Posts Tagged ‘The Strange Order of Things’

Is There a Biology Behind the Cultural Crisis?

September 19, 2018

The title of this post is the title of a section in an insightful book by Antonio Damaisio titled “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. The title of this chapter is “On the Human Condition Now.”
The answer to the title is “yes,” so if that satisfies your curiosity you can stop reading now.

The physiological rationale and primary content of basic homeostasis is the life of an individual organism within its borders. Basic homeostasis is a somewhat parochial affair, focused on the temple that human subjectivity has designed and erected—the self. It can be extended to the family and the small group. It can be extended further out to larger groups on the basis of circumstances and negotiations in which prospects of general benefits and power are well balanced. But homeostasis, as found in each of our individual organisms is not spontaneously concerned with very large groups, especially heterogeneous groups, let alone with cultures or civilizations as a whole. Conflicts and struggles for power among social groups are integral components of cultures. Sometimes the conflict may even result from the application of an affect-motivated solution to a prior problem. There are blatant exceptions to the rules that govern homeostasis of a natural, individual organism such as malignant conceit and autoimmune diseases; unchecked, they not only fight other parts of the organism to which they belong, but can actually achieve organism destruction.

In the last years of his life, Sigmund Freud saw the bestiality of Nazism as confirming his doubts that culture could ever tame the nefarious death wish that he believed was present in each of us. Earlier Freud had begun to articulate his reasons in the collection of texts known as “Civilization and Its Discontents,” but nowhere are his arguments better expressed than in his correspondence with Albert Einstein. Einstein wrote to Freud in 1932 seeking his advice on how to prevent the deadly conflagration he saw coming, following on the heels of World War I. In his reply Freud described the human forces at play. He had no good advice to offer, no help, no solution. I’m so sorry. The main reason for his pessimism, it should be noted, was the flawed condition of the human. He blamed human beings.

And Damaisio concludes, “The protracted negotiating process required for governance efforts is necessarily embedded in the biology of affect and its accommodations with reason. There is no exit from that condition.”

Here is the conclusion to this chapter. “The strategic pursuit of happiness, just like the spontaneous variety, is predicated on feelings. The motives behind the pursuit—the maladies of life and their pleasurable counterweights—could not have been envisioned without feelings. Thanks to the confrontation with pain and the recognition of desire, it came to be that feelings good and bad, focused on the intellect, gave it purpose, and helped create new ways of regulating life. Feelings and expanded intellect made a powerful alchemy. They freed humans to attempt homeostasis by cultural means, instead of remaining captive to their basic biological devices. Humans were well into this new effort when, in humble caves, they sang and invented flutes and, I imagine, seduced and consoled others as needed. Likewise when they incarnated Moses taking God’s commandments on a mountain; when, in the name of Buddha, they conceived Nirvana; when under the guise of Confucius, they came up with ethics percepts; and when in the roles of Plato and Aristotle and Epicurus, they began explaining to fellow Athenians within earshot how good life could be lived. Their job was never finished.

A life not felt would have needed no cure. A life felt but not examined would not have been curable. Feelings launched and have helped navigate a thousand intellectual ships.”

An Ambiguous State of Affairs

September 18, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section of a chapter in an insightful book by Antonio Damaisio titled “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures. The title of this chapter is “On the Human Condition Now.”

Damaisio writes, “This could be the best of times to be alive because we are awash in spectacular scientific discoveries and in technical brilliance that make life even more comfortable and convenient; because the amount of available knowledge and the ease of access to that knowledge are at an all-time high and so is human interconnectedness at a planetary scale, as measured by actual travel, electronic communication, and international agreements for all sorts of cooperation, in science, the arts, and trade; because the ability to diagnose, manage, and even cure diseases continues to expand and longevity continues to extend so remarkably that human beings born after the year 2000 are likely to live, hopefully well, to an average of at least a hundred. Soon we will be driven around by robotic cars, saving us effort and lives because, at some point, we should have few fatal accidents.”

Unfortunately for the past four or five decades, Damaisio notes that the general public of the most advanced societies has accepted with little or no resistance a gradually deformed treatment of news and public affairs designed to fit the entertainment model of commercial television and radio. Damaisio writes, “Although a viable society must care for the way its governance promotes the welfare of citizens, the notion that one should pass four some minutes of each day and make an effort to learn about the difficulties and successes of governments and citizenry is not just old-fashioned; it has nearly vanished. As for the notion that we should learn about such matters seriously and with respect, is by now an alien concept,. Radio and television transform every governance issue into “a story,” and it is the “form” and entertainment value of the story that count, more than its factual content.”

The internet provides a means that provides large amounts of information readily available to the public. It also provides means for deliberation and discussion. Unfortunately it also provides for the generation of false news, creates alternative realities, and builds conspiracy theories. This blog has repeatedly invoked Daniel Kahneman’s Two Process View of cognition to assist in understanding the problem.
System 1 is named Intuition. System 1 is very fast, employs parallel processing, and appears to be automatic and effortless. They are so fast that they are executed, for the most part, outside conscious awareness. Emotions and feelings are also part of System 1. Learning is associative and slow. For something to become a System 1 process requires much repetition and practice. Activities such as walking, driving, and conversation are primarily System 1 processes. They occur rapidly and with little apparent effort. We would not have survived if we could not do these types of processes rapidly. But this speed of processing is purchased at a cost, the possibility of errors, biases, and illusions.
System 2 is named Reasoning. It is controlled processing that is slow, serial, and effortful. It is also flexible. This is what we commonly think of as conscious thought. One of the roles of System 2 is to monitor System 1 for processing errors, but System 2 is slow and System 1 is fast, so errors to slip through.

To achieve coherent understanding, System 2 processing is required. However, System 1 processing is common on the internet. The content is primarily emotional. Facts are irrelevant and the concept of objective truth is becoming irrelevant. The Russians were able to use the internet to enable their choice for US President, Trump, to win.

Due to System 2 processing being more effortful, no matter how smart and well informed one is, we naturally tend to resist changing our beliefs, in spite of the availability of contrary evidence. Research done at Damaisio’s institute shows the resistance to change is associated with a conflicting relationship of brain systems related to emotivity and reason. The resistance to change is associated with the engagement of systems responsible for producing anger. We construct some sort of natural refuge to defend ourselves against contradictory information.

Damaisio writes, “The new world of communication is a blessing for the citizens of the world trained to think critically and knowledgeable about history. But what about citizens who have been seduced by the world of life as entertainment and commerce? They have been educated, in good part, by a world in which negative emotional provocation is the rule rather than the exception and where the best solutions for a problem have to do primarily with short-term interests.”

Subjectivity, Feeling, and Consciousness

September 17, 2018

This is another post based on an insightful book by Antonio Damaisio titled “The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.” By now the reader should be presuming that subjectivity, feeling, and consciousness emerging with our species is wrong. The emergence of feeling and subjectivity is not exclusively human, and is not recent at all. It is likely to have happened in the Cambrian period. Not only are all vertebrates likely to be conscious experiencers with a variety of feelings, but so are a number of invertebrates whose central nervous system design resembles that of humans as far as spinal cord and brain stem are concerned. Social insects are likely to qualify, and so do charming octopuses with a very different brain design.

The assembly of what became feelings and consciousness was made gradually, incrementally, but irregularly along separate lines of evolutionary history. The fact that we can find so much in common in the social and affective behaviors of single-celled organisms, sponges, hydras, cephalopods, and mammals suggests a common root for the problems of life regulation in different creatures and a shared solution: obeying the homeostatic imperative.

Damaisio writes, “Looming large in the history of homeostatically satisfying accretion is the emergence of nervous systems, Nervous systems opened the way for maps and images, for configurational ‘resemblative’ representations, and that was, in the deepest of senses, transformative. Nervous systems were transformative . Nervous systems were transformative even if they did not and do not work alone, even if they are primarily servants of a larger calling: maintaining productive, homeostasis-abiding lives in complicated organisms .”

Another important part of the strangely ordered emergence of mind, feeling and consciousness, is one that is subtle and easy to miss. Neither parts of the nervous systems nor whole brains are the sole manufacturers and providers of mental phenomena, It is unlikely that neural phenomena alone could produce the functional background required for so many aspects of minds, but it is certainly the case that they could not do so in regard to feelings. A close two-way interaction between nervous systems and the non-nervous structure of organisms is a requirement. Neural and non-neural structures and processes are not just contiguous but continuous partners, interactively. They are not aloof entities signaling each other like chips in a cell phone. In plain talk brains and bodies are in the same mind-enabling soup. To put this in the vernacular, thinking and feeling occur together. Unfortunately, there are times when we are governed primarily by our emotions with little thinking involved. But special abstract procedures like mathematics and logic need to be employed in an attempt to remove feelings from thinking.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Strange Order of Things

September 16, 2018

The title of this post is the same as the title to an insightful book by Antonio Damaisio. The subtitle is “Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.” The author writes, “The title of this book was suggested by two facts. The first is that as early as 100 million years ago some species of insects developed a collection of social behaviors, practices, and instruments that can appropriately be called cultural when we compare them with human and social counterparts. The second fact is that even further back in time, in all likelihood several billion years ago, unicellular organisms also exhibited social behaviors whose schematics conform to aspects of human sociocultural behaviors.”

The conventional view is that something as complex as social behaviors capable of improving life management could only have come from the minds of evolved organisms, not necessarily human, but complex enough and close enough to humans to engender the requisite sophistication. Clearly, this conventional notion is wrong. The social features that emerged early in the history of life are abundant in the biosphere, and did not have to wait for anything humanlike to show up on Earth. Indeed this order is strange, and to say the least, unexpected.

Cooperative strategies did not have to wait for wise and mature minds to appear. Damaisio writes that such strategies are possibly as old as life itself and were never more brilliantly displayed than in the convenient treaty between two bacteria: a pushy, upstart bacterium wanted to take over a bigger and more established one. The battle resulted in a draw, and the pushy bacterium became a cooperative satellite of the established one. Eukaryotes, cells with a nucleus and complicated organelles such as mitochondria, were probably born this way, over the negotiating table of life.

Thanks to the chemical probes installed in their membranes, bacteria are able to sense the presence of others. This is a modest forerunner of our sensory perceptions, closer to taste and smell than to the image-based hearing or seeing.

Damaisio writes, “These strangely ordered emergences reveal the deep power of homeostasis. The indomitable imperative of homeostasis operated by trial and error to select naturally available behavioral solutions to a number of problems of life management. The organisms searched and screened, unwittingly, the physics of their environments and the chemistry within their walls and came up, unwittingly, with at least adequate but often good solutions for the maintenance and flourishing of life. The marvel is that when comparable problem configurations were encountered on other occasions, at other points in the messy evolution of life-forms, the same solutions were found. The tendency toward particular solutions, toward similar schemes, toward some degree of inevitability, results from the structure and circumstances of living organisms and their relation to the environment and depends on homeostasis writ large.
Damaisio writes that cooperation evolved as a twin to competition, which helped select the organisms that exhibited the most productive strategies. He continues,” as a consequence, when we behave cooperatively today, at some personal sacrifice, and when we call that behavior altruistic, it is not the case that we humans have invented the cooperative strategy out of the kindness of our hearts. The strategy emerged strangely early and is now old hat. What is certainly different and ‘modern’ is the fact that when we encounter a problem the can be resolved with or without an altruistic response we now can think and feel through the process in our minds and can, at least in part, deliberately select the approach we will deploy. We have options. We can affirm altruism and suffer the attending losses or withhold altruism and not lose anything, or even gain, at least for a while.”

Damaisio writes that the issue of altruism provides a good means of distinguishing between early “cultures” and the full-fledged variety. The origin of altruism is blind cooperation, but can be deconstructed and taught in families and schools as a deliberate human strategy. Damaisio uses the notion of profit as a means of finding fully developed cultures. Cells have literally been looking for profit for a very long time, by which he means governing their metabolisms so that it yields positive energy balances. Cells that really succeed in life are good at generating positive energy balances, “profits.” But the fact that profit is natural and generally beneficial does not make it necessarily good. Cultures can decide when natural things are good—and determine the degree of goodness—and when they are not.