We are Ego Machines, natural information-processing systems that arose in the process of biological evolution on this planet. The Ego is a tool—one that evolved for controlling and predicting your behavior and understanding the behavior of others. We each live our conscious life in our own Ego Tunnel, lacking direct contact with outside reality but possessing an inward, first-person perspective. We each have conscious self-models—integrated images of ourselves as a whole, which are firmly anchored in background emotions and physical sensations. Therefore, the world simulation constantly being created by our brains is built around a center. But we are unable to experience it as such, or our selfmodels as models. The Ego Tunnel gives you the robust feeling of being in direct contact with the outside world by simultaneously generating an ongoing “out-of-brain experience” and a sense of immediate contact with your “self.”
From a philosophical perspective, the discovery of mirror neurons is exciting because it gave us an idea of how motor primitives could have been used as semantic primitives: that is, how meaning could be communicated between agents. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we can consciously experience another human being’s movements as meaningful.Perhaps the evolutionary precursor of language was not animal calls but gestural communication. The transmission of meaning may initially have grown out of the unconscious bodily self-model and out of motor agency, based, in our primate ancestors, on elementary gesturing. Sounds may only later have been associated with gestures, perhaps with facial gestures—such as scowling, wincing, or grinning—that already carried meaning. Still today, the silent observation of another human being grasping an object is immediately understood, because, without symbols or thought in between, it evokes the same motor representation in the parieto-frontal mirror system of our own brain. As Professor Rizzolatti and Dr. Maddalena Fabbri Destro from the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Parma put it: “[T]he mirror mechanism solved, at an initial stage of language evolution, two fundamental communication problems: parity and direct comprehension. Thanks to the mirror neurons, what counted for the sender of the message also counted for the receiver. No arbitrary symbols were required. The comprehension was inherent in the neural organization of the two individuals.”
Such ideas give a new and rich meaning not only to the concepts of “grasping” and “mentally grasping the intention of another human being,” but, more important, also to the concept of grasping a concept—the essence of human thought itself. It may have to do with simulating hand movements in your mind but in a much more abstract manner. Humankind has apparently known this for centuries, intuitively: “Concept” comes from the Latin conceptum, meaning “a thing conceived,” which, like our modern “to conceive of something,” is rooted in the Latin verb concipere, “to take in and hold.” As early as 1340, a second meaning of the term had appeared: “taking into your mind.” Surprisingly, there is a representation of the human hand in Broca’s area, a section of the human brain involved in language processing, speech or sign production, and comprehension. A number of studies have shown that hand/arm gestures and movements of the mouth are linked through a common neural substrate. For example, grasping movements influence pronunciation— and not only when they are executed but also when they are observed. It has also been demonstrated that hand gestures and mouth gestures are directly linked in humans, and the oro-laryngeal movement patterns we create in order to produce speech are a part of this link.
Broca’s area is also a marker for the development of language in human evolution, so it is intriguing to see that it also contains a motor representation of hand movements; here may be a part of the bridge that led from the “body semantics” of gestures and the bodily self-model to linguistic semantics, associated with sounds, speech production, and abstract meaning expressed in our cognitive self-model, the thinking self. Broca’s area is present in fossils of Homo habilis, whereas the presumed precursors of these early hominids lacked it. Thus the mirror mechanism is conceivably the basic mechanism from which language evolved. By providing motor copies of observed actions, it allowed us to extract the action goals from the minds of other human beings—and later to send abstract meaning from one Ego Tunnel to the next.
The mirror-neuron story is attractive not only because it bridges neuroscience and the humanities but also because it illuminates a host of simpler social phenomena. Have you ever observed how infectious a yawn is? Have you ever caught yourself starting to laugh out loud with others, even though you didn’t really understand the joke? The mirror-neuron story gives us an idea of how groups of animals—fish schools, flocks of birds—can coordinate their behavior with great speed and accuracy; they are linked through something one might call a low-level resonance mechanism. Mirror neurons can help us understand why parents spontaneously open their mouths while feeding their babies, what happens during a mass panic, and why it is sometimes hard to break away from the herd and be a hero. Neuroscience contributes to the image of humankind: We are all connected in an intersubjective space of meaning—what Vittorio Gallese calls a “shared manifold.”
Thomas Metzinger, The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of The Self.
Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free. In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times. In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.
The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed. Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free. He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together. He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity. The result is modern Humanism.
Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.
We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.
The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion: he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’. Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death. In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.
If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience. Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.
The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good. Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free. They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species. By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
An example is the theory of memes. Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do. In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive. Unfortunately, memes are not genes. There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.
In any case, only someone miraculously innocent op history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth. Certainly ideas compete with none another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side. When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics? If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?
Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage. Deception is common among primates and birds. As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else. Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication. Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes the promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise. In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage. The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.
If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs – inferior memes – will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken. Truth has no systemic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’. As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’.
In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth. Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.
Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin. History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagines or wished to believe. In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.
These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness. These are not just inferences from history. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.
Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible). Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational. They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must – and will – be reasonable. Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.
John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of surburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Robinson Jeffers, Carmel Point.
“It is not the arm that is unjust, but the weapon that is too heavy for the human hand.”
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals — justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission of emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another. “Nature binds truth, happiness, and virtue together as by an indissoluble chain,” said one of the best men who ever lived, and spoke in similar terms of liberty, equality, and justice. But is this true? It is a commonplace that neither political equality nor efficient organization nor social justice is compatible with more than a modicum of individual liberty, and certainly not with unrestricted laissez-faire; that justice and generosity, public and private loyalties, the demands of genius and the claims of society, can conflict violently with each other. And it is no great way from that to the generalization that not all good things are compatible, still less all the ideals of mankind. But somewhere, we shall be told, and in some way, it must be possible for all these values to live together, for unless this is so, the universe is not a cosmos, not a harmony; unless this is so, conflicts of values may be an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life. To admit that the fulfillment of some of our ideals may in principle make the fulfillment of others impossible is to say that the notion of total human fulfillment is a formal contradiction, a metaphysical chimaera. For every rationalist metaphysician, from Plato to the last disciples of Hegel or Marx, this abandonment of the notion of a final harmony in which all riddles are solved, all contradictions reconciled, is a piece of crude empiricism, abdication before brute facts, intolerable bankruptcy of reason before things as they are, failure to explain and to justify, to reduce everything to a system, which “reason” indignantly rejects. But if we are not armed with an a priori guarantee of the proposition that a total harmony of true values is somewhere to be found — perhaps in some ideal realm the characteristics of which we can, in our finite state, not so much as conceive — we must fall back on the ordinary resources of empirical observation and ordinary human knowledge. And these certainly give us no warrant for supposing (or even understanding what would be meant by saying) that all good things, or all bad things for that matter, are reconcilable with each other. The world that we encounter in ordinary experience is one in which we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realization of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others. Indeed, it is because this is their situation that men place such immense value upon the freedom to choose; for if they had assurance that in some perfect state, realizable by men on earth, no ends pursued by them would ever be in conflict, the necessity and agony of choice would disappear, and with it the central importance of the freedom to choose. Any method of bringing this final state nearer would then seem fully justified, no matter how much freedom were sacrificed to forward its advance. It is, I have no doubt, some such dogmatic certainty that has been responsible for the deep, serene, unshakeable conviction in the minds of some of the most merciless tyrants and persecutors in history that what they did was fully justified by its purpose. I do not say that the ideal of self-perfection — whether for individuals or nations or churches or classes — is to be condemned in itself, or that the language which was used in its defence was in all cases the result of a confused or fraudulent use of words, or of moral or intellectual perversity. Indeed, I have tried to show that it is the notion of freedom in its “positive” sense that is at the heart of the demands for national or social self-direction which animate the most powerful and morally just public movements of our time, and that not to recognize this is to misunderstand the most vital facts and ideas of our age. But equally it seems to me that the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realized is demonstrably false. If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict — and of tragedy — can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between absolute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition. This gives its value to freedom as Acton had conceived of it — as an end in itself, and not as a temporary need, arising out of our confused notions and irrational and disordered lives, a predicament which a panacea could one day put right.
I do not wish to say that individual freedom is, even in the most liberal societies, the sole, or even the dominant, criterion of social action. We compel children to be educated, and we forbid public executions. These are certainly curbs to freedom. We justify them on the ground that ignorance, or a barbarian upbringing, or cruel pleasures and excitements are worse for us than the amount of restraint needed to repress them. This judgment in turn depends on how we determine good and evil, that is to say, on our moral, religious, intellectual, economic, and aesthetic values; which are, in their turn, bound up with our conception of man, and of the basic demands of his nature. In other words, our solution of such problems is based on our vision, by which we are consciously or unconsciously guided, of what constitutes a fulfilled human life, as contrasted with Mill’s “cramped and warped,” “pinched and hidebound” natures. To protest against the laws governing censorship or personal morals as intolerable infringements of personal liberty presupposes a belief that the activities which such laws forbid are fundamental needs of men as men, in a good (or, indeed, any) society. To defend such laws is to hold that these needs are not essential, or that they cannot be satisfied without sacrificing other values which come higher — satisfy deeper needs — than individual freedom, determined by some standard that is not merely subjective, a standard for which some objective status — empirical or a priori — is claimed.
The extent of a man’s, or a people’s, liberty to choose to live as they desire must be weighed against the claims of many other values, of which equality, or justice, or happiness, or security, or public order are perhaps the most obvious examples. For this reason, it cannot be unlimited. We are rightly reminded by R. H. Tawney that the liberty of the strong, whether their strength is physical or economic, must be restrained. This maxim claims respect, not as a consequence of some a priori rule, whereby the respect for the liberty of one man logically entails respect for the liberty of others like him but simply because respect for the principles of justice, or shame at gross inequality of treatment, is as basic in men as the desire for liberty. That we cannot have everything is a necessary, not a contingent, truth. Burke’s plea for the constant need to compensate, to reconcile, to balance; Mill’s plea for novel “experiments in living” with their permanent possibility of error, the knowledge that it is not merely in practice but in principle impossible to reach clear-cut and certain answers, even in an ideal world of wholly good and rational men and wholly clear ideas — may madden those who seek for final solutions and single, all-embracing systems, guaranteed to be eternal. Nevertheless, it is a conclusion that cannot be escaped by those who, with Kant, have learnt the truth that out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.
There is little need to stress the fact that monism, and faith in a single criterion, has always proved a deep source of satisfaction both to the intellect and to the emotions. Whether the standard of judgment derives from the vision of some future perfection, as in the minds of the philosophes in the eighteenth century and their technocratic successors in our own day, or is rooted in the past — la terre et les morts — as maintained by German historicists or French theocrats, or neo-Conservatives in English-speaking countries, it is bound, provided it is inflexible enough, to encounter some unforeseen and unforeseeable human development, which it will not fit; and will then be used to justify the a priori barbarities of Procrustes — the vivisection of actual human societies into some fixed pattern dictated by our fallible understanding of a largely imaginary past or a wholly imaginary future. To preserve our absolute categories or ideals at the expense of human lives offends equally against the principles of science and of history; it is an attitude found in equal measure on the right and left wings in our days, and is not reconcilable with the principles accepted by those who respect the facts.
Pluralism, with the measure of “negative” liberty that it entails, seems to me a truer and more humane ideal than the goals of those who seek in the great, disciplined, authoritarian structures the ideal of “positive” self-mastery by classes, or peoples, or the whole of mankind. It is truer, because it does, at least, recognize the fact that human goals are many, not all of them commensurable, and in perpetual rivalry with one another. To assume that all values can be graded on one scale, so that it is a mere matter of inspection to determine the highest, seems to me to falsify our knowledge that men are free agents, to represent moral decision as an operation which a slide rule could, in principle, perform. To say that in some ultimate, all-reconciling, yet realizable synthesis, duty is interest, or individual freedom is pure democracy or an authoritarian state, is to throw a metaphysical blanket over either self-deceit or deliberate hypocrisy. It is more humane because it does not (as the system builders do) deprive men, in the name of some remote, or incoherent, ideal, of much that they have found to be indispensable to their life as unpredictably self-transforming human beings. In the end, men choose between ultimate values; they choose as they do, because their life and thought are determined by fundamental moral categories and concepts that are, at any rate over large stretches of time and space, a part of their being and thought and sense of their own identity; part of what makes them human.
It may be that the ideal of freedom to choose ends without claiming eternal validity for them, and the pluralism of values connected with this, is only the late fruit of our declining capitalist civilization: an ideal which remote ages and primitive societies have not recognized, and one which posterity will regard with curiosity, even sympathy, but little comprehension. This may be so; but no sceptical conclusions seem to me to follow. Principles are not less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed. Indeed, the very desire for guarantees that our values are eternal and secure in some objective heaven is perhaps only a craving or the certainties of childhood or the absolute values of our primitive past. “To realize the relative validity of one’s convictions,” said an admirable writer of our time, “and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” To demand more than this is perhaps a deep and incurable metaphysical need; but to allow it to determine one’s practice is a symptom of an equally deep, and more dangerous, moral and political immaturity.
Isaiah Berlin, The One and The Many from ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’
Read the whole thing here.
There is no nature, only Nature – an imaginary state of man’s own invention, a realm of concept and language. That is man’s place and it is nowhere except inside his head; a mirror image of a distorted fantasy he calls Mankind. A distortion of a distortion, exponentially phantasmagorical. Nature is a conceit: a man-made garden in which we wander to relax and preen, as we nod to one another in passing, and congratulate ourselves on being us. We created Nature so that we might take pride in how far we have ventured beyond it.
Man has no place in nature because there is no nature: only what he makes. He is therefore beyond nothing. He is merely self-deceived. Forever trapped inside his self-inflated dream of what he is. A pathetic child imagining himself in the world, when, in reality, he is confined by the four walls of his playroom. His ‘world’ being nothing more than the arrangement of his diminutive models and playthings.
Man is exiled from the real world, from nature, by language. He is the willing prisoner of words. All his high-mindedness, his ideals, morality, stemming merely from the necessity of language. True nature cares for nothing, neither life nor death. It is simply in a perpetual motion of growth and decay, beyond value or morality. Lacking the curse of consciousness and the petty ethics that entails, the natural world lives and dies blindly, without intention, regenerates or doesn’t. There is no system, only a multiplicity of life cycles; parts that remain seperate, that never add up to a whole. Nature does not do arithmetic. Man is one of a myriad of dissociated parts, not outside observer of an illusory unity.
If he tears down the forests or fights for their preservation, he does it for himself. It is of no consequence to nature, whose disparate parts survive or don’t, without sensibility. The ‘ecosystem’ is man’s vision of where he is and, in reality, no system at all. The environment is his own orderly invention, his realm, but the environment cares neither for its own death nor man’s. Nor does it care for man’s care for it. Man makes a lapdog of a planet in which he is merely a passing formulation of life: the current arrangement of molecules. His continued existence, and that of the planet itself, is of no importance to anything other than a few temporary particles that are our species.
Jenny Diski, Rainforest.
“It isn’t important what you do, it is the attitude with which you proceed through the world that matters.”
Jenny Diski, Stranger on a Train.