Our Primitive Brain

I’ve been reading about parallels between biological evolution and cultural progression over the years. Biologically humankind has evolved over the millennia to produce, over thousands of generations, a fitter specimen, better able to sustain and thrive in a sometimes hostile natural world.

Similarly, I’m led to understand, ideas arise, catch on for their beauty and usefulness, spread from brain to brain and sometimes mutate into more useful variations. These ‘memes’ will evolve to become part of our common knowledge and humankind’s cultural sophistication grows accordingly.

Problems occur when our biological selves which are pretty much now what they were 50,000 years ago must reconcile our primitive brains with a rapidly evolving culture. Our essentially tribal inclinations tend to interfere with our ability to assimilate the pluralism our intellects assure us is a reasonable way to coexist in our culturally shrinking world, which, I guess, somewhat explains the populism rampant in today’s politics.

It’s one thing, though, to understand all of this, something else to have to live through it.

Science and the Humanities

I’ve been reading, lately, about the distrust science elicits these days from diverse segments of the populace. Apparently, the condemnation isn’t coming only from the religious right who might, I suppose, have a problem with the dismissal of dogmatic beliefs toward which empirical investigation tends to lead, but also from certain intellectuals who see science as reductive explanation for the complexities of our world.

I must admit this second concern resonates with me being inclined as I am to wonder in awe at the mysteries of nature. My reading has awakened me to the realization that science offers deeper, richer investigation of the wonders I find so compelling to contemplate. The mysteries of consciousness, addressed with such magic by the Surrealists, becomes even more intriguing when considered in the light of neuroscientific studies on the human brain. Art can be appreciated in greater depth when historical context, provided through historical and archaeological investigation and the psychology of aesthetic response is considered.

I’ll keep this in mind, well, at least be peripherally aware of the contribution science might play in my daily aesthetic experiences even though I find it hard to put language to the ephemeral.

 

 

Natural Selection

I’ve been reading that evolutionary progress will proceed through natural selection. Generational changes to an organism, occurring as the demands of existential pressures require, upgrade survival abilities; which suggests, I guess, that those beings that evolve with the fittest genetic make-up will be the ones that thrive and reproduce, passing on their fitness to their offspring. But I’m led to understand, the system isn’t fool proof; occasionally a glitch in the system will cause unfavorable genetic mutations to be passed on which results in less than desirable progeny.

One does have to wonder sometimes at the actions and decisions some people choose; maybe it’s the ‘choice gene’ that has mutated or perhaps it’s missing altogether in those folks who seem to proceed through life in a more or less spontaneous and thoughtless manner. These unfortunates may find themselves making bad life choices that result in a failure to mate and reproduce or prematurely exit existence, which I suppose, is how nature cleans up the gene pool.

 

 

Optimism

I’ve been reading a very credible, in-depth commentary suggesting that never at any time in history has humankind enjoyed a better, more favorable existence than we do right now. Economic growth world-wide has increased longevity, relative health and safety; social strife, whether racial or religious has seen significant reductions as has conflict between nations. Relatively speaking, I’m led to believe, the potential for living a long happy and satisfying life has never been better anywhere.

As I read these optimistic observations and being, as I am, a regular consumer of the daily news and commentary, filled, as it is, with notions of potential doomsday scenarios, from terroristic infiltrations of our homeland to environmental devastation of our good earth not to mention even more dire possibilities like cyber attacks potentially destroying democracy as we know it and genocidal viruses being loosed upon us which could in all believability kill millions, I have to wonder how long, if I were to jump on the optimist’s bandwagon, such a deluded sense of well-being would be sustainable.

I don’t think it’s responsible to quit paying attention to the news altogether but maybe I might do a bit better sorting the sensational from the truly dire. Is it worthwhile to be conjuring images of ant-biotic resistant pathogens consuming one’s body from the inside-out or should I perhaps temper my news consumption a bit, maybe focusing on the truly useful issues like reducing my carbon footprint, being a more responsible consumer? I’ll try to take a more balanced approach to information consumption.

Time Cycles

Apparently, in medieval times, the general consensus (among the few who thought about it), was that time was an illusion; the only reality , as they saw it, is now (or was now, I suppose, if one allows that these people lived in a past which isn’t any longer) which leads me, as I think about it, to assume it’s reasonable to find ‘now’ the only reality, since nothing has yet to come next.

Setting aside the manufactured ‘time’ we’ve come to accept which divides nature’s cycles into seconds, minutes and hours, ‘just now’ or ‘in a bit’ can be interpreted as ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’ or even ‘a year ago’ or a ‘year from now’ if the events considered (think galactic distances and the speed of light) warrant such interpretation.

Then there’s the psychological aspect. Sometimes I find time passing rapidly, you know, when I’m engaged in a particularly interesting enterprise and other times time seems to slither along at a snail’s pace when, for instance, I’m a captive audience, trapped before an expounding orator which may have me thinking about what ‘eternity is now’ really means.

Anyway, this all has me thinking I needn’t care so much about late or early anymore.

The Cave and the Light

I’ve been reading a quite in-depth account of how, throughout history, two particular strains of thought have been instrumental in quidding our understanding of the world around us.

Platonic thinking attributes essential truth to an eternal reality in relation to which our world is but a temporary, fleeting imperfection. The ultimate answers we seek, according to this philosophy, will be realized in contemplation of the eternal ideal forms of true reality.

On the other hand, Aristotelian thought is, that to know, to gain knowledge of the world in which we live requires sensory observation. Experiencing first hand, gathering information and applying inductive logic to what we see around us will unravel the mysteries of this life.

The thinking is, I guess, that pretty much all our philosophical tendencies will fall into one of these two modes. The Plutonic tending toward (or rationalizing) religious engagement with an heavenly realm, while the Aristotelian thinker gravitates toward science with its logical processes and empirical observations.

On a personal level it seems to me both perspectives can be embraced to some degree without contradiction. In fact remaining open to all possibilities would appear a smoother road to travel and with better scenery along the way.

 

 

 

 

The Romantic Sublime

The romantic inclination to solitary communion with nature in order to find truth in beauty is beyond doubt appealing and resonates with anyone who enjoys an invigorating walk in the woods.  The thoughtful Romantic realizes, of course, that nature has her darker side. The sun isn’t always shining, the birds sometimes are silent and Nature can on occasion lose her nurturing aspect, may in fact turn violent and even hostile, threatening the well-being of humankind. Nature’s beauty isn’t lost, though, in the violence of a hurricane or snow-storm but is re-characterized as sublime: an overwhelming and awesome power beyond human imagining.

It seems Nature’s sublimity is increasingly apparent these days, extreme weather events occurring with regularity. A thoughtful Romantic might wonder if perhaps there’s anger being leveled at a humanity exploiting her realm, encouraging us to take heed, to realize a necessary respect for the nurturing environment that sustains us.  Well, being the timid Romantic I am, I’m doing my best to reduce my carbon footprint in the hope Mother Nature will see fit to allow my continuing existence.

 

Spiritual Mysteries

I’ve been reading, lately, about the likelihood the human mind may be considerably more than a physical compilation of billions of neurons, that, in fact, human consciousness is the manifestation of god within, giving humankind the capacity, through mental focus, to alter the material world.

The idea suggests that if we as a species were suddenly to realize the power within us we could bring about great advancements to our civilization not to mention world peace.

I understand there are those among us feeding their enthusiasm for the spiritual mysteries and hidden meanings in traditional religious texts like the kabbalah, Zohar, Gnosticism and the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus.  These folks are organizing, believing there to be power in numbers and creating ‘focus groups’ they believe will cure the world’s ills by concentrating their collective consciousnesses toward what they may consider to be positive goods but which, in fact, if any credence may be attributed to the activity at all, may turn out to be not necessarily good for everyone.

But, of course, it’s pretty hard to prove that the human mind is anything more than an organic computer, sophisticated though it is, which allows us each to more or less function within our respective worldly milieus.  The idea of being god-within is certainly intriguing and imaginative. I though, as I’m sure you can tell, remain skeptical. On the positive side, I suppose any group activity probably has useful social value.

Faith and Reason (part 2)

Although the scientific method, empirical observation, was painstakingly pursued by the best minds of the 19th century, the theistic conceptions through which the empirical data was filtered produced some pretty bizarre conclusions.

Careful observation of fetal development revealed God’s hand in the progression of the fish-like embryo through resemblances of primitive animal life to ape-like higher animals including non-white species until reaching the perfection produced by a Euro-American mother.

The Genesis creation story of mankind originating from an original pair led to the notion of polygenism which determined separate creations occurred for the lesser animals and non-white races, a belief that accommodated a moral acceptance of slave ownership.

I suppose one of the difficulties with establishing any sort of factual truth is no matter where one starts the information gathering, pre-existing ideas must begin the process. Keeping those premises flexible is the key, I guess.

 

Nature/Nurture

I’ve been reading lately, about the on-going controversy regarding the development of the human persona. There seems to be, among psychologists, a never-ending debate as to whether we inherit, genetically, the intellectual tools to decipher, through our senses, the world around us or whether we arrive on this earth without a clue.

Those on the ‘nurture’ side of the argument tend to view the human intellect as being formed for the most part by the culture in which we grow up. The values we hold dear, our sense of place in the world, our spiritual nature are written on the blank slate of our being by our unifying culture.

The ‘nature’ folks, on the other hand, site the cross-cultural similarities humankind shares. Western cultures, primitive tribal groups and most all cultures between are amazingly similar in how social relationships function, the significance of spirituality, development of art expression and the use of moral taboos. The cultural commonalities would suggest the pre-natal slate was anything but blank.

On the ‘nature’ side I suspect all of human kind views itself as special beings of superior intelligence within our respective worlds which would seem to suggest a potential unifier; something to bring us all together; to encourage cooperation. I guess it must be the ‘nurture’ aspect of our being that creates divisiveness, religious conflicts, ideological differences, a misplaced sense of superiority over those unlike us.

I guess who we are is a bit of both nature and nurture; it would seem to me a push toward the nature side would be beneficial to all.