America’s National Character, Revealed in its COVID-19 Response

“The entire man is… to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back… we should discover… the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)

“Begin as you would continue,” my new mother-in-law told my bride and me. Her advice was good beyond gold – a standard we return to in every new beginning, of which there’ve been many in 40+ years.

Alexis de Tocqueville didn’t offer the principle as advice, he recognized its operation in the America he famously toured and wrote about – a nation shaping itself around its founding principles – its “primal cause.” A country’s “national character,” he said, is revealed in the “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the government and the people. The specifics may shift over time as certain founding values prevail over others due to political tradeoffs and changing circumstances, but in the long haul the country stays true to its origins. Countries, like marriages, continue as they began.

The same dynamics that apply to individuals and nations also apply to institutions, for example societal institutions of law, economics, academics, and commercial enterprise. And for all of them, there’s no such thing as a single beginning to be sustained forever. Personal, national, and institutional histories are shaped around many beginnings and endings. With every new beginning comes an invitation to return to “primal causes” and accept the transformation of historical into contemporary; i.e., each path forward requires a fresh look at how the past’s wisdom can help navigate today’s unprecedented challenges. Trouble is, transformation is perhaps the most difficult thing asked of a person, relationship, institution, nation. The opportunity to transform is therefore rarely recognized, much less embraced, but without it there will be hardening into what was but no longer is, and soon the person or entity under stress will fray under the strain of forcing the fluidity of today into the memory of yesterday.

The Covid-19 Policy-Making Triumvirate

Covid-19 has brought the entire world to an inescapable threshold of new beginning, with its commensurate invitation to transformation. America’s response reveals no embrace of the invitation, but rather a doubling down on the pre-pandemic version of a currently predominant ideological triumvirate of values.[1] Other “prejudices,” “habits,” and “ruling passions” of the “national character” are clearly evident in the nation’s response as well, but I chose to write about this triumvirate because I’ve previously done so here and in my other blog.[2]. The three prongs of the triumvirate we’ll look at today are as follows:

  1. Freemarketism: a hyper-competitive and hyper-privatized version of capitalism that enthrones individual and corporate agency over the centralized promotion of the public good.

Freemarketism is grounded in a belief that marketplace competition will not only prosper capitalists but also promote individual and communal welfare in all social and economic strata. Its essential prejudices and practices are rooted in the transmutation of the western, mostly Biblical worldview into the Protestant work ethic, which judges individual good character and communal virtue by individual initiative and success in “working for a living” and the ability to climb the upward mobility ladder. The state’s highest good is to sponsor a competitive market in which capitalists, freed from governmental regulation and taxation, will build vibrant businesses, generate wealth for themselves as a reward, and activate corollary ”trickle down” benefits to all. Granting the public good an independent seat at the policy-making table is considered detrimental to the market’s freedom.

Freemarketism skews Covid-19 relief toward business and charges the state with a duty to restore “business as usual” as quickly as possible. Direct benefit to citizens is considered only grudgingly, since it would encourage bad character and bad behavior among the masses. Particularly, it would destroy their incentive and willingness to work for a living. The employable populace must be kept hungry, on-edge, primed to get back to work in service to the capitalist engine that fuels the greater good of all.

  1. Beliefism: The denigration of science and intellect in favor of a form of secular post-truth fundamentalism.

Freemarketism is a belief system that emerged in the 1980’s, after the first three decades of post-WWII economic recovery played out in the 1970’s. Freemarketism addressed the economic malaise with its utopian promise of universal benefit, and its founders promoted it with religious zeal as a new economic science – the rationale being that it had been “proven” in ingenious, complex mathematical models. But math is not science, and however elegant its proofs of Freemarketism theory might have been, they were not the same as empirical testing . Freemarketism was therefore a new economic belief system — something you either believed or didn’t.

To gain widespread political and social acceptance, Freemarketism would need to displace the Keynesian economics that had pulled the U.S. out of the Great Depression of the 1930’s by massive federal investment in infrastructure, the creation of new social safety nets, and the regulation of securities markets. During the post-WWII recovery, neoliberal economic policy had struck its own balance between private enterprise and government intervention, creating both new commercial monoliths and a vibrant middle class. Freemarketism would eventually swing this balance entirely to the side of private enterprise. It did so thanks in part to auspicious good timing. At the dawn of the 1980’s, after a decade of Watergate, the oil embargo and energy crisis, runaway inflation, and the Iran hostage crisis, America was ripe for something to believe in. Its morale was suddenly boosted by the USA’s stunning Olympic hockey gold medal, Then, at the end of the decade, came the equally stunning collapse of the Soviet Union, brought on by Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These two bookend events ensured that Freemarketism had made a beginning that politicians and the populace wished to continue.

By then, Soviet-style Communism had been fully exposed as a horrific, dystopian, failed system. It had begun with Karl Marx’s angry empathy for the plight of the working stiff, but a century and a half later had morphed into a tyranny of fear, mind control, and brutality that turned its nominal beneficiaries into its victims, administered by a privileged, unthinking, corrupt, emotionally and morally paralyzed class of party bosses. When the failed system met its just desserts, the West’s storyline trumpeted that capitalism had won the Cold War. Freemarketism stepped up to receive the accolades, and its political devotees set about dismantling the social structures Keynesian economics had built before WWII.

From that point, as Freemarketism gained acceptance, it stomped the throttle toward fundamentalism, which is where every belief system, whether religious or secular, must inevitably end up. Belief by its very nature demands its own purification – the rooting out of doubt. To endure, belief must become irrefutable, must become certain to the point where doubt and discourse are demonized, conformity becomes the greatest social good, and ideological myths become determinants of patriotic duty and moral status. Accordingly, as Freemarketism evangelists increasingly installed their privatized solutions, any system of government based on state-sponsored promotion of the common good was quickly characterized as a threat of a resurgence of Communism. In the minds of Freemarketers – both priests and proles – the European social democracies were thrown into the same toxic waste dump as Communism, because the state could never again be trusted to know what is good for its citizens, or be given the power to carry out its agenda.

Freemarketism’s blind spot is now obvious: for all its demonization of government policy, it needed precisely that to create the conditions it needed to operate. Politicians from the 1990’s forward were happy to comply. Thus empowered, in the four decades since its inception, Freemarketism has ironically failed in the same manner as Soviet Communism, gutting the public good of the working masses and protectively sequestering the wealthy capitalist classes. Along the way, Beliefism as the cultural norm has displaced scientific rationalism with moment-by-moment inanity, expressed in the Covid-19 crisis by everything from drinking bleach to mask and supply shortages, lockdown protests and defiance of mask-wearing, terminating support of the World Health Organization, confusion and skepticism about statistics of infection rates and the value of mass testing, the public undercutting of medical authorities, and much more.

The post-truth flourishing of Beliefism is in turn held in place by the third prong of the triumvirate:

  1. Militarism: The American infatuation with military might and private armaments, and a proclivity towards resolving disputes and achieving policy outcomes through bullying, violence, and warfare.

Militarism is the enforcer for the other two prongs of the triumvirate. Its status as a pillar of the national character is on the one hand entirely understandable, given that the USA was formed because the colonists won their war, but on the other hand perhaps the most ideologically inexplicable when measured against the Founders’ rejection of a standing military in favor of a right to mobilize an armed militia as needed. The displacement of the latter with the former was fully complete only after WWII, grudgingly acknowledged by the General who masterminded .he D-Day invasion: “In the councils of government,” President Eisenhower said on the eve of leaving office, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex,” He further warned that, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

The extent to which General Eisenhower’s warnings fell on deaf ears is by now obvious. Meanwhile, the Founders’ concept of the right to bear arms has metastasized into an absolute right to private armaments. The American national character now rests secure in its confidence that it has a big enough stick to forever defend its libertarian version of individual freedoms – including the freedoms of the marketplace – against all opposing beliefs, Communist or otherwise.

Militarism is evident in developments both expressly directed at the pandemic and coinciding with it, spanning both macro and micro responses from saber-rattling against Iran (against whom we apparently still we feel we have a score to settle), blame-shifting against China accompanied with rhetoric that has quickly escalated to the level of a new Cold War, Congress’s self-congratulatory passage of another record-setting new defense budget, and armed militias rallying against the lockdown and supporting protestors in their belligerent non-compliance.

In its Covid-19 response, America put its money where its mouth (ideology) is.

This ideological triumvirate is evident in the spending priorities of the USA’s legislative allocation of government speaking during the lockdown, as indicated in the following two graphs, which reveal that:

  1. The amount directed to business – mostly big business – was twice again as much as the defense budget;
  2. The amount directed to healthcare – during a pandemic – was least of all – half the amount directed to individuals;
  3. The 2020 defense budget approved during the lockdown was twice the size of the amount directed to individual citizens under the CARES relief act; and
  4. Meanwhile, defense spending dwarfs that of our seven nearest national “competitors.”

The Anatomy of the $2 Trillion COVID-19 Stimulus Bill[3]

CARES Act

U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries[4]

Defense Spending

Character Over Time

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure,” screenwriting guru Robert McKee wrote, “the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”[5]

Pressure of the magnitude brought on by the pandemic catches national response off guard. It freezes time, demands instant responses to unprecedented demands. Pretense falls off, values and priorities leap from foundational to forefront. There is no time for analysis or spin, only the unguarded release of words and actions in the pressing moment. The result is national character, fully revealed.

The way out of this dizzying spiral is to embrace the invitation to character transformation, which begins in the awareness that something essential to maintaining the status quo has been lost, life has irreversibly changed, an ending has been reached. Every ending requires a new beginning, every new beginning requires a vision for how to continue, and every vision for continuing requires the perspective of newly-transformed character. If there is going to be systemic change, character must be the one to make concessions. The nation’s policy-makers made no such concession in their Covid-19 response.

Response Without Transformation

We’ve spent a few years in this forum discovering the triumvirate’s development and contemporary dominance of government policy-making, which in turn has been supported by enough of the electorate to keep the system in place. Now, the pandemic has put our “more perfect union” under extraordinary stress.

Given the recent racial issues now dominating the headlines, it isn’t far-fetched to compare the pandemic’s moral and legal challenges to those of the Civil War. Today’s post won’t try to do that topic justice, but it’s interesting to note that slavery was a dominant economic force from before America became the United States, especially buttressing capitalist/entrepreneurial wealth generated in tobacco and cotton, and was both expressly and implicitly adopted as a social, economic, and national norm, — for example in the U.S. Constitution’s denying slaves the right to vote and providing that each slave would count as 3/5 of a resident for purposes of determining seats in the House of Representatives. These “primary causes” remained intact for the nation’s first several decades, until a variety of pressures forced a reconsideration and transformation. Those pressures included, for example, a bubble in the pre-Civil War slave market that made slaves themselves into a valuable equity holding to be bought and sold for profit — a practice particularly outrageous to Northerners.[6]

The Covid-19 triumvirate is not Constitutionally recognized as slavery was, but clearly it is based on the current emphasis of certain aspects of the USA’s foundations to the exclusion of others. Many economists argue, for example, that the way out of the deepening pandemic economic depression is a return to a Keynesian-style massive governmental investment in public works and welfare – a strategy that even then was hugely controversial for the way it aggressively rebalanced the national character. The Covid-19 response, along with the military budget, makes no attempt at such a rebalancing – which, among other things, would require policy-makers to retreat from the common assumption that government support of the public good is Communism.

It took a Civil War and three Constitutional Amendments to remove nationalized slavery from the Constitution and begin the transformation of the nation’s character on the topic of race – a transformation which current events reveal is still sadly incomplete.

What would it take to similarly realign the national character in response to the pandemic?

[1] Since we’ve been discovering and examining these for several years in this forum, in this post I’m going to depart from my usual practice of quoting and citing sources. To do otherwise would have made this post far too redundant and far too long, If you want the backstory, I invite you to examine what has gone before..

[2] My two blogs are The New Economy and the Future of Work and Iconoclast.blogt, Each has its counterpart on Medium – The Econoclast and Iconoclost.blog (recent articles only)..

[3] Visusalcapitalist.com

[4] Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

[5] McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997).

[6] See the analysis in Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan.(2017), and the author’s interview with the Wharton business school ,

Reborn Losers: Christian Cosmology and Worldview Are a Setup to Failure

Christian cosmology and worldview are complicated, stressful, and impossible. Trying to comply with them is a set up to failure. That failure begins with the concept of who we are as human beings living in human bodies.

I was a Christian, now I’m not. Sometimes I find it useful to write about what I believed then and compare it to what I don’t believe now. I try to express it simply, avoid religious assumptions and overtones, resist the urge to cringe at what I used to think and exalt in what I think now. Instead, I try to lay aside judgment, notice what comes up, and wonder about it. That’s the ideal, anyway — sometimes it’s more difficult than others to remain dispassionate. Today was one of those.

I wrote about cosmology (how the universe is organized) and worldview (how life works on Earth). Reading it afterward, it seemed that the Christian beliefs, institutions, and culture that dominated my life — and have dominated Western thought for two millennia — are about equal parts quaint and fantasy. I didn’t see it that way when I was immersed in them, but my last several years of study– especially neuroscience, psychology, and history — have upended my former cosmology and worldview, and taken my self concept with them.

I previously understood “reality” and my place in it by reference to a Truth outside of me. Today, I’m aware that everything I experience – including what I believe or not – is processed within my biological being.[1] My new sense of self and reality are now physical, not spiritual.

That shift has brought new clarity, simplicity, decisiveness, energy, focus, hope, joy, freedom, gratitude, and lots of other new dynamics I really like. By contrast, what struck me most about my former beliefs was how complicated they were, how stressful to maintain, and ultimately how generally impossible. Clinging to them was a setup to failure – I especially like being free of that.

The Trouble Starts With A Soul

Approaching life here by reference to a Truth out there leads us to believe in things that exist outside of us– in people, in ideas, in entities, in institutions…. That kind of thinking derives naturally from another foundational belief: that each person has an independent existence — a soul living inside their body – that sorts through available belief options and chooses this one over that.

“If you were to ask the average person in the street about their self, they would most likely describe the individual who inhabits their body. They believe they are more than just their bodies. Their bodies are something their selves control. When we look in the mirror, we regard the body as a vessel we occupy.

“This sense that we are individuals inside bodies is sometimes called the “ego theory,” although philosopher Gale Strawson captures it poetically in what he calls the ‘pearl view’ of the self. The pearl view is the common notion that our self is an essential entity at the core of our existence that holds steady throughout our life. The ego experiences life as a conscious, thinking person with a unique historical background that defines who he or she is. This is the ‘I’ that looks back in the bathroom mirror and reflects who is the ‘me.’”[2]

My Christian worldview bought all that, and also held that the soul is our highest and best self, because it came from where Truth dwells. It also held that it’s hard on a soul to be in a human body. The doctrinal specifics vary – we deliberately chose to screw things up and our souls took the hit for it, our souls got damaged in transit or in installation, or there was a flaw in the source code that eventually moved them away from their ideal nature, etc. – but the end result is that the soul’s potential good influence is minimized or lost, leaving us in the throes of “sin” – falling short of the perfect divine plan for what our souls could have been if they hadn’t gotten fouled up. And since the soul’s waywardness is foundational, its problem isn’t just sin but “original sin” – the beginning of all our troubles. We don’t just struggle with garden-variety human nature, which is bad enough, but with “the flesh,” which is worse, in fact so dreadful that it puts our eternal destiny at jeopardy.

That’s where it all begins:  with a divine, timeless, perfect soul trapped in an imperfect human body. The result is a hapless human subject to all kinds of cosmic misfortune.

And it only gets worse from there.

The Cosmology and Worldview That Was (And Still Is)

It’s tricky to line up a flawed soul in a flawed body with an external perfect standard of Truth. As a result, we’re constantly screwing up our reality compared to Reality. Plus there’s the problem of perception and deception –-not seeing Reality clearly – and the problem of temptation – enticements plying on our fleshly nature that just aren’t going to end well. It’s hard to keep a clear head in the midst of those pressures, and for that we have experts – people we have to trust to know things about Reality that the rest of us don’t.

But sooner or later all fall down – experts along with everybody else. Birth is the soul’s doorway into its precarious life in the flesh, and death is the doorway out. It would be nice if the door had been designed to swing both ways so we could check in with Truth and get straightened out now and then, but it shuts firmly in both directions, and no peeking. Which means our attempts to live here by reference to what’s over there are always seriously handicapped.

Sometimes you hear about people who get a backstage pass to go there and come back, and then they write books about it and go on tour and tell us what’s it’s like. That makes them a special kind of expert, but their reports often are full of all sorts of universality, which makes them doctrinally suspect. Fortunately, there are superhuman beings– kind of like us, kind of not, but at least conscious like us, and able to communicate – to help us out. Sometimes they make the trip over here, sometimes they snatch someone from here and show them around over there and then send them back, sometimes they open up a clear channel to communicate with somebody over here, and sometimes — and this is the best – they can be born as one of us and not have a problem with losing their soul’s connection to Truth while they’re here. The point is, one way or another, when they really need to communicate with us, they figure out how.

The whole lot of them rank higher than we do: the human race is in charge of the Earth, but they’re in charge of us (and everything else). God out-ranks everyone, of course – He[3] created everything, including them and us, and although the whole thing sure looks like a mess to us it doesn’t look that way to Him – or to them either, I guess. God is the ultimate creator, communicator, executive, and enforcer, and He has more consciousness than all the rest of us combined.

“Across all cultures and all religions, universally, people consider God to be a conscious mind. God is aware. God consciously chooses to make things happen. In physical reality the tree fell, the storm bowled over a house, the man survived the car crash, the woman died prematurely, the earth orbits the sun, the cosmos exists. For many people these events, big and small, must have a consciousness and an intentionality behind them. God is that consciousness.”[4]

Of course, God is busy, which is why He has all these underlings. They’re arranged in a hierarchy – it just makes sense that they would be – and range from great big scary powerful cosmic superheroes who get to make great big scary visitations and announcements and cause all kinds of great big scary events, all the way down to petty bureaucrats, drones, and proles just doing their dull but necessary jobs (but even they outrank us in the grand cosmic scheme).

“When our anthropomorphism is applied to religious thought, it’s notably the mind, rather than the body, that’s universally applied to spirits and gods. In the diverse cultures of the world, gods come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they always share is a mind with the ability to think symbolically just like a human. This makes sense in light of the critical importance of theory of mind in the development of our social intelligence: if other people have minds like ours, wouldn’t that be true of other agents we perceive to act intentionally in the world?”[5]

These conscious beings from over there sometimes pick a human or a whole tribe of humans to mediate Truth to the rest of us. Those people get a special supernatural security clearance, and we give their key personnel special titles like prophet and priest.

So far so good, but even Truth – also known as Heaven – has its internal power struggles. There’s a war over there between good and evil, God and Satan, angels and demons, and other kinds of beings in the high places, and some of it spills over into reality on our side of the divide. We therefore need to be careful about which of our experts are authentic and which aren’t, who they’re really serving and who they aren’t. The stakes are high, and if we’re wrong we’re going to pay with a lot of pain and suffering, both in this life and forever when we go through death’s one-way door.

And just to make things more complicated, these other-worldly beings sometimes use human experts as their agents, and they can be undercover. Plus, to make things impossibly, incomprehensibly complicated for our by now totally overtaxed souls, God and the other good guys sometimes take a turn at being deceptive themselves. The Cosmic Screenwriter apparently thought of everything in a bid to make our predicament as over-the-top bad as possible. In fact, some of what’s going on behind the scenes, taken right out of the Bible, would make a modern fantasy series blush with inadequacy – for example the part about the war in high places[6]:

“Ask, for instance, the average American Christian – say, some genial Presbyterian who attends church regularly and owns a New International Version of the Bible – what gospel the Apostle Paul preached. The reply will fall along predictable lines: human beings, bearing the guilt of original sin and destined for eternal hell, cannot save themselves through good deeds, or make themselves acceptable to God; yet God, in his mercy, sent the eternal Son to offer himself up for our sins, and the righteousness of Christ has been graciously imputed or imparted to all who have faith…. Some details might vary, but not the basic story.

“Paul’s actual teachings, however, as taken directly from the Greek of his letters, emphasise neither original guilt nor imputed righteousness (he believed in neither), but rather the overthrow of bad angels…

“The essence of Paul’s theology is something far stranger, and unfolds on a far vaster scale. .. For Paul, the present world-age is rapidly passing, while another world-age differing from the former in every dimension – heavenly or terrestrial, spiritual or physical – is already dawning. The story of salvation concerns the entire cosmos; and it is a story of invasion, conquest, spoliation and triumph.

“For Paul, the cosmos has been enslaved to death, both by our sin and by the malign governance of those ‘angelic’ or ‘daemonian’ agencies who reign over the earth from the heavens, and who hold spirits in thrall below the earth. These angelic beings, these Archons, whom Paul calls Thrones and Powers and Dominations and Spiritual Forces of Evil in the High Places, are the gods of the nations. In the Letter to the Galatians, he even hints that the angel of the Lord who rules over Israel might be one of their number. Whether fallen, or mutinous, or merely incompetent, these beings stand intractably between us and God.

“In descending to Hades and ascending again through the heavens, Christ has vanquished all the Powers below and above that separate us from the love of God, taking them captive in a kind of triumphal procession. All that now remains is the final consummation of the present age, when Christ will appear in his full glory as cosmic conqueror, having ‘subordinated’ (hypetaxen) all the cosmic powers to himself – literally, having properly ‘ordered’ them ‘under’ himself – and will then return this whole reclaimed empire to his Father. God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

Okay then.

But despite all this vast, elaborate cosmic tangle, over there mostly keeps its own counsel about it all, while still not letting us off the hook. And, although it’s tempting, I won’t even get into all the subterfuge and confusion and (over here, at least) just plain stupidity about when the whole mess is going to resolve into that final day when “God himself, rather than wicked or inept spiritual intermediaries, will rule the cosmos directly.”

And On It Goes (And it went on way too long already, but I wanted to make a point.)

Western culture has been living with all that for over two millennia. A couple hundred years ago, in a time we call “The Great Enlightenment,” some thinkers started trying to convince us that enough is enough, maybe we ought to try out a different cosmology and worldview, based on rational thought and not just fantasy and belief. There’ve been some takers, but overall the Great Endarkenment has rolled on. I’m not as old as Yoda, but I’ve personally seen, heard, and lived all of it. A whole bunch people in the States still do, and not all of them live in Texas.

The cosmology and worldview I just reviewed are complicated, fanciful, stressful, and impose impossible demands on that impaired soul seeing it all through a glass darkly. No wonder belief systems – both secular and religious – devolve into take-it-or-leave-it fundamentalism, where questioning is punished by both God and man, and you can delegate your cosmic responsibilities to the demigods in charge. Fundamentalism dispatches our impossible obligations and blinds us to what the Bible itself says is the final outcome of all our believing: The Big Fail.

The Big Fail

We really should have seen it coming – the Bible lays out the ultimate terms of what it means to believe all of this in brutally unmistakable terms. At the end of a much-quoted and much-beloved recitation of faith heroes, the Epistle to the Hebrews provides this summary of what it means to be your highest and best self:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised,”[7]

That’s how it ends: total failure — all promises broken, all expectations dashed, all frauds revealed … after it’s way too late for any remedy.

Can We Find a Better Way?

Yes, I am aware that there’s one last phrase in that passage:

“…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”[8]

What precisely is that “something better”? I’m clueless, but all the obvious difficulties don’t stop at least one thinker[9] from trying to preserve the value of the soul as our highest and best self, even if modern neuroscience has finally ended its sufferings. The key, he says, is to reinvent the soul to make it relevant to modernity:

“What is the point of gaining the whole world if you lose your soul? Today, far fewer people are likely to catch the scriptural echoes of this question than would have been the case 50 years ago. But the question retains its urgency. We might not quite know what we mean by the soul any more, but intuitively we grasp what is meant by the loss in question – the kind of moral disorientation and collapse where what is true and good slips from sight, and we find we have wasted our lives on some specious gain that is ultimately worthless.

“It used to be thought that science and technology would gain us the world. But it now looks as though they are allowing us to destroy it. The fault lies not with scientific knowledge itself, which is among humanity’s finest achievements, but with our greed and short-sightedness in exploiting that knowledge. There’s a real danger we might end up with the worst of all possible scenarios – we’ve lost the world, and lost our souls as well.

“But what is the soul? The modern scientific impulse is to dispense with supposedly occult or ‘spooky’ notions such as souls and spirits, and to understand ourselves instead as wholly and completely part of the natural world, existing and operating through the same physical, chemical and biological processes that we find anywhere else in the environment.

“We need not deny the value of the scientific perspective. But there are many aspects of human experience that cannot adequately be captured in the impersonal, quantitatively based terminology of scientific enquiry. The concept of the soul might not be part of the language of science; but we immediately recognise and respond to what is meant in poetry, novels and ordinary speech, when the term ‘soul’ is used in that it alerts us to certain powerful and transformative experiences that give meaning to our lives.

“Such precious experiences depend on certain characteristic human sensibilities that we would not wish to lose at any price. In using the term ‘soul’ to refer to them, we don’t have to think of ourselves as ghostly immaterial substances. We can think of ‘soul’ as referring, instead, to a set of attributes of cognition, feeling and reflective awareness – that might depend on the biological processes that underpin them, and yet enable us to enter a world of meaning and value that transcends our biological nature.

“Entering this world requires distinctively human qualities of thought and rationality. But we’re not abstract intellects, detached from the physical world, contemplating it and manipulating it from a distance. To realise what makes us most fully human, we need to pay attention to the richness and depth of the emotional responses that connect us to the world. Bringing our emotional lives into harmony with our rationally chosen goals and projects is a vital part of the healing and integration of the human soul.”

Full Acceptance

It seems honorable that someone would attempt this kind of synthesis, but I personally don’t see anything worth salvaging. Instead, I think this might be a good time to acknowledge something that Christianity’s troublesome cosmology and worldview have dismissed all along: human nature. In that regard, I find the following thoughts from a writer I particularly admire[10] to be bracingly clarifying, and in that, hopeful

“Our collective and personal histories — the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves and others — are used to avoid facing the incoherence and fragmentation of our lives. Chaos, chance and irrational urges, often locked in our unconscious, propel, inform and direct us. Our self is elusive. It is not fixed. It is subject to forces often beyond our control. To be human is to be captive to these forces, forces we cannot always name or understand. We mutate and change. We are not who we were. We are not who we will become. The familiarity of habit and ritual, as well as the narratives we invent to give structure and meaning to our life, helps hide this fragmentation. But human life is fluid and inconsistent. Those who place their faith in a purely rational existence begin from the premise that human beings can have fixed and determined selves governed by reason and knowledge. This is itself an act of faith.

“We can veto a response or check an impulse, reason can direct our actions, but we are just as often hostage to the pulls of the instinctual, the irrational, and the unconscious. We can rationalize our actions later, but this does not make them rational. The social and individual virtues we promote as universal values that must be attained by the rest of the human species are more often narrow, socially conditioned responses hardwired into us for our collective and personal survival and advancements. These values are rarely disinterested. They nearly always justify our right to dominance and power.

“We do not digest every sensation and piece of information we encounter. To do so would leave us paralyzed. The bandwidth of consciousness – our ability to transmit information measured in bits per second — is too narrow to register the enormous mass of external information we receive and act upon. .. We have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we use to function in life. Much of the information we receive and our subsequent responses do not take place on the level of conscientiousness. As the philosopher John Gray points out, irrational and subconscious forces, however unacknowledged, are as potent within us as in others. [citing Gray, Straw Dogs]

“To accept the intractable and irrational forces that drive us, to admit that these forces are as entrenched in us as in all human beings, is to relinquish the fantasy that the human species can have total, rational control over human destiny. It is to accept our limitations, to live within the confines of human nature. Ethical, moral, religious, and political systems that do not concede these stark assumptions have nothing to say to us.”

We are not going to “conquer our humanness” by continuing our fundamentalist allegiance to a complicated, stressful, and self-negating cosmology and worldview. How about if instead we try full acceptance of our conflicted and flawed humanity, where we find not grandiose visions but simple hope for our small todays?

[1] I also believe there is an independent reality that is more than my brain’s construction of it. Not everyone thinks so. Maybe more on that another time.

[2] Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (2012)

[3] We get that theoretically God, as a spiritual being, probably wouldn’t have a gender, but we’re generally more comfortable giving him the male pronouns.

[4] Graziano, Michael S. A., Consciousness and the Social Brain (2013)

[5] Lent, Jeremy, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, Jeremy Lent (2017)

[6] Hart, David Bentley, Everything You Know About The Gospel Of Paul Is Likely Wrong, Aeon (Jan. 8, 2018). David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion and a philosopher, writer and cultural commentator, who recently published a translation of The New Testament (2017).

[7] Hebrews 11: 35-39.

[8] Hebrews 11: 40.

[9] Cottingham, John, What is the soul if not a better version of ourselves? Aeon (Mar. 11, 2020). John Cottingham is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Reading, professor of philosophy of religion at the University of Roehampton, London, and an honorary fellow of St John’s College, Oxford University.

[10] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

 

A Talk at the Rock: How to Instantly Polarize a Crowd and End a Discussion

AreopaguslImage from Wikipedia

The Areopagus is a large rock outcropping in Athens, not far from the Acropolis, where in ancient times various legal, economic, and religious issues got a hearing. A Bible story about something that happened there two thousand years ago provides surprising insight on today’s hyper-polarized world.

Backstory:  A Dualistic Worldview

In the 17th Century, Frenchman René Descartes sorted reality into two categories: (1) the natural, physical world and (2) the unseen world of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. This duality was born of the times:

“Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world.

“In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’.

“On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

“In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.”[1]

Descartes articulated this dualistic framework, but it had been around from prehistoric antiquity. It still persists today, and neurological research suggests the human brain comes pre-wired for it. This is from Psychology Today[2]:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain – the frontal lobe – trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time….

“However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.

“Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.

“Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“One of our popular clichés is ‘Well, there are two sides to every story.’ Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.”

“Less sophisticating and less rational” … the author’s ideological bias is showing, but the “unexamined emotional reflexes” finger points at both ends of the polarized spectrum. And because our brains love status quo and resist change, we hunker down on our assumptions and biases. True, the balance can shift more gradually, over time – the way objectivity ascended during the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, but Romanticism pushed back in the 19th — but usually it takes something drastic like disruptive innovation, tragedy, violence, etc. to knock us off our equilibrium. Absent that, we’re usually not up for the examination required to separate what we objectively know from what we subjectively believe — it’s all just reality, and as long as it’s working, we’re good. If we’re forced to examine and adjust, we’ll most likely take our cues from our cultural context:

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives. We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from our family, friends, and culture, and, once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible.

“There is [a] potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture. Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in the world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of the universe.”[3]

Culture has been sculpting the human brain ever since our earliest ancestors began living complex social lives millions of years ago. It’s only when the cultural balance runs off the rails that our brains scramble to reset, and we’re stressed while they’re at it. We would do well not to wait until then, and learn how to embrace both ends of the dualistic spectrum, argues one computational biologist[4]:

“Neuroscience was part of the dinner conversation in my family, often a prerequisite for truth. Want to talk about art? Not without neuroscience. Interested in justice? You can’t judge someone’s sanity without parsing scans of the brain. But though science helps us refine our thinking, we’re hindered by its limits: outside of mathematics, after all, no view of reality can achieve absolute certainty. Progress creates the illusion that we are moving toward deeper knowledge when, in fact, imperfect theories constantly lead us astray.

“The conflict is relevant in this age of anti-science, with far-Right activists questioning climate change, evolution and other current finds. In his book Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker describes a second assault on science from within mainstream scholarship and the arts. But is that really bad? Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the first movement to take on the Enlightenment – and we still see its effects in such areas as environmentalism, asceticism and the ethical exercise of conscience.

“In our new era of Enlightenment, we need Romanticism again. In his speech ‘Politics and Conscience’ (1984), the Czech dissident Václav Havel, discussing factories and smokestacks on the horizon, explained just why: ‘People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet … they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.’ Havel was not against industry, he was just for labour relations and protection of the environment.

“The issues persist. From use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted though patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’. With winners and losers in the new arena, it only makes sense that some folks are going to push back.

“We are now on the verge of a new revolution in control over life through the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, which has given us the ability to tinker with the colour of butterfly wings and alter the heritable genetic code of humans. In this uncharted territory, where ethical issues are rife, we can get blindsided by sinking too much of our faith into science, and losing our sense of humanity or belief in human rights.

“Science should inform values such as vaccine and climate policy, but it must not determine all values…. With science becoming a brutal game of market forces and patent controls, the skeptics and Romantics among us must weigh in, and we already are.”

That’s probably good advice, but we need to push through a lot of cultural status quo to get there. That’s especially true because the 20th Century brought us change at ever-accelerating rates — objective reality went spinning away and we crashed into the extreme belief end of the spectrum:

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”[5]

When we can agree that our conflict is a matter of my data vs. yours, we can debate rationally. But when it’s my beliefs vs. yours, what used to be discourse dissolves into stonewalling and shouting. Belief seeks its own perfection by eliminating doubt, and therefore devolves into fundamentalism, where discussion is a sign of doubt, punishable as heresy. Fundamentalism can be secular or religious – it’s the dynamic, not the content, that matters

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopian. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”[6]

Fundamentalism is where the open mind goes into lockdown. Objectivity loses its grip and the question “Are you with us, or against us?” gives way to its declarative version, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”[7] Dualistic thinking ceases to be more than a source of “popular clichés,” and becomes instead a rigid disincentive to public discourse, as competing polarized beliefs dig in for a grinding, maddening war of attrition. What used to be public discourse is lost in a no-man’s land of intellectual wreckage created by each side’s incessant lobbing of ideological bombs at the other’s entrenched subjective positions. Each side is convinced it has a God’s-eye view of reality, therefore God is on its side, which motivates securing its position by all necessary means.

A Talk at the Rock

The Christian scriptures illustrate how all this works in a story from one of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

“Now while Paul was… at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’[8]

The Epicureans and Stoics were the materialists of their day – their thinking leaned toward the objective side of the dualism. When Paul came to town advocating ideas (the subjective end of the dualism), their brain patterning couldn’t process Paul’s worldview. They needed time, so they invited Paul to a Talk at the Rock (the Areopagus).

At this point, the author of the story –- widely believed to be the same “Luke the beloved physician”[9] who wrote the Gospel of Luke – inserts a biased editorial comment that signals that nothing’s going to come of this because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[10] I.e., reasonable consideration — public discourse – was going to be a waste of time. But Paul had prepared some culturally sensitive opening remarks:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”

He then offers up the idea of substituting his ‘foreign god’ for the Athenians’ statuary, altars, and temples:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

You can sense the crowd’s restless murmuring and shuffling feet, but then Paul goes back to cultural bridge-building:

“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [referring to a passage from Epimenides of Crete], and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[{From Aratus’s poem Phainomena].”

Nice recovery, Paul. So far so good. This feels like discourse, what the Rock is for. But Paul believes that the Athenians’ practice of blending the unseen world of their gods with their physical craftmanship of statuary, altars, and temples (a practice the church would later perfect) is idolatry, and in his religious culture back home, idolatry had been on the outs since the Golden Calf.[11] At this point, Paul takes off the cultural kit gloves and goes fundamentalist:

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s precisely the point where he loses the crowd — well, most of them, there were some who were willing to give him another shot, and even a couple fresh converts:

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Some men joined him and believed….” That’s all there was left for them to do: believe or not believe. You’re either with us or against us.

Paul had violated the cultural ethics of a Talk at the Rock. It was about reasonable discourse; he made it a matter of belief, saying in effect. “forget your social customs and ethics, my God is going to hurt you if you keep it up.” With that, the conclave became irretrievably polarized, and the session was over.

Paul triggered this cultural dynamic constantly on his journeys – for example a few years later, when the Ephesus idol-building guild figured out the economic implications of Paul’s belief system[12]:

“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.  For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’ When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”

Jesus had previously taken a whip to the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem.[13] Apparently Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen saw the same thing coming to them, and made a preemptive strike. The scene quickly spiraled out of control:

“So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.  But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

A local official finally quelled the riot:

“Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” and when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”[14]

It Still Happens Today

I spent years in the evangelical church – we were fundamentalists, but didn’t want to admit it – where Paul’s Talk at the Rock was held up as the way not to “share your faith.” Forget the public discourse — you can’t just “spend [your] time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” you need to lay the truth on them so they can believe or not believe, and if they don’t, you need to “shake the dust off your feet”[15] and get out of there. These days, we see both secular and religious cultural institutions following that advice.

Will we ever learn?

[1]How The Dualism Of Descartes Ruined Our Mental HealthMedium (May 10, 2019)

[2] Karl Albrecht, “The Tyranny of Two,” Psychology Today (Aug 18, 2010)

[3] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] Jim Kozubek, “The Enlightenment Rationality Is Not Enough: We Need A New Romanticism,” Aeon (Apr. 18, 2018)

[5] Andersen, Kurt, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017)

[6] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

[7] The latter came from Jesus himself – see the Gospels of Matthew 21: 12-13, and John 2: 13-16. Jesus was a belief man through and through. More on that another time.

[8] The Acts of the Apostles 17: 17-20.

[9] Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4: 14.

[10] Acts 17: 21.

[11] Exodus 32.

[12] Acts 19: 23-41

[13] Mathew 21: 12-17; John 2: 13-21

[14] Acts: 23-42

[15] Matthew 10:14.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [2]: Cultural Belief and Mass Delusion

We think we have an independent ability to think and believe as we like, to know this or be convinced about that. But that’s not the whole story:  our outlook is also shaped by our cultural context.

As we’ve seen , when enough people agree about what is true — whether they “know” it or are “convinced” of it — their agreement becomes a cultural belief system — for example, as reflected in a religion, country, neighborhood, business, athletic team, or other institution. Cultural belief systems are wired into the neural pathways of individual members, and as the culture coalesces, its belief system takes on a life of its own thorough a process known as “emergence.” As the emergent belief system is increasingly reflected in and reinforced by cultural institutions, it is increasingly patterned into the neural pathways of the culture’s members, where it defines individual and collective reality and sense of identity,  The belief system becomes The Truth , defining what the group and its members know and are convinced of.

Throughout this process, whether the culture’s beliefs are true in any non-subjective sense loses relevance. The result is what physician and author Paul Singh refers to as “mass delusion”:

“[When a conviction moves from an individual to being widely held], its origins are rooted in a belief system rather than in an individual’s pathological condition. It is a mass delusion of the sort that poses no immediate threat to anyone or society. Mass delusions can become belief systems that are passed from generation to generation.”

The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self, Paul Singh (2016)

For a dramatic example of this concept in action, consider an experience described by Jesse Jackson:

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps… then turn around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

Despite a lifetime of civil rights leadership, Jackson’s cultural neural conditioning betrayed him. What he experienced was not just personal to him; it conformed to a cultural belief system. The particular “mass delusion” involved has been confirmed by clinical research.

“Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people’s brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

“When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala — the brain’s panic button — was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.”

Where Belief Is Born, The Guardian (June 30,2005)

When cultural beliefs are not constantly reinforced — by cultural norms of thought, language, practice, etc. — the neural networks that support them can weaken, allowing opportunity for new beliefs.

“‘Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain,’ says [Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University] ‘If you challenge [beliefs] by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you’re going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other.’”

Where Belief Is Born

This helps to explain, for example, why religious believers are more likely to “fall away” if they are “out of fellowship.” Or what can happen to a student off to college, a world traveler, or an immigrant. It also helps to explain why leaders and despots alike can manipulate brain networks to create cultural belief systems to fit their desired ends:

“In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

“The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.

“The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.

“Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well – stereotypes and simple ways of thinking,” says Taylor.

“This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.”

Where Belief Is Born

More next time.

All War is Holy War

holy war

According to one anthropologist,[1] the Yanomami Amazonian tribe lives in a “chronic state of war”:  violence against outsiders and members alike is a normal way of life. Their culture is the exception — most require a shift from peacetime to wartime culture in order for maiming and murdering to be acceptable. The shift begins with a cause to rally around:

“It is hard, maybe impossible, to fight a war if the cause is viewed as bankrupt. The sanctity of the cause is crucial to the war effort.”

War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges (2002).[2]

Most cultures are governed by some version of “Thou shalt not kill,” but God and the gods are not so constrained — they can and do kill, and direct their followers to do so. Therefore, to justify the mayhem, the state must become religious, and its cause must be sacred.

“War celebrates only power — and we come to believe in wartime that it is the only real form of power. It preys on our most primal and savage impulses. It allows us  to do what peacetime society forbids or restrains us from doing:  It allows us to kill.”

In wartime, the state is anointed with the requisite elements of religious culture:  dogmas and orthodox language; rites of initiation and passage; songs, symbols, metaphors, and icons; customs and laws to honor heroes, demonize foes, discipline skeptics, and punish nonbelievers.

“Because we in modern society have walked away from institutions that stand outside the state to find moral guidance and spiritual direction, we turn to the state in times of war.

“We believe in the nobility and self-sacrifice demanded by war… We discover in the communal struggle, the shared sense of meaning and purpose, a cause. War fills our spiritual void.”

Religious anointing reverses the secular aversion to killing and death:

“War finds its meaning in death.

“The cause is built on the backs of victims, portrayed always as innocent. Indeed, most conflicts are ignited with martyrs, whether real or created. The death of an innocent, one who is perceived as emblematic of the nation or the group under attack, becomes the initial rallying point for war. These dead become the standard bearers of the cause and all causes feed off the steady supply of corpses.

“The cause, sanctified by the dead, cannot be questioned without dishonoring those who gave up their lives. We become enmeshed in the imposed language.

“There is a constant act of remembering and honoring the fallen during war. These ceremonies sanctify the cause.

The first death is the most essential:

“Elias Canetti [winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981] wrote, “it is the first death which infects everyone with the feeling of being threatened. It is impossible to overrate the part played  by the first dead man in the kindling of war. Rulers who want to unleash war know very well that they must procure or invent a first victim. It need not be anyone of particular importance, and can even be someone quite unknown. Nothing matters except his death, and it must be believed that the enemy is responsible for this. Every possible cause of his death is suppressed except one:  his membership of the group to which one belongs oneself.”

Dissent has no place in the culture of war. The nation’s institutions and citizens are expected to speak the language of war, which frames and limits public discourse.

“The adoption of the cause means adoption of the language of the cause.

“The state spends tremendous time protecting, explaining, and promoting the cause. And some of the most important cheerleaders of the cause are the reporters. This is true in nearly every war. During the Gulf War, as in the weeks after the September attacks, communities gathered for vigils and worship services. The enterprise of the state became imbued with a religious aura. We, even those in the press, spoke in the collective.

“The official jargon obscures the game of war — the hunters and the hunted. We accept terms imposed on us by the state — for example, the “war on terror” — and these terms set the narrow parameters by which we are able to think and discuss.”

Exaltation of the nation, faith in the cause, honoring of the dead, and conformity to the language of war make doubt and dissent damnable:

“When we speak within the confines of this language we give up our linguistic capacity to question and make moral choices.

“The cause is unassailable, wrapped in the mystery reserved for the divine. Those who attempt to expose the fabrications and to unwrap the contradictions of the cause are left isolated and reviled.

“The state and the institutions of state become, for many, the center of worship in wartime. To expose the holes in the myth is to court excommunication.

“When any contradiction is raised or there is a sense that the cause is not just in an absolute sense, the doubts are attacked as apostasy.”

In war, the state shares dominion with the gods. When war ends, the state’s leaders, intoxicated with power, may not release war’s grip on the culture:

“There is a danger of a growing fusion between those in the state who wage war — both for and against modern states — and those who believe they understand and can act as agents of God.

“The moral certitude of the state in wartime is a kind of fundamentalism… And this dangerous messianic brand of religion, one where self-doubt is minimal, has come increasingly to color the modern world of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”

For the state to revert to peacetime culture, the moral shift that supported war must be reversed by both civilians and soldiers. This requires a harrowing withdrawal from addiction to wartime culture. We’ll talk about that next time.

[1] Napoleon Alphonseau Chagnon,

[2] All quotes in this article are from Chris Hedges’ book.

The Hostilities of Change:  Surprise, Death, and War

Storming of the Bastille

“Ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility.”

Science historian James Gleick,
in his bestseller Chaos:  The Making of a New Science,

We looked last time at neuro-cultural resistance to change, and asked what it takes to overcome it.

It takes a paradigm shift — which, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.” Physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn coined the term in a work that was itself a paradigm shift in how we view the dynamics of change.

“The Kuhn Cycle is a simple cycle of progress described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962 in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions… Kuhn challenged the world’s current conception of science, which was that it was a steady progression of the accumulation of new ideas. In a brilliant series of reviews of past major scientific advances, Kuhn showed this viewpoint was wrong. Science advanced the most by occasional revolutionary explosions of new knowledge, each revolution triggered by introduction of new ways of thought so large they must be called new paradigms. From Kuhn’s work came the popular use of terms like ‘paradigm,’ ‘paradigm shift,’ and ‘paradigm change.’”

Thwink.org

Our cultural point of view determines what we see and don’t see, blinds us to new awareness and perspective. That’s why our visions of a “new normal” are often little more than uninspiring extrapolations of the past.[1] Paradigm shifts offer something more compelling:  they shock our consciousness so much that we never see things the same again; they stun us into abrupt about-faces. Without that, inertia keeps us moving in the direction we’re already going. If we even think of change, cognitive dissonance makes things uncomfortable, and if we go ahead with it anyway, things can get nasty in a hurry.

“People and systems resist change. They change only when forced to or when the change offers a strong advantage. If a person or system is biased toward its present paradigm, then a new paradigm is seen as inferior, even though it may be better. This bias can run so deep that two paradigms are incommensurate. They are incomparable because each side uses their own paradigm’s rules to judge the other paradigm. People talk past each other. Each side can ‘prove’ their paradigm is better.

“Writing in his chapter on The Resolution of Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn states that:

‘If there were but one set of scientific problems, one world within which to work on them, and one set of standards for their solution, paradigm competition might be settled more or less routinely by some process like counting the number of problems solved by each.

‘But in fact these conditions are never met. The proponents of competing paradigms are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case.

‘Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing his science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be solved by proofs.’”

Thwink.org

What does it take to detonate a logjam-busting “revolutionary explosion of new knowledge”? Three possibilities:

The Element of Surprise. [2]  We’re not talking “Oh that’s nice!” surprise. We’re talking blinding flash of inspiration surprise — a eureka moment, moment of truth, defining moment — that changes everything forever, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. In religious terms, this is St. Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road or St. Peter’s vision of extending the gospel to the gentiles. In those moments, both men became future makers, not future takers, embodying the view of another scientist and philosopher:

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”[3]

A New Generation.  Without the element of surprise, paradigm shifts take a long time, if they happen at all.

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents
and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die,
and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”[4]

In religious terms, that’s why the Exodus generation had to die off in 40 years in the wilderness, leaving a new generation for whom Moses’ new paradigm was the only one they’d ever known.

Violence.  Or, if the new paradigm’s champions can’t wait, they can resort to violence, brutality, persecution, war… the kinds of power-grabbing that have long polluted religion’s proselytizing legacy.

Surprise, death, violence… three ways to bring about a paradigm shift. That’s true in religion, science, or any other cultural institution.

More next time.

[1] Carl Richards, “There’s No Such Thing as the New Normal,” New York Times ( December 20, 2010).

[2] Carl Richards, op. cit.

[3] The quote has been ascribed to a lot of different people, including Peter Drucker and computer scientist Alan Kay. But according to the Quote Investigator, “The earliest evidence appeared in 1963 in the book ‘Inventing the Future’ written by Dennis Gabor who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in holography.”

[4] Max Planck, founder of quantum theory, in his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers.

Why Faith Endures

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back
is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9: 62 NIV

I once told a leader of our campus Christian fellowship about doubts prompted by my religion major classes. “Get your Bible and read Luke 9: 62,” he said. I did, and can still see the hardness on his face when I looked up. Religions venerate those who long endure, honoring their moral steadfastness. My character and commitment were suspect. I declared a new major the following quarter.

Scarlet letterReligions punish doubt and dissidence through peer pressure, public censure, witch hunts, inquisitions, executions, jihads, war, genocide…. The year before, the dining halls had flown into an uproar the day the college newspaper reported that the fellowship had expelled a member for sleeping with her boyfriend.

Religions also have a curious way of tolerating their leaders’ nonconforming behavior — even as the leaders cry witch hunt.[1]

These things happen in all cultural institutions, not just religion. Neuroculture offers an explanation for all of them that emphasizes group dynamics over individual integrity. It goes like this:

  • When enough people believe something, a culture with a shared belief system emerges.
  • Individual doubt about the culture’s belief system introduces “cognitive dissonance” that makes individuals uneasy and threatens cultural cohesiveness.
  • Cohesiveness is essential to the group’s survival — doubt and nonconformity can’t be tolerated.
  • The culture therefore sanctifies belief and stifles doubt.
  • The culture sometimes bends its own rules to preserve its leadership power structure against larger threats.

This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” The Atlantic (March 2017) illustrates this process:

“The theory of cognitive dissonance—the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict—was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In a famous study, Festinger and his colleagues embedded themselves with a doomsday prophet named Dorothy Martin and her cult of followers who believed that spacemen called the Guardians were coming to collect them in flying saucers, to save them from a coming flood. Needless to say, no spacemen (and no flood) ever came, but Martin just kept revising her predictions. Sure, the spacemen didn’t show up today, but they were sure to come tomorrow, and so on. The researchers watched with fascination as the believers kept on believing, despite all the evidence that they were wrong.

“‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’ Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schacter wrote in When Prophecy Failstheir 1957 book about this study. ‘Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point … Suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.’

“This doubling down in the face of conflicting evidence is a way of reducing the discomfort of dissonance, and is part of a set of behaviors known in the psychology literature as ‘motivated reasoning.’ Motivated reasoning is how people convince themselves or remain convinced of what they want to believe—they seek out agreeable information and learn it more easily; and they avoid, ignore, devalue, forget, or argue against information that contradicts their beliefs.

“Though false beliefs are held by individuals, they are in many ways a social phenomenon. Dorothy Martin’s followers held onto their belief that the spacemen were coming … because those beliefs were tethered to a group they belonged to, a group that was deeply important to their lives and their sense of self.

“[A disciple who ignored mounting evidence of sexual abuse by his guru] describes the motivated reasoning that happens in these groups: ‘You’re in a position of defending your choices no matter what information is presented,’ he says, ‘because if you don’t, it means that you lose your membership in this group that’s become so important to you.’ Though cults are an intense example, … people act the same way with regard to their families or other groups that are important to them.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,The New Yorker (Feb. 27, 2017) explains why the process seems so perfectly reasonable:

“Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain.

“Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“‘Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,’ [the authors of an seminal study] write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an ‘intellectualist’ point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social ‘interactionist’ perspective.”

What does it take for individual dissent or cultural change to prevail in the face of these powerful dynamics? We’ll look at that next time.

[1]  This “bigger bully” theory was remarkably evident when Tony Perkins, leader of the Family Research Council, said evangelicals “kind of gave [Donald Trump] a mulligan” over Stormy Daniels, saying that evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that’s willing to punch the bully.”

“The Opium of the People”: Sex, Drugs, Rock n Roll, Gambling, and … Religion

dice

Religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. What happens next might surprise you.

Last time, we heard from Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, who says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“[N]eurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, another pioneer of “neurotheology.” agrees that the religion-brain link promotes social cohesiveness and morality.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’ says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discusson.'”

The Apostle Paul, whose pre-conversion theological training was ultra-legalistic, likened law-based belief to being under the care of a guardian:  we need something to keep us in line until we grow up enough to embrace responsibility along with freedom. Paul’s Letter to the Galations 3:22-24. Until we make that shift, the brain’s religious wiring is equally adept at promoting individual and communal health as their opposites. Dr. Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist that reflect the implications of this neurological indifference:

  • Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety, but just 12 minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
  • Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
  • Fundamentalism, in and of itself, is benign and can be personally beneficial, but the anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
  • Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain—altering your values and the way you perceive reality.

In fact, the brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning”

“What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

These findings suggest a fascinating explanation for a wide range of religious behaviors — everything from charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and “fellowship” dynamics on one end to clergy sexual crimes and misconduct, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other. Shocking as it may seem, the whole spectrum qualifies for the brain’s addictive feel-good list, along with sex, drugs, music, and gambling.

More from neurotheology next time.

Why Belief Works

Our experience of the “real world” will conform to what we believe. It has to, because our brains insist upon it.

They do that in part through neuro-cultural conditioning — the process by which the neurological wiring of a culture’s individual members is patterned after the culture’s belief system, and vice versa. This is the case with any kind of cultural institution, whether national, religious, scientific, economic, corporate, professional, team, tribal, or otherwise.[1] This post looks at religion as an example.[2]

Tim Crane is a professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Budapest. “I work in the philosophy of mind,” his online CV says, “I have attempted to address questions about the most general nature, or essence, of the human mind, and about the place of the mind in the rest of nature.” In his book The Meaning of Belief: Religion From An Atheist’s Point Of View (2017), he cites William James’ 1902 classic The Varieties of Religious Experience for a definition of what he calls “the religious impulse”:

“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms, one might say that it consists in the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”

Christian Smith is a sociology professor and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Here’s his definition of religion:

“Religion is a complex of culturally prescribed practices, based on promises about the existence and nature of supernatural powers, whether personal or impersonal, which seek to help practitioners gain access to and communicate or align themselves with these powers, in hopes of realizing human goods and avoiding things bad.”

Religion: What It Is, How It Works, And Why It Matters (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Both authors stress that religious principles and practices need to match in order for religion to be effective. In other words:

“Faith without works is dead.”
The Epistle of James 2: 17

As it turns out, “faith without works is dead” is not just scripture, but accurate neuroscience as well. When we practice what we preach, we set up a self-sustaining loop in which belief drives thoughts and behavior, which in turn reinforce belief. In that way, religion develops the brain while the brain develops religion:

“Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined.’”

The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

The more widespread and enduring the religious practice, the more the religion develops scriptures, rituals, icons, and institutions to sustain itself. Therefore a Bible passage such as this…

“I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
 or their children begging bread.”
Psalm 37: 25 NIV

… becomes both community truth and the “testimony” of individual adherents. But what happens when belief and experience don’t align — e.g., when a member of the congregation and her children in fact go begging?

Some religious thinkers, like the writer of this Huffington Post article, reckon with the contradiction by distinguishing belief from faith. Beliefs are products of the mind, she says, and deal with what can be known, while faith is a product of the spirit, which traffics in what cannot be known. Since knowledge is always shifting, belief can and probably will let us down, while faith in what can’t be known remains inscrutable. Faith therefore invites belief to step aside in favor of “trusting beyond all reason and evidence.”

That outlook captures the essential center of the definitions of religion we saw above:  that there is a “divine order” populated with “supernatural powers” that exists alongside but separate from ours. (Of which we have only limited understanding, the belief/faith outlook would add.)  Whether this satisfies the brain’s need to align internal patterning with external experience is the kind of issue being taken up by the new discipline of neurotheology which looks at where religion happens in the brain.

Neurotheology’s inquiries have far-reaching implications for many of our common assumptions about how reality is structured. For example, if faith can be explained in neurological terms, then it could be located — in whole or in part — along with belief on this side of the theoretical divide between human and supernatural existence.  This shift would likely have a ripple effect on similar dichotomies, such as known vs. unknown, real vs. imaginary, objective vs. subjective, observed vs. inscrutable, temporal vs. transcendence, etc.

More on neurotheology coming up.

[1] For more on cultural patterning, see the other posts in this blog’s category The Basics of Belief. Culture, and Reality.

[2] I talk about Christianity because it is the only religion I have personal experience with. And I am aware, by the way, that I write this post under the influence of my own neuroscientific cultural bias.

Moral Compass:  How We Know Right From Wrong

compass

Our brains are amoral. They need cultural context to give them a moral compass.

Real and Imaginary

It’s a staple of self-help advice and sports and performance psychology that our brains don’t know the difference between real and imagined, therefore we can trick them into getting us what we want. There’s good science to back this up, although recent research suggests that the brain actually does know the difference — that it has specific neurons for that purpose. Science Daily. Plus, although both real and imaginary run over the same neural pathway, they move in opposite directions:  input from the outside world runs bottom up — from lower level sensory to higher level cognitive processing — while imagined input runs top down. Psychology Today, Knowledge Nuts.

Getting Into Our Bodies

Not that Harold Hill’s “think system” is enough — we still need to practice and rehearse effectively. We need to get our bodies involved. We’re out there in the “real world” taking in sensory input, interacting with people, things, and experiences, meanwhile we’re imagining things, throwing in doses of speculation and making things up. Our brains and bodies need to work together to ground this swirl of information. This article[1] explains how they do that:

“When considering the senses, we tend to think of sight and sound, taste, touch and smell. However, these are classified as exteroceptive senses, that is, they tell us something about the outside world. In contrast, interoception is a sense that informs us about our internal bodily sensations, such as the pounding of our heart, the flutter of butterflies in our stomach or feelings of hunger.

“The brain represents, integrates and prioritises interoceptive information from the internal body. These are communicated through a set of distinct neural and humoural (i.e., blood-borne) pathways. This sensing of internal states of the body is part of the interplay between body and brain: it maintains homeostasis, the physiological stability necessary for survival; it provides key motivational drivers such as hunger and thirst; it explicitly represents bodily sensations, such as bladder distension. But that is not all, and herein lies the beauty of interoception, as our feelings, thoughts and perceptions are also influenced by the dynamic interaction between body and brain.”

University of Sussex cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth lays all this out in his TED2017 talk “Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality.”

TED Hallucinating reality

“When we agree about our hallucinations,” he says, “we call that reality.” Those agreements blend external (outside world) and internal (imagined) input into shared belief about what the real world is, and how it works. They also add another key cultural component:  a sense of right and wrong.

Why We Need a Moral Compass, and Where We Get It

Humans need community to survive. Community, in turn, needs a shared behavioral code. Our brains are flexible and amoral on issues of right and wrong — they take their cues from cultural context. Cultural moral coding is therefore evolutionary — motivated by the survival instinct.[2] All of that goes a long way toward explaining why activities honored by one group are despicable to another, and why, when confronted with those differences, each group’s first instinct is to point fingers.

This article reviews three prominent books[3] supporting culturally based morality, and concludes as follows:

“…one must come to the conclusion that inside human beings, as Gazzaniga says, ‘there is a moral compass.’ But ‘we have to be smart enough to figure out how it works.’ Across the realm of human experience—personal, collective, historical, and now neuroscientific—it is abundantly clear that we have the capacity to consciously consider consequences and choose our actions… The mind is a physio-spiritual mechanism built for choice, but it must be given direction. We may be endowed with a moral compass, but it does not arrive with prewired direction. Moral calibration is required.”

The article’s source is “the Church of God, an international community,” which according to its website is a “a nondenominational organization based in Pasadena, California [which] traces its antecedents to Sabbatarian communities in 17th-century Europe, and before that to the first-century apostolic Church at Jerusalem.” Its tool of choice for the brain’s “moral calibration” is the Bible:

“The Bible, too, is unequivocal in the need for [moral calibration] (see, for example, Proverbs 3:31 and Job 34:2–4), adding that there is a spiritual factor responsible for imparting this ability to the human mind (Job 32:8–9)… The Bible serves as the lodestone that sets our compass’s orientation and helps us establish our moral bearings.”

But of course the Church of God didn’t write the article — an individual or collaboration of individuals wrote it, in furtherance of the Church’s culture and institutional belief system. It’s not surprising that the Bible was its cultural choice for moral calibration. Another culture might have chosen a different tool — Mein Kampf, for instance, or the ISIS Manifesto.

The article closes with reservations about the three authors’ neuro-cultural approach to morality:

“As secularists, of course, these authors cannot be expected to pursue [the Bible] in their search for the source of moral standards, especially when, as Gazzaniga notes, so much of what constitutes religious faith is founded on superstition rather than on truth. And so, as researchers improve drug cocktails to ultimately manipulate and control the brain (as Tancredi believes they will), and as society haltingly accepts science as arbiter of good and evil (as Gazzaniga believes it must), it is not too farfetched to imagine that the moral grammar Hauser describes can be refashioned as well. In fact, if history provides any clue, it seems a done deal. The only question that remains is whether our ongoing recalibrations will be for the better or for the worse.”

Yes — whether “for the better or for the worse” remains to be seen…. But according to whose cultural point of view?

[1]How The Body And Mind Talk To One Another To Understand The World,” Aeon Magazine (Feb. 15, 2019).

[2] Here’s a nice primer on this concept. And here’s another, maybe more grownup version.

[3] Hardwired Behavior:  What Neuroscience Reveals About Morality, by Laurence Tancredi, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, a psychiatrist in private practice, and a lawyer who consults on criminal cases involving psychiatric issues. The Ethical Brain:  The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas, by Michael S. Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Moral Minds:  How Nature Designed Our Moral Minds, by Marc D. Hauser, Professor of Psychology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and Biological Anthropology at Harvard University, where he is director of the Cognitive Evolution Laboratory and co-director of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Program.