Delirium of Hyper-Individualism

Individualism is a strange thing. For anyone who has spent much time meditating, it’s obvious that there is no there there. It slips through one’s grasp like an ancient philosopher trying to study aether. The individual self is the modernization of the soul. Like the ghost in the machine and the god in the gaps, it is a theological belief defined by its absence in the world. It’s a social construct, a statement that is easily misunderstood.

In modern society, individualism has been raised up to an entire ideological worldview. It is all-encompassing, having infiltrated nearly every aspect of our social lives and become internalized as a cognitive frame. Traditional societies didn’t have this obsession with an idealized self as isolated and autonomous. Go back far enough and the records seem to show societies that didn’t even have a concept, much less an experience, of individuality.

Yet for all its dominance, the ideology of individualism is superficial. It doesn’t explain much of our social order and personal behavior. We don’t act as if we actually believe in it. It’s a convenient fiction that we so easily disregard when inconvenient, as if it isn’t all that important after all. In our most direct experience, individuality simply makes no sense. We are social creatures through and through. We don’t know how to be anything else, no matter what stories we tell ourselves.

The ultimate value of this individualistic ideology is, ironically, as social control and social justification.

The wealthy, the powerful and privileged, even the mere middle class to a lesser degree — they get to be individuals when everything goes right. They get all the credit and all the benefits. All of society serves them because they deserve it. But when anything goes wrong, they hire lawyers who threaten anyone who challenges them or they settle out of court, they use their crony connections and regulatory capture to avoid consequences, they declare bankruptcy when one of their business ventures fail, and they endlessly scapegoat those far below them in the social hierarchy.

The profits and benefits are privatized while the costs are externalized. This is socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, with the middle class getting some combination of the two. This is why democratic rhetoric justifies plutocracy while authoritarianism keeps the masses in line. This stark reality is hidden behind the utopian ideal of individualism with its claims of meritocracy and a just world.

The fact of the matter is that no individual ever became successful. Let’s do an experiment. Take an individual baby, let’s say the little white male baby of wealthy parents with their superior genetics. Now leave that baby in the woods to raise himself into adulthood and bootstrap himself into a self-made man. I wonder how well that would work for his survival and future prospects. If privilege and power, if opportunity and resources, if social capital and collective inheritance, if public goods and the commons have no major role to play such that the individual is solely responsible to himself, we should expect great things from this self-raised wild baby.

But if it turns out that hyper-individualism is total bullshit, we should instead expect that baby to die of exposure and starvation or become the the prey of a predator feeding its own baby without any concerns for individuality. Even simply leaving a baby untouched and neglected in an orphanage will cause failure to thrive and death. Without social support, our very will to live disappears. Social science research has proven the immense social and environmental influences on humans. For a long time now there has been no real debate about this social reality of our shared humanity.

So why does this false belief and false idol persist? What horrible result do we fear if we were ever to be honest with ourselves? I get that the ruling elite are ruled by their own egotistic pride and narcissism. I get that the comfortable classes are attached to their comforting lies. But why do the rest of us go along with their self-serving delusions? It is the strangest thing in the world for a society to deny it is a society.


“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

* * *

Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post

Choral Singing and Self-Identity

I haven’t previously given any thought to choral singing. I’ve never been much of a singer, not even in private. My desire to sing in public with a group of others is next to non-existent. So, it never occurred to me what might be the social experience and psychological result of being in a choir.

It appears something odd goes on in such a situation. Maybe it’s not odd, but it has come to seem odd to us moderns. This kind of group activity has become uncommon. In our hyper-individualistic society, we forget how much we are social animals. Our individualism is dependent on highly unusual conditions that wouldn’t have existed for most of civilization.

I was reminded a while back of this social aspect when reading about Galen in the Roman Empire. Individualism is not the normal state or, one might argue, the healthy state of humanity. It is rather difficult to create individuals and, even then, our individuality is superficial and tenuous. Humans so quickly lump themselves into groups.

This evidence about choral singing makes me wonder about earlier societies. What role did music play, specifically group singing (along with dancing and ritual), in creating particular kinds of cultures and social identities? And how might that have related to pre-literate memory systems that rooted people in a concrete sense of the world, such as Aboriginal songlines?

I’ve been meaning to write about Lynne Kelly’s book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. This is part of my long term focus on what sometimes is called the bicameral mind and the issue of its breakdown. Maybe choral singing touches upon the bicameral mind.

* * *

It’s better together: The psychological benefits of singing in a choir
by N.A. Stewart & A.J. Lonsdale, Psychology of Music

Previous research has suggested that singing in a choir might be beneficial for an individual’s psychological well-being. However, it is unclear whether this effect is unique to choral singing, and little is known about the factors that could be responsible for it. To address this, the present study compared choral singing to two other relevant leisure activities, solo singing and playing a team sport, using measures of self-reported well-being, entitativity, need fulfilment and motivation. Questionnaire data from 375 participants indicated that choral singers and team sport players reported significantly higher psychological well-being than solo singers. Choral singers also reported that they considered their choirs to be a more coherent or ‘meaningful’ social group than team sport players considered their teams. Together these findings might be interpreted to suggest that membership of a group may be a more important influence on the psychological well-being experienced by choral singers than singing. These findings may have practical implications for the use of choral singing as an intervention for improving psychological well-being.

More Evidence of the Psychological Benefits of Choral Singing
by Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard

The synchronistic physical activity of choristers appears to create an unusually strong bond, giving members the emotionally satisfying experience of temporarily “disappearing” into a meaningful, coherent body. […]

The first finding was that choral singers and team sports players “reported significantly higher levels of well-being than solo singers.” While this difference was found on only one of the three measures of well-being, it does suggest that activities “pursued as part of a group” are associated with greater self-reported well-being.

Second, they found choral singers appear to “experience a greater sense of being part of a meaningful, or ‘real’ group, than team sports players.” This perception, which is known as “entitativity,” significantly predicted participants’ scores on all three measures of well-being. […]

The researchers suspect this feeling arises naturally from choral singers’ “non-conscious mimicry of others’ actions.” This form of physical synchrony “has been shown to lead to self-other merging,” they noted, “which may encourage choral singers to adopt a ‘we perspective’ rather than an egocentric perspective.”

Not surprisingly, choral singers experienced the lowest autonomy of the three groups. Given that autonomy can be very satisfying, this may explain why overall life-satisfaction scores were similar for choral singers (who reported little autonomy but strong bonding), and sports team members (who experienced moderate levels of both bonding and autonomy).

“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”

From the boundless green ocean behind the Wall, a wild tidal surge of roots, flowers, twigs, leaves was rolling toward me, standing on its hind legs, and had it flowed over me I would have been transformed from a person—from the finest and most precise of mechanisms—into . . .

But, happily, between me and this wild, green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, the great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They may just be the greatest of all inventions. Mankind ceased to be wild beast when it built its first wall. Mankind ceased to be savage when we built the Green Wall, when we isolated our perfect, machined world, by means of the Wall, from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals . . .

That is from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (pp. 82-83). It’s a strange novel, an early example of a futuristic dystopia. The author finished writing it in the 1921, but couldn’t get it published in Russia. An English translation was published years later.

In the above quote, the description is of the Green Wall that encloses the society called One State. It is an entirely independent and self-sustaining city-state, outside of which its citizens do not venture. The government is authoritarian and social control is absolute. The collective is everything, such that people have no sense of individuality and have no souls. They don’t even dream, not normally, for to do so is considered a symptom of mental illness.

There was a global war that killed most of the human population. The citizens of One State are aware that human society used to be different. They have no experience of freedom, neither social freedom nor free will. But they have a historical memory of what freedom once meant and, of course, it is seen as having been a bad thing and the source of unhappiness.

Like Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism, these people are able to maintain a complex society without an internalized sense of self. The loci of identity is completely outside. But unlike bicameralism, there are no command voices telling them what to do. The society is so ordered that few moments of the day are not occupied by scheduled activity. Even sex is determined by the system of authority. Mathematical order is everything, including how citizens are named.

What fascinated me about the novel is when the protagonist, D-503, gains a soul. It is an imagining of what this experience would be like, to gain a sense of individuality and interiority, for long dormant imagination to be awakened. Having a self means the ability to imagine other selves, to empathize with what others are thinking and feeling, to be able to enter into the world of another.

If bicameral societies did exist, this would have been similar to how they came to an end. A bicameral society would have required a tightly ordered society where the social reality was ever-present and all-consuming. For that to breakdown would have been traumatic. It would have felt like madness.

* * *

by Yevgeny Zamyatin
pp. 79-81

With effort, a kind of spiral torque, I finally tore my eyes away from the glass below my feet—and suddenly the golden letters “MEDICINE” splashed in front of me . . . Why had he led me here and not to the Operation Room, and why had he spared me? But, at that moment, I wasn’t thinking of these things: with one leap over the steps, the door solidly banged behind me and I exhaled. Yes: it was as though I hadn’t breathed since dawn, as though my heart hadn’t struck a single beat—and it was only now that I exhaled for the first time, only now that the floodgates of my chest opened . . .

There were two of them: one was shortish, with cinder-block legs, and his eyes, like horns, tossed up the patients; the other one was skinny and sparkling with scissor-lips and a blade for a nose . . . I had met him before.

I flung myself at him as though he were kin, straight into the blade, and said something about being an insomniac, the dreams, the shadows, the yellow world. The scissor-lips flashed and smiled. How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.

A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word. We sometimes said “heart and soul,” “soulful,” “lost souls,” but a “soul”

“This is . . . this is very grave,” I babbled.

“It’s incurable,” incised the scissors.

“But . . . what specifically is at the source of all this? I can’t even begin . . . to imagine.”

“Well, you see . . . it is as if you . . . you’re a mathematician, right?”


“Well, take, for instance, a plane, a surface, like this mirror here. And on this surface—here, look—are you and I, and we are squinting at the sun, and see the blue electrical spark in that tube. And watch—the shadow of an aero is flashing past. But it is only on this surface for just a second. Now imagine that some heat source causes this impenetrable surface to suddenly grow soft, and nothing slides across it anymore but everything penetrates inside it, into that mirror world, which we used to look into as curious children—children aren’t all that silly, I assure you. The plane has now become a volume, a body, a world, and that which is inside the mirror is inside you: the sun, the whirlwind from the aero’s propeller, your trembling lips, and someone else’s trembling lips. So you see: a cold mirror reflects and rejects but this absorbs every footprint, forever. One day you see a barely noticeable wrinkle on someone’s face—and then it is forever inside you; one day you hear a droplet falling in the silence—and you can hear it again now . . .”

“Yes, yes, exactly . . .” I grabbed his hand. I could hear the faucet in the sink slowly dripping its droplets in the silence. And I knew that they would be inside me forever. But still, why—all of a sudden—a soul? I never had one—never had one—and then suddenly . . . Why doesn’t anyone else have one, but me?

I squeezed harder on the skinny hand: I was terrified to let go of this lifeline.

“Why? And why don’t we have feathers or wings but just scapulas, the foundation of wings? It’s because we don’t need wings anymore—we have the aero; wings would only be extraneous. Wings are for flying, but we don’t need to get anywhere: we have landed, we have found what we were seeking. Isn’t that so?”

I nodded my head in dismay. He looked at me, laughed sharply, javelinishly. The other one, hearing this, stumpily stamped through from out of his office, tossed the skinny doctor up with his hornlike eyes, and then tossed me up, too.

“What’s the problem? What, a soul? A soul, you say? Damn it! We’ll soon get as far as cholera. I told you”—the skinny one was horn-tossed again—“I told you, we must, everyone’s imagination— everyone’s imagination must be . . . excised. The only answer is surgery, surgery alone . . .”

He struggled to put on some enormous X-ray glasses, and walked around for a long time looking through my skull bone at my brain, and making notes in a notebook.

“Extraordinary, extraordinarily curious! Listen to me, would you agree . . . to be preserved in alcohol? This would be, for the One State, an extraordinarily . . . this would aid us in averting an epidemic . . . If you, of course, don’t have any particular reasons not . . .”

“You see,” the other one said, “cipher D-503 is the Builder of the Integral, and I am certain that this would interfere . . .”

“Ah,” he mumbled and lumped off to his cabinet.

And then we were two. A paper-hand lightly, tenderly lay on my hand. A face in profile bent toward me and he whispered: “I’ll tell you a secret—it isn’t only you. My colleague is talking about an epidemic for good reason. Think about it; perhaps you yourself have noticed something similar in someone else—something very similar, very close to . . .” He looked at me intently. What is he hinting at—at whom? It can’t be that—

“Listen . . .” I leapt from my chair. But he had already loudly begun to talk about something else: “. . . And for the insomnia, and your dreams, I can give you one recommendation: walk more. Like, for instance, tomorrow morning, go for a walk . . . to the Ancient House, for example.”

He punctured me again with his eyes and smiled thinly. And it seemed to me: I could clearly and distinctly see something wrapped up in the fine fabric of his smile—a word—a letter—a name, a particular name . . . Or is this again that same imagination?

I was only barely able to wait while he wrote out my certification of illness for today and tomorrow, then I shook his hand once more and ran outside.

My heart was light, quick, like an aero, and carrying, carrying me upward. I knew: tomorrow held some sort of joy. But what would it be?


Views of the Self

A Rant: The Brief Discussion of the Birth of An Error
by Skepoet2

Collectivism vs. Individualism is the primary and fundamental misreading of human self-formation out of the Enlightenment and picking sides in that dumb-ass binary has been the primary driver of bad politics left and right for the last 250 years.

The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera
by Edward Muir
Kindle Locations 80-95

One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchic notion of the human self. Ancient and medieval thought depicted reason as governing the lower faculties of the will, the passions, sions, and the body. Renaissance thought did not so much promote “individualism” as it cut away the intellectual props that presented humanity as the embodiment of a single divine vine idea, thereby forcing a desperate search for identity in many. John Martin has argued that during the Renaissance, individuals formed their sense of selfhood through a difficult negotiation between inner promptings and outer social roles. Individuals during the Renaissance looked both inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties 2 The fragmentation of the self seems to have been especially acute in Venice, where the collapse of aristocratic marriage structures led to the formation of what Virginia Cox has called the single self, most clearly manifest in the works of several women writers who argued for the moral and intellectual equality of women with men.’ As a consequence quence of the fragmented understanding of the self, such thinkers as Montaigne became obsessed with what was then the new concept of human psychology, a term in fact coined in this period.4 A crucial problem in the new psychology was to define the relation between the body and the soul, in particular ticular to determine whether the soul died with the body or was immortal. With its tradition of Averroist readings of Aristotle, some members of the philosophy faculty at the University of Padua recurrently questioned the Christian tian doctrine of the immortality of the soul as unsound philosophically. Other hierarchies of the human self came into question. Once reason was dethroned, the passions were given a higher value, so that the heart could be understood as a greater force than the mind in determining human conduct. duct. When the body itself slipped out of its long-despised position, the sexual drives of the lower body were liberated and thinkers were allowed to consider sex, independent of its role in reproduction, a worthy manifestation of nature. The Paduan philosopher Cesare Cremonini’s personal motto, “Intus ut libet, foris ut moris est,” does not quite translate to “If it feels good, do it;” but it comes very close. The collapse of the hierarchies of human psychology even altered the understanding derstanding of the human senses. The sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “enlightenment”; the Venetian theorists of opera gave that place in the hierarchy to the sense of hearing, the faculty that most directly channeled sensory impressions to the heart and passions.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
by Neil Postman

That does not say much unless one connects it to the more important idea that form will determine the nature of content. For those readers who may believe that this idea is too “McLuhanesque” for their taste, I offer Karl Marx from The German Ideology. “Is the Iliad possible,” he asks rhetorically, “when the printing press and even printing machines exist? Is it not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear?”

by bcooney

When I read Jaynes’s book for the first time last year I was struck by the opportunities his theory affords for marrying materialism to psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. The idea that mentality is dependent on social relations, that power structures in society are related to the structure of mentality and language, and the idea that we can only understand mentality historically and socially are all ideas that appeal to me as a historical materialist.

Consciousness: Breakdown Or Breakthrough?
by ignosympathnoramus

The “Alpha version” of consciousness involved memory having authority over the man, instead of the man having authority over his memory. Bicameral man could remember some powerful admonishment from his father, but he could not recall it at will. He experienced this recollection as an external event; namely a visitation from either his father or a god. It was a sort of third-person-perspective group-think where communication was not intentional or conscious but, just like our “blush response,” unconscious and betraying of our deepest being. You can see this in the older versions of the Iliad, where, for instance, we do not learn about Achilles’ suicidal impulse by his internal feelings, thoughts, or his speaking, but instead, by the empathic understanding of his friend. Do you have to “think” in order to empathize, or does it just come on its own, in a rush of feeling? Well, that used to be consciousness. Think about it, whether you watch your friend blush or you blush yourself, the experience is remarkably similar, and seems to be nearly third-person in orientation. What you are recognizing in your friend’s blush the Greeks would have recognized as possession by a god, but it is important to notice that you have no more control over it than the Greeks did. They all used the same name for the same god (emotion) and this led to a relatively stable way of viewing human volition, that is, until it came into contact with other cultures with other “gods.” When this happens, you either have war, or you have conversion. That is, unless you can develop an operating system better than Alpha. We have done so, but at the cost of making us all homeless or orphaned. How ironic that in the modern world the biggest problem is that there are entirely too many individuals in the world, and yet their biggest problem is somehow having too few people to give each individual the support and family-type-structure that humans need to feel secure and thrive. We simply don’t have a shared themis that would allow each of us to view the other as “another self,” to use Aristotle’s phrase, or if we do, we realize that “another self” means “another broken and lost orphan like me.” It is in the nature of self-consciousness to not trust yourself, to remain skeptical, to resist immediate impulse. You cannot order your Will if you simply trust it and cave to every inclination. However, this paranoia is hardly conducive to social trust or to loving another as if he were “another self,” for that would only amount to him being another system of forces that we have to interpret, organize or buffer ourselves from. How much easier it is to empathize and care about your fellow citizens when they are not individuals, but vehicles for the very same muses, daimons, and gods that animate you! The matter is rather a bit worse that this, though. Each child discovers and secures his “inner self” by the discovery of his ability to lie, which further undermines social trust!

Marx’s theory of human nature
by Wikipedia

Marx’s theory of human nature has an important place in his critique of capitalism, his conception of communism, and his ‘materialist conception of history’. Karl Marx, however, does not refer to “human nature” as such, but to Gattungswesen, which is generally translated as ‘species-being’ or ‘species-essence’. What Marx meant by this is that humans are capable of making or shaping their own nature to some extent. According to a note from the young Marx in the Manuscripts of 1844, the term is derived from Ludwig Feuerbach’s philosophy, in which it refers both to the nature of each human and of humanity as a whole.[1] However, in the sixth Thesis on Feuerbach (1845), Marx criticizes the traditional conception of “human nature” as “species” which incarnates itself in each individual, on behalf of a conception of human nature as formed by the totality of “social relations”. Thus, the whole of human nature is not understood, as in classical idealist philosophy, as permanent and universal: the species-being is always determined in a specific social and historical formation, with some aspects being biological.

The strange case of my personal marxism (archive 2012)
by Skepoet2

It is the production capacity within a community that allows a community to exist, but communities are more than their productive capacities and subjectivities are different from subjects. Therefore, it is best to think of the schema we have given societies in terms of integrated wholes, and societies are produced by their histories both ecological and cultural. The separation of ecological and the cultural are what Ken Wilber would call “right-hand” and “left-hand” distinctions: or, the empirical experience of what is outside of us but limits us–the subject here being collective–is and what is within us that limits us.

by Ken Wilber

One of the easiest ways to get a sense of the important ideas that Marx was advancing is to look at more recent research (such as Lenski’s) on the relation of techno-economic modes of production (foraging, horticultural, herding, maritime, agrarian, industrial, informational) to cultural practices such as slavery, bride price, warfare, patrifocality, matrifocality, gender of prevailing deities, and so on. With frightening uniformity, similar techno-economic modes have similar probabilities of those cultural practices (showing just how strongly the particular probability waves are tetra-meshed).

For example, over 90% of societies that have female-only deities are horticultural societies. 97% of herding societies, on the other hand, are strongly patriarchal. 37% of foraging tribes have bride price, but 86% of advanced horticultural do. 58% of known foraging tribes engaged in frequent or intermittent warfare, but an astonishing 100% of simple horticultural did so.

The existence of slavery is perhaps most telling. Around 10% of foraging tribes have slavery, but 83% of advanced horticultural do. The only societal type to completely outlaw slavery was patriarchal industrial societies, 0% of which sanction slavery.

Who’s correct about human nature, the left or the right?
by Ed Rooksby

So what, if anything, is human nature? Marx provides a much richer account. He is often said to have argued that there is no such thing as human nature. This is not true. Though he did think that human behaviour was deeply informed by social environment, this is not to say that human nature does not exist. In fact it is our capacity to adapt and transform in terms of social practices and behaviours that makes us distinctive as a species and in which our specifically human nature is to be located.

For Marx, we are essentially creative and producing beings. It is not just that we produce for our means of survival, it is also that we engage in creative and productive activity over and above what is strictly necessary for survival and find fulfilment in this activity. This activity is inherently social – most of what we produce is produced collectively in some sense or another. In opposition to the individualist basis of liberal thought, then, we are fundamentally social creatures.

Indeed, for Marx, human consciousness and thus our very notion of individual identity is collectively generated. We become consciously aware of ourselves as a discrete entity only through language – and language is inherently inter-subjective; it is a social practice. What we think – including what we think about ourselves – is governed by what we do and what we do is always done socially and collectively. It is for this reason that Marx refers to our “species-being” – what we are can only be understood properly in social terms because what we are is a property and function of the human species as a whole.

Marx, then, has a fairly expansive view of human nature – it is in our nature to be creatively adaptable and for our understanding of what is normal in terms of behaviour to be shaped by the social relations around us. This is not to say that any social system is as preferable as any other. We are best able to flourish in conditions that allow us to express our sociability and creativity.

Marx’s Critique of Religion
by Cris Campbell

Alienated consciousness makes sense only in contrast to un-alienated consciousness. Marx’s conception of the latter, though somewhat vague, derives from his understanding of primitive communism. It is here that Marx’s debt to anthropology is most clear. In foraging or “primitive” societies, people are whole – they are un-alienated because resources are freely available and work directly transforms those resources into useable goods. This directness and immediateness – with no interventions or distortions between the resource, work, and result – makes for creative, fulfilled, and unified people. Society is, as a consequence, tightly bound. There are no class divisions which pit one person or group against another. Because social relations are always reflected back into people’s lives, unified societies make for unified individuals. People are not alienated they have direct, productive, and creative relationships with resources, work, things, and others. This communalism is, for Marx, most conducive to human happiness and well-being.

This unity is shattered when people begin claiming ownership of resources. Private property introduces division into formerly unified societies and classes develop. When this occurs people are no longer free to appropriate and produce as they please. Creativity and fulfillment is crushed when labor is separated from life and becomes an isolated commodity. Humans who labor for something other than their needs, or for someone else, become alienated from resources, work, things, and others. When these divided social relations are reflected back into peoples’ lives, the result is discord and disharmony. People, in other words, feel alienated. As economies develop and become more complex, life becomes progressively more specialized and splintered. The alienation becomes so intense that something is required to sooth it; otherwise, life becomes unbearable.

It is at this point (which anthropologists recognize as the Neolithic transition) that religion arises. But religion is not, Marx asserts, merely a soothing palliative – it also masks the economically and socially stratified conditions that cause alienation:

“Precisely as a consequence of man’s loss of spontaneous self-activity, religion arises as a compensatory mechanism for explaining what alienated man cannot explain and for promising him elsewhere what he cannot achieve here. Thus because man does not create himself through his productive labor, he supposes that he is created by a power beyond. Because man lacks power, he attributes power to something beyond himself. Like all forms of man’s self-alienation, religion displaces reality with illusion. The reason is that man, the alienated being, requires an ideology that will simultaneously conceal his situation from him and confer upon it significance. Religion is man’s oblique and doomed effort at humanization, a search for divine meaning in the face of human meaninglessness.”

Related posts from my blog:

Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope

Society: Precarious or Persistent?

Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

Démos, The People

Making Gods, Making Individuals

On Being Strange

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Making Gods, Making Individuals

I’ve been reading about bicameralism and the Axial Age. It is all very fascinating.

It’s strange to look back at that era of transformation. The modern sense of self-conscious, introspective, autonomous individuality (as moral agent and rational actor) was just emerging after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. What came before that is almost incomprehensible to us.

One interesting factor is that civilization didn’t create organized religion, but the other way around. Or so it seems, according to the archaeological evidence. When humans were still wandering hunter-gatherers, they began building structures for worship. It was only later that people started settled down around these worship centers. So, humans built permanent houses for the gods before they built permanent houses for themselves.

These God Houses often originated as tombs and burial mounds of revered leaders. The first deities seem to have been god-kings. The leader was considered a god while alive or spoke for god. In either case, death made concrete the deification of the former leader. In doing so, the corpse or some part of it such as the skull would become the worshipped idol. Later on it became more common to carve a statue that allowed for a more long-lasting god who was less prone to decay.

God(s) didn’t make humans. Rather, humans in a very literal sense made god(s). They made the form of the god or used the already available form of a corpse or skull. It was sort of like trapping the dead king’s soul and forcing it to play the role of god.

These bicameral people didn’t make the distinctions we make. There was no clear separation between the divine and the human, between the individual and the group. It was all a singular pre-individuated experience. These ancient humans heard voices, but they had no internal space for their own voice. The voices were heard in the world all around them. The king was or spoke for the high god, and that voice continued speaking even after the king died. We moderns would call that a hallucination, but to them it was just their daily reality.

With the breakdown of the bicameral mind, there was a crisis of community and identity. The entire social order broke down, because of large-scale environmental catastrophes that killed or made into refugees most of the human population back then. In a short period of time, nearly all the great civilizations collapsed in close succession, the collapse of each civilization sending refugees outward in waves of chaos and destruction. Nothing like it was seen before or since in recorded history.

People were desperate to make sense of what happened. But the voices of the gods had grown distant or were silenced. The temples were destroyed, the idols gone, traditions lost, and communities splintered. The bicameral societies had been extremely stable and were utterly dependent on that stability. They couldn’t deal with change at that level. The bicameral mind itself could no longer function. These societies never recovered from this mass tragedy.

An innovation that became useful in this era was improved forms of writing. Using alphabets and scrolls, the ancient oral traditions were written down and altered in the process. Also, new literary traditions increasingly took hold. Epics and canons were formed to bring new order. What formed from this was a sense of the past as different from the present. There was some basic understanding that humanity had changed and that the world used to be different.

A corrolary innovation was that, instead of idol worship, people began to worship these new texts, first as scrolls and then later as books. They found a more portable way of trapping a god. But the loss of the more concrete forms of worship led to the gods becoming more distant. People less often heard the voices of the gods for themselves and instead turned to the texts where it was written the cultural memory of the last people who heard the divine speaking (e.g., Moses) or even the last person who spoke as the divine (e.g., Jesus Christ).

The divine was increasingly brought down to the human level and yet at the same time increasingly made more separate from daily experience. It wasn’t just that the voices of the gods went silent. Rather, the voices that used to be heard externally were being internalized. What once was recognized as divine and as other became the groundwork upon which the individuated self was built. God became a still, small voice and slowly loss its divine quality altogether. People stopped hearing voices of non-human entities. Instead, they developed a thinking mind. The gods became trapped in the human skull and you could say that they forgot they were gods.

The process of making gods eventually transitioned into the process of making individuals. We revere individuality as strongly as people once revered the divine. That is an odd thing.

Altruism: Human Nature and Society

Below is an article about how psychological research is disproving traditional Christian theology.  Humans aren’t born sinners.  Humans are born altruistic or rather humans are born with a sense of self that includes others.  The ideology of the sinner combined with the Enlightenment ideal of individuality led to our modern capitalistic model of democracy which is particularly favored by conservatives.  Sadly, this model that has been forced on humans for so long turns out to be wrong.

Alan Greenspan, a devotee of Ayn Rand’s libertarianism, admitted that he misunderstood human nature.  Humans aren’t rational in the Randian ideological sense, but more importantly they’re not selfishly rational.   Human nature, however, is perfectly rational when you look at it from the perspectives of psychology, biology, and evolution.  When human nature doesn’t conform to your “rational” expectations, it’s your expectations that aren’t rational and not human nature.

Another problem to early scientific understanding of human nature is the species we compared ourselves to.  Chimpanzees became the model of human nature and Chimpanzees are a fairly violent species.  The problem is that genetically we’re closer to Bonobos which are a very peaceful species.  Comparing ourselves to a violent species was a mere convenience for those who ideologically believed in violent worldview.  Also, comparing ourselves to any of these primate species may not tell us much about natural and hence non-deviant behaviors for these species have suffered greatly themselves from human violence and environmental destruction.

Some have noted the way modern capitalism is understood.  Through a manipulated legal fluke, corporations gained precedence as being treated as humans.  However, as they’re not actually persons, they’re not treated according to social norms.  The description of how a corporation is expected to behave most cloesly resembles that of a psycopath.  In defining corporations this way, we set up a standard by which humans also should strive towards in being successful.

We May Be Born With an Urge to Help  By NICHOLAS WADE (NYT)

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians. Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind. Their conclusions are derived in part from testing very young children, and partly from comparing human children with those of chimpanzees, hoping that the differences will point to what is distinctively human.

The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.

[…]   “We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes. “Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.” The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view. Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope. One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

The basic sociability of human nature does not mean, of course, that people are nice to each other all the time. Social structure requires that things be done to maintain it, some of which involve negative attitudes toward others. The instinct for enforcing norms is powerful, as is the instinct for fairness. Experiments have shown that people will reject unfair distributions of money even it means they receive nothing.

11.  Steve R.

While we may be born with the urge to help, it gets squashed out of existence. Today, the Times published Open Source as a Model for Business Is Elusive. This article appears pretty much mundane, but anecdotally it is simply one more unfortunate example that highlights the fact that those who wish to contribute to society through volunteerism are vilified when it comes to competing with business interests. The people who volunteer to help develop MySQL or Wikipedia should be celebrated.

13.  D Z

No doubt Dr. Tomasello’s work uses recent findings, but to those interested in this article (and to Mr. Wade), I would recommend Matt Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue” – published in 1997!! – which present similar arguments with a combination of outstanding examples from biology, anthropology, economics, and supported by mathematics.

20. Rael64

Read Mencius. One should have a proper _xin_. Then read MacIntyre; intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in regards to ethics. Then, ponder the possibility that if this is the case, then what, or who, ruins us, eh?

As said in the article, “the only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.” Well, maybe, in a strict sense (i.e. no internal reaction whatsoever), yet people are taught, are encouraged to be immune to the plight of others. And many of us buy it, whether we’ve ‘no time’, ‘not my business’, ‘nothing in it for me’, or simply ‘don’t care’.

Yes, we teach our children well: consume, hoard, and ignore; get yours while you can; it’s only wrong if you get caught; winning is everything.