Scientistic Perspective on Everything – 3. Culture and Existence.

A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A PROPOSED BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

PART THREE: CULTURE AND SOCIAL EXISTENCE.

Domain 3. Total Global Culture is constituted by the theoretical objective aggregate of all existing humans, including their appearances, stated and recorded beliefs, rules and regulations, observable behaviors, accumulated artifacts and technologies. Everyone constantly interacts with a small unique subset of the whole and comes to their own understanding of the concept. Local, regional and sectarian differences have been labeled as separate traditions or ‘cultures’, but these always interact with each other and change continuously and unpredictably with time.


Culture is a defining feature of everyone’s life and the most super-complex of any subject. Most impressively, like an epiphenomenon, it is created as ~8 billion humans are otherwise focused on their personal priorities. The engine of culture then is the individual and so it stands to reason that as we learn more about ourselves, the better we will understand culture. The recent introduction of intelligent machines has further complicated matters and heightened our concerns. Society composed of humans is real, their virtual culture is continuously made real as a magical representation within each of us.

A complete description of the whole of human culture is not possible: different pursuits, languages, histories, religions, philosophies, economies, polities, disciplines, natural ecologies, etc. prevent everyone from assessing the whole. The obvious implication of this fact is that there is no definitive methodology for predicting the future, and so there is no schema by which anyone or any group could confidently plan for the long term. Progress must then have occurred by means other than through our focused cognitive efforts. The possibility that there is continuous non-cognitive bio-cultural (structural) evolution going on seems to be a likely explanation.

Furthermore, the crucial dynamic interaction of each individual human with society and ‘culture’ is the critical point at which all information becomes real as a phenomenal representation in our minds, the so-called ‘reality’ that we, as individuals, respond to all the time. This actualization of the virtual occurs continually inside everyone in a process that is ineffably complex. We know the brain plays a central role, but we really have no coherent idea of how it works. Our narratives are still woefully incomplete and contradictory at this point, but it seems that it is all due to natural physical processes created by the miraculous 4 billion year evolution of life.

This crucial role of the individual in the creation of culture introduces yet another ineluctable unknown: each individual is biologically different in important but unpredictable ways – biological diversity apparently is a basic adaptational strategy. The representational universe of everything that we create for ourselves and by which we decide and act, is different for everyone. Distinguishing between what is ‘real’ in nature and what exists only in our minds would seem to be basic to any understanding of our world. Some things exist only in our minds and are not objectively real. The virtual idea of Santa Claus is an example. The idea exists, it provides a huge boost to the economy every year despite his being an imaginary figure. However, like all thoughts, the thought of Santa Claus is real in our minds, and so is powerful. There are many such cultural ‘metaphysical’ entities that are not objectively real but, nevertheless, rule our lives: happiness, beauty, truth, love, virtue, morality, good, evil, propriety, acceptance, etc, etc. Even the qualities of mundane things such as smell, taste, color and sound are fictions in our heads. There is within me a self-created universe, the ‘kingdom of god’, an ‘idioverse’ containing everything that I am aware of. Plus, there is much that I am only vaguely aware of, or not at all, but which still affect my behaviors and attitudes. Those that proceed from the assumption that they know what many others think or what is in the best interests of those many others are, therefore, deeply misguided – a common form of ‘delusion’.


Thus far we have rather fancifully attempted to sketch the evolution of Reality over about 14 billion years, from a hypothetical Original Moment to the arrival of molecules that self-organize, grow, replicate and ultimately ‘compete’ for survival – Life. We can only guess as to the process of how larger molecules aggregated to form ‘self-aware’ organisms. Consciousness has evolved over about 4 billion years to the point where it can now describe itself in abstract terms. Continuous improvement over billions of years have yielded us, a species of organism with incredible subtlety and diversity of communication and interaction – just think of all the myriads of things we do, much of it quite astonishing.

All of the circa 8 billion original copies of H. sapiens survive at the trough of society and its culture, all the while as they are also creating it. Culture is so rich and varied that even parts cannot be fully described. It is also riddled with error and confusion, so all historical narratives, no matter how inspired, can not be trusted or relied upon because they are incomplete and dependent on the authors’ personal and cultural point of view at the time, and systemic ignorance.

We will, therefore, simply point out some problems that are not generally appreciated, and then speculate on perhaps a better way forward:

We are unaware of our human limitations. For instance, most people assume that things are fairly simple and that they have a good understanding of their local culture and what their community is about. In reality, each one of us interacts with the small, unique and under-representative sample that we have access to. Extrapolation to larger issues are difficult and highly error prone.

Our exquisite language is at the foundation of culture and the business of life, yet it too is limited in its ability to transfer information fully, especially with regard to subjective matters. As already indicated, it appears that we are the only ones that can recall our experiences, simulate them and relay them for further consideration and commentary. We can also simulate and plan future events, and even freely imagine novel situations or circumstances . Most crucially, we can communicate and share aspects of this virtual simulation with our fellow human beings for the purposes of discussion, learning and planning for the future. Children are most attentive consumers of such information.

Thus, adding together all the things we can learn, do and say, we create our own mental experience of ‘everything’ in a deceivingly effortless and seamless process. We neither understand the processes involved, nor do we agree on the ultimate purposes, but our culture is completely dependent on these processes: the real, dynamic connections of immaterial, virtual ideas and the real material states of our brains. A dynamic web of virtual ideas and practices is created by real material processes brought together in our brains and bodies by evolution. Our mysterious brains are the critical central processing units in the vast web of our cultural universe. Each one of us occupies a small niche in this multidimensional web where we actively participate in this continuously creative and destructive process of maintaining our culture; each brings their own perspective on what is beautiful, good and desirable, or not, and usually acts accordingly. Thus there is a creative and/or destructive liberal agenda to discover the new and replace the old, or a conservative agenda to preserve and protect what works. That every single person brings a totally unique perspective on everything, is a fact that unfortunately is not generally recognized nor appreciated in the vast majority of situations.

The only coherent and comprehensive statement that can thus be made about the structure and content of human culture is that it is so vast and complicated that no one individual is capable of grasping the whole or even understanding it in the abstract. Nor would anyone seriously consider putting a thousand experts in a room, and ask them for a definitive summary – most people would not believe them anyway. Something as simple as a universal declaration of human rights is a bridge too far. There are so many components of culture and divisions of humanity, no one person can understand them all, nor what their essential features are. There are so many different perspectives on our supercomplex ‘reality’ that there can never be universal agreement. (This last sentence would be a candidate for such a universal truth.)

A further fundamental difficulty with culture is the large excess of information; no person is capable of directly sampling even a small fraction of it all. This explains the talk about trans-humanism to augment our thinking by means of prostheses that could download vast amounts of information directly into the brain. These efforts probably are misguided, as is the idea of superhuman computers capable of integrating all available knowledge and then presenting humans with manageable summaries from which they could make more informed and ‘reasonable’ decisions. It is difficult to see how this would work, but it clearly illustrates the problem. However, humans have long transcended their natural inputs and outputs with multiple technologies such as slings, arrows, spears, explosives, telescopes, microscopes, cars, printing presses, telephones, televisions, calculators, copying machines, spread sheets, internet based communication and search engines, etc.; these trends should continue to transform our culture at an accelerating pace, but there are obvious challenges and dangers.

Another challenging aspect of culture is that much of its content is entirely opinion based and personal. Probably all human beings accept as true great swaths of belief that can not be verified or falsified, but are accepted simply because such ideas appeal intuitively, are embedded in tradition or are repeated by large numbers of individuals. Children especially have no choice but to trustingly imbibe much of culture as it is presented to them by important others. This makes perfect sense from a survival perspective, but it leaves every young adult pre-loaded with a large pool of entrenched ideas that will go largely unvetted. The generally accepted ordinary or folk view of ‘reality’ is therefore highly subjective, even as it appears highly real to the observer. Fundamental misunderstandings of ‘the way things really are’ are built into our consciousness.

Subjectivity is absolutely personal. The qualitative experience of culture is different for everyone for social and biological reasons. We exist, intellectually, subjectively or ‘consciously’, in a seamless but virtual, self-enclosed individual-social-cultural continuum. What we see and hear in our heads, the incredible Theater of the Mind, appears to correspond exactly to what is happening out there in the virtual ‘reality’ that is our culture. The reason for this is straightforward: all consciously observed events or objects out there must first be simulated before one becomes consciously aware of them. This process of simulation occurs continuously 100% of the time, separately, in the brain of each one of us. Since all of awareness is continuously created by one instrument, one’s own brain, it stands to reason that everything we are aware of is absolutely personal, familiar, internally consistent and compelling. This is obviously so since there is no other source of information. The interactions between self, society and culture therefore take place in a clear and compelling virtual space that is entirely constituted as a simulation in our unique brains, separately, one at a time – the simulation process is real, the content is virtual. Each one of us is the bearer of their own version of the universe: disagreements about the nature of ‘reality’ are normal and to be expected.

Understanding the individual in society. Thus the individual personality interacts with a simulation of a vast and expanding idio-socio-cultural universe grounded entirely on inter- and intracellular physical processes in their own brain! The obstacles to an accurate understanding of just about anything are enormous. Very few are aware of this and its implications, but realizing this makes it imperative for us to change our perspective and to strive doing better – to begin to think ‘outside the box’: collective progress occurs as a result of the inspired efforts of individuals; how do we communicate better, plan more effectively where we want to go, or exercise our ‘free will’ more constructively. The limits of global cultural possibilities are set by the aggregate limits of individual imaginations, whether that of hunters, gatherers, farmers, workers, managers, investors, owners, artists, musicians, academics, philosophers, libertarians, communists, etc. The idea that an elite alone can take care of matters is a grievous, but still widely prevalent error. The potential total cultural experience is vast beyond comprehension, yet the degree of creative participation by individuals vary tremendously. Greater involvement by everyone, according to their interests and skills, should be more generally recognized as being in the primary political interest of all members of society, liberal or conservative, collectivist or individualist, or somewhere in between. We certainly have so far been frustrated by our inaccurate understanding of self, society and culture.


Time and history are basic aspects of reality. What happened a century or a second ago is determinative in so many ways of what will happen next. Historians claim that we will repeat the mistakes of the past unless we study history writ large, the story of how our culture came to be the way it is today. An obvious problem, however, is that recreating and understanding the more distant past is even more difficult than understanding culture as it is now. Rather, at best it would seem that a careful and sympathetic reading of history might assist us in understanding the present a little better.

So, let us take a quick tour through the past. Existence in culture has continued to become more and more complicated ever since the days of Australopithecus and Homo erectus. Some ancients related our struggles to eating of the fruit of knowledge, expulsion from paradise and a fall from grace. However, our information based culture has nevertheless, defiantly continued to partake over the millennia; even now we seem to be going through a rather tumultuous period of discovery. At the beginning, ~200,000 years ago, ‘modern’ human culture consisted of what was discussed around the campfire – we can only imagine. The hearth fire, in fact, ended up being a central religious symbol of the ancestral gods around which the greco-roman family gathered in prehistoric times.

Communities kept on growing. About 40,000 years ago counting systems began to appear and about 6,000 years ago the first literature on business and entertainment apparently came into use. Almost immediately speculative religious, philosophic, political and scientific writings also appeared. Many great names from that time are still revered today even though most of what happened then is dimly recorded and left to the imagination. A high demand for books finally lead to the development of the printing press in the 15th century; affordable secular works became available for the first time to a rapidly growing audience. Intellectually we were off to the races, consistent with the classical theory of consciousness as primarily involved with discovery, learning, logical analysis and informed executive action based on knowledge and truth. Today there is an over-supply of information, electronic media have made access to content effortless and universal.

One could bet, though, that just like today crowds flocked to the best entertainments of the day. In the early days of Rome one had to venture down to the Colosseum for a distraction from the daily grind. Today we turn on with a billion others to easily watch the big game on one of our devices. The crowd always follows the crowd. It seems to have a mind of its own, whether in search of a charismatic leader or a paragon of entertainment. When aroused a crowd will not be deterred – there is power there, waiting to be unleashed or brokered. This fits the theory, therefore, that human consciousness (language, thought, affect, feelings and emotions) is more involved with social interaction and bonding. The pleasures and rewards of friends and community serve to pull societies together even as these same forces can work to separate us, or, even worse, blow us apart in conflict and war. When the crowd wants to get serious, it engages in dogmatic debates on religion and politics, hurling stock phrases at the perceived opposition in language usually couched in terms of fighting, battle, victory and defeat. However, there are tantalizing signs suggesting that the crowd is wising up, which would be a wonderful thing – why should anyone trust conniving bands of self-appointed elites?

Crowds certainly need to be collectively inspired. Mass religion could thus be viewed as performing important social and cultural functions such as fostering cohesion and reducing internal conflict. Community-wide foundational, explanatory and aspirational narratives eliminate the need for endless debates and argument; society can just go ahead with its daily business. Life is thus certainly made easier for everyone including the rulers who can use religion as a powerful motivational force against an enemy. The great religions have been the most successful in this regard, but, in the end, different doctrines, even within a religion, have almost always led to conflicts on an even larger scale. A temporary peace and quiet is inexorably followed by an uncontrolled eruption of fear, paranoia and war. The naive faithful have a very difficult time psychologically, dealing with challenges to their entrenched foundational beliefs. Unfortunately, confrontations are inevitable since most religions claim to explain all of the mysteries – they are a type of primitive theory of everything. Volumes of objective evidence adduced so far, however, have contradicted the basic religious explanations of life and the cosmos in all cases. Those that remain in denial collectively affirm the infallibility of their blind vision. Their dogma must be preserved against a tide of evidence to the contrary. Finally, when challenges become increasingly existential, a final confrontation ensues. Such a process can be bloody as believers rise in a violent defense of their ‘Truth’ and the superiority of their way of life. Crude political interests usually inflame the passions even more.

Some observers have suggested that, because of the above, the idea of a creative rational person capable of ascertaining truth is an illusion, or even that consciousness may have no real adaptive value. It seems obvious, however, despite our history of irrational and pointless pursuits, rational conscious thought can indeed be a very powerful creative, learning and adaptive tool.

In contradistinction to the mindless crowd, individuals and small groups are the creative forces in society. Philosophy, amongst many others, is such a product of the incandescent power of our minds but, unlike religion, the diversity of its manifestations approach infinity. Individuals insist on expressing their private thoughts. Any interesting question automatically provokes many different and challenging answers – tot homines quot sententiae. As we all know, persons will interpret difficult questions differently and are likely to come up with their own unique answer. It may actually be that we are destined to come up with different answers for multiple reasons: every brain, like every person, is genetically different; every brain is functionally and physically(!) shaped differently, at birth and subsequently by an unique set of experiences (plasticity), especially during development. We are also prone to information processing errors: conscious thought can be susceptible to uncritical acceptance of perceived socially sanctioned solutions; conscious thought sometimes may not be aware that it is making things up; every individual comes from a different perspective and will produce different simulations based on the history of their idio-socio-cultural continuum. Left to our own devises, therefore, we are guaranteed to come up with different conclusions on all questions that are not easily verified objectively. This is true because all complex problems ultimately require unverifiable and unfalsifiable subjective analysis. Philosophy is extremely productive in coming up with fascinating or important questions, but quite the opposite in the discovery of practical answers. Further highlighting the problem, philosophical ‘answers’ usually have political repercussions.

Individual expertise in any field of practice or knowledge requires much dedicated learning, including familiarity usually with technical languages. The focus of philosophy appears to reside in rigorous analysis of the contents of minds, of the philosopher’s own and that reported by others. Novel ideas and speculations are often introduced, but firm conclusions, though, that universally persuade others are never established, even when some empirical support is found. Alternative formulations are inevitable, challenging the original position, ad infinitum. Many philosophical questions over time have become of interest to scientists, and when science provides reproducible relevant information, philosophy is obligated to take that into account. There is no philosophical position that can survive when it is consistently contradicted by empirical findings. Indeed, psychology and sociology employing the methods of science have contributed much to what used to be the exclusive domains of philosophers. Even in metaphysics empirical findings are changing the landscape. Of course, established scientific consensus has to be revised every now and then, and discredited ideas can likewise be resurrected.

Mathematics, scientific enquiry and technological creativity are the most obvious examples of the positive powers of conscious thought: logic, reason, creative intuition. The apparent explanation for the astonishing successes of science and technology is that their searches, insights and inventions relate to objects or ‘things’ that are available for independent examination and verification or falsification by other interested parties. This is a crucial difference with religion and philosophy. The pursuit of objective knowledge is a cooperative individual effort that always seeks to find support through the accumulation and analysis of objective evidence – the empirical “show me” approach. Science and technology build knowledge one little step at a time, ideally without much concern for authority, the survival of any pre-existing favored opinions or the sensitivities of others. Constant revision is part of the scientific process. Coming up with more accurate and complete answers is, in fact, the goal and a reward in itself. Application of mathematical rules to physical relationships has also been amazingly powerful. Analytic human thought is thus capable of discovering new aspects of phenomena as they directly or indirectly appear in existence around us. We also try to probe the secrets of Reality as it is, but that has been extremely difficult. Deep mysteries still remain at the limits of our imaginations, and wide differences of opinion abound.

What about those unique individuals that make up the crowd? What kind of actors are they? We apparently guide our behavior through continuous simulations of the past, present or future in consciousness. We probably have little control over the content of our simulations. What bubbles up from our unconscious processes is not under direct conscious control as far as we can tell. For example, when one meets an old acquaintance, the name of that person comes to mind automatically. Sometimes the memory can be jogged, sometimes the name pops up two days later, seemingly from nowhere. Conscious efforts to remember only help sometimes. Recall from memory can also be highly unreliable; sometimes memories are simply incorrect no matter how distinct they are. The content of such memories are highly conditioned by our past psychological events, themselves colored by our particular cultural environment. This would roughly correspond to our personality – the type of person we are as perceived by others.

One way to easily enrich culture is to clearly express our thoughts. While conscious thought is conditioned by cultural history, memories and contemporary phenomena, it is still free to ask any question or to simulate any response. The subjective content of thoughts and images is immaterial, purely ideal, and has no specific mass. It is therefore almost effortless to manipulate any thought according to the personal inclination or caprice of anyone. The only requirement is to keep the bodily parts and molecules intact and moving. Unlike anything else in the cosmos that we know of, the range of human thought is potentially infinite. The concept of infinity is a good example. The only place where infinity exists for sure, is in human imagination: infinite number of integers, infinite space and time. (Space and time may or may not be infinite in reality.) All our thoughts, therefore, require approximately the same expenditure of energy, it does not matter whether they are little banal truths or great transcendental errors. The only difference might be that more time could be ‘wasted’ on the latter because they are so beguiling.

The distinct clarity with which we view the world and ourselves thus becomes somewhat suspect once one starts probing into the processes involved. Our pervasive innocence and naivety are not always obvious to ourselves. Nevertheless, it appears that it is our faculties of conscious thought, social interaction and ‘semi-conscious’ culture building that has made us the most successful primate – the most fit for survival. Our greater mental abilities have allowed us to exploit nature to a point where we ourselves have become a problem, primarily due to the recent population explosion. Our benign earth now may need to be protected. Erstwhile predators and competitors are extinct or in danger of going the way. The biggest threat to our survival now is us. That is clear, but what is very unclear is how to tackle the problem that is us. In the past we managed by assuming that an appeal to truth is the best guide for our actions. That foundation is now in ruins; the belief that we have an ability for discovering and being guided by radical existential truth is being assailed from all sides: physics, biology, psychology, philosophy. Support for this conclusion jumps out by simply observing the nature of political action and philosophical discourse. There is no limit on our technological exploitation of natural processes.


Unassailable truth had been a delusion, a pipe dream, inherited from more innocent times. Mastery of truth would require total access to all information and flawless data processing, a situation that could only be found in a Mind of a God. Such a theoretical mind presumably would instantly understand everything that has been, is and will be. A MoG knows ultimate Reality as it is, as it was, and as it will be, without limit of time, place, space or number – no need for counters or clocks. It does not need to think, ponder or plan because that would indicate a degree of uncertainty. A MoG is not dependent on any senses because that would limit the information streaming in, it would also imply that God needs to learn when everything is already known. A MoG is not defined by any human category, distinction or requirement. Is a MoG jealous and wrathful as stated in the Bible? Does it care about human interests but not those of bacteria? And if it does, why? We ask these questions because we can, while knowing that any answers would be human answers, meager anthropocentric efforts, limited by our very impressive but still very finite processing capabilities.

We are created as nature and the cosmos is created, through evolution, but we do not understand the processes well at all. We should be honest and recognize that our answers to existential questions are articles of faith. All philosophers, politicians, pundits and preachers are simply expressing their opinions with varying degrees of insight and skill. Truth by acclamation is a democratic delusion but it has been our best governing option. There is naive untutored personal conviction with clear and distinct opinions at one end and unattainable absolute truth at the other. In between, there are numerous different local combinations of subjective belief and objective fact, depending on which of thousands of subcultural communities is being addressed. Everyone operates in the sphere of their personally held beliefs, their ‘truth’, which merges with their existential reality: all their simulations, memories, internalized values and interactions with others combine to produce an unique instance of personality, beliefs and behavior, an idioverse (Rosenzweig). A personal identification with a particular, self-defined but real community is thus arrived at – no one operates in a vacuum. A further limitation of our deliberations is that most of the information processing occurs unconsciously, away from the theater of the mind. The degree, therefore, to which individual biologic and genetic variations affect our thoughts is presently unknown, but it is an important question that is being asked more and more.

A better, more pragmatic approach to the true nature of our world could, therefore, still be extremely useful: truth is always relative to the perspective of individuals, whether they be the questioner, the responder or an innocent bystander. Every individual therefore is a custodian of part of the truth, wrapped in many layers of hope, faith and, alas, confusion. Everyone is contributing to the structure and content of society, whether they are aware of it, or not. This is a responsibility that should be taken more seriously. Personal convictions have a naive air of certainty and authenticity, but are always riddled with biases, inaccuracies and gaps. Radical self-doubt should not be encouraged, for good reason: no contribution is too small. Religious, cultural and political axioms are nothing more than strong contemporary convictions or passing popular opinions on the diverse needs of individuals, communities and societies. Ultimate and final truth is unattainable, but it still remains as an ultimate aspirational goal and, as such, it is related to such concepts as God and Cosmic Reality. ‘Culture’ is unable to solve our problems for us.

Humanity seems to be in need of a better regime: honesty with oneself diligence in one’s endeavors, fairness to others. Humility, self-reliance and openness should be natural outflows. We should be careful, the only ones that should be trusted are those that have been vetted, preferably in person. All dogmas are suspect. There are thousands of communities that are so focused on their narrow agendas that they are ignorant of the big picture, of what affects the whole of mankind. Life in all its splendor and diversity could pass these specialists by because they are too busy or too distracted. There is a great need to be able to communicate broadly which puts an onus on us to learn, to integrate and improve at the personal and community level. Labor needs to understand capital, collectivists needs to understand individuals, economists needs to understand workers; the list is infinite. Certainly atheists and believers should try empathy for the other. Left versus right, conservative versus liberal – these labels confuse more than enlighten. A generally well-educated layperson would be struck by the obvious biases of these specialists. A better system of education would do wonders. 

Society must learn to flourish as it acknowledges the now very apparent limitations and biases afflicting everyone, especially the so-called elites who seem to be especially vulnerable to the temptations of self-delusion and corruption. The best compromise is to recognize that local community efforts have the potential to leverage individual efforts by generating better information, limiting errors and moderating biases. Promoting the independent efforts of everyone in all their diversity, would be fundamental in our quest to elevate individuals, communities and culture as a whole. Society needs to be more integrated, up and down, back to front, left to right. Imposition of one will over another is always an act of oppression, it is a taking of liberty that should be avoided if possible.

In conclusion, our theoretical scientistic narrative of the evolution of everything places all systems of information and knowledge into a feasible relationship. Any discussion, debate or disagreement could benefit by reference to an overall map of knowledge. At the center of our problems are the many different exclusionary and conflicting formulations of ‘the human condition’.


Additional reading.

Wilson, EO. Genesis. The Deep Origin of Societies

Laland, KN. Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony. How Culture Made the Human Mind

Barrett, LF. How Emotions are Made. The Secret Life of the Brain

Siedentop, L. Inventing the Individual. The Origins of Western Liberalism

Deracinating Racism

Most of the old divisions of the human species have long been rejected anyhow. Noah’s sons, the four parts of the world, the four colours, white, black, yellow, copper red – who still thinks of these outdated fashions today? – Georg Forster, Guiding-Thread to a Future History of Humankind (1789)

Quoted by P Kleingeld, 2007

This conversation has been going on for centuries, if not millennia.

Nowadays, talking and thinking about race and racism probably consumes more emotional and intellectual energy than any other politico-philosophical issue, especially in the US. The direct human costs are also great. Many believe that things are not improving despite the efforts of many to address our undeniable unhappiness. We apparently have not yet figured out a cure. Perhaps that is because the diagnosis has been wrong. To make sense of the problem would be extremely helpful. Let me try.

A common definition of a racist is someone that explicitly believes in racism, the belief that distant, broad ancestral origin identifies distinct races which is highly predictive of values, abilities and behaviors of individuals. Many appear to practice racism even while apparently not having such an ideology. These biased persons are then said to suffer from implicit racism due to ignorance and lack of self awareness – a pervasive condition. A society thus populated or created by racists would also be expected to exhibit institutional or structural racism, which ours does. All of this would suggest that a solution would be practically impossible – it would just never happen for all implicit racists to suddenly wake up and abandon their unconscious oblivions. However, society nevertheless seems to have evolved for the better despite the ever-present flaws of its members, but it has been slow, painful and bloody. A basic question for us then is how does ’progress’ occur and how do we promote it without causing more harm? (That things are ‘simple’ or ‘obvious’ is one of the many ‘delusions’ or ‘lies’ that get in the way – see below.)

Beyond this, and multiplying the difficulties, there is no agreed upon definition of the concept of race – an obvious obstacle to a meaningful conversation. A first step thus would be a better understanding of race – both the word and the reality. We all are aware that there is such a concept but few see the need to define it accurately, even as they express strong sentiments about it. Even philosophers are now paying more attention to the issues of race. The ways we think about race can be subdivided: e.g. racialist, minimalist, populationist and ‘social’.

Nowadays it is usually emphasized that race is a cultural construct, i.e. it is mostly an abstract concept, residing in the recesses of our minds: race therefore does not connote significant physical, biological or functional differences. However, anyone with eyes, ears or tastebuds perceives obvious differences between many groups of human beings, both in behavior and appearance. Still, shape of body or amount of melanin tells us virtually nothing ‘in real life’ about a person, their intelligence, talents or character – no one, neither psychopath nor saint comes with an identification tag. (Melanin is actually found in many parts of the body where it performs different vital biologic functions.) So, while there are some biological underpinnings for the concept of race, these do not correlate with significant functional differences. Hence, race is almost completely a social or cultural construct. The scientific explanation for this discrepancy is quite straightforward: striking differences in appearance, even if inherited, tells one almost nothing useful or reliable about the character and objective abilities of a specific individual. Population studies have also shown that the variability of individuals within a group is far greater than the small average differences between different groups.

Thus, anyone that explicitly believes in the existence of human races is a racist by definition. Their mostly ignorant and false concepts may be either benign or malignant, or somewhere in between. Explicit racists are now a vanishing minority. That is because distinct populations can not be rigorously defined and empirical evidence continues to accumulate indicating that there are no significant differences at a deeper biological level. By contrast, implicit racists are everywhere because most of us unconsciously accept what ‘common sense’ and popular attitudes seem to say. It is therefore easy to see how identity differences can be exploited. Adolf Hitler and George Wallace were once ‘successful’ politicians that failed horribly as leaders. One cannot know what motivated them, or whether they suffered from some sort of disorder, but they promoted ignorant and delusional ideas about themselves and others that wreaked havoc. They, and millions like them, were the products of their particular social and cultural backgrounds.

Specifically, it is therefore important to keep in mind that there are huge difficulties when attempting to first segregate a group and then to ascribe historical, behavioral and/or characterological features to such a group. Humans are far too complicated to be pigeonholed. It is essentially a meaningless exercise, but one that humankind is inclined toward. At its worst it occurs when a dominant in-group seeks to increase its advantages over others for the purpose of exploitation or elimination. History has been a long rolling holocaust. That most continue to be engaged in this kind of faulty division of the world around them points to a fundamental problem: we justly call ourselves H sapiens and we are biological geniuses indeed. The problem is that we are born cognitively ignorant and socially dependent, and we appear to learn very slowly, individually and as a culture from the mistakes of the past. Social learning is extremely difficult, leaving us largely ignorant and confused, or worse.

The world now seems to be emerging from an approximately 400 year period in which so-called ‘scientific racism’ was the predominant consensus. It was never universal and was recognized by some for what it was right from the beginning: an excuse for the political, economic and social exploitation of the vulnerable. In reality, a model of economic exploitation and subjugation has always lurked in the background of all social arrangements, whether it be patriarchy, slavery, serfdom, aristocracy, apartheid, caste, communism, capitalism, even democratic socialism. There seems to be no other way because humans constantly seek to exploit each other. Happiness, freedom, justice and opportunity have never been equally available to all members of any political community, anywhere. A perfect union, if it exists at all, lies somewhere in the distant future.

In 1619 about twenty African slaves arrived in the North American colonies and soon after that physical markers of ancestral origin became perhaps the most important aspect of a person. Also at about that time European philosophers came up with universal subdivisions of humanity. The newly discovered diverse global population was empirically to be grouped into a very small handful of races in a manner similar to the classifications of all living things then being developed by botanists and zoologists. Each division, based on physical features, implied categorical differences in ability, function and human worth. Much scientific and pseudo-scientific work was done in support of this project, but ‘scientific racism’ was discarded only after the Second World War! Perhaps now humanity realizes that narratives about group identities and the other often reflect exploitative or self-serving political agendas. Hopefully now we are beginning to definitively deal with the implications of our past delusional social beliefs in which groups tried to establish genetic, racial and/or cultural supremacy. Different traditional groups (‘cultures’) may indeed appear to be superior by some measures and inferior by others. Inevitable clashes driven by narrow chauvinistic impulses follow – politics and ignorance again.

Ancient views of race by contrast were casual and ad hoc, but still harsh and probably worse than now. The basic social unit then was the extended family bound together by the very strict religious dictates of ancestor worship. There was zero tolerance of diversity. Large numbers of gens, clans, tribes and races, loosely defined, were everywhere. People had to attach to these communities in order to survive and find security because most of the world was not ‘civilized’ then, and presumably very dangerous. (1) This ancient view was almost the complete opposite of the recent monolithic approach of post-enlightenment ‘scientific racism’ which sought to elevate Europeans above all others. Cosmopolitan values of individual human rights and equal justice apparently did not matter for the ancients either, also very unlike today.

Plato, born circa 428 BC, applied the concept of race to slaves and kings purely in terms of heredity. “Every king springs from a race of slaves, and every slave has had kings among his ancestors.” (Quoted by Seneca) Race simply signified common ancestry at a time when family bonds and loyalties were paramount. Citizenship was a privileged position that had to be earned. Innate racial superiority or inferiority appears to have been a non-issue for Plato. Non-citizens, i.e. women, slaves and strangers had virtually no protection under the law. Any distinguishable, cohesive group with a recognizable common ancestry thus could be referred to as a race; even a large family might qualify. These ‘genetic’ social attachments for the sake of survival are almost certainly biologically facilitated.

A few years later Aristotle, born circa 384 BC and Plato’s longtime student, spoke of the desirable traits of citizens, i.e. those men chosen to participate in the government of the city-state or polis, and so confronted the unavoidable issues of superior/better and inferior/worse with a geographical approach: “This is a subject which can be easily understood by any one who casts his eye on the more celebrated states of Hellas, and generally on the distribution of races in the habitable world. Those who live in a cold climate and in Europe are full of spirit, but wanting in intelligence and skill; and therefore they retain comparative freedom, but have no political organization, and are incapable of ruling over others. Whereas the natives of Asia are intelligent and inventive, but they are wanting in spirit, and therefore they are always in a state of subjection and slavery. But the Hellenic race, which is situated between them, is likewise intermediate in character, being high-spirited and also intelligent. Hence it continues free, and is the best-governed of any nation, and, if it could be formed into one state, would be able to rule the world. There are also similar differences in the different tribes of Hellas; for some of them are of a one-sided nature, and are intelligent or courageous only, while in others there is a happy combination of both qualities.”

Note: brilliant but ‘racist’ Aristotle identifies different tribes and states within the overall superior Greek race or nation. Race or ancestry, again, by itself does not seem to be a predictor of other features, unlike scientific racism, but rather appears to be secondary to the local environment and perhaps the good fortune of a “happy” social organization or tradition. A superior race, as defined by social organization, temperament and size, should end up ruling the world. Thus the competitive race for supremacy and survival has been apparent from the beginning and it’s also probably baked into our genetic code. Rather than Aristotle being a proto-racist, human beings appear to be naturally ‘racist’: that is, we naturally seek to belong to or distinguish ourselves from groups, all in the pursuit of apparent competitive social goals. We readily create such groups when possible or as required by the circumstances.

The Language Problem

Language captures only part of what we mean, it is an often ‘thin’ and imprecise representation of our mental states.

Thus, the word race labels a subjective and fluid concept – how could it be otherwise when there are no reliable underlying physical or biological correlates? It is what you think it is based on your experiences of your world. It variably has fallen somewhere on the spectrum of family, clan, tribe, nation, state or region. Race, after all, is a cultural construct, and every cultural theorist (all several million or billion of them) is likely to also have a different construction of race based on what they perceive in their own particular reference community. Since culture continuously changes, and race is not a fixed biological reality, our concept of race resists rigorous definition. Depending on one’s perspective, interests or state of knowledge there could be hundreds or millions of different identity groupings, some loosely referred to as races.

Many, however, still seem to think the concept is real. For example, the very prevalent idea that skin color somehow identifies a broad common ancestry with shared histories, aptitudes and deficiencies, is mostly unsupported fiction. Yet references to people and communities ‘of color’ as distinct social and political groups are commonplace. It is a powerful narrative with political implications, hence its popularity. Presumably a group distinction from ‘white supremacists’ is being implied. There are, however, multiple theoretical justifications for this particular identity-seeking attitude. It is partly explained by a painful historical narrative: for the past four centuries a dominant but false concept of race was used as political justification for exploitation, abuse and murder. The linguistic and social remains of this false construction now work both ways and causes widespread pain and harm: skin tone is still used to identify the victims and the abusers. Many feel a fierce loyalty to their perceived group. Skin color was thus imbued with much power and so has acquired a cultural life of its own. The truth is that the roots of bigotry and oppression lie much deeper than a superficial subdivision of humanity. That we are all capable of such ignorance and callousness is demonstrated by ancient and modern history. A plausible explanation could be our common evolutionary origins, going back millions of years of struggle for survival and fitness. Projecting blame onto others misidentifies the problem. The problem is within all of us, not just them. Now, as we seem to be emerging from our delusions of race, our ‘cultural consciousness’ regarding identity is changing, and our language is changing with it. Everyone should pay close attention to these evolutionary changes because there is a real opportunity for progress, but there are also risks.

Cultural change is not always for the good, so we need to pay attention.

Race and racism are now heavily laden words after centuries of oppressive discrimination and exploitation. Continuing use of old, discredited conceptions of race to describe the many different associations of humans now in front of us is backward in multiple senses of the word. It brings forth strong emotions on all sides because of its historical associations with exploitation, slavery and murder. Furthermore, implicit biases are universal and the free use of the inflammatory racist label for human ignorance and lack of awareness in fact illustrates the ignorance and lack of awareness all around. We need a more nuanced and evolved language that could facilitate a greater and more respectful awareness of identities in the super-complexities of our social interactions. It certainly seems that we need better approaches in education and public discourse. Again, the problem is us, not those fundamentalist conservatives or those elitist academics, or some other deficient group in society. Scapegoating is a lost learning opportunity.

For example I have my self identity, my theory of self, but everyone else that knows me has their own, but different, idea of what I am, and vice versa. No one can know my history by just looking at me, and vice versa. Social interactions are very, very complicated and, therefore, greater caution is necessary in order to avoid getting people riled up when labels are inappropriately applied to populations and to each other. Be fearless, but also be diligent, honest and fair. Observe the Golden Rule, or something like it. (See the video of a very personal discussion of identity by Appiah and Williams.)

The hidden fault with language, our most powerful cultural tool, as I see it is that it is both a biological and cultural construct, a situation that creates many opportunities for misunderstanding. The same words in a similar or related context can have widely divergent meanings for different people. This is because we all use similar logic, the mostly biological part of language, but we just cannot get our ontologies, abstract ideas acquired through social learning, right. The questions of what there is and what it is, are a lot more complicated than what it would seem at first glance. Trees and birds are fairly uncontroversial external objects, but everyone has their own understanding of the meaning of internal objects or abstract nouns. To seek truth and justice, or to love beauty is different for everyone. Race, we now recognize, clearly falls mostly in the abstract category, hence all the inevitable mistakes, confusions and conflicts. It is a major social challenge that we will have to face and overcome.

Language is thus part of a larger problem:

The Culture Problem

Global culture far exceeds the ability of anyone to apprehend or comprehend, thus exacerbating the descriptive limitations of language: it is the web of all people, things, ideas and narratives.

Outrage against perceived ‘racism’ reflects the all-encompassing cultural moment, a powerful, inebriating but mostly abstract cocktail of history, politics, pleasure, power and money, all shaped by prevailing ignorance and undiagnosed cultural misconceptions:

““There’s no dispensing with identities, but we need to understand them better if we can hope to reconfigure them, and free ourselves from mistakes about them that are often a couple of hundred years old,” Appiah writes. “We are living,” he notes, “with the legacies of ways of thinking that took their modern shape in the nineteenth century, and . . . it is high time to subject them to the best thinking of the twenty-first.” He insists it’s time for such an examination because we now live “with 7 billion fellow humans on a small, warming planet,” and “the cosmopolitan impulse that draws on our common humanity is no longer a luxury; it has become a necessity.”” Review of LIES THAT BIND Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture. Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Again: “Appiah believes we’re in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age — but also seems to believe that if we don’t find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we’re all going to die.” Review of above and of IDENTITY The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. Francis Fukuyama.

I sympathize with these sentiments, but there is much that one could disagree with, that is the nature of any complex issue. Group identification, positive or negative, is partly an innate, instinctual or biological process; and we routinely fall prey to group dynamics. Simply stated, the problem is us, we exist in an ineffably diverse, supercomplex culture in which each one of us is presented with an infinite, but different, set of life-long influences, experiences, questions, choices and decisions, inevitably preventing us from finding a common solution – the truth could set us free, but we will never get there.

There is no right way for anyone to navigate this multi-dimensional cultural maze, therefore we need to be more practical and humble. There is no cultural narrative, grand or otherwise, that could fully satisfy any group, large or small. Therefore, as I see it, we all could still be justified in our diversity of views, even when we deeply disagree. We are all right in some things, wrong in other things and ignorant of much. And so, when many agree that their narrative identifies what is true and false, be very wary of false groupthink. It also means that we can have ‘conversations’ about race and not realize that we do not really know what the others are saying. A cultural construct is not a real thing, just as culture is not a real thing. These are abstract concepts generated in our ineffable minds and therefore cannot be objectively verified or falsified by direct comparison with the ‘real’ world. Your and my personal awarenesses of the behavior of myriads of mysterious others and the varying conclusions about them that we each come to, are real but different. Each one of us samples a different, small slice of the whole and comes to a unique but real representation of it in our heads – hence our divergent perspectives on good, bad, truth, culture, race, love, beauty, evil, etc.

All that one can do is to rise to the challenge and happily be the best that one can be. There are no guarantees in culture; society is unpredictable, and we know from history that corruption and exploitation are pervasive. One can only trust that given a public choice, humans will opt for what is in the community interest: to promote diligence, responsibility, fairness accountability and transparency throughout society. The list is long, but the bottom line is doing the right thing.

Is it realistic then to hope that someone, or some group of humans, will provide me or you with the key by which to unlock this most difficult of challenges?

The Human Problem

Life, as it is subjectively experienced by every human, is an exquisite interplay of mind, culture and physical reality in all their mysterious super-complexities. Are we here by miraculous accident or magnificent design? Of course… We are just now beginning to understand how amazing it all is. It is ineffable.

And this life is a short, intense race against time – so much to know, so much to do, so little time. We live in the moment and must often act with incomplete and unreliable information – there is an “urgency of now”. But we are not alone. As we sally forth we find ourselves in the company of many others and so immediately realize that some share like goals or use similar strategies and techniques. We naturally tend to band together and thus find needed supports in our various existential struggles. We also find ourselves, however, in competition against other groups who might see the challenges differently, or might have different histories, styles and purposes. And then there are the many artful tricksters that appear to profit through misdirection, deception and corruption. The race against time, the business of life, thus involuntarily divides us into many different groups whether by identity, interests or types of activity and various combinations thereof. There is some reassurance in numbers but we often embark on misguided quests nevertheless.

Each and every one thus plays an essential part in the maintenance of our one human culture, whether by raising children, providing services to others, or planning for the future. Our quintessential human problem therefore is that the depth and breadth of culture far exceeds our stupendous individual faculties of awareness and understanding. It’s like being on a ship, setting forth at night in the midst of a dense fog, fleeing a dark past, knowing neither the destination nor what will be encountered along the way, yet filled with energy and hope. Therefore, culture is always a biased, incomplete and flawed guide. Yet, here we are, against all the odds, preparing to confront an uncertain future.

What propels us is powerful indeed. However, at this juncture what actually makes us do what we do is still a mystery, especially the understanding of how we interact with each other on a personal and global level. Though consciousness has been intensively studied, we cannot explain much of what goes on inside of us. It is super-complex: individual human beings copy and learn from each other but also innovate and create, all at prodigious rates, yet we remain largely ignorant of the totality of human ability, knowledge and experience. We thus depend on each other and an imaginary ‘culture’ for answers to most of our questions, but that is also a difficult strategy with severe limitations and is prone to perpetuating both errors and ignorance.

So, I think I have generally figured out what the problem is: the problem is too complex for any Homo sapiens to figure out by logical analysis. Too complex for anyone and everyone, individually and collectively. Shakespeare was onto something. What a piece of work is man!

Recap

We all belong to a very diverse species with many geographical and traditional variations often called races or cultures in a non-rigorous, colloquial sense. The once widely accepted idea that there are basic differences between any of these putative groups appears to be false. It is not possible to subdivide humanity up into distinct groups that show consistent functional differences. There are no boundaries, no definable races, just superficially identifiable groups that appeal to our intuitions. As far as we know, humanity has always subdivided populations in this casual way, apparently for political reasons and survival purposes while justice and individual rights were often ignored in the process. Thus, whenever anyone uses the word race, they are referring to a vague but complex concept in a personal, unverifiable way that should not be accepted at face value. The first question must be: what do you mean? Genotypic differences between identifiable groups are negligible. Phenotypic (physical) differences can be striking, apparently reflecting our genetic ability to rapidly respond through evolution to changing environments and culture.

Interestingly, in a parallel way, it has now become clear that there is only one global culture with an undeterminable number of group identities. Human beings have always exchanged information through intermixture, trade, migration and war. Concerns about cultural appropriation nowadays seem to be a desperate attempt at conserving traditions against irresistible forces of change. Life-styles have always evolved, but today global communications are massive and homogenization of our traditions is rapid. No traditional group can insulate itself from the disruptive effects of evolving technology. So, whenever anyone talks about their or our culture, the first question must be: What do you mean?

We are one species with one culture in constant flux. What makes things so interesting are all the multilevel, interlocking variations extending far beyond our individual imaginations. No one could ever come close to a point where they could say that they have seen or heard it all. There is no reason, ever, to be bored.

The social construct of race can now be seen to be rapidly evolving and everyone’s personal theories inevitably will adapt accordingly. This is as expected a disruptive process, but that does not mean that we will jettison heritage from our personal stories – history will remain important as well as interesting and inspirational. Efforts to maintain cultural traditions may even be accompanied by social and adaptive advantages. Competition between groups is likely to continue and it seems certain that some groups will be better equipped than others to deal with the vicissitudes of time.

We are all ‘racists’ to the extent that we naturally identify with preferred groups and reject others. Factionalism is an instinct. This by itself does not say much about ‘us’ or ‘them’. The urge to belong to groups is a biological reality that humans have taken far beyond what is found in other animals. The ability to think logically and express it in language utilizing a large number of abstract categories is a recently acquired, quintessentially human function. Therefore each one of us, by using this faculty of symbolic thinking, has the ability to imagine a new group with desirable features, and might then set forth to see if such an entity actually exists or could be created. The rigid approaches of the past have become obsolete; human culture is now quite desirous of change. Many believe change is urgently needed in order for humanity to save itself and its planet; many disagree. An open, informed, evidence based consideration of our challenges would be an improvement.

Humans by thus exercising their infamous ‘free will’ continuously change the world. This is yet another function, apparently, for which our brains are structured: personal interaction with ‘culture’ through creation, learning, maintenance and destruction. Improving the quality of our participation seems key.

The power of our imaginations requires that we exercise more caution. False belief systems can have harsh real world consequences: about 400 years ago, i.e. very recently, an erroneous cultural construction of race became a fundamental organizing principle in society, especially in the USA. An abstract definition of race was socialized and normalized with codification in law. After the Civil War and abolition of slavery, exploitative racist laws were re-instituted by flawed democratic and judicial means in order to preserve much of the prior system of oppression. A race-based social arrangement based on loss of freedom and exploitation was to the economic and political advantage of the powerful. Universal libertarian individualism of some sort would seem to have been very likely to minimize this kind of problem rather than the ‘race’ based collectivist socialism which did end up with terrible injustice. Libertarian malfeasance would be much easier to correct than rigid misguided collectivist rule, recognizing that all forms of government are collective to a degree. Libertarianism fundamentally posits individual empowerment and responsibility, collectivist socialism the empowerment of controlling elite groups with an implicit weakening of individual responsibility. Such top down systems probably have the additional adverse effect of discouraging individuals from trying to solve wider socio-cultural problems themselves. As ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ battle out their agendas on the mass public stage, the populace at large is expected to cast the deciding vote. A centralized collectivist system with less accountability would render the populace as a whole less likely to be prepared to make decisions on very complex issues.

Legacies of the now discredited historical racialist narrative are still with us today, demonstrating how long false memes can persist culturally. After the shock of the Jewish holocaust in Europe, and the successes of the civil rights movement in the nineteen fifties and sixties, the political tides changed and laws supporting Jim Crow were removed. Yet, there are still many surviving remnants in our society of this false reality, affecting all citizens, consciously and unconsciously, even those that are committed to repairing the damage. ‘Racist’ language and narratives are still being used by many on all sides. Group identities and cultural traditions are often described in hyperbolic racialist terms, especially through partisan political speech. It seems that people have accepted this ‘reality’ for so long that they do not want to let go of it, and so we are trapped by our narratives. The intensity of emotions generated does indeed focus attention on the problem, but it also may be counter-productive. Nothing about culture is straightforward.

Language is a major part of the cultural equation. Both culture and language improve as individuals, no matter what their background, improve their own selves through a greater appreciation and awareness of their personal role in the maintenance and creation of culture. Each one of us is a necessary conduit for passing culture on to others, most importantly to our children, family, friends, and through work. An intricate set of feedback loops exist between society and the individual through language, other forms of communication, cooperation and innovation. So again, top down, meritocratic ‘socialist’ approaches to improving culture are intuitively appealing because of their relative simplicity and naive logic, but have a poor track record because, as we have indicated, they tend to impose controlling or oppressive collectivist structures rather than fostering the creative genius of every individual within their communities. A governing elite can issue commands, but successful implementation always depends on the judgements of large numbers of individual citizens – hence the more skilled a community of citizens, the better their individual and corporate behavior and the greater their social happiness. Also, the more skilled the citizenry, the more sophisticated would be their expectations of leadership and the better would the performance of such leadership likely be. Wide dissemination of power amongst all the citizens should be more just, efficient, interesting and stable compared to a system heavily concentrated at the top.

Beware of one-sided dominant narratives. As society changes so does culture, and so do our individual cultural assumptions. Society changes as the hearts and minds and deeds of individuals change. These intricate conscious and unconscious processes in which all of us, including victim and oppressor, participate do not follow any single narrative – they are ineffable. There is no collective narrative, just the illusion of one. (Not all illusions are necessarily bad, but the racist one certainly was.) This again demonstrates the importance of the individual, the only entity that creates narrative, ‘knows’ what it means and lives by it.

There is thus no coherent collective narrative of what we are and how we got here, but we did make it this far. Where we are headed is an even more impossible question – everyone is left with their own best educated guess. It does not make any sense, therefore, to blame ancestors for our difficulties since they probably knew less about what they were doing then compared to us today. We are the only ones that decide what we will do tomorrow. Vilifying or glorifying ancestors is a popular historicist tale. All political groups, patriarchal, aristocratic, socialist, communist, fascist, ’racist’, religious, capitalist, tend to create self-justifying renditions of the past. It’s all about blaming the other. Having a better grasp of history would certainly be very helpful.

Again, ‘idiocentric‘ libertarians are more likely to commit to looking for what they can personally learn from culture – even as it is an ineffable mix of past and present – and then virtuously acting accordingly. ‘Allocentric‘ collectivists are more likely to uncritically accept commonly held dominant narratives. But as stressed above, all humans ultimately create their own individual narratives through conscious and unconscious processes and try to live by these representations. Human culture is thus continuously created and recreated, moment by moment.

Things are indeed what they are because they got that way. It is the ultimate history, but one that can not be told, except through fanciful myths or selective stories. But now, given enormous strides in science and technology, it seems possible that our foundational stories might come a little bit closer to resembling reality – a Theory of Everything and Everyone.

Solutions

We can deracinate racism by becoming less ignorant of the tricks that reality plays on us. An over-reliance on the outside appearance of people and things has been one of those tricks. Humility is in order, above all, since nobody has sufficient processing power to evaluate the whole of culture. We are all deficient in reason, knowledge, memory and awareness of self and other. Even the best among us can run into trouble: Albert Einstein in 1949 recommended socialism as a necessary cure for the problems of humanity! (2)

In what might seem to be a contradiction to some, science and technology will increasingly drive the evolution of human progress. As we become less ignorant about ourselves, others and the world we should discover better ways of harnessing our wild animal spirits: improving oneself is not a zero-sum game, we can all do it and the benefits multiply. A more precise conversation on race will then naturally be subsumed into a discussion of all the great challenges we face: how to direct our future and survive as a holistic species without having to resort to pointless and deadly competition.

Our best hope appears to lie in striving for a less ‘racist’, more individualist libertarian eutopia rather than a collectivist fascist utopia. At its core it is about having more options, more inspiration, better social organization and greater happiness due to the contributions of every single one. We are all created equal and different: the ‘kingdom of god is within each of us’, not within an enclave of experts or dedicated global bureaucracy.

The Constitution of the United States with its Bill of Rights appears to have been the most successful template for a union of large numbers of creative citizens so far. The framers, an elite group of men, were trying to implement the best formulation of individual and social interests available in 1789. Their basic understandings of human social interactions seem highly relevant today, even as our understanding of human and social diversity and complexity has undergone a revolution.

Society nevertheless operates on the basis of a social contract as envisaged in the broadest terms. The specific components of such a collective cultural construct would be crucial, even if somewhat fluid and ill-defined and thus extremely difficult to formalize. The key appears to be a system that is inclusive, flexible, adaptable and harnesses the genius of individual freedom as the engine of social progress. How could anyone disagree with this? (2)


(1) Siedentop, Larry. 2014: Inventing the Individual The Origins of Western Liberalism

(2) In 1949 with the world still in shambles, Einstein made the case for “Why Socialism” would be the balm for future eudaemonia. His main beef with his co-members of society was that they were selfish and egotistical. He believed this was due to the underlying “evil” of economic anarchy (capitalistic freedom) with which everyone is indoctrinated. Had Einstein lived 50 more years he would have witnessed the greatest global economic expansion and reduction of poverty in history. He also would have seen the repeated horrible failures of Marxist attempts at improving the world. The one exception perhaps is China, but only after it had opted for economic freedom while maintaining central control. I am skeptical but we shall see. In fairness, there are immense social problems still facing us, as Einstein himself clearly recognized: “.. it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?” If the solutions to these problems were not clear to Einstein, why should they be to anyone else? Trying to improve the Bill of Rights would be an obvious answer. “God does not play dice” and so she would presumably prefer to communicate directly with each and every person rather than through the Office of the Central Committee.

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(https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/rethinking-race-the-case-for-deflationary-realism/)

(https://www.history.com/.amp/this-day-in-history/first-african-slave-ship-arrives-jamestown-colony)

(https://en.m.wikisource.org/wiki/Moral_letters_to_Lucilius/Letter_44)

(https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/politics-by-aristotle-book-vii/3/)

(https://fee.org/articles/5-psychological-forces-that-turn-people-into-political-hacks/

(https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/myths-that-shape-our-notion-of-identity/2018/08/23/46d3430a-969a-11e8-a679-b09212fb69c2_story.html?noredirect=on)

(https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/27/books/review/francis-fukuyama-identity-kwame-anthony-appiah-the-lies-that-bind.html)

( https://www.c-span.org/video/?465720-1/after-words-thomas-chatterton-williams&start=0)

(http://alexpeak.com/twr/racism/)

(https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/counseling-psychology/multicultural-counseling/idiocentrism/)

(https://psychology.iresearchnet.com/counseling-psychology/multicultural-counseling/allocentrism/)

(http://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism/)

(https://fee.org/articles/utopia-versus-eutopia/)

Anatomy of Culture

“It is very likely that never in human history have there been as many treatises, essays, theories and analyses focused on culture as there are today. This fact is even more surprising given that culture, in the meaning traditionally ascribed to the term, is now on the point of disappearing. And perhaps it has already disappeared, discreetly emptied of its content, and replaced by another content that distorts its earlier meaning.” — Mario Vargas Llosa, 2016. From ‘Notes on the Death of Culture. Essays on Spectacle and Society.’

The death of culture seems a mite exaggerated. An opposite view might well be that culture is at an apotheosis. Never in our history has culture been so busy. We certainly could not exist without it – it is part of our fabric, it defines us. Improving it depends on the efforts of billions.

Perhaps we should rather come to grips with what culture truly is and how it operates. Any ignorance, and hence confusion, regarding the invisible forces of ‘culture’ could be an obvious source of our many social difficulties and political misadventures. Direct and indirect references to culture are continuously being made in many contexts, leading inevitably to the question: Is there anything in society that is not cultural?  Contrary to popular belief, it is being recognized that all of our public activities contribute to ‘culture’, even the vast numbers of trivial pursuits that set the stage for more interesting and controversial ones. We can therefore legitimately ask, do we ever really know what we are talking about when we explicitly reference the content of our culture, most of which is generated via social interactions? There probably was a naive time when many thought that they did, or at least the educated ones. Even today, politicians and experts fervently work at persuading us that their view of the cultural world is ‘true’, that they hold the key to happiness, and that we should follow them. Caution! One should not expect these ambitious public actors to really know what they are talking about, or to be sufficiently aware and honest enough to admit to the limits of their understanding. The possibility that the average Jan or Jo is as or even more aware of their surroundings than their supposed leaders probably never occurs to those leaders. Jan and Jo are indeed ignorant, but so are we all, as we shall see.

It is surprising to note, however, that although culture is such an important part of our conversation, the modern concept of it has only been around since the mid 19th century. The first formal definition, and still one of the most useful, is by Edward B Tylor (1), the ‘first anthropologist’: “Culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (1871). (Emphasis mine.)

At the same time, ca. 1871, Matthew Arnold (2) published Culture and Anarchy wherein a much more aspirational and moralistic view of the goals of society as a whole was articulated, stressing our common humanity. In his universalist view Arnold held common ground with Tylor, but there were many dissenters right from the beginning as one would expect. In the early 20th century, Franz Boas thus gained much support for his particularist view of many cultures, a view that is consistent with what most intuitively still accept today. Scientists, however, seem to prefer the view that all social information passed on to others constitutes culture. (3) Thus the fields of sociology and anthropology have not settled into anything resembling a consensus. In fact, today the very concept of culture is being challenged, battered perhaps by all the incomplete renderings and weak defenses of it. (4,5)

It seems clear then that a robust and complete definition of culture would be an essential basis from which to develop a better understanding of the incredibly complex relations of humankind. Ignorance and incomplete understanding, especially of self and others, must necessarily produce conflicting irrational systems of coexistence. Society is composed of self-governing individuals, tasked by fate with having to arrange increasingly complex societies. But countering ignorance, error and confusion is hard work and success is not guaranteed. Wars, genocides and mass exploitations are still upon us. Opportunities for improvement all around are therefore great: reducing our inhumanity towards each other; providing for a greater sense of purpose and meaning in the lives of all 8+ billion; inducements for all to be the best that they can be; perhaps most important, we might improbably even acquire the tools by which to guide our future global culture in a more sustainable direction – virtuous evolution!

It would thus seem necessary to formulate a way of finding the keys in the present so that we may solve the problems of the future. The fact that we are here and can talk about these questions means that we have been successful so far. The task appears immense, yet there is reason for optimism.

The Components of Culture.

  1. Global Culture. This is the ineffable totality, the natural ‘culture medium’, within which all people exist while actively participating in Darwin’s “war of nature”, surviving as best they can. (6) Simply put, it is a web of everything: (i) all that is publicly displayed, en mass or individually, and articulated by all living humans across the globe. In reality, (ii) it also includes all the diverse behaviors, good, bad or indifferent, and all products and possessions, including tools and technologies, of all presently existing humans. Also including, rules, habits, addictions, (mis)understandings, (mis)classifications, (im)moralities, trades, disciplines, etc, etc (An ‘alloverse’*, as opposed to the individual idioverse of Rosenzweig.) (7) (iii) It also includes all the currently accessed stores of historical information about what has been believed, thought, taught, observed, produced and evinced by humanity as a whole: physical and electronic records, books, articles; historic, archeologic and fossil artifacts. (iv) It also includes all the recognized features of nature in the different localities where humans operate, now extending to the bottom of the ocean, miles underground, and to the outer limits of the solar system. Trillions of galaxies have very recently become ‘visible’ outside of our own. (v) The ‘web’ constantly changes from moment to moment, in ways and at a pace that far exceed our individual or collective faculties of apprehension and comprehension. (vi) While people, their behaviors, statements, artifacts and environments are real, the corresponding vast body of information and knowledge that is physically transmitted is virtual – i.e., strictly speaking, transmitted signals do not constitute knowledge. If and when such signals are captured by the sense organs of a person, they are processed in the body of that person, mostly within the brain, recreating a real representation of knowledge and awareness in a mind, albeit as an indirect, unique, approximate representation. So, while culture like language is public, its meaning is private – a fundamental dualism that affects all our interactions. There are also many physical limitations to our ability to capture signals. The statement that neutrinos are passing through my body is an interesting shareable thought, a phenomenon, a publicly signaled statement, that we can discuss. Actual neutrinos that routinely pass through my body without any interaction, are undetectable signals, not phenomena. The alloverse of cultural information, while immense, thus represents only a very small fraction of all the signals in the physical or material universe. To put all this another way:

Total Global Human Culture is that supercomplex whole consisting of the cumulative totality of all phenomena in nature and society as observed by everyone. This includes reports of phenomena communicated via language or emotion. Nature, human behaviors and artifacts, including all technologies, are the predominant sources of such phenomena, defined here as all events and structures perceptible by humankind. Global culture is therefore synonymous with observable external reality. Every human being is continuously contributing to its maintenance and construction. (8)

  1. Effective Personal Culture. The set of all those specific phenomena of global culture that a person, due to their unique situation, has been exposed to and has interacted with, learned from, and responded to, up until the present moment of their life. This represents our small view of a vast panoramic whole, a small evolving slice of the totality of global culture. We directly learn from it and are continuously shaped by it in a seamless dynamic process that to varying degrees becomes somewhat more self-directed and selective with the passage of time (wisdom). Even just observing the routine activities of people passing by teaches us something about the community in which we happen to be. Most importantly, in terms of our personal development, each child starts learning from the moment of their first breath, directly from a completely new and strange sensory and phenomenal world composed mostly of family and its social circle, including teachers. This represents an extraordinary diverse and unpredictable source of information; a private source of diverse signals and stimuli. There are even suggestions that fetuses start learning to recognize a mother’s particular language while still inside the womb. Some ‘highly cultured persons’ acquire and become widely known for prodigious amounts of socially interesting information. Even so, fame apparently amounts to nothing but a short-lived vanity in most cases. All of us directly participate in shaping our immediate environment, thus playing an essential role in the maintenance of culture. Alas, this process of learning, creativity and teaching does not seem to gravitate toward a meaningful consensus or recognizable goal. Rather, differing perspectives and disagreements multiply leading to more disagreement, confusion and even chaos. Despite our extraordinarily productive brains in which hundreds of billions of cells, including almost a 100 billion neurons, are constantly processing ‘information’, we can only partially sample and internally process a small fraction of the whole external cultural reality, that global universe of all cultural phenomena. Therefore, it is thus impossible to accurately describe the whole at any moment in time, or even any significant part of it. Hence the term supercomplex is used in our abstract definitions of global and personal culture.

Effective personal culture is the unique, limited, supercomplex sum of all the phenomena within global culture that the life cycle brings a particular person into direct contact with, providing an evolving supply of learning experiences, feedbacks and opportunities.

  1. Personal Theory of Culture. Each person has their own incomplete, mind-view, intuition or narrative ‘theory’ of what culture is, whether they call it that or not. (Prior to the 19th century it was usually called by another name.) This is often what is being referred to when one talks about ‘our culture’. It is an individual intuitive synthesis and understanding of the milieu in which they act out their biological and social imperatives. It is based on our personal effective culture (personal and social history) and shaped by our own unique biologic features – our idioverse (Rosenzweig). This is akin to Theory of Mind, except on a grand scale. A theory/intuition/concept is automatically conjured up in our minds when confronting the thought of society, or related questions such as morals, duties, expectations, choices, actions, meanings, purposes, rewards, punishments, pleasures, and what individuals and groups are up to. This mental construct is a more or less coherent product of all personal experience and can therefore be expected to change with time or situation. It is always personal and subjective, and variably but incompletely corresponds with that held by others, most closely with family and friends. The meaning and use of the word has drastically changed and expanded over the last 150 years, yet global culture itself has changed even more, in a runaway process fueled by our many biological drives, accumulating knowledge and evolving technology. This may be the reason why it has been reported that there are more than 160 published definitions of culture. Investigators apparently hone in on aspects of their effective culture that seems to be most fundamental or meaningful to them, most relevant to their interests. Furthermore, our culture is the ultimate complexity that we must deal with – certainly of greater immediacy than the universe and even our bodies. ‘Our culture’ is effectively ‘infinite’ since the reality of it dwarfs our mental and physical abilities. For these reasons, nobody, no polymath, no creative genius, anthropologist, historian, politician, scientist, or philosopher has sufficient sensory awareness or computational wherewithal to fully, accurately and precisely describe or explain all the phenomena as experienced by themselves, or any other person or group. Abstract, very ‘thin’ narrative conceptualizations are the best we can do. Many of us specialize in writing, art, poetry or music, perhaps believing that these aspects are most representative of culture. Others specialize on a particular set of phenomena (e.g. science, history, literature, economics, finance, philosophy etc.), but then becoming perhaps less sure of how it all fits together – a variant of the Heisenberg Principle. We might as well invoke a variant of Gödel’s Theorem at this point: we all seem to strongly assume certain things to be true even though we do not have specific information to support that view. Thus, waiting for a cultural consensus would be on a par with Waiting for Godot.

A Personal Theory of Culture is recursively generated in the mind of each biologically unique, evolving person, guiding that individual to better survive and flourish in a challenging, uncertain and changing external phenomenal reality.

  1. Community Identities and Traditions. These used to be thought of as fairly easy to recognize. From a distance groups of people from various localities looked, dressed, spoke and behaved in a recognizably different way. This was referred to as ‘their culture’. But the world is changing rapidly and what once seemed to be stable communities are now seen to be rapidly transforming everywhere. They may still communicate in their own language and still have characteristic shared beliefs. ‘Local culture’ leads to a certain predictability and confidence in interactions with members of such a traditional community or group: locality thus tends to homogenize the effective cultural experiences of local inhabitants, whose theories of culture would then also have more shared features, leading to similar behaviors. This is a powerful source of learning – enculturation. Such local adaptations can even lead to physiological changes: differences have been observed in central nervous system function when comparing distinct populations. E.g., different regions of the brain are used to perform the same task in people from Europe or Asia. In selected Asian-Americans, different regions of the brain of an individual may be used for the same task depending on whether the subject had just been primed with Asian or American associations. Our brains unconsciously switch modes! However, cultural traditions often have rather fuzzy geographical edges and they evolve continuously. Even very isolated population groups learn from other communities with which they intermittently come into contact with, and so none are, nor were, ever completely isolated. Furthermore, individual biological and psychodynamic variation within such traditional communities may be wide and there would always be subgroups, exceptions and outliers. For example, it is inevitable that some members would be conservative, others liberal; some more socially conforming, others more individualistic – such diversity would itself be expected to provide a survival benefit. Dominant, widely established traditions tended to be viewed as ‘civilizations’ that often saw themselves in opposition to lesser civilizations, or even uncivilized barbarians. All this seems to be going out the window as a result of the communications revolution.

Group formation is a fundamental feature of human behavior – our social drive. (9) Innumerable local and global, real and virtual groups and communities exist due to changes in technology and the explosion of information and communication. The word culture is often affixed to these as a loose descriptive term: corporate, criminal, drug, police, rural, cosmopolitan, metropolitan, African, Asian, Polynesian, European, etc. In this sense the word at best provides a very general sense of what is being considered, but very little, if any, reliable information is identified by these labels. Not infrequently, outright erroneous ideas are reified.

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Going beyond Tylor, we identify a single ‘infinitely’ large ‘supercomplex’ abstract whole necessitating a multipartite, multi-perspectival approach. It is now obvious that there is just one culture, albeit extremely diverse. There has been a lot of confusion about this in the past. All peoples on earth have been interconnected by migration, trade or war, but information traveled rather slowly in earlier times. In the ‘good old days’, different ‘cultures’ or ‘civilizations’ were identified by unique features such as language, manners, arts, ceremonies, dress and social arrangements, all the while ignoring the simple fact that most of the basic behaviors and social interactions across all regions were very similar or indistinguishable. Where distinct differences did exist, intermediate instantiations were often found, and the borders were fuzzy. Superficial differences overrode deep commonalities. In this respect, ‘cultural differences’ have much in common with ‘racial differences’. Just as it is now recognized there is only one race, there is just one very diverse culture – there are no biological incompatibilities amongst human groups, there are no hard boundaries of social behavior. The underlying motivations for the categorical, but erroneous, separation along imagined lines of race and culture may, in fact, be very similar: groups tend to form around any idea or behavior that might be associated with a competitive, security or lifestyle advantage. Such groups engage in positive feedback loops of self affirmation, so becoming less concerned about accurate honest evaluation of the evidence. Jim Crow laws and the Jewish holocaust are recent extreme examples of this kind of collective thinking but it is still very much alive in the polemics of today.

Ontologic ignorance and epistemic confusion cannot be legislated away, rather society appears to change as increasing proportions of its members intuitively see themselves and the world differently – innovation occurs at the level of the individual, the evolution of culture is a slow and messy process.

Nowadays fads rapidly and chaotically come and go, but global social change appears to be an extremely slow process. The deep convictions seen in the process of ‘othering’ are usually misguided, even though they may be ‘adaptive’. So it has been hard or impossible to identify in real time anything by which ‘progress’ could be measured. Everyone’s personal theory of culture is incomplete, uncertain and often in conflict with others. Today’s undeniable trend might be the key to future success, but, more likely, it will just be tomorrow’s forgotten infatuation. “The inability of the mind to see its own advance is one of the reasons the future will always surprise us.” (Jason Kuznicki, 2018.) We should try to change that.

The problem in a nutshell: First, serious, evidence based public debates founded on a rational analysis of the complex problems of society have been of very limited effectiveness. Profound inherent super-complexities, structural and functional, are involved: different effective cultures, different theories of culture, different or conflicting traditions and groups. Language (narrative) also is an important limiting factor, only a very thin version of reality is communicated. Stories and narratives appeal to intuitions in ways that we do not fully understand. All our true inner feelings on questions of morality, values, fairness, duty or mission are difficult to define and therefore to articulate, and so are opaque to others. What is for me is never exactly for the other. A better approach, therefore, would be to be a little less concerned about what is wrong with the narratives of others – most are inaccurate and incomplete anyway – but to be more focused on a self-critical analysis of one’s own gaps in understandings and knowledge, and improving on those. Such a continuously self-improving person could hopefully then act in a more effective manner, leading to a greater influence on others in their community. ‘Progress’ does not appear to be the direct result of our endless polemics. Ignorant self-righteous shouting and screaming across a perceived divide exemplifies the problem. Authentic changes in behavior and attitude that spring from direct personal engagement in real, self-identified problems of society have a greater chance of beneficially influencing others: each one of us teaches by example. In so doing we contribute to culture.

Second, learning from our supercomplex history is also a lot more complicated and fraught with more error than commonly realized. Self-affirming biases are the rule and so one might ask whether it is ever possible to discover a solution by delving into the past. The volume of information available to a broad public is now unprecedented, placing more and more people in positions where very sophisticated decisions need to be made all the time. The industrial revolution presented new challenges and brought about great changes in social arrangements. It also brought the most destructive wars in history. We are now in another such period of large scale change. The scary thing is that we again seem to have no clear idea of what is coming. A simple, but reasonable, rule of thumb would be to invest in the diverse talents of all individuals above all else, to prioritize the functionality and competence of each uniquely valuable person. Society should organize around the primary principle of respect for each and every one – maximally inclusive diversity, building on the true successes of the past and trying to avoid previous errors. Large corporate structures (bureaucracies, businesses, political movements, etc) to whose interests people defer rather than exercising their own best individual judgements may represent the greatest threat to our happiness. We need to nudge and cajole our fellows into taking greater individual responsibility. We should also heed the lurking dangers of the moment. Politics is an extremely crude and dangerous instrument, but absolutely necessary. If only we could find ways to improve it.

Third, the postmodern philosophical critique of ‘Enlightenment Culture’ and its supposedly terminal condition has been quite destructive. Continental ennui infected society with an over-dramatic meme of death: death of the individual, reason, God and even culture itself. It has been devastating but could now be losing steam. Reconstruction of virtuous humanism and libertarian aspirations are hopefully in ascendance – a never ending cycle? Evolution is war, entailing the ‘death’ and elimination of obsolete functional and cultural features. However, what is fit survives and so we necessarily evolve. Without change there can be no improvement. Conservatives and liberals just disagree on how cautious we should be.

Greater clarity on the frameworks within which we exist and operate would greatly help us in putting disagreements in a more constructive perspective. Greater awareness of the super-complex structures and relationships in ‘our global culture’ may therefore be essential guideposts in our pursuit of happiness, and survival.

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(1) “While a foundational figure in cultural anthropology, Tylor … accepted the premise that all societies develop in the same way and insisted on the universal progression of human civilization from savage to barbarian to civilized. Nowhere in his writing does the plural “cultures” appear. In his view, culture is synonymous with civilization, rather than something particular to unique societies, and, so, his definition refers to “Culture or civilization.” In part, his universalist view stemmed from his Quaker upbringing, which upheld the value of a universal humanity, and indeed Tylor’s refusal to accept the concept of race as scientifically significant in the study of culture was unusual in Victorian science.” Logan, PM; 2012. BRANCH. (http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=peter-logan-on-culture-edward-b-tylors-primitive-culture-1871)

“But in terms of cultural theory, the most important criticism [of Tylorean evolutionary anthropology] was that of the American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). A German immigrant to the United States, he was influenced by German Romantic philosophy, including Herder’s insistence on cultural particularity. In 1896, Boas published an influential critique of Tylor’s science, “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology,” in which he persuasively challenged the basic notions of psychic unity and independent invention upon which Victorian evolutionary anthropology rested. .… He argued throughout his work for cultural pluralism, for “cultures” in the plural, and with him began the final shift in anthropological thought from the traditional universalism to the new, particular theory of culture that characterized twentieth-century thought.” Ibid.

(2) “Arnold objects to (the Victorian) narrow definition of culture, calling it a combination of “vanity and ignorance,” and attacking its acolytes as people who value culture solely as a form of “class distinction,” a “badge” that separates them “from other people who have not got it”. Instead, he argues, culture is a combination of broad intellectual interests with the goal of social improvement. “There is a view in which all the love of our neighbor, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it,—motives eminently such as are called social,—come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part”. Culture combines this commitment to “the moral and social passion for doing good” with the ideal of scientific objectivity, “the sheer desire to see things as they are”. Rather than a means to differentiate the elite from the mass, Arnoldian culture assumes the elite and the mass have a shared humanity. This was a novel use of the term at the time and was seen then as the most striking aspect of his new idea, …” Logan, PM; 2012. BRANCH (http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=peter-logan-on-culture-matthew-arnolds-culture-and-anarchy-1869) 

Arnold, M. from Culture and Anarchy: “The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.”

(3) Chris Buskes, Nijmegen; 2013: “Hence ‘culture’ can be defined as: all information that is transmitted to next generations by non-genetic means, i.e., through spoken or written language, teaching, or imitation. … Similar definitions of ‘culture’ can be found in Richerson and Boyd (2005); Jablonka and Lamb (2005); Plotkin (2010); Distin (2011), and Mesoudi (2011).” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11406-013-9415-8#Fn7)

(4) VandenBroek, AK. 2014: The Culture Concept. “The culture concept — which overtime has been contrasted, combined, and entangled with the related concepts of society, personality, identity, symbolism and practice — weaves together the history and core philosophical and methodological debates of anthropology as a discipline. Yet, today the concept that lies at the center of what anthropology is and does is fragmented and contested, as anthropologists have taken on the challenges put forth by postmodernity to cope with contradiction, borderlessness, constant flux, and the impacts of anthropological and historical biases, such as sexism, orientalism, and othering. This has left some anthropologists reaching back to science to find stability and others plunging into a realm of interpretation and description, while a new generation of anthropologists formed within this milieu must find space to make a discipline, whose central subject is disputed, both relevant and professional.(http://ak.vbroek.org/2014/01/03/the-culture-concept/)

(5) Vargas Llosa, M. 2012. Notes on the Death of Culture. The realm of culture is “understood not as a mere epiphenomenon of social and economic life, but as an autonomous reality, made up of ideas, aesthetic and ethical values, and works of art and literature that interact with the rest of social existence, and that are often not mere reflections, but rather the wellsprings of social, economic, political and even religious phenomena.” (https://lithub.com/mario-vargas-llosa-how-global-entertainment-killed-culture/)

(6) Darwin, C. Origin of Species, 1859. “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

(7) “Alloverse”, a neologism, refers to an universe composed of all that is outside of the universe that is within. An alloverse, in theory, consists of all the psychic events and behaviors of all members of our global community. This is derived from Saul Rosenzweig’s concept of an idioverse: “The idioverse consists of the population of events experienced by a single unique individual. This conception supersedes that of personality because the idioverse purports to be a more direct and objective formulation.” (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1026063429852) “… the concept of the idioverse, defined as a self-creative and experiential population of events.…” (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327752jpa8203_02) In short, idioverse would then consist of all the psychic experiences (events) during an individual lifetime. The interaction between idioverse and ‘alloverse’ is yet another perspective on understanding our place in the world – the supercomplex relationships between and among individuals and groups.

(8) Supercomplexity. It is becoming apparent that many challenges of life need to be approached from the perspective of supercomplexity: ontologic and epistemic challenges that exceed our ability to conceive or study objectively. Many questions relating to culture easily fall in the supercomplex category since we can not recognize or define all of the components and how they might relate to each other. We do not even know what the measures for success might be. In algebra supercomplex and hypercomplex are terms used to describe ‘fictitious’ numbers that cannot be described in ordinary language. These concepts appear to be necessary to ‘understand’ data related to gravity and quantum physics, etc. (https://youtu.be/E2zUeCK6k-A) In biochemistry it refers to a stable structure formed by the “association of two or more complexes of biological molecules that occur separately elsewhere”. (http://www.yourdictionary.com/supercomplex) The microscopic structure of our bodies similarly are supercomplex because we do not have the tools to ‘visualize’ what is inside of a neuron, for example. By transferring the rules gleaned from the macroscopic world to the microscopic one, we are engaging in a categorical leap of faith – the lack of reason in quantum phenomena illustrates the point. In addressing the complexities of preparing for tomorrow, Barnett (2004) refers to the supercomplexity of life’s learning challenges: “The challenges of complex systems, even if they could not be altogether unravelled, could be dissolved to a significant degree. The challenges of supercomplexity, in contrast, could never be resolved. They are the challenges that arise from the question: what is a university? Or: what is a teacher? Or: what is a doctor? The challenges of such questions could never be dissolved, at least not in ways similar to those of complexity. For such questions, in principle, yield a multiplication of answers and further questions. And some of those answers and further questions spring from perspectives, value positions and even ideologies that are mutually incompatible. To see universities and teachers as consumers of resources, or even as producers of resources on the one hand, and to see universities as sites of open, critical and even transformatory engagement are, in the end, incompatible positions, no matter what compromises and negotiations are sought.” (https://www.hv.se/globalassets/dokument/stodja/paper-theme-2-5.pdf) Many examples of the inability of logic and reason to explain human behavior have been documented. Time, context and order affect outcomes, demonstrating the need for quantum-like theories of cognition and rational behavior – gestalt, query, configurable weight, integration, and fuzzy trace theory. A quantum probability theory model might succeed better at predicting outcomes. (Pothos, Busemeyer. 2013) (https://ppw.kuleuven.be/okp/_pdf/Lee2013QMOCA.pdf)

(9) Weingarten, CP and Chisholm, JS; 2009. Attachment and Cooperation in Religious Groups. An Example of a Mechanism for Cultural Group Selection. “Nowak (2006) modeled the evolution of cooperation via five mechanisms: kin selection, direct reciprocity, indirect reciprocity, network reciprocity, and group selection. Nowak concluded: “we might add ‘natural cooperation’ as a third fundamental principle of evolution beside mutation and natural selection”. Group-selection models can be mathematically equivalent to models based on individual selection (Boyd 2006; Lehmann and Keller 2006; Nowak 2006).” (https://johanneslubbe.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/06ce5-commenton_attachmentandcooperationinreligiousgroups.pdf)

Emphases mine.

Scientistic Perspective on Everything – Introduction.

PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

INTRODUCTION.

Why scientism? And why do we need a perspective on everything? Suffice it to say that Science, Technology and Engineering have changed the world profoundly, but not all to the good. Cataclysmic dangers loom. It therefore behooves us to understand the issues and potential solutions. A Medical Model  is recommended: identify the relevant context, obtain accurate historical information, examine the current situation, test various theories, make a diagnosis, formulate a plan of action, monitor the progress. This may sound complicated, but it probably is not complicated enough. It would, at least, be a major improvement on current approaches.

Cosmos/Reality, Consciousness/Life and Culture/Existence.

All information and knowledge about everything, anywhere, at all times can be filed under at least one of three closely related, fairly distinct domains. They encompass all of human experience, knowledge and creativity. Every opinion of every person is concerned with an aspect of one or more of these areas:

1. The Cosmos represents Reality as it is, it is the foundational and generative basis of everything, including each one of us. With time (Evolution) it directly gave rise to Life. It is the eternal, evolving universe that we know is there, but cannot yet understand.
2. Consciousness, awareness and drive are biological processes inextricable from Life and its Evolution. In animals it additionally includes awareness of phenomena (complex things and events) associated with highly effective responses, frequently with a complex social component. In humans, mostly through language, it uniquely includes the ability to describe, communicate and choose among subjective simulations of past, present and future events. These biological, phenomenal and social components of form the foundational and generative basis of all of our Culture.
3. Human society and culture and our bodily existence in it are the substrates from which are generated the compelling virtual reality of all of our subjective experiences of self, environment and history.

Systematic biases and errors are at the core of our cultural conflicts since they exacerbate our misunderstandings. The above three intimately interwoven domains continuously modify and interact with each other. They are central to all understanding, yet their roles are not generally acknowledged. Scientific, philosophic, political and religious debates proceed almost completely unconcerned with these distinctions. As a result communication is deeply flawed and even superficial mutual understanding across disciplines is very difficult. More precise definitions and better awareness could provide a framework that focuses our discourse and opens channels of communication between disciplines and world views. Since no one has all the answers, no one is qualified to categorically exclude anyone else – but it happens all the time. It is essential that all parties actively participate and contribute, especially religion which has been under relentless and even irrational attack, but also philosophy, art, science, politics, etc

Growing up during the Cold War made a deep impression on many young minds: there were constant rumors of the imminent destruction of civilization. How could this even be that the human race would consider the possibility of destroying itself? It became somewhat of an early preoccupation trying to find the causes and possible cures for such madness. Total killed in conflicts in the 20th century about 100 million, many more injured and maimed. The 21st century already promises another rich harvest of death and destruction in the mass pursuit of delusional sectarian certainties.

There is no agreement even on a general approach to our problems. The proclivity to kill and destroy on a vast scale is dismaying, yet we seem baffled. People wring their hands and utter reassuring platitudes about peaceful co-existence, disarmament, trust, communication and cooperation. “If the others would only correct there ways” is the usual assessment by perplexed philosophers, politicians and spiritual leaders. They seem to be completely oblivious of their culpability and the limits of their understanding.

We all have great difficulty even in understanding ourselves, what we are thinking, and what our motivations are. How could anyone flourish under these adverse circumstances? Are we lost? Is this the inevitable price of ‘progress’? It might even be true that matters could have been much worse had it not been for religious campaigns for peace and universal human rights. The ultimate irony, of course, is that activists in favor of these noble goals may themselves end up rioting, burning and looting. Rather, humanity seems more distracted by other matters.

So, from where will salvation come? Do we have to wait on experts to deliver us from this bind? On a deeper level, the quest for understanding is so complicated that everyone always has to rely on authoritative sources who, it turns out, rely on other authorities, and so on. The experts upon which all of us rely are not true masters of all the facts upon which they are pronouncing judgement. Frighteningly, those upon whom much trust and responsibility have been placed, make momentous decisions without even having access to all the relevant information! In other words, assuming a leader is honest, sincere and responsible, she must still proceed by guesstimate or intuition. The crowd is usually anxious to rally behind any skillful or charismatic leader – that is the nature of politics. However, this has been a recipe for terrible mistakes. The battle of ideas too often ends up in real battles. Even in our daily lives there is much confusion, miscommunication and disagreement on everything.

What is the cure for this historic ailment? As any good doctor knows, first make a diagnosis, identify the cause and then prescribe treatment. The diagnosis is not encouraging: (a) Our sources of information are limited and unreliable. Human beings have no choice but to make decisions without ‘knowing all the facts’. (b) We are confused on our aims and goals because we do not understand ourselves or others well. (c) We do not understand our culture very well, much less that of others. (d) Our prescriptions are often based on fantasy, bias or error. For example, conflict appears to be an inherited congenital condition that manifests as a chronic disorder. It should receive more attention and be placed under continuous active management. Furthermore, we do not even have an accurate understanding of the root causes and mechanisms of expression of this malady. Fairy tale assessments are usually offered up that suggest it is all due to a few bad apples: if only the good would band together, our problems would go away!! That sort of wishful thinking has been disastrous. Rather, there is a surreptitious “banality of evil”. Simple narratives about the Son of God, the Chosen People, the Perfect Messenger, a Glorious Leader or a Workers Paradise can be very inspiring, but the net effect on their followers has been to isolate them from new information, to widen the divide amongst communities, and thus to increase the opportunity for conflict.

In too many situations perceptions of irreducible differences with The Other arise because of ‘fundamental’ principles derived from some formulation of reality or another. This error, we believe, very simply has had its roots in the universal failure to appreciate the processes involved in the production of consciousness, thought and culture. Our experiences are so self-reinforcing that very few ask what is going on behind the curtain.

A new approach should not simply be to intensify the same efforts of before, and certainly not to launch yet another triumphalist movement. Diversity of cultures and competition amongst them have been destructive at times. However, efforts at enforcing uniform attitudes and values have been even more destructive. Could there be a way out of this mess?

The cure should include better communication. Our analysis appears to re-emphasize a special role and responsibility at the individual level. We can not rely only on a few of the best and brightest, or only on some elite group. There clearly is a need to re-examine our form of governance. This should be a longterm project involving all citizens who really have the ultimate responsibility for bringing forth a true democracy. (This is all old hat, but it gets lost amidst all the shouting and screaming by leaders in various theaters of operation, departments of opinion and schools of thought.)

Through the use of common sense and common language we hope to describe a framework by which anyone could approach all knowledge and information; to address in accessible terms everything that is real and everything that exists: every thing and every non-thing. Everyone has a huge but nevertheless very incomplete fund of information, yet each has a unique and potentially valuable perspective. An encompassing framework will enable just about anyone to put in perspective what they are thinking or what some specialist is saying. Much new information is inevitable and should affect our understandings profoundly. Nevertheless, the outline of our theory should remain intact.

Everyone should feel encouraged to participate to the maximum of their ability and interest. So what is the average curious layperson to do? Systems of learning have been of two types, and combinations thereof. A still pervasive ancient approach is to wholly accept the pronouncements of a charismatic speaker, a chief, a respected oracle, a mystic master or a divine prophet. Una boca de la verita. A newer approach is practical and scientific. It depends on the cooperative efforts of many individuals applying curiosity and reason. Oracles snared insights intuitively, while the empirically curious meticulously pursued any interesting question, often being surprised themselves by the results at the end of their search. Purely intuitive truths have an attractive quality and have worked quite well, especially in primitive times when there were few alternatives. Experience has since shown many great intuitions of the past to have been simply wrong. The community efforts of scientists, philosophers and others have far outstripped the best efforts of the oracles and, like it or not, society and culture have been transformed. Paradoxically, we now have come to realize that true understanding of ourselves and our world is extremely hard to come by in most areas. So, getting down in the weeds of voluminous scientific information would be deeply frustrating for anyone interested in solving large, overarching problems.

A simpler methodology that will point in the general direction of ‘The Truth’ is needed, stipulating up front that the final destination seems permanently beyond reach. By taking a big picture, holistic approach, combining science and intuition, suggestive answers to our larger questions can be surmised, even questions that have challenged us through the ages. We must begin at the beginning.

The story of life on earth resembles a journey – an evolution. It began at some very distant point and has evolved into what we see now: a wonderful display of phenotypic diversity and superficial teleological design. With each new creature discovered, the picture becomes a little more complete. It has been said that only ~10% of bacteria have been identified. If true, this means that most of the species on the planet have not yet been looked at; many surprises are certain to be still coming our way. Even so, the big picture is pretty clear: life has, more or less coherently, evolved into innumerable niches of survival. These niches, including ours, continue to change and evolve, as does Earth and the cosmos.

Our somewhat historical narrative is all inclusive; no information exists outside the three domains of (1) reality as it is, (2) biological consciousness and (3) culture. A story of everything should establish a framework that identifies the connections between all the parts and could be referred to when difficulties arise between fields of knowledge and systems of belief. Anyone could use this framework in order to gauge where in the universe of information their interests and pursuits lie. One does not have to know everything in order to know some things, but having some idea of everything could be very helpful by putting matters in perspective. No mathematical formulae are used although we grant that they are essential for many analyses. No complex philosophic abstractions, structures or ‘isms’ are relied upon because they are too confusing for everyone, even the professionals. Summaries and perspectives by experts, however, are very useful for up to date objective information in their respective fields; one should always keep in mind that such fields may have their own built-in biases. As new information develops, adjustments must be accommodated. In other words, one must keep an honest and open mind, recognizing that we lack complete knowledge and understanding in virtually every area of human pursuit.

Allowance for ignorance, misunderstanding and error should be an important feature of a complete framework. Perhaps what has been missing in all other efforts at providing a coherent framework of knowledge and understanding has been a recognition of our large information deficiencies and many misapprehensions. Despite our limitations, humans have managed to ‘flourish’ while holding completely incorrect or fantastical ideas. Our numerous gaps are especially acute at the borders of the three knowledge domains: what were the initial conditions at the beginning and what set this majestic process in motion? What were the crucial forces operating at the beginning of life, propelling it in an apparent quest for multiplication, diversification and survival above all else? Perhaps most important, what is driving events now and what is our role in our own future evolution? For instance, is our future wholly dependent on computable events? Or, is there a human element that is undefinable, essential, unpredictable and irreplaceable?

Furthermore, humility should be front and center because no matter how superior anyone’s knowledge might be, any such single individual can theoretically master but a very small percentage of all available information; especially since what is available is itself very limited in relation to the entire universe of potential information. Knowledge is more like a web of ideas to which everyone contributes. Culture is a web of ideas plus a web of behaviors plus a collection of artifacts. Various grandiose claims of profound understanding and mastery are on the order of the day and dot the cultural landscape. Prudence suggests great skepticism, even cynicism. To the extent that these claims motivate individuals and groups to attain new heights of excellence, they may be beneficial. But most of these claims, however, are hyped and subsist largely on the human need to trust, belong and be reassured. Humility notwithstanding, substituting one’s own judgement for that of another is always risky business and should not be done lightly.

Our approach is new of necessity because it has not really been possible until now. In the earliest stages of our culture knowledge was mostly intuitive, based on natural observation of phenomena that were all extremely mysterious then. The Copernican revolution about 600 years ago started the scientific ball rolling in earnest. The amount of information on natural/physical phenomena collected since then is amazing. There are still huge mysteries but now, at least, we have an idea of where to look for the answers. Biology was rather slow out of the gate. There were early fits and starts, but a coherent story has only been emerging over the last 60 years or so, essentially since the identification of DNA. We are only now beginning to understand the basic processes of life.

The most surprising realization, looking at all the different areas of knowledge, has been how coherent the picture seems to be. Despite the accumulation of an almost infinite amount of data, the gaps are still large. At this juncture it would appear that no definitely irreducible gaps are present within this vast body of information. All the processes appear as if they could be interrelated. The reductionism of the physicists studying ‘fundamental’ processes in the cosmos is therefore theoretically possible: all phenomena could in theory be explained in terms of the behavior of elementary particles and fundamental forces. As a practical matter, this is probably not going to happen, ever.

There do appear, however, to be definite irreducible boundaries to what we can know: We cannot obtain information from prior to the alleged Big Bang. We cannot obtain information from any signals that might travel faster than the speed of light, if there are such. We cannot predict the future with certainty because so much information has been lost or is not observable. In addition, human abilities of observation and processing appear to be extremely limited. Culture and behavior also appear not to be predictable because of the complexities involved: each one of us is functionally different; H. sapiens also mysteriously co-evolves continuously with nature and Reality. Absolute determinism and reductionism, therefore, appear to be abstract mathematical formulations, not certainties, and as a practical matter, they appear irrelevant to questions regarding our existence.

The theme of inter-connectedness is especially strong in the biological realm, all of which revolves around DNA. There is surprising genotypic similarity amongst the extremely diverse population of living creatures on earth. What could be more strikingly different to the human eye than a single-celled paramecium, a 1 mm blind worm in the soil, and a two hundred ton whale? Quite amazingly, there are numerous similarities at the molecular level between all these life forms. All life on earth appears to be closely related despite the tremendous diversity. There is also a high level of interdependence. Bacteria are the scavengers, scrubbers and true work-horses of our biosphere. If they went on strike, the rest of the biosphere would quickly grind to a halt.

In summary:
1. All information is relevant to the framework.
2. Most observable information is not observed, consciously or otherwise.
3. An incomplete but fairly coherent narrative is possible when allowing for unobserved and unobservable information.
4. An integrated story of all information always would represent an informed and inspired guess of one person, relying on the efforts of many others.
5. Individuals are the seat of the most coherent evaluation of the greatest amount of information.
6. A working framework of and perspective on everything should facilitate human communication.
7. Improved human communication should increase human flourishing.
8. Each human being consciously and ‘unconsciously’ processes a vast trove of information, far in excess of other animals, yet our abilities are still very finite.
9. Improved networking would be a simple and obvious means by which to improve our knowledge base, coordinate our actions and provide meaning to our existence.
10. The presence, extent, function or purpose of unobservable information will always perplex human imagination.

Scientistic Perspective on Everything – 1. Reality As It Is.

PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

PART ONE: GENESIS OF REALITY AS IT IS NOW.

Domain 1. Reality as it is (Ultimate Reality, Ontic Reality, the Universe of Everything, the Cosmos) consists of evolving interacting systems, said to be composed of energies, forces, matter, atoms, molecules and structures; animate or inanimate, dead or alive, organic or inorganic, simple or complex, observed or unobserved or unobservable. With the advent of higher forms of life Reality is now contemplating itself”. (See caveat below.)

Contrary to the imaginary situation described in our still very popular creation myths (mythical ontologies), we now have a pretty detailed and complex idea of Reality based on vast amounts of empirical observation (scientistic ontology). The evidence can not be squared with our inherited ancient myths: we now ‘know’ that our cosmos might have been evolving over the last ~14 billion years. The most popular version of the cosmic story is that in the beginning there was nothing, except maybe a relatively simple hyper-dense state of some sort. Suddenly, this point of comparative nothingness changed and an unimaginable effusion of energy ensued with particles radiating into space, possibly expanding at speeds even greater than light. After about three billion years our galaxy began to form. After another 6 billion more the sun and earth emerged; a billion or so more, i.e. about 4 billion years ago, life came about. Reality as it is had done its own thing for about 10 billion years, violently, in secret, noiselessly and in the dark. There was no person to see, hear or smell, let alone wonder about it. But out of the bosom of a vast interplay of material/physical/natural processes, life somehow became established on our little planet in a panoply of millions of different forms, sizes and shapes, all now orchestrated by an extremely gifted molecule: DNA.

The cosmos has been evolving on scales so immense that we can not intuitively understand it – from the beginning, now and henceforth. Each supposed little particle or wavy fluctuation has its place. Physicists use mathematical abstractions and a special language to describe their findings, still there reigns much disagreement amongst different schools of thought. Those who claim to understand the physics and math – many say it is impossible to grasp it all – admit that the submicroscopic universe is very different from the ‘natural’ phenomenal world we intuitively know. In fact, an ordinary language narrative describing the structures and events yields a very sparse picture of what is going on.

Chemists and biologists have also amassed libraries of information, far more than what any one person could possibly digest. No one can claim to understand all the ‘fundamental’ processes. We don’t even fully understand how the humblest forms of life manage to do the very complex things that they do – sensing, taxis, communication, etc. Reality as it is does not readily conform to the ‘laws of nature’ as we know them from our natural perspective and common sense analysis. Natural logic, language and human imagination are incapable of describing reality as it is, albeit now partially and indirectly observed in a very small nook of the cosmos. All we know for certain is that the findings are real, observable by anyone who would make the effort, and could be independently confirmed by anyone with huge resources. The findings have a basis in Reality but their interpretation is highly controversial and may yet prove to be highly inadequate. Our narrative therefore could be likened to a fairy tale based on reams of very strange but hard data.

Anyhow, our infant universe supposedly expanded prodigiously as it cooled from billion degree plus temperatures down to 1000 degrees C. in the course of the first 200,000 years. (It may have taken 10 billion years to get the temperature down to the about 70 degrees C. at which DNA could exist.) Out of this opaque miasma things coagulated and precipitated on a microscopic and macroscopic scale. The early universe was lifeless, but definitely not still. Tumultuous energy, force and motion was everywhere, yet exquisitely directed by intrinsic, systemic relationships. Then, still quite inexplicably, about 4 bya there arose molecules that had the ability to multiply and organize other molecules such as to create minute little organic systems of energy processing and molecule building: LIFE. There is nothing known for certain about what produced this miracle. Likely precursors or initial conditions have been modeled based on creative guess-work; we now have some vague suspicions of a series of events that could have lead to the evolution of DNA as the replicating molecule responsible for this diverse abundance of life on our planet. The possible roles of nanomotors (molecular motors) as drivers of an evolutionary process based on enhanced survival have been suggested. DNA must be such a rapidly replicating nanomotor, a local, microscopic conduit of basic physical and chemical forces that drive it along – the will to power, an élan vital, whatever. DNA appears to select in favor of survival, efficiency or fitness through competition. Perhaps this selection is in favor of greater information processing – an early sign of ‘intelligence’ in a molecule? The essence of this replicating force is that it appears to enhance survival through learning, adapting and diversifying as vast numbers of different iterations compete for limited resources. Probably viral RNA and DNA contributed crucially to the creation of life. A dynamic universe, therefore, drives all processes, including life, but how? (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3185796/) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis)

And then life bloomed in dazzling profusion! Our earthly sector of living Reality rapidly proliferated and spread to populate seemingly every niche on our tiny planet, located near the sun, toward the edge of the Milky Way, one galaxy among a supercluster of 100,000! After about 3,800 million years of life, the first mammals arrived, circa 200 million years ago. The first anatomically modern humans appeared only about 200,000 years ago, having the most complex anatomy and physiology of any animal, regardless of size, and a clear and distinct human consciousness which is manifested in an utterly unique and exceptional socio-cultural existence. There thus seems to have been an inexorable drive toward ever more diverse and complex organisms, possibly having something to do with processing more information, exact reason unknown, but in the process probabilities of survival are increased. This promotion of diversity appears to hold even down to the individual level. For example, at least 12% of the human genome is highly variable, adding yet another level of mystery, uncertainty and unpredictability. Each individual human organism thus represents a unique assemblage of Reality, as it is now. And, as far as we know, there are only about 8 billion copies extant in the universe; an infinitely small number in the greater scheme of things.

Reality, as it is in itself, has certainly come a long way! From our perspective, the arrival of life and the arrival of abstract, symbolic hominid self consciousness demarcate important phases in the evolution of Reality as it is. The fundamental lesson to be learned from this story is that we do not see a clear break when traveling from quark to neuron. Reality, as it is, supposedly started out as an undifferentiated singularity, and we, like everything else, are all descendants of that hypothetical Big Bang. Life and all its processes are expressions of this dynamic universe, even though it is limited to an extremely minute section of the whole, as far as we can tell. It appears that each of us is a slightly different and unique variation on this overarching theme. You and maybe sextillions of other organisms incarnate Reality as it is here on Earth in its most up to date version. This is awesome. Congratulations – we have been lucky indeed!

It is impossible for us to fully understand what utterly amazing creations we are. We do not come with an operator’s manual or list of components, and so we have to slowly uncover our own miraculous design and structure. Our nervous system is at the apex of complexity in our universe, unparalleled amongst most of the animals: about 100 billion interconnected neurons, approximately 100 trillion synapses continuously transmitting electrochemical signals. Each one of the neurons may be nothing less than a small (collection of) quantum computer(s). The neuronal cell body is stuffed with microtubules apparently containing quantum critical proteins that could function like quantum computers. This is still highly preliminary but does show the vast amount of information that would be required to understand brain function and the processes of life. We are just beginning to scratch the surface. (Kaufmann/Hameroff 2015)  Killer whales and elephants have somewhat comparable brains to primates.

This is probably more than what most of us would want to know about reality as it is (Reality). Most of the evidence and science is beyond me, and, I would assume, for many others. Still this new story told through science, even though extremely incomplete, rings truer now than all the wonderful creation myths of old.

HOWEVER, a major caveat is in order. The above description is very misleading because the language used to describe Reality is derived from reality as we experience it, subjectively, in consciousness, and not as it is in itself. There are no words to describe Reality since human consciousness has no direct access to Reality. The eye of the mind can not see Reality. Despite our direct sensing of it, intimate interaction with it, and the existence of volumes of investigative information about it, Reality still hides behind an impenetrable electrochemical fence in our brain.

We cannot conceptualize Reality except through representational imaginings correlating with our senses, or from experimental information obtained in ways that are very mysterious to almost everyone. Hence there is a very troubling, but not very surprising, degree of conceptual disagreement amongst researchers and ordinary folk. These conceptual imaginings exist in consciousness thus allowing us to describe in words what we think about this all encompassing presence. Unfortunately for us, our words are not up to the task, our communications are nothing but hints of the Real. (Here, as an example, is a fun review of the common sense difficulties encountered in imagining the atom.)

Furthermore, the overwhelming number of people on our planet do not agree with this naturalistic, physicalist, materialist or scientistic narrative because it is based on new and unfamiliar information, and it calls into question age-old settled beliefs. Our natural experience of reality in consciousness also is so compelling that we are not inclined to second guess it, or our intuitive understanding of it. Most also feel that this cosmic evolution could not have occurred without the guiding hand of a Creator and want to see an accommodation for this external force. It is becoming increasingly clear that direct evidence for such an intervention will never be forthcoming. The supreme intelligence of the design is in its divine seamlessness, in its inexplicability and ineffability. Clues leading to a designer are either everywhere or nowhere.

In stead of relying on oracles and revelations, us humans should realize that we are an intimate part of an evolving reality, changing ourselves and the world as we unravel its mysteries. Reality as it is is now engaged in trying to understand itself. But there is much more to this story!

First published 2015. Revised 2018.

Scientistic Perspective on Everything – 2 Consciousness.

PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

PART TWO: LIFE, CONSCIOUSNESS AND HUMAN THOUGHT.

Domain 2. The necessary interaction of all living organisms with reality as it is (Reality) occurs through exquisitely precise physical, chemical and biological mechanisms that themselves are part of and harness the intrinsic ‘physical’ processes of Reality. Real or physical signals are recognized, internalized and processed in organized, interdependent, ‘intelligent’ biological systems (organisms) that respond to the environment, grow and multiply. This primary response to the environment can be recognized in all organisms, i.e. they appear to be ‘conscious’ of their environment. Animals have added prodigiously to this basic template: nervous systems and sense organs allow for a representational awareness of the internal and external world.

Let us start with what we all know well, our minds, and work backwards.

Embedded in our conscious minds lies a deep contradiction: we know it intimately, it is part of us yet we know very little about it. Mind is inexplicable even as everyone is utterly familiar with it: the greatest show on earth, the Magnificent Theater of The Mind, featuring true feeling, compelling narrative, cycloramic 3-D full color and stereophonic sound – even in our dreams as we sleep. Add to this our favorite tastes, smells and pleasurable activities; everything.

Despite this intimacy, perhaps because of it, we have always been confused about what and how it is and what it all means. There are many fanciful theories: an immaterial spirit that enters our body, an accurate representation of the external and internal world, our governing faculty, seat of the decider making choices, or even a completely pointless and distracting epiphenomenon of unconscious brain processes. Actually, the objective answer is disarmingly simple: Consciousness is everything an organism does in response to its environment, whether that includes thinking about it or not. The mechanisms by which our subjective experiences are produced are still shrouded in mystery. There is no adequate explanation, despite prodigious amounts of empirical data, because we still do not know all the structures that are involved. Invoking patterns of electrical discharges across trillions of synapses does not explain much. Our narratives are still pretty paltry.

Human self-aware consciousness, thought and language, along with their social implications, without doubt are amongst our most characteristic attributes. We are constantly aware of our feelings and our interactions with both the environment and our fellow sapient creatures, with an almost limitless ability to think, talk and write about it. We are compelled by our inner experiences and social interactions; it is there that we feel we find the reasons for our existence, our purpose and the meaning of it all. Many believe that this represents the essence of who and what we are. But in order to really understand what this means we need to examine the process, the underlying mechanics. After all, one would be very confused about the workings of a TV by analyzing the content of the programs on its screen. Rather, by unlocking the biological secrets of human thought we may be able to extend our self-understanding greatly, in turn, hopefully opening up opportunities for social improvement. Ignorance is not bliss.

Thus, if consciousness relates to the essence of who and what we are, it would be critically important to understand it. That would be a great step toward understanding ourselves and others. A good place to start, then, is to separate subjective content from the underlying objective physicochemical and biological, including psychological, processes.

We are not alone. Clearly, many other animals have easily recognizable consciousness since they objectively exhibit behaviors associated with consciousness – eating, drinking, sleeping, seeing, hearing, caring for off-spring, etc. Mammals and primates have sense organs just like ours with large brains and behaviors that parallel ours for the most part. Animals also exhibit on careful study what appears to be emotions, learning, memory, language and problem solving ability. The prior opinion that we were the only conscious creatures appears to have been based on prejudice and deep ignorance. Or, perhaps, we do not understand what our ancestors meant by consciousness In all likelihood, we will never fully know what it is like to be a bat, a lion, a dog, a dolphin or an ant. Each species represents their own very special case. We are constantly being amazed by how complex and intricate the lives of other creatures are. The closer we look the more common threads there are between all living creatures.

The Unity of Life

All animals capture and process ‘information’ from the environment in very similar ways. One of the major discoveries of evolutionary biology over the last 5 decades is the surprising degree to which all animals, down to the very simplest, share in a large set of common molecules that coordinate development and allow interaction with the environment. About 40% of the genes of a tiny worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, persist in humans. It has been possible to insert the human version back into the worm where it continued to perform its functions quite well. Outwardly, then, there is no similarity between this worm and a human being, but if one drills down on the molecular details, the correspondences are astounding. The similarities may even outweigh the differences. Human and worm have about the same number of protein coding genes, ~20,000, even though the human genome is about 30 times longer. But, by studying this little denizen of the dirt, we have learned a lot about ourselves. Certainly, we must accept the very likely possibility that any creature with neurons shares the beginnings of consciousness with us in some essential but not yet clearly identified way. Anyway, rejecting this possibility out of hand would be repeating a mistake we have often been guilty of in the past.

Let’s get to know this sightless little nematode a little better. C. elegans was first described by Emile Maupas in 1900. Then it was left mostly alone until 1960 when Sidney Brenner suggested that this humble, ~1 mm worm with no brain or respiratory and circulatory system would be ideal for intensive, collaborative study in the hope of understanding the mysteries of life. Brenner ultimately received a Nobel Prize in 2002. Today it is the best understood animal of all, including us. It was the first multi-cellular organism to have its genome sequenced. This little worm is also extremely predictable structurally: every one of 959 somatic cells of hermaphrodites has been mapped, including the structure and connections of each of its 302 neurons (males, a minority of the population, have 383):

“With only five olfactory neurons, C. elegans can dynamically respond to dozens of attractive and repellent ‘odors’ or ‘tastes’. Thermosensory neurons enable the nematode to remember its cultivation temperature and to track narrow isotherms. Polymodal sensory neurons detect a wide range of nociceptive cues and signal robust escape responses. Pairing of sensory stimuli leads to long-lived changes in behavior consistent with associative learning. Worms exhibit social behaviors and complex ultradian rhythms driven by calcium ion oscillators with clock-like properties. Genetic analysis has identified gene products required for nervous system function and elucidated the molecular and neural bases of behaviors.” [De Bono, 2005.]

When describing the behavior of a 1 mm blind roundworm, dispassionate scientific observers cannot avoid using anthropomorphic terms because the objective similarities to human activities are undeniable. Memory, learning, smell, rhythms, tracking, escape, social behavior and measurement of time; these terms describe intelligence and consciousness, not necessarily of the human kind, but of an organism fully engaged according to its needs and abilities in its world, sensing it, evaluating it, applying memory and making choices, using all available tools to flourish and survive. Lacking eyes it does not see, without ears it can not listen, BUT like the retina it has photoreceptors and like the cochlear membrane this little worm has mechanoreceptors. It does have an extremely rudimentary ‘nose’, and it does feed on bacteria so we can wonder what it likes best. There is neural circuitry for navigation and exploration to satisfy a natural curiosity perhaps.

Some populations of C. elegans feed in social groups, other populations consist of solitary individuals proceeding by themselves – a genetic basis for political preferences??. This is all due to the presence of a variant of one gene that codes for neuropeptide-y receptor. A related receptor is found throughout the animal kingdom and affects food consumption, mood and anxiety. Interestingly, it may modulate our intake of alcohol.

A small worm with no brain thus appears to be highly intelligent and clearly displays awareness of its surroundings – consciousness! (In fact, it is surprising how much can be done with so little.) This kind of anthropomorphizing (teleonomy) risks the introduction of confusing biases, but one has to start somewhere to gain insight and understanding of ourselves, others and the natural world. The complex and graceful interaction between a male C. elegans and an hermaphroditic partner is a choreography of multiple intricate steps that has to be perfectly sequenced for success: contact, reversing, finding the entrance, inserting spicules and ejaculation. This particular behavior (e-motion) is coordinated by oxytocin-like peptides (nematocin) without which the sequence becomes uncoordinated, ineffective and impotent. A few neurons are capable of producing very complex responses to the environment, responses that can be modulated and coordinated by chemicals.

If a short oligopeptide hormone can do this for a tiny worm with 302 neurons, imagine what it could do for an animal with millions or billions of neurons: oxytocin is a peptide consisting of 9 amino acids – not big enough to be called a protein – and it contributes much to what makes us human. It affects sexual, social and maternal behavior, controls lactation and uterine contraction; it can also affect levels of anxiety and fear, even ethnocentric behavior; the list is long and the interactions are extremely complicated. The cellular and tissue distribution of receptors for these neuropeptides varies widely among species and this has a profound effect on the many different types of behavior expressed by different animals, amongst closely related species, and even within a species such as C. elegans. It is complicated! With more basic information forthcoming, we are bound to learn much and our understanding of behavior should become even more nuanced. At this stage it seems that, while inputs and outputs are extremely variable, the internal tools with which responses are managed are surprisingly uniform. A stark, fundamental difference between worm and man is that the latter has a vast amount of DNA that is ‘non-functional’, i.e. DNA that we do not quite understand yet. [Bargmann, 2013.  Wikipedia.  Insel, 2010.]

Climbing further down the phylogenetic ladder in our search for what might be deemed unconscious life, let us take a quick peek at Paramecium, a unicellular creature with multiple nuclei. However, this one extremely large cell has many specialized intracellular organelles. There is a mouth area where food vesicles are ingested and then funneled through the cell as digestion takes place. Its cell membrane bears cilia for propulsion, is excitable and, like a neuron, can maintain a surface electrical charge due to the presence of ion channels. One cell thus performs many specialized functions. Its genome codes for about 40,000 proteins, almost double that of Homo. This is also, therefore, not a candidate for simple, unintelligent life. It is very complex, coordinated and extremely good at what it does. A Paramecium likely is more complex than any single mammalian cell. It performs many different specialized tasks and it is ‘conscious’ of its environment. It even has the ability to solve ‘simple’ navigation problems by ‘choosing’ between a few ‘simple’ strategies. Memory appears to be involved.

Bacteria occupy the bottom rung of life on the complexity scale, so what can these minute unicellular creatures do? Most of them amount to almost nothing, up to a million or more could fit inside a single Paramecium. However, once methods were developed to study their behavior and correlating such behavior with molecular structure, there ensued shocked surprise: “Nearly all motile bacteria can sense and respond to their surroundings—finding food, avoiding poisons, and targeting cells to infect, for example—through a process called chemotaxis” which exhibits “exquisite sensitivity, extensive dynamic range and precise adaptation”. [PhysOrg, 2012.  Hazelbauer, 2008.]

Rich systems of communication via chemical signals can exist between individuals of the same or different strain, sometimes communicating with a different species or even the host. Thus bacteria can sense their population density, and so judge whether conditions are favorable or adverse (quorum sensing). This allows bacteria to coordinate their gene expression and the behavior of their entire community to enhance collective survival and prosperity. This may even entail a life-style switch, from a nomadic individual, “planktonic” existence to that of a strictly controlled community, e.g. a biofilm, one that is relatively impervious to toxins, or to a virulent community that can attack other organisms or their host. In biofilms it has been found “that the descendants could remember the surface sensing signals of their ancestors”, suggesting primordial memory and learning. This is surprising. Also quite impressive has been the discovery of electrical signaling resembling neuronal activity, allowing different parts of the biofilm to communicate. [Lee, CK et al. 2018Prindle, A et al. 2015Masi,E et al. 2015]

There seems to be no limit to the strange behaviors of bacteria; strange because such behavior seems, improbably, to be an analogue of human behavior. For example, there is community policing of ‘cheaters’ that benefit from collective efforts but do not contribute their part. In some situations, some cheating is tolerated, apparently because such diversity improve chances of overall survival. Sometimes competing entities might try to disrupt the cooperative efforts of others by chemically interfering with their signals. Bacteria are actually engaged in a never-ending arms-race with intense and lethal competition for lebensraum and natural resources! (Humans can benefit from this because bacteria are the major pathway for introducing non-carbon elements into the food chain.) Bacteria thus have a very impressive arsenal of toxins and weapons at their disposal, even leading to feasting on DNA released during the fray. A recent sensational headline warned “Killer Cholera Bacterium Stabs Others With Tiny Spear, Steals DNA” – some fragments of victims’ DNA may become incorporated in the genome of the victors in the hope of promoting fitness for survival. Sometimes fratricidal groups will kill off their non-aggressive comrades, but the opposite can also happen: virulent individuals commit suicide when exposed to the ‘love-hormones’ of their more peaceful kin – give me freedom, or give me death. [Speaker Abstracts, 5th ASM Conference on cell-cell communication, 2014.]

Bacteria are the smallest free-living units of DNA – viruses exist at the borderline of life. While animals are infinitely more complex, bacteria are definitely not simple. There are predictions now being made that we will never be able to accurately conceptualize the submicroscopic structure and inner workings of even a single cell. Therefore, it seems rather odd to call something simple when one is utterly unable to explain how it works. That almost everyone is guilty of ignoring this paradox raises interesting questions about the accuracy and precision of human thought: maybe close is good enough? Now that we are able to study bacteria with more sophisticated tools we have been surprised at their level of complexity and exquisite interaction with their environments. This now makes sense given the fact that life and its precursors have been incubating for ~4 billion years or more. Today’s survivors are all highly evolved and maximally complex, it being highly unlikely that a bacterium from the dawn of life could survive today.

Nobody would seriously suggest that bacteria think the way we do. However, careful observation of them leads to the firm conclusion that they are very ‘intelligent’, conscious in an operational and objective sense of the word, and that they react purposefully. It is apparently built into their DNA, or, more precisely, that is what DNA does. Understanding what exactly that purpose is and how it is pursued is still a deep and fascinating mystery. A better intuitive understanding of what drives molecules would be very helpful. DNA is a very talented, purpose driven and intelligent molecule indeed! In its most basic bacterial form, it has managed to infiltrate and populate every nook and cranny where life could survive.

A common thread in human history seems to be that we always have been and continue to be surprised by Reality. Now that oracles have been proven unreliable or possibly deceitful as sources of knowledge regarding the nature of reality, all possibilities are now on the table. We should continue to expect more surprises.

Human Sociobiology

After learning of the extraordinary ‘intelligence’ of bacteria, worms, fruit flies, fish and so on, we come face to face with a very interesting and revealing set of questions: what a piece of work is man? How do we do what we do? But most important, perhaps, what, exactly, are we doing, and why? One of the first attempts at a science based materialist investigation of these matters was apparently met with anger and derision. Edward O. Wilson has said that he was taken completely by surprise by the reaction to his “Sociobiology, The New Synthesis” published in 1975. Political biases came into play. However, answers to our basic questions about  life are seemingly far more subtle and  complex than what we had anticipated. Our universe contains much more intelligence than we ever imagined. But how does this help us in dealing with our apparently chaotic culture? That is our fundamental challenge. It has been said that ignorance is bliss. However, our thesis is that ignorance is also very dangerous – it certainly has been so far.

From what we now know, it seems clear that all of life exhibits a form of intelligence by directly responding to and interacting with its environment, even altering that environment in a particular niche of Reality. We will call this biophysical consciousness. It has been stated that most or all animals also exhibit phenomenal awareness which would be in addition to the various forms of basic biophysical awareness. That is, most animals are also aware of macroscopic structures and events in their environment – the crash of a falling tree, a sudden flash of lightning or the repellent stench of rotting flesh (repellent to us but attractive to flies). Thus through enhanced processing and integration of the basic physical signals that give rise to biophysical consciousness many animals have senses like ours; sight smell, sound, vision, touch, etc. It seems almost certain that animals with bodies like ours (eyes, ears, noses, tongues and brains, etc.) would experience the world generally in the way we do, but with numerous specific differences. For example, most primates have trichromatic color vision – they can see red. Most other mammals are dichromatic and can not see red. Shapes, sizes and movements seem to be observed similarly to us, but we can not even imagine what their sense of smell or taste is like, or what they feel when threatened or in danger. Trying to imagine the world of very different creatures like fish, worms and bacteria at this time is asking too much. (Since there is also a wide variation in how humans are constituted, we are also never quite sure what another person would be experiencing.)

Furthermore, as an example, it is still a profound mystery as to how the utterly reliable and predictable subjective sensation of any color comes about – the qualium of color. Apparently, we can distinguish ~200,000 shades of color. It is another one of those ‘miracles’. Add to this the stunning variety of  tastes, smells, sounds and feelings that we experience, pleasurable and otherwise, and we can not help but being cognitively overwhelmed. Apparently, the nervous systems processes signals from everywhere in the body in a complex hierarchical system, feeding information via the autonomic and peripheral systems upwards through the hind-, mid- and forebrain. It then seems as if there is a cortical network that looks at all the intracranial activity and then produces a report to a separately experienced self. The dimensions of what is happening as we laugh, cry and dream are practically infinite: billions of neurons, trillions of synapses, interactions with peptides, hormones and the immune system, ad infinitum. But, put it all together and there effortlessly appears before us a clear and distinct world. It is quite beguiling, another miracle.

We have learned much about human consciousness by studying animals. Parallels with primates and mammals are now obvious. Somewhat surprising, it has also been very revealing to learn that fruit flies, fish and many other lower animals also use social strategies that can be correlated in humans: strategic copying, innovation, social learning. (Laland, KN. 2017) With new technologies we are now also learning much by scientifically studying human subjects. Research over the last few decades in human consciousness has yielded quite surprising results, leading to a complete rethinking of how it works and what its biological correlations are.

The almost universal assumption that what you see is what you get is not tenable anymore. The longstanding, still popular, common sense view that “the conscious self is fully in charge of behavior, sees the world generally as it is, and directs behavior as it sees fit” has been almost completely revised based on human psychological research. In essence, close observation of humans under controlled conditions has revealed that our mental processes may produce unreliable results unbeknownst to ourselves: our explanations of our own behavior are often not very rigorous at all; rather, the most convenient or facile reason may be selected from a trove of stock explanations, especially if it is socially acceptable. Actions may already be underway before conscious thought joins in, even though we might still think that we are consciously initiating the process. Gaps in a narrative or pattern may be unconsciously filled in. Conscious analysis may not even be essential for complex planning; goals and social motives can be activated in the absence of a conscious decision. There are therefore multiple extraordinary complex processes occurring while we are under the impression that a ‘simple’ conscious act is underway.

Perhaps the most arresting feature of all the new information about consciousness is that we have historically neglected the role of affect, feelings, mood and emotions in our lives – swept under the rug, as it were, because, quite simply, emotions were beyond the reach of all rational understanding. They needed to be suppressed or controlled, certainly banished from rigorous intellectual, scientific or philosophical discourse. Unlike intentional cognition, there is nothing clear and distinct about affect, yet here may lie another great store of future discovery and understanding. Emotions appear to provide the underpinnings of all our behavior, even ‘rational’ thought.

We know guilt, shame, fear, disgust, anger, hate, etc. These negative emotions tend to narrow the focus onto a problem to the exclusion of everything else. They often end in separation, loss, destruction or worse. Positive emotions may be less conspicuous or salient; they broaden and build, bring growth and innovation with improvements in health, wealth and happiness. Given our state of ignorance, we do not know how to best harness the powers within. The range of possibilities beckon, especially if it turns out that emotions are not as automatic and primitive as had been thought. (Barret, LF. 2017)

The adaptive value of human thinking and communication thus far appears centered primarily around social goals such as inclusion, cohesion, security and survival. Our interests in philosophy and science, i.e. pursuit of reliable and useful knowledge, are rather recent and had been largely secondary. This now appears to have changed, with science, technology and engineering affecting human social existence radically. These findings, accumulating now for a couple of decades, have been devastating to the classical conceit that consciousness controls input and output from the perspective of objective knowledge. The concept of humans as independent rational conscious executive agents is rarely true, if ever. [Baumeister et al, 2010.  Panksepp, The affective brain and core consciousness, 2008.]

What have we learned then, so far, about human consciousness that is likely to be true? Well, as we already know, humans occupy a special place amongst the animals when it comes to thinking, language and complex social interaction. However, our consciousness, like all others, has evolved from basic biophysical consciousness over billions of years. It is an attribute of our particular biological heritage. At least all animals with brains have what is referred to as phenomenal consciousness; awareness of the structures and events in their surroundings through sense organs leading to highly intelligent responses, e.g. tracking a smell across an open field, identifying the prey and then capturing it. Humans can do much the same, except for the tracking of a smell part, but what no other animal can do is to communally identify a goal, devise a specific strategy, communicate it amongst the group, assign different responsibilities and then execute based on the mutual understanding of the articulated plan. Non-humans are at a deep existential disadvantage in this theater of operations! Each human can mentally simulate what is being discussed as if it were really happening. No other animal can communicate in complex logical sentences because none can think in such sentences. So their powers of simulation have to be very limited compared to ours. That, at least, is what the latest evidence suggests, but it is likely that animals will again surprise us to the upside.

We have diverged from other animals by virtue of this ‘quantum leap’: our ability to simulate events and circumstances away from the here and now, to communicate what is in our mind, and attempt to emulate what someone else is simulating in their mind based on their words. Past or future events can be simulated, shared, discussed and analyzed, leading to vastly improved cooperation, execution and coexistence. Such advanced teamwork obviously has been of great adaptive and survival value – fitness in our case is determined by how much information is processed, communicated and stored. We have access to a total store of about 200,000 words, the average person has a vocabulary of about 20,000 words, with an upper limit of about 100,000. We all have quite a memory for words, but there are extraordinary individuals, for instance, that can remember every day of their life. There are others that can remember a sequence of about 80,000 random digits. There are yet others that can replay a piece of piano music after hearing it once.

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the unreliabilities already mentioned, conscious thought has a creative ability of coming up with novel situations and ideas, including the ability to imagine, fantasize and speculate without limit or regard for practicality. These are the skills that produce art, literature, music or play-acting for entertainment and enlightenment. There are, also, real strengths inherent in our focused thinking: many individuals are able to intensely concentrate on logic, evidence and innovation, achieving very impressive results in technology, science, mathematics and philosophy. Our greatest creative achievements have been thus inspired, but also some of our worst misadventures. This creativity is the source of our celebrated faculty of  so-called ‘free will’; mind can seemingly go anywhere. A garden of both good and evil is enclosed within the walls of our skull.

The evidence alluded to so far exposes numerous, unsuspected large gaps in our understanding of human and animal consciousness. Interestingly, while human consciousness is rightly elevated on a pedestal, much of what we know is based on studies in animals, including primates, rodents, insects, worms and bacteria. The evidence so far does not support the popular but ancient concept of a specific supra-natural or extraneous human faculty inserting itself into our bodies. All of the vegetative, tropic and reflexive functions, as well as many of their molecular and genetic underpinnings, present in humans, can be found in other animals. Our unique specializations, such as complex language and socio-cultural interactions, are very exceptional indeed but their primordial beginnings can be recognized in other animals. All this correlates very well with our large neocortex, great number of neurons and possibly 100 trillion synapses that are further fine tuned by physiological factors. Therefore, no unbridgeable gap or irreducible mystery appears to exist – our biological equipment seems very much to be up to the task. Our perplexity and confusion is due to the extraordinary nature of our subjective experiences, which had led many to assume a  divine gift. However, it now seems likely that mammals also see, hear and taste like we do. They too have phenomenal consciousness, but, unlike us, they probably just don’t think or talk about it as  much or as clearly as we do. Like many other mysteries, we can not explain phenomenal consciousness yet – it is extraordinarily complex, another ‘miracle’. Evidence based theories are only now beginning to show up.

In summary, consciousness divides the universe of information into two: the little that we are aware of and the rest that we are not. Protagoras had said something similar, “Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Consciousness is a fundamental feature of life, itself having been produced by the dynamic natural processes of a submicroscopic and cosmic Reality. All species have their unique qualities. Our unique human mind appears to be a culmination of the ancient processes of biophysical awareness and phenomenal consciousness. Most of our processing of vast amounts of information still occurs in the biophysical realm without involvement of phenomenal or conscious thought (mind) centers. Everything that we find interesting is addressed in the realm of thought and simulation, and it becomes part of our culture when it is socially shared in words, sounds, images, tastes and artifacts. Our responses to information that we acquire from the environment (culture), however, are usually and mostly managed through automatic and semi-automatic processes residing in biophysical and phenomenal consciousness. Affect, emotions and feelings are central to our humanity, and, unsurprisingly, we understand even less about their role in our personal lives. It appears that conscious thought is very selective in its involvement in day to day operations, monitoring our activities and intruding when necessary. Intense focus and concentration on certain selected tasks are possible.

Human consciousness is, therefore, an extraordinary complex incarnation of biophysical and phenomenological awareness. Still, it is, in theory, potentially explainable by the underlying biological processes. Human behavior now might seem limitless and it had been easy to dismiss less complex organisms as unconscious machines or automatons, as some scientists and philosophers still do. That clearly is a mistake and it appears to be a vestige of prior ignorance. We have been blinded by the infinitely complex and utterly compelling nature of our subjective social and cultural experiences, erroneously concluding that lower animals can not possibly share anything like this with us; mythical narratives have also contributed to this prejudicial attitude. This represents a still very prevalent basic anthropocentric error.

Published 2015. Revised 2018.

Scientistic Perspective on Everything – Epilogue.

PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.

EPILOGUE.

All things appear connected in a vast, complex, ineffable system constantly in evolution. A dynamic, prebiotic Reality gave rise to forces for survival, life and, ultimately, imaginative exploration beyond the here and now. We now dare to think that we could decide the future.

The complex relationship of our experienced universe and the actual universe is managed by little understood processes of life and consciousness, instantiated in our bodies, or brains, to be more specific. Mankind continues to be befuddled by the dual questions of what to make of ourselves and all that we are confronted with. The clues are most intriguing.

A surprising result of our scientistic project has been that, although there may never be a final answer, many of our past understandings have been incompatible with the evidence.

Another surprise of our study has been that this triune relationship of Reality as it is, the reality of life’s processes and the virtual reality of culture strangely resembles the structure of the Christian God: an all-powerful Father and Creator; the Holy Ghost, giver of life; and a Son struggling with society. The Sumerians, Egyptians, Etruscans, and others all had made reference to magical triads of gods that seemed as one. Emperor Constantine for political reasons tried to unify the Roman church under one creed in the 4th century. The end-result was an official statement on the Holy Trinity. This correspondence is very interesting, its explanation might very well reside in the intuitive recognition of the basic structures of Reality, consciousness and culture. It certainly is fun to think about.

A prime lesson issuing from this personal review of all that I know, believe or suspect is that there is no single foundation, perch or fulcrum from which to view our challenges, or from which to move the world and those in it. Diversities and differences are baked into our biological selves. Intellectually there is also no infallible tool, all-revealing instrument or reliable method to apply. Logic, reason, science and faith/intuition all fail to account for everything. For one, we have inherited so much subconscious knowledge and skill from our distant ancestors. Therefore, if our goal can not be certainty then perhaps we should strive to manage uncertainty, i.e. be aware of its presence in everything we do. At this point we must concede that all knowledge, except perhaps the most basic or simple, is relative and incomplete, representing nothing more than fallible opinions. This probably will never change, but in the meantime, we will and should keep on with our collective explorations, society imperceptibly changing as a result. We might never get there but that arduous and virtuous road might reveal clues to the key that has eluded us thus far.

All foundational religious and creative myths thus far have been proven wrong because they were unable to predict the unfolding of knowledge, and so were contradicted by it. Since the whole is evolving, accounts of the whole must be able to evolve also. There is no escape from this conundrum for anyone, unless the seeker opts for a delusion of absolute knowledge. No secret door leads out of our personal ‘universe’ which is only one of billions of other such personal ‘universes’. Our culture is therefore a multiverse made up of about 8 billion separate but interconnected idioverses. Engagement through honesty, humility, love, caring, diligence and generosity sounds like a good thing.

Older fixed ideas with little supporting evidence riddle all cultures, and with good reason. Such endemic fallacies may have played a very constructive role in a society and may have been supported by most at some point in time. Unfortunately these fossils of the mind often survive beyond their usefulness; foundational ideas are not easily discarded. Replacing these important existential ideas with the latest and greatest liberal thought would be too chaotic. So there are very good reasons for being conservative. It would be such a very good thing, though, if all could learn to be more diligent, open-minded and sympathetic. Engaging in honest and fair discussion would seem the best way to do cultural maintenance. The time honored methods of settling disputes through conflicts are too brutal and destructive.

Some examples of endemic fallacies:

EF1. God is an entity with humanoid features.

Many conservatives are committed to defending and some liberals have dedicated themselves to destroying this obviously fantastical idea. At one time the idea of gods actively intruding in the operations of the world was generally accepted by most. A Wizard of Oz hiding behind some cosmic curtain! There is not one iota in support of such fantasy, but here is the paradox; one cannot disprove this myth either. It is a matter of unsupported opinion and fantasy. HOWEVER, we all are still completely baffled by the world around us. Whether there is a higher pan-cosmic or supra-cosmic intelligence or creative agent is something we can only speculate on, using the rather limited information we are able to access in our region of the universe. The concept of god will continue to evolve as more information is revealed.

EF2. Truth is real and eternal.

Reality, knowledge and culture are in a state of continuous change, but our ancient myth-makers forgot to include that little fact in their story. Obviously, the creators of those myths were ignorant of evolution’s pervasive and powerful presence. Societies and communities, however, depend for their existence, it seems, on the binding power of a grand story. Central to many of these stories is an all-knowing, changeless generator of all things that provides a solid foundation upon which all can confidently build. There may, indeed, be such a Supreme Entity, but only in extreme reaches outside the cosmos, far beyond our most creative imaginations, in speculative regions such that it could have absolutely nothing to do with our mundane lives as we must live them, or with the universe as we continue to find it.

EF3. History follows the actions of a few great men and women (placed there by God for a purpose).

It is convenient to attach a famous name to an important development in history. Yes, a few ‘geniuses’ have done spectacular things and seem to have ‘rewritten history’, but they have all stood on the shoulders of others and reflected the culture of their time. They were completely dependent on the work of predecessors and colleagues. Einstein could not have done what he did had he lived in the 18th century. Conversely, many once great personalities are now almost completely forgotten – probably because they were later proven wrong. The vast floods of real-time information that determine events are lost almost immediately. What survives is a miserably anemic rendition of very complex events. The majority of us know almost no history, and much of what is regarded as history is nothing more than propaganda. The idea that a few great leaders have forged our present is not believable. With trepidation we can now see in real-time the clay feet of the self-anointed great ones when we turn on a 24-hour news channel. Leaders, wielding frightening power, thrash blindly hither and thither. We could even feel sorry for these feckless ones, but we all really need to figure out a more manageable system of government. Communication technology certainly could make democracy a more interactive or distributed proposition, with wider participation. Present systems of governance place such great responsibility in the hands of a limited few that nobody could be expected to fully understand the situation. It is therefore to be expected that in most parts of the world leaders dissemble and deceive in order to stay in power. Is it time that the critically important contribution of the very large majority of human beings be recognized and, indeed, be encouraged? After all, the quality of society is completely dependent on the quality of its members.

EF4. Individual human beings are small, ignorant, weak and dependent.

This is still an almost universal sentiment and fits in very well with the designs of our ‘great’ leaders. The more people are willing to subject themselves to authority the better for the status quo (e.g. the powerful will arrogate more power). Ignored usually is the fact that each genetically, structurally and functionally unique human being represents the most advanced computing system known. Inherent in the great and small person theory is supposedly great differences in abilities and accomplishments. The reality is that we are very different, not necessarily better or worse, from each other at the margins, but in our cores we are probably very similar, possibly identical. This is a fascinating question with more evidentiary information forthcoming. This interplay between our differences and commonalities is at the center of our culture and our struggles. More people are intuitively onto this shell-game and progress in a more enlightened direction could become a reality. It may even be that greater acceptance of diversity is the mark of a more advanced culture. Sociological studies of individualism and cultural complexity seem to suggest this already. Complex societies are wealthier, but there is still much work to do, especially on the egalitarian front.

Investing resources in a global project of research and learning should be surprisingly cost-effective. Improvements in efficiency should far outweigh the costs involved.