November 11, 2005

Civility and Freedom

Optimists with little understanding of human nature will look forward to continuing social progress in the 21st century. The hope is that rapidly regenerating social problems are solvable by improving social policy and allocating money to social programs. The hope is that inspired politicians will be elected to office and will, by some administrative magic, do better than previously elected administrators.

However, meaningful political changes emerge slowly and are built from the bottom up rather than imposed from the top down. A civil society is built from many constructive organizations that thrive in local communities. Citizens of the 21st century can be quite sure that top-down solutions will not work and the tendency toward centralized political and economic control will need to be modified or abandoned.

The realist will recognize that "social progress" is not a progression of rational responses to problems, proceeding toward some ultimate solution for human deficiencies and aberrations. The realist recognizes an unchanging human nature expresses all its contradictions in a turbulent, often violent and recursive manner. A knowledgeable realist will assume that governments are inherently unreliable. This is axiomatic and not a critique of individual participants.

Each citizen in a free, civil society does have a responsibility to protect his or her freedom and right to life by insisting on bottom-up solutions to problems. This means that the local community decides what is in its best interests; not a distant and autocratic authority. When central authority becomes autocratic, it must be replaced. The best way to replace bad governments is to vote against politicians who formed the government. The idealist who becomes a realist needs to understand human nature.

The following list of precepts is an outline of how a free society should operate:

1. Diversity among individuals and groups is good. Local control is good. Distant control is bad. Competition is good. Monopoly is bad.

2. Rational thinking and free access to information are good. Dogmatic belief is bad. Propaganda and coercion are bad. Freedom of speech is good.

3. Religious beliefs are properties of local groups and individuals. Tolerance for different beliefs is good. Imposition of personal beliefs on others through government agencies and law is very bad.

4. Obedience to charismatic and dogmatic leaders is bad.

5. Support for equal rights is good. All claims of superiority and special privilege are bad. Equality of opportunity and equal treatment under the law is good.

6. Special rights and privileges to minority groups for any reason is bad, even if the minority group appears to be privileged or disadvantaged.

7. Some, but not unlimited redistribution of money and resources is good. Economic constraints on or punishment of successful, creative people and innovative groups is bad.

8. Private property, the protection of privacy and security of the home are all good. Violation of the sanctity of the home is bad. Government surveillance and interference in the private lives of individuals is very bad.

9. Intelligent regulation of the public behavior of citizens is good. Unregulated policing is bad.

10. Domestic activity of military forces is extremely bad, except for disaster management

11. Free and permissive education is good. Science is essential. Restricted and autocratic education is bad.

12. Restoring the natural environment is good. Harming the environment is bad.

13. Controlling population growth is good. Unregulated reproduction is bad.

14. Community support of children with generous provision of food, shelter, nurturing communities, health care and education is essential.

Humans do need rules. Police are a requirement for civility when populations exceed 150 people, since conflict-reducing group dynamics tend to fail as groups get larger. Impersonal rules are weak without conspicuous enforcement. In some jurisdictions, policemen and policing strategies have become more intelligent. There are opportunities for advances in policing strategies. One strategy is community policing which works best when combined with the intelligent restoration of true communities.

Community police integrate with their neighborhood, enlist the cooperation of good citizens, study local criminal behaviors and create preventive strategies. Heavily armed, authoritative police who tend to be secretive are to be deplored. Swat squads are a regressive step toward military control of civilian populations. Unarmed police, still found in the UK are exemplary.

The universal challenge for all societies is to achieve civility and freedom without the use of weapons. Disarmament of homes, policing agencies and military organizations is a priority. Can you imagine unarmed soldiers?

In my discussion of Universities, I argued that students and faculty are smarter and better informed than other humans and have an extra duty to provide leadership toward realizing liberal and rational humanitarian means and goals. Harvard people, for example, need to transcend in-house disputes and focus on the goal of electing a president of the country who is a well-educated, extraordinarily well-informed leader who can implement intelligent and compassionate strategies for the benefit of all. This is a difficult task.

The US has become a dominant if not dominating country with the potential to become either the worst rogue state on the planet with the most weapons of mass destruction or the most benevolent state with positive influence on the fate of the world. In doomsday, I suggested that US Presidents and their administrations often act irrationally and arbitrarily without compassion or remorse. Belligerence in government is least likely to be constrained by ordinary political processes and must be opposed by citizen’s coalitions who are committed to rational and peaceful solutions to world problems and are willing to act with courage and determination close to home.

Constructive citizen advocacy requires protection at all levels in the society, starting with the local media. Police need to protect citizens’ rights to speak, to meet and discuss and to engage in peaceful demonstrations. Some principles of monitoring government action must be clearly understood and always advocated by freedom-living citizens. You need a common understanding of the essential characteristics and tasks for a President of the USA, indeed for all leaders of all countries.

The performance of leaders must be evaluated carefully according to well-established criteria. For example you could require a President:

1. to be properly qualified by education and experience be healthy, sane and morally beyond reproach

3. to protect, advance and not threaten civil liberties

4. to transcend partisan politics and represent all citizens equitably

5. to be honest and forthright in public discourse, not deliberately deceptive and secretive

6. to form meaningful alliances with other countries and to avoid conflict

7. to support education, science, arts, and equitable economic development

8. to protect and restore natural environments

9. to avoid war and sustain the intention to seek the well-being of all citizens of planet earth.

In addition, a US president has a special duty to dismantle 10,000 hydrogen bombs that are poised and ready to kill other humans in a genocidal extravaganza that planet earth may only witness once.

Please see: Existence and the Human Mind

An Exploration in Contemporary Science and Philosophy
By Stephen J. Gislason MD

November 6, 2005

The Denial of Human Nature

The history of science and philosophy involves continuous debate and controversy. Progress toward understanding of the innate characteristics of humans has been hampered by ignorance of and persistent denial of biological evidence of evolution and the brain basis of mind. In academic discourse, the tendency is to personalize debates and assign evidence and different views to categories that are too rigid.

In the book, Existence and the Human Mind , I describe three fundamental principles of cognition: that information and cognitive abilities are unevenly distributed; that each person will display some understanding of some issues but will be otherwise ignorant; that each person acts from a narcissistic assumption that only I am right.

A common belief is that a newborn baby is a blank slate and that everything he and she will do has to be learned. This nurture assumption grows into quasi-explanations for everything that humans do or do not do.

I admire Steven Pinker’s writings because he has patience with wrong ideas and has spent much of his valuable intellectual resources examining wrong ideas and offering better ideas to replace these old and obsolete notions. In How the Mind Works, Pinker demonstrates how a smart, contemporary linguist- philosopher approaches the understanding of the human mind. Pinker states: ”The mind owes its power to its syntactic, compositional, combinatorial abilities, Our complicated ideas are built out of simpler ones and the meaning of the whole is determined by the meaning of the parts and the meaning of relations that connect them…these logical and law like connections provide the meanings of sentences in everyday speech and, through analogies and metaphors, lend their structures to the esoteric concepts of science and mathematics where they are assembled into bigger and bigger theoretical edifices.”

In a later book, The Blank Slate, Pinker reviews the most prevalent wrong assumptions about the human mind and reveals how the denial of human nature permeates literature, philosophy, religion, politics, sociology and even psychology. I notice the same ignorance and denial in medicine and especially in psychiatry, a medical discipline that claims to understand the human mind. Pinker states: “Everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to anticipate the behavior of others, and that means we need theories about what makes people tick. A tacit theory of human nature –that behavior is cause by thoughts and feelings – is imbedded in the way we think about people. We fill out this theory by introspecting on our own minds and assuming that our fellows are like ourselves, and by watching people’s behavior and filing away generalizations. “

Ignorance is the simplest explanation for the denial of human nature. Ignorance begins with ignoring nature and failing to appreciate the kinship of all living creatures. Ignorance continues with lack of education in biology. Ignorance is supported by dogmatic beliefs that lack an appreciation of nature and oppose education in sciences. Another explanation for the denial of human nature is that human nature has a deplorable aspect and nice, polite people would rather ignore or deny the nasty things humans do to one another. They want to deny human kinship with other animals.

Nurture assumptions prefer to attribute blame human aberrancies on local causes that arise anew in each individual and can be remedied in theory by education, social policy and law. I assume that most of the descriptions and arguments involving nature versus nurture in the 19th and 20th centuries are obsolete and can left in the archives of university libraries.

At the same time, I admit that I live a privileged life and have few direct encounters with argumentative people who carry the burdens of old ideas and beliefs.

I assume that most humans repeat wrong ideas with no insight into other possibilities. I assume that progressive, creative thinkers shed the burdens of the past and seek new evidence, new adventures and new ideas with energy and agility. The nature versus nurture debates in the past century were mostly non-productive misunderstandings that are being laid to rest by careful studies in genetics, embryology, molecular biology, ethology, paleontology, developmental and evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, anthropology and other disciplines. Nature, of course, is dominant and nature acts by modifying brain structure and function through learning and experience.

Please see: Existence and the Human Mind

An Exploration in Contemporary Science and Philosophy
By Stephen J. Gislason MD

November 5, 2005


“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” Albert Einstein

Gods are invisible and secretive agents, projections of the human mind. Gods assume many forms and there is little agreement about what they look like, where they live, their likes and dislikes. God is polymorphic, numerous and noumenal. Humans include Gods in their stories that attempt to explain how things got started and who controls events that happen. Some create a God who is interested in petty gossip and enjoys punishing people who have erotic fantasies. Many Gods are angry and punitive but some Gods act like benevolent parents and friendly counselors. In the past, some Gods were friendly only if you killed innocent children or fair maidens as sacrifices. Somehow, the Gods who enjoyed killing humans are no longer as popular as they once were. There is a close connection between God and blood in the human mind. Humans kill to eat and indulge in a curious fascination with spilling blood. Religious rituals all over the planet, presumably for thousands of years have involved killing animals and fellow humans, eating their flesh, collecting and offering their blood to satisfy the bloodlust of their God. Christian communion still involves eating the blood and flesh of Christ.

Pollsters ask: do you believe in God? They report a percentage of people who answer yes. The question and its answer are meaningless. There is neither a single God nor any consistent belief. Each religious group claims a special relationship with God, a unique history, moral superiority and special privileges. Christianity, Islam and Judaism are religious organizations that claim that their God is the one and only God. They discriminate against each other and distain people and organizations who have a different version of God or who have many Gods or no God. No one can agree on God’s location and characteristics. God turns out to have multiple forms and contradictory characteristics. In the best case, the notion of one God is based on a distant parent grown large. In the worst case, God is another despot, supported by an intelligence agency in the sky with filing cabinets full of records on everyone who has ever lived.

While there is no real evidence for a resident, man-like God who is interested in what humans do, many religious organizations invent God as the source of their moral authority. They promote local franchises, complete with beliefs and rituals to suit their political and economic purposes. The bloody battles of the past among religious organizations recur to this day and promise to continue as long as these groups hold to their exclusive and anachronistic beliefs.

Smart and nice people thrive without believing in a Santa-Claus version of God who is keeping his list and checking it twice.

Some people have denied the existence of God and placed themselves at a disadvantage when confronted by self-righteous individuals who have God on their side. As visiting anthropologists, we recognize that belief in one or more Gods and membership in a religious organization are social commitments with social benefits. Beliefs have little or nothing to do with truth or understanding how humans and the universe work. Everyone is free to invent his or her own God and create group inclusion and exclusion rules. When everyone has adopted a personal God, then everyone is free to claim the moral authority that God offers true believers. Without this egalitarian distribution of God’s authority, people with a sense of moral superiority remain a serious problem for rational citizens who champion a free, civil society. Everyone should be free to engage God in their own way.

In my infrequent conversations with God, she informs me that she has a strict non-interference policy toward planet earth. None of her people are allowed near our planet. She stated: “Earth is an experiment in life and spontaneity… I like to watch occasionally, but never intervene. I have no preferences. “

There are social benefits when you belong to a religious organization: affiliation with other members, regular meetings, picnics, rituals and assistance coping with three key events of a human life- birth, marriage and death. However, the social and political benefits of belonging to a religious organization override any inclination to self-determination and freedom. Religious beliefs are local, idiosyncratic and relative to the members of the group with no enduring or universal value. Some have argued that retiring religious beliefs (delusions) is a prerequisite for progress toward a rational and humane future. The problem is that beliefs are fixed and enduring attributes of local groups and can only be changed by progress within these groups. Membership in a religious organization limits freedom and expression of thought and often disables friendly, intelligent interaction with other groups.

From Existence and the Human Mind An Exploration in Contemporary Science and Philosophy
By Stephen J. Gislason MD

November 4, 2005

Existence and the Human Mind

Human nature is a giant puzzle. During the past thirty years I have been assembling descriptions of key pieces to this puzzle. In the Book of Existence and the Human Mind, I have outlined the key issues of human existence and collected the best descriptions of the innate features of the human mind. My strategy is to review diverse descriptions, to question their validity and finally to choose the best descriptions that everyone might share in future. The goal of philsophical inquiry is not to repeat what is commonly believed, but to find what is actually true.

In this blog, I will post some examples of my current " best descriptions" and invite comment

Philosophy means the love of knowledge. Until recently, philosophers viewed the mind as the vehicle for reasoning and argument and emphasized the importance of language and scholarly traditions in the study of mind. The goal here is to follow a path of clarity, choosing the best descriptions of mind and mental activities that are available. The view is prospective, looking to the future and not repeating the past. A philosopher avoids specifications that are likely to change and prefers to work at a meta level, developing an overview of the human experiences while considering the principles that determine specifics. At the same time, contemporary philosophers have to be interested in a more grounded, realistic understanding of human behavior. Fancy language and abstruse arguments are not helpful.

Language is prolific and for humans, there is no single truth. Instead, there are numerous variations on every common theme. Stories are told in every language to record and explain what is going on. There are abundant arguments and claims with no consensus. What is really going on lies outside of all stories, all languages, all symbols and all records of events.

Human nature involves the forces of good and evil, constantly at play. A deep, pervasive problem is the critically disputatious nature of humans and their tendency to kill each other. A close look at the human mind reveals old and persistent tendencies that make peace and prosperity elusive goals. Increasingly, the knowledge of who we are and how we operate is molding literature, philosophy and replacing old ideas with new possibilities.

Ted Turner of Time Warner fame, declared at the 1999 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland: [i] “…if the world’s population were only 10 % smarter and 10 % nicer, we wouldn’t have any problems.” Turner had become one of the planet’s generous individual philanthropists, giving $1-billion (US) to fund humanitarian projects of the United Nations. When asked about spending his money, Turner said “I hardly buy anything at all. I save my money and give it away. I think we all have too much stuff.”

Turner does, however, buy large ranches in the USA with the intention of preserving range and wilderness land from development. Turner's idea that we need smarter and nicer humans to smooth out future civilizations is attractive, but I doubt that a 10% percent increase in these traits is enough.

“Smart” and “nice” are not technical or philosophical terms, but they are commonly understood and are, therefore, valuable terms. The understanding of what “nice” and “smart” mean is crucial to understanding how to direct human destiny. The distribution of smart and nice is not homogeneous on the planet and is not stable. The ability to enhance smart and nice is probably crucial to the survival of advanced civilizations and benevolent ideals. The imbedded structures in the brain that create "smart and nice" are genetically determined and modified by learning. Poverty, malnutrition, disease and oppression occur together and all four forces rob people of their potential for intelligence and good nature. Unraveling the dialectic of healthy and nice humans interacting with unhealthy and belligerent humans is one of the urgent tasks of an emerging scientific and humane philosophy.

Stephen Gislason MD
See Book Description