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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Letter to Friends

Happy New Year to a friend and fellow sojourner!

First let me say that “retirement” agrees with me and I am grateful to Social Security, to former employers’ 401K and health plans, and ultimately to the American people that are allowing me to live modestly well while choosing my employment without regard to making money.

I write to recommend some reading.  You know that I have been on a philosophical quest for many years to discover and define a universal ethic that would inform our morality and guide our politics so that our grandchildren will progress in the happiness that we have known.  (See my blog at my website  And you know that I have been an avid amateur in science. 

The most informative sciences in my ethical quest have been Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience.   I just read three books that I recommend to you:  Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terrence Deacon, and The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.  Five stars all—though know that I award stars not by how much I agree with the books, but by how much they make me think and help me in my own inquiry.

Gazzaniga gives a good summary of his research into the modular workings of the brain, the primacy of emotional response and the illusion of conscious volition, and especially the interpreter function of the left hemisphere.  He helped me revise my ethical model, which I call “integrity” (see my Jan 1 blog) and redefine what freedom and responsibility mean in a contemporary society that values science.

Deacon provides the most up-to-date evidence for my own Philosophy of Symbolic Act that grounds my ethics and politics—filling out and correcting what I learned through Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, and their followers about the defining characteristic of human behavior: language and other symbolic forms through which truth, beauty, good, meaning, and happiness are achieved. 

But it is primarily Pinker’s book that I am recommending to you because of the insights it incites into our contemporary human condition.  For example, I could not understand the depth of the disappointment in Obama on the part of independent and liberal leaning Americans; nor could I understand the breadth of visceral and vituperous fear and hate of what Obama represents to people on the right.  But now I begin to understand the polarization in our body politic.

Here is a review of Pinker’s new book:

But first a confession.   I was more interested in his neuroscience than his philosophy of history—so I read the last three chapters much more carefully than I read (i.e. skimmed) the first seven. 

In the first seven he makes his case for the decline of violence even with 20th century world wars, genocides, and serial killings.  He traces the decline in warfare, crime and punishment, infanticide, abuse of women and children, slavery, and hate-crimes through a combination of historical forces including civilization, pacification, humanitarian and rights revolutions where last year’s Whigs become this year’s Tories in a gradual rationalization and liberalization process.  In the last three he gives the science of violence and its decline.

Whether or not you agree with his history and with his values (less violence is better), you will find this a very hopeful book demonstrating a moral progress in humanity at a time of forgetfulness when we tend to romanticize the past; e.g. the tremendous political polarities and corruption of 19th Century America far outdoing anything we see today, the inquisition and religious wars, the imperial pacifications.

But it is hardly Pollyanna.  The sources of devastation and of improvement, the inner demons and the better angels, are with us.  Pinker’s scientific treatise identifies these and points the way to how we might want to use them to become who we want to become.  That’s the part that helps me most in my inquiry.

In these chapters he describes the “seeker” and “rage” circuits of the brain and indicates five triggers for violence and the reasons for their selection in evolution: 1) practical—using force to get something wanted, 2) dominance—overcoming rivals especially sexual; 3) revenge—restraining tribal harm; 4) sadism—pleasure in hurting; 5) ideology—true belief to maintain group.  His description of the fifth trigger for violence is especially cogent and very important for our understanding of ourselves.

He also describes the restraint and reconstructive mechanisms, the “better angels,” of our nature.  These include 1) empathy (“mirror neurons and all that) and its growing circle, 2) self-control through the civilizing process, 3) morality and taboo to protect the group and the species, 4) reason and its perhaps accidental side effects.  Reason which may have developed through the symbolic ability that allows the species a critical means of survival by learning through anticipation of the future (see Beacon above), makes game theory possible, the reflection and anticipation of payoffs for behavioral responses.

This is a great read from which I drew many lessons including:
1)   Reflecting on the decline of violence is a potential cognitive therapy for the depression this country has seemed to settle into with all its negative think and talk—usually by old fearful white men like us. 
2)   Know thyself.  Just thinking about what is in us naturally that leads to violence and its restraint can provide us with options.
3)   Pure evil is a harmful myth because it promotes an attitude of victimhood over responsibility.  It is connected to the myth of nostalgia and utopia, which underlies the fifth, most powerful trigger for violence.
4)   Empathy, like love, alone won’t cut it.  There is a strong case for broad, liberal education.
5)   Pinker is no “moral realist” who looks for an ethical formula and truth the way that physicists seek and verify explanations in the physical universe; he uses game theory instead.  However, I do think he gives grounds for a universal ethic—my own quest.  But I’ll try to show that as I continue my work. 
6)   Freedom, including “free will” (see Gazzaniga above), and moral truth (see Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban) are not discoverable realities, but projects for possibilities.  -- Hmmm! Let that roll around a bit.

Happy New Year!  And happy reading!  I would love to discuss these with you and invite you into my quest for a universal ethic. 

PS: why Pinker helped me understand the reactions to Obama is in appreciating 1) how interpretation follows emotional stimulus and 2) the strength of ideology including the victim narrative.  Lefties heard Obama say what he didn’t.  Righties see in Obama a threat to their in-group status, the cause of America’s shrinking influence.

“Combine narcissism with rationalism, and you get … ressentiment: the conviction that one’s nation or civilization has a historic right to greatness despite its lowly [or lessening] status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.  Ressentiment whips up emotions of thwarted dominance—humiliation, envy, rage—to which narcissists are prone.”  P. 524

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