To Google it’s a nanosecond’s traffic, but it makes me feel good that this modest little blog has just passed 50,000 total visitors. Thank you to everyone who’s dropped in, especially those loyal few whose frequent visits have helped to inflate the stats! I may not be posting here as often as I once did, but you’ll continue to see new pieces from time to time.
In a recent series of articles, New Scientist magazine explored what their lead article called “The Great Illusion of the Self.”
The article gave more space to why we don’t know much of anything about our selves than to what we do know, or think that we know, for “While it seems irrefutable that we must exist in some sense, things get a lot more puzzling once we try to get a better grip of what having a self actually amounts to.”
According to the article, we are sure of three things about our selves. We are continuous. We are unified. And we are agents.
“All of these beliefs appear to be blindingly obvious and as certain as can be” ; yet “as we look at them more closely, they become less and less self-evident.”
What does it say about the reality of the outside world if we can be fooled even about the state and composition of parts of our own bodies? And what does it say about the reality of our sense of self if we can’t trust our senses even when they report our apparent body states?
More evidence that the world, including us, is a construct, a mental representation of an otherwise un-experienced world “out there,” crops up in reports of a new study that fools subjects into believing that they have a phantom limb.
I share with many others the view that one of the best ways to understand human behaviour is to observe other animals in similar circumstances.
More often than not, this approach is applied to “higher” animals such as our chimpanzee cousins. But if our individual and social traits are products of evolution — and what else could they be? — then we should be able to find some pretty basic understanding from looking at older, “simpler” animals.
Ants, for example.
I tried very hard to read A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. I really did. I started the book three times, and the last two times I skipped the soporific beginning and started to read from a random point somewhere in the middle of the book. I couldn’t do it. The Good Book is just not a very good book.
It’s not that Grayling’s prose is particular bad, although it’s not particularly good. It’s not that many of the things he writes are little more than self-help nostrums, although many of them are certainly that.
The problem is that Grayling’s imitation of the style of the old English bible makes his “new bible” seem more a parody than a transformation. He hasn’t so much updated the old bible as he has backdated his new ideas.
Everyone in the social sciences is now aware of the “WEIRD problem,” the built-in sampling bias that permeates the vast majority of psychological studies, the subjects of which are overwhelmingly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.
Are the physical sciences also biased? In particular, is the way we typically explain the physics of the universe fundamentally anthropomorphic, with the assumption from Newton to the present that the universe functions the same way that our minds function?
There is disturbing news, and then there is disturbing news coverage. To me, the past weekend’s reporting on the death of “Super Sniper” Chris Kyle was much more disturbing news coverage than it was disturbing news.
The pairing of two seemingly-unrelated articles prompts this posting, which examines some of the ways that we can reconsider our “selves” as something other than unitary beings, or even unitary perceptions of dynamic states of being.
I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.
That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.
I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.
Here I am in California, for another few hours anyway. I’m reading the newspapers, watching the news on TV, and listening and talking to real people. Everyone is paying attention to the Fiscal Cliff dramatics, but with less intensity than you might expect, given the hype about how dire the consequences will be if no deal is struck before midnight rings in 2013 in a couple of days. It seems that no one is really engaged; no one is really expecting much.
One thing that I’m noticing is the nearly universal pessimism, not to mention cynicism, that people down here express whenever the subject turns to the dysfunctional U. S. federal government. No one expects a comprehensive deal, and few hold any hope that the likely deal, to extend the middle class tax cuts and the extra unemployment benefits, will do anything more than yet again defer any comprehensive agreement.
And no one here is expressing faith in the legislators, who will, as they always do, calculate their fiscal principles in the currency of their chances for re-election. Continue reading