Archives for category: Culture

During lock-down I had more time for my research regarding conscience.
Or, in Maturana’s terms, ‘self-awareness‘.

At first glance, evolutionary speaking, conscience – our ability to observe ourselves ‘in the act’, is about increasing the survivability of the individual having said ability. Hence increasing the survivability of the species to which said individual belongs.

Now, since humankind is divided in cultural ‘subspecies’ – and, according to Maturana, conscience is an ability which has been developed in social context, cultures have different chances of survival. Depending on subtle differences imposed upon the individual consciences during the ‘coming of age’.
Only there’s something which contradicts Darwin’s evolutionary theory. According to the classical version, individuals cannot adapt themselves. Individuals can only survive – and transmit their genes, or – if said genes are not good enough for the circumstances, expire and make way for other individuals/species. According to Darwin, only species can evolve.

The notable difference being what we call ‘free will’.
Not as free as some believe it to be, not as bounded as other think it to be, free will does exist. And allows us to evolve on an individual basis. During the life span of the current generation.

Only there’s a small problem here.
Cognitive dissonance.
No matter how conscient – aka aware of our own misgivings, each of us might be, our first tendency when confronted with arguments contradicting our previously held convictions is to rationalize away those arguments.
Change convictions according to the newly acquired knowledge? Maybe later…
Don’t believe me? How much time elapsed between learning that smoking is bad for you and actually quitting? See what I mean?

Hence my ‘impression’ that ‘conscience’ is more concerned about maintaining its own consistency than with the fate of the biological organism which actually supports it.

Want some more arguments?

Northern Italy. France. Spain. Bad Corona-virus outbreaks, followed by intense lock-downs. Currently the situations are, basically, under control. Suggesting that people do learn, fast, when confronted by really dire circumstances.
Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore… reacted immediately, had relatively few problems. Suggesting that people are able to learn from past experiences. The ‘original’ SARS, you know…
Germany had a less ‘dramatic’ trajectory. Suggesting people may, under certain circumstances, learn from others.
US and Brazil. The rest of the US, actually. The NE having experienced the North Italian scenario. Too many people concerned more with remaining consistent with their previous selves than with adapting to the new challenge. ‘Government tries to subdue us’ and ‘masks are an infringement to personal liberty’.

What about China and Russia?
I’ll let you be the judge of that. Only you need to remember that ‘free will’ is of a totally different nature there than it is here. In the rest of the world.

Same in India. With a twist. While in China/Russia free will is stifled from above, in India – and in too many other developing nations, free will is ‘conscripted’ by poverty. It is very hard to think about the day after tomorrow if you don’t know whether you’ll be able to eat tomorrow.
Even less so if you are hungry right now.

Charles Darwin gave us “On the origin of Species”.

We’ve summed it up ‘the survival of the fittest’.
And behaved accordingly. Including some of those who should have known better. “The world of the selfish gene revolves around savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit, and yet, Dawkins argues, acts of apparent altruism do exist in nature.

I reckon all of you know – or at least have heard of, Richard Dawkins.
Compare his celebrity with the relative absence from the public scene ‘enjoyed’ by Ernst Mayr.

And what’s so special about this Mayr guy?
‘Evolution is not as much about the ‘survival of the fittest’ as it is about the ‘demise of the unfit’ ‘

Get it?
In fact, there is no such thing as ‘the fittest’ when we speak about evolution. ‘Fit’ is relative while evolution is a process. Fit is about ‘this moment and this place’ while evolution is about the ability to adapt. To change when needed.

And what has any of these to do with “exploring the consequences of our limited conscience”?

Well, it was us who had interpreted Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species’ as ‘the survival of the fittest’ individual. It was us who had lionized Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’ and left Mayr’s ‘True’ Evolution in relative darkness…

To sum it up, it is us who are are obsessed with something we call ‘success’.

It is us who keep forgetting that the mighty dinosaurs – maybe the most ‘successful’ animals ever, had been the first to disappear when ‘shit’ had struck. And that is was a meek mammal which had inherited the Earth.

It is our success craving conscience which is highly biased. And I’m not at all sure this is a good thing. In the long run, I mean.

Albert Einstein, a physicist, had noticed that observations are relative to the “frame of reference” where the observer happens to make his observations.

Humberto Maturana, a biologist, has reached the conclusion that consciousness – or ‘self awareness’, as he prefers to call it, is a personal trait which is developed by individuals living in concert.

Blending Einstein’s and Maturana’s ideas, it is easy to ‘see’ that observations made by human individuals depend, simultaneously, on two referential systems. Or frames of reference, in Einstein’s terms.

On the actual, ‘geographic’, ‘place’ where the individual makes their observations.
And on the ‘cultural place’ where the conscience – inner referential system, of the observing individual had been ‘shaped’.

Otherwise put, nobody can see things which are not there. Nor ‘see’ – a.k.a. understand, things which are too ‘distant’ from what that person already ‘knows’. Accepts as being ‘normal’. Feels like being ‘right’.

To make things just a tad ‘clearer’ – ‘nature versus nurture’, we must consider the vagaries of individual ‘biology’. Some people see/hear/smell/feel differently than others. And even ‘think’ differently.

And my point is?

Maturana made it before me. The ‘other’ – the more different, the better, is a source of richness. IF we treat each-other the right way. If we help each-other by ‘concerting’ our observations about what we have in common.
The ‘place’ we observe. Einstein’s referential frame. Where we ‘happen to stand’. Together.

And there’s something else I’d like you to read.

“J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”
https://www.jkrowling.com/opinions/j-k-rowling-writes-about-her-reasons-for-speaking-out-on-sex-and-gender-issues

We’ve arrived at a very interesting point in our evolution as a cultural species.

Having more or less solved our existential problems – food, shelter, companionship, we’re hard at work towards building ‘self esteem’.

Putting it in Abraham Maslow’s terms, a good portion of the humankind – most of those active on the internet, the netizens, have reached the ‘self-actualization’ stage.

The problem being that we’re so preoccupied with ‘expressing our true selves’ that almost nobody listens anymore. Truly listens…

The kind of listening needed when we try to learn something. To understand what’s going on.

As opposed to the listening used when educating somebody.

When attempting to learn, we listen opening our minds. We let information in and structure it afterwards.
When educating people, our listening is focused. We take information in with the sole goal of detecting dissent – in order to stifle it, and openings to exploit in our quest to implant our opinion about the world in the minds of our ‘targets’.

Take a breath.
And exhale carefully not to inflate another bubble.
There are already a lot of them waiting to burst.

Humberto Maturana teaches us that human consciousness can be understood as our ability to ‘observe ourselves observing‘.
In other words, consciousness might be reduced to self-awareness.

I’m afraid it’s not enough.
While no individual can be described as conscious if not commanding a certain degree of self-awareness, being able to observe their own observations doesn’t elevate an observer to fully conscious status.

How many of us have ‘enjoyed’ messing up ants or other insects just for the fun of it? When we were teenagers, of course.
OK, we continue to squish the cockroaches we happen to see and to spray our gardens against mosquitoes and other pests.
Only we no longer do it for fun. We employ a ‘healthy’ rationale to justify our actions – cockroaches/mosquitoes are ‘bad for us’.
And we try to do it in a reasonable manner. We don’t soak the entire garden with the most potent insecticide available. Simply because we’ve understood, the hard way, that bees are also important for us.

Otherwise put, it’s not enough for us to be able to keep tabs on what we do, we must also take responsibility for our actions.

After all, we’ve been able to notice that bison ‘engineer’ their own environment.

“Herds of bison milling through Yellowstone National Park may seem aimless to the average visitor, but a new study reveals the animals are hard at work engineering their ecosystem. By rigorously mowing and fertilizing their own patches of grassland, the big herbivores essentially delay spring until late summer.”

Maybe the time is ripe for us to understand that we, humans, have done the very same thing for quite a while now.
The world we live in is, to a certain – but rapidly growing – extent, the consequence of our own decision making.

The faster we learn to accept that, the higher the chances we won’t repeat past mistakes.

Life, in general, is a matter of calibrating the intercourse between the inside of the organism and the environment in which it tries to survive. Or thrive…

Social life, both in general and in particular, is a matter of calibrating social intercourse between the members of a society in such a manner that, statistically speaking, the individual members would find it easier to survive/thrive in the given physical environment.
Simply because each surviving/thriving individual adds resilience to the social organism/network.

COVID-19 is nothing but yet another test.
For now – for as long a so many of us are still in ‘surviving mode’, it doesn’t matter “how” or “why”.
All that matter is ‘what’.

“What WE do about it!”

Distance ourselves from the others and allow the pandemic to cool down?
Distance ourselves from the others and allow each of our individual minds to think for itself?

While keeping in mind that long term survival requires the physical presence of as many of us as possible? That our own long term well being requires us to cooperate towards that common goal? As Adam Smith taught us?

Then things will eventually cool down.

And we will have been learned yet another thing.

Both individually and as a cultured species.

According to Abe Lincoln, democracy is about “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

No photo description available.

But what if not enough of the ‘people’ care about who governs them? Nor towards what?

A couple of years ago a previously unknown author had come up with a “radical new theory“. One which maintains that “modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place“.

The picture above is proof that Rachel Bitecofer, the ‘previously unknown author’, is right.

On the other hand, Barend ter Haar, among others, ‘suggests’ that “democracy is a form of conflict management within states“.

The last proposition also makes a lot of sense.
Democracy, when functional, lowers ‘political temperature’ to levels where individual members of the community/nation may focus on identifying and solving the problems which might endanger the survival of the entire social organism.
Otherwise put, democracy dramatically increases the survival chances of the communities who are wise enough to maintain its true character. Who are wise enough to make it work. Properly.

What prompted me to believe such a thing?
Look back in history. All authoritarian regimes – a.k.a. ’empires’, have eventually crumbled under their own weight while no democracy has ever ‘folded its hand’ before loosing first its democratic character.

Which brings us to ‘what is the gist of democracy’?
Or, in ter Haar’s terms, who is responsible for maintaining it? Who ‘runs’ the “conflict management within states”?

This is where I part ways with ter Haar.
For me, democracy is something natural. It has to come from within.
There is no one who can, or should, manage it.
Administer it – as in accurately counting the ballots and making sure that rules are followed, obviously. Actually managing the process?!?. No! That would defeat the very purpose of the democratic process. For the people to find its own way.

But there are so many who can spoil it… Willingly or unwillingly!

First among them being those who decide to stay at home.
To keep mum.
For whatever reason!

Because those who keep mum are those who allow the ‘pirates’ to ‘steal’ the helm.
Just as keeping quiet is the worst attitude when somebody bullies you, staying at home on election day empowers those with less than fully democratic attitudes to ascend to power.

Wilhelm von Humboldt had initiated a current of thinking, linguistic relativity, which posits that the language used in a cultural space is a reflection of the ideas populating that space. And that there is a strong link between the workings of that language and the manner of reasoning favored by those who use it.

‘Dull as fuck’ is a perfect example.

Nowadays ‘conventional’ fuck is considered to be boring.

We’ve arrived to need all kinds of ‘gadgets’ and a cornucopia of titillation.

We’ve become addicts. Depending on porn.

Isn’t it interesting?

There is a then and there is a now.
We’re OK with ‘then’ and we’re not so comfortable with ‘now’.
Yet the only link between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is us.

Our generation took ‘then’ and brought it ‘now’.

Everything that happened between then and now had happened to us, by us.

Universal Grammar (UG) is intended to specify the most general principles of human language. It must provide an explanation for the extraordinary fact that a Japanese child raised in Paris will acquire French, but not Japanese, and a French child raised in Tokyo, Japanese, but not French. Either child may acquire both French and Japanese, of course, but neither will fail to acquire French or Japanese. Linguists and philosophers may have known this in antiquity; they did not say so with any great conviction, and they may not have said so at all. It was left to Chomsky to remark with the full force of his genius that every human language can be acquired by any human being. Universal Grammar, Chomsky concluded, must be a species-specific characteristic of the human race, biologically encoded, genetically transmitted.

The quote comes right out of an article written by David Berlinski and Juan Uriagereka. Never heard of any of them.

Reading that article, I remembered the reason for which I tend to avoid modern philosophers. Or linguists. Hard to discern which is which, anyway…

Let me return to the quote itself.
“An explanation for the extraordinary fact that a Japanese child raised in Paris will acquire French, but not Japanese, and a French child raised in Tokyo, Japanese”.
Read this to anybody who isn’t familiar with the notion of ‘Chomsky’. You’ll get a laugh and a troubled look. ‘What’s so extraordinary here?!? People will always learn whatever language is spoken around them… but only if they come in contact with the ‘exterior’ world!’

Home-school those Japanese/French children in Paris/Tokyo while preventing them from getting in touch with anybody else but their immediate family/trainers and they’ll learn only whatever language(s) their trainers/family will have chosen for them.

As an aside, what does Chomsky mean by ‘French’ and or ‘Japanese’?
‘Genetically’ French/Japanese? What if one parent is French/Japanese and the other German/Korean? What will the child be? Like the father or like the mother?
‘Culturally’ Japanese/French? According to their ‘mother’ tongue?!?
Forget it…

“Universal Grammar, Chomsky concluded, must be a species-specific characteristic of the human race, biologically encoded, genetically transmitted”.

‘Species specific characteristic of the human race’… told you these guys have a lot of humor… or, maybe, they cannot make up their minds…
What are we, humans?!? A species or a race?

OK, let me move forward.
Hidden underneath all this ado, there is a piece/gem of ‘harsh’ reality.
The simple fact that if/when we want to, we are able to understand each-other. To communicate with each-other. To exchange ideas. To trade meaning.
And there is indeed something species-specific about this ability of ours. Nobody else has it… according to our present knowledge about the world, anyway.

‘Nobody else has it’… yeah, right… as if you hadn’t watched, time and time again, two dogs ‘greeting’ each-other in the park.
OK, those dogs were interacting in highly unnatural circumstances. Walked by people, in a people infested environment …
Fact is that all animals have ‘procedures’ for interacting with other animals. Belonging to the same species or belonging to other species. Some of the procedures being inbred while others had been acquired trough learning or training.
Cats, for instance, have an inbred ‘procedure’ for chasing anything which might become a prey but need to be taught by their mothers how to finish the chase. How to kill that prey.
And yes, cats do have a species-specific, biologically encoded and genetically transmitted characteristic which allows them to kill and eat their prey. Or to play with the people who take care of them. They kill and eat using their claws and teeth while they play using their brain. OK, the brain also contributes during the chase… don’t be a nit-pick.

Let me summarize.
So cats have a specific set of tools, teeth and claws, which are ‘coordinated’ by a brain which needs to be taught in order to become fully functional.
And the overall ‘functioning’ of any given cat depends simultaneously on how well their organism works AND the quality of the learning they have been able to amass.

Then where’s the difference between humans and cats?
What is so species-specific in our ability to interact with the world?

I’m exaggerating, of course. We are able to understand each-other far deeper than the other great-apes, our cousins. There is something species-specific in all this.
But only in ‘depth’, not in ‘nature’.
We’ve been able to teach chimps to write. And cats to play with strings instead of catching mice. All three of us ‘share’ the more or less same kind of brain and surprisingly similar anatomies.

What really sets us apart is our learned ability to watch ourselves while doing something. To observe ourselves observing, as Maturana puts it.
And our ability, learned again, to formulate information in a transmittable form. To ‘build’ highly specific messages using rather ‘fungible’ building blocks and in such a manner that those messages might be transmitted from one individual to another. From one generation to another, even.
To make good use of the Universal Grammar noticed by Chomsky.

Can any of this be construed as species-specific? Of course. Without the huge brain we’ve got – or without the ability to articulate sounds, we most likely wouldn’t have been able to reach this stage of our evolution.
But to reduce everything to mere biology … I’m afraid that would be too simplistic.

Consciousness – or self-awareness, opens up huge evolutionary venues. Powered by our very ability to communicate so intensely. To use ‘Universal Grammar’, even without being aware of its existence.
But since both self-awareness and talking depends upon learning them from/with the others… biology is not enough. Necessary, indeed, but not enough.

Not by a long shot.

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