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’.
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