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Feb
20th
Wed
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Albert Bandura on social learning, the origins of morality, and the impact of technological change on human nature

image

"Technology has changed the speed and the scope of social influence and has really transformed our realities. Social cognitive theory is very compatible with that. Other learning theories were linked to learning by direct experience, but when I look around today, I see that most of our learning is by social modeling and through indirect experiences. Errors can be very costly and you can’t afford to develop our values, our competences, our political systems, our religious systems through trial and error. Modeling shortcuts this process. (…)

With new technologies, we’re essentially transcending our physical environment and more and more of our values and attitudes and behavior are now shaped in the symbolic environment – the symbolic environment is the big one rather than the actual one. The changes are so rapid that there are more and more areas of life now in which the cyber world is really essential. One model can affect millions of people worldwide, it can shape their experiences and behaviors. We don’t have to rely on trial and error.

There’s a new challenge now: When I was growing up, we didn’t have all this technology, so we were heavily involved in personal relationships. Now the cyber world is available, and it’s hard to maintain a balance in the priorities of life. (…)

The internet can provide you with fantastic globalized information – but the problem is this: It undermines our ability for self-regulation or self-management. The first way to undermine productivity is temporizing, namely we’re going to put off what we need to do until tomorrow, when we have the illusion that we’ll have more time. So we’re dragging the stuff with us. But the really big way is detouring, and wireless devices are now giving an infinite detour. They create the illusion of business. I talked to the author of a beststeller and I asked him about his writing style. He said: ‘Well, I have to check my e-mails and then I get down to serious writing, but then I get back to the e-mails.’ The challenge of the cyber world is establishing a balance between our digital life and life in the real world. (…)

The origins of morality

Originally our behavior was pretty much shaped by control, by the external consequences of our lives. So the question is: How did we acquire some standards? There are about three or four ways. One: We evaluate reactions to our behavior. We behave in certain ways, in good ways, in bad ways, and then we receive feedback. We begin to adopt standards from how the social environment reacts to our behavior. Two: We see others behaving in certain ways and we are either self-critical or self-approving. Three: We have precepts that tell us what is good and bad. And once we have certain self-sanctions, we have two other potent factors that can influence our behavior: People will behave in certain ways because they want to avoid legal sanctions to their behavior or the social sanctions in their environment. (…)

Many of our theories of morality are abstract. But the primary concern about the acquisition of morality and about the modes of moral reasoning is only one half of the story, the less interesting half. We adopt standards, but we have about eight mechanisms by which we selectively disengage from those standards. So the challenge to explain is not why do people behave in accordance with these standards, but how is it that people can behave cruelly and still feel good about themselves. Our problem is good people doing bad things – and not evil people doing bad things. (…)

Everyday people can behave very badly. In the book I’m writing on that topic I have a long chapter on moralist disengagement in the media, in the gun industry, in the tobacco industry, in the corporate world, in the finance industry – there’s fantastic data from the last few years – in terrorism and as an impediment to environmental sustainability. That’s probably the most important area of moralist disengagement. We have about forty or fifty years, and if we don’t get our act together, we’ll have a very hard time. It’s going to be awfully crowded on earth and a good part of our cities will be under water. And what are we doing? We don’t have the luxury of time anymore. (…)

Human nature is capable of vindicating behavior. It isn’t that people are bad by nature. But they have a very playful and rewarding lifestyle, filled with gadgets and air conditioning, and they don’t want to give it up. (…)

Q: ‘The story of men is a story about violence, love, power, victory and defeat’ – that’s how poets talk about the course of history. But from an analystic point of view…

A. Bandura: That’s not true for all societies. We assume that aggression is inbred, but some societies are remarkably pacifistic. And we can also see large variations within a society. But the most striking example might be the transformation from warrior societies into peaceful societies. Switzerland is one example. Sweden is another: Those vikings were out mugging everyone and people would pray for protection: “Save our souls from the fury of the Norsemen!” And now, if you look at that society, it’s hard to find child abuse or domestic violence. Sweden has become a mediator of peace.

Q: In German, there’s the term “Schicksalsgemeinschaft,” which translates as “community of fate”: It posits that a nation is bound together by history. Do you think that’s what defines a society: A common history? Or is it religion, or the language we speak?

A. Bandura: All of the above. We put a lot of emphasis on biological evolution, but what we don’t emphasize is that cultures evolve, too. These changes are transmitted from one generation to another. A few decades ago, the role of women was to be housewives and it was considered sinful to co-habit without being married. If you look at the role of women today, there’s a fantastic transformation in a short period of time; change is accelerated. Homogenization is important, picking things from different cultures, cuisines, music traditions, forms of behavior, and so on. But we have also polarization: Bin Laden’s hate of the West, for example. And there’s hybridization as well. (…)

And society is changing, too. Now it’s considered completely normal to live with your partner without being married. In California, it was only about 40 years ago that homosexuality was treated as a disease. Then people protested, and eventually they got the state to change the diagnostic category to sexual orientation rather than a disease. Psychiatry, under public pressure, changed the diagnostic system. (…)

Q: It’s quite interesting to compare Russia and China. Russia has a free internet, so the reaction to protests is very different than in China. If social networks become increasingly global, do you foresee something like a global set of values as well?

A. Bandura: Yes, but there is another factor here, namely the tremendous power of multinational corporations. They now shape global culture. A lot of these global forces are undermining the collective African society, for example. The society does no longer have much control over the economy. In order to restore some power in leverage, societies are going to be organized in unions. We will see more partnerships around the world. (…)

The revolutionary tendency of technology has increased our sense of agency. If I have access to all global knowledge, I would have fantastic capacities to educate myself. (…) The important thing in psychology is that we need a theory of human agency, rather than arguing that we’re controlled by neural networks. In every aspect of our lives we now have a greater capacity for exercicing agency. (…)

Q: But at the same time globalization removes us from the forces that shape our environment.

A. Bandura: The problems are powerful transnational forces. They can undermine the capacity to run our own society: Because of what happens in Iran, gas prices might soon hit five dollars per gallon in the US. That’s where the pressure comes from for systems and societies to form blocks or build up leverage to protect the quality of life of their citizens. But we can see that a global culture is emerging. One example is the transformation of the status of women. Oppressive regimes see that women are able to drive cars, and they cannot continue to deny that right to them. We’re really changing norms. Thanks to the ubiquity of television, we’re motivating them and showing them that they have the capability to initiate change. It’s about agency: Change is deeply rooted in the belief that my actions can have an effect in the world.”

Albert Bandura, a psychologist who is the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. For almost six decades, he has been responsible for contributions to many fields of psychology, including social cognitive theory, therapy and personality psychology, and was also influential in the transition between behaviorism and cognitive psychology, "We have transcended our biology, The European, 18.02.2013. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)

See also:

‘Human beings are learning machines,’ says philosopher (nature vs. nurture), Lapidarium notes
What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality: ‘Morality is a form of decision-making, and is based on emotions, not logic’

May
17th
Thu
permalink

The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity

            

'The Self'

"For the majority of us the self is a very compulsive experience. I happen to think it’s an illusion and certainly the neuroscience seems to support that contention. Simply from the logical positions that it’s very difficult to, without avoiding some degree of infinite regress, to say a starting point, the trail of thought, just the fractionation of the mind, when we see this happening in neurological conditions. The famous split-brain studies showing that actually we’re not integrated entities inside our head, rather we’re the output of a multitude of unconscious processes.

I happen to think the self is a narrative, and I use the self and the division that was drawn by William James, which is the “I” (the experience of conscious self) and the “me” (which is personal identity, how you would describe yourself in terms of where are you from and everything that makes you up in your predilections and your wishes for the future). Both the “I”, who is sentient of the “me”, and the “me”, which is a story of who you are, I think are stories. They’re constructs and narratives. I mean that in a sense that a story is a reduction or at least it’s a coherent framework that has some causal kind of coherence.

When I go out and give public lectures I like to illustrate the weaknesses of the “I” by using visual illusions of the most common examples. But there are other kinds of illusions that you can introduce which just reveal to people how their conscious experience is actually really just a fraction of what’s really going on. It certainly is not a true reflection of all mechanisms that are generating. Visual illusions are very obvious in that. The thing about the visual illusion effects is that even when they’re explained to you, you can’t but help see them, so that’s interesting. You can’t divorce yourself from the mechanisms that are creating the illusion and the mind that’s experienced in the illusion.

The sense of personal identity, this is where we’ve been doing experimental work showing the importance that we place upon episodic memories, autobiographical memories. In our duplication studies for example, children are quite willing to accept that you could copy a hamster with all its physical properties that you can’t necessarily see, but what you can’t copy very easily are the episodic memories that one hamster has had.

This actually resonates with the ideas of John Locke, the philosopher, who also argued that personal identity was really dependent on the autobiographical or episodic memories, and you are the sum of your memories, which, of course, is something that fractionates and fragments in various forms of dementia. As the person loses the capacity to retrieve memories, or these memoires become distorted, then the identity of the person, the personality, can be changed, amongst other things. But certainly the memories are very important.

As we all know, memory is notoriously fallible. It’s not cast in stone. It’s not something that is stable. It’s constantly reshaping itself. So the fact that we have a multitude of unconscious processes which are generating this coherence of consciousness, which is the I experience, and the truth that our memories are very selective and ultimately corruptible, we tend to remember things which fit with our general characterization of what our self is. We tend to ignore all the information that is inconsistent. We have all these attribution biases. We have cognitive dissonance. The very thing psychology keeps telling us, that we have all these unconscious mechanisms that reframe information, to fit with a coherent story, then both the “I” and the “me”, to all intents and purposes, are generated narratives.

The illusions I talk about often are this sense that there is an integrated individual, with a veridical notion of past. And there’s nothing at the center. We’re the product of the emergent property, I would argue, of the multitude of these processes that generate us.       

I use the word illusion as opposed to delusion. Delusion implies mental illness, to some extent, and illusion, we’re quite happy to accept that we’re experiencing illusions, and for me the word illusion really does mean that it’s an experience that is not what it seems. I’m not denying that there is an experience. We all have this experience, and what’s more, you can’t escape it easily. I think it’s more acceptable to call it an illusion whereas there’s a derogatory nature of calling something a delusion. I suspect there’s probably a technical difference which ought to do with mental illness, but no, I think we’re all perfectly normally, experience this illusion.      

Oliver Sacks has famously written about various case studies of patients which seem so bizarre, people who have various forms of perceptual anomalies, they mistake their wife for a hat, or there are patients who can’t help but copy everything they see. I think that in many instances, because the self is so core to our normal behavior having an understanding that self is this constructive process, I think if this was something that clinicians were familiar with, then I think that would make a lot of sense.

Neuroethics

In fact, it’s not only in clinical practice, I think in a lot of things. I think neuroethics is a very interesting field. I’ve got another colleague, David Eagleman, he’s very interested in these ideas. The culpability, responsibility. We premise our legal systems on this notion there is an individual who is to be held accountable. Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon that, and I’m not sure what you would put in its place, but I think we can all recognize that there are certain situations where we find it very difficult to attribute blame to someone. For example, famously, Charles Whitman, the Texan sniper, when they had the autopsy, they discovered a very sizeable tumor in a region of the brain which could have very much influenced his ability to control his rage. I’m not suggesting every mass murder has inoperable tumors in their brain, but it’s conceivable that there will be, with our increasing knowledge of how the brain operates, and our ability to understand it, it’s conceivable there will be more situations where the lawyers will be looking to put the blame on some biological abnormality.

Where is the line to be drawn? I think that’s a very tough one to deal with. It’s a problem that’s not going to go away. It’s something that we’re going to continually face as we start to learn more about the genetics of aggression.

There’s a lot of interest in this thing called the warrior gene. To what extent is this a gene which predisposes you to violence? Or do you need the interaction between the gene and the abusive childhood in order to get this kind of profile? So it’s not just clinicians, it’s actually just about every realm of human activity where you posit the existence of a self and individuals, and responsibility. Then it will reframe the way you think about things. Just the way that we heap blame and praise, the flip side of blaming people is that we praise individuals. But it could be, in a sense, a multitude of factors that have led them to be successful. I think that it’s a pervasive notion. Whether or not we actually change the way we do anything, I’m not so sure, because I think it would be really hard to live our lives dealing with non-individuals, trying to deal with multitude and the history that everyone brings to the table. There’s a good reason why we have this experience of the self. It’s a very sort of succinct and economical way of interacting with each other. We deal with individuals. We fall in love with individuals, not multitudes of past experiences and aspects of hidden agendas, we just pick them out. (…)

The objects are part of the extended sense of self

I keep tying this back to my issues about why certain objects are overvalued, and I happen to believe, like James again, that objects are part of the extended sense of self. We surround ourselves with objects. We place a lot of value on objects that we think are representative of our self.  (…)

We’re the only species on this planet that invests a lot of time and evaluation through our objects, and this has been something that has been with us for a very, very long time.

Think of some of the early artifacts. The difficulty would have been to make these artifacts, the time invested in these things, means that from a very early point in our civilization, or before civilization, I think the earliest pieces are probably about 90,000 years old. There are certainly older things that are tools, but pieces of artwork, about 90,000 years old. So it’s been with us a long time. And yes, some of them are obviously sacred objects, power of religious purposes and so forth. But outside of that, there’s still this sense of having materials or things that we value, and that intrigues me in so many ways. And I don’t think it’s necessarily universal as well. It’s been around a lot, but the endowment effect, for example, is not found everywhere. There’s some intriguing work coming out of Africa. 

The endowment effect is this rather intriguing idea that we will spontaneously overvalue an object as soon as we believe it’s in our possession, we don’t actually have to have it physically, just bidding on something, as soon as you make your connection to an object, then you value it more, you’ll actually remember more about it, you’ll remember objects which you think are in your possession in comparison to someone else. It gets a whole sense of attribution and value associated with it, which is one of the reasons why people never get the asking price for the things that they’re trying to sell, they always think their objects are worth more than other people are willing to pay for them.

There was the first experimental demonstration by Richard Thaler and Danny Kahneman, and the early behavioral economics, was this demonstration that if you just give people coffee cups, students, coffee cups, and then you ask them to sell it, they always ask more than what someone’s willing to pay for it. It turns out it’s not just coffee cups, it’s wine, it’s chocolate, it’s anything, basically. There’s been quite a bit of work done on the endowment effect now. As I say, it’s been looked at in different species, and the brain mechanisms of having to sell something at a lower price, like loss aversion, it’s seen as quite painful, triggers the same pain centers, if you think you’re going to lose out on a deal

What is it about the objects that give us this self-evaluated sense? Well, I think James spoke of this, again, William James commented on the way that we use objects to extend our self. Russell Belk is a marketing psychologist. He has also talked about the extended self in terms of objects. As I say, this is something that I think marketers know in that they create certain quality brands that are perceived to signal to others how good your social status is.

It’s something in us, but it may not be universal because there are tribes, there are some recent reports from nomadic tribes in central Africa, who don’t seem to have this sense of ownership. It might be a reflection more of the fact that a lot of this work has been done in the West where we’re very individualistic, and of course individualism almost creates a lot of endowment ideas and certainly supports the endowment, materialism that we see. But this is an area I’d like to do more work with because we have not found any evidence of the endowment effect in children below five, six years of age. I’m interested: is this something that just emerges spontaneously? I suspect not. I suspect this is something that culture is definitely shaping. That’s my hunch, so that’s an empirical question I need to pick apart.

The irrational superstitious behaviors

Another line of research I’ve been working on in the past five years … this was a little bit like putting the cart before the horse, so I put forward an idea, it wasn’t entirely original. It was a combination of ideas of others, most notably Pascal Boyer. Paul Bloom, to some extent, had been thinking something similar. A bunch of us were interested in why religion was around. I didn’t want to specifically focus on religion. I wanted to get to the more general point about belief because it was my hunch that even a lot of atheists or self-stated atheists or agnostics, still nevertheless entertained beliefs which were pretty irrational. I wasn’t meaning irrational in a kind of behavioral economics type of way. I meant irrational in that there were these implicit views that would violate the natural laws as we thought about them. Violations of the natural laws I see as being supernatural. That’s what makes them supernatural. I felt that this was an area worth looking at. They’d been looked at 50, 60 years ago very much in the behaviorist association tradition.

BF Skinner famously wrote a paper on the superstitious behavior of pigeons, and he argued if you simply set up a reinforcement schedule at a random kind of interval, pigeons will adopt typical patterns that they think are somehow related to the reward, and then you could shape irrational superstitious behaviors. Now that work has turned out to be a bit dubious and I’m not sure that stood the test of time. But in terms of people’s rituals and routines, it’s quite clear and I know them in myself. There are these things that we do which are familiar, and we get a little bit irritated we don’t get to do them, so we do, most of us, entertain some degree of superstitious behavior.

At the time there was a lot of interest in religion and a lot of the hoo-ha about The God Delusion, and I felt that maybe we just need to redress this idea that it’s all to do with indoctrination, because I couldn’t believe the whole edifice of this kind of belief system was purely indoctrination. I’m not saying there’s not indoctrination, and clearly, religions are culturally transmitted. You’re not born to be Jewish or born to be Christian. But what I think religions do is they capitalize on a lot of inclinations that children have. Then I entered into a series of work, and my particular interest was this idea of essentialism and sacred objects and moral contamination.

We took a lot of the work that Paul Rozin had done, talking about things like killers’ cardigans, and we started to see if there was any empirical measures of transfer. For example, would you find yourself wanting to wash your hands more? Would you find priming effects for words which were related to good and evil, based on whether you had touched the object or not? For me there had to be this issue of physical contact. It struck me as this was why it wasn’t a pure association mechanism. It was actually something to do with the belief, a naïve belief there was some biological entity that can somehow, moral contamination can transfer.

We started to look at, actually not children now, but looking at adults because doing this sort of work with children is very difficult and probably somewhat controversial. But the whole area of research is premised on this idea that there are intuitive ways of seeing the world. Sometimes this is referred to as System One and System Two, or automatic and control. It reappears in a variety of psychological contexts. I just think about it as these unconscious, rapid systems which are triggered automatically. I think their origins are in children. Whilst you can educate people with a kind of slower System Two, if you like, you never eradicate the intuitive ways of seeing the world because they were never taught in the first place. They’re always there. I suppose if you want to ask me if there any kind of thing that you can have as a theory that you haven’t yet proven, it’s the idea is, I don’t think you ever throw away any belief system or any ideas that have been derived through these unconscious intuitive processes. You can supersede them, you can overwrite them, but they never go away, and they will reemerge under the right contexts. If you put people through stressful situations or you overload it, you can see the reemergence of these kinds of ways of thinking. The empirical evidence seems to be supporting that. They’ve got wrinkles in their brains. They’re never going to go away. You can try and override them, but they’re always there and they will reappear under the right circumstances, which is why you see the reemergence under stress of a lot of irrational thinking.

For example, teleological explanations, the idea that everything is made for a purpose or a function, is a natural way to see the world. This is Deb Kelemen's work. You will find that people who considered themselves fairly rational and well educated will, nevertheless, default back to teleological explanations if you put them under a stressful timed kind of situation. So it’s a way of seeing the world that is never eradicated. I think that’s going to be a general principle, in the same way that a reflex, if you think about reflexes, that’s an unlearned behavioral response. You’re born with a whole set of reflexes. Many of them disappear, but they never entirely go away. They become typically reintegrated into more complex behaviors, but if someone goes into a coma, you can see the reflexes reemerging.

What we think is going on is that in the course of development, these very automatic behaviors become controlled by top-down processes from the cortex, all these higher order systems which are regulating and controlling and suppressing, trying to keep these things under wraps. But when the cortex is put out of action through a coma or head injury, then you can see many of these things reemerging again. I don’t see why there should be any point of departure from a motor system to a perceptual system, to a cognitive system, because they’re all basically patterns of neural firing in the brain, and so I don’t see why it can’t be the case that if concepts are derived through these processes, they could remain dormant and latent as well.

The hierarchy of representations in the brain

One of the things that has been fascinating me is the extent to which we can talk about the hierarchy of representations in the brain. Representations are literally re-presentations. That’s the language of the brain, that’s the mode of thinking in the brain, it’s representation. It’s more than likely, in fact, it’s most likely that there is already representation wired into the brain. If you think about the sensory systems, the array of the eye, for example, is already laid out in a topographical representation of the external world, to which it has not yet been exposed. What happens is that this is general layout, arrangements that become fine-tuned. We know of a lot of work to show that the arrangements of the sensory mechanisms do have a spatial arrangement, so that’s not learned in any sense. But these can become changed through experiences, and that’s why the early work of Hubel and Weisel, about the effects of abnormal environments showed that the general pattern could be distorted, but the pattern was already in place in the first place.

When you start to move beyond sensory into perceptual systems and then into cognitive systems, that’s when you get into theoretical arguments and the gloves come off. There are some people who argue that it has to be the case that there are certain primitives built into the conceptual systems. I’m talking about the work of, most notably, Elizabeth Spelke.  

There certainly seems to be a lot of perceptual ability in newborns in terms of constancies, noticing invariant aspects of the physical world. I don’t think I have a problem with any of that, but I suppose this is where the debates go. (…)

Shame in the East is something that is at least recognized as a major factor of identity

I’ve been to Japan a couple of time. I’m not an expert in the cultural variation of cognition, but clearly shame is a major factor in motivation, or avoidance of shame, in eastern cultures. I think it reflects the sense of self worth and value in eastern culture. It is very much a collective notion that they place a lot of emphasis on not letting the team down. I believe they even have a special word for that aspect or experience of shame that we don’t have. That doesn’t mean that it’s a concept that we can never entertain, but it does suggest that in the East this is something that is at least recognized as a major factor of identity.

Children don’t necessarily feel shame. I don’t think they’ve got a sense of self until well into their second year. They have the “I”, they have the notion of being, of having control. They will experience the willingness to move their arms, and I’m sure they make that connection very quickly, so they have this sense of self, in that “I” notion, but I don’t think they’ve got personal identity, and that’s one of the reasons that they don’t have much, or very few of us have much memory of our earlier times. Our episodic memories are very fragmented, sensory events. But from about two to three years on they start to get a sense of who they are. Knowing who you are means becoming integrated into your social environment, and part of becoming integrated into your social environment means acquiring a sense of shame. Below two, three years of age, I don’t think many children have a notion of shame. But from then on, as they have to become members of the social tribe, then they have to be made aware of the consequences of being antisocial or doing things not what’s expected of them. I think that’s probably late in the acquisition.”

Bruce Hood, Canadian-born experimental psychologist who specialises in developmental cognitive neuroscience, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, based at the University of Bristol, Essentialism, Edge, May, 17, 2012. (Illustration source)

The Illusion of the Self

"For me, an illusion is a subjective experience that is not what it seems. Illusions are experiences in the mind, but they are not out there in nature. Rather, they are events generated by the brain. Most of us have an experience of a self. I certainly have one, and I do not doubt that others do as well – an autonomous individual with a coherent identity and sense of free will. But that experience is an illusion – it does not exist independently of the person having the experience, and it is certainly not what it seems. That’s not to say that the illusion is pointless. Experiencing a self illusion may have tangible functional benefits in the way we think and act, but that does not mean that it exists as an entity. (…)

For most of us, the sense of our self is as an integrated individual inhabiting a body. I think it is helpful to distinguish between the two ways of thinking about the self that William James talked about. There is conscious awareness of the present moment that he called the “I,” but there is also a self that reflects upon who we are in terms of our history, our current activities and our future plans. James called this aspect of the self, “me” which most of us would recognize as our personal identity—who we think we are. However, I think that both the “I” and the “me” are actually ever-changing narratives generated by our brain to provide a coherent framework to organize the output of all the factors that contribute to our thoughts and behaviors.

I think it helps to compare the experience of self to subjective contours – illusions such as the Kanizsa pattern where you see an invisible shape that is really defined entirely by the surrounding context. People understand that it is a trick of the mind but what they may not appreciate is that the brain is actually generating the neural activation as if the illusory shape was really there. In other words, the brain is hallucinating the experience. There are now many studies revealing that illusions generate brain activity as if they existed. They are not real but the brain treats them as if they were.

Now that line of reasoning could be applied to all perception except that not all perception is an illusion. There are real shapes out there in the world and other physical regularities that generate reliable states in the minds of others. The reason that the status of reality cannot be applied to the self, is that it does not exist independently of my brain alone that is having the experience. It may appear to have a consistency of regularity and stability that makes it seem real, but those properties alone do not make it so.

Similar ideas about the self can be found in Buddhism and the writings of Hume and Spinoza. The difference is that there is now good psychological and physiological evidence to support these ideas that I cover in the book. (…)

There are many cognitive scientists who would doubt that the experience of I is constructed from a multitude of unconscious mechanisms and processes. Me is similarly constructed, though we may be more aware of the events that have shaped it over our lifetime. But neither is cast in stone and both are open to all manner of reinterpretation. As artists, illusionists, movie makers, and more recently experimental psychologists have repeatedly shown, conscious experience is highly manipulatable and context dependent. Our memories are also largely abstracted reinterpretations of events – we all hold distorted memories of past experiences. (…)

The developmental processes that shape our brains from infancy onwards to create our identities as well as the systematic biases that distort the content of our identity to form a consistent narrative. I believe much of that distortion and bias is socially relevant in terms of how we would like to be seen by others. We all think we would act and behave in a certain way, but the reality is that we are often mistaken. (…)

Q: What role do you think childhood plays in shaping the self?

Just about everything we value in life has something to do with other people. Much of that influence occurs early in our development, which is one reason why human childhoods are so prolonged in comparison to other species. We invest so much effort and time into our children to pass on as much knowledge and experience as possible. It is worth noting that other species that have long periods of rearing also tend to be more social and intelligent in terms of flexible, adaptive behaviors. Babies are born social from the start but they develop their sense of self throughout childhood as they move to become independent adults that eventually reproduce. I would contend that the self continues to develop throughout a lifetime, especially as our roles change to accommodate others. (…)

The role of social networking in the way we portray our self

There are some interesting phenomena emerging. There is evidence of homophily – the grouping together of individuals who share a common perspective, which is not too surprising. More interesting is evidence of polarization. Rather than opening up and exposing us to different perspectives, social networking on the Internet can foster more radicalization as we seek out others who share our positions. The more others validate our opinions, the more extreme we become. I don’t think we need to be fearful, and I am less concerned than the prophets of doom who predict the downfall of human civilization, but I believe it is true that the way we create the narrative of the self is changing.

Q: If the self is an illusion, what is your position on free will?

Free will is certainly a major component of the self illusion, but it is not synonymous. Both are illusions, but the self illusion extends beyond the issues of choice and culpability to other realms of human experience. From what I understand, I think you and I share the same basic position about the logical impossibility of free will. I also think that compatibilism (that determinism and free will can co-exist) is incoherent. We certainly have more choices today to do things that are not in accord with our biology, and it may be true that we should talk about free will in a meaningful way, as Dennett has argued, but that seems irrelevant to the central problem of positing an entity that can make choices independently of the multitude of factors that control a decision. To me, the problem of free will is a logical impasse – we cannot choose the factors that ultimately influence what we do and think. That does not mean that we throw away the social, moral, and legal rulebooks, but we need to be vigilant about the way our attitudes about individuals will be challenged as we come to understand the factors (both material and psychological) that control our behaviors when it comes to attributing praise and blame. I believe this is somewhat akin to your position. (…)

The self illusion explains so many aspects of human behavior as well as our attitudes toward others. When we judge others, we consider them responsible for their actions. But was Mary Bale, the bank worker from Coventry who was caught on video dropping a cat into a garbage can, being true to her self? Or was Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant being himself or under the influence of someone else? What motivated Senator Weiner to text naked pictures of himself to women he did not know? In the book, I consider some of the extremes of human behavior from mass murderers with brain tumors that may have made them kill, to rising politicians who self-destruct. By rejecting the notion of a core self and considering how we are a multitude of competing urges and impulses, I think it is easier to understand why we suddenly go off the rails. It explains why we act, often unconsciously, in a way that is inconsistent with our self image – or the image of our self as we believe others see us.

That said, the self illusion is probably an inescapable experience we need for interacting with others and the world, and indeed we cannot readily abandon or ignore its influence, but we should be skeptical that each of us is the coherent, integrated entity we assume we are.

Bruce Hood Canadian-born experimental psychologist who specialises in developmental cognitive neuroscience, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre, based at the University of Bristol, interviewed by Sam Harris, The Illusion of the Self, Sam Harris blog, May 22, 2012.

See also:

Existence: What is the self?, Lapidarium notes
Paul King on what is the best explanation for identity
David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
Professor George Lakoff: Reason is 98% Subconscious Metaphor in Frames & Cultural Narratives
Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking

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E. O. Wilson on human evolution, altruism and a ‘new Enlightenment’

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“History makes no sense without prehistory, and prehistory makes no sense without biology.”

— E. O. Wilson, Seminars About Long-term Thinking, The Long Now Foundation, Apr 20, 2012.

"Scientific advances are now good enough for us to address coherently questions of where we came from and what we are. But to do so, we need to answer two more fundamental questions. The first is why advanced social life exists in the first place and has occurred so rarely. The second is what are the driving forces that brought it into existence.

A conflict between individual and group-selected traits

"Only the understanding of evolution offers a chance to get a real understanding of the human species. We are determined by the interplay between individual and group selection where individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. We’re all in constant conflict between self-sacrifice for the group on the one hand and egoism and selfishness on the other. I go so far as to say that all the subjects of humanities, from law to the creative arts are based upon this play of individual versus group selection. (…) And it is very creative and probably the source of our striving, our inventiveness and imagination. It’s that eternal conflict that makes us unique.

Q: So how do we negotiate this conflict?

E O. W: We don’t. We have to live with it.

Q: Which element of this human condition is stronger?

E O. W: Let’s put it this way: If we would be mainly influenced by group selection, we would be living in kind of an ant society. (…)

Q: What determines which ideology is predominant in a society?

E O. W: If your territory is invaded, then cooperation within the group will be extreme. That’s a human instinct. If you are in a frontier area, however, then we tend to move towards the extreme individual level. That seems to be a good part of the problem still with America. We still think we’re on the frontier, so we constantly try to put forward individual initiative and individual rights and rewards based upon individual achievement. (…)”

Edward O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher (sociobiologybiodiversity), theorist (consiliencebiophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author, Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals, Der Spiegel, 2013

Eusociality, where some individuals reduce their own reproductive potential to raise others’ offspring, is what underpins the most advanced form of social organization and the dominance of social insects and humans. One of the key ideas to explain this has been kin selection theory or inclusive fitness, which argues that individuals cooperate according to how they are related. I have had doubts about it for quite a while. Standard natural selection is simpler and superior. Humans originated by multilevel selection—individual selection interacting with group selection, or tribe competing against tribe. We need to understand a great deal more about that. (…)

We should consider ourselves as a product of these two interacting and often competing levels of evolutionary selection. Individual versus group selection results in a mix of altruism and selfishness, of virtue and sin, among the members of a society. If we look at it that way, then we have what appears to be a pretty straightforward answer as to why conflicted emotions are at the very foundation of human existence. I think that also explains why we never seem to be able to work things out satisfactorily, particularly internationally.

Q: So it comes down to a conflict between individual and group-selected traits?

Yes. And you can see this especially in the difficulty of harmonizing different religions. We ought to recognize that religious strife is not the consequence of differences among people. It’s about conflicts between creation stories. We have bizarre creation myths and each is characterized by assuring believers that theirs is the correct story, and that therefore they are superior in every sense to people who belong to other religions. This feeds into our tribalistic tendencies to form groups, occupy territories and react fiercely to any intrusion or threat to ourselves, our tribe and our special creation story. Such intense instincts could arise in evolution only by group selection—tribe competing against tribe. For me, the peculiar qualities of faith are a logical outcome of this level of biological organization.

Q: Can we do anything to counter our tribalistic instincts?

I think we are ready to create a more human-centered belief system. I realize I sound like an advocate for science and technology, and maybe I am because we are now in a techno-scientific age. I see no way out of the problems that organized religion and tribalism create other than humans just becoming more honest and fully aware of themselves. Right now we’re living in what Carl Sagan correctly termed a demon-haunted world. We have created a Star Wars civilization but we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. That’s dangerous. (…)

I’m devoted to the kind of environmentalism that is particularly geared towards the conservation of the living world, the rest of life on Earth, the place we came from. We need to put a lot more attention into that as something that could unify people. Surely one moral precept we can agree on is to stop destroying our birthplace, the only home humanity will ever have.

Q: Do you believe science will help us in time?

We can’t predict what science is going to come up with, particularly on genuine frontiers like astrophysics. So much can change even within a single decade. A lot more is going to happen when the social sciences finally join the biological sciences: who knows what will come out of that in terms of describing and predicting human behavior? But there are certain things that are almost common sense that we should not do.

Q: What sort of things shouldn’t we do?

Continue to put people into space with the idea that this is the destiny of humanity. It makes little sense to continue exploration by sending live astronauts to the moon, and much less to Mars and beyond. It will be far cheaper, and entail no risk to human life, to explore space with robots. It’s a commonly stated idea that we can have other planets to live on once we have used this one up. That is nonsense. We can find what we need right here on this planet for almost infinite lengths of time, if we take good care of it.

A New Enlightenment

Q: What is it important to do now?

The title of my final chapter is “A New Enlightenment”. I think we ought to have another go at the Enlightenment and use that as a common goal to explain and understand ourselves, to take that self-understanding which we so sorely lack as a foundation for what we do in the moral and political realm. This is a wonderful exercise. It is about education, science, evaluating the creative arts, learning to control the fires of organized religion and making a better go of it.

Q: Could you be more concrete about this new Enlightenment?

I would like to see us improving education worldwide and putting a lot more emphasis—as some Asian and European countries have—on science and technology as part of basic education.”

E. O. Wilson, E. O. Wilson: from altruism to a new Enlightenment, New Scientist, 24 April 2012.

"I think science is now up to the job. We need to be harnessing our scientific knowledge now to get a better, science-based self-understanding.

Q: It seems that, in this process, you would like to throw religions overboard altogether?

E O. W: No. That’s a misunderstanding. I don’t want to see the Catholic Church with all of its magnificent art and rituals and music disappear. I just want to have them give up their creation stories, including especially the resurrection of Christ.

Q: That might well be a futile endeavour …

E O. W: There was this American physiologist who was asked if Mary’s bodily ascent from Earth to Heaven was possible. He said, “I wasn’t there; therefore, I’m not positive that it happened or didn’t happen; but of one thing I’m certain: She passed out at 10,000 meters.” That’s where science comes in. Seriously, I think we’re better off with no creation stories.

Q: With this new Enlightenment, will we reach a higher state of humanity?

E O. W: Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.”

Edward O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher (sociobiologybiodiversity), theorist (consiliencebiophilia), naturalist (conservationist) and author, Interview with Edward O. Wilson: The Origin of Morals, originally in P. Bethge, J. Grolle, Wir sind ein Schlamassel, Der Spiegel, 8/2013.

A “Social Conquest of the Earth”

"Q: What are some striking examples for you of the legacy of this evolutionary process?

Almost everything. All the way from passion at football games to war to the constant need to suppress selfish behavior that ranges over into criminal behavior to the necessary extolling of altruism by groups, to group approval and reward of people who are heroes or altruists.

Constant turmoil occurs in modern human societies and what I’m suggesting is that turmoil is endemic in the way human advanced social behavior originated in the first place. It’s by group selection that occurred favoring altruism versus individual level selection, which by and large, not exclusively, favor individual and selfish behavior.

We’re hung in the balance. We’ll never reach either one extreme or the other. One extreme would take us to the level of ants and bees and the other would mean that you have dissolution of society.

Q: One point you make in your book is that this highly social kind of behavior that we’ve evolved has allowed us to be part of the social conquest of earth, but it’s also had an unfortunate effect of endangering a lot of the world’s biodiversity. Does that make you pessimistic? If this is just part of the way we’ve evolved, is there going to be any way out of it?

That’s a very big question. In other words, did the pathway that led us to advanced social behavior and conquest make it inevitable that we will destroy most of what we’ve conquered? That is the question of questions.

I’m optimistic. I think that we can pass from conquerors to stewards. We have the intellectual and moral capacity to do it, but I’ve also felt very strongly that we needed a much better understanding of who we are and where we came from. We need answers to those questions in order to get our bearings toward a successful long-term future, that means a future for ourselves, our species and for the rest of life.

I realize that sounds a little bit like it’s coming from a pulpit but basically that’s what I’ve had in my mind. In writing A Social Conquest of Earth, I very much had in mind that need for self-understanding, and I thought we were very far short, and we remain very far short, of self-understanding. We have a kind of resistance toward honest self-understanding as a species and I think that resistance is due in part to our genetic history. And now, can we overcome it? I think so.”

E. O. Wilson, American biologist, researcher in sociobiology, biodiversity, theorist, naturalist and author, interviewed by Carl Zimmer, What Does E.O. Wilson Mean By a “Social Conquest of the Earth”, Smithsonian.com, March 22, 2012

See also:

Edward O. Wilson “The Social Conquest of Earth”, Fora.tv video, 20 Apr 2012
☞ Richard Dawkins, The descent of Edward Wilson. “A new book on evolution by a great biologist makes a slew of mistakes”, Prospect, May 24, 2012
The Original Colonists, The New York Times, May 11, 2012:
“Mythmaking could never discover the origin and meaning of humanity” — and contemporary philosophy is also irrelevant, having “long ago abandoned the foundational questions about human existence.” The proper approach to answering these deep questions is the application of the methods of science, including archaeology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Also, we should study insects.”
Sam Harris on the ‘selfish gene’ and moral behavior
Anthropocene: “the recent age of man”. Mapping Human Influence on Planet Earth, Lapidarium notes
Human Nature. Sapolsky, Maté, Wilkinson, Gilligan, discuss on human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate
On the Origins of the Arts , Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson on the evolution of culture, Harvard Magazine, May-June, 2013
Anthropology tag on Lapidarium notes
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Jason Silva on singularity, synthetic biology and a desire to transcend human boundaries

   

"That’s what we do with all of our art. A beautiful cathedral, a beautiful painting, a beautiful song—-all of those are ecstatic visions held in stasis; in some sense the artist is saying “here is a glimpse I had of something ephemeral and fleeting and magical, and I’m doing my best to instantiate that into stone, into paint, into stasis.” And that’s what human beings have always done, we try to capture these experiences before they go dim, we try to make sure that what we glimpse doesn’t fade away before we get hungry or sleepy later. (…)

We want to transcend our biological limitations. We don’t want biology or entropy to interrupt the ecstasy of consciousness. Consciousness, when it’s unburdened by the body, is something that’s ecstatic; we use the mind to watch the mind, and that’s the meta-nature of our consciousness, we know that we know that we know, and that’s such a delicious feeling, but when it’s unburdened by biology and entropy it becomes more than delicious; it becomes magical. I mean, think of the unburdening of the ego that takes place when we watch a film; we sit in a dark room, it’s sort of a modern church, we turn out the lights and an illumination beams out from behind us creating these ecstatic visions. We lose ourselves in the story, we experience a genuine catharsis, the virtual becomes real—-it’s total transcendence, right? (…)

This haunting idea of the passing of time, of the slipping away of the treasured moments of our lives, became a catalyst for my thinking a lot about mortality. This sense that the moment is going to end, the night will be over, and that we’re all on this moving walkway headed towards death; I wanted a diversion from that reality. In Ernest Becker's book The Denial of Death, he talks about how the neurotic human condition is not a product of our sexual repression, but rather our repression in the face of death anxiety. We have this urgent knot in our stomach because we’re keenly aware that we’re mortal, and so we try to find these diversions so that we don’t think about it—-and these have manifested into the religious impulse, the romantic impulse, and the creative impulse.

As we increasingly become sophisticated, cosmopolitan people, the religious impulse is less relevant. The romantic impulse has served us well, particularly in popular culture, because that’s the impulse that allows us to turn our lovers into deities; we say things like “she’s like salvation, she’s like the wind,” and we end up worshipping our lovers. We invest in this notion that to be loved by someone is to be saved by someone. But ultimately no relationship can bear the burden of godhood; our lovers reveal their clay feet and their frailties and they come back down to the world of biology and entropy. 

So then we look for salvation in the creative impulse, this drive to create transcendent art, or to participate in aesthetic arrest. We make beautiful architecture, or beautiful films that transport us to this lair where we’re like gods outside of time. But it’s still temporal. The arts do achieve that effect, I think, and so do technologies to the extent that they’re extensions of the human mind, extensions of our human longing. In a way, that is the first pathway to being immortal gods. Particularly with technologies like the space shuttle, which make us into gods in the sense that they let us hover over the earth looking down on it. But then we’re not gods, because we still age and we die.

But even if you see the singularity only as a metaphor, you have to admit it’s a pretty wonderful metaphor, because human nature, if nothing else, consists of this desire to transcend our boundaries—-the entire history of man from hunter gatherer to technologist to astronaut is this story of expanding and transcending our boundaries using our tools. And so whether the metaphor works for you or not, that’s a wonderful way to live your life, to wake up every day and say, “even if I am going to die I am going to transcend my human limitations.” And then if you make it literal, if you drop this pretense that it’s a metaphor, you notice that we actually have doubled our lifespan, we really have improved the quality of life across the world, we really have created magical devices that allow us to send our thoughts across space at nearly the speed of light. We really are on the cusp of reprogramming our biology like we program computers. 

All of the sudden this metaphor of the singularity spills over into the realm of the possible, and it makes it that much more intoxicating; it’s like going from two dimensions to three dimensions, or black and white to color. It just keeps going and going, and it never seems to hit the wall that other ideas hit, where you have to stop and say to yourself “stop dreaming.” Here you can just kind of keep dreaming, you can keep making these extrapolations of Moore’s Law, and say “yeah, we went from building-sized supercomputers to the iPhone, and in forty-five years it will be the size of a blood cell.” That’s happening, and there’s no reason to think it’s going to stop.

Q: Going through your videos, I noticed that one vision of the singularity that you keep returning to is this idea of “substrate-independent minds.” Can you explain what a substrate independent mind is, and why it makes for such a compelling vision of the future?

Jason Silva: That has to do with what’s called STEM compression, which is this notion that all technologies become compressed in terms of space, time, energy and matter (STEM) as they evolve. Our brain is a great example of this; it’s got this dizzying level of complexity for such a small space, but the brain isn’t optimal. The optimal scenario would be to have brain-level complexity, or even higher-level complexity in something that’s the size of cell. If we radically upgrade our bodies with biotech, we might find that in addition to augmenting our biological capabilities, we’re also going to be replacing more of our biology with non-biological components, so that things are backed up and decentralized and not subject to entropy. More and more of the data processing that makes up our consciousness is going to be non-biological, and eventually we might be able to discard biology altogether, because we’ll have finally invented a computational substrate that supports the human mind. 

At that point, if we’re doing computing at the nano scale, or the femto scale, which is even smaller, you could see extraordinary things. What if we could store all of the computing capacity of the world’s computer networks in something that operates at the femto scale? What if we could have thinking, dreaming, conscious minds operating at the femto scale? That would be a substrate independent mind.

You can even go beyond that. John Smart has this really interesting idea he calls the Transcension Hypothesis. It’s this idea that that all civilizations hit a technological singularity, after which they stop expanding outwards, and instead become subject to STEM compression that pushes them inward into denser and denser computational states until eventually we disappear out of the visible universe, and we enter into a black-hole-like condition. So you’ve got digital minds exponentially more powerful than the ones we use today, operating in the computational substrate, at the femto scale, and they’re compressing further and further into a black hole state, because a black hole is the most efficient computational substrate that physics has ever described. I’m not a physicist, but I have read physicists who say that black holes are the ultimate computers, and that’s why the whole STEM compression idea is so interesting, especially with substrate independent minds; minds that can hop back and forth between different organizational structures of matter.  (…)

With technology, we’ve been doing the same thing we used to with religion, which is to dream of a better way to exist, but technology actually gives you real ways to extend your thoughts and your vision. (…)



The mind is always participating in these feedback loops with the spaces it resides in; whatever is around us is a mirror that we’re holding up to ourselves, because everything we’re thinking about we’re creating a model of in our heads. So when you’re in constrained spaces you’re having constrained thoughts, and when you’re in vast spaces you have vast thoughts. So when you get to sit and contemplate actual outer space, solar systems, and galaxies, and super clusters—-think about how much that expands your inner world. That’s why we get off on space. 

I also get off on synthetic biology, because I love the metaphors that exist between technology and biology: the idea that we may be able to reprogram the operating system, or upgrade the software of our biology. It’s a great way to help people understand what’s possible with biology, because people already understand the power we have over the digital world—-we’re like gods in cyberspace, we can make anything come into being. When the software of biology is subject to that very same power, we’re going to be able to do those same things in the realm of living things. There’s this Freeman Dyson line that I have quoted a million times in my videos, to the point where people are actually calling me out about it, but the reason I keep coming back to it is that it’s so emblematic of my awe in thinking about this stuff—-he says that "in the future, a new generation of artists will be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses." It’s a really well placed analogy, because the alphabet is a technology; you can use it to engender alphabetic rapture with literature and poetry. Guys like Shakespeare and Blake and Byron were technologists who used the alphabet to engineer wonderful things in the world. With biology, new generations of artists will be able to perform the same miracles that Shakespeare and those guys did with words, only they’ll be doing it with genes.

Q: You romanticize technology in some really interesting ways; in one of your videos you say that if you could watch the last century in time lapse you would see ideas spilling out of the human mind and into the physical universe. Do you expect that interface between the mind and the physical to become even more lubricated as time passes? Or are there limits, physical or otherwise, that we’re eventually going to run up against?

Jason Silva: It’s hard to say, because as our tools become more powerful they shrink the buffer time between our dreams and our creations. Today we still have this huge lag time between thinking and creation. We think of something, and then we have to go get the stuff for it, and then we have to build it—-it’s not like we can render it at the speed of thought. But eventually it will get to the point where it will be like that scene in Inception where he says that we can create and perceive our world at the same time. Because, again, if you look at human progress in time lapse, it is like that scene in Inception. People thought “airplane, aviation, jet engine” and then those things were in the world. If you look at the assembly line of an airplane in time lapse it actually looks self-organizing; you don’t see all of these agencies building it, instead it’s just being formed. And when you see the earth as the biosphere, as this huge integrated system, then you see this stuff just forming over time, just popping into existence. There’s this process of intention, imagination and instantiation, and the buffer time between each of those steps is getting smaller and smaller. (…)”

Jason Silva, Venezuelan-American television personality, filmmaker, gonzo journalist and founding producer/host for Current TV, A Timothy Leary for the Viral Video Age, The Atlantic, Apr 12, 2012.

Turning Into Gods - ‘Concept Teaser’ by Jason Silva

"Turning Into Gods is a new feature length documentary exploring mankind’s journey to ‘play jazz with the universe’… it is a story of our ultimate potential, the reach of our intelligence, the scope of our scientific and engineering abilities and the transcendent quality of our heroic and noble calling.

Thinking, feeling, striving, man is whatPierre Teilhard de Chardin called “the ascending arrow of the great biological synthesis.”… today we walk a tight-rope between ape and Nietzsche’s Overman… how will we make it through, and what is the texture and color of our next refined and designed evolutionary leap? (…)

"We’re on the cusp of a bio-tech/nanotech/artificial-intelligence revolution that will open up new worlds of exploration. And we should open our minds to the limitless, mind-boggling possibilities.”

Why We Could All Use a Heavy Dose of Techno-optimism, Vanity Fair, May 7, 2010.

See also:

‘To understand is to perceive patterns’, Lapidarium notes
Wildcat and Jason Silva on immortality
☞ Jason Silva, The beginning of infinity (video)
Kevin Kelly on information, evolution and technology: ‘The essence of life is not energy but ideas’, Lapidarium notes
Kevin Kelly on Why the Impossible Happens More Often
Waking Life ☞ animated film focuses on the nature of dreams, consciousness, and existentialism. Eamonn Healy speaks about telescopic evolution and the future of humanity
Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.
Science historian George Dyson: Unravelling the digital code
Technology tag on Lapidarium notes

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Richard Doyle on Creativity, evolution of mind and the rhetorical membrane between humans and an informational universe

              

Q [Jason Silva]: The Jesuit Priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the Noosphere very early on. A profile in WIRED Magazine article said, 

"Teilhard imagined a stage of evolution characterized by a complex membrane of information enveloping the globe and fueled by human consciousness”.. Teilhard saw the Net coming more than half a century before it arrived. He believed this vast thinking membrane would ultimately coalesce into “the living unity of a single tissue” containing our collective thoughts and experiences."  Teilhard wrote, "The living world is constituted by consciousness clothed in flesh and bone.

He argued that the primary vehicle for increasing complexity consciousness among living organisms was the nervous system. The informational wiring of a being, he argued - whether of neurons or electronics - gives birth to consciousness. As the diversification of nervous connections increases, evolution is led toward greater consciousness… thoughts?

Richard Doyle: Yes, he also called it this process of the evolution of consciousness “Omega Point”. The noosphere imagined here relied on a change in our relationship to  consciousness as much to any technological change and was part of evolution’s epic quest for self awareness. Here Teilhard is in accord with Julian Huxley (Aldous’ brother, a biologist) and Carl Sagan when they observed that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine traces out this evolution of consciousness as well through the greek and Sanskrit traditions as well as Darwinism and (relatively) modern philosophy. All are describing evolution’s slow and dynamic quest towards understanding itself.

         

I honestly think we are still grappling with the fact that our minds are distributed across a network by technology, and have been in a feedback loop between our brains and technologies at least since the invention of writing. As each new “mutation” occurs in the history of evolution of information technology, the very character of our minds shifts. McLuhan's Understanding Media is instructive here as well (he parsed it as the Global Village), and of course McLuhan was the bard who advised Leary on "Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out" and very influential on Terence McKenna.

One difference between now and Plato’s time is the infoquake through which we are all living. This radical increase in quantity no doubt has qualitative effects - it changes what it feels like to think and remember. Plato was working through the effect of one new information technology – writing – whereas today we “upgrade” every six months or so…Teilhard observes the correlative of this evolutionary increase in information - and the sudden thresholds it crosses - in the evolution of complexity and nervous systemsThe noosphere is a way of helping us deal with this “phase transition” of consciousness that may well be akin to the phase transition between liquid water and water vapor - a change in degree that effects a change in kind.

Darwin’s Pharmacy suggests that ecodelics were precisely such a mutation in information technology that increased sexually selective fitness through the capacity to process greater amounts of information, and that they are “extraordinarily sensitive to initial rhetorical traditions.” What this means is that because ecodelic experiences are so sensitive to the context in which we experience them, they can help make us aware of the effect of language and music etc on our consciousness, and thereby offer an awareness of our ability to effect our own consciousness through our linguistic and creative choices. This can be helpful when trying to browse the infoquake. Many other practices do so as well - meditation is the most well established practice for noticing the effects we can have on our own consciousness, and Sufi dervishes demonstrate this same outcome for dancing. I do the same on my bicycle, riding up a hill and chanting.

One problem I have with much of the discourse of “memes" is that it is often highly reductionistic - it often forgets that ideas have an ecology too, they must be "cultured." Here I would argue that drawing on Lawrence Lessig's work on the commons, the “brain” is a necessary but insufficient “spawning” ground for ideas that becomes actual. The commons is the spawning ground of ideas; brains are pretty obviously social as well as individual. Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin notes that there is no such thing as “self replicating” molecules, since they always require a context to be replicated. This problem goes back at last to computer scientist John Von Neumann's 1947 paper on Self reproducing automata.

I think Terence McKenna described the condition as "language is loose on planet three", and its modern version probably occurs first in the work of writer William S. Burroughs, whose notion of the "word virus" predates the "meme" by at least a decade. Then again this notion of "ideas are real" goes back to cosmologies that begin with the priority of consciousness over matter, as in "In the beginning was the word, and the word was god, and the word was with god." So even Burroughs could get a late pass for his idea. (…)

Q: Richard Dawkin's definition of a meme is quite powerful: 

“I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet, […] already achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.” [the replicator is] human culture; the vector of transmission is language, and the spawning ground is the brain.”  

This notion that the ”the vector of transmission is language" is very compelling.. It seems to suggest that just as in biological evolution the vector of transmission has been the DNA molecule, in the noosphere, the next stage up, it is LANGUAGE that has become a major player in the transfer of information towards achieving evolutionary change.. Kind of affects how you think about the phrase “words have power”. This insight reminds me of a quote that describes, in words, the subjective ecstasy that a mind feels when upon having a transcendent realization that feels as if it advances evolution: 

"A universe of possibilities,

Grey infused by color,

The invisible revealed,

The mundane blown away

by awe” 

Is this what you mean by ‘the ecstasy of language’?

Richard Doyle: Above, I noted that ecodelics can make us aware of the feedback loops between our creative choices – should I eat mushrooms in a box? - Should I eat them with a fox? - and our consciousness. In other words, they can make us aware of the tremendous freedom we have in creating our own experience. Leary called this “internal freedom.” Becoming aware of the practically infinite choices we have to compose our lives, including the words we use to map them, can be overwhelming – we feel in these instances the “vertigo of freedom.” What to do? In ecodelic experience we can perceive the power of our maps. That moment in which we can learn to abide the tremendous creative choice we have, and take responsibility for it, is what I mean by the “ecstasy of language.” 

I would point out, though, that for those words you quote to do their work, they have to be read. The language does not do it "on its own" but as a result of the highly focused attention of readers. This may seem trivial but it is often left out, with some serious consequences. And “reading” can mean “follow up with interpretation”. I cracked up when I googled those lines above and found them in a corporate blog about TED, for example. Who knew that neo-romantic poetry was the emerging interface of the global corporate noosphere? (…)

Q: Buckminster Fuller described humans as "pattern integrities", Ray Kurzweil says we are "patterns of information". James Gleick's new book, The Information, says that “information may be more primary than matter”..  what do you make of this? And if we indeed are complex patterns, how can we hack the limitations of biology and entropy to preserve our pattern integrity indefinitely? 

Richard Doyle: First: It is important to remember that the history of the concept and tools of “information” is full of blindspots – we seem to be constantly tempted to underestimate the complexity of any given system needed to make any bit of information meaningful or useful. Caitlin, Kolmogorov Stephan Wolfram and John Von Neumann each came independently to the conclusion that information is only meaningful when it is “run” - you can’t predict the outcome of even many trivial programs without running the program. So to say that “information may be more primary than matter” we have to remember that “information” does not mean “free from constraints.” Thermodynamics – including entropy – remains.

Molecular and informatic reductionism – the view that you can best understand the nature of a biological system by cutting it up into the most significant bits, e.g. DNA – is a powerful model that enables us to do things with biological systems that we never could before. Artist Eduardo Kac collaborated with a French scientist to make a bioluminescent bunny. That’s new! But sometimes it is so powerful that we forget its limitations. The history of the human genome project illustrates this well. AND the human genome is incredibly interesting. It’s just not the immortality hack many thought it would be.

In this sense biology is not a limitation to be “transcended” (Kurzweil), but a medium of exploration whose constraints are interesting and sublime. On this scale of ecosystems, “death” is not a “limitation” but an attribute of a highly dynamic interactive system. Death is an attribute of life. Viewing biology as a “limitation” may not be the best way to become healthy and thriving beings.

Now, that said, looking at our characteristics as “patterns of information” can be immensely powerful, and I work with it at the level of consciousness as well as life. Thinking of ourselves as “dynamic patterns of multiply layered and interconnected self transforming information” is just as accurate of a description of human beings as “meaningless noisy monkeys who think they see god”, and is likely to have much better effects. A nice emphasis on this “pattern” rather than the bits that make it up can be found in Carl Sagan’s “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.”

Q: Richard Dawkins declared in 1986 that ”What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions, […] If you want to understand life,” Dawkins wrote, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” How would you explain the relationship between information technology and the reality of the physical world?

Richard Doyle: Again, information is indeed physical. We can treat a sequence of information as abstraction and take it out of its context – like a quotation or a jellyfish gene spliced into a rabbit to enable it to glow. We can compress information, dwindling the resources it takes to store or process it. But “Information, words, instructions” all require physical instantiation to even be “information, words, instructions.” Researcher Rolf Landauer showed back in the 1960s that even erasure is physical. So I actually think throbbing gels and oozes and slime mold and bacteria eating away at the garbage gyre are very important when we wish to “understand” life. I actually think Dawkins gets it wrong here – he is talking about “modeling” life, not “understanding” it. Erwin Schrödinger, the originator of the idea of the genetic code and therefore the beginning of the “informatic” tradition of biology that Dawkins speaks in here, knew this very well and insisted on the importance of first person experience for understanding.

So while I find these metaphors useful, that is exactly what they are: metaphors. There is a very long history to the attempt to model words and action together: Again, John 1:1 is closer to Dawkin’s position here than he may be comfortable with: “In the Beginning was the word, and the word was god, and the word was with god” is a way of working with this capacity of language to bring phenomena into being. It is really only because we habitually think of language as “mere words” that we continually forget that they are a manifestation of a physical system and that they have very actual effects not limited to the physics of their utterance – the words “I love you” can have an effect much greater than the amount of energy necessary to utter them. Our experiences are highly tuneable by the language we use to describe them.

Q: Talk about the mycelial archetype. Author Paul Stamet compares the pattern of the mushroom mycelium with the overlapping information-sharing systems that comprise the Internet, with the networked neurons in the brain, and with a computer model of dark matter in the universe. All share this densely intertwingled filamental structure…. what is the connection? what is the pattern that connects here? 

Richard Doyle: First things first: Paul Stamets is a genius and we should listen to his world view carefully and learn from it. Along with Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, whose work I borrow from extensively in Darwin’s Pharmacy (as well as many others), Stamets is asking us to contemplate and act on the massive interconnection between all forms of life. This is a shift in worldview that is comparable to the Copernican shift from a geocentric cosmos – it is a shift toward interconnection and consciousness of interconnection. And I like how you weave in Gregory Bateson's phrase “the pattern that connects” here, because Bateson (whose father, William Bateson, was one of the founders of modern genetics) continuously pointed toward the need to develop ways of perceiving the whole. The “mycelial archetype”, as you call it, is a reliable and rather exciting way to recall the whole: What we call “mushrooms” are really the fruiting bodies of an extensive network of cross connection.

That fuzz growing in an open can of tomato paste in your fridge – mycelium. So even opening our refrigerator – should we be lucky enough to have one, with food in it - can remind us that what we take to be reality is is an actuality only appearance – a sliver, albeit a significant one for our world, of the whole. That fuzz can remind us that (1) appearance and reality or not the same thing at all and (2) beyond appearance there is a massive interconnection in unity. This can help remind us who and what we really are. 

With the word ‘archetype”, you of course invoke the psychologist Carl Jung who saw archetypes as templates for understanding, ways of organizing our story of the world. There are many archetypes – the Hero, the Mother, the Trickster, the sage. They are very powerful because they help stitch together what can seem to be a chaotic world – that is both their strength and their weakness. It is a weakness because most of the time we are operating within an archetype and we don’t even know it, and we don’t know therefore that we can change our archetype

By experimenting with a different archetype – imagining, for example, the world through the lens of a 2400 year old organism that is mostly invisible to a very short lived and recent species becoming aware of its creative responsibility in altering the planet – is incredibly powerful, and in Darwin’s Pharmacy I am trying to offer a way to experiment with the idea of plant planet as well as “mycelium” archetype. One powerful aspect of the treating the mycelium as our archetype as humanity is that it is “distributed” - it does not operate via a center of control but through cross connection “distributed” over a space.

Anything we can do to remember both our individuation and our interconnection is timely – we experience the world as individuals, and our task is to discover our nature within the larger scale reality of our dense ecological interconnection. In the book I point to the Upanishad’s “Tat Tvam Asi as a way of comprehending how we can both be totally individual and an aspect of the whole.

Q: You’ve talked about the ecstasy of language and the role of rhetoric in shaping reality.. These notions echo some of Terence McKenna's ideas about language… He calls language an “ecstatic activity of signification”… and says that for the “inspired one, it is almost as if existence is uttering itself through him”… Can you expand on this? How does language create reality?? 

Richard Doyle: It’s incredibly fun and insightful to echo Terence McKenna. He’s really in this shamanic bard tradition that goes all the back to Empedocles at least, and is distributed widely across the planet. He’s got a bit of Whitman in him with his affirmation of the erotic aspects of enlightenment. He was Emerson speaking to a Lyceum crowd remixed through rave culture. Leary and McKenna were resonating with the irish bard archetype. And Terrence was echoing Henry Munn, who was echoing Maria Sabina, whose chants and poetics can make her seem like Echo herself – a mythological story teller and poet (literally “sound”) who so transfixes Hera (Zeus’s wife) that Zeus can consort with nymphs. Everywhere we look there are allegories of sexual selection’s role in the evolution of poetic & shamanic language! 

And Terrence embodies the spirit of eloquence, helping translate our new technological realities (e.g. virtual reality, a fractal view of nature, radical ecology) and the states of mind that were likely to accompany them. Merlin Donald writes of the effects of “external symbolic storage” on human culture – as a onetime student of McLuhan’s, Donald was following up on Plato’s insights I mentioned above that writing changes how we think, and therefore, who we are

Human culture is going through a fantastic “reality crisis” wherein we discover the creative role we play in nature. Our role in global climate change – not to mention our role in dwindling biodiversity – is the “shadow” side of our increasing awareness that humans have a radical creative responsibility for their individual and collective lives. And our lives are inseparable from the ecosystems with which we are enmeshed. THAT is reality. To the extent that we can gather and focus our attention on retuning our relation towards ecosystems in crisis, language can indeed shape reality. We’ll get the future we imagine, not necessarily the one we deserve.

Q: Robert Anton Wilson spoke about “reality tunnels”…. These ‘constructs’ can limit our perspectives and perception of reality, they can trap us, belittle us, enslave us, make us miserable or set us free… How can we hack our reality tunnel?  Is it possible to use rhetoric and/or psychedelics to “reprogram” our reality tunnel? 

Richard Doyle: We do nothing but program and reprogram our reality tunnelsSeriously, the Japanese reactor crisis follows on the BP oil spill as a reminder that we are deeply interconnected on the level of infrastructure – technology is now planetary in scale, so what happens here effects somebody, sometimes Everybody, there. These infrastructures – our food sheds, our energy grid, our global media - run on networks, protocols, global standards, agreements: language, software, images, databases and their mycelial networks.

The historian Michel Foucault called these “discourses”, but we need to connect these discourses to the nonhuman networks with which they are enmeshed, and globalization has been in part about connecting discourses to each other across the planet. Ebola ends up in Virginia, Starbucks in Hong Kong. This has been true for a long time, of course – Mutual Assured Destruction was planetary in scale and required a communication and control structure linking, for example, a Trident submarine under the arctic ice sheet – remember that? - to a putatively civilian political structure Eisenhower rightly warned us about: the military industrial complex. The moon missions illustrate this principle as well – we remember what was said as much as what else was done, and what was said, for a while, seem to induce a sense of truly radical and planetary possibility.

So if we think of words as a description of reality rather than part of the infrastructure of reality, we miss out on the way different linguistic patterns act as catalysts for different realities. I call these “rhetorical softwares”. In my first two books, before I really knew about Wilson’s work or had worked through Korzybski with any intensity, I called these “rhetorical softwares.”

Now the first layer of our reality tunnel is our implicit sense of self – this is the only empirical reality any of us experiences – what we subjectively experience. RAW was a brilliant analyst of the ways experience is shaped by the language we use to describe it. One of my favorite examples from his work is his observation that in English, “reality” is a noun, so we start to treat it as a “thing”, when in fact reality, this cosmos, is also quite well mapped as an action – a dynamic unfolding for 13.7 billion years. That is a pretty big mismatch between language and reality, and can give us a sense that reality is inert, dead, lifeless, “concrete”, and thus not subject to change. By experimenting with what Wilson, following scientist John Lilly, called “metaprograms”, we can change the maps that shape the reality we inhabit. (…)

Q: The film Inception explored the notion that our inner world can be a vivid, experiential dimension, and that we can hack it, and change our reality… what do you make of this? 

Richard Doyle: The whole contemplative tradition insists on this dynamic nature of consciousness. “Inner” and “outer” are models for aspects of reality – words that map the world only imperfectly. Our “inner world” - subjective experience – is all we ever experience, so if we change it obviously we will see a change in what we label “external” reality it is of course part of and not separable from. One of the maps we should experiment with, in my view, is this “inner” and “outer” one – this is why one of my aliases is “mobius.” A mobius strip helps makes clear that “inside” and “outside” are… labels. As you run your finger along a mobius strip, the “inside” becomes “outside” and the “outside” becomes “inside.”.

Q: Can we give put inceptions out into the world?

Richard Doyle: We do nothing but! And, it is crucial to add, so too does the rest of our ecosystem. Bacteria engage in quorum sensing, begin to glow, and induce other bacteria to glow – this puts their inceptions into the world. Thanks to the work of scientists like Anthony Trewavas, we know that plants engage in signaling behavior between and across species and even kingdoms: orchids “throw” images of female wasps into the world, attracting male wasps, root cells map the best path through the soil. The whole blooming confusion of life is signaling, mapping and informing itself into the world. The etymology of “inception” is “to begin, take in hand” - our models and maps are like imagined handholds on a dynamic reality.

Q: What is the relationship between psychedelics and information technology? How are ipods, computers and the internet related to LSD? 

Richard Doyle: This book is part of a trilogy on the history of information in the life sciences. So, first: psychedelics and biology. It turns out that molecular biology and psychedelics were important contexts for each other. I first started noticing this when I found that many people who had taken LSD were talking about their experiences in the language of molecular biology – accessing their DNA and so forth. When I learned that psychedelic experience was very sensitive to “set and setting” - the mindset and context of their use - I wanted to find out how this language of molecular biology was effecting people’s experiences of the compounds. In other words, how did the language affect something supposedly caused by chemistry? 

Tracking the language through thousands of pages, I found that both the discourse of psychedelics and molecular biology were part of the “informatic vision” that was restructuring the life sciences as well as the world, and found common patterns of language in the work of Timothy Leary (the Harvard psychologist) and Francis Crick (who won the Nobel prize with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for determining the structure of DNA in 1954), so in 2002 I published an article describing the common “language of information” spoken by Leary and Crick. I had no idea that Crick had apparently been using LSD when he was figuring out the structure of DNA. Yes, that blew my mind when it came out in 2004. I feel like I read that between the lines of Crick’s papers, which gave me confidence to write the rest of the book about the feedback between psychedelics and the world we inhabit.

The paper did hone in on the role that LSD played in the invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) – Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel prize for the invention of this method of making copies of a sequence of DNA, talked openly of the role that LSD played in the process of invention. Chapter 4 of the book looks to use of LSD in “creative problem solving” studies of the 1960s. These studies – hard to imagine now, 39 years into the War on Drugs, but we can Change the Archetype - suggest that used with care, psychedelics can be part of effective training in remembering how to discern the difference between words and things, maps and territories.

In short, this research suggested that psychedelics were useful for seeing the limitations of words as well as their power, perhaps occasioned by the experience of the linguistic feedback loops between language and psychedelic experiences that themselves could never be satisfactorily described in language. I argue that Mullis had a different conception of information than mainstream molecular biology – a pragmatic concept steeped in what you can do with words rather than in what they mean. Mullis seems to have thought of information as “algorithms” - recipes of code, while the mainsteam view was thinking of it as implicitly semantically, as “words with meaning.”

Ipods, Internet, etc: Well, in some cases there are direct connections. Perhaps Bill Joy said it best when he said that there was a reason that LSD and Unix were both from BerkeleyWhat the Doormouse Said by John Markoff came out after I wrote my first paper on Mullis and I was working on the book, and it was really confirmation of a lot of what I seeing indicated by my conceptual model of what is going on, which is as follows: Sexual selection is a good way to model the evolution of information technology. It yields bioluminescence – the most common communication strategy on the planet – chirping insects, singing birds, Peacocks fanning their feathers, singing whales, speaking humans, and humans with internet access. These are all techniques of information production, transformation or evaluation. I am persuaded by Geoffrey Miller’s update of Charles Darwin’s argument that language and mind are sexually selected traits, selected not simply for survival or even the representation of fitness, but for their sexiness. Leary: “Intelligence is the greatest aphrodisiac.”

I offer the hypothesis that psychedelics enter the human toolkit as “eloquence adjuncts” - tools and techniques for increasing the efficacy of language to seemingly create reality – different patterns of language ( and other attributes of set and setting) literally causes different experiences. The informatic revolution is about applying this ability to create reality with different “codes” to the machine interface. Perhaps this is one of the reason people like Mitch Kapor (a pioneer of computer spreadsheets), Stewart Brand (founder of a pre-internet computer commons known as the Well) and Bob Wallace (one of the original Microsoft seven and an early proponent of shareware), Mark Pesce were or are all psychonauts.

Q: Cyborg Anthropologist Amber Case has written about Techno-social wormholes.. the instant compression of time and space created every time we make a telephone call…  What do you make of this compression of time and space made possible by the engineering “magic” of technology? 

Richard Doyle:  It’s funny the role that the telephone call plays as an example in the history of our attempts to model the effects of information technologies. William Gibson famously defined cyberspace as the place where a telephone call takes place. (Gibson’s coinage of the term “cyberspace” is a good example of an “inception”) Avital Ronell wrote about Nietzsche’s telephone call to the beyond and interprets the history of philosophy according to a “telephonic logic”. When I was a child my father once threw our telephone into the atlantic ocean – that was what he made of the magic of that technology, at least in one moment of anger. This was back in the day when Bell owned your phone and there was some explaining to do. This magic of compression has other effects – my dad got phone calls all day at work, so when was at home he wanted to turn it off. The only way he knew to turn it off was to rip it out of the wall – there was no modular plug, just a wire into the wall - and throw it into the ocean.

So there is more than compression going on here: Deleuze and Guattari, along with the computer scientist Pierre Levy after them, call it “deterritorialization”. The differences between “here” and “there” are being constantly renegotiated as our technologies of interaction develop. Globalization is the collective effect of these deterritorializations and reterritorializations at any given moment.

And the wormhole example is instructive: the forces that enable such collapse of space and time as the possibility of time travel would likely tear us to smithereens. The tensions and torsions of this deterritorialization at part of what is at play in the Wikileaks revolutions, this compression of time and space offers promise for distributed governance as well as turbulence. Time travel through wormholes, by the way, is another example of an inception – Carl Sagan was looking for a reasonable way to transport his fictional aliens in Contact, called Cal Tech physicist Skip Thorne for help, and Thorne came up with the idea.

Q: The film Vanilla Sky explored the notion of a scientifically-induced lucid dream where we can live forever and our world is built out of our memories and ”sculpted moment to moment and lived with the romantic abandon of a summer day or the feeling of a great movie or a pop song you always loved”. Can we sculpt ‘real’ reality as if it were a “lucid dream”

Richard Doyle:Some traditions model reality as a lucid dream. The Diamond Sutra tells us that to be enlightened we must view reality as “a phantom, a dew drop, a bubble.”  This does not mean, of course, that reality does not exist, only that appearance has no more persistence than a dream and that what we call “reality” is our map of reality. When we wake up, the dream that had been so compelling is seen to be what it was: a dream, nothing more or less. Dreams do not lack reality – they are real patterns of information. They just aren’t what we usually think they are. Ditto for “ordinary” reality. Lucid dreaming has been practiced by multiple traditions for a long time – we can no doubt learn new ways of doing so. In the meantime, by recognizing and acting according to the practice of looking beyond appearances, we can find perhaps a smidgeon more creative freedom to manifest our intentions in reality.

Q: Paola Antonelli, design curator of MoMa, has written about Existenz Maximum, the ability of portable music devices like the ipod to create”customized realities”, imposing a soundtrack on the movie of our own life. This sounds empowering and godlike- can you expand on this notion? How is technology helping us design every aspect of both our external reality as well as our internal, psychological reality?

Richard Doyle: Well, the Upanishads and the Book of Luke both suggest that we “get our inner Creator on”, the former by suggesting that “Tat Tvam Asi” - there is an aspect of you that is connected to Everything, and the latter by recommending that we look not here or there for the Kingdom of God, but “within.” So if this sounds “god like”, it is part of a long and persistent tradition. I personally find the phrase “customized realities” redundant given the role of our always unique programs and metaprograms. So what we need to focus on his: to which aspect of ourselves do we wish to give this creative power? These customized realities could be enpowering and god like for corporations that own the material, or they could enpower our planetary aspect that unites all of us, and everything in between. It is, as always, the challenge of the magus and the artist to decide how we want to customize reality once we know that we can.

Q: The Imaginary Foundation says that "to understand is to perceive patterns"… Some advocates of psychedelic therapy have said that certain chemicals heighten our perception of patterns..They help! us “see more”.  What exactly are they helping us understand? 

Richard Doyle: Understanding! One of the interesting bits of knowledge that I found in my research was some evidence that psychonauts scored better on the Witkin Embedded Figure test, a putative measure of a human subject’s ability to “distinguish a simple geometrical figure embedded in a complex colored figure.” When we perceive the part within the whole, we can suddenly get context, understanding.

Q: An article pointing to the use of psychedelics as catalysts for breakthrough innovation in silicon valley says that users …

"employ these cognitive catalysts, de-condition their thinking periodically and come up with the really big connectivity ideas arrived at wholly outside the linear steps of argument. These are the gestalt-perceiving, asterism-forming “aha’s!” that connect the dots and light up the sky with a new archetypal pattern."

This seems to echo what other intellectuals have been saying for ages.  You referred to Cannabis as “an assassin of referentiality, inducing a butterfly effect in thought. Cannabis induces a parataxis wherein sentences resonate together and summon coherence in the bardos between one statement and another.”

Baudelaire also wrote about cannabis as inducing an artificial paradise of thought:  

“…It sometimes happens that people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships fit to outdo the ablest masters of this preposterous craft. […and eventually]… Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods.”

Anthropologist Henry Munn wrote that:

"Intoxicated by the mushrooms, the fluency, the ease, the aptness of expression one becomes capable of are such that one is astounded by the words that issue forth… At times… the words leap to mind, one after another, of themselves without having to be searched for: a phenomenon similar to the automatic dictation of the surrealists except that here the flow of consciousness, rather than being disconnected, tends to be coherent: a rational enunciation of meanings.  The spontaneity they liberate is not only perceptual, but linguistic, the spontaneity of speech, of fervent, lucid discourse, astonishing. […] For the inspired one, it is as if existence were uttering itself through him […]

Can you expand a bit on how certain ecodelics (as well as marijuana) can help us de-condition our thinking, have creative breakthroughs as well as intellectual catharsis? How is it that “intoxication” could, under certain conditions, actually improve our cognition and creativity and contribute to the collective intelligence of the species?

Richard Doyle: I would point, again, to Pahnke's description of ego death. This is by definition an experience when our maps of the world are humbled. In the breakdown of our ordinary worldview - such as when a (now formerly)  secular being such as myself finds himself  feeling unmistakably sacred - we get a glimpse of reality without our usual filters. It is just not possible to use the old maps, so we get even an involuntary glimpse of reality. This is very close to the Buddhist practice of exhausting linguistic reference through chanting or Koans - suddenly we see the world through something besides our verbal mind.

Ramana Maharshi says that in the silence of the ego we perceive reality - reality IS the breakdown of the ego. Aldous Huxley, who was an extraordinarily adroit and eloquent writer with knowledge of increasingly rare breadth and depth, pointed to a quote by William Blake when trying to sum up his experience: the doors of perception were cleansed. This is a humble act, if you think about it: Huxley, faced with the beauty and grandeur of his mescaline experience, offers the equivalent of ‘What he said!”. Huxley also said that psychedelics offered a respite from “the throttling embrace of the self”, suggesting that we see the world without the usual filters of our egoic self. (…)

And if you look carefully at the studies by pioneers such as Myron Stolaroff and Willis Harman that you reference, as I do in the book, you will see that great care was taken to compose the best contexts for their studies. Subjects, for example, were told not to think about personal problems but to focus on their work at hand, and, astonishingly enough, it seems to have worked. These are very sensitive technologies and we really need much more research to explore their best use. This means more than studying their chemical function - it means studying the complex experiences human beings have with them. Step one has to be accepting that ecodelics are and always have been an integral part of human culture for some subset of the population. (…)

Q: Kevin Kelly refers to technological evolution as following the momentum begun at the big bang - he has stated:

"…there is a continuum, a connection back all the way to the Big Bang with these self-organizing systems that make the galaxies, stars, and life, and now is producing technology in the same way. The energies flowing through these things are, interestingly, becoming more and more dense. If you take the amount of energy that flows through one gram per second in a galaxy, it is increased when it goes through a star, and it is actually increased in life…We don’t realize this. We think of the sun as being a hugely immense amount of energy. Yet the amount of energy running through a sunflower per gram per second of the livelihood, is actually greater than in the sun. Actually, it’s so dense that when it’s multiplied out, the sunflower actually has a higher amount of energy flowing through it. "..

Animals have even higher energy usage than the plant, and a jet engine has even higher than an animal. The most energy-dense thing that we know about in the entire universe is the computer chip in your computer. It is sending more energy per gram per second through that than anything we know. In fact, if it was to send it through any faster, it would melt or explode. It is so energy-dense that it is actually at the edge of explosion.”…  

Can you comment on the implications of what he’s saying here?

Richard Doyle: I think maps of “continuity” are crucial and urgently needed. We can model the world as either “discrete” - made up of parts - or “continuous” - composing a whole - to powerful effect. Both are in this sense true. This is not “relativism” but a corollary of that creative freedom to choose our models that seems to be an attribute of consciousness. The mechanistic worldview extracts, separates and reconnects raw materials, labor and energy in ways that produce astonishing order as well as disorder (entropy).

By mapping the world as discrete – such as the difference between one second and another – and uniform – to a clock, there is no difference between one second and another – we have transformed the planet. Consciousness informed by discrete maps of reality has been an actual geological force in a tiny sliver of time. In so doing, we have have transformed the biosphere. So you can see just how actual this relation between consciousness, its maps, and earthly reality is. This is why Vernadsky, a geophysicist, thought we needed a new term for the way consciousness functions as a geological force: noosphere.

These discrete maps of reality are so powerful that we forget that they are maps. Now if the world can be cut up into parts, it is only because it forms a unity. A Sufi author commented that the unity of the world was both the most obvious and obscure fact. It is obvious because our own lives and the world we inhabit can be seen to continue without any experienced interruption – neither the world nor our lives truly stops and starts. This unity can be obscure because in a literal sense we can’t perceive it with our senses – this unity can only be “perceived” by our minds. We are so effective as separate beings that we forget the whole for the part.

The world is more than a collection of parts, and we can quote Carl Sagan: “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.” Equally beautiful is what Sagan follows up with: “The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff.” Perhaps this is why models such as Kelly’s feel so powerful: reminding ourselves that there is a continuity between the Big Bang and ourselves means we are an aspect of something unfathomably grand, beautiful, complex and unbroken. This is perhaps the “grandeur” Darwin was discussing. And when we experience that grandeur it can help us think and act in aways appropriate to a geological force.

I am not sure about the claims for energy that Kelly is making – I would have to see the context and the source of his data – but I do know that when it comes to thermodynamics, what he is saying rings true. We are dissipative structures far from equilibrium, meaning that we fulfill the laws of thermodynamics. Even though biological systems such as ourselves are incredibly orderly – and we export that order through our maps onto and into the world – we also yield more entropy than our absence. Living systems, according to an emerging paradigm of Stanley Salthe, Rob Swenson, the aforementioned Margulis and Sagan, Eric Schneider, James J. kay and others, maximize entropy, and the universe is seeking to dissipate ever greater amounts of entropy.

Order is a way to dissipate yet more energy. We’re thermodynamic beings, so we are always on the prowl for new ways to dissipate energy as heat and create uncertainty (entropy), and consciousness helps us find ever new ways to do so. (In case you are wondering, Consciousness is the organized effort to model reality that yields ever increasing spirals of uncertainty in Deep Time. But you knew that.) It is perhaps in this sense that, again following Carl Sagan, “ We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” That is pretty great map of continuity.

What I don’t understand in Kelly’s work, and I need to look at with more attention, is the discontinuity he posits between biology and technology. In my view our maps have made us think of technology as different in kind from biology, but the global mycelial web of fungi suggests otherwise, and our current view of technology seems to intensify this sense of separation even as we get interconnected through technology. I prefer Noosphere to what Kelly calls the Technium because it reminds us of the ways we are biologically interconnected with our technosocial realities. Noosphere sprouts from biosphere.

Q: There is this notion of increasing complexity… Yet in a universe where entropy destroys almost everything, here we are, the cutting edge of evolution, taking the reigns and accelerating this emergent complexity.. Kurzweil says that this makes us “very important”: 

“…It turns out that we are central, after all.  Our ability to create models—virtual realities—in our brains, combined with ou modest-looking thumbs, has been sufficient to usher in another form of evolution: technology. That development enabled the persistence of the accelerating pace that started with biological evolution. It will continue until the entire universe is at our fingertips.”   

What do you think?

Richard Doyle: Well, I think from my remarks already you can see that I agree with Kurzweil here and can only suggest that it is for this very reason that we must be very creative, careful and cunning with our models. Do we model the technologies that we are developing according to the effects they will have on the planetary whole? Only rarely, though this is what we are trying to do at the Penn State Center for Nanofutures, as are lots of people involved in Science, Technology and Society as well as engineering education. When we develop technologies - and that is the way psychedelics arrived in modern culture, as technologies -  we must model their effects not only on the individuals who use them, but on the whole of our ecosystem and planetary society.

If our technological models are based on the premise that this is a dead planet – and most of them very much are, one is called all kinds of names if you suggest otherwise - animist, vitalist, Gaian intelligence agent, names I wear with glee – then we will end up with a asymptotically dead planet. Consciousness will, of course, like the Terminator, “Be Back” should we perish, but let us hope that it learns to experiment better with its maps and learns to notice reality just a little bit more. I am actually an optimist on this front and think that a widespread “aha” moment is occurring where there is a collective recognition of the feedback loops that make up our technological & biological evolution.

Again, I don’t know why Kurzweil seems to think that technological evolution is discontinuous with biological evolution – technology is nested within the network of “wetwares” that make it work, and our wetwares are increasingly interconnected with our technological infrastructure, as the meltdowns in Japan demonstrate along with the dependence of many of us – we who are more bacterial than human by dry weight - upon a network of pharmaceuticals and electricity for continued life. The E. coli outbreak in Europe is another case in point – our biological reality is linked with the technological reality of supply chain management. Technological evolution is biological evolution enabled by the maps of reality forged by consciousness. (…)

Whereas technology for many promised the “disenchantment” of the world –the rationalization of this world of the contemplative spirit as everything became a Machine – here was mystical contemplative experience manifesting itself directly within what sociologist Max Weber called the “iron cage of modernity”, Gaia bubbling up through technological “Babylon.”

Now many contemplatives have sought to share their experiences through writing – pages and pages of it. As we interconnect through information technology, we perhaps have the opportunity to repeat this enchanted contemplative experience of radical interconnection on another scale, and through other means. Just say Yes to the Noosphere!”

Richard Doyle, Professor of English Affiliate Faculty, Information Science and Technology at Pennsylvania State University, in conversation with Jason Silva, Creativity, evolution of mind and the “vertigo of freedom”, Big Think, June 21, 2011. (Illustrations: 1) Randy Mora, Artífices del sonido, 2) Noosphere)

See also:

☞ RoseRose, Google and the Myceliation of Consciousness
Kevin Kelly on Why the Impossible Happens More Often
Luciano Floridi on the future development of the information society
Luciano Floridi on The Digital Revolution as a Fourth Revolution: “P2P does’t mean Pirate to Pirate but Platonist to Platonist”
The Rise of the Conversation Society: information, communication and collaboration
Keen On… James Gleick: Why Cyberspace, As a Mode of Being, Will Never Go Away (TCTV), (video) TechCrunch, Jun 23, 2011
Timothy Leary on cybernetics and a new global culture
Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.
Cyberspace tag on Lapidarium

Mar
18th
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Are We “Meant” to Have Language and Music? How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

                

"We’re fish out of water, living in radically unnatural environments and behaving ridiculously for a great ape. So, if one were interested in figuring out which things are fundamentally part of what it is to be human, then those million crazy things we do these days would not be on the list. (…)

At the top of the list of things we do that we’re supposed to be doing, and that are at the core of what it is to be human rather than some other sort of animal, are language and music. Language is the pinnacle of usefulness, and was key to our domination of the Earth (and the Moon). And music is arguably the pinnacle of the arts. Language and music are fantastically complex, and we’re brilliantly capable at absorbing them, and from a young age. That’s how we know we’re meant to be doing them, i.e., how we know we evolved brains for engaging in language and music.

But what if this gets language and music all wrong? What if we’re not, in fact, meant to have language and music? What if our endless yapping and music-filled hours each day are deeply unnatural behaviors for our species? (…)

I believe that language and music are, indeed, not part of our core—that we never evolved by natural selection to engage in them. The reason we have such a head for language and music is not that we evolved for them, but, rather, that language and music evolved—culturally evolved over millennia—for us. Our brains aren’t shaped for these pinnacles of humankind. Rather, these pinnacles of humankind are shaped to be good for our brains.

But how on Earth can one argue for such a view? If language and music have shaped themselves to be good for non-linguistic and amusical brains, then what would their shapes have to be?

They’d have to possess the auditory structure of…nature. That is, we have auditory systems which have evolved to be brilliantly capable at processing the sounds from nature, and language and music would need to mimic those sorts of sounds in order to harness—to “nature-harness,” as I call it—our brain.

And language and music do nature-harness. (…) The two most important classes of auditory stimuli for humans are (i) events among objects (most commonly solid objects), and (ii) events among humans (i.e., human behavior). And, in my research I have shown that the signature sounds in these two auditory domains drive the sounds we humans use in (i) speech and (ii) music, respectively.

For example, the principal source of modulation of pitch in the natural world comes from the Doppler shift, where objects moving toward you have a high pitch and objects moving away have a low pitch; from these pitch modulations a listener can hear an object’s direction of movement relative to his or her position. In the book I provide a battery of converging evidence that melody in music has culturally evolved to sound like the (often exaggerations of) Doppler shifts of a person moving in one’s midst. Consider first that a mover’s pitch will modulate within a fixed range, the top and bottom pitches occurring when the mover is headed, respectively, toward and away from you. Do melodies confine themselves to fixed ranges? They tend to, and tessitura is the musical term to refer to this range. In the book I run through a variety of specific predictions.

Here’s one. If melody is “trying” to sound like the Doppler shifts of a mover—and thereby convey to the auditory system the trajectory of a fictional mover—then a faster mover will have a greater difference between its top and bottom pitch. Does faster music tend to have a wider tessitura? That is, does music with a faster tempo—more beats, or footsteps, per second—tend to have a wider tessitura? Notice that the performer of faster tempo music would ideally like the tessitura to narrow, not widen! But what we found is that, indeed, music having a greater tempo tends to have a wider tessitura, just what one would expect if the meaning of melody is the direction of a mover in your midst.

The preliminary conclusion of the research is that, human speech sounds like solid objects events, and music sounds like human behavior!

That’s just what we expect if we were never meant to do language and music. Language and music have the fingerprints of being unnatural (i.e., of not having their origins via natural selection)…and the giveaway is, ironically, that their shapes are natural (i.e., have the structure of natural auditory events).

We also find this for another core capability that we know we’re not “meant” to do: reading. Writing was invented much too recently for us to have specialized reading mechanisms in the brain (although there are new hints of early writing as old as 30,000 years), and yet reading has the hallmarks of instinct. As I have argued in my research and in my second book, The Vision Revolution, writing slides so well into our brain because it got shaped by cultural evolution to look “like nature,” and, specifically, to have the signature contour-combinations found in natural scenes (which consists mostly of opaque objects strewn about).

My research suggests that language and music aren’t any more part of our biological identity than reading is. Counterintuitively, then, we aren’t “supposed” to be speaking and listening to music. They aren’t part of our “core” after all.

Or, at least, they aren’t part of the core of Homo sapiens as the species originally appeared. But, it seems reasonable to insist that, whether or not language and music are part of our natural biological history, they are indeed at the core of what we take to be centrally human now. Being human today is quite a different thing than being the original Homo sapiens.

So, what is it to be human? Unlike Homo sapiens, we’re grown in a radically different petri dish. Our habitat is filled with cultural artifacts—the two heavyweights being language and music—designed to harness our brains’ ancient capabilities and transform them into new ones.

Humans are more than Homo sapiens. Humans are Homo sapiens who have been nature-harnessed into an altogether novel creature, one designed in part via natural selection, but also in part via cultural evolution.

Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist, Are We “Meant” to Have Language and Music?, Discover Magazine, March 15th, 2012. (Illustration: Harnessed)

See also:

Mark Changizi, Music Sounds Like Moving People, Science 2.0, Jan 10, 2010.
☞ Mark Changizi, How To Put Art And Brain Together
☞ Mark Changizi, How we read
Mark Changizi on brain’s perception of the world
A brief history of writing, Lapidarium notes
Mark Changizi on Humans, Version 3.0.

Jan
21st
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'Human beings are learning machines,' says philosopher (nature vs. nurture)

                       

"The point is that in scientific writing (…) suggest a very inflexible view of human nature, that we are determined by our biology. From my perspective the most interesting thing about the human species is our plasticity, our flexibility. (…)

It is striking in general that human beings mistake the cultural for the natural; you see it in many domains. Take moral values. We assume we have moral instincts: we just know that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. When we encounter people whose values differ from ours we think they must be corrupted or in some sense morally deformed. But this is clearly an instance where we mistake our deeply inculcated preferences for natural law. (…)

Q: At what point with morality does biology stop and culture begin?

One important innate contribution to morality is emotions. An aggressive response to an attack is not learned, it is biological. The question is how emotions that are designed to protect each of us as individuals get extended into generalised rules that spread within a group. One factor may be imitation. Human beings are great imitative learners. Rules that spread in a family can be calibrated across a whole village, leading to conformity in the group and a genuine system of morality.

Nativists will say that morality can emerge without instruction. But with innate domains, there isn’t much need for instruction, whereas in the moral domain, instruction is extensive. Kids learn through incessant correction. Between the ages of 2 and 10, parents correct their children’s behaviour every 8 minutes or so of waking life. In due course, our little monsters become little angels, more or less. This gives us reason to think morality is learned.

Q: One of the strongest arguments for innateness comes from linguists such as Noam Chomsky, who argue that humans are born with the basic rules of grammar already in place. But you disagree with them?

Chomsky singularly deserves credit for giving rise to the new cognitive sciences of the mind. He was instrumental in helping us think about the mind as a kind of machine. He has made some very compelling arguments to explain why everybody with an intact brain speaks grammatically even though children are not explicitly taught the rules of grammar.

But over the past 10 years we have started to see powerful evidence that children might learn language statistically, by unconsciously tabulating patterns in the sentences they hear and using these to generalise to new cases. Children might learn language effortlessly not because they possess innate grammatical rules, but because statistical learning is something we all do incessantly and automatically. The brain is designed to pick up on patterns of all kinds.

Q: How hard has it been to put this alternative view on the table, given how Chomskyan thought has dominated the debate in recent years?

Chomsky’s views about language are so deeply ingrained among academics that those who take statistical learning seriously are subject to a kind of ridicule. There is very little tolerance for dissent. This has been somewhat limiting, but there is a new generation of linguists who are taking the alternative very seriously, and it will probably become a very dominant position in the next generation.

Q: You describe yourself as an “unabashed empiricist” who favours nurture over nature. How did you come to this position, given that on many issues the evidence is still not definitive either way?

Actually I think the debate has been settled. You only have to stroll down the street to see that human beings are learning machines. Sure, for any given capacity the debate over biology versus culture will take time to resolve. But if you compare us with other species, our degree of variation is just so extraordinary and so obvious that we know prior to doing any science that human beings are special in this regard, and that a tremendous amount of what we do is as a result of learning. So empiricism should be the default position. The rest is just working out the details of how all this learning takes place.

Q: What are the implications of an empirical understanding of human nature for the way we go about our lives. How should it affect the way we behave?

In general, we need to cultivate a respect for difference. We need to appreciate that people with different values to us are not simply evil or ignorant, and that just like us they are products of socialisation. This should lead to an increase in international understanding and respect. We also need to understand that group differences in performance are not necessarily biologically fixed. For example, when we see women performing less well than men in mathematics, we should not assume that this is because of a difference in biology.

Q: How much has cognitive science contributed to our understanding of what it is to be human, traditionally a philosophical question?

Cognitive science is in the business of settling long-running philosophical debates on human nature, innate knowledge and other issues. The fact that these theories have been churning about for a couple of millennia without any consensus is evidence that philosophical methods are better at posing questions than answering them. Philosophy tells us what is possible, and science tells us what is true.

Cognitive science has transformed philosophy. At the beginning of the 20th century, philosophers changed their methodology quite dramatically by adopting logic. There has been an equally important revolution in 21st-century philosophy in that philosophers are turning to the empirical sciences and to some extent conducting experimental work themselves to settle old questions. As a philosopher, I hardly go a week without conducting an experiment.

My whole working day has changed because of the infusion of science.”

Jesse Prinz is a distinguished professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, specialising in the philosophy of psychology. He is a pioneer in experimental philosophy, using findings from the cognitive sciences, anthropology and other fields to develop empiricist theories of how the mind works. He is the author of The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford University Press, 2007), Gut Reactions (OUP, 2004) and Furnishing the Mind (MIT Press, 2002) and Beyond Human Nature: How culture and experience make us who we are, 'Human beings are learning machines,' says philosopher, NewScientist, Jan 20, 2012. (Illustration: Fritz Kahn, British Library)

See also:

Jesse Prinz: Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response
Human Nature. Sapolsky, Maté, Wilkinson, Gilligan, discuss on human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate

Dec
17th
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Infinite Stupidity. Social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers


A review of some big events

"Obviously one of the big events in our history was the origin of our planet, about 4.5 billion years ago. And what’s fascinating is that about 3.8 billion years ago, only about seven or eight hundred million years after the origin of our planet, life arose. That life was simple replicators, things that could make copies of themselves. And we think that life was a little bit like the bacteria we see on earth today. It would be the ancestors of the bacteria we see on earth today.

That life ruled the world for 2 billion years, and then about 1.5 billion years ago, a new kind of life emerged. These were the eukaryotic cells. They were a little bit different kind of cell from bacteria. And actually the kind of cells we are made of. And again, these organisms that were eukaryotes were single-celled, so even 1.5 billion years ago, we still just had single-celled organisms on earth. But it was a new kind of life.

It was another 500 million years before we had anything like a multicellular organism, and it was another 500 million years after that before we had anything really very interesting. So, about 500 million years ago, the plants and the animals started to evolve. And I think everybody would agree that this was a major event in the history of the world, because, for the first time, we had complex organisms.

After about 500 million years ago, things like the plants evolved, the fish evolved, lizards and snakes, dinosaurs, birds, and eventually mammals. And then it was really just six or seven million years ago, within the mammals, that the lineage that we now call the hominins arose. And they would be direct descendants of us. And then, within that lineage that arose about six or seven million years ago, it was only about 200,000 years ago that humans finally evolved.

Idea of idea evolution

And so, this is really just 99.99 percent of the way through the history of this planet, humans finally arose. But in that 0.01 percent of life on earth, we’ve utterly changed the planet. And the reason is that, with the arrival of humans 200,000 years ago, a new kind of evolution was created. The old genetical evolution that had ruled for 3.8 billion years now had a competitor, and that new kind of evolution was ideas.

It was a true form of evolution, because now ideas could arise, and they could jump from mind to mind, without genes having to change. So, populations of humans could adapt at the level of ideas. Ideas could accumulate. We call this cumulative cultural adaptation. And so, cultural complexity could emerge and arise orders and orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.

Now, I think most of us take that utterly for granted, but it has completely rewritten the way life evolves on this planet because, with the arrival of our species, everything changed. Now, a single species, using its idea evolution, that could proceed apace independently of genes, was able to adapt to nearly every environment on earth, and spread around the world where no other species had done that. All other species are limited to places on earth that their genes adapt them to. But we were able to adapt at the level of our cultures to every place on earth. (…)

If we go back in our lineage 2 million years or so, there was a species known as Homo erectus. Homo erectus is an upright ape that lived on the African savannah. It could make tools, but they were very limited tools, and those tools, the archaeological record tells us, didn’t change for about 1.5 million years. That is, until about the time they went extinct. That is, they made the same tools over and over and over again, without any real changes to them.

If we move forward in time a little bit, it’s not even clear that our very close cousins that we know are related to us 99.5 or 99.6 percent in the sequences of their genes, the Neanderthals, it’s not even clear that they had what we call idea evolution. Sure enough, their tools that they made were more complex than our tools. But the 300,000 or so years that they spent in Europe, their toolkit barely changed. So there’s very little evolution going on.

So there’s something really very special about this new species, humans, that arose and invented this new kind of evolution, based on ideas. And so it’s useful for us to ask, what is it about humans that distinguishes them? It must have been a tiny genetic difference between us and the Neanderthals because, as I said, we’re so closely related to them genetically, a tiny genetic difference that had a vast cultural potential.

That difference is something that anthropologists and archaeologists call social learning. It’s a very difficult concept to define, but when we talk about it, all of us humans know what it means. And it seems to be the case that only humans have the capacity to learn complex new or novel behaviors, simply by watching and imitating others. And there seems to be a second component to it, which is that we seem to be able to get inside the minds of other people who are doing things in front of us, and understand why it is they’re doing those things. These two things together, we call social learning.

Many people respond that, oh, of course the other animals can do social learning, because we know that the chimpanzees can imitate each other, and we see all sorts of learning in animals like dolphins and the other monkeys, and so on. But the key point about social learning is that this minor difference between us and the other species forms an unbridgeable gap between us and them. Because, whereas all of the other animals can pick up the odd behavior by having their attention called to something, only humans seem to be able to select, among a range of alternatives, the best one, and then to build on that alternative, and to adapt it, and to improve upon it. And so, our cultures cumulatively adapt, whereas all other animals seem to do the same thing over and over and over again.

Even though other animals can learn, and they can even learn in social situations, only humans seem to be able to put these things together and do real social learning. And that has led to this idea evolution. What’s a tiny difference between us genetically has opened up an unbridgeable gap, because only humans have been able to achieve this cumulative cultural adaptation. (…)

I’m interested in this because I think this capacity for social learning, which we associate with our intelligence, has actually sculpted us in ways that we would have never anticipated. And I want to talk about two of those ways that I think it has sculpted us. One of the ways has to do with our creativity, and the other has to do with the nature of our intelligence as social animals.

One of the first things to be aware of when talking about social learning is that it plays the same role within our societies, acting on ideas, as natural selection plays within populations of genes. Natural selection is a way of sorting among a range of genetic alternatives, and finding the best one. Social learning is a way of sifting among a range of alternative options or ideas, and choosing the best one of those. And so, we see a direct comparison between social learning driving idea evolution, by selecting the best ideas —we copy people that we think are successful, we copy good ideas, and we try to improve upon them — and natural selection, driving genetic evolution within societies, or within populations.

I think this analogy needs to be taken very seriously, because just as natural selection has acted on genetic populations, and sculpted them, we’ll see how social learning has acted on human populations and sculpted them.

What do I mean by “sculpted them”? Well, I mean that it’s changed the way we are. And here’s one reason why. If we think that humans have evolved as social learners, we might be surprised to find out that being social learners has made us less intelligent than we might like to think we are. And here’s the reason why.

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.

Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of the things we try to do, we get wrong. And so, if we can survey, if we can sift among a range of alternatives of people in our population, and choose the best one that’s going at any particular moment, we don’t have to pay the costs of innovation, the time and energy ourselves. And so, we may have had strong selection in our past to be followers, to be copiers, rather than innovators.

This gives us a whole new slant on what it means to be human, and I think, in many ways, it might fit with some things that we realize are true about ourselves when we really look inside ourselves. We can all think of things that have made a difference in the history of life. The first hand axe, the first spear, the first bow and arrow, and so on. And we can ask ourselves, how many of us have had an idea that would have changed humanity? And I think most of us would say, well, that sets the bar rather high. I haven’t had an idea that would change humanity. So let’s lower the bar a little bit and say, how many of us have had an idea that maybe just influenced others around us, something that others would want to copy? And I think even then, very few of us can say there have been very many things we’ve invented that others would want to copy.

This says to us that social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, because this extremely efficient process that social learning allows us to do, of sifting among a range of alternatives, means that most of us can get by drawing on the inventions of others.

The formation of social groups

Now, why do I talk about this? It sounds like it could be a somewhat dry subject, that maybe most of us are copiers or followers rather than innovators. And what we want to do is imagine that our history over the last 200,000 years has been a history of slowly and slowly and slowly living in larger and larger and larger groups.

Early on in our history, it’s thought that most of us lived in bands of maybe five to 25 people, and that bands formed bands of bands that we might call tribes. And maybe tribes were 150 people or so on. And then tribes gave way to chiefdoms that might have been thousands of people. And chiefdoms eventually gave way to nation-states that might have been tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people. And so, our evolutionary history has been one of living in larger and larger and larger social groups.

What I want to suggest is that that evolutionary history will have selected for less and less and less innovation in individuals, because a little bit of innovation goes a long way. If we imagine that there’s some small probability that someone is a creator or an innovator, and the rest of us are followers, we can see that one or two people in a band is enough for the rest of us to copy, and so we can get on fine. And, because social learning is so efficient and so rapid, we don’t need all to be innovators. We can copy the best innovations, and all of us benefit from those.

But now let’s move to a slightly larger social group. Do we need more innovators in a larger social group? Well, no. The answer is, we probably don’t. We probably don’t need as many as we need in a band. Because in a small band, we need a few innovators to get by. We have to have enough new ideas coming along. But in a larger group, a small number of people will do. We don’t have to scale it up. We don’t have to have 50 innovators where we had five in the band, if we move up to a tribe. We can still get by with those three or four or five innovators, because all of us in that larger social group can take advantage of their innovations.

Language is the way we exchange ideas

And here we can see a very prominent role for language. Language is the way we exchange ideas. And our eyes allow us to see innovations and language allows us to exchange ideas. And language can operate in a larger society, just as efficiently as it can operate in a small society. It can jump across that society in an instant.

You can see where I’m going. As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. And so, a real worry is that our capacity for social learning, which is responsible for all of our cumulative cultural adaptation, all of the things we see around us in our everyday lives, has actually promoted a species that isn’t so good at innovation. It allows us to reflect on ourselves a little bit and say, maybe we’re not as creative and as imaginative and as innovative as we thought we were, but extraordinarily good at copying and following.

If we apply this to our everyday lives and we ask ourselves, do we know the answers to the most important questions in our lives? Should you buy a particular house? What mortgage product should you have? Should you buy a particular car? Who should you marry? What sort of job should you take? What kind of activities should you do? What kind of holidays should you take? We don’t know the answers to most of those things. And if we really were the deeply intelligent and imaginative and innovative species that we thought we were, we might know the answers to those things.

And if we ask ourselves how it is we come across the answers, or acquire the answers to many of those questions, most of us realize that we do what everybody else is doing. This herd instinct, I think, might be an extremely fundamental part of our psychology that was perhaps an unexpected and unintended, you might say, byproduct of our capacity for social learning, that we’re very, very good at being followers rather than leaders. A small number of leaders or innovators or creative people is enough for our societies to get by.

Now, the reason this might be interesting is that, as the world becomes more and more connected, as the Internet connects us and wires us all up, we can see that the long-term consequences of this is that humanity is moving in a direction where we need fewer and fewer and fewer innovative people, because now an innovation that you have somewhere on one corner of the earth can instantly travel to another corner of the earth, in a way that it would have never been possible to do 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 500 years ago, and so on. And so, we might see that there has been this tendency for our psychology and our humanity to be less and less innovative, at a time when, in fact, we may need to be more and more innovative, if we’re going to be able to survive the vast numbers of people on this earth.

That’s one consequence of social learning, that it has sculpted us to be very shrewd and intelligent at copying, but perhaps less shrewd at innovation and creativity than we’d like to think. Few of us are as creative as we’d like to think we are. I think that’s been one perhaps unexpected consequence of social learning.

Another side of social learning I’ve been thinking about - it’s a bit abstract, but I think it’s a fascinating one -goes back again to this analogy between natural selection, acting on genetic variation, and social learning, acting on variation in ideas. And any evolutionary process like that has to have both a sorting mechanism, natural selection, and what you might call a generative mechanism, a mechanism that can create variety.

We all know what that mechanism is in genes. We call it mutation, and we know that from parents to offspring, genes can change, genes can mutate. And that creates the variety that natural selection acts on. And one of the most remarkable stories of nature is that natural selection, acting on this mindlessly-generated genetic variation, is able to find the best solution among many, and successively add those solutions, one on top of the other. And through this extraordinarily simple and mindless process, create things of unimaginable complexity. Things like our cells, eyes and brains and hearts, and livers, and so on. Things of unimaginable complexity, that we don’t even understand and none of us could design. But they were designed by natural selection.

Where do ideas come from?

Now let’s take this analogy of a mindless process and take - there’s a parallel between social learning driving evolution at the idea level and natural selection driving evolution at the genetic level - and ask what it means for the generative mechanism in our brains.

Well, where do ideas come from? For social learning to be a sorting process that has varieties to act on, we have to have a variety of ideas. And where do those new ideas come from?

The idea that I’ve been thinking about, that I think is worth contemplating about our own minds is what is the generative mechanism? If we do have any creativity at all and we are innovative in some ways, what’s the nature of that generative mechanism for creating new ideas?

This is a question that’s been asked for decades. What is the nature of the creative process? Where do ideas come from? And let’s go back to genetic evolution and remember that, there, the generative mechanism is random mutation.

Now, what do we think the generative mechanism is for idea evolution? Do we think it’s random mutation of some sort, of ideas? Well, all of us think that it’s better than that. All of us think that somehow we can come up with good ideas in our minds. And whereas natural selection has to act on random variation, social learning must be acting on directed variation. We know what direction we’re going.

But, we can go back to our earlier discussion of social learning, and ask the question, well, if you were designing a new hand axe, or a new spear, or a new bow and a new arrow, would you really know how to make a spear fly better? Would you really know how to make a bow a better bow? Would you really know how to shape an arrowhead so that it penetrated its prey better? And I think most of us realize that we probably don’t know the answers to those questions. And that suggests to us that maybe our own creative process rests on a generative mechanism that isn’t very much better than random itself.

And I want to go further, and suggest that our mechanism for generating ideas maybe couldn’t even be much better than random itself. And this really gives us a different view of ourselves as intelligent organisms. Rather than thinking that we know the answers to everything, could it be the case that the mechanism that our brain uses for coming up with new ideas is a little bit like the mechanism that our genes use for coming up with new genetic variance, which is to randomly mutate ideas that we have, or to randomly mutate genes that we have.

Now, it sounds incredible. It sounds insane. It sounds mad. Because we think of ourselves as so intelligent. But when we really ask ourselves about the nature of any evolutionary process, we have to ask ourselves whether it could be any better than random, because in fact, random might be the best strategy.

Genes could never possibly know how to mutate themselves, because they could never anticipate the direction the world was going. No gene knows that we’re having global warming at the moment. No gene knew 200,000 years ago that humans were going to evolve culture. Well, the best strategy for any exploratory mechanism, when we don’t know the nature of the processes we’re exploring, is to throw out random attempts at understanding that field or that space we’re trying to explore.

And I want to suggest that the creative process inside our brains, which relies on social learning, that creative process itself never could have possibly anticipated where we were going as human beings. It couldn’t have anticipated 200,000 years ago that, you know, a mere 200,000 years later, we’d have space shuttles and iPods and microwave ovens.

What I want to suggest is that any process of evolution that relies on exploring an unknown space, such as genes or such as our neurons exploring the unknown space in our brains, and trying to create connections in our brains, and such as our brain’s trying to come up with new ideas that explore the space of alternatives that will lead us to what we call creativity in our social world, might be very close to random.

We know they’re random in the genetic case. We think they’re random in the case of neurons exploring connections in our brain. And I want to suggest that our own creative process might be pretty close to random itself. And that our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness.

Karl Popper famously said the way we differ from other animals is that our hypotheses die in our stead; rather than going out and actually having to try out things, and maybe dying as a result, we can test out ideas in our minds. But what I want to suggest is that the generative process itself might be pretty close to random.

Putting these two things together has lots of implications for where we’re going as societies. As I say, as our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.

And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that.

And then, as corporations grow … and we can see corporations as sort of microcosms of societies … as corporations grow and acquire the ability to acquire other corporations, a similar thing is happening, is that, rather than corporations wanting to spend the time and the energy to create new ideas, they want to simply acquire other companies, so that they can have their new ideas. And that just tells us again how precious these ideas are, and the lengths to which people will go to acquire those ideas.

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

But, these ideas, I think, are received with incredulity, because humans like to think of themselves as highly shrewd and intelligent and innovative people. But I think what we have to realize is that it’s even possible that, as I say, the generative mechanisms we have for coming up with new ideas are no better than random.

And a really fascinating idea itself is to consider that even the great people in history whom we associate with great ideas might be no more than we expect by chance. I’ll explain that. Einstein was once asked about his intelligence and he said, “I’m no more intelligent than the next guy. I’m just more curious.” Now, we can grant Einstein that little indulgence, because we think he was a pretty clever guy.

What does curiosity mean?

But let’s take him at his word and say, what does curiosity mean? Well, maybe curiosity means trying out all sorts of ideas in your mind. Maybe curiosity is a passion for trying out ideas. Maybe Einstein’s ideas were just as random as everybody else’s, but he kept persisting at them.

And if we say that everybody has some tiny probability of being the next Einstein, and we look at a billion people, there will be somebody who just by chance is the next Einstein. And so, we might even wonder if the people in our history and in our lives that we say are the great innovators really are more innovative, or are just lucky.

Now, the evolutionary argument is that our populations have always supported a small number of truly innovative people, and they’re somehow different from the rest of us. But it might even be the case that that small number of innovators just got lucky. And this is something that I think very few people will accept. They’ll receive it with incredulity. But I like to think of it as what I call social learning and, maybe, the possibility that we are infinitely stupid.”

Mark Pagel, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Reading University, England and The Santa Fe Institute, Infinite Stupidity, Edge, Dec 16, 2011 (Illustration by John S. Dykes)

See also:

☞ Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity



Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of “social technology” that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation. Mark Pagel: How language transformed humanity, TED.com, July 2011

The Kaleidoscopic Discovery Engine. ‘All scientific discoveries are in principle ‘multiples’’
Neal Gabler on The Elusive Big Idea - ‘We are living in a post ideas world where bold ideas are almost passé’

Nov
25th
Fri
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Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on Human Language—Human Consciousness. A personal narrative arises through the vehicle of language


                                        Jamie Marie Waelchli, Thought Map No. 8

Human language, coupled with human maternal care, enables the consciousness to bifurcate very early and extensively. Without the self-reflective properties inherent in a reflexive agent- recipient language, and without the objectification of the human infant — a very different kind of humanity would arise.

Human consciousness, as constructed by human language, becomes the vehicle through which the self-reflective human mind envisions time. Language enables the viewer to reflect upon the actions of the doer (and the actions of one’s internal body), while projecting forward and backward — other possible bodily actions — into imagined space/time. Thus the projected and imagined space/time increasingly becomes the conscious world and reality of the viewer who imagines or remembers actions mapped onto that projected plan. The body thus becomes a physical entity progressing through the imaged world of the viewer. As the body progresses through this imaged world, the viewer also constructs a way to mark progress from one imagined event to another. Having once marked this imagined time into units, the conscious viewer begins to order the anticipated actions of the body into a linear progression of events.

A personal narrative then arises through the vehicle of language. Indeed a personal narrative is required, expected and placed upon every human being, by the very nature of human language. This personal narrative becomes organized around the anticipated bodily changes that it is imagined will take place from birth to old age. The power of the bifurcated mind, through linguistically encoded expectancies, shapes and molds all of human behavior. When these capacities are jointly executed by other similar minds — the substrate of human culture is manufactured.

Human culture, because it rides upon a manufactured space/time self-reflective substrate, is unique. Though it shares some properties with animal culture, it is not merely a natural Darwinian extension of animal culture. It is based on constructed time/space, constructed mental relationships, constructed moral responsibilities, and constructed personal narratives — and individuals, must, at all times, justify their actions toward another on the basis of their co-constructed expectancies.

Human Consciousness seems to burst upon the evolutionary scene in something of an explosion between 40,000 and 90,000 years ago. Trading emerges, art emerges, and symboling ability emerges with a kind of intensity not noted for any previous time in the archeological record. (…)

Humans came with a propensity to alter the world around them wherever they went. We were into object manipulation in all aspects of our existence, and wherever we went we altered the landscape. We did not accept the natural world as we found it — we set about refashioning our worlds according to our own needs and desires. From the simple act of intentionally setting fires to eliminate underbrush, to the exploration of outer space, humanity manifested the view that it was here to control its own destiny, by changing the world around it, as well as by individuals’ changing their own appearances.

We put on masks and masqueraded about the world, seeking to make the world conform to our own desires, in a way no other species emulated. In brief, the kind of language that emerged between 40,000 and 90,000 years ago, riding upon the human anatomical form, changed us forever, and we began to pass that change along to future generations.

While Kanzi and family are bonobos, the kind of language they have acquired — even if they have not manifested all major components yet — is human language as you and I speak it and know it. Therefore, although their biology remains that of apes, their consciousness has begun to change as a function of the language, the marks it leaves on their minds and the epigenetic marks it leaves on the next generation. (Epigenetic: chemical markers which become attached to segments of genes during the lifetime of an individual are passed along to future generations, affecting which genes will be expressed in succeeding generations.) They explore art, they explore music, they explore creative linguistic negotiation, they have an autobiographical past and they think about the future. They don’t do all these things with human-like proficiency at this point, but they attempt them if given opportunity. Apes not so reared do not attempt to do these things.

What kind of power exists within the kind of language we humans have perfected? Does it have the power to change biology across time, if it impacts the biological form upon conception? Science has now become aware of the power of initial conditions, through chaos theory, the work of Mandelbrot with fractal geometric forms, and the work of Wolfram and the patterns that can be produced by digital reiterations of simple and only slightly different starting conditions. Within the fertilized egg lie the initial starting conditions of every human.

We also now realize that epigenetic markers from parental experience can set these initial starting conditions, determining such things as the order, timing, and patterning of gene expression profiles in the developing organism. Thus while the precise experience and learning of the parents is not passed along, the effects of those experiences, in the form of genetic markers that have the power to affect the developmental plan of the next generation during the extraordinarily sensitive conditions of embryonic development, are transmitted. Since language is the most powerful experience encountered by the human being and since those individuals who fail to acquire human language are inevitably excluded from (or somehow set apart in) the human community, it is reasonable to surmise that language will, in some form, transmit itself through epigenetic mechanisms.

When a human being enters into a group of apes and begins to participate in the rearing of offspring, different epigenetic markers have the potential to become activated. We already know, for example, that in human beings, expectancies or beliefs can affect gene activity. The most potent of the epigenetic markers would most probably arise from the major difference between human and ape infants. Human infants do not cling, ape infants do. When ape infants are carried like human infants, they begin to development eye/hand coordination from birth. This sets the developmental trajectory of the ape infant in a decidedly human direction — that of manipulating the world around it. Human mothers, unlike ape mothers, also communicate their intentions linguistically to the infant. Once an intention is communicated linguistically, it can be negotiated, so there arises an intrinsic motivation to tune into and understand such communications on the part of the ape infant. The ‘debate’ in ape language, which has centered around do they have or don’t they — has missed the point. This debate has ignored the key rearing variables that differ dramatically across the studies. Apart from Kanzi and family, all other apes in these studies are left alone at night and drilled on associative pairings during the day.”

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, is a primatologist most known for her work with two bonobos, Kanzi and Panbanisha, investigating their use of “Great Ape language” using lexigrams and computer-based keyboards. Until recently based at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center in Atlanta.

To read full essay click Human Language—Human Consciousness, National Humanities Center, Jan 2nd, 2011

See also:

John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices
Do thoughts have a language of their own? The language of thought hypothesis, Lapidarium notes

Nov
24th
Thu
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Are You Totally Improbable Or Totally Inevitable?

                        

"If we have never been amazed by the very fact that we exist, we are squandering the greatest fact of all."

Will Durant, American writer, historian, and philosopher (1885-1981)

"Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely — make that miraculously — fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you. (…)

The number of people on whose cooperative efforts your eventual existence depends has risen to approximately 1,000,000,000,000,000,000, which is several thousand times the total number of people who have ever lived. (…)

We are awfully lucky to be here-and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.”

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Black Swan, 2003

“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”

Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell, Bantam Books, 1984, p. 165.

“Life is one huge lottery where only the winning tickets are visible.”

Jostein Gaarder, The Orange Girl, Orion Publishing, 2004

“’We are the lucky ones for we shall die’, as there is an infinite number of possible forms of DNA all but a few billions of which will never burst into consciousness.”

Frank Close, a noted particle physicist who is currently Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford, The Void, Oxford University Press

"What are the odds that you exist, as you, today? Author Dr Ali Binazir attemps to quantify the probability that you came about and exist as you today, and reveals that the odds of you existing are almost zero.

Think about yourself.
You are here because…
Your dad met your mom.
Then your dad and mom conceived you.
So a particular egg in your mom
Joined a particular sperm from your dad
Which could only happen because not one of your direct ancestors, going all the way back to the beginning of life itself, died before passing on his or her genes…
So what are the chances of you happening?
Of you being here?

Author Ali Binazir did the calculations last spring and decided that the chances of anyone existing are one in 102,685,000. In other words (…) you are totally improbable.

— Robert Krulwich, Are You Totally Improbable Or Totally Inevitable?, NPR, Nov 21, 2011

"First, let’s talk about the probability of your parents meeting.  If they met one new person of the opposite sex every day from age 15 to 40, that would be about 10,000 people. Let’s confine the pool of possible people they could meet to 1/10 of the world’s population twenty years go (one tenth of 4 billion = 400 million) so it considers not just the population of the US but that of the places they could have visited. Half of those people, or 200 million, will be of the opposite sex.  So let’s say the probability of your parents meeting, ever, is 10,000 divided by 200 million:

104/2×108= 2×10-4, or one in 20,000.

Probability of boy meeting girl: 1 in 20,000.

So far, so unlikely.

Now let’s say the chances of them actually talking to one another is one in 10.  And the chances of that turning into another meeting is about one in 10 also.  And the chances of that turning into a long-term relationship is also one in 10.  And the chances of that lasting long enough to result in offspring is one in 2.  So the probability of your parents’ chance meeting resulting in kids is about 1 in 2000.

Probability of same boy knocking up same girl: 1 in 2000.

So the combined probability is already around 1 in 40 million — long but not insurmountable odds.  Now things start getting interesting.  Why?  Because we’re about to deal with eggs and sperm, which come in large numbers.

Each sperm and each egg is genetically unique because of the process of meiosis; you are the result of the fusion of one particular egg with one particular sperm.  A fertile woman has 100,000 viable eggs on average.  A man will produce about 12 trillion sperm over the course of his reproductive lifetime.  Let’s say a third of those (4 trillion) are relevant to our calculation, since the sperm created after your mom hits menopause don’t count.  So the probability of that one sperm with half your name on it hitting that one egg with the other half of your name on it is

1/(100,000)(4 trillion)= 1/(105)(4×1012)= 1 in 4 x 1017, or one in 400 quadrillion.

Probability of right sperm meeting right egg: 1 in 400 quadrillion.

But we’re just getting started.

Because the existence of you here now on planet earth presupposes another supremely unlikely and utterly undeniable chain of events.  Namely, that every one of your ancestors lived to reproductive age – going all the way back not just to the first Homo sapiens, first Homo erectus and Homo habilis, but all the way back to the first single-celled organism.  You are a representative of an unbroken lineage of life going back 4 billion years.

Let’s not get carried away here; we’ll just deal with the human lineage.  Say humans or humanoids have been around for about 3 million years, and that a generation is about 20 years.  That’s 150,000 generations.  Say that over the course of all human existence, the likelihood of any one human offspring to survive childhood and live to reproductive age and have at least one kid is 50:50 – 1 in 2. Then what would be the chance of your particular lineage to have remained unbroken for 150,000 generations?

Well then, that would be one in 2150,000 , which is about 1 in 1045,000– a number so staggeringly large that my head hurts just writing it down. That number is not just larger than all of the particles in the universe – it’s larger than all the particles in the universe if each particle were itself a universe.

Probability of every one of your ancestors reproducing successfully: 1 in 1045,000

But let’s think about this some more.  Remember the sperm-meeting-egg argument for the creation of you, since each gamete is unique?  Well, the right sperm also had to meet the right egg to create your grandparents.  Otherwise they’d be different people, and so would their children, who would then have had children who were similar to you but not quite you.  This is also true of your grandparents’ parents, and their grandparents, and so on till the beginning of time.  If even once the wrong sperm met the wrong egg, you would not be sitting here noodling online reading fascinating articles like this one.  It would be your cousin Jethro, and you never really liked him anyway.

That means in every step of your lineage, the probability of the right sperm meeting the right egg such that the exact right ancestor would be created that would end up creating you is one in 1200 trillion, which we’ll round down to 1000 trillion, or one quadrillion.

So now we must account for that for 150,000 generations by raising 400 quadrillion to the 150,000th power:

[4x1017]150,000 ≈ 102,640,000

That’s a ten followed by 2,640,000 zeroes, which would fill 11 volumes of a book the size of The Tao of Dating with zeroes.

To get the final answer, technically we need to multiply that by the 1045,000 , 2000 and 20,000 up there, but those numbers are so shrimpy in comparison that it almost doesn’t matter.  For the sake of completeness:

(102,640,000)(1045,000)(2000)(20,000) = 4x 102,685,007 ≈ 102,685,000

Probability of your existing at all: 1 in 102,685,000

As a comparison, the number of atoms in the body of an average male (80kg, 175 lb) is 1027.  The number of atoms making up the earth is about 1050. The number of atoms in the known universe is estimated at 1080.

So what’s the probability of your existing?  It’s the probability of 2 million people getting together – about the population of San Diego – each to play a game of dice with trillion-sided dice. They each roll the dice, and they all come up the exact same number – say, 550,343,279,001.”


                                                         Click image to enlarge

— Ali Binazir, What are the chances of your coming into being?, June 15, 2011

A lovely comment by PZ Myers, a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota:

"You are a contingent product of many chance events, but so what? So is everything else in the universe. That number doesn’t make you any more special than a grain of sand on a beach, which also arrived at its precise shape, composition, and location by a series of chance events. (…)

You are one of 7 billion people, occupying an insignificant fraction of the volume of the universe, and you aren’t a numerical miracle at all — you’re actually rather negligible.”

— PZ Myers, A very silly calculation, Pharyngula, Nov 14, 2011

'Life is one huge lottery where only the winning tickets are visible'

   “Thirteen forty-nine,” was the first thing [he] said.
   “The Black Death,” I replied. I had a pretty good knowledge of history, but I had no idea what the Black Death had to do with coincidences.
   ”Okay,” he said, and off he went. “You probably know that half Norway’s population was wiped out during that great plague. But there’s a connection here I haven’t told you about. Did you know that you had thousands of ancestors at that time?” he continued.
   I shook my head in dispair. How could that possibly be?
   ”You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great grandparents — and so on. If you work it out, right back to 1349 — there are quite a lot.
  “Then came the bubonic plague. Death spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, and the children were hit worst. Whole families died, sometimes one or two family members survived. A lot of your ancestors were children at this time, Hans Thomas. But none of them kicked the bucket.”
  “How can you be so sure about that?” I asked on amazement.
   He took a long drag on his cigarette and said, “Because you’re sitting here  looking out over the Adriatic.

  “The chances of of single ancestor of yours not dying while growing up is one in several billion. Because it isn’t just about the Black Death, you know. Actually all of your ancestors have grown up and had children — even during the worst natural disasters, even when the child mortality rate was enormous. Of course, a lot of them have suffered from illness, but they’ve always pulled through. In a way, you have been a millimeter from death billions of times, Hans Thomas.

Your life on this planet has been threatned by insects, wild animals, meteorites, lightning, sickness, war, flods, fires, poisoning, and attempted murders. In the battle of Stikelstad alone you were injured hundreds of times. Because you must have had ancestors on both sides — yes, really you were fighting against yourself and your chances of being born a thousand years later. You know, the same goes for the last world war. If Grandpa had been shot by good Norwegians during the occupation, then neither you nor I would have been born. The point is, this happened billions of times through history. Each time an arrow rained through the air, your chances of being born have been reduced to the minimum.”

   He continued: “I am talking about one long chain of coincidences. In fact, that chain goes right back to the first living cell, which divided in two, and from there gave birth to everything growing and sprouting on this planet today. The chance of my chain not being broken at one time or another duirng three or four billion years is so little it is almost inconceivable. But I have pulled through, you know. Damned right, I have. In return, I appreciate how fantastically lucky I am to be able to experience this planet this planet together with you. I realize how lucky every single little crawling insect on this planet is.”

   "What about the unlucky ones?" I asked.
   ”They don’t exist! They were never born. Life is one huge lottery where only the winning tickets are visible.”

Jostein Gaarder, The Orange Girl, Orion Publishing, 2004.

(Illustration source)

See also:

☞ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Lapidarium notes

Sep
20th
Tue
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Human Nature. Sapolsky, Maté, Wilkinson, Gilligan, discuss on human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate

In this part of Peter Joseph's documentary Zeitgeist: Moving Forward “The discussion turns to human behavior and the nature vs. nurture debate. This portion begins with a small clip with Robert Sapolsky summing up the nature vs. nurture debate which he essentially refers it as a “false dichotomy.” After which he states that “it is virtually impossible to understand how biology works outside the context of environment.”

During which time the film then goes onto describe that it is neither Nature or Nurture that shapes human behavior but both are supposed to influence behavior. The interviewed pundits state that even with genetic predispositions to diseases the expression and manifestation of disease is largely determined by environmental stressors. Disease criminal activity and addictions are also placed in the same light. One study discussed showed that newly born babies are more likely to die if they are not touched. Another study which was mentioned claimed to show how stressed women were more likely to have children with addiction disorders. A reference is made to the unborn children who were in utero during the Dutch famine of 1944. The “Dutch Famine Birth Cohort Study" is mentioned to have shown that obesity and other health complications became common problems later in life due to prolonged starvation of their mother during pregnancy.

Comparisons are made by sociologists of criminals in different parts of the world and how different cultures with different values can often have more peaceful inhabitants. An Anabaptist sect called the Hutterites are mentioned to have never reported a homicide in any of their societies. The overall conclusion is that social environment and cultural conditioning play a large part in shaping human behavior.”

Zeitgeist Moving Forward I Human Nature

Dr. Gabor Maté: “Nothing is genetically programmed. There are very rare diseases, a small handful, extremely sparsely represented in the population, that are truly genetically determined. Most complex conditions might have a predisposition that has a genetic component. But a predisposition is not the same as a predetermination. The whole search for the source of diseases in the genome was doomed to failure before anybody even thought of it, because most diseases are not genetically predetermined. Heart disease, cancer, strokes, rheumatoid conditions, autoimmune conditions in general, mental health conditions, addictions, none of them are genetically determined. (…)

That’s an epigenetic effect. “Epi” means on top of, so that the epigenetic influence is what happens environmentally to either activate or deactivate certain genes. (…)

So, the genetic argument is simply a cop-out which allows us to ignore the social and economic and political factors that, in fact, underlie many troublesome behaviors. (…)

If we wish to understand what then makes some people susceptible we actually have to look at the life experience. The old idea, although it’s old but it’s still broadly held, that addictions are due to some genetic cause is simply scientifically untenable. What the case is actually is that certain life experiences make people susceptible. Life experiences that not only shape the person’s personality and psychological needs but also their very brains in certain ways. And that process begins in utero.

It has been shown, for example that if you stress mothers during pregnancy their children are more likely to have traits that predispose them to addictions and that’s because development is shaped by the psychological and social environment. So the biology of human beings is very much affected by and programmed by the life experiences beginning in utero.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: “Environment does not begin at birth. Environment begins as soon as you have an environment. As soon as you are a fetus, you are subject to whatever information is coming through mom’s circulations. Hormones levels of nutrients. (…) Be a Dutch Hunger Winter fetus and half a century later, everything else being equal, you are more likely to have high blood pressure, obesity or metabolic syndrome. That is environment coming in a very unexpected place. (…)”

GM: “The point about human development and specifically human brain development is that it occurs mostly under the impact of the environment and mostly after birth. (…)

The concept of Neural Darwinism simply means that the circuits that get the appropriate input from the environment will develop optimally and the ones that don’t will either not develop optimally or perhaps not at all. (…)

There is a significant way in which early experiences shape adult behavior and even and especially early experiences for which there is no recall memory. It turns out that there are two kinds of memory: there is explicit memory which is recall; this is when you can call back facts, details, episodes, circumstances. But the structure in the brain which is called the hippocampus which encodes recall memory doesn’t even begin to develop fully until a year and a half and it is not fully developed until much later, which is why hardly anybody has any recall memory prior to 18 months.

But there is another kind of memory which is called implicit memory which is, in fact, an emotional memory where the emotional impact and the interpretation the child makes of those emotional experiences are ingrained in the brain in the form of nerve circuits ready to fire without specific recall.  So to give you a clear example, people who are adopted have a lifelong sense of rejection very often. They can’t recall the adoption. They can’t recall the separation of the birth mother because there’s nothing there to recall with. But the emotional memory of separation and rejection is deeply embedded in their brains. Hence, they are much more likely to experience a sense of rejection and a great emotional upset when they perceive themselves as being rejected by other people. That’s not unique to people who are adopted but it is particularly strong in them because of this function of implicit memory. (…)

The great British child psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, said that fundamentally, two things can go wrong in childhood. One is when things happen that shouldn’t happen and then things that should happen but don’t. (…)

The Buddha argued that everything depends on everything else. He says ‘The one contains the many and the many contains the one.’ That you can’t understand anything in isolation from its environment, the leaf contains the sun, the sky and the earth, obviously. This has now been shown to be true, of course all around and specifically when it comes to human development. The modern scientific term for it is the ‘bio-psycho-social’ nature of human development which says that the biology of human beings depends very much on their interaction with the social and psychological environment.

And specifically, the psychiatrist and researcher Daniel Siegel at the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA has coined a phrase Interpersonal Neurobiology” which means to say that the way that our nervous system functions depends very much on our personal relationships,  in the first place with the parenting caregivers, and in the second place with other important attachment figures in our lives and in the third-place, with our entire culture. So that you can’t separate the neurological functioning of a human being from the environment in which he or she grew up in and continues to exist in. And this is true throughout the life cycle. It’s particularly true when you are dependent and helpless when your brain is developing but it’s true even in adults and even at the end of life. (…)”

Dr. James Gilligan: “Violence is not universal. It is not symmetrically distributed throughout the human race. There is a huge variation in the amount of violence in different societies. There are some societies that have virtually no violence. There are others that destroy themselves. Some of the Anabaptist religious groups that are complete strict pacifists like the Amish, the Mennonites, the Hutterites, among some of these groups, the Hutterites - there are no recorded cases of homicide.

During our major wars, like World War II where people were being drafted they would refuse to serve in the military. They would go to prison rather than serve in the military. In the Kibbutzim in Israel the level of violence is so low that the criminal courts there will often send violent offenders - people who have committed crimes - to live on the Kibbutzim in order to learn how to live a non-violent life. Because that’s the way people live there. 

RS: So, we are amply shaped by society. Our societies, in the broader sense, including our theological, our metaphysical, our linguistic influences, etc, our societies help shape us as to whether or not we think life is basically about sin or about beauty; whether the afterlife will carry a price for how we live our lives or if it’s irrelevant. (…)

So, this brings us to a total impossible juncture which is to try to make sense in perspective science as to what that nature is of human nature. You know, on a certain level the nature of our nature is not to be particularly constrained by our nature. We come up with more social variability than any species out there. More systems of belief, of styles, of family structures, of ways of raising children. The capacity for variety that we have is extraordinary. (…)

GM: In a society which is predicated on competition and really, very often, the ruthless exploitation of one human being by another, the profiteering off of other people’s problems and very often the creation of problems for the purpose of profiteering, the ruling ideology will very often justify that behavior by appeals to some fundamental and unalterable human nature. So the myth in our society is that people are competitive by nature and that they are individualistic and that they’re selfish. The real reality is quite the opposite. We have certain human needs. The only way that you can talk about human nature concretely is by recognizing that there are certain human needs. We have a human need for companionship and for close contact, to be loved, to be attached to, to be accepted, to be seen, to be received for who we are. If those needs are met, we develop into people who are compassionate and cooperative and who have empathy for other people.

So the opposite, that we often see in our society, is in fact, a distortion of human nature precisely because so few people have their needs met. So, yes, you can talk about human nature but only in the sense of basic human needs that are instinctively evoked or I should say certain human needs that lead to certain traits if they are met and a different set of traits if they are denied.”

— Zeitgeist: Moving Forward - full transcript

Robert Sapolsky - American scientist and author. He is currently professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and, by courtesy, Neurosurgery, at Stanford University.

Gabor Maté, Hungarian-born Canadian physician who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction and is also widely recognized for his unique perspective on Attention Deficit Disorder.

Richard Wilkinson - British researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health. He is Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham.

James Gilligan - American psychiatrist and author, best known for his series of books entitled Violence, where he draws on 25 years of work in the American prison system to describe the motivation and causes behind violent behaviour. He now lectures at the Department of Psychiatry, New York University.

See also:

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward by Peter Joseph, 2011 (full documentary) (transcript)

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Steven Pinker on the mind as a system of ‘organs of computation’

                      

I present the mind as a system of “organs of computation” that allowed our ancestors to understand and outsmart objects, animals, plants, and each other. (…)

Most of the assumptions about the mind that underlie current discussions are many decades out of date. Take the hydraulic model of Freud, in which psychic pressure builds up in the mind and can burst out unless it’s channeled into appropriate pathways. That’s just false. The mind doesn’t work by fluid under pressure or by flows of energy; it works by information.

Or, look at the commentaries on human affairs by pundits and social critics. They say we’re “conditioned” to do this, or “brainwashed” to do that, or “socialized” to believe such and such. Where do these ideas come from? From the behaviorism of the 1920’s, from bad cold war movies from the 1950’s, from folklore about the effects of family upbringing that behavior genetics has shown to be false. The basic understanding that the human mind is a remarkably complex processor of information, an “organ of extreme perfection and complication,” to use Darwin’s phrase, has not made it into the mainstream of intellectual life. (…)

I see the mind as an exquisitely engineered device—not literally engineered, of course, but designed by the mimic of engineering that we see in nature, natural selection. That’s what “engineered” animals’ bodies to accomplish improbable feats, like flying and swimming and running, and it is surely what “engineered” the mind to accomplish its improbable feats. (…)

What research in psychology should be: a kind of reverse engineering. When you rummage through an antique store and come across a contraption built of many finely meshing parts, you assume that it was put together for a purpose, and that if you only understood that purpose, you’d have insight as to why it has the parts arranged the way they are. That’s true for the mind as well, though it wasn’t designed by a designer but by natural selection. With that insight you can look at the quirks of the mind and ask how they might have made sense as solutions to some problem our ancestors faced in negotiating the world. That can give you an insight into what the different parts of the mind are doing.

Even the seemingly irrational parts of the mind, like strong passions—jealousy, revenge, infatuation, pride—might very well be good solutions to problems our ancestors faced in dealing with one another. For example, why do people do crazy things like chase down an ex-lover and kill the lover? How could you win someone back by killing them? It seems like a bug in our mental software. But several economists have proposed an alternative. If our mind is put together so that under some circumstances we are compelled to carry out a threat regardless of the costs to us, the threat is made credible. When a person threatens a lover, explicitly or implicitly, by communicating “If you ever leave me I’ll chase you down,” the lover could call his bluff if she didn’t have signs that he was crazy enough to carry it out even though it was pointless. And so the problem of building a credible deterrent into creatures that interact with one another leads to irrational behavior as a rational solution. "Rational," that is, with respect to the "goal" of our genes to maximize the number of copies of themselves. It isn’t "rational," of course, with respect to the goal of whole humans and societies to maximize happiness and fairness. (…)

The paradoxes of happiness

There’s no absolute standard for well-being. A Paleolithic hunter-gatherer should not have fretted that he had no running shoes or central heating or penicillin. How can a brain know whether there is something worth striving for? Well, it can look around and see how well off other people are. If they can achieve something, maybe so can you. Other people anchor your well-being scale and tell you what you can reasonably hope to achieve. (…)

Another paradox of happiness is that losses are felt more keenly than gains. As Jimmy Connors said, “I hate to lose more than I like to win.” You are just a little happy if your salary goes up, but you’re really miserable if your salary goes down by the same amount. That too might be a feature of the mechanism designed to attain the attainable and no more. When we backslide, we keenly feel it because what we once had is a good estimate of what we can attain. But when we improve we have no grounds for knowing that we are as well off as we can hope to be. The evolutionary psychologist Donald Campbell called it “the happiness treadmill." No matter how much you gain in fame, wealth, and so on, you end up at the same level of happiness you began with—though to go down a level is awful. Perhaps it’s because natural selection has programmed our reach to exceed our grasp, but by just a little bit. (…)

The brain as a kind of computer; information processing system

I place myself among those who think that you can’t understand the mind only by looking directly at the brain. Neurons, neurotransmitters, and other hardware features are widely conserved across the animal kingdom, but species have very different cognitive and emotional lives. The difference comes from the ways in which hundreds of millions of neurons are wired together to process information. I see the brain as a kind of computer—not like any commercial computer made of silicon, obviously, but as a device that achieves intelligence for some of the same reasons that a computer achieves intelligence, namely processing of information. (…)

I also believe that the mind is not made of Spam—it has a complex, heterogeneous structure. It is composed of mental organs that are specialized to do different things, like seeing, controlling hands and feet, reasoning, language, social interaction, and social emotions. Just as the body is divided into physical organs, the mind is divided into mental organs.

That puts me in agreement with Chomsky and against many neural network modelers, who hope that a single kind of neural network, if suitably trained, can accomplish every mental feat that we do. For similar reasons I disagree with the dominant position in modern intellectual life—that our thoughts are socially constructed by how we were socialized as children, by media images, by role models, and by conditioning. (…)

Many people lump together the idea that the mind has a complex innate structure with the idea that differences between people have to be innate. But the ideas are completely different. Every normal person on the planet could be innately equipped with an enormous catalog of mental machinery, and all the differences between people—what makes John different from Bill—could come from differences in experience, of upbringing, or of random things that happened to them when they were growing up.

To believe that there’s a rich innate structure common to every member of the species is different from saying the differences between people, or differences between groups, come from differences in innate structure. Here’s an example. Look at number of legs—it’s an innate property of the human species that we have two legs as opposed to six like insects, or eight like spiders, or four like cats—so having two legs is innate. But if you now look at why some people have one leg, and some people have no legs, it’s completely due to the environment—they lost a leg in an accident, or from a disease. So the two questions have to be distinguished. And what’s true of legs is also true of the mind. (…)

Computer technology will never change the world as long as it ignores how the mind works. Why did people instantly start to use fax machines, and continue to use them even though electronic mail makes much more sense? There are millions of people who print out text from their computer onto a piece of paper, feed the paper into a fax machine, forcing the guy at the other end to take the paper out, read it, and crumples it up—or worse, scan it into his computer so that it becomes a file of bytes all over again. This is utterly ridiculous from a technological point of view, but people do it. They do it because the mind evolved to deal with physical objects, and it still likes to conceptualize entities that are owned and transferred among people as physical objects that you can lift and store in a box. Until computer systems, email, video cameras, VCR’s and so on are designed to take advantage of the way the mind conceptualizes reality, namely as physical objects existing at a location and impinged upon by forces, people are going to be baffled by their machines, and the promise of the computer revolution will not be fulfilled. (…)

Q: What is the significance of the Internet and today’s communications revolution for the evolution of the mind?

Probably not much. You’ve got to distinguish two senses of the word “evolution.” The sense used by me, Dawkins, Gould, and other evolutionary biologists refers to the changes in our biological makeup that led us to be the kind of organism we are today. The sense used by most other people refers to continuous improvement or progress. A popular idea is that our biological evolution took us to a certain stage, and our cultural evolution is going to take over—where evolution in both cases is defined as “progress.” I would like us to move away from that idea, because that the processes that selected the genes that built our brains are different form the processes that propelled the rise and fall of empires and the march of technology and.

In terms of strict biological evolution, it’s impossible to know where, if anywhere, our species is going. Natural selection generally takes hundreds of thousands of years to do anything interesting, and we don’t know what our situation will be like in ten thousand or even one thousand years. Also, selection adapts organism to a niche, usually a local environment, and the human species moves all over the place and lurches from life style to life style with dizzying speed on the evolutionary timetable. Revolutions in human life like the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions occur so quickly that no one can predict whether the change they will have on our makeup, or even whether there will be a change.

The Internet does create a kind of supra-human intelligence, in which everyone on the planet can exchange information rapidly, a bit like the way different parts of a single brain can exchange information. This is not a new process; it’s been happening since we evolved language. Even non-industrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language.

That has given them remarkable local technologies—ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically treating plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them amongst a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.”

Steven Pinker, Canadian-American experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, Organs of Computation, Edge, January 11, 1997 (Illustration source)

See also:

☞ Steven Pinker, Harvard University Cambridge, MA, So How Does the Mind Work? (pdf), Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005

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Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks - ‘To be human is to be quantum’

                     

"The quantum world defies the rules of ordinary logic. Particles routinely occupy two or more places at the same time and don’t even have well-defined properties until they are measured. It’s all strange, yet true - quantum theory is the most accurate scientific theory ever tested and its mathematics is perfectly suited to the weirdness of the atomic world. (…)

Human thinking, as many of us know, often fails to respect the principles of classical logic. We make systematic errors when reasoning with probabilities, for example. Physicist Diederik Aerts of the Free University of Brussels, Belgium, has shown that these errors actually make sense within a wider logic based on quantum mathematics. The same logic also seems to fit naturally with how people link concepts together, often on the basis of loose associations and blurred boundaries. That means search algorithms based on quantum logic could uncover meanings in masses of text more efficiently than classical algorithms.

It may sound preposterous to imagine that the mathematics of quantum theory has something to say about the nature of human thinking. This is not to say there is anything quantum going on in the brain, only that "quantum" mathematics really isn’t owned by physics at all, and turns out to be better than classical mathematics in capturing the fuzzy and flexible ways that humans use ideas. "People often follow a different way of thinking than the one dictated by classical logic," says Aerts. “The mathematics of quantum theory turns out to describe this quite well.”

It’s a finding that has kicked off a burgeoning field known as “quantum interaction”, which explores how quantum theory can be useful in areas having nothing to do with physics, ranging from human language and cognition to biology and economics. (…)

One thing that distinguishes quantum from classical physics is how probabilities work. Suppose, for example, that you spray some particles towards a screen with two slits in it, and study the results on the wall behind (see diagram below). Close slit B, and particles going through A will make a pattern behind it. Close A instead, and a similar pattern will form behind slit B. Keep both A and B open and the pattern you should get - ordinary physics and logic would suggest - should be the sum of these two component patterns.

But the quantum world doesn’t obey. When electrons or photons in a beam pass through the two slits, they act as waves and produce an interference pattern on the wall. The pattern with A and B open just isn’t the sum of the two patterns with either A or B open alone, but something entirely different - one that varies as light and dark stripes. (…)

The phenomenon may go well beyond physics, and one example of this is the violation of what logicians call the “sure thing” principle. This is the idea that if you prefer one action over another in one situation - coffee over tea in situation A, say, when it’s before noon - and you prefer the same thing in the opposite situation - coffee over tea in situation B, when it’s after noon - then you should have the same preference when you don’t know the situation: that is, coffee over tea when you don’t know what time it is.

Remarkably, people don’t respect this rule. (…)

Flexible logic

Suppose you ask people to put various objects, such as an ashtray, a painting and a sink, into one of two categories: “home furnishings” and “furniture”. Next, you ask if these objects belong to the combined category “home furnishings or furniture”. Obviously, if “ashtray” or “painting” belongs in home furnishings, then it certainly belongs in the bigger, more inclusive combined category too. But many experiments over the past two decades document what psychologists call the disjunction effect - that people often place things in the first category, but not in the broader one. Again, two possibilities listed simultaneously lead to strange results.

These experiments demonstrate that people aren’t logical, at least by classical standards. But quantum theory, Aerts argues, offers richer logical possibilities. For example, two quantum events, A and B, are described by so-called probability amplitudes, alpha and beta. To calculate the probability of A happening, you must square this amplitude alpha and likewise to work out the probability of B happening. For A or B to happen, the probability amplitude is alpha plus beta. When you square this to work out the probability, you get the probability of A (alpha squared) plus that of B (beta squared) plus an additional amount - an “interference term” which might be positive or negative.

This interference term makes quantum logic more flexible. In fact, Aerts has shown that many results demonstrating the disjunction effect fit naturally within a model in which quantum interference can play a role. The way we violate the sure thing principle can be similarly explained with quantum interference, according to economist Jerome Busemeyer of Indiana University in Bloomington and psychologist Emmanuel Pothos of the University of Wales in Swansea. "Quantum probabilities have the potential to provide a better framework for modelling human decision making," says Busemeyer.

The strange links go beyond probability, Aerts argues, to the realm of quantum uncertainty. One aspect of this is that the properties of particles such as electrons do not exist until they are measured. The experiment doing the measuring determines what properties an electron might have.

Hilbert's mathematics includes this effect by representing the quantum state of an electron by a so-called state vector - a kind of arrow existing in an abstract, high-dimensional space known as Hilbert space. An experiment can change the state vector arrow, projecting it in just one direction in the space. This is known as contextuality and it represents how the context of a specific experiment changes the possible properties of the electron being measured.

The meaning of words, too, changes according to their context, giving language a “quantum” feel. For instance, you would think that if a thing, X, is also a Y, then a “tall X” would also be a “tall Y” - a tall oak is a tall tree, for example. But that’s not always the case. A chihuahua is a dog, but a tall chihuahua is not a tall dog; “tall” changes meaning by virtue of the word next to it. Likewise, the way “red” is defined depends on whether you are talking about “red wine”, “red hair”, “red eyes” or “red soil”. “The structure of human conceptual knowledge is quantum-like because context plays a fundamental role,” says Aerts.

These peculiar similarities also apply to how search engines retrieve information. Around a decade ago, computer scientists Dominic Widdows, now at Google Research in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Keith van Rijsbergen of the University of Glasgow, UK, realised that the mathematics they had been building into search engines was essentially the same as that of quantum theory. (…)

Quantum leaps

An urgent challenge is to get computers to find meaning in data in much the same way people do, says Widdows. If you want to research a topic such as the “story of rock” with geophysics and rock formation in mind, you don’t want a search engine to give you millions of pages on rock music. One approach would be to include “-songs” in your search terms in order to remove any pages that mention “songs”. This is called negation and is based on classical logic. While it would be an improvement, you would still find lots of pages about rock music that just don’t happen to mention the word songs.

Widdows has found that a negation based on quantum logic works much better. Interpreting “not” in the quantum sense means taking “songs” as an arrow in a multidimensional Hilbert space called semantic space, where words with the same meaning are grouped together. Negation means removing from the search pages that shares any component in common with this vector, which would include pages with words like music, guitar, Hendrix and so on. As a result, the search becomes much more specific to what the user wants.

"It seems to work because it corresponds more closely to the vague reasoning people often use when searching for information," says Widdows. "We often rely on hunches, and traditionally, computers are very bad at hunches. This is just where the quantum-inspired models give fresh insights."

That work is now being used to create entirely new ways of retrieving information. Widdows, working with Trevor Cohen at the University of Texas in Houston, and others, has shown that quantum operations in semantic Hilbert spaces are a powerful means of finding previously unrecognised associations between concepts. This may even offer a route towards computers being truly able to discover things for themselves. (…)

Why should quantum logic fit human behaviour? Peter Bruza at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, suggests the reason is to do with our finite brain being overwhelmed by the complexity of the environment yet having to take action long before it can calculate its way to the certainty demanded by classical logic. Quantum logic may be more suitable to making decisions that work well enough, even if they’re not logically faultless. “The constraints we face are often the natural enemy of getting completely accurate and justified answers,” says Bruza.

This idea fits with the views of some psychologists, who argue that strict classical logic only plays a small part in the human mind. Cognitive psychologist Peter Gardenfors of Lund University in Sweden, for example, argues that much of our thinking operates on a largely unconscious level, where thought follows a less restrictive logic and forms loose associations between concepts.

Aerts agrees. “It seems that we’re really on to something deep we don’t yet fully understand.” This is not to say that the human brain or consciousness have anything to do with quantum physics, only that the mathematical language of quantum theory happens to match the description of human decision-making.

Perhaps only humans, with our seemingly illogical minds, are uniquely capable of discovering and understanding quantum theory. To be human is to be quantum.”

Mark Buchanan, American physicist and author, Quantum minds: Why we think like quarks, New Scientist, 05 September 2011 (Illustration source)

See also:

Vlatko Vedral: Decoding Reality: the universe as quantum information
Geoffrey West on Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster
The Concept of Laws. The special status of the laws of mathematics and physics, Lapidarium

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Existence: What is the self?

"Our sense of self is not an entity in its own right, but emerges from general purpose processes in the brain.

Seth Gillihan and Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have proposed a view of the self that has three strands: the physical self (which arises from our sense of embodiment); the psychological self (which comprises our subjective point-of-view, our autobiographical memories and the ability to differentiate between self and others); and a higher level sense of agency, which attributes the actions of the physical self to the psychological self (Psychological Bulletin, vol 131, p 76)

We are now uncovering some of the brain processes underlying these strands. For instance, Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and colleagues have shown that the physical sense of self is centred on the temporo-parietal cortex. It integrates information from your senses to create a sense of embodiment, a feeling of being located in a particular body in a particular place. That feeling can be spectacularly disrupted if the temporo-parietal cortex receives contradictory inputs, causing it to generate out-of-body experiences (New Scientist, 10 October 2009, p 34). (…)

Within the brain, it seems, the self is both everywhere and nowhere. “If you make a list [for what’s needed for a sense of self], there is hardly a brain region untouched,” says cognitive philosopher Thomas Metzinger of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Metzinger interprets this as meaning the self is an illusion. We are, he says, fooled by our brains into believing that we are substantial and unchanging. (…)

Studies have shown that each time we recall an episode from our past, we remember the details differently, thus altering ourselves (Physics of Life Reviews, vol 7, p 88).

So the self, despite its seeming constancy and solidity, is constantly changing. We are not the same person we were a year ago and we will be different tomorrow or a year from now. And the only reason we believe otherwise is because the brain does such a stellar job of pulling the wool over our eyes.”

Anil Ananthaswamy, a consultant editor of New Scientist in London, Existence: What is the self?, New Scientist, 04 August 2011

Prof. Dr. Thomas Metzinger: Brain, bodily awareness, and the emergence of a conscious self



“Brain, bodily awareness, and the emergence of a conscious self: these entities and their relations are explored by German philosopher and cognitive scientist Thomas Metzinger. Extensively working with neuroscientists he has come to the conclusion that, in fact, there is no such thing as a “self” — that a “self” is simply the content of a model created by our brain - part of a virtual reality we create for ourselves. But if the self is not “real,” he asks, why and how did it evolve?

How does the brain construct the self? In a series of fascinating virtual reality experiments, Metzinger and his colleagues have attempted to create so-called “out-of-body experiences” in the lab, in order to explore these questions. As a philosopher, he offers a discussion of many of the latest results in robotics, neuroscience, dream and meditation research, and argues that the brain is much more powerful than we have ever imagined. He shows us, for example, that we now have the first machines that have developed an inner image of their own body — and actually use this model to create intelligent behavior.

In addition, studies exploring the connections between phantom limbs and the brain have shown us that even people born without arms or legs sometimes experience a sensation that they do in fact have limbs that are not there. Experiments like the “rubber-hand illusion” demonstrate how we can experience a fake hand as part of our self and even feel a sensation of touch on the phantom hand form the basis and testing ground for the idea that what we have called the “self” in the past is just the content of a transparent self-model in our brains.

Now, as new ways of manipulating the conscious mind-brain appear on the scene, it will soon become possible to alter our subjective reality in an unprecedented manner. The cultural consequences of this, Metzinger claims, may be immense: we will need a new approach to ethics, and we will be forced to think about ourselves in a fundamentally new way.”

Thomas Metzinger, German philosopher, Department of Philosophy at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, and consciousness studies as an academic endeavour, talk at TEDxRheinMain, 2011

See also:

"I" as linguistic construct Anattā (Pāli) or anātman (Sanskrit: अनात्मन्), Wiki
☞ Bruce Hood, The Self Illusion: How the Brain Creates Identity, May, 2012

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Stewart Brand: ‘Look At the World Through the Eyes Of A Fool’

                                  

Q: Has society become too eager to discard things and ideas?

(…) I think we have become too shortsighted. Everything is moving faster, everybody is multitasking. Investments are made for short-term returns, democracies run on short-term election cycles. Speedy progress is great, but it is also chancy. When everything is moving fast, the future looks like it is next week. But what really counts is the future ten or hundred years from now. And we should also bear in mind that the history that matters is not only yesterday’s news but events from a decade or a century or a millennium ago. To balance that, we want to look at the long term: the last ten thousand years, the next ten thousand years. (…)

When NASA released the first photographs of the earth from space in the 1960s, people changed their frame of reference. We began to think differently about the earth, about our environment, about humanity. (…)

There had been many drawings of the earth from space, just like people made images of cities from above before we had hot-air balloons. But they were all wrong. Usually, images of the earth did not include any clouds, no weather, no climate. They also tended to neglect the shadow that much of the earth is usually in. From most angles, the earth appears as a crescent. Only when the sun is directly behind you would you see the whole planet brightly illuminated against the blackness of space. (…)

The question of framing

I think there is always the question of framing: How do we look at things? The first photos of the earth changed the frame. We began to talk more about “humans” and less about Germans or Americans. We began to start talking about the planet as a whole. That, in a way, gave us the ability to think about global problems like climate change. We did not have the idea of a global solution before. Climate Change is a century-sized problem. Never before has humanity tried to tackle something on such a long temporal scale. Both the large scale and the long timeframe have to be taken seriously.

Q: Do you believe in something like a human identity?

In a way, the ideal breakthrough would be to discover alien life. That would give us a clear sense of our humanity. But even without that, we have done pretty well in stepping outside our usual frame of reference and looking at the planet and at the human race from the outside. That’s nice. I would prefer if we didn’t encounter alien intelligence for a while. (…)

Q: So we have to improve the extrapolations and predictions that we make based on present data sets?

We like to think that we are living in a very violent time, that the future looks dark. But the data says that violence has declined every millennium, every century, every decade. The reduction in cruelty is just astounding. So we should not focus too much on the violence that has marked the twentieth century. The interesting question is how we can continue that trend of decreasing violence into the future. What options are open to us to make the world more peaceful? Those are data-based questions. (…)

Q: When you started to publish the Whole Earth Catalogue in 1968, you said that you wanted to create a database so that “anyone on Earth can pick up a telephone and find out the complete information on anything.” Is that the idea of the internet, before the internet?

Right, I had forgotten about that quote. Isn’t it nice that I didn’t have to go through the work of collecting that information, it just happened organically. Some people say to me that I should revive the catalogue and my answer is: The internet is better than any catalogue or encyclopedia could ever be. (…)

I don’t think the form determines the triviality of information or the level of discussion. By having much more opportunities and much lower costs of online participation, we are in a position to really expand and improve those discourses. (…)

When Nicholas Negroponte said a few years ago that every child in the world needed a laptop computer, he was right. Many people were skeptical of his idea, but they have been proven wrong. When you give internet access to people in the developing world, they immediately start forming educational networks. They expand their horizons, children teach their parents how to read and write. (…)

Q: On the back cover of the 1974 Whole Earth Catalogue, it said something similar: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. Why?

It proposes that a beginner’s mind is the way to look at new things. We need a combination of confidence and of curiosity. It is a form of deep-seated opportunism that goes to the core of our nature and is very optimistic. I haven’t been killed by my foolishness yet, so let’s keep going, let’s take chances. The phrase expresses that our knowledge is always incomplete, and that we have to be willing to act on imperfect knowledge. That allows you to open your mind and explore. It means putting aside the explanations provided by social constructs and ideologies.

I really enjoyed your interview with Wade Davis. He makes a persuasive case for allowing native cultures to keep their cultures intact. That’s the idea behind the Rosetta Project as well. Most Americans are limited by the fact that they only speak one language. Being multilingual is a first step to being more aware of different perspectives on the world. We should expand our cognitive reach. I think there are many ways to do that: Embrace the internet. Embrace science. Travel a lot. Learn about people who are unlike yourself. I spent much of my twenties with Native American tribes, for example. You miss a lot of important stuff if you only follow the beaten path. If you look at the world through the eyes of a fool, you will see more. But I probably hadn’t thought about all of this back in 1974. It was a very countercultural move.

Q: In politics, we often talk about policies that supposedly have no rational alternative. Is that a sign of the stifling effects of ideology?

Ideologies are stories we like to tell ourselves. That’s fine, as long as we remember that they are stories and not accurate representations of the world. When the story gets in the way of doing the right thing, there is something wrong with the story. Many ideologies involve the idea of evil: Evil people, evil institutions, et cetera. Marvin Minsky has once said to me that the only real evil is the idea of evil. Once you let that go, the problems become manageable. The idea of pragmatism is that you go with the things that work and cast aside lovely and lofty theories. No theory can be coherent and comprehensive enough to provide a direct blueprint for practical actions. That’s the idea of foolishness again: You work with imperfect theories, but you don’t base your life on them.

Q: So “good” is defined in terms of a pragmatic assessment of “what works”?

Good is what creates more life and more options. That’s a useful frame. The opposite of that would not be evil, but less life and fewer options.”

Stewart Brand, American writer, best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, "Look At the World Through the Eyes Of A Fool", The European, 30.05.2011

See also:Whole Earth Catalogue