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Why do humans have a conscience?

October 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Why do humans have a conscience?

See the link for an answer to the Quora question on conscience. Part of it is as follows:

So, on this view, the conscience works something like this:

  1. Consider an action
  2. Search the normative model database for anger-oriented objections to actions like this.
  3. If you don’t find any, then consider the action permissible.
  4. If you find an objection, then see if there are ways to justify doing the action in spite of the objection.
  5. If so, then the action is permissible (but be careful, and be ready to justify yourself if questioned)
  6. If not, then the action is wrong.

I commented:

It seems to me that there are some normative assumptions in evolutionary psychology which fail to consider personality deeply. If, for instance, this model of conscience were put into a cartoon, rather than having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, the character would have only an angel since the only thing that prevents them from doing what they would otherwise do (which, as in game theory assumptions, assumes blind self interest) is fear of anticipated social consequences, including guilty feelings.

I think that the stereotypical angel-devil cartoon actually has it more correct. Children and adolescents tend to embody this more clearly than adults, as ‘bad kids’ may not only have poor impulse control or a faulty conscience, but they are motivated by a more sadistic reward system. They enjoy hurting others, sometimes more than they are afraid of being hurt themselves.

By contrast, ‘good boys and girls’ may have a conscience which is naive even to guilt and is motivated by the better angels (of parental approval or perhaps self approval). There is something sexual here too…sort of paradoxical in that good kids are seen as both more ‘mature’ (trustworthy, better judgment) and less mature sexually (goody two shoes = late bloomer/virgin).

It seems to be very common that families often have kids where conscience is radically unbalanced. One is saintly, one is the delinquent, one presents themselves as tougher or nicer than they are…many combinations. Often these characteristics can seem present before their role in the family has even developed. This suggests to me that evolutionary psych models overlook some of the most important motives that drive conscience, which I think are ultimately only loosely related to evolutionary biology. Before we can care about right or wrong, we care about how we feel and how other people feel. It is not a model made by our brain at all, it is the direct presentation of anthropological aesthetics.

I agree of course that we have sub-personal mechanisms but that does not mean that we do not also contribute directly to our own life and the lives of others in a way which is irreducibly individual, non-mechanistic and volitional. The image of conscience as a matrix of modal logic is too reactive to rise, plausibly, to the level of conscious attention. If it was just a matter of not making others mad, we should have no business knowing that any strategies were being formulated at all – no more than our stomach would need a digestion conscience to avoid disappointing the colon.

Why can’t the world have a universal language? Part II

June 8, 2013 4 comments

This is more of a comment on Marc Ettlinger‘s very good and thought provoking answer (I have reblogged it here and here). In particular I am interested in why pre-verbal expressions do not diverge in the same way as verbal language. I’m not sure that something like a smile, for instance, is literally universal to every human society, but it seems nearly so, and even extends to other animal species, or so it appears.

What’s interesting to me is that you have this small set of gestures which are even more intimate and personal than verbal signals – more inseparable from identity, which then gets expressed in this interpersonal linguistic way which is at once lower entropy and higher entropy. What I mean is that language has the potential both to carry a more highly articulated, complex meaning, but also to carry more ambiguity than a common gesture.

When a foreigner tries to communicate with a native without having common language, they resort to pre-verbal gestures. Rather than developing that into a universal language, we, as you say, opt for a more proprietary expression of ourselves, our culture, etc… except that in close contact, the gestures would actually be just as personally expressive if not more. There’s all kinds of nuance loaded into that communication, of individual personality as well as social and cultural (and species) identity.

So why do we opt for the polyglot approach for verbal symbols but not for raw emotive gestures? I think that the key is in the nature of boundary between public and private experiences. I think there are two levels of information entropy at work. Something like a grunt or a yell is a very low entropy broadcast on an intro-personal level and a high entropy broadcast on an extra-personal level. If something makes a loud noise at you, whether it’s a person or a bear, the message is clear – “I am not happy with you, go away.”. These primal emotions need not be simple either. Grief, pride, jealousy, betrayal, etc might be quite elusive to define in non-emotional terms, full of complexity and counter-intuitive paradox. If we want to communicate something which is about something other than private states of the interacting parties, however, the grunt or scowl is a very highly entropic vehicle. What’s he yelling about? Enter the linguistic medium.

The human voice is perhaps the most fantastically articulated instrument which Homo sapiens has developed, second only to the cortex itself. The hand is arguably more important perhaps, in the early hominid era, but without the voice, the development of civilization would have undoubtedly stalled. It’s like the paleolithic internet. Mobile, personal yet social, customizable, creative. It’s a spectacular thing to have whether you’re hunting and gathering or settling in for nice long hierarchical management of surplus agricultural production.

The human voice is the bridge between the private identity in a world based on very local and intimate concerns, and a public world of identity multiplicities. To repurpose the lo-fi private yawps and howls with more high fidelity vocalizations requires a trade off between directness and immediacy for a more problematic but intelligent code. One of the key features is that once a word is spoken, it cannot be taken back as easily. A growl can be retracted with a smile, but a word has a ‘point’ to make. It is thermodynamically irreversible. One it has been uttered in public, it cannot be taken back. A decision has been made. A thought has become a thing.

Inscribing language in a written form takes this even one step clearer, and there is a virtuous cycle between thought, speech, actions, and writing which was like the Cambrian explosion for the human psyche. Unlike private gestures which only recur in time, public artifacts, spoken or written, are persistent across space. They become an archeological record of the mind – the library is born. Why can’t the world have a universal language? Because we can’t get rid of the ones that we’ve got already, or at least not until recently. Public artifacts persist spatially. Even immaterial artifacts like words and phrases are spread by human vectors as the settle, migrate, concentrate and disperse.

Because language originates out of public discourse which is local to specific places, events, and people, the aesthetics of the language actually embody the qualities of those events. This is a strange topic, as yet virtually untouched by science, but it is a level of anthropology which has profound implications for the physics of privacy itself – of consciousness. Language is not only identity and communication, I would say that it is also a view of the entire human world. Within language, the history of human culture as a whole rides right along side the feelings and thoughts of individuals, their lives, and their relation with nature as it seemed to them. The power of language to describe, to simulate, and to evoke fiction makes each new word or phrase a kind of celebration. The impact of technology seems to be accelerating both the extension of language and its homogenization. At the same time, as instant translation becomes more a part of our world, the homogenization may suddenly drop off as people are allowed to receive everything in their own language.

Blue Roses, Blue Pills, and the Significance of the Imposter

May 27, 2013 11 comments

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What makes that which is authentic more significant than that which is ‘false’? Why do proprietary qualities carry more significance than generic qualities? Commonality vs uniqueness. Cardinality vs. ordinality again.

The notion of authenticity seems to carry a certain intensity all by itself. Like consciousness, authenticity can be understood on the one hand to be almost painfully self-evident. What does it really mean though, for someone or something to be original? To be absolutely novel in some sense.

The Western mindset tends toward extremism when considering issues of propriety. The significance of ownership is exaggerated, but ownership as an abstraction – generic ownership. Under Western commercialism, rights to own and control others are protected vigilantly, as long as that ownership and control is free from personal qualities.

The thing which makes a State more powerful than a Chiefdom is the same thing which makes the Western approach so invested in property and so fearful of people. In a Chiefdom, every time the chief dies, the civilization is thrown into turmoil. In a State, no one person or group of people personifies the society, they are instead public officials holding public office, for a limited time. Political parties and ideologies can linger indefinitely, policies can become permanent, but individual people flow through it as materially important, yet ultimately disposable resources.

The metaphysical and social implications of this shift from the personal to the impersonal, are profound. For the metaphysical, or perhaps mathematical, there is a shift from the cardinal to the ordinal. In a Chiefdom, rule is carried out by specific individuals, so cardinality is the underlying character. In a State, ordinality is emphasized, because government has become more of a super-human function. It’s an ongoing sequential process, and the members within it (temporarily) are motivated by their own ambitions as they would be as part of a Chiefdom, but they are also motivated to defend the collective investment in the permanence of the hierarchy.

At the same time, cardinality can apply to the State, and ordinality would apply to a Chiefdom (or gang). The state imposes cardinality – mass producing and mass controlling through counting systems. Identification numbers are produced and recorded. Individuals under a State are no longer addressed as persons individually but as members of a demographic class within their databases. Lawbreaker, head of household, homeowner, student, etc. This information is never explicitly woven into a personal portrait of the living, laughing, loving person themselves, but rather is retained as skeletal evidence of activities. Addresses, family names, employment history, driver’s license, dental records. It is essential for control that identity be validated – but only in form, not in content. The personality of the consumer-citizen (consumiten?) is irrelevant, to an almost impossible degree – yet some ghost of conscience compels an appearance of sentiment to the contrary.

World War II, which really should be understood as the second half of the single war for control of human civilization on a global level for the first time, was a narrative about embodied mechanization and depersonalization. The narrative we got in the West was that Fascism, Communism, and Nazism were totalitarian ideologies of depersonalization. The threat was of authentic personhood eclipsed permanently by a ruthlessly impersonal agenda. Different forms of distilled Statehood, three diffracted shadow projections of the same underlying social order transitioning into cold automatism The mania for refining and isolating active ingredients in the 20th century, from DNA to LSD to quantum, ran into unexpected trouble when it was applied to humanity. Racist theories and eugenics, Social Darwinism, massive ethnic cleanses and purges. Were we unconsciously looking for our absent personhood, our authenticity which was sold to the collective, or rather, to the immortal un-collective? Did we project some kind of phantom limb of our evacuated self into the public world, hiding in matter, bodies, blood, and heredity?

So what is authenticity? What is an imposter? Does a blue rose become less important if it is dyed blue rather than if it grew that way? Why should it make a difference? (we tell ourselves, with our Westernized intellect, that it shouldn’t). If you never found out that the rose was ‘only’ dyed blue, would  you be wrong for enjoying it as if it were genuine? Why would you feel fooled if you found out that you were wrong about it being genuine but feel good if you found out that you were wrong about it being ‘fake’.

Who is fake? Who is phoney? Who is sold out? (does anyone still call anyone a ‘sell out’ anymore, or are we now pretty comfortable with the idea that there is nobody left who would not happily sell out if they only had the chance?) These are terms of accusation, of righteous judgment against those who have become enemies of authenticity – who have forsaken humanity itself for some ‘mere’ social-political advantage.

There is a dialectic between pride and shame which connects the fake and the genuine, with that good feeling of finding the latter and the disgust and loss of discovering the former. The irony is that the fake is always perpetrated without shame, or with shame concealed, but the genuine is often filled with shame and vulnerability…that’s somehow part of what makes it genuine. It’s authority comes from within our own personal participation, not from indirect knowledge, not from the impersonal un-collective of the Market-state.

Where do we go now that both the personal and impersonal approaches have been found fatally flawed? Can we regain what has been lost, or is it too late? Does it even matter anymore? If mass media is any indication, we have begun not only to accept the imposter, but we have elevated its significance to the highest. What is an actor or a model if not a kind of template, a vessel for ideal personal qualities made impersonal? It is to be celebrated for acting like yourself, or being a character – a proprietary character, made generic by mass distribution of  their likeness. Branded celebrity. A currency of deferred personalization – vanity as commodity. Perhaps in the long run, this was the killer app that the Nazis and the Russians and the Japanese didn’t have. The promiscuous use of mass media to reflect back super-saturated simulations of personhood to the depersonalized subjects of the Market-state.

More than nuclear weapons, it was Hollywood, and Mickey Mouse, and Levi’s and Coca Cola which won the world. Nuclear memes. Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. This process too has now become ultra-automated. The problem with the celebrity machine was that it depended on individual persons. Even though they could be disposed of and recycled, it was not until reality TV and the new generation of talent shows that the power to make fame was openly elevated above celebrity itself. Fame is seen to be increasingly elected democratically, but at the same time, understood to be a fully commercial enterprise, controlled by an elite. The solution to the problem of overcoming our rejection of the imposter has been a combination of (1) suppressing the authentic; (2) conditioning the acceptance of the inauthentic, and most importantly, (3) obscuring the difference between the two.

I’m not blaming anyone for this, as much as I might like to. I’m not a Marxist or Libertarian, and I’m not advocating a return to an idealized pre-State Anarchy (though all of those are tempting in their own ways). I’m not anti-Capitalist per-se, but Capitalism is one of the names we use to refer to some of the most pervasive effects of this post-Enlightenment pendulum swing towards quantitative supremacy. I see this arc of human history, lurching back from the collapse of the West’s version of qualitative supremacy in the wake of the Dark Ages, as a natural, if not inevitable oscillation. I can’t completely accept it, since the extremes are so awful for so long, but then again, maybe it has always been awful. Objectively, it would seem that our contemporary First World ennui is a walk in the park compared to any other large group in history – or is that part of the mythology of modernism?

It seems to me that the darkness of the contemporary world is more total, more asphyxiating than any which could be conceived of in history, but it also seems like it’s probably not that bad for most people, most of the time. Utopia or Oblivion – that’s what Buckminster Fuller said. Is it true though anymore, or is that a utopian dream as well? Is the singularity just one more co-opted meme of super-signification? Is it a false light at the end of the sold-out tunnel? An imposter for the resurrection? Is technology the Blue Pill? I guess if that’s true, having an Occidental spirituality which safely elevates the disowned authentic self into a science fiction is a big improvement over having it spill out as a compulsion for racial purity. A utopia driven by technology at least doesn’t require an impossible alignment of human values forever. Maybe this Blue Pill is as Red as it gets?

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