Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Individual Versus the Collective

I've finally published my book, so I think it's time I got back to blogging for a while.


I've just finished reading a couple very interesting books that catalogue various insights from modern psychological research and how they impact society at large.  The first one was The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker.  The second was Evolution 2.0, by Joseph Heath.

What is fascinating about both books is the way they encourage the reader to break down the Cartesian idea that human beings exist as individual, discrete entities who influence the world around them but are influenced very little by it.

Pinker's main thesis is that human society has become increasingly less and less violent over that past three or four hundred years.  He cites lots and lots of evidence for this argument, which is why his book is so long (over 700 pages.)  One startling part of this evidence is to show how social mores have changed over time.

Everyone is aware that public executions, horrific torture, etc, used to part of everyday civic life in ancient and medieval Europe.  What they don't understand is how brutal day-to-day life was.  For example, one form of "good clean fun" involved nailing a live cat to a wall and then having two people compete in battering it to death by butting it with their heads---while trying to avoid having their faces ripped to pieces or being blinded.  The point Pinker makes is that people nowadays would not only think that such a thing is cruel, they would be hard pressed to see how anyone could find the spectacle worth watching.  People's attitudes have evolved.

Another example he cites is the growth of table manners.  It used to be that people routinely belched, farted, picked their noses, etc, while eating.  In many circles people would get up and relieve themselves against the wall in the dining hall.  One particular point he makes is that the reason why  it became the custom to use dull knives while eating is because at one time people would simply use their daggers to cut their food.  The result, the times being what they were, it was frighteningly common for people to lunge across the table with their daggers at people they were arguing with.  This resulted in a significant number of people with their noses cut off!  We use dull knives to cut our potatoes now and it is rare to see someone without a nose.

Heath's book focuses more on the nature of human reason.  He argues that the ability to reason things out is a sort of epiphenomenon (something that arises accidentally from another process) in human beings.  Our brains have been selected to let us act instantly when we hear a rustling in the grass so we can avoid leopards.  That means we jump to conclusions before considering all the facts.   Evolution has also selected people to only think of family members as "us" and all other human beings as "others" so we maximize the chances of DNA similar to ours being passed on to future generations.  As a result, we demonize the "other", which causes racism and indifference to the suffering of people.

What we know as "reason" primarily exists, according to Heath, through cultural mechanisms.  For example, our judicial system has evolved to understand that police, prosecutors, judges and juries have an innate tendency to jump to conclusions and are indifferent to the plight of the "other".  As a result, a series of "work arounds" have been added to the criminal justice system to try and force individuals to stop their natural inclinations and do something that is unnatural---be fair.  One example is the concept that someone is innocent until proved guilty.  Another is the fact that all police officers have to read people their rights when being arrested.  Another is the right to be represented by a lawyer, who is bound by his professional code of conduct to defend the defendant to the best of his ability.  There are rules about what evidence may or may not be admitted, how someone is allowed to argue their points, what items a jury may consider while coming to a verdict, and, mechanisms for appealing findings that might have been unfair.

Similar sorts of work arounds exist all throughout society.  Peer review helps catch bad science.  Unions exert some control over the excesses of capitalism.  Governments have rules governing decorum and "checks and balances" to minimize the amount of bad laws being passed.  So on, and so forth.

The important point for me for all of this is that what we "are"---the choices we hold and the values we embrace---comes from equal parts genetics and culture.  "OK, nature and nurture", you might say, "so what?"   Well, the difference is that most folks have felt that nature and/or nurture created who you are and at some point the "you" it created took over and you became an autonomous human being capable of making your own choices as a discrete, atomic entity.  Pinker and Shaw are saying something significantly more radical than that.  They are saying that the milieu you inhabit has a constant and critical role to play in how you make decisions on a day-to-day basis and until the day you die!

Policemen are not ordered to read people their rights because the odd bad policeman either doesn't want to be or is incapable of being objective in the pursuit of their duties.  They have to read them their rights because absolutely every police office is non-objective at least some of the time.  The human brain is wired to jump to conclusions because when you hear a noise that might be a leopard getting ready to pounce on you, if you misread it and the noise was something else there was no real penalty.  But if it was a leopard and you didn't jump to that conclusion, you just won a Darwin award.  No DNA replication for you, dear boy.

But cultures evolve as well.  And any band of hunter/gathers who didn't develop mechanisms for forcing reason onto their collective decision making in one form or another also won Darwin Awards. It might be that the only way people overcame indifference and hostility to the "other" was by pushing it outwards to large and larger groups (ie:  people who are not part of your nation instead of anyone outside of your family), but it still meant that the group you identified with got much bigger and more powerful than the old hunter/gatherer bands.

What is the Dao?  I hear many people who describe it in terms that sound suspiciously like "God".  I don't like the idea of "God" because the more I think about it, the less think I understand.  But if we see the Dao as being "the sum of all that is", then every time we gain a little more insight into the world around us, we can gain a little more insight into it as well.  I would suggest that the cultural influence that the Dao manifest in the way we make decisions is one more way of reinforcing the Daoist worldview.

One last point.

I recently got into a bit of an argument with a fellow named Gary Weber  who was a guest on KMO's excellent podcast channel C-Realm, Radiant Sun. Weber has developed a meditation program that he believes can solve the world's problems by having people learn to shut down their individual thought processes (not all, of course, just the chattering of the "monkey mind".)   My belief is that this is naive.  It is a good idea to learn to cut down the horrible back-and-forth that goes on in one's mind.  (When my beloved wife is in a psychotic episode it appears to me that the monkey-chattering becomes deafening and is a major part of the problem.)  But it isn't, IMHO, sufficient.   That's because a very significant part of how our minds operate is because of the cultural context we inhabit.   Who we are, how we think, and what we believe comes from the cultural "work arounds" that govern the milieu we inhabit.  And the problem I find with most people who follow a spiritual or religious path is that they turn their backs on that cultural milieu because they decide that it is irrelevant to their progress.  That's because they cling to that Cartesian idea that we are all distinct, atomic individuals who can freely choose any course of action from the plate before us.

This belief allows them to disengage from society and stop working at the political and social process.  This is wrong, wrong, wrong.  Political and social reform is the way we create those "work arounds" that allow us to slowly, collectively improve the way our minds operate.  And as evidence of this improvement, Pinker offers beyond the staggering decline in violence in human society, the amazing fact that human IQ has been increasing.  This is called "the Flynn Effect" after one of the people most associated with identifying it.  There is controversy about what is causing it, but one of the reasons that Pinker suggests is that with an increase in education people are becoming better at doing abstract reasoning, which is one of the key elements of IQ measurement.  More importantly for me, Pinker also suggests that the cultural work arounds that we use to keep our innate impulsiveness under control and help our emergent reasoning work more effectively are constantly accumulating.  For example, consider the  huge difference in trying to figure out a complex mathematical problem using Roman numbers versus our current Hindu-Arabic system.  It was such an improvement that almost the minute people in Europe understood how it works they adopted it.  As we culturally accumulate more and more of these things, our minds become both more disciplined and we have an easier time communicating in a rational manner with other people.

What this says to me with regard to spiritual practice, therefore, is that the cultural milieu that we inhabit as people who meditate and try to increase our wisdom has a direct bearing on the progress we make.  Paradoxically, the reason why I practice as a hermit is not because I want to become isolated from the wider culture and other people, but because I do not want to be free from having to limit myself to one particular subculture and keep the others at arm's length.  At the time I walked away from various institutional groups I didn't have a clearly articulated argument about why I was making this move. But I did have a vague feeling that I didn't like way these groups built themselves up by isolating themselves from others.  Now, thanks to Pinker and Heath, I can articulate why I think that this is a good idea.

This brings up one last thing.  Two of the really good "work arounds" that Heath identifies are books and blogs. They allow people the opportunity to concentrate and work through very complex arguments without being distracted.  This is something that biological evolution has not prepared us for, but which are absolutely essential to cultural evolution.  I hope you enjoy this work around and that it expands your consciousness.  ;-)  

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