Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful

Humanity has long been under the shadow of the Axial Age, no less true today than in centuries past. But what has this meant in both our self-understanding and in the kind of societies we have created? Ideas, as memes, can survive and even dominate for millennia. This can happen even when they are wrong, as long as they are useful to the social order.

One such idea involves nativism and essentialism, made possible through highly developed abstract thought. This notion of something inherent went along with the notion of division, from mind-body dualism to brain modules (what is inherent in one area being separate from what is inherent elsewhere). It goes back at least to the ancient Greeks such as with Platonic idealism (each ideal an abstract thing unto itself), although abstract thought required two millennia of development before it gained its most powerful form through modern science. As Elisa J. Sobo noted, “Ironically, prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of the modern university, most thinkers took a very comprehensive view of the human condition. It was only afterward that fragmented, factorial, compartmental thinking began to undermine our ability to understand ourselves and our place in— and connection with— the world.”

Maybe we are finally coming around to more fully questioning these useful fictions because they have become less useful as the social order changes, as the entire world shifts around us with globalization, climate change, mass immigration, etc. We saw emotions as so essentialist that we decided to start a war against one of them with the War on Terror, as if this emotion was definitive of our shared reality (and a great example of metonymy, by the way), but obviously fighting wars against a reified abstraction isn’t the most optimal strategy for societal progress. Maybe we need new ways of thinking.

The main problem with useful fictions isn’t necessarily that they are false, partial, or misleading. A useful fiction wouldn’t last for millennia if it weren’t, first and foremost, useful (especially true in relation to the views of human nature found in folk psychology). It is true that our seeing these fictions for what they are is a major change, but more importantly what led us to question their validity is that some of them have stopped being as useful as they once were. The nativists, essentialists, and modularists argued that such things as emotional experience, color perception, and language learning were inborn abilities and natural instincts: genetically-determined, biologically-constrained, and neurocognitively-formed. Based on theory, immense amounts of time, energy, and resources were invested into the promises made.

This motivated the entire search to connect everything observable in humans back to a gene, a biological structure, or an evolutionary trait (with the brain getting outsized attention). Yet reality has turned out to be much more complex with environmental factors, epigenetics, brain plasticity, etc. The original quest hasn’t been as fruitful as hoped for, partly because of problems in conceptual frameworks and the scientific research itself, and this has led some to give up on the search. Consider how when one part of the brain is missing or damaged, other parts of the brain often compensate and take over the correlated function. There have been examples of people lacking most of their brain matter and still able to function in what appears to be outwardly normal behavior. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, such that the whole can maintain its integrity even without all of the parts.

The past view of the human mind and body has been too simplistic to an extreme. This is because we’ve lacked the capacity to see most of what goes on in making it possible. Our conscious minds, including our rational thought, is far more limited than many assumed. And the unconscious mind, the dark matter of the mind, is so much more amazing in what it accomplishes. In discussing what they call conceptual blending, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner write (The Way We Think, p. 18):

“It might seem strange that the systematicity and intricacy of some of our most basic and common mental abilities could go unrecognized for so long. Perhaps the forming of these important mechanisms early in life makes them invisible to consciousness. Even more interestingly, it may be part of the evolutionary adaptiveness of these mechanisms that they should be invisible to consciousness, just as the backstage labor involved in putting on a play works best if it is unnoticed. Whatever the reason, we ignore these common operations in everyday life and seem reluctant to investigate them even as objects of scientific inquiry. Even after training, the mind seems to have only feeble abilities to represent to itself consciously what the unconscious mind does easily. This limit presents a difficulty to professional cognitive scientists, but it may be a desirable feature in the evolution of the species. One reason for the limit is that the operations we are talking about occur at lightning speed, presumably because they involve distributed spreading activation in the nervous system, and conscious attention would interrupt that flow.”

As they argue, conceptual blending helps us understand why a language module or instinct isn’t necessary. Research has shown that there is no single part of the brain nor any single gene that is solely responsible for much of anything. The constituent functions and abilities that form language likely evolved separately for other reasons that were advantageous to survival and social life. Language isn’t built into the brain as an evolutionary leap; rather, it was an emergent property that couldn’t have been predicted from any prior neurocognitive development, which is to say language was built on abilities that by themselves would not have been linguistic in nature.

Of course, Fauconnier and Turner are far from being the only proponents of such theories, as this perspective has become increasingly attractive. Another example is Mark Changizi’s theory presented in Harnessed where he argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature” (see more about this here and here). Whatever theory one goes with, what is required is to explain the research challenging and undermining earlier models of cognition, affect, linguistics, and related areas.

Another book I was reading is How Emotions are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. She is covering similar territory, despite her focus being on something so seemingly simple as emotions. We rarely give emotions much thought, taking them for granted, but we shouldn’t. How we understand our experience and expression of emotion is part and parcel of a deeper view that our society holds about human nature, a view that also goes back millennia. This ancient lineage of inherited thought is what makes it problematic, since it feels intuitively true in it being so entrenched within our culture (Kindle Locations 91-93):

“And yet . .  . despite the distinguished intellectual pedigree of the classical view of emotion, and despite its immense influence in our culture and society, there is abundant scientific evidence that this view cannot possibly be true. Even after a century of effort, scientific research has not revealed a consistent, physical fingerprint for even a single emotion.”

“So what are they, really?,” Barret asks about emotions (Kindle Locations 99-104):

“When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real— that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”

This goes along with an area of thought that arose out of philology, classical studies, consciousness studies, Jungian psychology, and anthropology. As always, I’m particularly thinking of the bicameral mind theory of Julian Jaynes. In the most ancient civilizations, there weren’t monetary systems nor according to Jaynes was there consciousness as we know it. He argues that individual self-consciousness was built on an abstract metaphorical space that was internalized and narratized. This privatization of personal space led to the possibility of self-ownership, the later basis of capitalism (and hence capitalist realism). It’s abstractions upon abstractions, until all of modern civilization bootstrapped itself into existence.

The initial potentials within human nature could and have been used to build diverse cultures, but modern society has genocidally wiped out most of this once existing diversity, leaving behind a near total dominance of WEIRD monoculture. This allows us modern Westerners to mistake our own culture for universal human nature. Our imaginations are constrained by a reality tunnel, which further strengthens the social order (control of the mind is the basis for control of society). Maybe this is why certain abstractions have been so central in conflating our social reality with physical reality, as Barret explains (Kindle Locations 2999-3002):

“Essentialism is the culprit that has made the classical view supremely difficult to set aside. It encourages people to believe that their senses reveal objective boundaries in nature. Happiness and sadness look and feel different, the argument goes, so they must have different essences in the brain. People are almost always unaware that they essentialize; they fail to see their own hands in motion as they carve dividing lines in the natural world.”

We make the world in our own image. And then we force this social order on everyone, imprinting it onto not just onto the culture but onto biology itself. With epigenetics, brain plasticity, microbiomes, etc, biology readily accepts this imprinting of the social order (Kindle Locations 5499-5503):

“By virtue of our values and practices, we restrict options and narrow possibilities for some people while widening them for others, and then we say that stereotypes are accurate. They are accurate only in relation to a shared social reality that our collective concepts created in the first place. People aren’t a bunch of billiard balls knocking one another around. We are a bunch of brains regulating each other’s body budgets, building concepts and social reality together, and thereby helping to construct each other’s minds and determine each other’s outcomes.”

There are clear consequences to humans as individuals and communities. But there are other costs as well (Kindle Locations 129-132):

“Not long ago, a training program called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) taught those TSA agents to detect deception and assess risk based on facial and bodily movements, on the theory that such movements reveal your innermost feelings. It didn’t work, and the program cost taxpayers $ 900 million. We need to understand emotion scientifically so government agents won’t detain us— or overlook those who actually do pose a threat— based on an incorrect view of emotion.”

This is one of the ways in which our fictions have become less than useful. As long as societies were relatively isolated, they could maintain their separate fictions and treat them as reality. But in a global society, these fictions end up clashing with each other in not just unuseful ways but in wasteful and dangerous ways. If TSA agents were only trying to observe people who shared a common culture of social constructs, the standard set of WEIRD emotional behaviors would apply. The problem is TSA agents have to deal with people from diverse cultures that have different ways of experiencing, processing, perceiving, and expressing what we call emotions. It would be like trying to understand world cuisine, diet, and eating habits by studying the American patrons of fast food restaurants.

Barret points to the historical record of ancient societies and to studies done on non-WEIRD cultures. What was assumed to be true based on WEIRD scientists studying WEIRD subjects turns out not to be true for the rest of the world. But there is an interesting catch to the research, the reason so much confusion prevailed for so long. It is easy to teach people cultural categories of emotion and how to identify them. Some of the initial research on non-WEIRD populations unintentionally taught the subjects the very WEIRD emotions that they were attempting to study. The structure of the studies themselves had WEIRD biases built into them. It was only with later research that they were able to filter out these biases and observe the actual non-WEIRD responses of non-WEIRD populations.

Researchers only came to understand this problem quite recently. Noam Chomsky, for example, thought it unnecessary to study actual languages in the field. Based on his own theorizing, he believed that studying a single language such as English would tell us everything we needed to know about the basic workings of all languages in the world. This belief proved massively wrong, as field research demonstrated. There was also an idealism in the early Cold War era that lead to false optimism, as Americans felt on top of the world. Chris Knight made this point in Decoding Chomsky (from the Preface):

“Pentagon’s scientists at this time were in an almost euphoric state, fresh from victory in the recent war, conscious of the potential of nuclear weaponry and imagining that they held ultimate power in their hands. Among the most heady of their dreams was the vision of a universal language to which they held the key. […] Unbelievable as it may nowadays sound, American computer scientists in the late 1950s really were seized by the dream of restoring to humanity its lost common tongue. They would do this by designing and constructing a machine equipped with the underlying code of all the world’s languages, instantly and automatically translating from one to the other. The Pentagon pumped vast sums into the proposed ‘New Tower’.”

Chomsky’s modular theory dominated linguistics for more than a half century. It still is held in high esteem, even as the evidence increasingly is stacked against it. This wasn’t just a waste of immense amount of funding. It derailed an entire field of research and stunted the development of a more accurate understanding. Generations of linguists went chasing after a mirage. No brain module of language has been found nor is there any hope of ever finding one. Many researchers wasted their entire careers on a theory that proved false and many of these researchers continue to defend it, maybe in the hope that another half century of research will finally prove it to be true after all.

There is no doubt that Chomsky has a brilliant mind. He is highly skilled in debate and persuasion. He won the battle of ideas, at least for a time. Through sheer power of his intellect, he was able to overwhelm his academic adversaries. His ideas came to dominate the field of linguistics, in what came to be known as the cognitive revolution. But Daniel Everett has stated that “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Dark Matter of the Mind, Kindle Location 306). If anything, Chomsky’s version of essentialism caused the temporary suppression of a revolution that was initiated by linguistic relativists and social constructionists, among others. The revolution was strangled in the crib, partly because it was fighting against an entrenched ideological framework that was millennia old. The initial attempts at research struggled to offer a competing ideological framework and they lost that struggle. Then they were quickly forgotten about, as if the evidence they brought forth was irrelevant.

Barret explains the tragedy of this situation. She is speaking of essentialism in terms of emotions, but it applies to the entire scientific project of essentialism. It has been a failed project that refuses to accept its failure, a paradigm that refuses to die in order to make way for something else. She laments all of the waste and lost opportunities (Kindle Locations 3245-3293):

“Now that the final nails are being driven into the classical view’s coffin in this era of neuroscience, I would like to believe that this time, we’ll actually push aside essentialism and begin to understand the mind and brain without ideology. That’s a nice thought, but history is against it. The last time that construction had the upper hand, it lost the battle anyway and its practitioners vanished into obscurity. To paraphrase a favorite sci-fi TV show, Battlestar Galactica, “All this has happened before and could happen again.” And since the last occurrence, the cost to society has been billions of dollars, countless person-hours of wasted effort, and real lives lost. […]

“The official history of emotion research, from Darwin to James to behaviorism to salvation, is a byproduct of the classical view. In reality, the alleged dark ages included an outpouring of research demonstrating that emotion essences don’t exist. Yes, the same kind of counterevidence that we saw in chapter 1 was discovered seventy years earlier . .  . and then forgotten. As a result, massive amounts of time and money are being wasted today in a redundant search for fingerprints of emotion. […]

“It’s hard to give up the classical view when it represents deeply held beliefs about what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the facts remain that no one has found even a single reliable, broadly replicable, objectively measurable essence of emotion. When mountains of contrary data don’t force people to give up their ideas, then they are no longer following the scientific method. They are following an ideology. And as an ideology, the classical view has wasted billions of research dollars and misdirected the course of scientific inquiry for over a hundred years. If people had followed evidence instead of ideology seventy years ago, when the Lost Chorus pretty solidly did away with emotion essences, who knows where we’d be today regarding treatments for mental illness or best practices for rearing our children.”



One thought on “Useful Fictions Becoming Less Useful

  1. Let me give an example. Eyesight necessitates particular genetics. That is necessary but not sufficient. The development of eyesight also requires other conditions and factors.

    Nutrition, disease, parasites, toxins, etc will determine if eyesight develops normally or at all. Quite likely epigenetics will determine various ways vision-related genes get expressed or whether they get expressed. Also, someone raised in darkness will never develop normal eyesight, as there is a key phase of vision development that requires particular external conditions (e.g., light).

    Furthermore, social science research and the anthropological record prove how language and culture powerfully shapes and constrains visual perception. This will contribute to what color distinctions one is able to see or how easily one is able to make the distinction. The very concept of color separate from other visual perception is also culturally-based.

    Consider another example. It appears that many animals, humans included, have a basic ability to discern amounts up to three. All numerical systems beyond that are cultural creations.

    But it is highly probable that even the cognitive capacity to understand 1, 2, and 3 is dependent on early life experience involving such amounts. If someone was raised without any amount distinctions in their environment, it’s possible that even these most basic amount distinctions wouldn’t develop and, no matter if they were then introduced, they might never develop.

    Similar issues have been found with spatial sense, temporal sense, etc. The kind of culture and environment (or deprivation thereof) effects every aspect of development. A gene never acts alone. And any given gene could express in vastly diverse ways depending on not just the relation to other genes but also to everything else involved.

    There is nothing natural about any given pathway of development. Humans simply have many potentialities that can express and combine to form many results. This isn’t obvious to us because almost everyone we meet in our entire life shares some basic conditions of culture and environment. We even share the same microbes and parasites with those in our same society.

    A fiction is useful because it developed in a specific context. It is useful to all of those who share a common set of conditions and factors. The social fictions of Bronze Age civilizations were useful to them, as trade had created some shared level of influences. Once that broke down, those social fictions were no longer useful. A dark age followed.

    With the Axial Age, new kinds of social fictions formed that made possible new kinds of civilizations. Those social fictions form the basis of the world we inherited. Those social fictions have been pushed to an extreme with hyper-individualism, capitalist realism, and such. But maybe in their extreme forms, the costs related to them are becoming greater than the benefits.

    Like Bronze Age civilizations, we might be pushed to a breaking point where our social fictions become detrimental instead of useful. Maybe we are at this very moment experiencing a breakdown of social fictions. That could explain the sense of stress at the national and global levels. This could be an opportunity to embrace new social fictions or, failing that, social collapse for failure to adapt to changing conditions.

    We humans are adaptable. That is one of the main points of the non-essentialist view. This isn’t the only possible world, much less the best of all possible worlds. It’s simply one way for human potential to express, one way among unknown numbers of other possibilities. We cling to our social fictions at our own peril.

    Those Bronze Age civilizations lasted for millennia. From their perspective, that was all they knew and they never expected it could come to an end. Their social fictions were their sense of reality. But those social fictions made their social order too rigid for adaptation to change.

    All civilizations come to an end, either through transformation into something new or simply ending. Unlike those ancient civilizations, we have the advantage of knowing how this plays out.

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