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21 Aug 2016

Narcissism and Mass Shootings

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Apparently the selfie trend shows we are all a bit selfish to a certain degree. But where is the border between normal selfishness and abnormal narcissism? Psychology knows the phenomenon of narcissism well. It tuns out the border between normal selfishness and abnormal narcissism marks the spot where ordinary people turn into psychopaths, sociopaths, terrorists and killers.

There is a theory that rampage killings are related to pathological narcissism. The perpetrators are often offended narcissistic outsiders who want to restore their crippled sense of self-worth by an act of ultimate violence. Usually they announce their terror acts on social media sites. I kill, therefore I am. According to this Psychology Today article about mass shootings, many of the recent rampage killings in Europe and America were a malignant form of narcissism, where the perpetrators had to satisfy their “need for revenge…for undoing a hurt by whatever means… by giving their pain to others and in doing so build up the remnants of their self-worth through violence”.

It is probably the tension between the desired sense of self, which is highly exaggerated among narcissistic people, and the real sense of self in reality. In physics we have the notion of voltage or electric tension. If the tension gets too high, and there is no lightning rod, we get lightnings and other form of heavy discharges. Similarly if the tension between the desired and the perceived sense of self becomes too high in narcissistic persons, it can lead to rampage killings. So the narcissistic person who is doing well is no immediate danger. Neither is the loser who tries to cope with his fate with a sense of humor or irony (he has indeed our deep sympathy). But if you combine the two, if life becomes really miserable for someone and all hope is gone, although the person in question hates nothing more than losing or being critized, it seems to become dangerous.

Take away home, job, loved ones, hope and pride from a person, and he will probably fall down and possibly try to get rid of his pain by giving it to others. Recent studies about people who turn into terrorists have confirmed that people who turn into terrorists are not known for leading comfortable or charmed lives. They are looking for something that gives their lives significance, instead. Or they are simply looking for revenge. So these people reject the society because society rejects them.  They feel treated unfairly by life and react to the unfairness of it with violent retribution. This older article about mass shootings from the The New York Times agrees that the profile of a narcissistic person who has failed is not uncommon for perpetrators of mass shootings and rampage killings. Warning signs are solitude, frustration and disappointment in combination with a crippled sense of self and a feeling of failure where the blame is always put on others.

The difference between rampage killers and terrorists is that the former fight only for themselves to restore their damaged sense of self, while the latter fight for their group. As we have seen earlier, terror can be seen as adaptation against the tyranny of a superpower. Of course the terrorists don’t see themselves as terrorists but as rebels and fighters for a just cause. We see ISIS as brutal, they see probably the regime or empire they fight aganst as brutal. It is all a matter of perspective. For example from the perspective of the empire, Star Wars can be seen as the story of radicalization, a story of a young man’s journey from innocent farmboy to radical anti-imperial terrorist.

12 Oct 2014

God and the Group – The secret of religion

Posted by jofr. 2 Comments

Sorry for the long delay, I haven’t posted for a year. One reason is my mother has died last year in November after a long battle against cancer, which was not very pleasant for the whole family, as you can imagine. There are some posts and ideas which I have holding back for some time. Among the things I have found out is the secret of religion. This is a post I have holding back because I didn’t want to destroy the faith of people near to me, among them my mother. I was raised in a religious family, my parents met each other in the church, and their parents were very pious, too. My name “Fromm” means pious in German. So maybe it is my destiny to write about religion. I am not sure. Religion is a delicate topic. Seneca said “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”.

Some people murder in the name of religion, others sacrifice their life to help others. I think what people have believed for 2000 years can not be completely false. During my time in Kassel, I spent a lot of time in the university libraries in Kassel und Göttingen, reading all I could about history, psychology, sociology, systems theory and philosophy. One book I found was from Randall Collins named “Sociological Insight”. It opened my eyes. There it was, the secret of religion. I was not looking for it, but I thought this is it, why has nobody thought of this before? I read more about the connection between sociology, psychology, evolution and religion, and the more I read, the more I was convinced that I stumbled upon something very fundamental. Something which could uncover how religions work. Could evolution be the very explanation?

The church hates evolution more than anything else. Why is that so? I thought if Richard Dawkins and the pope would meet each other, then maybe something fundamental would happen, like a particle-antiparticle collision where both particles are destroyed in a violent reaction and something new is created. Both have active Twitter accounts. So I mentioned both in a tweet on January 2013. Shortly afterwards, Pope Benedict steppped back in February 2013. It was the first time this happend for centuries (I don’t think there is a real coincidence, but if there is I am sorry. The real trigger may probably have been a TV broadcast on German television – RTL – which criticized the catholic church).

Anyway, the pope stepped back, but the secret is still not disclosed. So what is it? There is a saying that everything that is alive has a soul. If the soul doesn’t exist, why did the concept of its existence become so universal? If God doesn’t exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal? A good question even Stephen Hawking can hardly answer. The concept of a god can be found in all early cultures and civilizations. Unlike science, society was not built on rational reasoning in the first place. It was built on irrational beliefs and religions. Religion a culture of belief, science a culture of doubt. Religion was built on irrational beliefs in divine authorities. Because in a sociological sense..

God simply means Group

Religions originally were not only an aspect of society, they enabled a society and higher civilization in the first place.  Today religion has become insignificant, in the beginning it was the single most significant part of a culture. The evolution of religions is apparently associated with the evolution of culture. Religions tell people what they should believe and how they should act as a part of a larger group, by providing explanations how the world works (scientific function), and giving instructions how to behave correctly (political and legal function). The scientific explanation has disappeared. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, the scientific significance of religion has vanished:  “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time moves on.”  Yet religions are still the glue which keeps societies together by shared beliefs and common social rituals.

cathedral_amiens

Religion is the marketing of a single idea, the idea of god, and god means just group in a sociological sense. Matthew 18:20 says: “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”  God is the name people give to the group of followers. It is a placeholder for the effects of the collective, for the group, the society, and in a larger context for the cumulative effects of evolution or nature. The group is stronger, bigger and much more powerful than the individual. The collective action of a group is fascinating: a flock of birds, a pack of wolves, or a shoal of fish is always fascinating to watch. The illusion of a supernatural entity can emerge from the coordinated collective action of the group, and a group often seems to have a mind of its own, even if it is just a collective of individuals.

A group becomes a single unified entity during church service, when the group performs social rituals: if the group acts together in form of dancing or singing, or if the group perceives something together (during listening to the church sermon). The  common basis of all religions are the beliefs, rites and rituals that the believers collectively perform. Social rituals create and maintain a group or a society.

Religion is fundamentally social

Social rituals always require a group which performs common actions. Churches and church service always a group of people, too. Religion is fundamentally social. The founders of sociology knew this, Emile Durkheim says in “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912) that the idea of society is the soul of religion: “if religion has given birth to all that is essential in society, it is because the idea of society is the soul of religion”. He argues that

Religion is something eminently social. Religious representations are collective representations which express collective realities; the rites are a manner of acting which take rise in the midst of assembled groups and which are destined to excite, maintain, or recreate certain mental states in these groups. So if the categories are of religious origin, they ought to participate in this nature common to all religious facts; they should be social affairs and the product of collective thought.

The “trinity” concept is social, too. It comes from the division between group, individual, and the intersection between both. If god is the group, and the prophet (for example Jesus) the role model for the individual, then the holy ghost is the group spirit at the intersection between group and individual.

The concepts of Jihad and Christian mission are social, too, they are organized efforts for the propagation of the corresponding beliefs. Successful mission means extension, regeneration and rejuvenation of the group of followers.

A group which attracts followers

The idea of god is a kind of pattern, structure or organizational form which we find in a social system again and again. It is a social attractor. A group of followers is maybe the most fundamental social attractor at all. As Raima Larter noticed, a group of followers or a swarm can be considered as an attractor, a basic social attractor: “It is created by the behavior of that system and, yet, paradoxically, governs the system’s behavior”. God is like a group or a swarm which can be considered as an attractor of followers. An emergent collective form which is created by the followers, and yet, paradoxically, governs them. A unified group can appear in many forms, as a crowd, flock of birds, schoal of fish, herd of land animals, etc. Emergences and swarm intelligence happen with all kinds of living things that live in groups.

All the basic religious terms are related to group terms

As Randall Collins has noticed in Chapter 2 “The Sociology of God” of his book “Sociological Insight”, all the basic religious terms are related to group terms. Religion has evolved to structure the behavior of human groups. Hell on earth, that is being expelled out of group or being excluded by a group (forever). Heaven is the opposite, being included and supported by a group (forever).

  • sin: breaking the rules of a group
  • blessing: wish to be included in the group
  • curse: wish to be excluded from the group
  • prophet: founder of the group, creates or invents rules 
  • priest: maintainer of the group, teaches rules 
  • holy book/sacred text: history and blueprint of the group, often the history of the group or founder
  • word of god: laws of the group
  • salvation: to be saved by the group from punishment and annihilation
  • damnation: to be condemned to permanent exclusion from the group
  • good: positive for the group (i.e. help a member)
  • evil: negative for the group (i.e. hurt a member)
  • profane: belongs to the individual
  • divine/sacred: belongs to the group
  • jihadmission: extension and rejuvenation of the group

Religions are a set of consistent metaphors we live by

It is problematic to take metaphors literally. The founder of a religion is only the starter of a movement, the sacred book which contains the metaphorical content is often written by close followers. It contains usually the collective wisdom of the whole follower group. Intelligence also comes in multiple forms, for example emotional intelligence.

If you look at the basic metaphors of religion which all involve the abstract idea of god, nearly none of them makes sense literally: son of god, word of god, house of god, kingdom of god, servant of god, .. But if we take the corresponding physical items and try to understand them metaphorically, then suddenly it all makes sense, if we consider a prophet as a son of god, a sacred book as the word of god, a temple as a house of god, a church as a kingdom of god, a church member as servant of god.

Since George Lakoff book “Metaphors we live by” we know we can understand abstract items only by metaphors. In principle, the founders of religions have done nothing else but inventing a set of consistent metaphors we “live by” (which structure our common life in the group). In this sense they have done the same as some of their biggest enemies, scientists like Charles Darwin who invented the metaphor of “Natural Selection” or Richard Dawkins who invented the metaphor of the “Selfish Gene”. Isn’t it ironic?

Moreover, religious groups are adaptive units subject to evolution as David Sloan Wilson noticed. This means Darwin and Dawkins are able to explain the very essence of religions, and yet Dawkins does not seem to like religions very much.. Another irony of history.

Religious groups are adaptive units

In his book “Darwin’s cathedral”, David Sloan Wilson argues that religion and evolution are related. If his thesis is correct, then religious groups are adaptive units, sects and churches are “religious species”, and new sects are speciation events. Political and economic systems can be considered as evolutionary systems as well. Maybe a “branch” in the phylogenetic tree is easier to define than a “species”? In his book, he gives the example of Calvinism, a branch of protestantism. The protestant work ethic described by Max Weber is certainly well adapted to a world of an emerging economy. Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin founded their own schools and branches of protestantism. Protestantism itself is one of the three major branches within Christianity: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Each branch represents a certain species.

  • sect – religious species
  • sacred or holy book – “religious memes” or “cultural genes”
  • church service – cultural gene expression
  • church – group built by common “thought proteins” (i.e. shared beliefs)

Church service is the expression of cultural genes

Church service can be considered as the expression of “cultural genes” or religious memes. It happens regularly to guarantee that everything which occurs in the system is in agreement with the information stored in the (cultural) genes. During gene expression, the information from genes is read and translated into the language of the cell. During church service, the information from the sacred book is read and translated into the language of the ordinary people. The genes from the holy book are turned into beliefs, the proteins that make up group behavior. The priest fulfills the role of RNA polymerase (and reads the genetic information), so that the believers can fulfill the role of the Ribosome when they translate the information into behavior. A bit ironic that the church has fought against Darwin so much although it is itself an adaptive unit subject to evolution..

The secret ingredient which makes it all work are the cultural genes or religious. They contain the code and the instructions to create a social entity, the group. They are made possible by language, writing systems, and a suitable medium to record language, for instance papyrus or parchment scrolls. Every scroll or book that contains consistent rules for group behaviors can be considered as a blueprint of a group. Often these sacred books contain the history of the group or its founder though.

And this is it, the secret of religion, and the secret of the church. Church service is the expression of cultural genes, which are turned into shared beliefs, the building blocks of groups and movements. Why has it been neglected for so long? Hard to say. Maybe one reason is because subjective experience and shared beliefs are not easy accessible by science. Religion has been with us so long that it must have a fundamental (social) function. And this function is basically to keep groups together, to make society work. And to give our life a meaning.

[1] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912
[2] Randall Collins, “Sociological Insight”, Oxford University Press, 1992
[3] David Sloan Wilson, “Darwin’s cathedral”, University Of Chicago Press, 2003

Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, Harvard University Press 2011

The picture is from Wikipedia and shows the Cathedral of Amiens in France

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1 Sep 2013

Are hallmarks of cancer related to evolutionary transitions?

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Signal_transduction_pathways_svgBuddhini Samarasinghe started recently a series of blog posts to explain the hallmarks of cancer, the six essential biological capabilities acquired during the multistep development of human tumors. I wish there would be more people like her who are able to explain the complicated matter of molecular biology as simple and good as she does! It made me think if there is possibly a relation between the hallmarks of cancer and the major/minor evolutionary transitions on the way from primitive forms of early life to complex multicellular organisms.

In the last post we wrote about various forms of “cultural cancers” which appeared to be the well known *-isms we know from history, for instance nazism, fascism and communism. They seem to emerge through the merging of previously distinct systems. In biological organisms we have various various systems and sub-systems as well, namely a..

  • communication system (signaling)
  • circulatory system (supply and demand of nutrients)
  • immune system (defense and invasion)
  • metabolic system (consumption and production of energy)

They emerged during major and minor evolutionary transitions in the course of evolution. Evolutionary systems are best understood from a historical perspective. Could it be that the hallmarks of cancer are related to this evolutionary transitions? The larger the fallback, the more severe the disease? Then the most severe forms of cancer should be related to the oldest transitions, and the most “primitive systems”.

John Maynard Smith, Eörs Szathmáry, and Harold J. Morowitz wrote books to identify the major evolutionary transitions. Smith and Szathmáry defined 8 major transitions, Morowitz identified 28 transitions. 3-4 are related to the emergence of genes and self-replicating genetic information, the most import transitions from Morowitz here are number 10, 11 and 12:

  • Morowitz step 10: from prokaryotes to eukaryotes and cells with organelles
  • Morowitz step 11: from single celled life to multicelllularity
  • Morowitz step 12: cell-to-cell communication and cell signaling

and from Smith and Szathmáry number 4, 5 and 6:

  • Smith and Szathmáry step 4: from prokaryotes to eukaryotes
  • Smith and Szathmáry step 5: from asexual clones to sexual populations
  • Smith and Szathmáry step 6: from protists to multicellular organisms

If we try to associate the different transitions with the different hallmarks, we would arrive at the following connection:


Communication and Signal System

* Self-succiciency in growth signals, sustaining proliferative signaling
=> Morowitz step 12: cell-to-cell communication and cell signaling

* Evading growth suppressors (insensitivity to anti-growth signals)
=> Morowitz step 12: cell-to-cell communication and cell signaling

* Evading and resisting apoptosis (cell death)
=> Morowitz step 12: cell-to-cell communication and cell signaling
=> Morowitz step 11: multicelllularity


Immune System and Circulatory System

* Activating invasion and metastasis
=> Morowitz step 11: multicelllularity, immune system
(hijacking of immune system through cancer cells)

* Evading immune destruction (resistance immune system)
=> Morowitz step 11: multicelllularity, immune system
(resisting and hijacking of immune system)

* Inducing angiogenesis (blood vessel growth)
=> Morowitz step 11: multicelllularity, circulatory system


Metabolic and “Replicative” System

* Enabling replicative immortality (limitless replication, cell cycle regulation fail.)
=> Smith and Szathmáry: step 5 from asexual clones to sexual populations

* Reprogramming of energy metabolism (Mitochondria dependent metabolism)
=> Smith and Szathmáry: step 4 from prokaryotes to eukaryotes
=> Morowitz step 10: from prokaryotes to eukaryotes and cells with organelles

If we order the hallmarks in this way, then the worst and most aggresive cancers with the lowest survival rate should be associated with the oldest steps concerning energy metabolism and replicative immortality. And in fact in pancreatic cancer we can find proto-oncogenes like K-RAS which affect the cell cycle regulation  and the metabolic (!) pathway. In less aggresive cancers with higher survival rates such as breast cancer we should not find genes directly related to the oldest transitions, if this hypothesis is correct. Typical for breast cancer is in fact a mutation in the BRCA1 DNA repair gene.

So what do you think, does it make sense to say that the hallmarks of cancer are somehow related to evolutionary transitions? Or are they just evolutionary adaptations of evolving cells in a tumor to the ecosystem of the tumor itself? In any case it is important to investigate cancer and cancer genomes from an evolutionary perspective.

References

  • Harold J. Morowitz, “The Emergence of Everything – How the World Became Complex”, Oxford University Press, 2002
  • Richard E. Michod, “Darwinian Dynamics: Evolutionary Transitions in Fitness and Individuality”, Princeton University Press, 1999
  • John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmary, “The Major Transitions in Evolution”, Oxford University Press, 1997

(The picture is from Wikipedia shows the major signal transduction pathways)

 

25 Jul 2013

Fascism and Cancer

Posted by jofr. 1 Comment

reichsparteitag_1935

Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm were like Albert Einstein Jewish scientists who fled from the tyranny of Nazi Germany and emmigrated to the USA. Both knew their home country and the German culture very well. Both analyzed the character of Nazi ideology, Hannah Arendt from a philosophical point of view, Erich Fromm from a social and psychological perspective. Hannah Arendt coind the term banality of evil and examined the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany. Erich Fromm analyzed the social character of totalitarian states in his book “Escape from Freedom” [1]. According to Fromm, medieval and totalitarian societies share a common aspect, the lack of individual freedom [1]:

“What characterizes medieval in contrast to modern society is its lack of individual freedom…But altogether a person was not free in the modern sense, neither was he alone and isolated. In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt…There was comparatively little competition. One was born into a certain economic position which guaranteed a livelihood determined by tradition, just as it carried economic obligations to those higher in the social hierarchy”

In this sense, totalitarian societies can be viewed as a fallback into more primitive ones. These more primitive ones have a lesser degree of differentiation, but often a much higher aggressiveness. They tend to expand and invade surrounding territories. Like cancer. Can we view fascism or totalitarianism in the 1920 and 1930 (for example Nazism in Nazi Germany) as a form of cultural cancer? Is it more than just a nice metaphor? If there is a cultural evolution similar to biological one, with phenotype and genotype, then it makes sense to look for cultural stem cells and cultural cancer. Contemporaries in the time around  WWII  were used to speak of “cultural cancer”, many viewed fascism and nazism as “cancer” or malignant outgrowths of modern society and European civilization which threatened and consumed it. Actually it was common in the WWII area to compare totalitarianism to it, two examples are Reflections on Totalitarianism (Cairns Post, Australia, 1942) and Totalitarianism Grows Like a Cancer (Financial Post of Toronto, Canada, reprinted in Prescott Evening Courier, 1949). The first article considers totalitarianism as  distortion of the normal structure of a society or community, where one element is capable of growing to excess, thus affecting and influecing the others:

“The health and virtue of a community depend on the correctness with which it can keep its various elements in balance, each flourishing in its own sphere, but not trespassing on that of others. In a totalitarian State the political element first sets out to bring econmic life completely under its control, destroying independent economic organisations such as trade unions, cooperative societies, and producers’ associations. Then it proceeds to absorb cultural life. In Germany, for instance, newspapers, films, books, schools, universities, have all been perverted to serve political ends. All independent cultural and recreational associations have been politicalised [..] After perverting economic and cultural life to its own ends, the totalitarian State begins to interfere in various ways with marriage and family life. Then, at the final stage of its cancerous growth, the totalitarian State attacks the religious life of the community.”

It also mentiones that the communism of the cold war period can be considered as a form of political totalitarianism, too, a view has been shared by Hannah Arendt:

“In Marxism this over emphasis of the economic is carried to its extreme and fantastic limit. Marxism contends that the only really important events are economic events, and that every religious, political judicial or cultural happening is nothing but the determinate consequence of prior economic happenings. […] In practice, Marxism calls upon the community to sacrifice religion and political and cultural freedom, in order to attain some economic end. In pursuit of this policy it sets up an elaborate and tyrannical bureaucracy, and eventually becomes indistinguishable from political totalitarianism.”

There seem to be many forms of “cultural” cancer in the evolution of social organization. Examples are nationalism in France under Napoleon, Nazism in Nazi Germany, Communism in the Cold War, .. They are known as various *-isms: rascism, fascism, communism, nationalism, imperialism. The thesis of this article/post is that each *-ism can considered as a meltdown or merging of at least two different evolutionary systems. Since Durkheim we know that the normal evolution in social systems tends towards an increasing level of differentiation a stronger divison of labor , and a higher degree of complexity. The increased process of system differentiation is a natural way of dealing with the complexity of its environment.The number of subystems increases together with the level of differentiation and division of labor.

This means in earlier, more primitive forms of society the social organization was much more simple, and the number of subsystem was lower. The ruling social organization contained and spanned multiple systems, where different systems were intermingled and intertwined: ideological/religious, economic, political, military, scientific  and journalistic/media systems. The king in Ancient Egypt for example had the absolute power in all areas and every aspect, concerning ideological, religious, economic, political, military and scientific and journalistic systems. He was the king, and the king controlled the religion, the politics & the law, the economy, the military, the science, and the media.

During the time, different subsystems appeared. Politics, economy and religion separated and became different fields. Each evolutionary system has their own actors, which try to survive (often by using marketing or advertising) to be elected, selected or followed by people

  • Biological systems consists of biological organisms and animal families which try to survive, grow and prosper in nature
  • Ideological/Religious systems consists of prophets/sects that produce religions to address moral questions
  • Ideological/Political systems consists of politicians/parties which produce ideologies and strategies
  • Economic systems consist of companies and organizations, and people producing or consuming goods and services on markets (which contain economic system based on information and news – media, ..)
  • Financial systems consist of banks and venture capital firms which try to survive, grow and prosper
  • Cultural/National systems consists of national states with specific culture and language which try to survive, grow and prosper in a certain territory
  • Cultural/Art, Literature, Music Systems consists of different art styles
  • Cultural/Science systems consist of different sciences to describe Nature
  • Cultural/Media system consist of different channels to distribute news and information

But sometimes, this process is reversed, and different subsystems merge into one again. Just as new systems can appear and emerge in an evolutionary system, two different evolutionary systems can merge again in a kind of integration (or “meltdown”) of different systems. In the evolution of social organization this means a fall-back or backslide from a complex evolutionary system on multiple levels to a system with fewer levels. The extreme case appeared in nazism during the time of WWII: the enforced conformity (Gleichschaltung) on a political, cultural and social level in nazism, fascism and communism can be considered as a merger or fusion of many different social systems, or as a backslide, throwback or fall-back to earlier, more primitive forms of organization.

The problem with these fall-backs is that they are often like a cultural tumor – very aggressive, expansive and hostile. They are hostile because they face many hostile reactions from multiple directions, like economic sanctions, political boycott, .. As said earlier, the aggressiveness of some invasive, malicious tumors can be seen as an adaptation to a hostile environment, where it has to cope with reactions from many different systems. Moreover, what is beneficial and unique in individual instances of a system (the individual consciousness which arises from the connection of nature and culture, body and mind) becomes dubious on a larger level (kingdom, aristocracy) and horrendous and horrific on the largest Level of the whole system (holocaust). Paradoxically the same thing which makes us human, the unique connection between body and mind, is utterly devastating in a larger context, and ends up in the worst form of inhuman racism. There is a path from aristocracy and dynasty to racism.

  • Political + Financial = Capitalism
  • Biological + Ideological/Political = Fascism/Rascism
  • Ideological/Political + Economic(al) = Marxism/Communism
  • Ideological/Political + National/Geographical = Nationalism
  • Economical + National/Geographical = Colonialism/Imperialism
  • Scientific + Ideological/Religious = Dogmatism
  • Biological + Ideological + Economical + National/Geographical = Nazism/Totalitarianism

Maybe also capitalism fits into this picture, as a system where the capital, i.e. the banks, rule, which means there is a merger of financial and political systems. In the strong forms of totalitarianism, communism of the cold war and nazism of Nazi Germany, all religious, political and cultural freedom as well as freedom of the press are sacrificed to serve the state planned economy (communism) or the crude ideology (nazism).

From this point of view the various *-isms failed because the interference of one system with another lead to failure.  People often ask what wreng wrong with communism or marxism. One reason is certainly that the planned economy controlled by central planning did not work. There was no private property, and the people had no incentive to work. The political system, the economic and the financial system were not independent enough. They were largely merged. This merging seems to be at the heart of other *-isms as well.

 

References

[1] Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom, Farrar and Rinehart, 1941
[2] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (in German “Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft”), Schocken Books, 1951
[3] Hans-Ulrich Thamer, Verführung und Gewalt – Deutschland 1933-1945, Siedler Verlag, 1994

 

(The Photos are public domain photos from Wikipedia. They show the Reichsparteitag of Nazi Germany, i.e. the Nuremberg Rally

 

21 Jul 2013

Looking back at the Earth

Posted by jofr. No Comments

AS11-44-6553

On July the 20th was the 44th anniversary of Apollo 11. Among the Astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Mike was the best writer. Mike Collins writes in his splendid and magnificient book “Carrying the fire” about looking back at the earth and seeing the planet from a distance of 100,000 miles (on page 470):

“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a unified façade that would cry out for unified understanding, for homogeneous treatment. The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or Communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.”

And he remarks about the fragility of the earth

“If I could use only one world to describe the earth as seen from the moon, I would ignore both its size and color and search for a more elementary quality, that of fragility. The earth appears “fragile”, above else. I don’t know why, but it does. As we walk its surface, it seems solid and substantial enough, almost infinite as it extends flatly in all directions. But from space there is no hint of ruggedness to it; smooth as a billiard ball, it seems delicately poised in its circular journey around the sun, and above all it seems fragile.

Carl Sagan would agree. In his famous words about the pale blue dot he says:

“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
~ Carl Sagan in Pale blue dot : a vision of the human future in space, Random House, 1994.

References

* Michael Collins
Carrying the Fire – An Astronaut’s Journeys
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974

* Carl Sagan
Pale blue dot : a vision of the human future in space
Random House, 1994.

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16 Jun 2013

BMW ActiveE – driving electric

Posted by jofr. No Comments

IMG_2773

Today I joined DriveNow, a car sharing service from BMW, and tested the new electric BMW ActiveE. As we have argued earlier, electric car sharing is the future of urban mobility. There are only a few of them here in Berlin. The cars all have names, mine was named Isabella (other ActiveE models are named Elizabeth, Elly, Emma, Harald, Jason, Matthew, and Liam). Isabella drives really well, the acceleration is awesome. Delivering an output of 125 kW and max. torque of 250 Nm (184 lb-ft), the BMW ActiveE sprints to 100 km/h (62 mph) in just 9 sec., while the lithium-ion battery gives it a range of around 160 km (100 miles).

Isabelle is very silent, and if you stop at the traffic light she is absolutely quiet. I love to drive this car, it feels like a BMW i 3 series from the future. I hope I will see Isabella again 😉 5 minutes after I finished the drive she vanished from the map, which means someone else has booked her. A few hours later, Isabella appeared again in a different district of Berlin. I drove 1 1/2 hours through Berlin, which made about 20 € ( ~17 € per hour, a bit more than a 3D film in the cinema). It was really fun!

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It is important to test, use and support new technologies that enable us to cope with the universal problems of global warming, sustainable living, and air pollution in urban areas. Consumption of fossil fuels leads to global warming and ocean acidification at an alarming rate. We can only find a ways out of these difficult, global problems together with the industry. The electric drive components of the BMW ActiveE for instance are a pre-production test version of those designed for the forthcoming BMWi3.

Why is driving electric the future?

  • We can not consume endless amounts of oil forever. Natural resources are limited.
  • Gasoline is toxic. Some ingredients like Benzene are carcinogenic
  • Electric vehicles are better for the environment: they mean no usage of fossil fuels, no CO2 emission, and no noise
  • It’s a better driving experience

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15 Jun 2013

Solving the Problem of Subjectivity

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Google Glass and GoPro cameras make it easier than ever to show what it is like to be someone or to do something, because they show the world from a first person perspective and from a deeply subjective point of view. Everybody is able to record his own personal film from his individual point of view. If you ever wondered for example what is it like to take part in a Kayak Championship, then watch these videos and you will get a glimpse of it:


What is alpine skiing or mountain biking like? Watch these videos and you will get a first impression. We say “so this is what it is like to..” if we experience s.th. ourselves, if we are in the same situation, if we travel along the same path.


Why does this help to solve the problem of subjectivity? Because apparently “wearable” camera/camcorders such as helmet cameras show the world from a certain point of view, from the point of view of a particular subject. And as Thomas Nagel said [1] “..every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view”.
And as we have seen earlier, because subjective experience is path dependent we can solve the hard problem of consciousness by simply following the same path, showing for example what it is like to be an adventurer.

What is subjectivity? According to the “Oxford Companion to Philosophy” [2], subjectivity is a term that “often refers to unargued or unjustified personal feelings and opinions as opposed to knowledge and justified belief”. It goes on to say that “subjectivity has been argued [..] to be the ultimate obstacle to any reduction of the mental to the physiological. Subjectivity, on this account, is phenomenological experience, or ‘what it is like to be’ a certain conscious being”. And..

“the notion of subjectivity is also used, particularly in multicultural contexts, to underscore the importance of perspective, the fact that everyone sees the world from his or her (or its) individual vantage-point, defined in part by nature, by culture, and by individual experience” [2]

The vantage-point, the point of view and the first person perspective of the subject can apparently be well understood by cameras which show what the subject sees. What they do not capture directly is what the subject feels. The secret ingedients of subjective experience are emotions. Emotions are, according to Martha Nussbaum [3], “highly discriminating responses to what is of value and importance”, they are “judgements of value” and indicate which things are important to us and our well being. They also always belong to someone and contain an ineliminate reference to that person, they “view the world from the point of view of my own sheme of goals”. In principle, they “see the world from my point of view”.

Martha Nussbaum argues subjective experience means to make judgements of value. They involve emotions which contain a reference to a certain subject. In general one can speak of subjectivity if there is someone who makes a value judgements, for a example a jury. In sports there are “subjective” disciplines like dancing and figure skating which are assessed and judged by a jury. And there are “objective” disciplines where the results can be measure (was it short/long, light/heavy, slow/fast).

  • Subjective means to assess values

    • Subjective: making value judgements (good/bad) and assess values
    • Objective: making value mesaurements (short/long, ..) and measure values

  • Subjective means emotions are involved, which contain a reference to the subject

    • Subjective: in relation to ourselves, emotions involved
    • Objective: in relation to other things, no emotions involved

  • Subjective means there is a jury somehwere, which has to make a value judgement

    • Subjective: if there is a jury somewhere which has to make a judgement
    • Objective: if there is no jury, if it an be measured physically

So far so good, does it help us to tackle the problem of subjectivity? Yes. The longer the path we follow a certain person, the smaller the difference becomes between watching what a person does and experiencing what a person feels. Consider this film of the Mountain Games Steep Creek Championships. Notice the difference to the small Kayak clips above? There is an additional soundtrack. Sound effects and film music are used in films to represent the character’s emotions [4].

We do not only see what the actor sees, we also feel it to a certain degree because the sound effects and film music trigger certain emotions. We can see in films what is like to be in a train crash, to cancel your wedding, or to murder someone. And the sound additionally tells us what it feels like to be in that situation. The effect is so profound that humans indeed go to dark rooms to watch humans pretending to be other humans. Films allow us to view the world through the eyes of someone else. When we watch a photo or a film, we see the world through someone else’s eyes – those of the photographer or filmer. In films we learn to see the world differently, since everybody has a unique perspective and an individual point of view. And now we have even the devices that show it.

[1] Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” in “Mortal Questions”, Cambridge University Press, 1979
[2] Ted Honderich (Ed.), “Oxford Companion to Philosophy”, Oxford University Press, 1995
[3] Martha Nussbaum, “Upheavals of Thought”, Cambridge University Press, 2001
[4] Timothy Corrigan and Particia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction, Bedford/St. Martin’s; 3rd edition, 2012

31 May 2013

The future of urban mobility

Posted by jofr. 1 Comment

The video above shows the BMW i vision of BMW how the future could look like. Will it look like this? Today, more people than ever live in urban areas and densely populated cities. Over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities and urban areas. They breathe polluted air and spend hours on congested streets during the rush hour. Many of the most populated cities, including Beijing, New Delhi, New York, and Mexico city, are unfortunately also the world’s most polluted places and have the world’s worst air quality.

We must find a solution to the challenge of urban mobility, which is one of the largest factors contributing to air pollution and smog today. If we do not find sustainable ways of living with renewable energy, then we will suffocate in smog and drown in waste. In the age of peak oil and global warming we have no other choice. One possible solution is zero-emission transport. The classic bicycle, for instance, which was common in China not long ago was not so bad after all. Another possibility to achieve zero-emission transport is to use modern lightweight electric cars made of Carbon Fiber that emits no pollutants. We have the technology. We only need to use it.

It would be a big step forward if politicians could agree on the following points, or at least on some of them:

  • prohibit gasoline and diesel cars in large cities, at least between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • offer cheap car sharing with modern electric cars inside large mega cities
  • support effective lightweight electric cars made of Carbon Fiber
  • enable comfortable and fast high speed trains between cities
  • use renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels

It should be possible to prohibit gasoline and diesel cars in large cities, if we support public transport and electric car sharing. Electric car sharing reduces traffic congestion and environmental pollution. Traffic between cities can be handled by high speed trains. People can use electric trains to travel between cities, and shared electric cars to travel around inside. No one owns a train, why does everyone need an own car? Car sharing can be as convenient as owning your own car, especially in large cities. Locate a car with your smartphone and you’re on your way.

Car sharing in big cities is very successful, as the growing number of Car2Go and DriveNow cars and users show. If these car sharing services would only offer electric cars, we would make a big step forward towards the goal of zero-emission transport. We have already electric car sharing solutions in Brussels, San Francisco, and Seoul. Just imagine L.A. or London without cars burning fossil fuels. Electric cars from BMW, Tesla Motors and Smart show us the way to a sustainable future with renewable energy.

References

* BMW i Vision
* Car Sharing provider pages Car2Go and DriveNow
* Wikipedia pages for zero-emission transport, high speed trains, peak oil, fossil fuel, global warming, car sharing, sustainability, and renewable energy.

14 Apr 2013

Emotions and the Pursuit of Happiness

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The United States Declaration of Independence says that the pursuit of happiness is a basic, unalienable human right: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of happiness is indeed something which we all strive to do. Driven by our emotions, we try to pursue what feels good, and try to avoid what feels bad. Animals are biological machines for the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. And these machines are controlled by an ancient control mechanism: emotions. They have evolved over hundreds of millions of years and enable to us to cope with all kinds of environments.

Emotions are an adaptation of animals to solve the problem of movment in fast changing, complex and challenging environments. They tell them what to do when. The main purpose of emotions is to guarantee the fulfillment of the primary directive of the genes: to eat, survive and reproduce, thereby levering the genes into the next generation. The number of different emotions can be staggering. But if we organize them along certain dimensions and distinguish different categories, the situation becomes a bit simpler.

Randolph Nesse proposes goal pursuit for this purpose [1]. If we view life as a sequence of episodes in which oragnisms attempt to reach goals and avoid threats, then according to Nesse, a simple model for goal pursuit goes like this: positive emotions are associated with opportunities, while negative ones are linked to threats. In this model basically everything boils down to pleasure (do it) and pain (don’t do it).

Before After
Opportunity Desire Pleasure
Threat
Fear Pain

A more detailed version of the table makes the following division of emotions [1,2]:

Situation Before During Obstacle After Success After Failure
Opportunity Desire,
Excitement
Engagement,
Flow, Interest
Frustration,
Anger, Despair
Pleasure,
Joy, Happiness
Disappointment
Threat Fear,
Anxiety
Confidence,
Coping
Dread,
Despair
Relief Pain,
Sadness

The interesting thing about this perspective is that negative emotions can be good for us and positive ones can be bad. In certain situations negative emotions can be useful, because they protect us and help us to avoid threats. Positive emotions can be bad if they are maladaptive, if we pursue the wrong opportunities because the emotions do not recognize the right thing [1,2].

The most complex goals arise in social situations and social relationships. Apparently these situations have been so ubiquitous that special emotions have evolved to deal with them. Nesse proposes the following categories for emotions that deal with situations which repeatedly arise in managing social relationships: “trust and friendship after repeated successful exchanges, suspicion and anger before and after the other defects, and anxiety and guilt before and after the self defects” [2]

Other cooperates Other defects
You cooperate Trust, Friendship, Love Before: suspicion
After: anger
You defect
Before: anxiety
After: guilt
Rejection
Disgust

 

 

References

[1] Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness,
Randolph M Nesse,
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 September 29; 359(1449): 1333–1347.

[2] Evolutionary Foundations for psychatric diagnosis,
Randolph M. Nesse and Eric D. Jackson,
chapter 6 in “Maladapting Minds: Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Evolutionary Theory”
Pieter R. Adriaens, Andreas De Block (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011

 (The picture of the United States Declaration of Independence is from Wikipedia)

 

14 Apr 2013

Maladaptations of the Pleistocene

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mal·a·dap·tive – Not providing adequate or appropriate adjustment to the environment or situation

The last post was about fast food as maladaptation. The preference for fat and sugar which leads to fast food is not the only maladaptation. The preference for pornography is another. In a way, fast food is indeed like pornography: it is a bit like the real thing, and seems to taste well in the beginning, but is not really satisfying in the end. And it is not good for you. Constant stress is not good for you, either, although it was once useful to be instantly ready for fight or flight responses. A recent book about maladaptation says (Jerome Wakefield, chapter 5, p. 168 [1]):

“In our own society there are features of ours likely naturally selected, such as a taste for fat and sugar, a fight-or-flight response to stressful situations, shyness about speaking to groups of strangers, and sexual desire not limited to our spouses, that cause us much trouble. In the new environment we have created for ourselves (plentiful food availability, high stress, mass communication, lots of interaction with other people’s spouses) these features, which may previously have helped us survive, cause us problems.”

Our bodies have evolved to eat, survive and reproduce in an environment where food and mates were sparse, where stress and stressful emergencies were unpredictable and rare, and where there was plenty of space and large need for movement. Now we have plenty of food, sit around the whole day in a stressful office, move around in public transport, and watch porn on the internet. It is not surprising that this behavior makes us sick. As Robert Sapolsky has shown [2], our bodies are not designed for the 21st century and the constant stress of modern life. They are more suited to life of the Pleistocene and in the open Savanna. The constant stress in noisy offices and polluted cities makes us sick and leads to stess related and cardiovascular diseases, for instance ulcers and coronary heart diseases. Zebras don’t get ulcers, as Sapolsky observed cleverly [2], because they do not sit around in smelly and noisy offices the whole day. If the stress response set ins, they simply run away and outrun the lion.

A changed environment has turned useful adaptation into maladaptations:

  • Desire for Fat and Sugar (=> Fast Food related diseases)
  • Stress Response, Need for movement (=> Stess related cardiovascular diseases)
  • Desire for Mating (=> Sex addiction)
  • Flexible sexual desire based on imprinting (=> Pornography)

800px-Tiger_in_South_IndiaWe have all kinds of mental disorders in modern life as well, addictions, depressions, phobias, mental disorders etc.. They are not directly maladaptations, but often byproducts of emotions. Emotions have an evolved function, i.e. they are normally useful and adaptive, but can go “off the rails” in certain cases in wrong environments. Fear and anxiety are natural responses to life-threatening situations. In modern environments there are no longer big cats and wild cave bears. In our world traffic accidents are much more life-threatening than meeting a lion, tiger or leopard. Thus we develop traffic phobias after traffic accidents instead of being frightened of dangerous predators after meeting one [1] . Mild forms of depression for instance are natural, too. They are a useful response to disengage from useless efforts and failing enterprises [1], as we have discussed earlier depression is an adaptation to hopeless situations. But in modern environments this “disengagement” mechanism can be maladaptive, for instance if many people just can not find a job (due to bad political or economic conditions) it will make them sick.

But we are a clever species, and we will find a way to cope with it 😉

References

[1] Maladapting Minds: Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Evolutionary Theory
Pieter R. Adriaens, Andreas De Block (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011

[2] Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping
Robert M. Sapolsky
W. H. Freeman, 1998

(The image of the tiger is from Wikipedia)