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20150327 The Meaning of Human Existence

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MAIN IDEA:

The meaning of human existence is not coming from god or any other supreme conscious entity that set up some objective for human live. It comes from evolution that produced humanity via change-selection process. Every human being is just an intermediate link in the continuing process of development of humanity and meaning of live is to prevent interruption of this process and eventually to take over future development away from evolution into consciously development under human control for human objective. This process should include transformation of continuously changing environment in such way that it would become sustainable with maintenance of biodiversity, merge of technology and humanities, and probable improvements in both human biology and society.

DETAILS:

I THE REASON WE EXIST

  1. The Meaning of Meaning

It is an interesting discussion about meaning of “meaning”. Two definitions are provided: Intentionality as in Intention that implies Design that implies Designer; and another one: Accidents of history and evolution creates meaning without any need for intentional design or designer. The first definition is trying to answer to “WHY” by referencing to Designer’s intention, the second: by trying to answer this question by using science and reformulates question into HOW DID IT HAPPENED and WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT.

  1. Solving the Riddle of the Human Species

This is discussion about riddle of human nature and how it came to be. It very briefly reviews prehistory of human species with conclusion that we are just a biological species adapted to live in biological world; no notions of angels or demons would be applicable.

  1. Evolution and Our Inner Conflict

This is the presentation of key features of our species as product of multi-level evolution when features preferable for individual survival are always in conflict with features preferable for group level survival causing extreme complexity of human behavior and attitudes.

II THE UNITY OF KNOWLEDGE

  1. The New Enlightenment

The new Enlightenment is the path that author believes we are already on. It is merge of science and humanities. This chapter reviews historical process of enlightenment as generation of new form of human mental representation of the world via scientific method that not only developed into separate branch of knowledge but become practically dominant approach. The new Enlightenment would be based on global interconnection and bring science and humanities back together.

5 The All-Importance of the Humanities

This is discussion of current and future technological development that would allow humans to practically reinvent themselves as species by changing DNA, environment, even creating new species as needed. Another important question is what humans would do if robots do all the work. Author believes that the only way to answer these questions is via development of humanities.

6 The Driving Force of Social Evolution

This is discussion of social evolution through the prism of two competing theories of evolution: theory of inclusive fitness and theory of multilayered evolution that includes individual level and group level. Author himself over the years moved from complete support of inclusive fitness to individual-group duality of evolutionary process.

III OTHER WORLDS

  1. Humanity Lost in a Pheromone World

This chapter is the step aside from human world and attempt to find explanations in the world of insects, which is the area of author’s expertise.

8. Superorganism

This is about ants and their society that could be considered as a super-organism.

9. Why Microbes Rule the Galaxy

This is view at colonies of insects as superorganisms. Interestingly enough these superorganisms are as complex as human society and are as effective in survival games as humans are even if there is nothing even remotely close in structure and functions of colony of ants and human city. The main difference is that humans are autonomous self-conscious creatures who however have inherent need to congregate in groups and coordinate their actions, while insects have not even an inkling of individuality and self-consciousness in any of their separate organisms.

  1. A Portrait of E.T.

This is a speculative discussion of possible ETs and what their features would be based on what we know about evolution. Unsurprisingly they have all typical characteristics of humans. They even has to achieve similar level of ecological consciousness to understand that conquest of earth makes no sense so we can rest assured that war of the worlds is not going to happen.

  1. The Collapse of Biodiversity.

This chapter is dedicated to discussion of dramatic decrease of biodiversity caused by expansion of human species. Author expects the bottleneck of existence that world will go through during current century with appearance at the end sustainable balance between humanity and all other species.

IV IDOLS OF THE MIND

  1. Instinct

The key point here is that humans as all other animals are driven by instincts, needs, and prone to develop phobias that are all but impossible to overcome. There are overall at least 67 universals found in all known human societies such as music, sports, body decorations, incest taboos and others making it highly probable that they have genetic origins common for humanity. It also includes acquired preference for natural environment that person grew up in that, however has underlying preference for natural environment of savannah where humanity came from.

  1. Religion

This chapter is about religion and its biological roots. From evolutionary point of view of multilevel selection, religions are highly beneficial adaptive tool that increases coherence of the group and assures necessary sacrifices by an individual for the best of the group. However all religions tend to define people as us: the true believers and others who reject the truth. Consequently all inclined to fight these others until they accept the truth or annihilated, making it quite difficult for humanity to coexist. The solution of this problem is found in America. It is tolerance for everybody’s faith and creation myths.

  1. Free Will

This is discussion of human free will with reference to failure of philosophy to come up with anything even remotely plausible. However being scientist and biologist at that author has no doubt in material nature of the mind and free will and assigns high expectation to the new project for Brain Activity Mapping (BAM). Author also expresses an interesting notion of self, as confabulation for multiple stories from individual’s past, present, and imagined future constantly reprocessed and changed to refit them to perceived reality. The final note here is that free will as notion is highly adaptable feature that helps human to survive in complex world regardless of actual production of human action based on neural activities of the brain.

  1. A HUMAN FUTURE
  2. Alone and Free in the Universe

Author is mainly optimistic about future of humanity, however he sees a lot of danger in contradiction between human nature created by evolution, Paleolithic environment, and what is required to accommodate to techno scientific global human community. Author compares negative features of human nature to biological notion of tolerable parasite load when presence of parasite does not hamper survival of organism. One of the most virulent and distractive features of human nature author considers religious denial of science, especially evolution. At the end author once again stresses what he believes is necessity of merge of science, humanities, and art in unified model of reality.

MY TAKE ON IT:

I pretty much agree with just about everything in this worldview. I also believe that humanity is the random outcome of spontaneous biological evolution, that human mind has 100% material base, and that we have to transform ourselves into sustainable society in harmony with environment. The only probable disagreement is that I do not see it happening via coercive power of governments and I do not believe that biodiversity is that important. I think that we are on the brink of remodeling environment rather than just accommodating to it and that would include development of new organisms, modification of our DNAs, and reconstruction of environment to fit our needs. However in my view the meaning of human live depends on time scale we apply looking at it. At the scale of a few decades of our lives it has lots of meaning in enjoying and/or suffering everything that life can provide for human being. On the scale of billions of years of universe it makes no sense whatsoever.

20150320 End of Big

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MAIN IDEA:

This book is about dramatic consequences of what author calls radical connectivity – the ability of everybody to obtain any information and connect with everybody else in the world. His main idea is that consequences of such democratization of communication undermines institutions of society and endangers its effective functioning.

DETAILS:

  1. BURN IT ALL DOWN

This is about fear that author feel before Internet expansion and increase in freedom of people that it brings with it. Author does not trying to hide that he is active member of big left and as such in awe before big government and other big institutions of society. Even if he states at one point that some big institution deserve to die, he still believes that without some of big institutions led by supremely wise men like Obama, we all going to suffer. He clearly stated his fear that without all these big institutions and their power all “progressive” achievements of last 150+ years in limiting economic and personal freedoms of Americans will be lost. In addition to general statements about big institutions and threat to their existence this chapter also goes through brief history of development of computers that become basis for radical connectivity from PC through Internet and mobile devices. It also includes some interesting passages about what author calls “Nerd decease”, situation well familiar to everybody who ever dealt professionally with people of high technology. Quite often these people tend to look for overcomplicated technological solutions for problems that could be easily solved in much simpler way. As example he provides typical situation when complex code was developed to transfer reports to user when it could be easily done by manually delivering it across the aisle in the office.

  1. BIG NEWS

This chapter reviews dare situation of big news organizations that are getting killed by freedom of everybody to collect and distribute information. Behind author’s worries about decrease in professionalism of news media one can clearly see fear that without tightly controlled information flow the left political movement would be hard pressed its traditional advantage in setting up narrative and manipulating public opinion. Author is trying to find solace in some leftist success stories of online community organizing such as Huffington and Guardian experiences, but it is hard to believe that these leftist organizations that would have to compete with multiple online rightist organization could possibly provide such dominance as leftists had in time past when all three and only three TV news services were leftist. They had such amazing capability to distort information that they managed to create perception of right wing guilt in such event as communist Oswald killing president Kennedy.

  1. BIG POLITICAL PARTIES

Being one of technological leads in Obama campaign, author seems to be more positive in his views on impact of radical connectivity in politics mainly because Obama’s campaign was able to benefit from indoctrination of youth by public schools and colleges and therefore tap into their enthusiasm and pockets. However even in this area where author built successful carrier, he is filled with fear because radical connectivity can push upfront populist movements like Tea party that are capable to destroy leftist big government game that for more than a century was based on two big government parties: Bureaucratic party of Democrats and Crony capitalist party of Republicans.

  1. BIG FUN

This chapter is review of slow moving demise of another bastion of leftism – big entertainment. With virtual impossibility to control production and distribution of online entertainment Hollywood and traditional Music industry are in process of loosing control over content and distribution. Practically they are loosing monopoly power on propaganda via entertainment. Author also afraid of power moving from content oriented big entities such as Hollywood that had always been political to platform oriented big entities such as Amazon that do not really care about content, making it much more difficult from point of view of message control.

  1. BIG GOVERNMENT

This chapter is looking at impact of radical connectivity on big government. It recites a few cases of groundswell, meaning people finding ways to get around big government, and naturally states his fear of chaos if big government loses control over people. Another fear that is mentioned here is the fear of people sorting themselves out into separate like-minded groups and trying to handle their problem without government interference. I guess one of the main problems it represents for a liberal is dramatic increase in difficulties to conduct robbery of productive people on behalf of unproductive because it would be a big challenge to convince them that robbery is for common good when they know that they have nothing in common with beneficiaries of robbery whether these beneficiaries habituate in welfare slams or posh government offices. The final part of this chapter is dedicated to transparency of government and lobbying opportunities provided by online organizing.

  1. BIG ARMIES

This chapter is about impact of radical connectivity on war. The believe expressed here is that Internet, global connectivity, and similar thing completely change methods of conducting hostile actions leading to empowering of individuals to fight using terror actions and information disclosure. The big idea here is that government could not possibly shut down some digital networks. I guess meaning of big armies, their capabilities, and war with massive death is beyond author’s imagination, probably due to the lack of historical knowledge.

  1. BIG MINDS

This one is about elite education and government based scientific community with its process of elite selection and pier review based approval and legitimation that is increasingly coming under pressure from various forms of online education and knowledge development and dissemination. All these developments undermine authority and consequently cause fear for big government types. Author describes attempts to establish at least some authority online via authoritative sources such as Wikipedia and various fact check websites, but he does not feel that these attempts are really successful in achieving their goals.

  1. BIG COMPANIES

This chapter is about online goods and services providers that increasingly push out big companies substituting them with small shops and remaking America into free agent country. One of the most important points here is that economy of scale is loosing its advantages when it competes with economy of cheap information flows. Specifically reviewed are software sharing services and the cloud. This chapter is a great resource for all kind of information about weird web sites related to small online businesses.

  1. BIG OPPORTUNITIES?

The final chapter is kind of summary of situation. Author clearly sees that we are at the point of revolution in human history as big or even bigger then revolutions of early XX century that swept away thousands of years of monarchies and aristocracies ruling the world. It looks like big institutions of our time are moving in the same direction – they will be swept away by newly acquired power of individuals to control their lives, their productive, consuming, intellectual, and communicative activities. Author seems to be desperately looking for new institutions that could save power of elite or as he puts it “direction-setting inspirational leadership”, but could not find anything.

MY TAKE ON IT:

I agree that we are moving into new age of radical change in society institutions due to “radical connectivity” as author puts it. Contrary to the author I see only good coming from it because increase in power of individuals is not coming at the expense of decrease in power of some benevolent abstract entities of big government or big anything. It is coming at the expense of power of other individuals who are in control of these big institutions and routinely use this control to transfer to themselves wealth and resource created by other people. It short if “radical connectivity” wins, the contemporary elites will go the way of aristocracies a centuries past into oblivion. Author seems to fear this and I relish seeing it coming.

20150313 Moral, Believing Animals

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is that humans are qualitatively different from other animals mainly because of their inherent need and ability to believe in some narrative and to adhere to morals derived from this narrative. This believes and corresponding morals pretty much define human actions and attitudes to each other and environment. From here follows that other theories of human nature either rational choice or structural functionalism are incorrect with most critic directed at ideas of sociobiology.

DETAILS:

  1. Introduction

This book is an attempt to answer to question what kind of animals is humans? The main themes are theory of culture and human action, rejection of simplifications in other theories of culture, and, finally it elaborates a descriptive anthropology of personhood in attempt to understand human social actions.

  1. Human Culture as Moral Order

Author postulates a normative approach to culture stating that humans are inherently moral animals, meaning understanding of right and wrong and continuing matching of intentions, desires, and actions against these notions. The same applies not only to individuals, but also to social institution and cultural structures. This morality is controlled by human emotions, especially by empathy and only seldom fails in some individuals who are psychopaths and generally recognized as deviation from the norm. It also goes into details of social structures defining them as a complex set of rules and resources. For examples author looks at Universities and at markets stating that they are all inherently linked to morality of any given society and cannot function without it. Author also reviews some implication of his approach.

  1. Believing Animals

The main point here is that all humans are believers and base their actions and behavior on unverifiable assumptions they obtain during socialization. Typically any believe that an individual has is not a subject to change by presentation of empirical facts. Sometimes it is possible to change, but it does not come easy and often feels like revelation. However the person does not cease to be believer, but rather just switch to another set of believes. Author thinks that the human characteristic of believe is responsible for variety of incompatible cultures and religions existing in the world. Also reviewed here sociological research and theories with critic that they tend to ignore or at least minimize the role of believes. Finally it touches our specific set of believes – democratic capitalism that treated as just another set of believes not that different in its nature from any other set of believes like believes of a medieval peasant or aristocrat.

  1. Living Narratives

This chapter is about currently active narratives with stress on idea that our current narrative based on science, technology, and such is still developed as stories and they are not only made by humans, but also make humans by continuously supporting culture that forms them. The author reviews samples of narratives such as American Experiment narrative, Islamic Resurgence narrative, Christian, and some other narratives. Then he reviews how narratives impact individual and then specifically looks in details at American Sociological narrative. The interesting point at the end of chapter is that it is not possible truly be a relativist and consider all narratives as of equal value because it is not humanly possible to overcome your own narrative whatever it is at the time. The end of chapter provides a very short overview of philosophical approach to competition, mixing, and recombination of various narratives.

  1. On Religion

This is an attempt to answer to the question what is religion? Author comes up with a very reasonable definition: “Religions are sets of beliefs, symbols and practices about reality of superempirical orders that make claim to organize and guide human life”. This follows by speculation about origins of religion

  1. The Return of Culture?

This is review of development of sociology of culture in XX century when it went from structural functionalism with its stress of leading role of culture in society and as defining factor of individual behavior through second half of century when Marxist interpretation of superstructure based on economics was main force in its turn pushed away by theories of rational choice and eventually somewhat coming back to ideas of culture based sociology that incudes much richer accounts of human life than original functionalism.

  1. Conclusion

The conclusion briefly restates author’s dissatisfaction with existing approaches: sociobiology, rational choice theory, exchange theory, and evolutionary psychology all of which he considers being developed from antimentalist, noncultural traditions of Western social theory. Author restates his approach that humans are moral and believing animals and that there is intimate connection between morals and social institutions and that it impacts all actions of human individuals.

MY TAKE ON IT:

I pretty much agreed with proposition that morals and behavior are based on believes, but do not see how it contradicts either evolutionary biology or even sociobiology. As soon as we take out consideration of intelligent superior being(s), we necessarily wind up with evolutionary explanations, of which the most plausible for me is theory of dual level selection based on fitness of individual within the group and of group amongst other group. Believes and corresponding morals are dynamically changing sets of memes that are continuously invented, reinvented, survive or perish with individuals and groups carrying them. Sometimes the survival of individuals and groups depends on their ability discard existing believes and accept new ones that better support their survival at the moment. The great example of dramatic and massive changes in believes and consequently morals provided by history of Islamic conquests, probably the most consistent violent expansion of ideology in history.

20150306 Sleepwalkers

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MAIN IDEA:

The main ideaof this book is that WWI was long in coming and that this conflict was based on dynamic change formed over some 30 years of previous diplomatic maneuvering. Individuals who were making decisions on all sides just followed usual patterns of behavior that was created during prewar years and even if many were able to see the giant catastrophe they were getting themselves into, were not able to change patterns of behavior and decision making leading to it.

DETAILS:

Part One: Roads to Sarajevo

  1. Serbian Ghosts: Murder in Belgrade; ‘Irresponsible Elements’; Mental Maps; Separation; Escalation; Three Turkish Wars; The Conspiracy; Nikola Parle Reacts

The first chapter is about Serbian history and culture formed in long struggle with Ottoman Empire. It starts with story of coup against Serbian king and establishment of new dynasty under control of militant Serbian nationalists. Probably the most important part of it is discussion about culturally dominant view among population of Great Serbia that would include many lands only tangibly related to Serbs. The point here is that Serbian nationalists saw possibility of development only as consequence of great European war in which bordering with Serbia and much more powerful Austro-Hungary and Ottomans would be defeated, opening way for the new country under Serbian control – Yugoslavia. Interestingly enough that was actually what happened as consequence of WWI.

2.The Empire without Qualities: Conflict and Equilibrium; The Chess Players; Lies and Forgeries; Deceptive Calm; Hawks and Doves;

The second chapter looks at another part of equation: Austro-Hungarian Empire. The main point here is that contrary to usual interpretation heavily influenced by knowledge of what happened after WWI, this country was not a sick pitiful entity on the brink of collapse. It was rather healthy and economically prosperous society that was capable more or less successfully keep in check centrifugal forces created by multi-national nature of population. While politically this semi-democratic state was often in paralysis, it boded very well for economic prosperity and well being of population. Maybe this example of political importance intertwined with economic vitality provided fodder for ideas that eventually led to creation of Austrian school of economics.

Part Two: One Continent Divided

  1. The Polarization of Europe 1887-1907: Dangerous Liaison: the Franco-Russian Alliance; The Judgment of Paris; The End of British Neutrality; Belated Empire: Germany; The Great Turning Point? Painting the Devil on the Wall;

This is review of dynamical changes in alliances going on in Europe for 20 years at the end of XIX century. Mainly it was a drift through various combinations to France – Russian alliance to contain Germany in the centre of Europe and prevent its expansion outside. The important role was plaid by French – Germany competition in Morocco that pushed France to look for allies. It found such initially in Russia that needed French financing to recover after loss in war with Japan, and then in British who were concerned by Germany naval buildup.

  1. The Many Voices of European Foreign Policy: Sovereign Decision-makers; Who Governed in St Petersburg? Who Governed in Paris? Who Governed in Berlin? The Troubled Supremacy of Sir Edward Grey The Agadir Crisis of 1911; Soldiers and Civilians; The Press and Public Opinion; The Fluidity of Power;

This chapter is an interesting review of internal powers and decision-making processes in all main countries. It shows real weakness of all monarchs who rarely if ever were able to make their decisions stick. It also demonstrates that majority of European monarchies including even Russia were semi-democratic entities in which relatively free press and public opinion played a significant role.

  1. Balkan Entanglements: Air Strikes on Libya; Balkan Helter-skelter; The Wobbler; The Balkan Winter Crisis of 1012-13; Bulgaria or Serbia? Austria’s Troubles; The Balkanization of the Franco-Russian Alliance; Paris Forces the Pace: Poincare under Pressure;

This chapter is about history of Balkan conflict that at the beginning was conflict of several Christian Balkan countries against Ottomans with Bulgaria playing main role and then between these countries with Serbia leading piling up of everybody else on Bulgaria. All this was going on with heavy interference from Russia, France, and Austro-Hungary.

  1. Last Chances: Detente and Danger 1012-1014: The Limits of Detente; ’Now or Never’; Germans on the Bosphorus; The Balkan lnception Scenario; A Crisis of Masculinity? How Open Was the Future?

This chapter is about attempt of détente between Russia and Germany that failed mainly because both sides could not risk their existing alliances. This failure created strong feelings in Germany that time is not on their side because Russia was quickly rearming its military using French money, while Austro-Hungary was very low on military expenses and Ottomans were growing comparatively weaker. When Germans increased their influence with Ottomans to the point of taking over military command, Russians become convinced that it was aimed to close the critical trade rout for their grain via Bosporus. In turn Russians did everything possible to increase their influence on Balkans trying to assure that this rout remains open.

Part Three: Crisis

  1. Murder in Sarajevo: The Assassination; Flashbulb Moments; The Investigation Begins; Serbian Responses; What is to be Done?

This chapter is detailed review of actual assassination in Sarajevo and its fallout. Especially interesting is Serbian initial reaction, which was not to conduct serious investigation and not suppress nationalists’ celebrations, consequently humiliating and provoking Austrians.

  1. The Widening Cycle: Reactions Abroad; Count Hoyos Goes to Berlin; The Road to the Austrian Ultimatum; The Strange Death of Nikolai Hartwig;

This is review of public reactions to events and maneuverings between Germany and Austro-Hungary with Germany pushing for quick and decisive action. It seems to be possible that this was based on believe that conflict is eventually inevitable, while its delay would be detrimental to Germany chances.

  1. The French in St Petersburg: Count de Robien Chanees Trains; M. Poincare Sails to Russia; The Poker Game;

This is about overall French-Russian relationships and specifically detailed description of Poincare visit to Russia during the crisis where both sides agreed to take side of Serbia even if it would cause military conflict.

  1. Ultimatum: Austria Demands; Serbia Responds; A ‘Local war’ begins;

This is brief, but detailed account of Austrian ultimatum and Serbian response. An interesting thing about it is that initially even before it was formally delivered Serbian leaders were scared enough to consider its acceptance. However with Russian and French assurances that they would not be left alone, they moved to reject Austrian demands initiating local war that quickly started to escalate.

  1. Warning Shots: Firmness Prevails; ‘It’s War This Time’; Russian Reasons;

The initial steps to war at this point become practically inevitable because, at least partially due to prevailing military doctrine that stated that mobilization and positioning of troops is critical for achieving success. This chapter reviews Russian thinking and acting in view of this doctrine.

  1. Last Days: A Strange Light Falls upon the Map of Europe; Poincare Returns to Paris; Russia Mobilizes; The Leap into the Dark; ‘There Must Be Some Misunderstanding’; The Tribulations of Paul Cambon; Britain Intervenes; Belgium; Boots

This chapter recounts the last days of piece when mobilizations and counter mobilizations went full speed underway. Interestingly enough in addition to Austrian ultimatum to Serbia there was another ultimatum by Germany to Belgium demanding to open passage for German troops. The Belgium’s rejection and the following German aggression brought into hostilities Britain. British previously stated that German passage would not cause military response if it were limited geographically: remaining south of Sambre -Meuse line. Germans just ignored this opportunity and went full speed ahead with invasion. The final small note is description of people in remote areas of Russia learning about war. They did not even know who is war against and often come up with completely incorrect guesses.

MY TAKE ON IT:

This is a very interesting prehistory of WWI with all its political and diplomatic maneuvering and intrigues. It all looks like a complicated game that rulers and their bureaucracies played jockeying to get better positions relative to one another to be eventually converted into more territories and people under their control at the time when they were not really able to control effectively people and territories they already had. It is also amazing to me how far away from everyday real lives of normal people all this occurred and how little regular people feel need to watch this and try to be involved. As result the masses paid huge price for letting their elites to play. Happens every time.