https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/books/review/knowledge-illusion-steven-sloman-philip-fernbach.html

Cognitive scientists now provide additional information supporting the postmodern view of man not being a rational agent. Humans are ignorant by necessity and ‘stupid’ in that most decisions are not rationally arrived at. However, language and thought is exquisitely logical, but the problem is that ontology and epistemology have overwhelmed our inputs. We have the potential of being logical and rational, but we don’t have the time to do a thorough analysis in every case, even in most cases. Individual persons are also the only information processors. So, we must rely on each other (and on technology in the future) but there is a very high premium on each one of us being as rational and knowledgeable as possible in our narrow field – a veritable and vast web of knowledge is the engine of our culture and civilization.

Yesterday, 1/20/1917, Donald John Trump succeeded Barack Hussein Obama in a patriotic ceremony the tone of which struck me as diametrically opposed to the one of 8 years ago. The Capitol was wrapped in huge flags, Lee Greenwood brought the house down, and tears to the eyes of many; the inaugural speech was unabashedly jingoistic. In 2009 it was more of a celebration: history was being made, opening the doors for a new era of hope, tolerance and conviviality. The reality on the ground now is obviously not what was anticipated then. Something went wrong. Polls show that we have never been more divided, the vast majority of us thinking that the country is going in the wrong direction.

Mistrust and intolerance have shockingly multiplied. I do not recall rioting in the streets of Washington on inauguration day, ever. Hillary Clinton diagnosed the problem as being due to large swaths of irredeemable deplorables lurking in dark corners of civil society. These mostly uneducated white men, she said, were vehicles of hate and bigotry that need to be eliminated through better controls and regulation. There would be a federal solution for that! Trump effectively railed about stupid, self-serving, corrupt politicians and the crooked news media.

Reality does not comport with these hyper-simplistic formulations:

  1. Some/many of us tend to think that we have a complete understanding of culture and that everyone could do this. Wrong! All human beings have a very restricted and unique perspective that is determined largely by their personal, family and social history. Culture also has very many diverse critical components that most of us do not know about, much less understand: education, society, money, economics, health, science, work, law, art, religion etc., etc.
  2. Very important, many aspects of culture itself are riddled with unrecognized confusions and misconceptions.
  3. We tend to think that we understand our own minds. We assume that we are clear, in our own minds, about our understandings,  personal needs, desires and intentions. We think we know what we like and dislike, or the limits of what we will do or not. No doubt some of us are more in touch with ourselves than others, but none of us understand much about the emotions and prejudices that drive us from moment to moment. Almost daily, new scientific information is reported that indicates that consciousness is produced by exquisite systems that monitor events throughout the body, events that we are completely unaware of. There is also wide variation in the structure of our bodies, so I am really a black box unto myself.
  4. We also assume that we have a good understanding of what goes on in the minds of others – “most people are generally like me”. Wrong! The behavior of large swaths of irredeemable deplorables should permanently put this self delusion to rest. Our understandings, values, attitudes and assumptions vary greatly. There is, in fact, a dynamic interplay between our bodies, culture and mind, rendering who we are as individuals completely unpredictable.
  5. The sources of public information appear to be unable to provide impartial, accurate and comprehensive reports. There is much personal bias injected and the various power centers appear to resort to censorship and propaganda. Leakers, whistleblowers, Russian hackers and others have exposed deficiencies and vulnerabilities.

We live in the oldest democracy and many would argue that we have been the most successful. But the world is changing rapidly and we must adapt. As society becomes more complex, the interdependence of individuals is heightened. Our success or failure would depend on the efforts of each individual, trying to be the best that they can be, no matter what the area of their engagement. [Of course, how such a more perfect union would be structured is the million dollar question.]

U.S. Election Results Show The Real Divide In America Is Economic $DIA

http://www.seekingalpha.com/article/4032594

the signal was generated by two objects, each roughly 35 times the mass of our Sun, locked in a decaying orbit the size of Switzerland, circling each other 50 times a second. The energy involved was staggering, briefly exceeding that of all the starlight in the Universe

By Hoak, D. Aeon Magazine

We are most certainly part of something very strange – 50x per second! Gimme a break

Many are aghast at the evil acts suddenly erupting all over the world – most of it in the name of jihad. Not a few are actually inspired by the mayhem and join the fight. The new world order is outrageously brutal; things had seemed so reliably predictable during the cold war. Popular pundits blame George W Bush or Barack H Obama.

Of course, in the old days we were not inundated 24/7 with continuous news streams covering all the wars and ethnic cleansings of the moment in faraway places: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Czechoslovakia, Uganda, South Africa etc. Total killed in such conflicts in the 20th century ~100 million. The average person was more oblivious in the good old days.

The scary thought is that things may actually have improved over the centuries. We don’t really know what life was like in distant times but this paragraph from a review in the WSJ of a book by Robert Harris on the life of Cicero suggests that evil has always been a prominent part of our social fabric:

“Nonetheless, Mr. Harris captures the senselessness of triumviral intrigue magnificently, not relenting as the players meet their gruesome ends. Crassus was slain at Carrhae in 53 B.C., Pompey on an Egyptian beachhead in 48 B.C., following his defeat at Pharsalus. Both were posthumously decapitated. Cato, having unsuccessfully attempted to take his life, tore the stitches from his wound, pulled out his intestines and bled himself to death at Utica in 46 B.C. Caesar was savagely murdered on the senate floor in 44 B.C. Cicero was proscribed by Octavian and Antony in 43 B.C., losing his hands and head soon after. Antony killed himself in 30 B.C., one year after the Battle of Actium.”

The religious myth that the devil has corrupted our pure souls, or some such, is wrong. Evil resides within each one of us, placed there during the process of creation. It is up to each one of us to find ways to control it. Society and culture tries to promote the good and discourage the bad but things can spin out of control so easily. Science, religion, philosophy and politics all have their roles to play.

Will there be an end to the personal crimes committed by sociopaths, murderers, rapists, thieves and the like? Probably not, but it does seem reasonable to tackle the phenomenon of social movements intent on killing, raping and pillaging. But is there a cure for the waves of mass cruelty and suffering that wash over humanity? The mystery answer has been blowing in the wind for a very long time.

Humankind should of course strive for improvement of our world, if only we could figure out what the problem is more precisely. Commitments to various communities (religious, philosophical, political, ethnic, national, ideological – even tribal or criminal gangs) have been the more obvious strategies for success, but they have actually been the very source of the mayhem  when a mob mentality supervenes. Philosophers tend to be peaceful by default, if for no other reason than they spend their time arguing with each other. Too often, however, fear of the other leads to a fight or flight confrontation.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the solution to this universal problem may reside in a fuller recognition of the important role of the individual. Communities should be organized so as to foster involvement by more individuals to understand and solve problems, and then to act for the common good. This may be the true source of progress. Morality is an emergent quality of a super-complex system of individuals acting independently in their immediate interests as they see fit. All that would be needed is a sufficient number of ‘virtuous’ people who are willing to make the effort – what exactly that means is for them to decide. It does suggest that we be a little more skeptical about the pronouncements of others who claim to know what we should accept as reality.

Mr Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim and prominent anti-extremist writes a refreshingly direct and honest piece in the WSJ on the existential threat violent jihadism presents to the world. Sympathy for the ISIS modus operandi is depressingly widespread and prevalent amongst Muslims. Especially those that live in western society! This is a vast and growing danger.

This is how he proposes to beat ISIS, with my thoughts in parentheses:

  • Everyone, Muslim or otherwise, should accurately and fully define the enemy. It is violent, theocratic, islamist jihadism. (The enemy is a subset of Islam, which most go out of their way to avoid saying.)
  • Muslims should not deny that Islamism is a real problem. (Almost all Muslim spokespersons tend to blame the West for provoking their unacceptable behavior. In other words, we have brought this upon ourselves.)
  • ‘We’ must engage in a propaganda war in order to “deny today’s Islamists and jihadists their ability to appeal to Muslim audiences”. The present is a continuation of decades of Islamist propaganda that has prepared the youth to yearn for a caliphate. (Such engagement is likely to  enrage the Muslims even more if it is perceived as coming from Great Satan, and such like.)
  • Reform theologians should be encouraged “to lay the foundations of a theology that rejects Islamism and promotes freedom of speech and gender rights—thereby undermining the insurgents’ message.” (There are so few of these reformers that their influence is negligible. If they question the authority of the ‘Perfect Messenger’ they would labeled as not true muslims anyway.)
  • Non-muslim countries, especially the US, should be actively engaged in the political, economic, social  and even military struggles of ‘Muslim’ countries. (That has not worked out so well thus far.)

In summary, if we are to win against the jihadists, we must “isolate them, undercut their appeal to Muslims and avoid a ‘clash of civilizations’”. (And if it does not work out it will be the fault of the West?)

There are major difficulties with this approach. The most difficult, in my opinion, is the extreme degree of fundamentalism that is entrenched and spread throughout the umma. Most  Muslim states adhere to and promote a very strict form of Islam. Hatred toward infidels is spewed from capitals and mosques throughout the world, reaching hysterical levels, not only in Iran but in many other places. Children are indoctrinated in schools. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has been promoting its fundamentalist ideology throughout the world by funding conservative Islamic centers everywhere.

Islam has a billion or more adherents. Solving the problems as enumerated by Mr. Nawaz is going to take a very long time. Success is unlikely, unless there is a global coalition to modernize and moderate Islam that is lead by Muslims. President Al-Sisi of Egypt is one of the few leaders that has stated this explicitly. What is needed is nothing less than an evolution of the faith from its present narrow insular state. It took Judaism and Christianity centuries to accomplish some of this, but not all. Recidivism can happen at any time.

Intuition is a major driver of our lives. It is the gorilla in the room that philosophers have chosen to ignore since ancient times.

Human beings uniquely gather and share information via narrative. This is what makes our culture. The best stories are told by the ‘smartest’ story tellers. Top guns might even coin an -ism or two. However, I want to sound an alarm: the differences between the best and the brightest and the rest of us are not really that great – it may be more about superficialities or vanities. Some people do have amazing talents, but so do most of the rest. There are many thousands of fields of knowledge each with experts. Frequently there will be outright hostility to other ideas. The stage is often set for conflict rather than learning. A sorely needed new and improved understanding and appreciation of information exchange and learning now seems possible.

If we assume, as I think we should, that the observable universe is a vast interacting complex system of information exchange (when a photon strikes the retina, information is transmitted), then evolution can also be viewed as organisms’ attempts to control and exploit more of this fundamental resource*. The winners, all the ones left thriving today, are the ones able to most effectively use information in its particular niche. It also implies that learning does have a purpose, even as we are now not sure what that purpose is.

[Brute survival, for its own sake, obviously does not seem very interesting to most of us and that is clearly not what we seem to think we should be doing. Perhaps we survive because we are the most efficient at processing information and learning. We understand and control the most information resources. Any purpose to which we should apply ourselves has remained exceedingly contentious.]

This is what every human tries to do when faced with a serious problem and has the luxury of time: define the problem and identify its components; make a theory and gather more data; evaluate the severities, quantities and their interactions; consult with others; finally choose a course of action based on INTUITION. These processes are informal applications of what ‘experts’ classify as PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS. This is the classic theory of decision making. While the intuition part is not paid much attention too, it actually appears to be the most fundamental part of the process. In urgent or emergency situations, intuition is in charge of almost the entire process.

If there is anything everyone can agree upon it’s that clear thinking is much better than muddled thinking. After a rare bout of clear thinking one can feel a sense of accomplishment. Something has been learned: a new perspective. Sometimes this new insight may be accompanied by a strong EMOTION: “It is beautiful, it is lovely.”

The ultimate question is “Which stories are true?” Until very recently, and especially since Descartes, it was generally accepted that clear and distinct thinking, careful and controlled observation, and rigorous logic (i.e. PHILOSOPHY, SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS) would be a reliable strategy to acquire ‘justified true beliefs’. That initial hope has become frustrated. We are more dogged by uncertainty, incompleteness and disagreement than ever. Clear and distinct thinking turns out to be riven by illusions, as amply demonstrated by science – yes, contra Descartes, reality can be deceptive in every imaginable way. Voluminous new information now outstrip our abilities to understand, maths notwithstanding. Integrating it all is impossible. Vast numbers of people live frustrated or cynical lives, or with misdirected goals – at least that is how it seems to others.

PHILOSOPHY is a conversation about any and all important or major issues as they relate to human existence and understanding – subjective values such as meaning and purpose, morality, knowledge; essentially anything deemed worthwhile. Informal or conversational language is the medium in which philosophy operates almost entirely; sometimes professionals in the field will attempt to use more formal technical analysis and terminology, but their findings need to be transposed into common language in order to be evaluated and have societal relevance. The general goal is to understand oneself, others and aspects of reality, and how to deal with these factors in our lives. The style probably reflects the personality and interests of the thinker or talker. The more critically one thinks, the more detail can be brought to the conversation; more formal words are used to define imagined ‘truths’, ‘realities’, ‘structures’, ‘functions’ or ‘relations’ in consciousness and culture, thus increasing the potential for learning and understanding. Language is the mode and the means, the substrate is the subjective, more abstract thought content of consciousness. Cultural and psychological sciences certainly could inform philosophical analysis. The substrate is thus mostly internal and subjective; largely personal. Keywords: critical introspection, rational analysis, conceptualization and communication . Ultimate, largely unstated goal: Order society through persuasion, appealling to a superior formulation in the eyes of the participants through logic, allegory, metaphor, reason and emotion. Role in society: construct a platform of discussion and understanding that enables large groups to participate. There are endless cycles of agreement and disagreement; construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. Limitation: philosophy changes as language changes, and so an endpoint is impossible. Language is not a constant, rather it is the quicksand upon which our culture is built. Furthermore, one may master the rules but the content has grown beyond the abilities of anyone to master.

MATHEMATICS is touted as another subjective means by which some of us can come to a deep understanding of reality and phenomena. Unlike philosophy, it uses a formal, symbolic language of measurements, defined symbols and precise operations. Nothing is guessed at, except perhaps its axioms. It started out quite innocently from normal human activity: counting sheep perhaps, dividing the spoils of the day, or carefully measuring distances and angles. Even today there are apparently still isolated languages that do not count beyond two indicating that maths has been learned and developed through social and cultural interaction leading to the creation of a symbolic language. In fact, ‘primitive’ mathematical procedures are performed by other animals. Primates and infants use the same cortical areas for processing quantities intuitively. Advanced maths have apparently been built upon these ‘primitive’ biological bases over the past 5000 years by utilizing the unique human ability to communicate abstract concepts. Goal: On the one hand, maths is pursued by a small group who have a deep interest in all the quantitative relationships of various axioms because of the deep pleasure involved. Similarities to the appreciation of music has been noted. On the other hand, the virtual insights of pure maths find an almost miraculous application in the correlation and explication of natural phenomena and empirical data, sometimes with great predictive power. Limitation: advanced maths has only peripheral relevance to our quest of understanding the existential challenges that we face personally, with others and in our culture. Maths may have an uncanny ability to describe physical reality, but it has demonstrated no ability to clarify the content of human subjectivity.

SCIENCE has a focus that is fundamentally different from philosophy and maths: in science the problem or subject of interest, the substrate, can be directly or indirectly observed by the community – it is objective or independent of the observer. The source of a scientific problem exists independently of the researcher’s mind, it is a ‘real’ problem, rather than a problem of understanding or imagination per se. In all cases (some mathematicians and philosophers disagree), new observation under different conditions is the ultimate source of improved understanding. Goal: understand any and all parts of the world, including our fellow creatures. By extension this would assist in our understanding of our individual selves, a pursuit which should cross over in to all other human quests, including philosophy: first know thyself! Limitation: scientific knowledge is so spotty and incomplete that it is extremely difficult to apply to our existential issues. Furthermore, the fields of science far outstrip those of philosophy in complexity and number. A few scientists might be authoritative in one or two fields, but most can only master the area of their interest which may be extremely narrow and specialized. A coherent, inclusive overview of all scientific knowledge is not possible**. HOWEVER, science has been the most powerful instigator of change over the millennia, progress is just so frustratingly slow, and difficult. This might be the reason behind why some philosophers suggest that science is not very relevant to progress in human understanding!!

In summary, the major knowledge disciplines have systemic deficiencies that prevent them, even in combination, from being definitive in the answer of any of our difficult questions. It appears that a better understanding of our enormous decision making skills awaits an appreciation of the role of INTUITIONS and FEELINGS in our thinking. We have been aware of their role for millennia, but it has been assumed that our other faculties were so powerful that these ‘primitive’ animal systems could be ignored. Even more difficult are wholly unconscious INNATE processes that affect our thinking without us knowing about it.

*This is an area in which there is fundamental disagreement. Many (Wittgensteinians et al?) believe that only intact human beings are capable of ‘information processing’. Information must be intelligible by a human. The alternative view is that dogs, cats, earthworms, bacteria and viruses process information, even clouds and snowflakes – just at very different levels of complexity.

**I have, nevertheless, given a summary of my understanding at my other site with a Scientistic Perspective on Everything.