wisdom. Stoics recognize the need to take a step back from our emotions, examine the representations of reality they create, and analyze their accuracy before formulating a reasoned response."
"The greatest individual contribution a Stoic could make toward establishing world peace would be to cast aside his or her own fears and welcome all those now fleeing from violence and terror in the Middle East. The presence of the refugees already here, as well as the fact that many more are on the way, are matters that lie beyond our personal control. What is up to us, however (no matter how we believe the refugee crisis should ultimately be addressed), is to show them the kindness all Stoics are expected to show every inhabitant of this planet. As Marcus Aurelius said, Adapt yourself to the environment in which your lot has been cast, and show true love to the fellow-mortals with whom destiny has surrounded you. True, some terrorists may have hid themselves among the refugees. Reason nevertheless dictates that the majority of them have fled their homes because their lives were threatened. The few cases who might pose a danger to us are a matter for the authorities. Meanwhile, In order to live with the uncertainty, we need to have the courage of our convictions."





A very good book on the self and the need for a pluralistic approach to discovery, explanation, and knowledge.

"Midgley argues powerfully and persuasively that the rich variety of our imaginative life cannot be contained in the narrow bounds of a highly puritanical materialism that simply equates brain and self. Engaging with the work of prominent thinkers, Midgley investigates the source of our current attitudes to the self and reveals how ideas, traditions and myths have been twisted to fit in, seemingly naturally, with science’s current preoccupation with the physical and, in doing so, have made many other valuable activities and ideas appear as anti-scientific. Midgley shows that the subjective sources of thought – our own experiences – are every bit as necessary in helping to explain the world as the objective ones such as brain cells.

"Are You an Illusion? offers a salutary analysis of science’s claim to have done away with the self and a characteristic injection of common sense from one of our most respected philosophers into a debate increasingly in need of it." - [From the back cover of the book.]



Despite my hopeful blog posts about a future global pluralism, morality, and civilization (Being Human - Our Past, Present, and Future in Nature), I'm not generally in favor of grand, teleological social theories of Humankind. But the way the Western leaders responded after 9/11 and again after Paris they're taking us in the grand-theory direction ISIS wants, a clash of civilizations. The strength and value of Huntington's essay (earlier post) is not so much in it's predictive power, rather in its foreboding of things to come if Humankind continues with its currently favored worldview and strategy - nationalism over globalism led by military-enforced quests for evermore hegemonic power and wealth. Here's a more recent take on this problem by another writer:

"American politicians just don’t have a basic understanding of the threat that we face,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told Al Monitor. ISIS, he said, “wants to provoke a clash of civilizations. That’s the intent. So when we use similar language, we’re falling into their trap.”



I am in many ways against postmodernism. But the approach to human rights attributed to French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault in this essay strongly appeals to me. It also makes me question the notions of "human nature" and "humanism." I would greatly appreciate hearing from my fellow secular humanists and other friends on this.

On the one hand, I like the idea that human rights are inherent and flow naturally from our being human. We can clearly see in the fossils and archeological record that our ancestors established a new, unique and emergent adaptive strategy and ecological niche - a predominant reliance on language-based symbolic thought and communication, sociality, and trans-generational learning. The power of this evolutionary adaptive strategy continues to grow and the application of which has not been even remotely equaled or approximated by any other earthly life form.

But on the other hand, the well-evidenced dynamic plasticity of cultural beliefs and values, including our notions of our rights, within a society and between societies, and over immense spans of time, make it hard to lock in once and for all what human nature and humanism are. Even the West's preeminent source of factual knowledge, science, when at its best, provides provisional versus absolute methods and conclusions for understanding all natural phenomena, including humans and our behavior. Given these cultural and scientific realities, shouldn't our notions of human nature and humanism also be dynamic, malleable, and provisional?

Here are some excerpts from the essay:

"Are human rights really universal? Or are they merely the narrow inheritance of the Western Enlightenment or European modernity? Do they reflect ‘Asian Values’? Or Islamic values? Can they be derived from Confucianism or Ubuntu as readily as they can from the works of Locke or of Kant?
"As far as Foucault was concerned, it was possible to be a supporter of human rights whilst contesting any notion of a universal human essence. ... Foucault struggles to defend and articulate a political conception of rights and of human rights that is open, contingent and revisable — and that does not rely for its moral or normative legitimacy on the idea of a universal human essence beyond power or politics.

"Foucault adopts a concept of human rights that does not start with a pre-given idea of 'the human' whose innate dignity (or reason, or interests) demands universal protection but rather sees the meaning and value of 'humanity' as something that is very much open and that shifts in response to (among other things) ongoing and unpredictable political struggles over the jurisdiction of human rights. Political struggles over what human rights include and what they exclude themselves define the content of 'the human' in whose name these rights are claimed.

From the perspective of many rights theorists this insistence of Foucault’s on the contingency of 'the human' of human rights deprives them of a solid normative grounding. But for Foucault it is clear that the political promise of human rights would be utterly exhausted if we ever arrived at a definitive and enduring statement of humanity and its rights. '[W]e can’t say that freedom or human rights has to be limited at certain frontiers,' Foucault warns in a late interview. It is precisely this claim to limit the meaning of humanity and of human rights that concerns him: 'What I am afraid of about humanism is that it presents a certain form of our ethics as a universal model for any kind of freedom. I think that there are more secrets, more possible freedoms, and more inventions in our future than we can imagine in humanism as it is dogmatically represented on every side of the political rainbow.' It is in this creative and political spirit, in this aspiration to invention rather than dogmatism, that Foucault claims to speak of human rights without finally knowing what humanism means."



Totally agree with this essay! A Nobel Prize for economics has been given since 1969. For what? Alan Greenspan's leadership of the Fed certainly didn't benefit from Nobel laureate wisdom. Or, maybe it did and that's what he was following then later admitted his guiding ideology was wrong. Ai yai yai!



Feral children, adaptive alternatives to the human socialized, enculturated self. Photos are staged, subjects' stories are true.



"On the humanist side, [Paul] Kurtz pursued his philosophical interest in finding moral alternatives to the dogmatic ethics of organized religion. He refused to believe that nihilism—the cliff of free choice where atheism gets you—was the only possible outcome of unbelief, and he opposed the use of ridicule as a means of argumentation. In fact, I learned from Paul that there is no need to be unkind to people who disagree with you...."





And then there's this that claims there is no scientific or other grand theory of everything, that what is most needed are "multifarious descriptions of many things."



Understanding the self or person is a "What is it?" question that has not been consistently and there sufficiently answered by natural and social scientists. Here's a good argument by analogy supporting my earlier post(s) on why the self is much more than what happens in brain meat. A particular self or person results from the interaction between the self the brain produces and the psychological elaboration of that brain-self through language. This symbolic activity of the conscious mind is based on an understanding of a cultural definition of the self. This brain-mind-meaning self resides within a body inhabiting the biosphere. It also lives within and using the social structures and functions of society in which it may or may not thrive and survive. The, or a, self is a very complicated, multidimensional "what" that requires very complicated, multidimensional approaches, including and beyond neuroscience, for answering "how it (the self) works" questions.





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 Stoic's 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.

But I cannot accept that the self is only or merely an "illusion" as that term is favored by many neuroscientists and writers and as defined by the OED: "a thing that is or is likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses; a deceptive appearance or impression; a false idea or belief."

This brings us to the psychological, social, and humanities notions of self or person. To claim that the self is essentially an unreal illusion produced by the brain requires that one also show that everything that is derived from this illusion is also illusionary. That the psychological, social, selves portrayed in nonfiction and literature, using our definition above, are things that are likely to be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses; a deceptive appearance or impression; or a false idea or belief.

Yes, the selves of psychology, sociology, and literature may be wrongly perceived or interpreted by the senses. And, yes, they may give rise to deceptive appearances or impressions. But, no, they definitely are not false ideas or beliefs. They are real.

That the self is produced by the brain does make it an illusionary epiphenomenon. And this certainly does not support the claim that this supposed illusion gives good evidence for the materialist claim that brain electro-chemical activity should therefore be considered the only real entity and activity wherein the human experience can be found and definitively understood. And, finally, the claim of self as an illusion produced by the brain does not negate the truth that the self is real in a psychological and social sense.

If you believe it does, and think you are on or supporting the cutting edge of contemporary thinking, that explanations of what we "really" are, psychologically, socially, historically and otherwise, are most fruitfully pursued by only studying brains, you are mistaken. You are supporting a way of thinking and approach to discovery and knowledge that denigrates and denies what is perhaps the most important and meaning-laden aspects of the entirety of the human evolutionary experience. That being our ability to create credible, functioning persons who find meaning in who we are and what we do as individuals, and in what we do in the company of our fellow humans.

Neuroscience is great. I'm all for it and am certain it will continue to help us understand many things about the human experience. Understanding in detail how the brain produces consciousness, mind, and the self at that level of complexity/analysis, if neuroscientists ever do, will be a monumental and I suspect very surprising discovery. However, humanness is not only and at bottom what our brains are and do. Most significantly, from an evolutionary and almost every other standpoint, our humanness is that which we think we are and aspire to, and it is the good we do and the things we achieve as one person among other persons. In human evolutionary terms, brains only really matter in terms of their ability to help create enough mentally healthy and socially adept persons to sustain our human way of life, add to our well-being, and contribute to our survival.



Good essay. Offers some reasonable suggestions for the problem that good ideas abound but sustainable solutions to societal and global problems and making progress are rare and hard won.


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