Returning to First Century Palestine for Lessons on the Future of Religion – Reza Aslan’s Zealot, 2013

Aslan sketch_10.indd

Zealot, 2013

I’ve just finished a lovely book, currently #4 on the NYT Nonfiction Bestseller list, that I recommend highly for those seeking to improve their personal spirituality and understanding of religion, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 2013. First a personal disclosure: My parents were raised, and they raised their children in the Lutheran branch of Christianity. But like many a learning-oriented youth I had increasing difficulty reconciling the logic and aspirations of modern texts (primarily, the lovely World Book) with the illogic and wrath of large parts of the Bible. I started taking notes in the margins to document my disagreements, and began dropping whole sections from my mind, beginning with most of the Old Testament. By my young adulthood I ended up focusing on the parts of Jesus message I really admired, and I came to understand him as a courageous spiritual leader, a champion of the downtrodden, and a failed revolutionary who was very much a product of his time and culture.


Life of Brian, 1979

Do you remember Monty Python’s Life of Brian, 1979? In particular, that scene with all the messiahs in the marketplace, competing for followers? It turns out the truth isn’t that far from that famous skit. First Century Palestine was a highly competitive breeding ground for would-be messiahs, with rationality in short supply and populism, passion, rhetoric, and tricks like exorcism and miraculous healings as standard tools of the trade for a large class of itinerant preachers. Will and Ariel Durant covered this well in their amazing and epic Story of Civilization, 1935-75, parts of which I read in college.

One of Azlan’s gifts is that he resurrects that easily-forgotten world in the first twelve chapters of Zealot, in a well-crafted, suspenseful story. He begins by introducing us to the Maccabees, zealous guerilla-fighting Jews who recapture Judea and Jerusalem from the Seleucids in 164 BCE, after four centuries of non-Jewish rule. Then we see the Jews sadly lose control of their beloved homeland again in 63 BCE, when Rome conquers Jerusalem under Pompey Magnus, putting Judea under tithe and hated centurions in control of the holy Temple. He retells the hopeful prophecies in Judaism for a coming messiah (a new king, revolutionary, savior, prophet) who will smite the enemy and usher in a new “Kingdom of God” on Earth. We are introduced to scores of failed messiahs from this era (at least a dozen self-proclaimed messiahs are known, even with the poor records of the time) who each gain followers, even for years, yet most are eventually captured and crucified, the classic punishment for revolutionaries.

We next see the rise of Jewish Sicarii, stealthy assassins who use small daggers, hidden in cloaks, to secretly and effectively kill Romans and Roman sympathizers in crowds in public, and we see them eventually even murder the Temple’s head priest Jonathan of Ananus, a hated stooge of Rome, in 56CE. By 66CE, these passionate revolutionary Jews have risen up and expelled the far more powerful Romans from Jerusalem, and they are kept out for four entire years. At the end of the Jewish Revolt, in 74CE, almost a thousand Sicarii, men, women, and children, kill themselves en masse at Masada, rather than give the Romans the pleasure of doing so. That’s a level of zealotry, of fervent, extreme, and revolutionary belief and action in support of one’s religion, that we can scarcely understand today.


Jesus in the Temple

This history gets us ready to understand Jesus the revolutionary, Jesus the zealot, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived for some 30 years and who built the foundation for perhaps the most successful movement of religious believers the world has yet seen. The study of the real Jesus, and the attempt to uncover his true life and beliefs is called Jesuism (Jesuology might be more accurate, but it doesn’t seem to exist). As the wikipedia page on this topic reminds us, Jesus was a revolutionary, a communalist, and a transcendentalist, as well as being thoroughly a Jew. Even in the heavily redacted New Testament, pieces of the revolutionary Jesus remain.

We see a Jesus who had his disciples sell their cloaks for swords in Gethsemane (Luke 22:36-38). We see him “Cleanse the Temple” in Jerusalem using physical force (Mark 11:15-33). And he says things like:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have come not to bring peace, but the sword.” (Matthew 10:34).  Of course, all of this is heresay, written mostly by followers who didn’t know him personally, many decades after his death. What Jesus said and did in his life is largely a mystery. Yet Azlan takes us one step closer to uncovering that mystery, and presenting it as an epic story, and we must thank him for it.


Paul the Narcissist

But I think it is Part III, the last three chapters and epilogue, where Zealot really shines. Here we are introduced to Paul of Tarsus, an urbanized Roman Jew who was a serious narcissist, power-lover, and yet another would-be messiah, born a few years after Jesus’s death. After at first unsuccessfully persecuting the early believers in Jesus, and no doubt impressed with how both stubborn and kind they were to him in return, in a flash of inspiration he realized this new religion’s weak spot – by fashioning himself into a “new apostle”, alleging divine communication with the dead Jesus, and preaching an even easier and broadly palatable version of Jesus’ teachings than the others on offer, he could take control of this new movement himself. In his fights with the other versions of Christianity on offer Paul says things like (“If anyone else preaches a gospel contrary to the gospel you received [from me] let him be damned” (Galatians 1:9) even if it comes “from an angel in heaven” (Galatians 1:8), instead, “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Most importantly, Paul’s version of the gospel requires only a simple and easy faith in the divinity of Jesus as the sole means to salvation for the believer.

This Pauline Christianity is geared toward gentiles, not just Jews, and toward the urban Romans. It ignored Jesus’s unpopular revolutionary ambitions, and did away with the need for good works and law abidance for salvation that we find in Judaism. Paul’s is a modern, sanitized faith for a New Wealthier and Lazier Age, and it eventually won the battle over the more popular form of Christianity taught in Jerusalem at the time by James, Jesus’s younger brother, which bitterly condemned wealth and was much more devoted to the Torah, both unpopular with Roman audiences. Pauline Christianity keeps growing with gentiles in Rome, and eventually becomes adopted as his own religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300’s. He convenes the First Nicene Council to settle conflicting Christian beliefs in 325CE, and it becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380CE. When the official New Testament is finally assembled at Hippo Regius in 398CE, more than half of the twenty-seven books that make the cut are either by or about Paul.

His message has won, and Christianity has become a largely Roman invention, as well as a lasting gift the world. At the same time, beginning with barbarian invasions in 376CE and concluding with the murder of the last emperor, Julius Nepos, in 480CE, the Roman Empire itself entered a long and tragic collapse, from which its new religion could not save it.

It is all such an amazing story, and our historical records get better every year at piecing together the key details. It also deserves to be told in as many media formats as possible. Aslan, @rezaaslan, is a co-founder of BoomGen Studios in NY. They do “Transmedia Storytelling”, figuring out ways to blend true history, education, and entertainment in a way where people and institutions will pay for their own edification, starting from least and ending with the most expensive media formats. For example, they might launch a book version of a great historical story first, then a graphic novel (think of Persepolis2000), then a school version of the graphic novel, then a video game, then finally a film. Mahyad Tousi, @MahyadT, is BoomGen’s co-founder. I recommend Tousi’s inspiring TEDx talk, The Future of History, for more on transmedia uses of history to edify-educate.

First Century Palestine

First Century Palestine

I don’t know if Aslan and Tousi are thinking about doing a graphic novel of Zealot next, but I’m sure they could crowdfund one via Kickstarter right now if they choose. Eventually we can expect to see a film. A great film would immerse you in the incredibly messianic and violent world of First Century Palestine. It would show you how the idealistic, communalist, revolutionary Jew, Jesus of Nazareth lived and what he likely said and thought. And it would show how Jesus of Nazareth was turned into Jesus the Christ in the decades and centuries after his death, by a lot of motivated people, for many compelling reasons. Such a film could be particularly helpful for lapsed Christians who are moving toward the evidence-based destinations of scientific naturalism and agnosticism. It would also show how all successful religions continue to reform themselves, and that the only real moral problem with the major monotheistic religions is that they all stopped editing their scriptures about 1,000 years ago, while science continues to edit its morality story faster and more usefully every year.

Socrates, Champion of the Individual Mind

Socrates, Champion of the Questioning Mind

A great prequel to the Christianity story might begin with the birth of the modern secular naturalist mind in Greece, beginning with Thales, 624-546 BCE, perhaps the first great Western secular humanist, philosopher and mathematician. We could also meet Cleisthenes, who brought democracy to Athens circa 550 BCE, which would lead us to Pericles, the great secular leader of Athens in its Golden Age, 480-404 BCE, and next to Socrates, 469-399 BCE, who championed:

1. Questioning as a method of continual self- and world-improvement,
2. Agnosticism (knowing of nothing with certainty, including God),
3. Dualism (humanity’s body/behaviors and soul/mind are equally important),
4. Asceticism (earthly things are less important than one’s soul/mind/morals) and
5. Never retaliating to those who do you wrong.

We can imagine that if Socrates had been not only nonretaliatory but more empathic and humble, prizing people’s feelings as high as their thoughts, he likely wouldn’t have been sentenced to death for impiety and “corrupting” the minds of youth. He was not a revolutionary (Jesus was, and so his path was fated once he allowed himself to be called messiah), but a patriot. And had Socrates also promoted careful observation, measurement, and physical experimentation (closely watching and building things in the physical world, not just in the mind), we’d have had the scientific method about 1600 years earlier than we did. So close, yet so far!

Aslan, who also wrote the acclaimed No God But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, 2011, considers himself a reform Muslim. I know many reform religious members who are also open or secret naturalists and agnostics. That’s a big part of the future of religion, I think: increasing numbers of us being occasional or even frequent members of some religious or spiritual community, but no longer sanctioning scriptural falsehoods and hypocrisies. Protesting those parts of the story we don’t like, because our gut, or science, tell us they are wrong. That road has led to a 2013 Pope who has finally caved to homosexuality, for example. All we needed were enough Catholics speaking out, and enough empathy for gay Catholics. We could have also looked to all the nonhuman species, and acknowledged our kinship with them, in order to see how natural a sexual variation homosexuality actually is. Who are we to judge indeed.


Jefferson’s Bible, 1820

In college, I discovered that one of my heroes, Thomas Jefferson, had done his own Jesuism as well. With razor and glue, verse by verse, he compiled eighty-two pages of New Testament writings about Jesus life and teachings that he found worth studying, verses he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (aka the “Jefferson Bible“). He characterized this effort as picking out “diamonds in a dunghill”, and encouraged each of us to do the same, with everything that is held up to us as scripture, by anyone.

As for me, beyond religious naturalism (called deism in Jefferson’s day) and agnosticism, I haven’t yet found my ideal religious community. I’m looking for one that promotes scientific and philosophical understanding of the universe and our relation to it (“spiritual thinking”), unconditional love of the universe and all its creatures (“spiritual love and empathy”), and higher moral behavior, including taking some responsibility for our moral deviants, who may need “tough love” and protection from their own nature (“spiritual behavior”). It should have a large, cognitively- and skills-diverse community, doing lots of good social works and activism, to maximize friendships and social support. Members should have a great diversity of political views, ideally all lightly and agnostically held.

Unitarian Universalism (UU) - A Good (Not Yet Great) Secular Humanist and Reform Religious Community

Unitarian Universalism (UU) – A Good (Not Yet Great) Secular Humanist and Reform Religious Community

Like Jefferson, I dabbled in Unitarianism in college, and one community I participate in and can recommend is the Unitarian Universalists (UU). UU’s have built a tent that welcomes lapsed believers from all the world’s religious communities, as well as nontraditional spiritual communities like us secular humanists. UU Sunday Schools aim to give children a basic fluency in and empathy with all the world’s religous beliefs, while primarily promoting humanism, democracy, civics, and (to some degree) truth-seeking. There are still quite a few Liberal Christians, other scripture-believers, and antiscience New Age thinkers in UU congregations, and thus not enough emphasis yet on science, evidence, and rationality in their spiritual practice. But they have both religious and intellectual diversity and a growing secular humanist core, and in another 30 years, I think the majority of UU Liberal Christians will be lapsed and secularized. Thus I think their community is well on the way to the ideal many of us are looking for today.

GDP Per Capita for Western Europe, 1000 to 1999 CE. Global wealth continually accelerates, as does information production, computing, communications, and nanotech advances. This continual acceleration of special processes is the most interesting and civilization-advancing phenomenon in the Universe, and we don't yet know why it exists.

Global wealth continually accelerates, as does information production, computing, communications, and nanotech advances. This continual acceleration of special processes is the most interesting and civilization-advancing phenomenon in the Universe, and we don’t yet know why it exists.

Other good-sized groups seeking to advance spirituality in a secular age are the Humanist, Ethical Culture, Society of Friends (Quaker) and various Freethought communities. I’d recommend checking any of these out now and attending any that are helpful to your own spiritual path. Walking the path with others who are serious about living higher values is far more effective and rewarding than doing it alone.

Finally, while Freethought, and to a lesser extent, the other communities above recognize the primacy of science as way of knowing, all of these still miss the importance of the phenomenon of accelerating change to the human condition. And none engage in deep discussion of apparently innate evolutionary and developmental trends toward increasing universal complexity, morality, and consciousness.

Given these apparently natural developmental processes, it is obvious to me at least, that we will see a far faster, smarter, more capable, and more resource-independent (catastrophe-immune) postbiological intelligence very soon in this little corner of our Universe. So for me, what intelligent technology wants, its emergent goals and morality, and how we can best guide its long arrival, a process that began centuries ago, are among the most interesting practical and spiritual questions of our age.

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever” – A Personal View

Here’s my 45 minute talk on Chemical Brain Preservation at World Future Society 2012. Given the progress we’ve seen in the relevant science and technologies it’s a topic I’m presently very optimistic about. I had a great audience with lots of questions at the end, but in the interest of brevity I’m just uploading the talk. Let me know your thoughts in the comments, thanks!

A number of neuroscientists, working today with simple model organisms, are investigating the hypothesis that chemical brain preservation may inexpensively preserve the organism’s memories and mental states after death. Chemically preserved brains can be stored at room temperature in cemeteries, contract storage, even private homes. Our 501c3 nonprofit organization, the Brain Preservation Foundation, is offering a $100,000 prize to the first scientific team to demonstrate that the entire synaptic connectivity (“connectome”) of mammalian brains can be perfectly preserved using either chemical preservation or more expensive cryopreservation techniques.

Such preserved brains may be “read” in the future, analogous to the way a computer hard drive is read today, so that either memories or the complete identities of the preserved individuals can be restored or “uploaded” in computer form. Chemical preservation techniques are already being used to scan and upload the connectomes of very small animal brains (C. elegans and OpenWorm, zebrafish, soon flies). Though these scans are not yet sufficiently complex to extract memories from the uploaded organisms, give them a little more time, we’re very close now to cracking long-term memory. We just need to know a bit more about this process at the protein/receptor/gene level:

Amazingly, if information technologies continue to improve at historical rates, a person whose brain is chemically preserved in 2020 might have their memories read or even fully return to the world in a computer form not centuries but just a few decades from now, while their children and loved ones are still alive. Given progress in electron microscopy and connectomics research to date, we can even forsee how this may be done as a fully automated and inexpensive process.

Today, only 1% of people in developed societies are interested in living beyond their biological death (see When I’m 164, David Ewing Duncan, 2012). With chemical brain preservation, this 1% may soon have a validated, low-cost method that will allow them to do just that. Once it becomes a real option, and recovery of simple memories has been demonstrated in model organisms, this 1% may grow larger as well.

I am particularly excited by chemical brain preservation’s ability to improve the social contract: what benefits we may reasonably expect from the universe and society when we choose to live a good and moral life. I believe that having the option of chemical brain preservation at death, if the science is validated, may help all our societies become significantly more science-, future-, progress-, preservation-, sustainability-, truth and justice-, and community-oriented in coming years.

Would you choose chemical brain preservation at death if it was widely available, validated, and inexpensive? If not, why not? Would you do it to donate your brain to science? Your memories to your children or others who might want them? Would you be willing to come back in person, if that turns out to be possible? If it is sufficiently inexpensive, would it be best to preserve your brain at death, and let future society decide if either your memories or your identity are “worth” reanimating? Please let me know what you think in the comments, thank you.

The Moral Landscape – A Four Part Review (Part 4)

More thoughts on Sam Harris’s insightful new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, 2011. I read it with two friends, and interpreted it through an evo devo universe lens. I originally planned to critique the entire book but I’ve since moved on to other readings, so this will be it for now.

Chapter 3 follows:

The Moral Landscape, Chapter 3 – Belief

Agreements (and my rewording/additions in italics):

Harris uses the OED definition of belief, particularly “mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact as true.”

This is helpful, but we can get more specific. I prefer the way the great 20th century philosopher, historian and science writer Jacob Bronowski approaches belief, in Science and Human Values, 1965 and The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, 1979. As I recall him, Bronowski talks of 1. “intuition/faith”, 2. “philosophy/experience” and 3. “science/experiment” as three fundamental types of thinking. We accept propositions based on our intuition or faith, based on our philosophy or experience, or based on our science or experiment. Bronowski concludes the first book above with a Platonic dialog between an intuitive artist, a practical public servant, and an experimentally-driven scientist, and uses them to represent three potentially fundamental and complementary thinking styles: 

1. Experimental, creative, intuitive, and faith-based (evolutionary*) thinking
2. Adaptive, practical, logical/philosophical, experience-based (evo devo*) thinking
3. Scientific, factual, replicable experiment-based (developmental*) thinking 

*The labels in parentheses are my additions to Bronowski’s model. I’m not sure, but I believe :) he would have approved. As Harris reminds us, all of these are technically beliefs, but as Bronowski reminds us, the first category of thinking styles is the most common connotation for belief, the second is rational argument or experience, the third is science. This is a very practical categorization system for our thinking.

In these books, and in his sublime BBC documentary series and book, The Ascent of Man, 1976, Bronowski regularly visits these three categories of thought, and convinces us that we use and need all of these types of thinking to survive and thrive. In common parlance, beliefs are thoughtful intuitions and faiths that we have little justification for, beyond gut feeling or social custom. Thinking them to be true is an individually and socially creative act. We also have thoughts that have some practice, experience, logic, or philosophy to guide them. Finally, we have thoughts that have been to some degree validated via experiment, replication, scientific method. Bronowksi argues that we always need intuition, but as society matures, we increasingly gravitate away from pure faith-based thoughts to ones more informed by philosophy and experience, and in special cases, scientific knowledge, to the great benefit of civilization. But intuition, and a modicum of faith, must always remain, no matter how complex we become. Thus religion never goes away, nor should it, but it does get continually reformed.

“The less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities.”

This has been described as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and is one very important source of cognitive bias. Ignorance and certainty often go hand in hand. One hallmark of complex thinking is when we qualify our statements, and are aware of places where we have a number of competing theories, all of which have some merit, and where we presently have insufficient data to form a judgment. We need to be tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity, as it is a key component of nature itself, with its profusion of evolutionary experiments, many yet to be judged by the environment. In fact, we have to move beyond tolerance to actively championing diversity and experiment, especially in those controversial and uncertain areas where the right way or ways are not yet clear.

“The level of humility in scientific discourse is one of its most striking characteristics.”

Well said. The way that even a Nobel laureate usually speaks about subjects outside their expertise (there are of course exceptions) is something we should all strive for, in our discourse about the deepest and most important things, like our beliefs and values.

“Political conservatism… is a fairly well-defined perspective characterized by a general discomfort with societal change and a ready acceptance of social inequality… The psychologist John Jost and colleagues analyzed data from twelve countries, acquired from 23,000 subjects, and found this attitude [political conservatism] to [also] be correlated with dogmatism, inflexibility, death anxiety, need for closure, and anticorrelated with openness to experience, cognitive complexity, self-esteem, and social stability.”

Brilliant diagnosis! Yet we must recognize that liberals are equally “conservative” (parochial, protectionist, change-averse) on the economic dimensions of society. They gravitate to trade restriction, to onerous economic guarantees,  to high trade barriers, to change-averse unions, jobs for life, etc.

Liberals, in other words, are socially evolutionary (freedom oriented) and economically developmental (constraint oriented, tariffs, unions, guaranteed wages). Conservatives are socially developmental (constraint oriented) and economically evolutionary (freedom oriented).

Conservatives are the natural leaders in socially developmental aspects of our society (defense, security, intelligence, rulemaking, social norms and traditions) and in the economically evolutionary (market, innovation oriented) aspects as well. Liberals are natural leaders and key players in all the social innovations of modern societies, and in all positions of power involving constraint and regulation of economic activities. Both play critical evo and devo roles. Demonize either and you miss seeing why the system works as it does.

“If a person’s primary motivation in holding a belief is to hew to a positive state of mind—to mitigate feelings of anxiety, embarrassment, or guilt, for instance—this is precisely what we mean by phrases like “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” Such a person will, of necessity, be less responsive to valid chains of evidence and argument that run counter to the beliefs he is seeking to maintain.”

Well said. We must be willing to undergo mental disruption and discomfort, to unlearn bad beliefs, if we seek to live an evidence-based life. Ideally, we will allow such disruption to become increasingly frequent the older we get, as there is more known, and more we have to unlearn, at least in particulars. If we can live with this disruption, we can be the kind of elderly that grow in wisdom and stay relevant, even as our knowledge must become both increasingly general and conditional, and our ability to change the world gets increasingly narrowly defined. Fortunately, our electronic extensions are continually rejuvenating themselves, and the more we embrace them, the more resilient we become.

The neurologist Robert Berton, On Being Certain, 2008, says schizophrenia is a disorder of pathological certainty, and obsessive compulsiveness is a disorder of pathological uncertainty. Certainty is primarily an emotional process, and is connected to but different from the chains of evidence and argument that determine the correctness of any belief.

Lovely insights.

There are genetic differences in the types and quality of human reasoning. “People who have inherited the most active form of the D4 [dopamine] receptor are more likely to believe in miracles and to be skeptical of science; the least active forms correlate with rational materialism.” There are also genetic differences in our innate risk tolerance, which in turn greatly influence our reasoning and conclusions. Does this variation mean that we cannot identify unproductive extremes? No.

Enlightening! Nurture’s contribution to human mental life gets steadily clearer.

I expect that in the future, we will come to understand two fundamental things about the genetic differences in human reasoning and belief systems: 1. There is a developmentally healthy envelope of variations in risk tolerance, willingness to believe strange things, and other thinking parameters. The vast majority (usually 99%?) of humans are almost always functioning within this envelope, and those times when they aren’t we can define as deprivation or disease. 2. Within this envelope, there is no developmental “optimum” that we can usefully define. Having a healthy evolutionary variety and distribution within the envelope of normal function will turn out to be as important as having developmental bounds on the size of the envelope.

This is all that will be left of the “eugenics” visions of the 20th century reductionists: just a better definition of the exceptional cases of disease, not discovery of an optimal configuration among a great variety of healthy norms. As healthy thinking is an evolutionary process, adaptation will always remain contingent and dependent on local context, and impossible to globally predict or define.

“Skeptics given the drug L-dopa, which increases dopamine levels, show an increased propensity to accept mystical explanations for novel phenomena. The fact that religious belief is both a cultural universal and appears to be tethered to the genome [and dopamine levels in the brain] has led scientists like [Robert] Burton to conclude that there is simply no getting rid of faith-based thinking.”

Absolutely! I doubt Harris would agree with this, but I see these dopamine experiments as beautiful evidence that our very brain machinery is biased to make us do: 1. Intuition/faith-based thinking, 2. Argument/experience-based thinking, and 3. Scientific/experimental-based thinking. All three are fundamentally necessary processes for thinking creatures in our universe, in my evo devo view. 

“Reason can bridge the gap between believers and nonbelievers.”

Harris explores how we purged such harmful beliefs as the belief in Witchcraft, and the cruel punishments that purported witches received in the West a few hundred years ago, and which they still receive in some African nations today. Reason can help us sort out harmful and regressive from progressive beliefs. But while I agree strongly with him here, I also think our human need for a rather large set of faith based-beliefs remains fundamental, in a world where complexity, for now, remains far greater than our minds.


“There does not seem to be a process in nature that allows for the creation of new structures dedicated to entirely novel modes of behavior and cognition.”

Disagree. We can’t yet say this definitively, but I’d bet universal evolutionary development guarantees regular emergence of new behavioral and cognitive novelty. I’d bet the consciousness and behavior modes of a human are qualitatively novel vs. that of an insect, and I’d predict the AI’s hyperconsciousness, given its new level of structural freedoms, will be qualitatively novel yet again.

“Much of our behavior and cognition… has not been selected for at all.”

Strongly disagree. All our behavior and thought undergo memetic selection. You just choose not to see or discuss it. You seem to be in the Denial phase of the death of an ultra-Darwinian world view (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Death, and Acceptance being the full progression). You don’t even confront or critique the 35 years of literature on memes, in your entire book. I recommend Bob Aunger’s Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, 2001 as a start into that literature.

“I have argued there is no gulf between facts and values, because values reduce to a certain type of fact.” [Harris found both constructs used the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) and emotional areas in his research].

There is no such “reduction” occurring. It’s interesting that both scientific and ethical constructs use the MPFC and emotion, but that doesn’t make them the same. Ethical judgments are a subset of scientific judgments. Some ethical judgements are factual-scientific (developmental) others are creative (experimental) and they may or may not be or turn out to be factual. 

On Lie Detection science: “Whether or not we ever crack the neural code, enabling us to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion, we will almost surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation.”

I don’t share Harris’s faith in the perfectability of this science, by imperfect humans at least. Better lie detection will surely weed out the amateurs, but it will also breed better liars. The best liars, the ones that beat polygraphs today, are capable of amazing feats of self-deception, and belief in their own lies. Those that dissociate (create multiple personalities) may be detectable by neuroimaging, but what of those that learn to believe their own lies with their “whole mind”?

“Choosing beliefs freely is not what rational minds do.” [On his debate with Philip Ball].

Strongly disagree. In the realm of our intuition and faith-based thoughts, quite a number of these beliefs are freely and consciously or unconsciously chosen, based on how they make us feel, as Philip Ball apparently argues, and it is rational to do this. When we get argument or experience, or even science to constrain these beliefs, it is also rational to revise our beliefs. But we often don’t have even argument or experience to guide our first beliefs in an abstract or new area of thought. The act of intuitive or faith-based belief, the search for propositions that we think might be true, is a creative action, a necessary evolutionary step toward greater adaptive complexity and development.

“Believe a proposition because it is well supported by theory and evidence; believe it because it has been experimentally verified; believe it because a generation of smart people have tried their best to falsify it and failed; believe it because it is true (or seems so). This is a norm of cognition as well as the core of any scientific mission statement.”

Yes, but this is only a subset of the beliefs we use and need! Many of our beliefs are intuitive, or faith-based, and may not yet even be conscious, much less supported by argument or evidence. Consider our faith that the universe is comprehensible, or amenable to life, or people mostly moral. Most of our thinking may be based on such bottom-up, neural-net constructed beliefs. They are the foundation on which the tip of our conscious beliefs, argument, evidence, and science has emerged. We shouldn’t ignore them. At the same time, we can marvel that even with this sea of intuitive thinking as our inheritance, so much rationality emerges so predictably in all of us. Developmental psychology is yet another amazing example of the power of universal development.

Thoughts? Comments? Let me know, thanks. [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]


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