Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


A Galaxy of Worlds; a Galaxy of Events

Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers into it . . . They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens onto another world . . . and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. . . . all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.

Something wonderful happens to you and you instantly look back over your life and see it as a series of fortunate events stretching off into the distance like mountain peaks. Something terrible happens and your life has always been a litany of woe. The present rearranges the past. We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.

Stories are compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.

The quotes above are from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Below is what I wrote for my review:

An evocative collection of meditations that emerged from a time of crisis in Solnit's life, centered on her mother's descent into Alzheimer's and her diagnosis of and treatment for potential cancer. Solnit's writing is fluid and meandering, flowing lyrically from thought to thought, topic to topic. Themes recur frequently and range widely: life in the arctic, decaying apricots, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Che Guevara, leprosy, The Arabian Nights, Buddhism, ice, mirrors, breath, wounds, knots, and more. Central to the entire enterprise is consideration of the nature and purpose of stories, and how telling her own has helped her heal.

Less connected than the rest is a bonus . . . meditation still seems to be the best word to describe what is part story, part essay, part philosophy, part poem . . . a bonus meditation that runs one line on the bottom of each page the length of the entire book: "Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds." Less connected explicitly; encapsulating the entire enterprise thematically. It concludes:
Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. The birds sleep on, inadvertent givers. The moths fly on, enriched. We feed on sorrows, on stories, on the spaciousness they open up when they let us travel in our imagination beyond our own limits, when they dissolve the boundaries that confine us and urge us to extend the potentialities of our imperfect, broken, incomplete selves. Those apricots my brother brought me in three big cardboard boxes long ago, were they tears too? And this book, is it tears? Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your stories?
It is a moving and satisfying book.


Librarian Thoughts

This is probably something most people couldn't care less about, but I was tickled by the widely varied and eclectic nature of the results in my library catalog for a keyword search for the phrase What We Do Is Secret (not-books noted as such):

  • What We Do Is Secret (We Can Never Go Home, v.1) (graphic novel)
  • A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire
  • The Conversation: A Revolutionary Plan for End-of-life Care
  • Feeling Good Together: The Secret of Making Troubled Relationships Work
  • In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (DVD)
  • The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids
  • The DASH Diet Weight Loss Solution: 2 Weeks to Drop Pounds, Boost Metabolism and Get Healthy
  • The Philosophy of Jesus
  • Turn up the Heat: A Couples Guide to Sexual Intimacy
  • Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)
  • Daddy Long Legs: Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording (CD)
  • After Snowden: Privacy, Secrecy, and Security in the Information Age
  • Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist
  • The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era
  • Gone Girl (CD)
  • Sealing the Deal: The Love Mentor's Guide to Lasting Love
  • The Taboos of Leadership: The 10 Secrets No One Will Tell You About Leaders and What They Really Think
  • Fit + Female: The Perfect Fitness and Nutrition Game Plan for your Unique Body Type
  • Savin' the Honky Tonk (CD)
  • You Won't Remember This: Stories
  • The Greatest Controversies of Early Christian History
  • Biochemistry for Dummies
  • The Husband Project
  • The Storyteller's Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch on and Others Don't
And that's only the first page of results (of four).

So the next time someone asks you what do stories, storytelling, sex, love, dying, eating, parenting, Jesus, driving, theft, atomic energy, espionage, leadership, fitness, biochemistry, and music have in common? You can answer, "secrets."


A Thing I Did

I was asked to speak at a wedding on Saturday night. This is what I came up with.

I am honored B asked me to share a few thoughts today, starting with the fact that it’s always been obvious that he and K are a perfect match. Casual observation is more than enough to see they connect, understand each other at an instinctual level, and are always at the top of each other’s thoughts. They have something special, and I’m delighted they are getting married today.

So . . . when you ask a librarian to say something at your wedding, you can’t be surprised if you get literary references in response. And when you ask a children’s librarian, you might even have to prepare yourself for the possibility of storytime. I’d like to share three brief pieces with you today: a poem, a hopefully humorous cautionary tale, and a quote.

By Sheri Hostetler

Give up the world; give up self; finally, give up God.
Find god in rhododendrons and rocks,
passers-by, your cat.
Pare your beliefs, your absolutes.
Make it simple; make it clean.
No carry-on luggage allowed.
Examine all you have
with a loving and critical eye, then
throw away some more.
Repeat. Repeat.
Keep this and only this:
what your heart beats loudly for
what feels heavy and full in your gut.
There will only be one or two
things you will keep,
and they will fit lightly in your pocket.

Tadpole’s Promise
By Jeanne Willis
(abridged for brevity)

Where the willow meets the water, a tadpole met a caterpillar. They gazed into each other’s tiny eyes . . . and fell in love. She was his beautiful rainbow, and he was her shiny black pearl. “I love everything about you,” said the tadpole. “I love everything about you,” said the caterpillar. “Promise you’ll never change.” “I promise,” he said.

But as sure as the weather changes, the tadpole could not keep his promise. Next time they met, he had grown two legs. “You’ve broken your promise,” said the caterpillar. “Forgive me,” begged the tadpole. “I couldn’t help it. I don’t want these legs. . . . All I want is my beautiful rainbow.” “All I want is my shiny black pearl. Promise me you’ll never change,” said the caterpillar. “I promise,” he said.

[And as is so often the case in cautionary tales, the pattern repeats a second and third time. The tadpole gradually becomes a frog.] “You have broken your promise three times, and now you have broken my heart,” said the caterpillar. “But you are my beautiful rainbow,” said the tadpole. “Yes, but you are not my shiny black pearl. Good-bye.” She crawled up the willow branch and cried herself to sleep.

One warm moonlit night, she woke up. The sky had changed. The trees had changed. Everything had changed . . . except for her love for the tadpole. Even though he’d broken his promise, she decided to forgive him. She dried her wings and fluttered down to look for him.

Where the willow meets the water, a frog was sitting on a lily pad. “Excuse me,” she said. “Have you seen my shiny black . . . “ But faster than she could say “pearl,” the frog leapt up and swallowed her in one great gulp. And there he waits . . . thinking fondly of his beautiful rainbow . . . wondering where she went.

Something Mark Twain wrote in one of his notebooks in 1894:

Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.

Finally, a few words of my own about marriage. Today is just the start. Plan to grow and change together. Plan to grow and change separately. Be each your own self, and savor sharing who you are with your other. Always see the best in each other and reflect it back so the other knows what you see. Offer honey, not vinegar. Provide solace, compassion, and unconditional support. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Trust. Communicate. And remember that our habits make us who we are, so find time every day for the good-bye kisses, welcome home hugs, and quiet gestures that embody your love.


Reading Is Recreation

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."
 ~ Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, Life of Johnson (1791)

"Cultivate above all things a taste for reading. There is no pleasure so cheap, so innocent, and so remunerative as the real, hearty pleasure and taste for reading. It does not come to every one naturally. Some people take to it naturally, and others do not; but I advise you to cultivate it, and endeavor to promote it in your minds. In order to do that you should read what amuses you and pleases you. You should not begin with difficult works, because, if you do, you will find the pursuit dry and tiresome. I would even say to you, read novels, read frivolous books, read anything that will amuse you and give you a taste for reading."
 ~ Robert Lowe, 'Speech to the students of the Croyden Science and Art Schools' (1869)

Reading for pleasure is clearly not a revolutionary idea, though it is often frowned upon by some. We in the library world often find ourselves fighting the notion that people, especially kids, should only read "quality literature." I spent the last two summers heading up my library system's Summer Reading initiative. The traditional model for such programs has been signing up for them at the start of summer and getting rewarded with free books and other prizes at the end. We've been working to break the mold. Here are the "philosophical stance" pieces I wrote for our marketing and promotional departments to use as guidance in crafting their messages.

For summer 2016; theme: "On Your Mark, Get Set . . . Read!" (think sports and Olympics):

Read Freely and Triumphantly

When better than an election year to celebrate that fundamental American value of freedom? When better to exercise it than summer, when an abundance of free time is available, allowing for more pursuit of happiness? And one core source of human happiness is engagement with stories. We find our identities in the stories we tell about ourselves, we find connection with others when we experience their stories, and we find entertainment and escape when we immerse ourselves in stories that capture our imaginations. Summer means the freedom to explore new stories.

Summer Reading is the library’s vehicle to aid you in that pursuit. Just as athletes have Olympic competition to spur their quests for prowess and celebrate their achievements, Summer Reading offers prizes, goal setting, badges and certificates, and other measures of success. Those same athletes wouldn’t be pursuing mastery of their domains if they didn’t find innate pleasure in simply participating in their activities, though. Sport, for them, is first and foremost an enjoyable recreational pursuit. So it is with reading. While reading may enable self-improvement* the same way sports provide health benefits, we ultimately read because the activity of reading is fun in and of itself. Summer Reading means the freedom to read for pleasure.

So we invite you to join us this summer in reading pleasurable stories. If you aren’t sure which books you’re most likely to enjoy, ask a librarian—we exist to happily help you find what you need. Additionally, log what you read online or on paper for extra motivation and celebration, and you will be one of our many Summer Reading champions.

*Reading, like athletic pursuits, is a skill, and the more a skill is practiced the more proficiency grows. Reading during the summer prevents skill decay (and can even lead to improvement) in students who aren’t reading for school, thus boosting their academic achievement. Reading stories also physically and psychologically impacts the same parts of the brain as actual experiences, leading to gains in interpersonal skills, empathy, problem solving ability, and emotional intelligence.

For summer 2017; theme: "Build a Better World":

Reading as Play – Building a Better Summer Reading Program

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do,” wrote Mark Twain 140 years ago in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He described the wealthy men who paid for the privilege of driving four-horse passenger-coaches as Play, “but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

Current research on motivation shows Twain was indeed a “great and wise philosopher” (as he calls himself in the passage). Autonomy, the freedom to make one’s own choices, is key to making a pursuit fun; payment and rewards and external incentives cast the activity in an entirely different light, turning it into a forced task that is easy to resent and begrudge—they are ultimately de-motivating.

The library is dedicated to helping its community experience reading as Play and not as Work. In particular, our youth, who are especially engaged in the process of determining the distinctions between the two.  In 2017, we are applying to Summer Reading Twain’s insights into and that research on motivation.

No longer will prize books be given as rewards at the end of the summer; they will now be given as gifts at the start of summer to all who are interested. The books are not “payment” for Work performed, they are tools for Play with no strings attached. We want to help our youth build their own personal libraries that they choose for themselves to read as recreation.

We will be applying this philosophy in other, less conspicuous ways as well, and invite you to join us. Let’s make reading Play by taking all of the Work out of it. It is not an obligation. It is fun. And for it to be fun, it is a choice we applaud, not a task we reward.

This summer, we want to help you build your personal libraries so that your reading belongs entirely to you. We want to help you Play.

The nitty-gritty:
•    Limit one book per participant, please.
•    Reading logs remain an integral part of the process.
•    We will celebrate your reading accomplishments with you at the end of the summer with completion certificates and grand prize drawings.

And don’t forget: Check our event calendar regularly for all of the special activities we’ll have throughout the summer. Reading is only one of the many types of Play we offer.

Maybe not the best pieces ever, but we were trying to communicate the philosophy, tie into the themes, communicate excitement, and prepare for push back. That last piece was especially important, because we're trying to change a mindset that's very ingrained in many parents and educators. It's a gradual process.


Why Can't We All Just Get Along?

I decided to browse the responses at Edge to the 2017 annual question: What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to Be More Widely Known? Some of the responses share a theme that intrigued me, so I thought I'd put them into a bit of a dialogue with each other.

First up: Reciprocal Altruism by Margaret Levi. Excerpts:
For societies to survive and thrive, some significant proportion of their members must engage in reciprocal altruism. All sorts of animals, including humans, will pay high individual costs to provide benefits for a non-intimate other. Indeed, this kind of altruism plays a critical role in producing cooperative cultures that improve a group’s welfare, survival, and fitness. . . .

Evidence is strong that for many human reciprocal altruists the anticipated repayment is not necessarily for the person who makes the initial sacrifice or even for their family members. By creating a culture of cooperation, the expectation is that sufficient others will engage in altruistic acts as needed to ensure the well being of those within the boundaries of the given community. The return to such long-sighted reciprocal altruists is the establishment of norms of cooperation that endure beyond the lifetime of any particular altruist. Gift-exchange relationships documented by anthropologists are mechanisms for redistribution to ensure group stability; so are institutionalized philanthropy and welfare systems in modern economies.

At issue is how giving norms evolve and help preserve a group. Reciprocal altruism—be it with immediate or long-term expectations—offers a model of appropriate behavior, but, equally importantly, it sets in motion a process of reciprocity that defines expectations of those in the society. If the norms become strong enough, those who deviate will be subject to punishment—internal in the form of shame and external in the form of penalties ranging from verbal reprimand, torture or confinement, and banishment from the group. . . .

If we are trying to build an enduring and encompassing ethical society, tight boundaries around deserving beneficiaries of altruistic acts becomes problematic. If we accept such boundaries, we are quickly in the realm of wars and terrorism in which some populations are considered non-human or, at least, non-deserving of beneficence.  

The concept of reciprocal altruism allows us to explore what it means to be human and to live in a humane society. Recognition of the significance of reciprocal altruism for the survival of a culture makes us aware of how dependent we are on each other. Sacrifices and giving, the stuff of altruism, are necessary ingredients for human cooperation, which itself is the basis of effective and thriving societies.
Let me repeat that next-to-last paragraph for emphasis: If we are trying to build an enduring and encompassing ethical society, tight boundaries around deserving beneficiaries of altruistic acts becomes problematic. If we accept such boundaries, we are quickly in the realm of wars and terrorism in which some populations are considered non-human or, at least, non-deserving of beneficence. That's the rub. If we want a healthy, thriving society, we need to make cooperation and altruism the standard expectation, and if we try to put too many qualifiers on who is deserving it all starts to fall apart. It's not so much a matter of the specifics and particulars, but on the overarching orientation toward openness and generosity. That is the foundation and framework that makes the rest work.

Consider, for instance, Alloparenting by Abigail Marsh:
To alloparent is to provide care for offspring that are not your own. It is a behavior that is unimaginable for most species (few of which even care for their own offspring), rare even among relatively nurturant classes of animals like birds and mammals, and central to the existence of humankind. The vigor and promiscuity with which humans in every culture around the world alloparent stands in stark contrast to widespread misconceptions about who we are and how we should raise our children.

Humans’ survival as a species over the last 200,000 years has depended on our motivation and ability to care for one another’s children. . . . No other species is on the hook for anywhere near the amount of care that we humans must provide our children.

Luckily, evolution never meant for us to do it alone. As the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy has described, among foraging cultures that best approximate our ancestral conditions, human babies never rely on only one person, or even two people, for care. Instead they are played with, protected, cleaned, transported, and fed (even nursed) by a wide array of relatives and other group members—as many as twenty different individuals every day, in some cases. And the more alloparenting children get, the more likely they are to survive and flourish. . . .

As the historian Stephanie Coontz has put it, human children “do best in societies where childrearing is considered too important to be left entirely to parents.” When children receive care from a network of loving caregivers, not only are mothers relieved of the nearly impossible burden of caring for and rearing a needy human infant alone, but their children gain the opportunity to learn from an array of supportive adults, to form bonds with them, and to learn to love and trust widely rather than narrowly. . . .

Across primate species, the prevalence of alloparenting is also the single best predictor of a behavior that theories portraying human nature as motivated strictly by rational self-interest struggle to explain: altruism. Not reciprocal altruism or altruism toward close kin (which are self-interested) but costly acts of altruism for unrelated others, even strangers. This sort of altruism can seem inexplicable according to dominant accounts of altruism like reciprocity and kin selection. But it is perfectly consistent with the idea that, as alloparents sine qua non, humans are designed to be attuned to and motivated to care for a wide array of needy and vulnerable others. Altruism for one another is likely an exaptation of evolved neural mechanisms that equip us to alloparent.

As Marsh mentions in the response, that is pretty far from what we consider ideal model parenting in our current society. Ziyad Marar considers that dynamic more generally in Social Identity:
We know we are ultra-social animals and yet have a consistent blind spot about how truly social we are. Our naïve realism leans us toward a self-image as individual, atomistic rational agents experiencing life as though peering out on the world through a window. And like the fish that swims unaware of the water in which it is suspended, we struggle to see the social reality in which our actions are meaningfully conducted.

Contrary to this view, psychology has shown repeatedly how deeply permeated each of us is by a social identity. This is an important corrective to our illusory self-image and gives us a better insight into our social natures. . . .

To introduce the social is not to add distortion to otherwise clear thinking. For good and for ill, our social identities are minded not mindless. . . .

Social identities can change, and as they do the logic of who is seen as "one of us" changes too. My sense of myself as a father, a publisher, a Londoner, a manager or as someone with Arabic heritage and family shapes the decision space around what it is rational for me to think and do quite profoundly. My allegiances, self-esteem, prejudices, willingness to be led or influenced, sense of fairness, sense of solidarity, biases about "people like me," all are to an extent shaped by the collective self that is salient to me at the time. This is not to deny my individuality, it is to recognise how it is irreducibly expressed through a social lens, and that my social identity changes the way it makes sense for me to engage with the world.

This matters because when we see ourselves purely as rational, individual actors we miss the fact that the social is not just providing the context in which we act. It is deeply constitutive of who we are. But if we to turn to the collective view and merely see irrational action, whether "mad" rioters, "crazy" extremists, or "evil" people who have different ideological commitments to our own, we are condemned to judging others without any chance of comprehending them. A better understanding of our truly social identities would equip us not only with the tools to understand better those who we might ordinarily dismiss as irrational, but also to help us better understand our ultra-social selves.
We are social. No matter how much we want to think of ourselves as isolated individuals, our relationships to others necessarily define us and motivate us. In the best circumstances, we are altruistic and cooperative. It doesn't take much, though, to cause us to sharply focus on an "us" in contrast to a "them." To keep us from getting along.

Consider Antisocial Preferences by Steven Quartz:
Contrary to Homo economicus, people appear to care about more than their own material payoffs. They care about fairness and appear to care about the positive welfare of others. They possess what economists refer to as social preferences. . . . Such behavior has been interpreted as evidence for strong reciprocity, a form of altruism on which human cooperation may depend. . . .

Far less well-known is recent research probing the darker side of departures from rational self-interest. What emerges is a creature fueled by antisocial preferences, who creates a whole variety of social dilemmas. The common feature of antisocial preferences is a willingness to make others worse off even when it comes at a cost to oneself. Such behaviors are distinct from more prosocial ones, such as altruistic punishment, where me may punish someone for violating social norms. It’s more like basic spite, envy, or malice. . . .

The expression and intensity of antisocial preferences appears linked to resource scarcity and competition pressures. . . .

Antisocial preferences thus follow an evolutionary logic found across nature and rooted in such rudimentary behaviors as bacteria that release toxins to kill closely-related species: harming behaviors reduce competition and should thus covary with competition intensity. In humans, they underlie such real-world behaviors as the rate of “witch” murders in rural Tanzania. As Edward Miguel found there, these murders double during periods of crop failure. The so-called witches are typically elderly women killed by relatives, who are both blamed for causing crop failure and whose death as the most unproductive members of a household helps alleviate economic hardship in times of extremely scarce resources.

Why should the concept of antisocial preferences be more widely-known and used in the general culture? I think there are two main reasons. Although we still tend to blame Homo economicus for many social dilemmas, many are better explained by antisocial preferences. Consider, for example, attitudes toward income redistribution. If these were based on rational self-interest, anyone earning less than mean income should favor redistribution since they stand to benefit from that policy. Since income inequality skews income distribution rightward, with increasing inequality a larger share of the population has income below the mean and so support for redistribution should rise. Yet, empirically this is not the case. One reason is antisocial preferences. As Ilyana Kuziemko and colleagues found, people exhibit “last place aversion” both in the lab and in everyday social contexts. That is, individuals near the bottom of the income distribution oppose redistribution because they fear it might result in people below them either catching up to them or overtaking them, leaving them at the bottom of the status hierarchy.

The second reason why antisocial preferences should be more widely known has to do with long-run trends in resource scarcity and competition pressures. A nearly 40-year trend of broad-based wage stagnation and projections of anemic long-term economic growth mean increasing resource scarcity and competition pressures for the foreseeable future. As a result, we should expect antisocial preferences to increasingly dominate prosocial ones as primary social attitudes. In the United States, for example, the poorest and unhealthiest states are the ones most opposed to Federal programs aimed at helping the poorest and unhealthiest. We can only make sense of such apparent paradoxical human behavior by a broader understanding of the irrational, spiteful and self-destructive behaviors rooted in antisocial preferences and the contexts that trigger them.

Very similar is the competition mentality of Relative Deprivation by Kurt Gray:
Relative deprivation is that idea that people feel disadvantaged when they lack the resources or opportunities of another person or social group. An American living in a trailer park has an objective high standard of living compared with the rest of the world and the long tail of human history: they have creature comforts, substantial freedom of choice, and significant safety. Nevertheless, they feel deprived because they compare their lives with glamorous celebrities and super-rich businessmen. Relative deprivation tells us that social and financial status is more a feeling rather a fact, spelling trouble for traditional economics.

Economists largely agree that economic growth is good for everyone. In lifting the profits of corporations and the salaries of CEOs, the engine of capitalism also pulls up the lifestyle of everyone else. Although this idea is objectively true—standards of living are generally higher when the free market reigns—it is subjectively false. When everyone gets richer, no one feels better off because, well, everyone gets richer.  What people really want is to feel richer than everyone else. . . .

The yearning for relative status seems irrational, but it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We evolved in small groups where relative status determined everything, including how much you could eat, and whether you could procreate. Although most Americans can now eat and procreate with impunity, we haven’t lost that gnawing sensitivity to status. If anything, our relative status is now more important. Because our basic needs are met, we have a hard time determining whether we’re doing well, and so we judge ourselves based upon our place in the hierarchy.  

Relative deprivation can make sense of many curious human behaviors, such as why exposure to the rich makes middle class people get sick and take dangerous risks. . . .

The real problem with relative deprivation is that—while it can be pushed around—it can never be truly solved.  When one group rises in relative richness, another group feels worse because of it.  When your neighbors get an addition or a new convertible, your house and your car inevitably look inadequate. When uneducated white men feel better, then women, professors, and people of color inevitably feel worse.  Relative deprivation suggests that economic advancement is less like a rising tide and more like see-saw.  

Of course, one easy trick around relative deprivation is to change your perspective; each of us can look around for someone who is relatively less successful.  Unfortunately, there’s always someone at the very bottom and they’re looking straight up, wishing that they lived like a king.

And in Coalitional Instincts, John Tooby looks at how we instinctively define ourselves by our group affiliations, which require us to differentiate ourselves from non-group members:
Every human—not excepting scientists—bears the whole stamp of the human condition. This includes evolved neural programs specialized for navigating the world of coalitions—teams, not groups. . . . These programs enable us and induce us to form, maintain, join, support, recognize, defend, defect from, factionalize, exploit, resist, subordinate, distrust, dislike, oppose, and attack coalitions. Coalitions are sets of individuals interpreted by their members and/or by others as sharing a common abstract identity (including propensities to act as a unit, to defend joint interests, and to have shared mental states and other properties of a single human agent, such as status and prerogatives).

You are a member of a coalition only if someone (such as you) interprets you as being one, and you are not if no one does. We project coalitions onto everything, even where they have no place, such as in science. We are identity-crazed. . . .

The primary function that drove the evolution of coalitions is the amplification of the power of its members in conflicts with non-members. This function explains a number of otherwise puzzling phenomena. For example, ancestrally, if you had no coalition you were nakedly at the mercy of everyone else, so the instinct to belong to a coalition has urgency, preexisting and superseding any policy-driven basis for membership. This is why group beliefs are free to be so weird. Since coalitional programs evolved to promote the self-interest of the coalition’s membership (in dominance, status, legitimacy, resources, moral force, etc.), even coalitions whose organizing ideology originates (ostensibly) to promote human welfare often slide into the most extreme forms of oppression, in complete contradiction to the putative values of the group. . . .

Moreover, to earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups. Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs and to attack and misrepresent rival groups. The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements. Communications of practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals, because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty. In contrast, unusual, exaggerated beliefs—such as supernatural beliefs (e.g., god is three persons but also one person), alarmism, conspiracies, or hyperbolic comparisons—are unlikely to be said except as expressive of identity, because there is no external reality to motivate nonmembers to speak absurdities.
Again: The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements. We want and need social connection, and it strengthens our connections to make exaggerated and untrue claims about those outside of our connections.

It seems we are caught in a constant tug-and-pull between two types of instincts: Others are good. Others are bad. And the question of how to negotiate those instincts remains.


The Fictions That Give Meaning to the World

The crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another. Humans nowadays completely dominate the planet not because the individual human is far smarter and more nimble-fingered than the individual chimp or wolf, but because Homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of cooperating flexibly in large numbers. Intelligence and toolmaking were obviously very important as well. But if humans had not learned to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, our crafty brains and deft hands would still be splitting flint stones rather than uranium atoms. . . .

To the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This concrete capability--rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness--explains our mastery of planet earth.


Most people presume that reality is either objective or subjective . . .

However, there is a third level of reality: the intersubjective level. Intersubjective entities depend on communication among many humans rather than on the beliefs and feelings of individual humans. Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example . . .


Sapiens rule the world because only they can weave an intersubjective web of meaning: a web of laws, forces, entities and places that exist purely in their common imagination. This web allows humans alone to organise crusades, socialist revolutions and human rights movements.


As human fictions are translated into genetic and electronic codes, the intersubjective reality will swallow up the objective reality and biology will merge with history. In the twenty-first century fiction might thereby become the most potent force on earth, surpassing even wayward asteroids and natural selection. Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.


In the twenty-first century we will create more powerful fictions and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds, and to create entire virtual worlds complete with hells and heavens. Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.

That long series of quotes is from the book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari. Here's what I wrote in my review:
Absolutely fascinating. Daring and provocative. Complex, philosophical, and thoughtful. Engaging, absorbing, and relatively easy to read. This is science nonfiction: extrapolating the history of humanity in light of current scientific, technological, and political trends to make predictions about what might come next.

The basic premise: the great challenges of the twentieth century were overcoming famine, plague, and war, and in the most general terms those pursuits have been successful. They were aimed at safeguarding the norms of human existence. With those goals met, we have moved into the new territory of surpassing those norms, and thus the new projects of the twenty-first century are gaining immortality, bliss, and divinity.

Those are bold claims that immediately riled up my natural skeptic, but Harari hooked me enough that I gave him a chance to convince me. I'm glad I did. This is a historical prediction, not a political manifesto, he writes in the introduction. It is food for thought, not a road map, meant to raise questions and create thoughtful intercourse more than provide answers. And it offers a feast to mull and consider. Absolutely fascinating.
In broad terms, the book describes how this intersubjective storytelling ability combined the past few centuries with Humanism--the only true recent religion, through which all other religions and political systems have interpreted themselves--to bring us to our present reality. The foreboding conclusion is the possible rise of Dataism as a new religion that could replace Humanism, which would understand existence and meaning as mere numbers and algorithms, and could lead the potentially benevolent pursuits in sinister directions. As I said, there is much food for thought.

A few more random quotes that I liked:
Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.

Some scientists concede that consciousness is real and may actually have great moral and political value, but that it fulfills no biological function whatsoever. Consciousness is the biologically useless by-product of certain brain processes. . . . consciousness may be a kind of mental pollution produced by the firing of complex neural networks. It doesn’t do anything. It is just there. If this is true, it implies that all the pain and pleasure experienced by billions of creatures for millions of years is just mental pollution. This is certainly a thought worth thinking, even if it isn’t true. But it is quite amazing to realise that as of 2016, this is the best theory of consciousness that contemporary science has to offer us.

People feel bound by democratic elections only when they share a basic bond with most other voters. If the experience of other voters is alien to me, and if I believe they don't understand my feelings and don't care about my vital interests, then even if I am outvoted by a hundred to one I have absolutely no reason to accept the verdict. Democratic elections usually work only within populations that have some prior common bond, such as shared religious beliefs or national myths. They are a method to settle disagreements among people who already agree on the basics.


On My Mind

From Grandfather and the Moon

Nothing too prosaic on my mind lately, so here are some random thoughts and images.

Recently I was asked to do a little exercise in preparation for an upcoming discussion at work:

The list on the back page is a list of individual values. It is not an all inclusive list and you may have additional values to add. Begin by circling 10 or so values from the list that reflect what is important to you.

Focus on those 10. Which are the most important? Which are least important? Which can you let go? Reduce your list by 5 values.

Can you remove 2 more? If you struggle, rank the remaining values and focus on the top 3. Define and describe that those values mean to you.

I didn't spend a ton of time fretting over it, just quickly went with my gut. A few were easy to immediately eliminate. My initial list of 10 or so:

  • Caring
  • Compassion
  • Competence
  • Democracy
  • Empathy
  • Excellence
  • Helping Others
  • Integrity
  • Public Service
  • Responsibility
  • Spirituality
  • Trust
  • Wisdom
I found I didn't have to gradually reduce the list from there, but could pick out three that were most vital and, as much as possible, incorporated the spirit of the ones I'd have to eliminate. My top three:

  • Empathy
  • Responsibility
  • Wisdom
The idea being that if you're responsible, you'll hopefully also strive for competence, integrity, and excellence. If you have empathy, you'll also have caring and compassion. With wisdom comes spirituality. If you have wise, responsible empathy, you'll be motivated to help others and enjoy public service. And if everyone demonstrates those values, we should be able to build trust and democracy. In theory, anyway.

It’s in those moments of admitting and accepting your own terribleness that you realize other people can be terrible too. And if they can be terrible too, then maybe they can be vulnerable too, caring too, and all the things that you are and hope to be.
― Aaron Starmer, Spontaneous

Speaking of random thoughts and images, lately I've really been enjoying playing around with InspiroBot, which describes itself with:
I am an artificial intelligence dedicated to generating unlimited amounts of unique inspirational quotes for endless enrichment of pointless human existence.
I found it through the article AI Trying To Design Inspirational Posters Goes Horribly And Hilariously Wrong. InspiroBot was apparently created to invent inspirational sayings and share them with accompanying images, assuming it was fed a plethora of real examples to learn from. The random combinations it produces, though, are hilariously skewed and sometimes quite scarily dark. Every so often, one comes up that's actually profound. Here are some of my favorites, starting with wonderful nonsense:

And now for a few that are particularly inspirational:

Here's one for cooks and chefs that's quite accurate and true:

I think these contain some pretty meaningful philosophical thoughts:

Though if I could cut off my addiction to the infinite possibilities, I wouldn't keep obsessively visiting InspiroBot.

Speaking of empathy, this one says so much:

Books are like mirrors: if a fool looks in, you cannot expect a genius to look out.
― J.K. Rowling

And, finally, the truest, most accurate piece of inspirational advice ever: