A Nieman Reports article highlights four startups seeking to improve public discourse. Let’s hope efforts to create methods and technologies along these lines accelerate and succeed in producing positive outcomes.
Power Valued Over Truth
Dear Ed and All,
“We are the ones that create human nature by inculcating cooperation and care over selfishness and power.”
The view you express, Ed, contesting Harari’s claim in Homo deus, seems to edge up closely to the “pre-modern” standard social science of model of human nature, i.e., that it is almost solely a product of culture, with no or minimal influence of naturally selected genes and very fancy naturally selected epigenetic mechanisms for gene regulation. It is the idea that we pretty much are born, mentally, a blank slate. That is demonstrably wrong. There is a deep and mighty pan-cultural, species-typical human nature that impacts all our intrapsychic life and behavior. It is designed only to be impacted in very specific and limited biologically fitness-enhancing ways by local cultural influences. Harari is correct, at least in the sense that our basic nature is only contingently to value truth, that is, only to the extent that it increases our power to generate greater lifetime inclusive fitness.
Yet, and here is where you and I can find, IMO, great and expansive common ground, natural selection in our species created a mind designed to compete in complex multi-partner, multi-currency socioeconomic bargaining, and thus for status (i.e., power), with great acumen, during an ongoing intraspecific arms race with other humans, including close social partners, over the last several hundred thousand years. Importantly, non-trivial metacognition and mentalization (theory of mind) capacities evolved as part of our package of competitive cognitive capacities; these can be used to evaluate, predict, and manipulate others, and to observe and study ourselves. Imaginative capacities and an ability to believe deeply in both fantasy and evidence also evolved to allow us to cohabit “adaptively subjective dreamworlds” (ASD) that hold human groups together. For example, one example of a written down, very dear and pretty darn auspicious ASD is the US Constitution.
Natural selection has zero foresight. This is the only reason we have any chance of beginning to alter how our minds operate. Down the road, once some leaders develop the capacity to make good decisions about how to genetically modify ourselves to be more compassionate and sustainable, probably with the help of evolutionary psychology, a massive program of intentional genetic evolution may be what’s really necessary to get us through our current very dangerous technological adolescence.
Robust, transparent (nonconscious), sly and clever neurological regulatory mechanisms assuredly have evolved to more or less (denoting very slight individual variation in brain development) lock us into making effective and efficient (i.e., powerful) use of our outstanding cognitive abilities to maximize lifetime gene propagation, whether we know this is what we are up to or not.
Yet, this same program of natural selection, epiphenomenally, gave all or most of us the potential — almost always hard won and seldom truly accessed — to employ evolutionarily novel intrapsychic maneuvers, learned from our most sophisticated ancestors, to weaken or “get ahead of” the above-mentioned regulatory mechanisms. Here I am referring to introspective techniques that help us see our own mental operations more objectively, not techniques that just lead to relaxation or greater happiness. This unnaturally objectified seeing can happen in real time (best) or during reflection upon past events (dicey).
An analogy, accidentally constructed by the Wachowskis (?), for using the introspective techniques I’m referring to is vividly given in “The Matrix” trilogy, when Morpheus and his team, eventually especially Neo, purposely send their minds into the matrix via skillful intrapsychic hacking procedures. They are not going in there to sunbathe… even though that would be nice. They cannot. The regulatory mechanisms that already are in place are quite, albeit imperfectly, adaptive in real time. They have the ability to learn. They are seldom are far behind and their prime mandate is to encapsulate or literally destroy the complex neural circuits (i.e, symbolized by Matrix characters like Trinity, Morpheus, Mouse, Sipher) that may collaborate to enable biologically subversive attempts at gaining deep objective self-knowledge. These regulatory mechanisms are key to biologically adaptive neurodevelopment, and they are extraordinarily resourceful and ruthless. They may be limbically based, but any part of the brain can be recruited to help them fulfill their mission, as was “The Matrix” character Sipher.
My own mind largely has been ruined, I feel, by engaging in this process. A lot of my essential “freedom circuitry” has been repeatedly hammered. But, I still believe success is possible for some, particularly if they can learn from the mistakes and rare successes of others. Call it faith in consciousness.
A new analogy has hit me. We are born into a cognitive-emotional prison cell full of delights as well as sources of suffering. (As per astute Buddhist teachings, it’s really all suffering.) But, we may notice that hanging from the ceiling, outside the cell bars but more or less within reach, there are various sets of shiny keys. Usually, one of them opens our cell door. Others keys in the set open additional doors spread throughout an unknown intrapsychic labyrinth. Opening some of those doors triggers an instant alarm, others a delayed alarm, maybe others no alarm at all, especially if the key is inserted and turned correctly. Some sets of keys open doors that lead to traps and cul-de-sacs. You can easily end up in a seemingly nicer jail cell. Or a worse one. Perhaps you can end up in enticing cells, but with no keys hanging outside the bars. It may be hard to tell if one has progressed in any meaningful way.
A legitimate teacher, or cultural tradition, and/or a modern scientific tradition may help us learn something of the labyrinth, and which set of keys to pick that lead to real freedom, or at least time-limited degrees of it. We can learn to go farther and farther. But the prison is larger and more complex than we typically can conceive, especially anywhere near to our starting position, and especially if we try to do so alone.
Perhaps the best path is right around a nearby intrapsychic corner. But if anyone tells you so, beware. — Paul
PS: I’ll try to post this on our web site, since it took a couple hours to write, and may have some value for our upcoming discussion(s).
The threat to our democracy isn’t partisanship on both sides; it’s intolerant white Americans that are prone to authoritarianism. When the imagine that their white identity is threatened they support undemocratic, authoritarian rule. And of course Dump is the perfect authoritarian to stoke their prejudices to impose undemocratic restrictions on some of the population. Which is, of course, a “repudiation of American values and democratic commitments.”
Of course this phenomenon has been going on before Dump; it’s been in the Repugnantan playbook for decades with vote ID laws and other voter suppression tactics that are specifically aimed at those of color. So it’s no wonder that Dump comes along and takes over a playing field well prepared for just such a racist authoritarian.
So remember that what’s going on is not equivalent on both sides of the political spectrum.* Liberals may be partisan but they do not suggest laws that curtail democracy but rather reinforce it.** These intolerant white Repugnantans are more than partisan; they are authoritarian and don’t care if democracy is destroyed in the process of enacting authoritarian rule.
*Like Dump proclaiming that there were good people on both sides of a Nazi march. You know, the good Nazis.
** If you’re thinking of the liberal student protestors wanting to prevent Nazis from speaking at their university, remember that the 1st Amendment does not allow any or all speech, e.g. fighting words. Being intolerant of racist hatred, a clear violation of free speech law, is not in any way the same as inciting racist hatred.
BMAI friends. The following ramble is my first cut at making sense of the grave role racial (and other) bias is playing in the world today. This was prompted by comments I see daily from my family and friends on social media. Thinking about the great lack of self- and group-awareness many of the commenters display, I turned my scope inward. How do my own innate, evolved biases slant me to take my group’s and my own privileges for granted and make invalid assumptions about those I perceive (subconsciously or explicitly) to be ‘the other’? I put this forward to start a discussion and hope you will contribute your own insights and references. Feel free to post comments or even insert questions, comments, or new text directly into my text. Of course, you can create your own new posts as well. Thanks.
“Although supernatural beliefs often paint a peculiar picture about the physical world, the possibility that the beliefs might be based on inadequate understanding of the non-social world has not received research attention. In this study (N = 258), we therefore examined how physical-world skills and knowledge predict religious and paranormal beliefs. The results showed that supernatural beliefs correlated with all variables that were included, namely, with low systemizing, poor intuitive physics skills, poor mechanical ability, poor mental rotation, low school grades in mathematics and physics, poor common knowledge about physical and biological phenomena, intuitive and analytical thinking styles, and in particular, with assigning mentality to non-mental phenomena. Regression analyses indicated that the strongest predictors of the beliefs were overall physical capability (a factor representing most physical skills, interests, and knowledge) and intuitive thinking style.”
In preparation for the March meeting topic, Your Political Brain, please recommend any resources you have found particularly enlightening about why humans evolved political thinking. Also, please share references about how brain functions lead to political perceptions. I’m assuming political perceptions result from more fundamental cognitive orientations, and that those arise in part from one’s genetics and in part from environment (during development and afterward).
Let’s use the following description from Wikipedia:
Politics is the process of making decisions applying to all members of each group. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance— organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (this is usually a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. (Wikipedia)
This description places political thinking in the realm of the brain’s/mind’s social processing.
Following are some candidate resources for our discussion preparation:
- The Republican Brain (video, 21:45 – Chris Mooney, Jonathan Haidt, Chris Hayes)
- Chris Hedges’ review of Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind
- George Lackoff’s cognitive science perspective
- Brain differences between liberals and conservatives (magazine article)
- The origin of politics: an evolutionary theory of political behavior (academic article)
- Authoritarianism (Wikipedia)
Studies find that people with higher numeracy and understanding of the scientific method and its tools are more likely to challenge or twist the results of scientific studies that challenge their ideologies. For example, it’s the more scientifically competent persons on the political right (those who are most identified with a free-market ideology) who mount the most vehement assaults against claims of human contributions to global warming.
This article delves into the extent of cognitive biases against facts (rigorously validated knowledge claims) and the apparent variables affecting when those biases are triggered. It also raises possible ways to mitigate biases.