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20210418 – The Strange Order of Things

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MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is that humans evolutionary developed as one integrated biological entity, with all its qualities: feelings, reason, and consciousness being undividable and necessary for survival. Only understanding of this integrity could lead to understanding of human cultures built on this biological foundation. The difficulties and even crises of contemporary humanity come from emergence of contemporary technologies that are not necessarily compatible with human nature, so the way should be found to reconcile all of this or problems could become unsurmountable.

DETAILS:

Part l: About Life and Its Regulation (Homeostasis)
1: On the Human Condition
Author begins with discussing situations when feelings process inputs and prompt actions better than mind. Here is author’s reasoning:” feelings would succeed where plain ideas fail has to do with the unique nature of feelings. Feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways. This particular and overlooked arrangement guarantees that feelings disturb what might otherwise be an indifferent mental flow. The source of feeling is life on the wire, balancing its act between flourishing and death. As a result, feelings are mental stirrings, troubling or glorious, gentle or intense.”

After that he moves to human origins and its key component – culture. Here is how author looks at connection between feelings and culture:

Author then provides comparison with other animals, especially bacteria and social incects and find a common ground for all in the notion of Homeostasis: “The part of homeostasis that concerns “prevailing” is more subtle and rarely acknowledged. It ensures that life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species.” Author then links it all together: “Feelings, as deputies of homeostasis, are the catalysts for the responses that began human cultures. Is this reasonable? Is it conceivable that feelings could have motivated the intellectual inventions that gave humans (1) the arts, (2) philosophical inquiry, (3) religious beliefs, (4) moral rules, (5) justice, (6) political governance systems and economic institutions, (7) technology, and (8) science”

At the end of chapter author links into one continuum early organisms, genes, nervous system, feelings and mind – all supporting human homeostasis:” Eventually, each feeling-driven, conscious mind could mentally represent, with an explicit reference to the experiencer subject, two critical sets of facts and events: (1) the conditions in the inner world of its own organism; and (2) the conditions of its organism’s environment.” Author then moves to problems of derailing of homeostasis and resulting pain and suffering. He suggests that reason for these problems to occur: “is that cultural instruments first developed in relation to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups as small as nuclear families and tribes. The extension to wider human circles was not and could not have been contemplated. Within wider human circles, cultural groups, countries, even geopolitical blocs, often operate as individual organisms, not as parts of one larger organism, subject to a single homeostatic control.”

2. In a Region of Unlikeness
Here author moves back to origin of life some 3.8 billion years ago, traces its development and presents summary table:

3: Varieties of Homeostasis
In this chapter author provides an interesting review of the very notion of Homeostasis, its work, history, and varieties. He also expresses preference for another term that would better communicate dynamic character of this notion in living organisms: Homeodynamics.

4. From Single Cells to Nervous Systems and Minds
In this chapter author reviews biological history of development of increasingly complex objects, combining it for nervous system in such way:

At the end of chapter author links it to human brain and calls attention to the fact that:” That the nervous system is the enabler of our mental life is not in doubt. What is missing from the traditional neuro-centric, brain-centric, and even cerebral-cortex-centric accounts is the fact that nervous systems began their existence as assistants to the body, as coordinators of the life process in bodies complex and diversified enough that the functional articulation of tissues, organs, and systems as well as their relation to the environment required a dedicated system to accomplish the coordination. Nervous systems were the means to achieve that coordination and thus became an indispensable feature of complex multicellular life.”

Part II: Assembling the Cultural Mind
5: The Origin of Minds
The point of this chapter is to sketch biological nature of mind and its role as instrument of human cultural mind. Author characterizes here minded life from the point of view of images processing not only in the brain, but also by totality of nervous system. Here is author characteristics of evolutionary steps that led to this:” the steps that must have followed in evolution are fairly clear. First, using images made from the oldest components of the organism’s interior—the processes of metabolic chemistry largely carried out in viscera and in the blood circulation and the movements they generated—nature gradually fashioned feelings. Second, using images from a less ancient component of the interior—the skeletal frame and the muscles attached to it—nature generated a representation of the encasement of each life, a literal representation of the house inhabited by each life. The eventual combination of these two sets of representations opened the way for consciousness. Third, using the same image-making devices and an inherent power of images—the power to stand for and symbolize something else—nature developed verbal languages.

Author then explains why images require nervous systems and how they are processed depending on the source: world outside of organism and world inside of organism.

6: Expanding Minds
Here author uses analogy of hidden orchestra within the mind that makes images:” The signals with which images are constructed originate from three sources: the world around the organism, from where data are collected by specific organs located in the skin and some mucosae; and two distinct components of the world inside the organism, the old chemical/visceral compartment and the not so old musculoskeletal frame and its sensory portals.”  He then analyzes process of making memories and enriching minds, summarizing results this way:

7: Affect
Here author moves to handling of feelings for which he introduces the notion of affect:” Affect is thus a wide tent under which I place not only all possible feelings but also the situations and mechanisms responsible for producing them, responsible, that is, for producing the actions whose experiences become feelings.”

He then discusses what feelings are, valence of experience, kinds of feeling that he divides into Emotive Response Process, Stereotypes, Drives, Motivations, and Conventional emotions. He also defines notion of Layered Feelings.

8: The Construction of Feelings
In this chapter author connects feelings with Homeostasis:” To understand the origin and construction of feelings, and to appreciate the contribution they make to the human mind, we need to set them in the panorama of homeostasis. The alignment of pleasant and unpleasant feelings with, respectively, positive and negative ranges of homeostasis is a verified fact. Homeostasis in good or even optimal ranges expresses itself as well-being and even joy, while the happiness caused by love and friendship contributes to more efficient homeostasis and promotes health. The negative examples are just as clear. The stress associated with sadness is caused by calling into action the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and by releasing molecules whose consequence is reducing homeostasis and actually damaging countless body parts such as blood vessels and muscular structures. Interestingly, the homeostatic burden of physical disease can activate the same hypothalamic-pituitary axis and cause release of dynorphin, a molecule that induces dysphoria.”

Author then proceeds to discuss relevant processes in some details:

  • Where do Feelings come from
  • How they assembled
  • The Continuity of Bodies and Nervous Systems
  • The Role of the Peripheral Nervous System
  • Peculiarities of the Body-Brain Relationship
  • Role of the Gut
  • Where are Feeling Experiences Located
  • Remembrances of Feelings Past.

9: Consciousness
In the last chapter of this Part author defines Consciousness:” The term “consciousness” applies to the very natural but distinctive kind of mental state described by the above traits. That mental state allows its owner to be the private experiencer of the world around and, just as important, to experience aspects of his or her own being. For practical purposes, the universe of knowledge, current and past, that can be conjured up in a private mind only materializes to its owner when the owner’s mind is in a conscious state, able to survey the contents of that mind, in his or her own subjective perspective.”

Author then discusses observation of consciousness, subjectivity, as its first and indispensable component and Integrated experiences as the second component. Finally, he links Sensing and Feeling to Consciousness and defines:” The hard problem is about the fact that if minds emerge from organic tissue, it may be hard or impossible to explain how mental experiences, in effect, felt mental states, are produced.”

Part III: The Cultural Mind at Work
10: On Cultures
This chapter is about biological roots of human cultures. It starts with discussion of link between cultures and Homeostasis, then proceeds to distinctive human cultures, which achieve the same objective – homeostasis in great many different ways.  Then author going through discussion of various manifestations of the “cultural mind”, and completes with very detailed summary:

First, the mind had to be capable of representing, in the form of images, two distinct sets of data: the world exterior to the individual organism, where the others that are part of the social fabric loom prominently and interactively; and the state of the individual organism’s interior, which is experienced as feelings. This capability draws on an innovation of central nervous systems: the possibility of making, within their neural circuitries, maps of objects and events that are located outside the neural circuitries. Such maps capture “resemblances” of those objects and events.

Second, the individual mind had to create a mental perspective for the whole organism relative to those two sets of representations—the representations of the organism’s interior and of the world around it. This perspective is made up of images of the organism during the acts of perceiving itself and its surround, in reference to the organism’s overall frame. This is a critical ingredient of subjectivity that I regard as the decisive component of consciousness. The fabrication of cultures, which requires social, collective intentions, is inconceivable without the presence of multiple individual subjectivities working, to begin with, for their own advantage—their own interests—and eventually, as the circle of interests enlarges, promoting the good of a group.

Third, once mind had begun but before it could become the cultural mind we can recognize today, it was necessary to enrich it by adding impressive new features. Among them were a powerful, image-based memory function capable of learning, recalling, and interrelating unique facts and events; an expansion of the imagination, reasoning, and symbolic thought capabilities such that nonverbal narratives could be generated; and the ability to translate nonverbal images and symbols into coded languages. The latter opened the way for a decisive tool in the construction of cultures: a parallel line of verbal narratives. Alphabets and grammars were the “genetic” tools of this latter and enabling development. The eventual invention of writing was the crowning entry into the toolbox of creative intelligence, an intelligence capable of being moved by feeling to respond to homeostatic challenges and possibilities.

Fourth, a critical instrument of the cultural mind resides with a largely unsung function: play, the desire to engage in seemingly useless operations that includes the moving about of actual pieces of the world, real or in toy form; the moving of our own bodies in that world, as in dancing or playing an instrument; the moving of images in the mind, real or invented. Imagination is a close partner of this endeavor, of course, but imagination does not fully capture the spontaneity, the range and reach of PLAY, to use the capitalized form that Jaak Panksepp prefers when he talks about this function. Think of play when you think about what can be done with the infinity of sounds, colors, shapes, or with pieces in Erector or Legos sets or computer games; think of play when you think of the infinitely possible combinations of word meanings and sounds; think of play as you plan an experiment or ponder different designs for whatever it is that you are planning to do.

Fifth, the ability, especially developed in humans, to work cooperatively with others to achieve a discernible, shared goal. Cooperativity relies on another well-developed human ability: joint attention, a phenomenon to which Michael Tomasello has devoted pioneering studies. Play and cooperation are, in and of themselves, independently of the results of the respective activities, homeostatically favorable activities. They reward the “players/cooperators” with a slew of pleasurable feelings.

Sixth, cultural responses begin in mental representations but come into being by the grace of movement. Movement is deeply embedded in the cultural process. It is from emotion-related movements happening in the interior of our organisms that we construct the feelings that motivate cultural interventions. Cultural interventions often arise from emotion-related movements—of the hands, quite prominently, of the vocal apparatus, of the facial musculature (a critical enabler of communication), or of the whole body. Last, the march from life’s beginnings to the doors of human cultural development and cultural transmission was only possible due to another homeostasis-driven development: the genetic machinery that standardized the regulation of life inside cells and permitted the transmission of life to new generations.”

11: Medicine, Immortality, and Algorithms
Here author discusses achievements of contemporary technology, especially medicine and computers that allow to speculate about practically unlimited improvements of everything, even immortality.

12: On the Human Condition Now
This chapter discusses current condition that author finds ambiguous due to combination of achievements of technology with decline of culture and multitude of unresolved governmental and economic issues. Author looks for biological causes of the current crises that seems to be coming from conflict between affect and reason. He foresees two possible scenarios of the future in one civilizational effort will fail and with-it humanity would fail pushed away either by AI and robots or other organisms. “In another scenario, cooperation eventually comes to dominate thanks to a sustained civilizational endeavor over multiple generations.” Author predicate outcome on feelings and concludes chapter with:” A life not felt would have needed no cure. A life felt but not examined would not have been curable. Feelings launched and have helped navigate a thousand intellectual ships.”

13: The Strange Order of Things

Author here refer to the name of this book and explains that strange order of things is the very existence and development of life overall and humanity specifically with its high faculties of consciousness and feelings. He also stresses that:” neither parts of nervous systems nor whole brains are the sole manufacturers and providers of mental phenomena. It is unlikely that neural phenomena alone could produce the functional background required for so many aspects of minds, but it is certainly the case that they could not do so in regard to feelings. A close two-way interaction between nervous systems and the non-nervous structures of organisms is a requirement. Neural and non-neural structures and processes are not just contiguous but continuous partners, interactively. They are not aloof entities signaling each other like chips in a cell phone. In plain talk, brains and bodies are in the same mind-enabling soup.”

Author completes this book by noting that everything discussed about biological and evolutionary phenomena of humanity is at least somewhat tentative because:” We do not have, however, any satisfactory scientific account of the origins and meaning of the universe, in brief, no theory of everything that concerns us. This is a sobering reminder of how modest and tentative our efforts are and of how open we need to be as we confront what we do not know.”

MY TAKE ON IT:

This is a great book that presents clear thinking and good understanding of humanity that I am pretty much agree with. I am somewhat more optimistic on human ability to overcome crisis, which, I believe, is a lot less than meets the eye. Just because human tendency to overestimate problems is currently hugely amplified by communication technology, social networks, that does not mean these problems are unsurmountable.  I do not think that the solution could be found in

increased abilities of governments redistribute resources from productive part of population to elite and unproductive part without causing revolts and/or revolution. I think it would rather come from opposite direction – pushing problem resolution away from handling problems via government hierarchy down to evolutionary defined proper level of individuals, families, and small groups. Consequently, I agree that humanity is on the brink of a huge change in just about any area that one can think of, but I also believe that the change will be for the better and no AI or robots or other organisms would substitute humanity whether we’ll find meaning of the universe or not. Actually, I think that the most reasonable way is to accept that the universe has no meaning whatsoever and live happily ever after.


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