The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio

Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist with a philosophical bent. His earlier books were: 

  • Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness
  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain
  • Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

In The Strange Order of Things, he emphasizes the role of homeostasis in making life possible. Here’s one definition:

[Homeostasis is] a property of cells, tissues, and organisms that allows the maintenance and regulation of the stability and constancy needed to function properly. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by the constant adjustment of biochemical and physiological pathways. An example of homeostasis is the maintenance of a constant blood pressure in the human body through a series of fine adjustments in the normal range of function of the hormonal, neuromuscular and cardiovascular systems.

Damasio explains how, billions of years ago, the simplest cells began to maintain homeostasis, and thereby survive and even flourish, using methods, including primitive forms of social behavior, that are similar to methods used by complex organisms like us. He also emphasizes the role of feelings in maintaining homeostasis. He doesn’t suppose that bacteria are conscious, but points out that they do react to their surroundings and changes in their inner states. He argues that organisms only developed conscious feelings of their surroundings and inner states as nervous systems evolved. He thinks it is highly implausible that a human mind could function inside a computer, since computers lack feelings and feelings are a necessary part of human life. Furthermore, Damasio concludes that culture has developed in response to human feelings. Culture is a complex way of maintaining homeostasis.

I’ll finish with something from the publisher’s website written by the British philosopher John Gray:

In The Strange Order of Things, Antonio Damasio presents a new vision of what it means to be human. For too long we have thought of ourselves as rational minds inhabiting insentient mechanical bodies. Breaking with this philosophy, Damasio shows how our minds are rooted in feeling, a creation of our nervous system with an evolutionary history going back to ancient unicellular life that enables us to shape distinctively human cultures. Working out what this implies for the arts, the sciences and the human  future, Damasio has given us that rarest of things, a book that can transform how we think—and feel—about ourselves. 

I can’t say the book changed how I think about myself. That’s because for some years I’ve thought about myself as a community of cells. It’s estimated that an average human body is composed of some 37 trillion cells and contains another 100 trillion microorganisms necessary for survival. Once you start thinking of yourself as a community of cells, adding homeostasis to the mix doesn’t make much difference.

For more on The Strange Order of Things, see this review for The Guardian and this article John Gray wrote for Literary Review.

To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism by Rob Riemen

The author is a Dutch writer and “cultural philosopher”. The dust jacket says To Fight Against This Age was an international best seller. The book has two parts: “The Eternal Return of Fascism” and “The Return of Europa”.

The first part argues convincingly that fascism is a recurring tendency in Western civilization. The second argues that a united Europe could be much more than it has turned out to be, which is “nothing other than an Economic Union, where the terms soul, culture, philosophy, and live in truth are as impossible as a palm tree on the moon” [167].

The situation in the United States being more urgent, I found the discussion of fascism more engaging. We hesitate to apply the word “fascist” to the right-wing extremists who have gained ground in America (and in some parts of Europe),  mainly because they haven’t taken total control of society and spread bloodshed in the manner of Hitler and Mussolini. Rieman, however, says we should use the term to make clear how extreme these movements are and also make it easier to stop them:

… the fascist bacillus will always remain virulent in the body of mass democracy. Denying this fact or calling it something else will not make us resistant to it…. If we want to put up a good fight, we first have to admit that it has become active in our social body again and call it by its name: “fascism” [34].

In the twenty-first century, no fascist would willingly be called a “fascist”. Fascists aren’t that stupid, and it fits with their mastery of the skill of lying. Contemporary fascists are recognizable partly through what they say, but just as important is how they operate…. Fascist techniques are identical everywhere: the presence of a charismatic leader; the use of populism to motivate the masses; the designation of the base group as victims (of crises, or elites, or of foreigners); and the direction of all resentment toward an “enemy”. Fascism has no need for a [small “d”] democratic party with members who are individually responsible; it needs an inspiring and authoritative leader who is believed to have superior instincts (making decisions that don’t require supporting arguments), a faction leader who can be obeyed and followed by the masses [83-84].

Sound familiar?

A Guide to Reality, Part 11

In chapter 6 of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, Professor Alex Rosenberg offers an explanation of what he calls “nice nihilism”. The point he wants to make is that, although we should all be ethical nihilists and recognize that morality is an illusion, nihilism is nothing to worry about. We humans have evolved to be nice to each other, on balance, so we can continue to behave ethically despite giving up the idea that any of our ethical beliefs are true or correct.

Rosenberg begins with an account of human evolution, beginning a few million years ago when our ancestors left the African jungle and moved to the savanna. 

savanna2

Scientists believe that our ancestors began consuming more protein on the savanna (see striped animals above). This dietary change had certain biological effects, including increased fertility:

[There were] more mouths to feed over longer periods, but mothers prevented from providing for older offspring by the demands of younger ones; males living longer and so having still more offspring, putting further strains on available resources; and those offspring needing literally years of protection and nourishment before they could fend for themselves [118].

Living on the savanna also meant our ancestors had to compete with other predators and scavengers and avoid being eaten themselves. To make a long story short, the key to survival was cooperation, including the division of labor.

Rosenberg admits that reconstructing the very early history of the human race is somewhat speculative, but he invokes game theory to help explain why cooperation won out. Game theory, supported by computer simulations, has revealed that “tit for tat” and “fair and equal” strategies have the most favorable outcomes over time and, as he points out, human evolution was not an overnight phenomenon.

Still, he wonders whether biology and game theory can alone account for the widespread existence of norms like fairness, equity and cooperation:

But how does natural selection get people to adopt such norms? How does it shape such adaptations? … This problem looks like it’s too hard to be solved by genetically-based natural selection. Maybe if there were genes for playing tit for tat, they would be selected for. But at least in the human case, if not in animal models, such genes seem unlikely [134].

It isn’t clear why Rosenberg doubts the existence of a strong genetic basis for cooperation. On the contrary, there is some recent evidence that human infants have a built-in sense of fair play (The Atheists Guide was published in 2011). Instead, Rosenberg argues that core morality (the morality that’s common among world cultures) has come about partly through a process of “cultural natural selection” (134).

Again, I’m not sure what Rosenberg means by “cultural natural selection”, since earlier he suggested that “core morality is almost certainly locked-in by now” (108). Obviously, purely cultural practices are learned, not transmitted genetically. There is no set of genes that transmits the rules of baseball. Maybe he’s merely pointing out that there is no genetic basis for specific moral rules or practices, like keeping promises or tit-for-tat. Instead, he asks:

What kind of a device could nature have hit on in the course of our evolution that could guarantee to others that we will act in accordance with norms of niceness, fairness, equity and much of the rest of the moral core? It would have had to be a device that overrides the temptation to cheat, cut corners, free-ride when the opportunity occurs [136].

His answer is emotion. Emotions are “hardwired by genes we share” and “get harnessed together” with norms that are adaptive in our environments. They “motivate enforcement” of core morality and also morality’s local variations. For example, he argues that different norms will develop in pastoral vs. agricultural communities. Shepherds have to protect against rustlers, since their animals are easy to lead away. Farmers don’t have a similar problem, since a rustler can’t lead away a herd of wheat. As a result, herding communities develop strong emotions regarding theft and the need for revenge, while farming communities don’t (maybe they develop strong emotions regarding their plots of land, but Rosenberg doesn’t say). Some important combinations of norms and emotions enhance fitness in all environments, however; the norms in those combinations become part of core morality.

I don’t think it’s important for our purposes to understand exactly where the obscure boundary is between genetic and cultural transmission of norms and emotions. His thesis is that there is a strong relationship between morality and emotion, and that natural selection has played an important role in the evolution of both. In particular, the emotions of shame and guilt have been especially important in getting people to choose long-term benefits (e.g., remaining part of a community by behaving nicely) over short-term ones (e.g., enjoying candy you stole from your little brother).

Pointing out the strong connection between morality and emotion isn’t new with Rosenberg or isn’t an especially scientistic view. That connection has been emphasized by most philosophers, some of whom have argued that morality is a kind of cultural emotionalism: morality promotes or should promote behavior that makes people happy or feel good in the long run, and discourages or should discourage behavior that doesn’t. It’s also been pointed out that emotions aren’t usually irrational. People often get angry over things that aren’t that important from other people’s perspective, but angry people can almost always say why they’re angry, and there is usually some validity to their reasoning.

The last issue Rosenberg addresses in chapter 6 is why there is so much bad behavior if morality has been programmed into us. The obvious answer is that there is always variation in traits that are subject to evolution. With morality, most people end up in the middle, with saints on one side and sociopaths on the other. The chapter ends with the reminder that, although core morality evolved into its present form and has contributed to the reproductive success of human beings, that doesn’t make it right or true, since ethical beliefs are neither true nor false. 

One question Rosenberg should have considered in greater depth is whether accepting ethical nihilism would make people behave less ethically. His answer is that we shouldn’t worry about the nihilists who may be lurking in our midst because they’ve also been programmed via natural and cultural selection to behave ethically (for the most part).

But some studies have shown that after being exposed to the idea that they lack free will and therefore aren’t responsible for their actions, people tend to become more selfish or dishonest. Being exposed to new philosophical ideas can clearly affect behavior. It’s been reported that one philosopher, Saul Smilansky, refuses to teach his students about free will and determinism because he’s afraid that their sense of responsibility will be affected. So it isn’t clear at all that the widespread adoption of ethical nihilism by itself or as part of scientism would leave society’s moral behavior untouched. This might be a case in which we couldn’t handle the truth.

Next installment: Whether we should let consciousness be our guide.