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28 Feb 2021

Windowless individuals and free will

Posted by jofr. 2 Comments

Free will is one of the big problems of philosophy. A big question in philosophy is a problem where Daniel Dennett has written at least one book about it: ‘Consciousnes Explained’ about consciousness in 1991, ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ about evolution in 1995, ‘Freedom Evolves’ about free will in 2003, and ‘Breaking the spell’ about religion in 2006. The general opinion of Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Daniel Wegner (*) and others is is that free will is an illusion.

The hard problem of consciousness could be one of the reasons why we have the illusion of free will. Why? Well, from the outside a person seems to have free will in principle. Every free person can decide itself what it wants to do in a given moment. Normally we cannot predict what someone else will do – our understanding of the whole universe of personal beliefs, desires and intentions is blocked by the hard problem of consciousness, and the personality is like a locked house where all windows are closed.

We have no access. Only if we know persons really well and they grant us access to their life the situation changes – for instance if the person in question is your wife or husband for 30 years, a main character in a movie, or the subject of a criminal investigation. In whodunit films it becomes clear in the end why people have acted they way they did. If we know the detailed history, the likes and dislikes of a person, the goals, desires and intentions, then we can almost always say in hindsight why people acted the way they did.

We also can not say how someone else will feel. Everybody feels something different and is controlled by path-dependent subjective experience, which is unknown to others, because the individual is not transparent and the history is not known. We have not evolved the ability to “put ourselves in somebody else’s skin”. It is not impossible, but can be very difficult and requires detailed knowledge and imagination. This is the reason why Hollywood has invented cinemas to show us how what it is like to be somebody else (the GoPro cameras in modern days have the same function).

Once we investigate the life of a person, for example by a detective as part of a criminal investigation, or as movie viewers in a cinema, we start to understand why a person acts they way it does. Movies provide a window in the life of a person. The more we step into the footsteps of a person, the better we understand the personal feelings and indivual motives. Could it be that the same thing that prevents us from understanding subjective experiences of others Рthe hard problem of consciousness Рalso creates the illusion of free will? 

Leibniz who lived at the time of Spinoza and Descartes was one of the first philosophers who examined this question. He tried to reconcile determinism and free will, and used the metaphor of “windowless individuals” (in the context of his “monads”). In fact we can not see the personality of another person – unless we know the personal history or experience how a person acts and reacts through some kind of window to the life of the person, for example a book or a movie about the life of the person.

If there is no window where we can observe the life and therefore the personality of someone, we are lost, and can not see any direct influences on individual decisions and personal choices. In this sense the hard problem of consciousness is not only a problem, but also a solution of another problem: the combination of determinism and free will. The actions of a person are determined, but it is normally unknown to others by what influences. Because of this lack of knowledge the actions seem to be undetermined, although they are not. In this sense a lack of knowledge helps to create and to protect an illusion of freedom (of free choice and free will).

Spinoza, a Dutch contemporary of Leibniz, argued as well in his book “Ethics” that it is the lack of knowledge & awareness that helps to create the illusion of freedom:”Experience teaches us no less clearly than reason, that men believe themselves free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined”.

If complete ignorance of a personality of someone else blocks our ability to predict the actions of that person, then intimate knowledge of someone allows us to predict how the person will act to a certain degree. You could say two minds have merged into one. In the same way intimate knowledge of the history of person allows us to experience the world as the person does, for example by seeing a movie about the life of a person. Watching this movie you experience the same events that the person has experienced. In this sense being married for 25 or more years is like watching the same movie, the movie of your life. Let us hope it is a good one ūüėČ

( image of the house in Italy from wagrati_photo on Pixabay, image of the books from Unsplash user Chris Lawton, movie projector image from Rudy and Peter Skitterians on Pixabay)

* Daniel M. Wegner, “The Illusion of Conscious Will”, The MIT Press, 2002
* Daniel Dennett, “Freedom Evolves”, Viking Books, 2003
* Sam Harris, “Free Will”, Free Press, 2012

7 Feb 2021

Hostility as adaptation

Posted by jofr. No Comments

Why do some forms of fascism invade aggressively in neighboring territories, while others remain calm and confined to their borders? Under the influence of Bonapartism and Nazism, the French and the Germans invaded nearly every country in Europe. During the times of fascism in Italy, Mussolini invaded large parts of Africa. But the Spanish dictator Franco stayed neutral and fascism in Spain remained confined to the Spanish borders after the Spanish civil war. Similarly some forms of Islamism are perceived as hostile, for example ISIL in Syria and Iraq, or Islamism in Iran, while other states in the Gulf region are seen as useful, although they are similar in many aspects. Some gulf states for example are quite authoritarian and yet are treated well because they have plenty of oil.

Why did ISIL spread over large regions in Syria and Iraq? The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS or ISIL) is viewed today as a terror organization. It can be considered as an example of fascism as well, if we see it as an attempt to make a country in a crisis great again, by returning to some kind of political and religious proto-state. From the beginning it experienced heavy opposition from all sides that condemned the cruel activities of the group: it appeared early on the UN Sanctions List and was not even recognized as a state. This is not meant to be an excuse for cruel activities, more an attempt to understand the dyanmics in the overall system.

Why did Napolean invade nearly all of Europe? Well, after the French revolution the surrounding princedoms and kingdoms felt very threatened by the idea of a nation state. They behaved increasingly hostile towards France. Before France invaded continental Europe and created a total continental blockade against England from 1806 to 1813, the British Empire did the same to France. As part of the coalition wars against France after the French revolution England fought successfully against the French navy in the Battle of Trafalgar 1805 and blocked the French trade in a naval blockade of the French coasts in 1806. Revolutionary France was surrounded by a coalition of hostile kingdoms and princedoms.

I wonder if the aggressiveness of an authoritarian or even totalitarian system depends on the hostility of the environment. Or at least reflects it. Aggressiveness as adaptation so to speak. In a hostile environment, hostile systems might be the ones that survive best, and their hostility reflects the behavior of the environment.  For example authoritarian states which receive lots of money, military aid and economic support because they have plenty of oil probably will behave modestly. But authoritarian states which experience economic sanctions will probably behave aggressively or hostile.

It looks as if authoritarian systems expand aggressively because of two major factors: a) they are driven by the desire to make the own country great again and to restore a former glorious state (like former national grandeur, lost national honor, the glory of an imaginary caliphate, etc.), or b) they feel increasingly threatened by a hostile environment. For Italy during the time of Italian fascism the former was the main factor. Italy invaded Lybia, Ethiopia and wanted to occupy large parts of Africa not because Africa was hostile to Italy, but because Lybia was the only region Italy could expand to. Algeria was a French colony. Egypt occupied by British forces. Lybia was the only “open” region left. The invasion in Lybia and Ethiopia triggered in turn economic sanctions during the Abyssinia Crisis

I have created a small chart which tries to compare a “hostility score” to a “fascism index”. The fascism index is calculated from about 20 properties of the system which indicate how much freedom is restricted (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, lack of concentration camps, etc., and how many previously independent systems have been merged), while the hostility score reflects the amount of hostility a country faces (economic sanctions against the country or individuals, strong tariffs, lack of military aid and economic support, etc).

Russia has a high hostility score here because it is subject to strong economic sanctions, which reflect the fact that it invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. The international sanctions against Russia were imposed after the invasion of Ukraine, not before. Therefore they can not explain why Russia invaded Crimea in the first place, but both are nevertheless related, since the hostility of the environment mirrors the hostility of the country. Once economic sanctions are imposed, they can of course make the situation worse and increase the hostility of the country. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for example was triggered by economic warfare of the US and especially by an oil embargo of the US against Japan.

Economic sanctions against Iran have a long and complicated history. The current economic sanctions against both Iran and North Korea are justified with the threat of Nuclear weapons. Yet if we look at the political system there does not seem to be a big difference. The authoritarian system in Iran is not that different from the authoritarian system in many neighboring Gulf States. They are similar in their disdain of democracy, freedom of speech and many other aspects.

Reality is complex. A look at the “hostility score” might help to explain why the Islamism in the Gulf States is not associated with a hostile invasion in neighboring territories, while Islamism in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) is linked to aggressive expansion. A state which receives a lot of money by economic support and military aid will more likely be grateful than hostile. An organization, movement or proto-state which encounters hostile reactions from all sides can only survive if it reacts hostile in turn.

 

22 Aug 2020

Hidden Genes

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It has been said when climbing mount Everest, the last hundred yards are the hardest. This is certainly true for writing a book as well. The longer it takes, the more difficult it becomes. The last meters are the worst. If you want it to be good, you have to read and proofread your own text over and over again until you cannot see it anymore and then still 10 times more.

But here it is, my new book named “Hidden Genes”, written in the last months of the global Coronavirus pandemic. I have sent a proposal to over 30 publishers, but almost all of them rejected the proposal. Therefore I have decided to publish it myself, using a self-publishing service. If you are an old-fashioned book lover like me, you can buy it here in the epubli shop¬†or here at Amazon. I hope you will find it interesting, and the most typos should hopefully be eliminated now.

If you prefer to read the online version, you can download the PDF version of the book for FREE here: Hidden-Genes.

The book contains many insights posted before in this blog. It is also a bit of an adventure: to see if we can study things that can not be studied, if we can measure effects that can not be measured. Arthur C. Clarke said “the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible”. In my opinion this journey was successful. The text contains in fact new, groundbreaking insights which you can read in this form nowhere else. I do not know why nobody else has discovered it before, except the few scientists who are mentioned in the book. Maybe nobody wanted to look. Or nobody dared to look. The Roman poet Virgil said 2000 years ago “fortune sides with him you dares”. Let us dare to have a look how the world works behind the scenes.

Are there any “hidden genes” in our world as the title suggests? Where are they hidden? And how do they work? The thesis of the book is that there are hidden genes that have not been recognized so far as what they are ‚Äď genes that have the ability to create organisms if they are expressed regularly. They look different than classic DNA, but work in exactly the same way. The book shows where these hidden genes are exactly and how they are expressed (how often, by whom, and where), argues why this can go wrong, and explains what the result looks like. I hope it may help to inspire others on their journey to new insights. As J.W. Goethe said “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it”.

(DNA picture and Lightbulb picture are from Pixaybay user qimono)

5 Jul 2020

The fractal dimension of group selection

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The concept of a fractal dimension is simple. A straight line or curved line (circle) has dimension 1. A surface or area has the dimension 2. In real life lines are rarely straight but often rugged and crumpled. A crumpled line like the coastline of Britain has a fractal dimension between 1 and 2, of about 1.21. It can be measured by the box-counting method. Basically this box-counting method measures the degree of “crumpleness”: how much the object we measure covers a different, higher dimension. In our one dimensional case of the coastline this means if the object is slightly crumpled and resembles a curved line then the dimension approaches 1. If the object is strongly crumpled and fills nearly a whole area like a space-filling curve then the dimension approaches 2.

We can apply this concept of a fractal dimension to evolutionary systems, because there is more than one inheritance system in evolution. Jablonka et al. [1] identify different dimensions of heredity and evolution: the genetic dimension, the epigenetic dimension, the behavioral dimension and the symbolic dimension. All of these would be different inheritance systems and contain different forms of inheritable informations. The epigenetic dimension is reset for new generations though, and the symbolic dimension can only be found in humans. Most anthropologists like William Durham [2] or  Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd [3] are in favor of gene Рculture coevolution or Dual Inheritance Theory (DIT). For a start, let us assume we have between 1 and 2 dimensions.

To measure how many different evolutionary systems we have we need to count the number of “genetic codes” that produce recipes for organisms. The genetic code in turn contains recipes to create genetic organisms. And if we try to count the fractal dimension for a complex evolutionary system which exhibts high phenotypic plasticity, it turns out that group selection has a fractal dimension close to 2, about 1.875. This means that group selection is actually an approximation of a new evolutionary system in an old one. For kin selection we arrive at a lower dimension of 1.25.

– normal biological evolution (fractal dimension of 1)

  • biological genes in encoded, inheritable form

– kin selection (fractal dimension of 1+2/8=1.25)

  • recipes for recognizing kinship
  • recipes for specific tribal attributes: slogans

– group selection among primitive tribes (fractal dimension 1+4/8=1.5)

  • recipes for recognizing and creating ethnic markers
  • recipes for tools like a new snare or weapon

– group selection among ethnic groups (fractal dimension 1+7/8=1.875)

  • recipes for altruistic behavior
  • recipes for conserving trust
  • new replicators in spoken form

– dual-level evolution (fractal dimension 1+8/8=2)

  • cultural genes in encoded, inheritable form

The system we have today is high dimensional where the number of different evolutionary systems is much larger than 2. We have religious organizations, political parties, economic companies that exist in many multiple subsystems and economic sectors like primary, secondary and tertiary, media, nonprofit sector, etc). At best we can describe it as a multi-dimensional evolutionary system with a high number of dimensions.

( The picture for the fractal dimension of the coast of britain is from Wikipedia user Prokofiev )

[1] Eva Jablonka, Marion J. Lamb, Anna Zeligowski, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life, MIT Press, 2006

[2] William H. Durham, Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity, Stanford University Press, 1991

[3] Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, University of Chicago Press, 2005

23 Jun 2020

Why China is evil

Posted by jofr. No Comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

A recent discussion with Yuen Yuen Ang from the University of Michigan inspired me to write this short blog post. She is a China expert who has written numerous books on China, including “China’s Gilded Age. The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption” [1] and “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap” [2]). I do not agree with her positive view of China, because in my opinion one reason why China has been so successful is that they unleashed evil.

What does evil mean? Being evil can be very simple: just think about yourself, follow your selfish desires and do not even start to think about others. Lie, steal, cheat and bent or break any rule to follow your selfish instincts. This is the banality of evil on the level of the individual which Hannah Arendt described for the first time [3].

Evilnesss simply results from extreme selfishness. Being evil basically means being so selfish that you break elementary social rules or violate human rights in order to benefit from it. An individual can be evil, for instance a psychopath or a sociopath, but an organization, corporation or country can be evil too.

An organization is evil if it tortures the own people like the Catholic Church in the Spanish Inquisition [4] and the Roman Inquisition [5].

A corporation is evil if it produces deliberately products like pesticides that can cause cancer [6], if it violates worker laws or of it has inhuman working conditions.

A country is evil if it occupies other countries violently [8] or if it kills the own people just because they demonstrate peacefully, as China did during the Tiananmen Square protests which is symbolized by the image of the tank man [7]. In both cases basic human rights are violated.

Even life itself can be considered as evil. Remember Richard Dawkins and his “selfish genes”? It basically means all living organisms are the byproduct of selfish genes. Life itself is evil. The world is full of evil which competes on multiple scales and levels.

China is evil on multiple levels, from the bottom to the top. While the one child policy made sense from a demographic perspective, it has created a whole generation of little narcissistic emperors [9]. Narcissistic people are evil because they only think about themselves and how great they are. On the level of the companies many are either state companies or joint ventures who steal or copy ideas from foreign companies, or are under scrutiny because they violate working conditions. On the level of the state the single-party state is a totalitarian state which tolerates absolutely no criticism, kills peaceful demonstrators [7], puts people in concentration camps or re-education camps after a sham trial, and imprisons peaceful writers until they die, like the peaceful Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo [10].

Where would you rather live, in a democratic country like Taiwan, or in a totalitarian state like China where the state police can come any time at night, knock on your door and take you after a sham trial indefinitely to prison, just because you had an idea how to improve the state or dared to criticize the ruling party.

[1] Yuen Yuen Ang, China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption, Cambridge University Press, 2020

[2] Yuen Yuen Ang, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, Cornell Univeristy Press, 2016

[3] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Viking Press, 1963

[4] Joseph Pérez, The Spanish Inquisition: A History, Yale University Press, 2005

[5] Christopher Black, The Italian Inquisition, Yale University Press, 2009

[6] Mitchel Cohen and Vandana Shiva, The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides, Skyhorse, 2019

[7] Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Oxford University Press, 2015

[8] Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule, Columbia University Press, 2014

[9] Tamara Jacka, Andrew B. Kipnis, Sally Sargeson, Contemporary China: Society and Social Change, Cambridge University Press, 2013

[10] Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred, Belknap Press, 2011

(the image is from Wikipedia and shows a PLA guard )

8 May 2020

New book coming

Posted by jofr. No Comments

 

I have finished a first draft of my new book in English in the last two months. The working title so far is “Hidden Genes”. The thesis is that there are hidden genes that have not been recognized so far as what they are – genes that have the ability to create organisms if they are expressed regularly. The book shows where they are exactly and how they are expressed, argues why this can go wrong, and explains what the result looks like. It is a truly interdisciplinary book in the spirit of the Santa Fe Institue that offers new perspectives on age-old questions. For the general reader it offers original answers to fundamental questions. It is provocative and distinctive, provides insights to critical questions, uncovers new connections, and offers a new understanding of our world.

31 Dec 2018

Propaganda and Censorship

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The hallmark of nearly all forms of fascism, from authoritarianism to totalitarianism, is propaganda. Repeated propaganda. Ubiquitous propaganda. In Russian communism, in German nazism, or in the original Italian fascism, everywhere propaganda is an essential part of fascism. Why is that so? It must have a fundamental importance.

Jowett & O’Donnell define propaganda as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and to direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” [1]. This definition is similar to the one from Edward Bernays 90 years before who wrote in 1928 “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence te relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group” [2].

Propaganda comes from the latin word “propagare” which means to propagate or to spread information. This information can be advertising of a physical product like “Buy this product X, it is good for you”, or marketing for an abstract ideology like “Believe in X and do Y”. In both cases propaganda means usually a lot of lies and distorting the truth, because propaganda is based on advertising and marketing, and marketing can be seen as the art of lying, deception and truth manipulation to successfully sell a product in a market. Successful marketing of a product bends the truth without breaking it to convince the people of a product.

In the center of propaganda there is a certain brand, a symbol which is used to manipulate emotions and perceptions. Advertising makes the promise that the product in question is good for you, that it will make you feel great. It manipulates opinions about the product. The brand is used to associate a certain product with certain desirable attributes or properties.

Propaganda is a special form of advertising or marketing. It is a radical, more comprehensive, and more totalitarian form, because it tries to affect the whole worldview, to define what’s good and what’s bad overall. The border is usually the movement or the party: good/bad is what’s good/bad the movement.

Jason Stanley distinguishes in his book “How propaganda works” [3] between “supporting” and “undermining” propaganda. Supporting propaganda is constructive, it creates a myth or legend of a person or party, and increases the realization of certain ideologies or ideals. Undermining propaganda is destructive. It can destroy what has been created by supporting propaganda. Supporting propaganda apparently includes censorship of undermining propaganda.

Propaganda films for instance are “supporting propaganda” because they can increase an ideal like patriotism. A propaganda speech can increase obedience to authority or can increase the authority of a certain leader. A propaganda story can create a myth or legend.

In authoritarian systems, which can be *-stan countries like Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan or even companies like Apple or Tesla, propaganda is a reality distortion field used to maintain the myth of an absolutely superior product or a great infallible leader. It is needed to uphold the authority of the leader or president, and authority is apparently essential for an authoritarian system. According to this myth the leader is the only one who is able to lead the country or organization and enables it to prosper, while in reality this may be the case only temporarily. The leader is of course not infallible at all, and corruption or organized crime are often the thriving elements behing the curtain in authoritarian systems.

Propaganda in authoritarian systems focusses on the leader, who becomes his own brand. It promises that the leader will make the country great again, but it does not necessarily emphasize the importance of the party or movement of the leader. Contrary views are suppressed, but censorship exists mainly for critics of the great infallible leader.

Narcissistic persons or persons with narcissistic personality disorder are perfect candidates to lead authoritarian systems, because they naturally believe they are the greatest persons of the whole world. They inherently create a myth around themselves that they are the greatest and smartest persons ever. Of course in reality they are not.

In totalitarian systems propaganda has even greater importance. Here the propaganda is directed towards the system, movement or party itself. The propaganda is not only used to maintain the myth of a great leader, it is also used to create a myth for the country as a whole, and it promises that the movement *and* the leader of the movement will make the country great again.

To do that it creates an entity out of a social system by an elementary processes of brain washing. It is here where a form of social gene expression comes into play and propaganda starts to shine. Propaganda can not only create an imaginary myth or legend, it can also create a real movement which embodies an ideology. It is a living entity which has all properties of a life-form: it has a body, it can shrink and grow, and it can move and expand. We have mentioned that process of cultural gene expression earlier in the article about the secret of religion.

So yes, there are cultural or social genes. And they are very fundamental for our society. The expression and translation of these cultural genes is a fundamental social process which creates coherent entities in social systems. A number of social genes are used to control the behavior of the group. They are expressed in speeches, church servies, political rallies, and in modern times by broadcasting propaganda on TV. Propaganda is a means of gene expression.

Censorship is of great importance in totalitarian systems too, because it eliminates foreign gene material which interferes with the process of expression and translation. Censorship and propgaganda are in fact two sides of a coin. Censorship narrows the spectrum of the speakable, propaganda extends it, adds new imaginary or alternative facts, and makes the spectrum more colorful. Together they form the (un)speakable.

In China for instance, the censorship system of the government suppresses any information about the dissident Liu Xiaobo, because he called for political reforms that could threaten the very existence of the party and the one-party system. Writings like his Charter 08 have the power to create the foundation of a new system, which the current government wants to avoid at all cost.

In the Soviet Union censorship of dissidents like Andrei Sakharov was also very common, and in Nazi Germany censorship was extreme as well. In all the systems where we have massive propaganda we also have massive censorship. The censorship is in fact nothing else but an immune system for the life-form created by repeated propaganda.

All in all we arrive at the following view:

Propaganda Person Party
Supporting
Propaganda
Myth or
Legend
Myth of founder,
Superiority myth
Undermining
Propaganda
Gossip about leader,
Criticism of leader
Dissident,
Criticism of regime
Desired property Authority Integrity
Resulting system Authoritarian Totalitarian

[1] Garth S. Jowett, Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda & Persuasion, SAGE Publications, 2018
[2] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, Routledge, 1928
[3] Jason Stanley, How propaganda works, Princeton University Press, 2016

 

Images are from Wikipedia and show Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, as well as a Nazi party rally

9 Aug 2017

The Apocalypse

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The is a nice poem about Cook and the Australian natives

When his ship first came to Australia, Cook wrote, the natives continued fishing, without looking up. Unable, it seems, to fear what was too large to be comprehended

It wasn’t Australia as the poem claims, it was New Zealand, as this¬†Wikipedia page about the HMS Endeavour says. Anyway, the Australian and American natives were not able to comprehend the danger ahead. As a result they were nearly extinguished like the dinosaurs. Why are we not able to see the dangers of climate change and global warming? Are we unable to fear what is too large to be comprehended?

Well. The US president just threatened North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen before”. In other words the nuclear apocalypse, which could end life on earth as we know it. Are we again unable to fear what is too large to be comprehended? I am a bit worried about the future.

In a Poorly Drawn Lines Cartoon about the apocalypse it lookes like this:

21 Aug 2016

Narcissism and Mass Shootings

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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‚Ķfor undoing a hurt by whatever means‚Ķ 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‚Äôs 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 G√∂ttingen, 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‚Äôs 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
  • jihad &¬†mission: 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] √Čmile 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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