Miscellaneous content from the original enlightened caveman. Some serious, some not. Take your chances.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

What Is Consciousness? A Trip Into The Mind

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 satistfaction 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 instictive. 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 heirarchical 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 surpress his response to a lovely female paritioner. (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 charicature 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.


Blogger alice said...

I read with great interest your essay on concsiousness and a question came to me. What do you think of the Eastern tradition of meditation? I have always tried to understand it's draw and popularity. I've tried to meditate, but I can't ever shut my mind up so I usually give up. The conscious mind can be awfully noisy as you describe and is full of conflicting desires.In other words it can be annoying and tiring. I think it was Budda who said that peace is only possible in the absence of desire. So does meditation take a person one step higher on the consciousness ladder... a place where the conscous mind is fully engaged but slowly, carefully emptied of it's ability to react to incoming stimulus?
But then I wonder, because the conscious mind is sort of anesthetized at this point, if you can really experience the bliss or be conscious of it. Is it just pure experience without the computational part of the mind in gear and therefore just as any lower animal would be experiencing it? And if so what is the good in it?
Maybe this is why we like to get high. This is another way of turning off parts of the noisy information machine in our heads.
It's hard to be human, no doubt. That's why I get angry with religions which tell us we're so bad. I think given all that we deal with, we're pretty damn good.
And then one last thing. What an incredible thing language is. Here I sit writing and editing words which I hope as you read them will be understandable to you. We are discussing the almost indescribable and yet these words make it somewhat possible.

2/04/2005 11:54:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

I'm like you - I can't get it to work. I don't think it's any higher level of consciousness. In fact, I think it's almost a willing abdication of it. It's like purposefully trying to get your movie screen to go blank. And I can see the value in that. If we clear our minds of awareness while we're in a peaceful environment, it stands to reason (assuming some semblance of my model is right) that our whole physical being could become calm and reset. Alas, I'm too easily distracted.

"Is it just pure experience without the computational part of the mind in gear and therefore just as any lower animal would be experiencing it? And if so what is the good in it?"

I think the point is to get back to nature, so to speak. To be like an animal and stop contemplating an hour from now, a day from now, yesterday, etc. - that's therapeutic for some people, I think.

"Maybe this is why we like to get high. This is another way of turning off parts of the noisy information machine in our heads."

Agreed. I think, in some cases, it also has to do with accessing normally inaccessible areas of solution space.

And language - well language is the tool of concurrence, which is why it's hard wired, too.

2/04/2005 12:49:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

PS. Now that I have my thoughts off of the movie screen, I would like to address one of yours specifically. In the last paragraph you state that our genetic heritage can become irrelevant if we more and more control our basic emotional programming. I'm not sure I agree with this.It changes the very species you are speaking of.You are saying chocolate cake would be so much better without the chocolate We are our genetic make-up.
You are trying to answer the age old conundrum of whether we have free will, but even that concept was conjured up by our genetically driven brains. When people are at their "best" it is still because of genetic drive. We have learned that it is in our best interest to cooperate.
Everything we are, everything we see is based on our genetic make-up.The world truly would not be as we see it were it not for our own special human way of needing to look at things in a certain way.
Celebrate your genes!!!They will never ever become irrelevant.

2/04/2005 12:55:00 PM

Blogger Mephistophocles said...

"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." Honestly, Caveman, that's beautiful. Really. No sarcasm here - I mean it. Even more beautiful is this: "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." Let me get up and run around the room a couple times - ok, I'm back. RIGHT ON, Caveman. We are on the same page. I'm still not convinced that it's genetic, but it doesn't matter - we are working toward the same solution.

I'd like you to expound a little on this idea you've developed about the "camera" representing conciousness, if you don't mind. I mostly agree with your analogy - that's pretty accurate, I think, but where do you think it comes from? Is it present at birth, or do you think it appears and grows stronger as we age and gain experience? I guess the point I'm tossing out here is this - what if it is this ability to observe, analyze, and change our actions that gives us the "edge" over other animals? It would be mere speculation on my part to postulate the idea that animals aren't concious, but I think there may be different levels, and humans may have achieved a higher level than other animals. This may be the key that has allowed us to build on the ideas of our fathers and improve them. This is something that I don't think one sees in the animal world - I don't have the clinical evidence to back it up, but I don't think a cat, for example, will improve upon his parent's method of hunting, and it will certainly not invent tools to help it in that endeavor. Conciousness may in fact be the very thing that allows us as humans to do this.

Now, before anyone thinks I'm about to make a case for God, I am not. Implying that humans have an advantage over other forms of life (even genetically, if you choose to do it that way) is not in any way implying that we were given it. Our conciousness evolved in the same way as our bodies. Even though you and I may not agree on how this happened, Caveman, I think we both agree that it did, and that's what is important here. Attributing any of this to a god is merely taking the credit from where it belongs (with us), but that's another argument.

Part of the reason I'd like you to expound on your analogy, Caveman, is because it seems to me that you are in fact an epistemological dualist. Implying that there are two parts to the mind - one that acts, and another that analyzes and manipulates the action, would put you pretty squarely into that category. I'm not trying to pin you into a group, or claim victory in any of the past discussions we have - I would just like to hear you follow these ideas a little farther and see what comes up. As I've said before, the ability to observe leads to the ability to analyze, and this in turn leads to the ability to change or re-structure what we've observed. If this is in fact the case, then (I'm REALLY throwing out crazy ideas myself now) what if these artifacts of the primitive mind can not just be understood and dealt with, but eliminated completely in our children? I think you concur that learning, or training, can change things in the mind even at the basest level (the soldier's reactions in combat, for example). So who's to say that these "artifacts" are an exception?

2/04/2005 03:52:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

"what if it is this ability to observe, analyze, and change our actions that gives us the "edge" over other animals?

I know I am late to the party and I have not been in on all of the things heretofore discussed...but the question posed above seems (dare I say it?) pretty naive. Of course we have an edge over other animals, except perhaps insects who can pretty much survive anything. And of course it is our ability to observe, analyze and consider our actions which gives us this edge.
We have dominion over the earth (see Genesis) And we might someday choose to destroy the very environment which sustains us. Won't we look foolish? and then one might ask who is really the smartest animal.
I guess I don't fully understand the conversation.
Is the central question here: Now that we know about evolution and where we came from, can we continue to evolve and do so more rapidly because we have such enormous reasoning powers?

2/04/2005 06:14:00 PM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

When I say our genes will become irrelevant, I only mean that our actions will, in all but emergency circumstances, be less deterministic, less dictated by the strategies that execute as instinct in the human animal. Or when our actions *are* automatic, so to speak, it is only because we will have deliberately allowed them to be so. Love, for example, is a primary emotion that should be stifled with caution.

The point is, and perhaps it's a bit of hyperbole, that I think it is possible to recognize how dramatically our basic programs influence our everyday lives. And in doing so, I think it becomes possible to achieve a more relaxed and enjoyable life.

It is only a matter of learning to spot and compensate for emotions gone awry, emotions that recommend actions that are contrary to what reason would prescribe. In that case, behaviorally speaking, our genes would be pretty much irrelevant. This is not to say that we should not be immensely proud of where they've brought us.

We should - the vast majority of humans that have ever lived are gone. For whatever reasons, sometimes skill, sometimes luck, we're the elite of our species. It's just that it is now time to decide what to keep and what to throw away in order to live the good life in this modern world.

2/05/2005 12:07:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Meph, before you get too excited, let me explain. I'm speaking metaphorically. I am using the camera and movie screen as a device to convey my concept of how consciousness works, and more importantly, how it relates to the rest of the mind. I completely see how you could take this model and end up in the land of dualism, but I can't go there with you.

This is mainly because the entire model depends upon dualism not being true. It's materialist from top to bottom - it's just that, when it comes to the top layer, consciousness, the best visual I can come up with is something resembling the immaterial soul - free will. But think about it - if there's a ghost in the machine, there's no need to postulate a plausible neural network model complete with successive layers of abstraction ultimately resulting in consciousness. I could just as easily say that the driver of the bus appears out of thin air staring at a high-definition virtual reality dashboard that controls every thought I think and every move I make. I'll admit that a truly materialist understanding of consciousness is beyond conceivable to me. But I contend that this is more a commentary on my lack of information and imagination than it is an argument that bolsters dualism.

"Is it present at birth, or do you think it appears and grows stronger as we age and gain experience? I guess the point I'm tossing out here is this - what if it is this ability to observe, analyze, and change our actions that gives us the "edge" over other animals?"

Here's where I think the notion that ontology mirrors phylogeny comes into play. I believe the physical aspects of mental development, from infancy to maturity, proceed along the lines of our evolutionary history. The baby emerges from the womb with little more than a set of functioning autonomic mental programs. The first developments are in the acquisition of basic emotions, fear and love, in particular. Throughout childhood, these emotions bloom bit by bit, and higher level (but still relatively simple) cognitive programs start to come online. Mentally speaking, for example, in the world of dog lovers, mature dogs are often compared to 2-yr old humans.

Their actions are mostly stream of consciousness (using the term loosely), but their attention can be focused for periods of time that can be extended through training. They can learn and remember specific objects, and they can predict simple events. But mature dogs have sex drives that do not come along in humans till later.

Nevertheless, throughout the process of mental development, the more complex cognitive and emotional faculties in humans, the successive layers of abstraction, continue to emerge, one on top of the other. At some point, we surpass our animal brethren. And at some point, a result of this continuing abstraction is the emergence of awareness, the emergence of the giant movie screen. So, to answer your question, I think consciousness shows up at some point along the mental development process. If I had to guess, I'd say it happens somewhere around age 3. I have about 20 months to wait to find out if I'm right, at least when it comes to my one little subject.

As for what has given humans the edge, I think it is fairly simple. Natural selection has wired our basic emotions, which, on their own, are obviously adept, to a staggering mental representation of our physical world. Our superior congnitive abilities allow us to perceive so much more of our world than any other species that has ever lived. Bottom line, our basic programs are making decisions with more information, better information. This is all the edge our species needed. I think consciousness was a bonus - an inadvertant perk that came with such multi-dimensional neural connectivity. Like the sci-fi movies, when the robot that was designed to help man, achieves consciousness and decides to take over. Come to think of it, that's a decent metaphor for enlightening the caveman. How bout that?

2/05/2005 12:54:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

"It's just that it is now time to decide what to keep and what to throw away in order to live the good life in this modern world."

I guess I am still unsure why this is such revolutionary thinking. Haven't we always tried to curb our lower instincts? The concepts of right and wrong are age old. Adam and Eve were thrown out of paradise because they dared to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a metaphor for the awareness they (we) had achieved, consciousness perhaps.
Religion and ethics have been dealing with the questions of what to keep in and what to leave out for thousand of years. And the answers to this question have been varied, sometimes right and sometimes very wrong. And the answers to this question have been determined by the time in which we, humans were living. Of course until Darwin appeared upon the scene we didn't really understand our natures and still don't to a large degree, but we have always been concerned with the best way to live our lives.
It seems to me that the most successful solutions we have come up with to deal with our fellows have emerged because they fit our nature. Cooperation would be a good example. We do better for ourselves when we cooperate with others. It becomes more likely that we will survive and flourish when we are not hitting one another over the head.
I can think of one thing which I think would make a tremendous change in the course of human events. That would be the wholesale acceptance of death as final. No heaven, no hell, no floating around after you're dead so you can
talk to good old Aunt Jane.For some reason, and I'd love to hear your theory about why, humans cannot fathom life ending forever and we have made up fantastic stories which prolong our lives into eternity. I'd like to live one day in which everyone believed that life on earth is all there is.
What change would that make in our behavior?

2/05/2005 02:52:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Hey, you're right. I wish upon wish that I was offering up something heretofore unconsidered, something indeed revolutionary in terms of human perspective. I'm not. I'm just pushing for the mass acceptance of the concept of human nature - what it is and how much its involved in our "rational" lives. There are so many, like maybe Meph, that see human behavior, and the impulses that lead to it, as infinitely malleable. In seeing things that way, it is logical to reject our caveman influences, to suppose that all we see in terms of human behavior is cultural. But this, I think, is a big mistake.

It's like preparing for the big game without watching the videos of the opposing team. You don't know what you're up against. In some cases, you'll win, simply because you're good. In other cases, you'll lose because the other team had your number and you couldn't ever figure out how to counter their strategies. Had you known ahead of time what they'd be trying, you could've prepared better, and fared better.

I think it is possible to make amazing progress in harnessing and managing our caveman emotions, but not if we don't accept that they're there and that they're powerful, no matter how enlightened and educated we think we are. I won't say that this is revolutionary, but I will say that I'm am one of very few who are carrying this torch. Like all important subtleties in the age of information overload and the sound-bite, it takes repetition, patience, and creativity to get the point across. I hope I'm making progress...

2/05/2005 11:45:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

OK, I guess I was just thrown off by the espistomological mumbo jumbo(not yours, mind you). Before I began to read the findings of neuroscientists I made a crack at reading the great philosophers. My eyes got crossed! The only one I could really understand was William James, the pragmatist. So much of philosophy is to me mental masturbation to no end.
Have you read Steven Pinker? I would recommend "The Blank Slate" to Mephistophicles. Any of his books have great insight into the workings of the mind and he's a very readable writer, more so than E.O. Wilson in my estimation.
Do you have any thoughts about why humans "need" to believe they will live forever and do you think a change in this thinking would affect a positive change in our societies?

2/05/2005 02:29:00 PM

Blogger Mephistophocles said...

"Have you read Steven Pinker? I would recommend "The Blank Slate" to Mephistophicles." Banging my head off the keyboard.

2/05/2005 10:11:00 PM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Clearly, Meph, Pinker is either a lighweight or a fraud in your eyes, so would you care to elaborate? Those of us who are limited by time to reading the pop science stuff need to know who's credible and who's not.

I read the predessor to Blank Slate (How The Mind Works), and found it to be mostly a synthesis of current (at the time) research on the materialist essence of the human mind. I actually found the writing and organization a bit awkward - Dawkins he is not. But, given the other books I've read - Damasio, Ledoux, Gazzaniga, Churchland, Calvin - the ideas put forth in Pinker's book were above the BS bar, and they appeared well documented. But I suppose it's always possible that he had some agenda. So please, what is so ridiculous about citing Pinker?

2/06/2005 12:59:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

I think the need to believe in life after death is standard hope-seeking programming.


My theory is that anything that is ambiguous and hard to prove one way or another, like what happens after we die, lends itself to a general human preference for the most hopeful of explanations. Believing that the experience keeps going after the lights go out significantly mitigates the fear of death. Fear can be a paralyzer, so the hopeful explanation is the practical one - if you don't know, why not be optimistic, you might say.

The problem, the constantly recurring problem, is that this adaptation that launched the critical mass population growth of humanity is now spiraling out of control. The consequences of believing in life after death now are tremendous - simply because this luxury is not for everybody. You have to pay your dues - there are things you must do on a regular basis (pray, attend church, etc.), there are rules about who is worthy and who is not, there are rules about what your lifestyle can include, and about people you can be associated with. So now, ironic as it is, nature's solution to being worried about death has created these elaborate institutions that grievously distort life.

Wouldn't it be easier to simply accept reality in the first place? Sort of rip the band-aid off fast; get it over with.

2/06/2005 01:13:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

And don't you think that this removal of the band-aid would cause a major shift, the quantum leap you are after?
It's almost impossible to imagine what life would be like without the belief in the hereafter. That belief permeates everything. It has inspired the world's greatest music, art and architecture.
Some people say that most wars have been fought because of religion. I think there is a prediliction for war apart from religious ferver, but one must admit that religion does have something to do with the willingness to lose one's life for a cause greater than one's self because of the promise of later reward.
As we learn more about our nature, don't you think it will eventually be neccessary to abandon our myths? I do not fear this. I know it won't happen in my lifetime. I mostly wonder what it will be like. It will be significantly different than the way things are now.

2/06/2005 10:45:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I do think a mass adoption of this enlightened caveman concept would produce a tsumani-like wave of change throughout our society. Here lies the problem. The first thing to happen would be destruction, and lots of it. Organized religion (and many other myth-oriented entities) would wash away, which would be nothing short of devastating for those whose livelihood depends upon it. After the waters retreated, however, things would be rebuilt stronger and better than before, just as they probably will be in Southeast Asia. The problem is getting those who stand to lose to stand by actionless as the wave speeds toward them. This, they will not do.

In the end, I think our caveman tendencies pose a challenge that makes mass enlightenment unachievable. The need to belong (that is, the need for concurrence) will always pit groups against one another, and with something as radical as what we're talking about here, ours would be the fringe group, the radical group. No - to wonder what the world would be like if everyone, or even a significant minority, got on board is interesting, but not very realistic.

The best we can do is to focus on the benefits to individuals. I am convinced that being aware of our evolutionary heritage, how it affects us, and how we can manipulate it to our rational ends is inherently valuable over the long haul. I have personally found that life is far less complicated now than it has ever been. I have found that acting in accordance with rationally-determined priorities is easier now than ever. I have found that I am concerned less and less with the opinions of others on most matters, which has, in itself, yielded untold benefits. This is the promise of enlightenment - making the most out of our limited time here.

To your point that belief in the afterlife "has inspired the world's greatest music, art and architecture," I would say that this is not proximal causation. It's just an indication that belief in the afterlife has been the dominating belief among the creators of these wonderful expressions. Science, capitalism, and democracy, on the other hand, have produced more prosperity on this planet than anything, and they have nothing to do with life after death.

"but one must admit that religion does have something to do with the willingness to lose one's life for a cause greater than one's self because of the promise of later reward."

This is not about the afterlife. This is about concurrence. Individuals buy into causes that require death because of the need to belong to something, because of a deep-down loathing of themselves, which is ironically due to their caveman interpretation of reality. Read Eric Hoffer's, The True Believer. It's all laid out beautifully there.

"As we learn more about our nature, don't you think it will eventually be neccessary to abandon our myths? "

On an individual basis, yes. Buying into the enlightened cavemen concept necessarily entails dispensing with irrational ideas. However, as I've already stated, there are too many who stand to lose if our myths are discarded. Just as the Dems are spreading propaganda against reforming Social Security, so will the keepers of our myths spread non-sense about the fallacy of the caveman concept. The persistence of creationists is clear evidence of that.

But I'm not pessimistic. There are scores of people who can and will find a whole new world when they learn about themselves and where they come from. I'm interested in reaching them. I'll keep score by-the-person and, every time someone new "gets it," I'll come away feeling good about how things are going. That'll be good enough for me.

2/07/2005 12:45:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Damned comment thingy had me as anonymous again. That last one was from me.

2/07/2005 01:02:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

This has been a great discussion and you have given me lot's to think about. You've also given me some new authors to investigate. I've heard of Eric Hoffer. Is Dawkins, Richard Dawkins? Any particular books?
Also words to investigate "concurrence,proximal causation"
I appreciate the respect you give to the people who post and your intelligent writing style.
One of the frustrations I have had is that now that I am coming into a realization of who I as a human being, what the hell do I do with that? It can be lonely and pretty frighteneing to come face to face with an uncaring universe, unrelenting genetic imperative and most daunting of all, my mortality.
You have given me some ideas about why my position is better having faced reality.
And if you have time between taking care of your daughter and publishing essays, you might have a look at "The Blank Slate". It does a nice job of tracing the history of dualism and explains how both nature and nurture work to
create the human being. There may be nothing there which you haven't already realized, but I think it is well written and definitely "on topic".

2/07/2005 11:39:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

Alice - you're my favorite poster - hands down. I can't tell you how good it makes me feel that you're getting something out of this. I certainly am, which is something I did not expect. In any case, to your questions:

Dawkins is indeed Richard Dawkins. I read, The Selfish Gene, first. It's his tour de force because it established the concept that has been THE paradign in evolutionary biology for more than 20 years. *However,* I think he got better as time went on. River Out Of Eden is great, as is The Blind Watchmaker. So...I'm torn. After some deliberation, I think I'd recommend The Selfish Gene first. Follow it with the Blind Watchmaker. My rationale is that the notion of replicators is established in the first, using chemicals. Then, with that in hand, in The Blind Watchmaker, he hits us with the notion of replicators as crystals. I remember being in Bermuda on my honeymoon and having one of those, "OK, my mind has just been blown" moments. It was The Blind Watchmaker. He's nothing short of awesome.

As for investigating proximal causation, don't bother. It is a philosophical distinction between something that is a direct cause as opposed to something that is an indirect cause (distal causation). Causation is big with philosophers, which explains why they use esoteric terms for everyday phenomena.

As for investigating concurrence, don't bother there, either. That one is all mine. I have come to the conclusion, the admittedly non-scientific conclusion, that concurrence is the proximal, no direct, cause of reciprocal altruism...and a whole lot more. I am still developing this idea, so the best I can offer is what I've written on it already. There is more, much more, to come.

As for my daughter, he's a boy, a very cute one, I might add - Thomas, or T-Bone as I call him. I have resisted reading Pinker's, The Blank Slate, because I had a tough time getting through, How The Mind Works. Pinker is, in my view, a very smart guy with a very good handle on the mind. And I have good friends who love him. Therefore, I really should bite the bullet and give The Blank Slate a read. He, like Dawkins, is probably getting better with time. Incidentally, he is also a cool person. I've emailed him on a couple of occasions and he has always been willing to write back and offer advice.

Lastly - send me an email - editor@enlightenedcaveman.com. I'll send you my manuscript. I think it may provide some insight into how this enlightened caveman concept translates into living a different life, a happier life.

2/07/2005 10:30:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

"Pinker is, in my view, a very smart guy with a very good handle on the mind. And I have good friends who love him."

May I ask where you buy your friends? The people I know, while not unintelligent, are not at all intellectually curious. They have closely held beliefs but are unwilling to discuss or rather debate. I bought a liberal friend of mine Thomas Sowles' book, "The Vision of the Anointed". It was my hope that after reading it she would have a good understanding of conservative thought and we could have a real discussion. Six months later I received the book back, never read. I gave a religious friend of mine "The Blank Slate". She got through the first two chapters and gave up.
My beautiful daughter is in college and in her spare time reads self-help literature. I can't complain, because I did the same at her age. She gave me one of Deepok Chopra's books for Christmas (hardbound, she couldn't afford it). She wanted to show me the scientific basis for spirituality which Chopra claims to lay out. I spent several days highlighting all of his unsubstantiated claims and then we had a lively discussion. I know I haven't convinced her of anything,and that this is her journey to travel, but I know I made her realize you need to question when you read and look a little deeper that nice words and happy thoughts.
She pointed out that I believe the writers I admire without thorough knowledge of the subjects they are covering and I had to congratulate her insight.
I feel lately like I have been following breadcrumbs. I hear about one thing here and another thing there and I go get the book and read up on it.
I found out about your website this way. I was watching CSPAN Books (probably the only station worth watching these days), and the guys from "Reason" were on. I had never heard of this magazine so I went on the website to subscribe. That's how I found you.
I'm glad you are willing to read more of Pinker. I do think his later books are more readable than "How the Mind Works". I had trouble with that one too, particularly the chapter on eyesight, but I figured it was because my background in the subject matter was so limited. I like "The Blank Slate" especially.He makes a strong case for conservatism ("the tragic vision" ala Thomas Sowle) as being much more suited to human nature than liberalism.
I will definitely make the request for your manuscript. And I will read it and I will comment on it. In the meantime I will make comments on any of the other essays you will be writing if I feel I have something worth saying.

2/08/2005 09:01:00 PM

Blogger alice said...

PS. I don't know how much you know about language aquisition, but "The Language Instinct" is great also. Language is actually Pinker's field. He has interesting things to say about Noam Chompsky. But I digress...
Since you have such a young child, it will be very interesting for you, I'm sure to see how he aquires proficiency in language.

2/08/2005 09:21:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. The main reason I started writing was because I was absorbing so much information (I took a private speed reading course a few years ago) that I was driving my wife and many friends insane. I was assimilating these grand ideas and I couldn't discuss them without the whole thing turning into an elaborate lecture. This blog is just my latest vehicle for more of the same.

As for friends, I am fortunate to have three or four very close ones from my college days who are scientifically-minded and who enjoy the kinds of books we're talking about here. I am also constantly meeting people in the commercial/scientific community who share my avocations. On this, too, I am fortunate.

I have actually been meaning to read The Language Instinct. It's on the list. Don't get me started on Chomsky. His later, more political stuff, is so deranged that I have a hard time taking him seriously.

If you want to seal your fiscally conservative fate, read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. It's a life changer.

2/09/2005 01:24:00 AM

Blogger alice said...

I read Atlas Shrugged when I was in my early twenties, living in Chicago and riding the bus to work.I must say I got pretty sick of it. Not because of the ideas, but her style. She had this way of cramming her ideas down the reader's throat with these soliloquys which no human being on earth would ever utter and there were always good guys and bad guys and nothing in between.
But I was certainly struck by her notions and went on the read "The Virtue of Selfishness". Pretty radical stuff for a kid my age.
When I was visiting my daughter at school I bought her a copy. She promises me that she will read it. So far Deepak has won out. Talk about yin and yang!!

2/09/2005 09:59:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to say a few things about meditation.

First, you both said you could not get it to work. What would you have to experience in order to say it worked?

Second, you both talked about how your minds are too busy to concentrate on meditation, how you are distracted by other thoughts. Your condition is utterly not unique. Everyone is bombarded by constant chatter. So if you are really interested in meditation, that is not an excuse, that is an obstacle to overcome. It is just like any other skill, it doesn't come easily.

Third, you talk about our attention as a camera which can focus on certain things, and you admit that you cannot get your "camera" to focus on meditation. Couldn't meditation then be a tool to help you handle your "camera" more effectively?

Anyways, you shouldn't be scared off by one seemingly unsucessful attempt at meditation. And it doesn't have to be some mystical religious thing. I meditate because I know that I become distracted or upset unnecessarily. I think meditation can help us become aware of our thoughts so we can act more objectively and appropriately. Because of meditation, I am more able to recognize when I feel envy, or anger, or depression. After I recognize it, I can see how ridiculous it is and focus my "camera" on more positive and productive thoughts.

2/10/2005 04:32:00 AM

Blogger Chris Wilson said...

It's a time thing for me. The benefits of succeeding at meditation just don't seem worth the trouble. However, since you're insistent:



Sorry. Nothing.

2/12/2005 03:31:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

patience and respect are apparently not among your "enlightened" virtues...

2/14/2005 02:57:00 PM


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