Moral Compass:  How We Know Right From Wrong

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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.

“Be the Change You Want to See” — Why Change MUST Always Begin With Us

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In the beginning, somebody…

Told a story. Made something. Made something that made things. Drew a picture. Used their voice melodiously. Moved a certain way and did it again. Took something apart, put it back together, and built another thing like it. Watched how weather and sky and flora and fauna responded to the passage of time. Sprinkled dry leaves on meat and ate it. Drew a line in the sand and beat someone who crossed it. Traded this for that. Resolved a dispute. Helped a sick person feel better. Took something shiny from the earth or sea and wore it. Had an uncanny experience and explained it.

And then somebody else did, too — and then somebody else after that, and more somebodies after that, until the human race had organized itself into families, clans, tribes, city-states, and nations, each with its own take on life in this world. Millennia later a worldwide civilization had emerged, organized around trans-cultural institutions of law, economics, science, religion, industry, commerce, education, medicine, arts and entertainment….

And then you and I were born as new members of a highly-evolved human culture of innumerable, impossibly complex, interwoven layers.

From our first breaths we were integrated into site-specific cultural institutions that informed our beliefs about how the world works and our place in it. Those institutions weren’t external to us, they were embodied in us — microbes of meaning lodged in our neural pathways and physical biome. Our brains formed around the beliefs of our culture — our neurons drank them in, and our neural networks were wired up with the necessary assumptions, logic, and leaps of faith.

These cellular structure informed what it meant for us to be alive on the Earth, individually and in community. They shaped our observations and awareness, experiences and interpretations, tastes and sensibilities. They defined what is real and imaginary, set limits around what is true and false, acceptable and taboo. And then they reinforced the rightness of it all with feelings of place and belonging, usefulness and meaning. When that was done, our brains and bodies were overlaid with a foundation for status quo — the way things are, and are supposed to be.

All that happened in an astonishing surge of childhood development. Then came puberty, when our brain and body hormones blasted into overdrive, dredging up our genetic and environmental beginnings and parading them out for reexamination. We kept this and discarded that, activated these genes instead of those. (The process by which we do that is called epigenetics, and it explains why your kids aren’t like you.) We also tried on countercultural beliefs. welcoming some and rejecting others. From there, we entered adult life freshly realigned with a differentiated sense of self, us, and them.

From there, adult life mostly reinforces our cultural beginnings, although the nuisances and opportunities of change periodically require us to make and reaffirm shared agreements in our communities, professions, workplaces, teams, and other groups, each time reaffirming and refining our shared cultural foundations. In doing so, we sometimes flow with the changing times, and sometimes retrench with nostalgic fervor.

Where does all this biological, cognitive, and social development and maintenance happen? In the only place it possibly could:  in the hot wet darkness inside the human body’s largest organ —   our skin. Yes, there is a “real world” out there that we engage with, but the processing and storing of experience happen inside — encoded in our brains and bodies.

be the changeWhich is why individual and cultural change must always begin with us — literally inside of us, in our physical makeup — because that’s where our world and our experience of it are registered and maintained. Gandhi’s famous words are more than a catchy meme, they describe basic human reality:  if we want things to change, then we must be transformed. Think about it:  we have no belief, perception, experience, or concept of status quo that is not somehow registered in our brains and bodies, so where else could change happen? (Unless there’s something like a humanCloud where it can be uploaded and downloaded — but that’s another issue for another time.)

The implications of locating human experience in our physical selves are far-reaching and fascinating. We’ll be exploring them.

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What Iconoclast.blog Is About

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I’ve spent the past ten years writing books, blogs, and articles on technology, jobs, economics, law, personal growth, cultural transformation, psychology, neurology, fitness and health… all sprinkled with futurism. In all those seemingly unrelated topics, I’ve been drawn to a common theme:  change. One lesson stands out:

Beliefs create who we are individually and collectively.
The first step of change is to be aware of them.
The second step is to leave them behind.

Beliefs inform personal and collective identity, establish perspective, explain biases, screen out inconsistent information, attract conforming experience, deflect non-conforming information and experience, and make decisions for us that we only rationalize in hindsight.

Those things are useful:  they tame the wild and advance civilization, help us locate our bewildered selves and draw us into protective communities. We need that to survive and thrive.  But they can be too much of a good thing. They make us willfully blind, show us only what we will see and hide what we won’t. They build our silos, sort us into polarities, close our minds, cut us off from compassion, empathy, and meaningful discourse.

Faced with the prospect of change, beliefs guard status quo against the possibility that something else is possible — which is precisely what we have to believe if we’re after change. Trouble is, to believe just that much threatens all our other beliefs. Which means that, if we want something else,

We need to become iconoclasts.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “iconoclast” originally meant “breaker or destroyer of images,” originally referring to religious zealots who vandalized icons in Catholic and Orthodox churches because they were “idols.” Later, the meaning was broadened to “one who attacks orthodox beliefs or cherished institutions.”

Our beliefs are reflected, transmitted, and reinforced in our religious, national, economic, and other cultural institutions. These become our icons, and we cherish them, invest them with great dignity, revere them as divine, respect them as Truth with a capital T, and fear their wrath if we neglect or resist them. We confer otherworldly status on them, treat them as handed down from an untouchable level of reality that supersedes our personal agency and self-efficacy. We devote ourselves to them, grant them unquestioned allegiance, and chastise those who don’t bow to them alongside us.

Doing that, we forget that our icons only exist because they were created out of belief in the first place. In the beginning, we made them up. From there, they evolved with us. To now and then examine, challenge, and reconfigure them and the institutions that sustain them is an act of creative empowerment — one of the highest and most difficult gifts of being human.

Change often begins when that still small voice pipes up and says, “Maybe not. Maybe something else is possible.” We are practiced in ignoring it; to become an iconoclast requires that we listen, and question the icons that warn us not to. From there, thinking back to the word’s origins, I like “challenge” better than “attack.”  I’m not an attacker by nature, I’m an essayist — a reflective, slow thinker who weighs things and tries to make sense of them. I’m especially not a debater or an evangelist — I’m not out to convince or convert anyone, and besides, I lack the quick-thinking mental skill set.

I’m also not an anarchist, libertarian, revolutionary… not even a wannabe Star Wars rebel hero, cool as that sounds. I was old enough in the 60’s to party at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but then it failed like all the other botched utopias — exposed as one more bogus roadmap claiming to chart the way back to the Garden.

Sorry, but the Garden has been closed for a long, long time.

garden closed

A friend used to roll his eyes and say, “Some open minds ought to close for business.” Becoming an iconoclast requires enough open-mindedness to suspend status quo long enough to consider that something else is possible. That’s not easy, but it is the essential beginning of change, and it can be done.

Change needs us to be okay with changing our minds.

All the above is what I had in mind when I created Iconoclast.blog. I am aware of its obvious potential for inviting scoffing on a good day, embarrassment and shaming on a worse, and vituperation, viciousness, trolling, and general spam and nastiness on the worst. (Which is why I disabled comments on the blog, and instead set up a Facebook page that offers ample raving opportunity.) Despite those risks, I plan to pick up some cherished icons and wonder out loud what might be possible in their absence. . If you’re inclined to join me, then please click the follow button for email delivery, or follow the blog on Facebook. I would enjoy the company.

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