The Enlightened Caveman

Books That Will Make You Think Differently About Yourself
April 13, 2005, 5:10 pm
Filed under: Books, Enlightened Living, Philosophy, Science

The concept behind this site is fairly simple. Our genes are controlling us a lot more than we think they are, but this is not a bad news story. We can, if we understand what our genes are up to, take control and live according to our rationally conceived objectives in life. This is not an idea that I have come up with on my own (though I may be one of its most ardent proponents). I’ve just grabbed onto it because I think it is the key to getting the most out of our time here. If we know that emotions are the brain’s rapid response system, and we know that they evolved to react in certain ways to certain situations (social situations, in particular), then we have a leg up in the quest to think when circumstances require thought more than emotion. That, alone, I am convinced, would elevate the general happiness to levels that have never before been seen in mankind’s history. To that end, I’d like to propose the creation of a book list, an enlightened caveman curriculum, if you will.

Let me first draw some lines in the sand. There are countless books that can be said to enlighten humanity – the dictionary comes to mind – so we need some criteria for books that will fit properly into this. The first is this: a book on this list must deal directly with human nature. It may be based in science, such as genetics, or any other field of study that is represented on accredited college campuses. Anthropologists and archaeologists have learned a great deal about who we are as a species, so it makes sense to include their efforts in our pursuit of enlightenment.

Second, the book must invoke concepts about human nature in a prescriptive way. That is to say, it isn’t good enough to say that genes are selfish, which means our elaborate lives are the happenstance result of replicators replicating. (So The Selfish Gene , great as it is, is out.) The book has to say what the science and/or anthropology and/or archaeology prescribes for those of us looking for direction in life. We need to be able to practically apply what the academics have discovered.

I’ll start by adding three books that have been particularly meaningful to me, and I’d ask that suggestions to the list adhere to the same general format – tell what the background information is, and then tell what is prescribed, and how it benefits mankind. Over time, hopefully, we’ll have a nice list of books that all add credence and weight to the theme of this site. Of course, in the spirit of intellectual rigor, I’d welcome any recommendations of books that contradict the enlightened caveman concept.
These books are listed in no particular order.

  1. Mean Genes : From Sex to Money to Food: Taming Our Primal Instincts
    by Terry Burnham, Jay Phelan
    From the introduction:
    Our brains have been designed by genetic evolution. Once we understand that design, it is no longer surprising that we experience tensions in our marriages, that our waistlines are bigger than we’d like, and that Big Macs are tastier than brown rice. To understand ourselves and our world, we need to look not to Sigmund Freud but rather to Charles Darwin. The authors then go on to address the following list of topics: debt, getting fat, drugs, taking risks, greed, gender differences, beauty, infidelity, family, friends, and foes. In each case, they detail the ancient genetic strategies that are manifesting themselves in behavior and social phenomena today, and then they explain what shifts in thought are implied by the information if we are to improve our lives.I must admit that I was in a pretty solid state of panic when I read the introduction to this book. I was thinking that these guys had basically beat me to the punch. Fortunately, as I read on, I realized that there really isn’t very much overlap between my book and theirs. Yes, we’re both working off the same general premise. However, my book is far less tactical. I’m focused on changing the way we think from the inside out – by starting with how we think of ourselves and what matters in life and then moving on to how we think about our fellow man – all for the sole purpose of bringing happiness to our lives.

    Burnham and Phelan, however, call their book a manual for the mind, and I have to agree with them.For example, they explain that in ancestral times, it made sense to eat when food was available. Therefore, we are now a species that eats far more than it needs when food is plentiful (as it is in first-world countries). That means we have to consciously endeavor to control our intake of food. If we do not, we’ll routinely find ourselves letting our belts out. Think of how many people in this country don’t know this. The mass awareness of little tidbits like this could prolong and improve the lives of countless people. There are many, many others in this book.

  2. Consilience : The Unity of Knowledge
    by Edward O. Wilson.
    From Chapter 6: The Mind
    All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental processes in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throws a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness.Wilson’s book is about reconsidering the way we teach and pursue knowledge. He argues that our schools break subjects apart (math, english, biology, etc.) for somewhat arbitrary reasons and that this works against the design of the mind, which is more comfortable with holistic approaches to learning. Consilience, he says, is, “…literally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” The idea is that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to applying what we learn in computer-based neural networks to implementing better computer systems. We should ask what other phenomenon could be better understood by what we know about these inanimate, but elegant systems. It’s about synthesis, and this, to me, begs a mental paradigm shift.

    Wilson asserts that that the value of consilience is not something that can be proven with first principles or logical deduction. Its value is self-evident, as it has been chiefly responsible for most of the progress of our species. I can vouch for that in my own life. Any time I learn something new, I automatically ponder what this new information could bring to other things I’ve wondered about. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, for example, has so many other applications that counting them would be tough, and I thank Wilson for helping me think differently, about myself and the world around me.

  3. The Science of Good and Evil : Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule
    by Michael Shermer
    From the Prologue:
    Ultimate questions about social and moral behavior, while considerably more challenging [than questions about hunger and sex], must nevertheless be subjected to an evolutionary analysis. There is a science dedicated specifically to this subject called evolutionary ethics, founded by Charles Darwin a century and a half ago and continuing as a vigorous field of study and debate today. Evolutionary ethics is a subdivision of a larger science called evolutionary psychology, which attempts a scientific study of all social and psychological human behavior. The fundamental premise of these sciences is that human behavior evolved over the course of hundreds of thousands of years during our stint as hominid hunter gatherers, as well as over the course of millions of years as primates, and tens of millions of years as mammals.In this book, Shermer takes aim at morality and ethics by arguing that humans came by the two long before religion or any codified social rules existed. In Chapter 5, called, “Can We Be Good Without God?”, he addresses head on how we can rationally arrive at morality and be anchored to it as tightly (and rightly) as any religious person is to his or her morality. Throughout the book, the author calls upon all sorts of academic information, from evolutionary psychology to anthropology to sociology to make his points. And aside from the obvious benefits of seeing our tendency toward piety for what it is, he also brings out a really useful concept, using fuzzy logic to think differently about issues.

    Shermer makes the point that the human tendency to dichotomize, to think something is either this way or that, must be guarded against, because life is simply not black and white. Better to think in terms of fractions. For example, at any given moment, I may be 20% altruistic and 80% non-altruistic (selfish). Though, in the balance, I come off selfish at that time, it is incorrect to say that I am a selfish person. The situation may have called for selfishness. The bottom line is that circumstances have a lot to do with our morality. Being able to see people and ideas as shades of grey helps us to avoid moral absolutes that generally lead to division between people. This is a worthwhile message, to say the least.

So there you have it – three books that I think contribute to the enlightened caveman movement. There are more, but not too many, not to my knowledge. That’s why I’m doing this. I’ll finish my contributions in later posts. For now, I hope to learn about all the great books I’ve never heard of, books that will bolster my belief that here lies something big, something important.


What Is Consciousness? A Trip Into The Mind
February 3, 2005, 4:35 pm
Filed under: My Theories, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I’m not trying to be a scientist. I’m really not. I’ve just read a wide variety of scientific topics, particularly those related to evolution, the brain, and thinking, and over the years and I’ve come to my own interpretation of, you might say, the gestalt of the mind. It’s sort of a general feel for the the physicality of it and how layers of abstraction are built upon that, a feel for its evolutionary history and the infrastructure it begat, and a feel for how all that translates into a wide swath of common behavior patterns. The probably sounds as arrogant and sure as possible. We’re inside my head right now, so bear with me. I’ll admit that if there are original ideas in my vision, they are the kind of originality you attribute to an editor. Nevertheless, if I’m being honest, my aim here is prove that my intuition is right. I really want it to be.

But I know that about myself. I’m conscious of it, and because of that, I’ve taken steps to insulate my curiosity from my bias. That’s why I’ve chosen critical rationalism as my method. I recognize up front that I can’t prove that I’m right, that I don’t have all the facts, and that my emotions could be, try as I might, confounding my conclusions. So I write; I throw out hypotheses and the evidence, shoddy as it may be at times, that I have for them. As time goes on, this gestalt is becoming clearer and clearer, which only means that I understand it enough to articulate it. I write more. The whole time, I’m hoping that people will come along and adjudicate my accuracy. (Of course, I’m hoping with arms drawn to my chest and clinched fists that it works out for me. That’d be great. I’d feel smart, or better yet, smarter.) Nevertheless, I have committed myself to finding out, one way or another, if I’m right. I figure the worst that can happen is that I’ll make a few adjustments and still end up with the satisfaction of feeling like I have a holistic, almost unifying, understanding of something seriously elusive.

The preceding two paragraphs just played out on a giant movie screen in my mind. And, as if experiencing a good movie, I was engrossed. I still am. And, like a movie, a lot of other things were and are going on that were and are escaping my attention. Interestingly, in thinking about the things that have been escaping my attention, I all of a sudden start noticing them. The sound of the heater. The visual flicker of the TV on mute. The sighs of my dog as he makes one of his countless tiny adjustments. The smell of the fireplace that still hasn’t been used this winter. My attention is flittering back and forth between the thoughts flowing from my fingertips and the surroundings I am still writing about. Scene after scene on a giant movie screen in my head. And this movie screen is, in my view, the key to consciousness.

I feel intrepid in this domain of consciousness, mainly because no one knows for sure what’s going on. In short, I like my chances on this. If I apply the knowledge I’ve gleaned from Stuart Kauffman’s work in, At Home In The Universe (self-organization theory), and apply it to the physical function of neural networks, and to the structural organization of the brain, and then I infuse all that into Daniel Dennett’s, Consciousness Explained, I come up with the following explanation.

Neural networks are the building blocks of mental organs. Some mental organs we share with other animals. They operate in the lower, simpler levels of abstraction, near our brain stem, serving to facilitate our basic survival and reproductive success. Examples would be autonomic body functions and basic emotions, such as love, fear, anger, sadness, and jealousy. These emotions are not feelings in the usual sense. They are physiological responses that elicit particular behaviors. Imagine that the mind is in a steady state when it is calm and nothing out of ordinary is perturbing it. Then, when something happens that requires a physical response, like say a tiger is approaching, these simple programs, these emotions induce physiological reactions, which prompt the impulse to assuage them, to get back to a steady state. Each physiological reaction elicits its own physical response. The collection of these programs is sufficient to keep us alive and reproducing.

They’re instinctive. Over eons of time, however, these survival programs have been co-opted and abstracted (via self-organization) into higher and higher levels of complexity, levels that call upon more and more information in their execution processes. The higher level networks are larger, more distributed, both vertically (in and out of lower levels and higher levels) and horizontally (pulling from a wider and wider body of data). They contain our cognitive programs and our complex emotions, and they store vast networks of information. The complex programs make it possible to override the basic programs, sometimes temporarily, just long enough to deliberate for a bit, sometimes permanently, allowing us to adopt a different course of action all together. The networks at this level also enable the use of logic and rationality. Then, and this is the best part, at the very top (figuratively speaking), all of these networks of networks self-assemble into the giant movie screen. Consciousness is upon us.

The movie, however, is really a gigantic closed-circuit TV. It’s as if a wide angle camera is mounted at the very top of this vast sea of neural networks in our brain, some of which are tightly coupled so as to resemble distinct entities (organs, you might say), while others, the majority, are stretched across multiple organs, serving as organs themselves. Interspersed throughout are countless relational and hierarchical databases of information. But the camera can only see so deep.

It doesn’t have access to the lowest levels, to the simplest of programs. It’s view is limited to the upper reaches of abstraction, where complex thought and emotions reside. Of course, the lower levels can manifest themselves in the upper levels (such as when we notice a loud sound), seeing as how they’re all connected, but the low-level data is edited at that point. The important thing is that where the camera is pointed is the result of a contest between competing information networks and the organs that exploit them.

Hordes of the complex programs below are shouting for their chance to be on camera. They’re always shouting. They’re always executing their programs at their highest voice. These mental organs are yelling out the input they’re receiving and the conclusions they’ve reached, which are often perceived as recommended courses of action. The heater is vying for my attention, and it has just gotten it. “The heater makes a low hum: think about my body temperature, think about the temp in the baby’s room, do nothing.” Before this, it was my concern for the words ahead that dominated the camera’s lens. It’s recommendation: read back over the last paragraph…

I’m back.

As I was saying, as the camera scans the networks below, it is drawn to the loudest network, and an interesting thing happens when the camera focuses on a particular network or set of networks – the shouting there intensifies. That means that when it latches onto it, it is held captive, if you will, staying on the screen until something distracts it off. That something might be a cognitive program that is ruminating over some past memories, or it might be the reverberations of a low-level emotional program that has perceived an itch on the arm. Whatever wins the competition gets screen time and the consideration of its conclusions and recommendations. It is the existence of the screen, the camera, and what passes through it that constitutes consciousness.

The beautiful thing is what happens when an amazing idea flashes across the screen – I can control the camera. I can control the camera! Free will is born. Now the conscious awareness, the camera, has turned to a remote spot in the data grid, that which corresponds to the concept of the self. High level programs instantly begin connecting to this new network, factoring the notion of self (including its newly discovered ability to control what appears on the screen) into their routines, into their conclusions, and into their recommendations for action. Suddenly, with free will at the helm, and a mind imbued with the awareness of self, the camera comes off of auto-pilot. The content on the movie screen becomes a matter of choice. But even then, the recommendations on the screen may not control the actions taken.

There are still low-level programs at work. They’re there all the time, perceiving, processing, and executing, just as they have in humans for countless centuries. And a key attribute of them is that they work very fast, so fast that they regularly spur us into action long before we realize why we’re acting or exactly what we’re doing. If a beautiful, sexy girl walks past a straight 16-year old boy, his eyes will saccade their way over her time and again before he ever actually thinks to stare at her. His low-level programs are doing their job. If he’s absorbed in a conversation, he may not even notice her, at least not consciously. His mind, however, knows she’s there. Similarly, if an intruder crashes through my door, it will not be free will driving my bus. Before the shape of his face ever passes over my movie screen, my body will be reacting. I will effectively be on auto-pilot, at least for a few seconds. But as the situation resolves, free will will once again take the helm, slowly but surely.

This is my conceptualization of the human mind, from neural network to consciousness. This is what pushes me insistently away from dualism. This is what makes me believe that understanding our lowest level emotions, by aiming the camera wherever they manifest themselves, is the key to harnessing and managing them. This is why I believe that enlightening the caveman is both necessary and possible. Our basic emotions – our fear, our quest for status, our affinity for cooperation (read: concurrence), and our sex strategies – have the advantage. They spur us to action while they’re below the level of consciousness, under the radar of awareness, unless we either inadvertantly develop high-level programs that override their recommendations or we deliberately scan the visible networks for evidence of their influences and we deliberately override them.

An example of the former would be a priest taking a vow of chastity. Even if he has no concept of human evolution and the sexual programming that resides down near his brain stem, the high-level programming that corresponds to his commitment to the cloth could easily suppress his response to a lovely female parishioner. (Unless he’s a…nevermind.) An example of the latter would be a sky-diver standing in the door of a plane. He realizes that it is perfectly rational to be afraid. He is aware of his elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, and he knows why they’re there. But he reasons that his parachute is safe and his training has prepared him, so he jumps. He deliberately overrides his lower-level survival programming.

There are two takeaways from this.

The first is that culture can tune our high-level programming, even if we never know it’s happening. School for young children does exactly this. There is no reason for this tuning to ever pass across a child’s movie screen. The more “cultured” the child becomes, the less the basic survival programs govern his or her actions. The reverse is also true. Children who are not instructed on how to be human beings in a modern world become an almost cartoon-like caricature of our cave-dwelling ancestors. You can see it on any busy playground.

The second thing, the important thing, is that the conscious intent to override basic emotional programming is extremely powerful. If we turn our camera upon our concept of self, and it includes an understanding of what is happening down below, on our screen flashes the idea that we can control much more than we ever knew – thus bringing more detail to the picture and a longer list of available options- regarding action and inaction. This is a good news story. Nothing is determined. We’re in charge. If we do not exercise this power, we leave our fate in the hands of our genetic heritage. But if we do, our genetic heritage becomes irrelevant.

The clock just passed across my movie screen. Recommendation: publish and crash.

I’m Feeling Your Pain – An Intro to Concurrence
January 26, 2005, 4:31 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Philosophy | Tags: ,

Original Post (with comments)
Perhaps the most regularly recurring theme in this blog is the interplay between the quest for status and the human tendency to cooperate (both genetically driven) and our modern environment in leading to the behaviors we engage in and witness every day. That humans learned to cooperate is taken as a bit of an axiom in the study of hominid history, but something has been nagging at me for a while, and I’m just now getting to the point where I can articulate what I’ve come up with.

What if there is a genetically driven motivation that is larger than reciprocal altruism? I think there is. What if reciprocal altruism is just one manifestation (albeit a very critical one) of a heretofore elusive, but grand aspect of human nature? I think it is. This aspect of human nature is what I’ll call the need for concurrence.

Concurrence, in its most grand form, is perfect empathy. It is being able to mentally and emotionally relate to another person in a very deep way. It’s feeling someone else’s pain. It’s a profound connection between two people. Suppose the adaptation that Mother Nature found was an inherent desire to concur with other humans, and a consequence to getting to this deep emotional connection was the emergence of informal rules regarding favors done and favors owed. And lots more…but let’s back up for a moment.

In evolution, it’s always interesting to ponder the intermediates. In this case, we can imagine hominids like Australopithecus, who were not known for being big cooperators, and Homo sapiens, and we can wonder how natural selection bridged the gap. Did this human species of hominid just suddenly start cooperating, or did something happen before that? If I’m right about concurrence, then something did.
If we know that hominids who banded together to share resources and divide up duties fared better than hominids who did not, is it not reasonable to wonder what kind of primary emotion would produce that tendency for groups to come together? (When I talk about primary emotions, I’m talking about the ones you read about in books by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux, the basic emotional programs, like fear and the quest for status, that underlie our more complex emotions, like anger and jealousy.)

From what I’ve read, the answer would be the emotional tendency to cooperate. But I have a hard time imagining how that would work. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – there’s a lot I can’t imagine. However, I do not have a hard time imagining the emergence of a genetically-driven emotional drive to connect with another human. The cooperation part would simply be the fortuitous result, the one that natural selection seized upon, resulting in the reign of the human animal on earth.

So let’s suppose, just for fun, that I’m right, that there is an inherent human need for concurrence. Just think of how much it explains. Reciprocal altruism is only the tip of the iceberg. Concurrence could explain all sorts of social phenomena like, for example, that elated feeling at a rock concert when the whole place is glued to the same moment.

If the need for concurrence is a primary emotion, then it, like the others, is executed in different ways in different situations. In one-on-one situations, it can be seen as the pursuit of the direct emotional connection. In crowds, it can be seen as swimming in the same direction as the school, so to speak. Who can deny the visceral good feeling that comes from being in a crowd where everyone is focused on the same wonderful thing? If concurrence is real, then it explains that feeling – we’re pulled toward situations like that and we feel immense gratification when we encounter one. I know many people, and I am one of them, who appreciate big events (concerts, sporting events, etc.) for this reason every bit as much as for the name on the ticket. To be part of a happening, where everyone, for a short period of time, is concurring. To be part of a shared experience where a mass of individuals has been transformed into a collective entity, one that shows no signs of dissension in the ranks. This is human stuff. We are but moths to the flame.

But, as this blog vigilantly asserts, our primary emotions were not designed for this modern world. This means that, like status, concurrence has its downsides. Consider two teenage girls who are best friends. The desire, no, the need, for concurrence overrides the truth in many situations. If both girls are a bit heavy and are insecure about it, they can achieve deep concurrence by propping each other up with compliments to the contrary. Even though they know that the answer to, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” is, “No, your large ass makes you look fat,” they respond with, “No! They’re like totally cute.” The point is that, just as the quest for status often causes us to cut high-status people slack while we criticize low-status people, concurrence can distort truth when it is ill-advised in social situations. And on a larger scale, on the crowd scale, it can cause us to buy into fanatical causes.

For those for whom one-on-one interpersonal concurrence is hard to find, causes can act as a good surrogate. The feeling of swimming in the same direction of the school is like a hundred small-scale concurrences adding up to the effect of a deep one-on-one concurrence. (See Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believer.) The need for this distributed emotional connection, which, in this case, is the need to belong, trumps all else, logic and rationality included.

I’m just getting my arms around this idea and where I can take it, so I’ll stop here and come back with more as it develops. But I can’t help think that this will be the topic of my next book. The applications of this concept are mind boggling. And even if it isn’t true, even if the whole thing is nonsense, it’ll be a great exercise to find that out. Thoughts?

Airplane Chatter and the Bar of Belief
January 23, 2005, 4:29 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
I very rarely get chatty with people on airplanes. I am generally nose down in a book or I’m crashed. But this afternoon, for some reason, I got to talking with the guy next to me, and we ended up talking for the entire 80 or so minutes we were in the air. He noticed that I was reading (still reading – it’s taking forever, for some reason) Susan Jacoby’s, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, so he asked what secularism was. I never got the guy’s name, so we’ll call him Jimbo (He seemed like a Jimbo to me.).

Jimbo said that he watches “The O’Reilly Factor” and that O’Reilly regularly talks about the war between Judeo Christians and the secularists. He said he’d been wondering what it was and that, since I had a book on it, he figured he’d ask me. So, I explained to him what it meant to be a secularist, and I expressed that I thought O’Reilly’s fear that a secular world would be a moral vacuum was overblown. I really expected him to be a Christian, but Jimbo said he wasn’t religious, that he just concentrated on being a good person. My kind of guy. So we proceeded to discuss all kinds of topics, and it quickly became apparent to me that Jimbo was two things:

  1. An alcoholic
  2. Not very discriminating in determining what he believes

I counted five beers on the short ride from Atlanta to Memphis. Now, far be it from me to call someone an alcoholic without cause, but five beers in 80 minutes by yourself on a Sunday night before a work day raises a red flag. Then, after I explained that my wife is in the medical field, he went on to reveal that his doctor told him he has a fatty liver. Yikes – that’s the condition that precedes cirrhosis. Anyhow, it was Jimbo’s reaction to this news (“Doc says I should stop drinking, but I don’t really drink that much.”), along with his comments about several other things that led me to believe that he believes what is comforting to him, rather than what makes sense.

For example, Jimbo only drinks “purified water.” He says it is “ionized, deionized” (whatever that means). Jimbo says it means they inject extra oxygen into it, which, as everyone knows, is good for you. I asked Jimbo what made him think that was better. I asked him what he thought the primary oxygen in-take mechanism in the human body is. He correctly noted that it was the mouth and the nose. OK, Jimbo, after that. He looked a little puzzled so I helped him out. It’s the lungs, buddy. The blood that courses around the lungs is picking up oxygen. The blood cruising around the stomach isn’t worried about oxygen, I said. One thing I really liked about Jimbo was that he didn’t ever feign certainty. To my comments, he just said, well maybe there’s something else going on there. Wisdom comes out of nowhere sometimes.

Jimbo also told me that he has been doing a lot of reading (on the internet) about homeopathic medicine. He explained that pharma companies aren’t interested in curing anyone because it cuts into their profits. As I happen to consult in the pharma industry, I took the opportunity to probe a bit further. It seems that Vitamin C is the cure for cancer, but the drug companies have managed to successfully keep that information from the public. So, I asked Jimbo how he came to find out this well-guarded secret. He said he just looked around on the internet. So, I asked why he thought Rathergate exploded through the internet while the cure for cancer sat there, with very little public awareness. He just gave me a quizzical look. I told him that I believe that the personal benefits that await any individual associated with curing cancer would render the cure all but inconcealable. Quizzical again, he said, “Yeah, I guess it’s really hard to know what’s true and what’s not.” There’s that wisdom again.

When we initially started talking, talking about religion, I explained that believing in religion is expensive, because it forces people to go to a lot of trouble to live a certain way, a way that does not come exactly naturally. I said that if I was going to buy in, it’d take a lot of convincing. He was on board with that. So, as the plane was about to land, I remarked to him that just about any belief has a cost, and that some of things we’d discussed have very serious ones (He said he didn’t have much use for regular doctors, especially the one who told him about his fatty liver.). I think he agreed with this, at least in principle. As we parted ways, I asked Jimbo to promise me that, if he ever got cancer, he’d see a doctor AND eat his vitamin C. He smiled and nodded his head as he walked into the bar to catch the last two minutes of the Atlanta/Philly game. Nice guy. Misled, but nice.

As I walked on, all I could wonder was how many Jimbos are out there. How many really cool, really friendly, really ethical people are saddled with an inability to tell truth from fiction? How many people have the best of intentions, the discipline to do what’s right, but lack the wisdom to know when their minds are choosing ideas that give them the illusion of control in a chaotic world. (Vitamin C? Purified water?) Whatever the number, it’s too high. My quest is enlightenment for the Jimbos of the world. I wonder if he’ll think about what we talked about. I know I did.

Hope, Despair, and the Need to Believe – An Argument for Reason
January 7, 2005, 4:21 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living, Philosophy, Science

Original Post (with comments)
I want to follow up on a comment about the post from two days ago. Michael Gersh (of Zero Base Thinking fame), has this to say about the opinions of many of secularists who come off more as anti-religious than agnostic:

Maybe I have missed something here, but isn’t religion, or at least the need to believe in that which we have no logical answer for, hard wired into the human brain, by the same forces of evolution that shaped the rest of our ouvre? Smug secularists posting here might believe themselves to be above this basic human need, but I think that this is a distinction without a difference. While many so-called rationalists might disbelieve the Bible’s miracles, they merely believe in something else. Maybe global warming, or other environmental belief, that Michael Crichton has so presciently perceived as akin to religious belief. Maybe it is some sort of overreliance of other human constructs, such as the social contract, or even the supremacy of rationality itself.

None of us are immune to this human tendency to believe in some specific explanation for an essentially unknown, and perhaps unknowable condition.

I don’t think we necessarily have an inherent need to believe in the inexplicable so much as we have a hard-wired need to explain our environment, if for no other reason than to connect cause with effect. Before we can associate a certain set of conditions with a certain outcome, we have to be able to identify and categorize what we perceive. If a caveman witnesses the mauling of a fellow tribesman by a lion, his mind notes the existence of a furry and ferocious entity. It then categorizes it as an entity that can kill humans. The next time he sees one, even if it looks a little different (perhaps it’s female and the first was a male), he will generalize that he is in danger. This is key mental adaptation for survival, one that is well distributed throughout the animal kingdom. But with humans, there is a layer of cognition that does not come installed in the brains of our animal brethren. This is where the belief problem comes from.

In my view, non-human animals, though driven by emotion, are supremely rational in their perception of their environment – water is wet, always. They cannot be otherwise. Humans, however, have the free will to choose to interpret their world irrationally. A human can decide that a cobra is not dangerous, even when his animal emotions drive him to act as if is. Though this free will undoubtedly serves us well, it has a downside. We can fall victim to false hope.

In a paper called, “The Evolution of Hope and Despair,” University of Michigan professor of psychiatry and psychology, Randolph Nesse, lays out the idea that hope and despair are simply emotions driven by our appraisals of whether or not our environment will favor or disfavor the realization of our goals. Like other emotions, they serve to drive us to do things that will keep us alive long enough to reproduce. They are sort of the uber-assessors of our surroundings. If we find ourselves in circumstances that bode well for us, we have hope, so we stick around. Alternatively, if our circumstances look grim, we feel despair, which pushes us to change our situation. But what happens when we cannot explain our environment? What happens when we have no categories for the phenomena we witness?

As an absurd example, suppose a caveman stumbles upon a spaceship. Neither he nor any of his tribesmen have ever seen anything even remotely like it, so they are perplexed, to say the least. But uncertainty does not make for decisive action, which, in harsh times, is an utter necessity. Indeed, in a heated competition for survival, prolonged contemplation of the unknown is often a grave mistake. Conclusions must be drawn so that decisions can be made. The human mind, given the choice between choosing an explanation for the unknown, even if it’s a bad one, and choosing to leave the matter unsettled, will, therefore, choose an explanation. But how?

Our rational animal perceptions will provide us with competing explanations for what we observe. Then, we will decide which one to believe – by choosing the one that offers the most hope. Just as we’re emotionally drawn to situations that give us the warm, fuzzy feeling in our stomachs, so are we drawn to hopeful situations. So, while I’m not prepared to say that we have inherent need to believe in irrational things, I will say that our need to explain our world coupled with our attraction to hopeful situations sets us up to fall victim to irrationalism, and not just with respect to religion.

The lottery is one of the ultimate examples of false hope. We’ve all seen poor people in line at convenience stores spending money that would more intelligently be spent elsewhere on scores of quick picks and scratch-off games. In fact, on more than one occasion, I’ve heard people say, “When I win the lottery, I’m going to…..” Now, it’s one thing to say this in jest; it’s quite another to believe it. Many people really do, and this is a shame because I am convinced that this false hope removes much of the necessity to recognize reality for what it is and to act accordingly.
It is a fact of life that many people are born into terrible circumstances. Those who rise above them are the ones who see and accept their plight for what it is. This acceptance is the first step in determining how to overcome whatever impedes their achievement of their aims. False hope blurs reality and fosters inaction, or worse yet, useless action. The same is true of irrationality.

I think there are two types of secularists – the ones who apply rationality to all things, including religion, and the ones who happen to be rational about religion, but have no particular allegiance to it in other matters. I am one of the former. Michael, I think the smug secularists you refer to would find themselves among the latter. In any case, there is one staggeringly straight forward fix for the problems that come from the need to explain and the attraction to hope. It is called critical rationalism.

We start by admitting that we can be certain about nothing. Nothing. Then, we decide to put everything into one of three categories – things we believe, things we do not believe, and things we choose to leave unsettled. To determine what we believe and what we do not believe, we demand evidence, and we favor evidence that disproves assertions over evidence that proves assertions (since we can never really prove anything). We weigh the evidence for possible explanations and decide what to believe and disbelieve, and when the evidence is not compelling one way or another, we abstain. We are not cavemen, which means ambiguity is not dangerous for us. We do not have to act or die. This means that we can (and must) become comfortable with uncertainty. If we are successful at being critically rational, we are immuned from the perils of false hope and irrationality. But rationalism for the hope-addicted mind does not always come easy.

At the end of the day, each of us must decide how we will think. If we do not, we will vacillate opportunistically between rationality and irrationality – invoking either one based upon personal convenience. But deciding to be rational at all times is like deciding to be nice all the time. It’s an aim, an intention. We will, from time to time, falter. However, as long as we recognize the value of rationality, we will get back up and keep moving forward. That’s life. It’s best if we focus on our own journey and leave the arrogance to the certain, who always learn sooner or later that nothing is certain.

Musing on Logical Consequences and the Absence of Religion
January 4, 2005, 4:11 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Living, Philosophy

Original Post (with comments)
Some people, and I am one of them, have so internalized rationality that we carry out the logical consequences of what unfolds before us in everyday life. This is a good thing and a bad thing, mostly good. On the bad side, it is easy to get distracted by playing out scenarios in your head – you can easily miss the big picture. However, good discernment skills (that is, being good at separating the important from the unimportant) can easily nullify this problem. On the good side, being the “logical consequence” type affords one an infinite amount of practice at prognostication.

Just sitting on a sidewalk observing a city, you can find countless things to observe and predict, especially if you’ve seen most of them before. You see a guy backing up from a news stand and a woman hustling along looking for a cab, and you predict that they will collide. If they do, check, you were right. If they don’t, your mind determines the reason and then catalogs it for future consideration. Maybe this sounds like its bordering on OCD, but I can assure that it happens to me with no effort whatsoever. I watch my 14-month old walk (he’s still pretty sketchy) and feel myself cringing as he approaches an obstacle that I know he’s not accounted for. Down he goes. I’m not conscious of what my mind is doing until I feel my shoulder muscles tightening up to my neck. Logic, I think, can often be used in the same way to predict human behavior, especially considering the evolutionary history we all share.

By considering the social nature of the human animal, we can make interesting predictions about hypothetical scenarios. Betrand Russell once asked what would happen if we could all suddenly read each other’s minds. After a time painful disillusionment, he predicted that we’d eventually have to accept each other for who we were, warts and all. This is because the alternative would be living a solitary existence. Sounds about right to me. Humans don’t do well with loneliness and will do most anything to avoid it. (I love the part in Isaac Asimov’s, I Robot, where in comparing the robots to humans, he mentions that they almost instinctively crowd together in the dark. Such insight.) What else can we learn from our nature?
Suppose all religion (not spirituality) was suddenly gone from the world. What would happen? Would humans fall into mass moral depravity, inevitably destroying the environment, and killing each other off? There are many who would say yes. In fact, this is one of the chief arguments against secularism. Just today, Dennis Prager penned a column entitled, “Better Answers: The Case for Judeo-Christian Values” (Read It). He is apparently embarking upon a quest to make a rational case for Biblical values, making sure to contrast them with other available value systems. (Good luck, Denny – brighter minds have failed time and again.) He claims that secularism was responsible for the horrors of Nazism and Communism. Aside from the fact that a major component of the anti-semitic sentiment in Germany had its roots in the belief that the Jews killed Christ, the notion that secularism was to blame is preposterous.

Secularism is nothing more than the absence of belief in superstition and the irrational. If anything, it was secularism (via the use of reason), much more than religion, that made a stand against communism. It was the simple acknowledgement of the fact that the communist ideology results in massive human oppression, death, and unhappiness that stirred men to resist it…with force. And I think rationality would accomplish just as much in the absence of religion.

Once again, humans are social creatures. We are genetically programmed to cooperate and seek the approval of those we admire. This, in conjunction with the quest for status, is sufficient to order human society, and it was doing a fine job long before religion ever came along and co-opted, codified, and extended the social rules created by the notion of safety in numbers. Groups of early hominids that adopted rules of morality simply fared better than groups that did not. Over time, the socially forward-thinking emerged as the winners by default – there were no hominids left but humans. If religion is all that stands between us and the decline of civilization, then someone needs to explain how mankind even made it to the inception of monotheism. Oh, that’s right. Our creation signaled the emergence of the one true God. Isn’t that convenient? Myths aside, by current accounts, we should have killed ourselves off millennia ago. No, the golden rule and all its accoutrements are merely elaborations on the concept of reciprocal altruism, a concept that we are wired to make work. And so we would in the absence of organized religion. But perhaps not without a bit of adjustment time.

The logical consequence of the absence of religion, admittedly, may very well be the immediate presence of a moral vacuum. Just as a mind reading population would initially recoil at the thoughts of their contemporaries, it’s fair to say that our society may indeed see an initial decline in morality. But, just as human nature would come to rescue in the case of mind readers, so would it in the absence of religion. Pragmatism would take over, and logic is the preferred tool of the pragmatist. Contrary to what religious apologists would say, the rules of social conduct would quickly avail themselves. Most of us would avoid stealing, killing, raping, or cheating because it simply doesn’t make sense to do so, like some do now. Others would avoid those behaviors because of fear of social consequences (which, of course, would include punishment), like most do now. Still others, those who occupy the outer fringes of the bell curve, would operate sociopathically, as all do now. But the social order would emerge – it’s in our blood. And it would likely be a great deal better than the social rule set with which we currently find ourselves shackled.

In a way, the social rules of a rational, non-dogmatic society would resemble the invisible hand in economics – non-coerced, distributed, self-centered decision-making that resulted in the overall good of society. Indeed, religion is not unlike socialism or communism in that it centralizes the decision-making of the masses, forcing them to conform to the system or risk great peril. So, for my part, when I imagine the logical consequences of a world without religion, I am not disturbed at all. I am heartened. Alas, this is nothing more than a thought experiment.
Ours is world that is, and has been for many centuries, dominated by religious views. Even though we may envision the quasi-utopia of a rationally conceived social order, we have no choice but to recognize that we can’t there from here. We, the secularists, are the minority, and the majority has a vested interest in discrediting us. This does not mean we wage war, for we are on a quest for individual freedom, the corollary of which is the notion that all people should be taken as individuals. This implores us to give credence to the reasons by which real people embrace religion. We can daydream of a world without it, but we can’t let our fantasies lead us to galvanize ourselves against all things religious. Instead, we must engage open minds in thoughtful debate. For some folks, abandoning religion simply costs too much. Unless we’ve walked in their shoes, who are we to judge? This is the high road, the enlightened road, in my view.

And as for the religious who will remain vigilant in their assault on our views, we can take comfort in knowing that, though they have shrouded their laws in supposed divinity, it is still a fact that Hester Prynne did not wear the scarlet letter for God; she wore it for man.

From the Mailbag – Taking Aim At The Caveman
December 25, 2004, 4:08 pm
Filed under: Enlightened Caveman Concept, Philosophy, Politics

Original Post (with comments)
Here’s a comment that was posted to the site recently by a new reader. Without coming right out and saying it, this person pretty much disagrees with my entire Enlightened Caveman concept. So, I’ll mount a modest counter-argument and leave it to you to decide. Keep in mind – my interest here is truth. If someone comes along and reasonably discredits these concepts, I’ll pull the plug right away. But it’ll take more than this offering, I can assure you of that. Here’s his comment:

Just found this blog, so this is a response to your basic thesis and not the above article.
As a species, we are domesticated. The human cranium has decreased in size since “caveman” times. This is typical of any animal that has become domesticated. Dogs have 30% less brain size than wolves. Another trait displayed by domesticated animals is that they retain juvenile characteristics into adulthood. They really never grow up. The instincts disappear. Many of the attributes you are contributing to our “old” brain are actually the result of domestication. We’re not nearly as intelligent as we used to be. Our sensory capacities are pitifully lacking. We are no longer wild…or free. Evolutionarily, we are going down a one way street that’s a dead end. Between the ages of 10 and later adolescence when the brain is done developing, a pruning of the neurons takes place. It’s not our nature for that to happen. We are not receiving the complex stimulation that is necessary for complex neural systems to completely develop. Do some research on the behavior and the proper care of lab rats. The parallels to our society may surprise you. There are still wild undomesticated cultures surviving on this planet, preserving the precious genetics that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect. We have not progressed. What other animal is stupid (or arrogant)enough to completely destroy the environment they depend on for survival? We live in cages, someone else feeds us, and we even have exercise wheels. We are conditioned to peck at the right buttons on the ATM and out comes our reward. Once domesticated, an animal’s survival instincts are gone. It can’t be reversed.

Let me start by saying that cranium size is a major red herring. It’s irrelevant to any discussions of this type, mainly because no one (as far as I can tell) has been able to correlate minor differences with specific differences in mental ability. Here’s what we know. The trend in hominid evolution has been toward larger and larger brains. However, following the last ice age, there has in fact been a decrease (albeit relatively minor) in cranium size, but not just for humans. According to William Cromie of the Harvard University Gazette (read more), “As the severe climate of the ice ages ended, the bodies and faces of most large animals have gotten smaller. In humans, chewing softer, processed food also has contributed to reducing face size by decreasing the largeness of our jaws and jaw muscles. ” But again, even if we call Cromie a hack with an agenda (given his employer – it might be a safe bet), this shrinking human cranium has not taken place since we have been “domesticated.” Ergo, it does not follow that domestication had anything to do with it. (Oh yeah and the softer food and jaw aspect probably explains the dog/wolf thing, too, even though it’s also irrelevant.)

With the amateur stuff out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this discussion. This reader seems to feel that our modern world has dulled our senses and left us less mentally able than our “wilder” ancestors. While I’ll forcefully agree that our cultural evolution has become progressively kinder and gentler, I’m not about to assent to the notion that we are nothing more than genetic terriers when we were once wolves. This sounds absurd to begin with, and then the evidence offered confirms it.

We are not nearly as intelligent as we used to be? Uh. Pardon me? Come again? I realize that our society can come screeching to a halt if Nick and Jessica get into a tiff, but let’s get real – we’re smarter as a species than we have ever been. Not only do we simply know more stuff, but more of us actually know how to think than ever before. That’s probably, and I’m guessing here, the defining trend in modern human cultural evolution – the march toward rationalism. Every year, more and more people choose science over superstition, evidence over revelation, and knowledge over ignorance. So, I’ll vehemently disagree with that point.

A pruning of the neurons? It’s not in our nature? This is where I started thinking maybe someone was playing a joke on me. If, by pruning of neurons, this person means that the number of brain cells decreases after the brain is fully developed, then my response is, “duh.” It’s called aging, and it IS in our nature, since our genes code for this process to happen exactly as it does. It has nothing to do with reproduction so, again, it’s irrelevant to the original point, if there is one.

“We are not recieving the complex stimulation that is necessary for complex neural systems to completely develope. ” (Spelling error that reveals disdain for proofreading – his.) OK, this one we can do something with. The consensus, from my reading, among evolutionary biologists and evolutionary psychologists is that the dominating adaptations of the human mind over other hominids were socially oriented. This is to say that the complex stimulation necessary for our complex neural systems to completely develope (it’s kind of fun to pronounce it like envelope) is interaction with other humans. It was the human ability to figure out how to play well with others that launched mankind to the heights to which he has risen. And it’s true even today.

My son’s pediatrician told me that in his first six months of life, the world alone was enough to wire and myelinate the synapses of his brain properly – he could just hang out in his crib listening, watching, smelling, tasting, and feeling his environment and his brain would put it together perfectly. So we just left him alone in his stroller for hours at a time and you know what, she was right. Just kidding. Seriously, from there, however, she said that it was critical that he get lots of human contact. If he did not, the future would not bode well for him. This is common sense and it’s also anecdotal evidence that supports the idea that our mental focus is, first and foremost, on other humans, which is exactly what’s causing us many of our problems.

“There are still wild undomesticated cultures surviving on this planet, preserving the precious genetics that have taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect.” Here’s where this intrepid reader betrays his ignorance regarding evolution (and maybe even his allegiance to the sham of multiculturalism). To say that some “undomesticated” cultures are preserving genetics would seem to imply that the domesticated ones are not preserving their genetics. Hogwash. This is no way to think about evolution. It’s simple – is there anything in the genome of any population on earth that is providing either a reproductive advantage or a reproductive disadvantage? If there is, then you can bet Mother Nature is on the scene making her cuts, getting ready for next season, but the answer is pretty much no. Sure, we still have some genetically-based childhood diseases that manage to persist due to their recessive nature. However, for the most part, anyone can reproduce. Or maybe it’s better to say that not being able to reproduce is significantly less likely to be genetic than it is cultural. The bottom line, the most granular idea you’ll find on this site, is that our genes have not changed significantly in tens of thousands of years. This is not my personal thesis. This is widely accepted by folks infinitely smarter than I (though I wonder how we’d compare in terms of cranium size – since that apparently matters now).

At the end of the day, I think I smell a socialist, or at least a multi-culti, anti-capitalist. “What other animal is stupid (or arrogant)enough to completely destroy the environment they depend on for survival?” Before I answer, please tell me the first animal to do this. It certainly isn’t humans, considering the fact that there are more of us now than there have ever been. “Once domesticated, an animal’s survival instincts are gone. It can’t be reversed.” This is operating on the flawed premise that our genetic survival instincts have disappeared. As I’ve said before, they’re there, lurking beneath the surface. If we were to suddenly find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic era, you can be sure that they’d take center stage in short order.

The few survivors would band together and look after each other. Family members would form the tightest circles. Outside the family (even sometimes in the circle), those who betrayed trust would be ostracized. Also, a leader or leaders would emerge possessing the skills necessary to survive in the new harsh environment. All others would pay very close attention to (and defer to) the actions and desires of the leaders, for this would be their life line. Most would die. The ones that lived would be the best at keeping the group strong. This is caveman 101.

This site exists to make the point that even though our lives are comfortable and we are not in a bloody daily struggle for existence, our genetically-driven social tendencies are completely unaware of that fact. They still focus on status and appearances at the expense of practicality and reason. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, “domestication” is a factor, but only in so far as it indicates just how far we’ve come from needing the kinds of solutions our genes have to offer. We can either mount vapid arguments such as this one, insisting that doom and gloom are all the future holds (standard anti-capitalist rhetoric), or we can get to know ourselves and where we come from, and then deliberately decide what we want to be going forward. As I am an eternal optimist, I’ll take the latter, thank you very much.

Thanks for the fodder, lefty.