The diary of rationalbrain

Posted on

Rationalbrain is currently on holiday in Europe for a while, and for this week it’s Amsterdam. While initially I thought I might dig up some euro-pseudo-science about which to rant, I’ve been struck quite unexpectedly by something a little more serious.

No, I don’t mean how s**t the wireless broadband is in this otherwise excellent hotel.

I’m referring to the whole Anne Frank thing.

I have to confess that I’ve never read her diaries, although I’ve been exposed to the story via the zeitgeist over many years. However, seeing the house, the photos and the diary pages themselves is a different matter.

The presentation in the museum & house is quite excellent – not overly sentimental, but nonetheless powerful. It left me angry actually.

The swift and brutal way in which this little girl’s life changed in the space of a couple of years is sobering, and pictures of her father and others in the group being led away and onto trains are chilling.

In case you were wondering, no, this blog hasn’t turned into the History Channel. I simply feel it’s another chance to remind readers of the potentially powerful, and often unexpected, influence which charismatic individuals and groups can have on others. In this case, it’s Hitler. Since November 2010 when I started blogging, I’ve referred to a number of such individuals – including Oprah, and closer to home, Francine Scrayen. And while invoking Hitler to disparage someone is the lowest form of argument, in this case I believe the comparison to be valid qualitatively, if not quantitatively. In each case, the inidividual in question is able, by virtue of their acquired influence, to lead large numbers of people to do wholly irrational things which end up in some form of harm to themselves or others.

We can all guess that the man himself was somewhat twisted to believe that someone’s religion (which is, after all, an imaginary distinction between people) somehow meant that they deserved to die. But looking at all those drones doing his bidding makes one despair about the human race. Did none of those thousands of people ever question what they were doing? Or was it simply the need for self-preservation? One thng is for certain, whatever the influence of Hitler, it had massive reach, and had to be supported by many like-minded individuals who shared the same delusion.

I am angry. Angry in particular at those morons who forced Anne and her family to cower like caged animals for so long, and then terminate them; angry in general at those who mis-use their influence to do harm whatever the extent; and, angry at those who allow themselves to be taken in.

This experience only makes me more determined to keep reminding whomever will listen that there is a vaccine against such atrocities – it’s called clear thinking. And in a natural link to another topic I’ve been pursuing, the teaching of religion to children, innoculation should begin in primary school by ensuring that they are taught how to think for themselves, and not to parrot what someone else thinks; taught about the real world, and not fantasy-as-fact; and taught how to explore and question, and not submit to false authority.

Tomorrow’s another day, and a chance to chill out with another coffee by another canal.

Over and out.


8 thoughts on “The diary of rationalbrain

    Martin Cleaver said:
    September 20, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Nice piece from here in Amsterdam. Glad to read you so close!

    Martin Cleaver said:
    September 20, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Come to Friends on Nassaukade (121) Not far from the Anne Frank House.

      rationalbrain said:
      September 20, 2011 at 4:55 pm

      Thanks Martin – will see how time goes. Where is Friends on Nassaukade?

    neutralturn said:
    September 20, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Whenever a serious bushfire breaks out in Australia, which is in the summer of most years, the search is on for fire bugs. Sometimes they are found, sometimes not. Doesn’t really matter. Australia has lots of bushfires, Ireland hardly any at all (none?). Is this because Australia has more fire bugs than Ireland ? Australia has lots of bushfires because it is perfectly set up for them. Fire is part of the natural functioning of Australian ecosystem.

    Hitler was a fire bug. He lit WW2; no doubt. But he managed to do so because the human species is set up for war. There was no fire bug for the American civil war, or WW1. War is part of the human evoutionary process, a trial of strength between groups, like Bighorn Sheep banging their heads together to decide who dominates and reproduces. That is our problem. It is us driven by the instincts of our species. We have to recognise this fact in order to manage it.

      rationalbrain said:
      September 24, 2011 at 2:03 am

      Hi neutralturn,
      Greetings from Amsterdam.
      I don’t disagree with your thesis, though I still seek an answer as to why approximately half the species recognise it, and the other half don’t. Why are half warmongers while the other half are not?
      I’ve just finished reading Carl Sagan’s ‘Demon haunted world’ – a most excellent read, and in it he suggests that of the tens of thousands of years of homo sapiens, only the last 300-400 years has featured the ‘outbreak’ of science, characterised by a more rigorous approach to thinking problems through (I guess the ancient greek philosophers etc might argue with this, but that’s for another blog).
      When put this way, we haven’t had long to overcome the vestigial evolutionary traits such as butting heads, so to speak. Perhaps it’s even surprising that so many of the species see the folly.

    neutralturn said:
    September 25, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    As I see it, the mind of man serves three masters; the species, the belief group and the individual. These three are not philosophical abstractions but are physically manifest as specific neural patterns in the brain of all individuals. The interest of these entities often conflict. That is why we find our behaviour so puzzling. The brain pattern encoding the species comes pre-installed at birth. It manages all instinctive behaviours. The belief group is usually called culture. Its pattern is imprinted on the brain during childhood and adolescence. It provides a set of beliefs constituting a commonly held understanding of the external world and values and principles governing interaction with other individuals. It prevents the chaos which would otherwise result from the grouping of large numbers autonomous individuals with differing beliefs. The third master is the individual, what we think of as us. It is the most difficult to define. It seems to me that it may be largely self-generated deriving from that amazing human characteristic of spontaneous, random belief. Higher human intelligence is held by the individual.

    During Sagan’s 300-400 years, particularly during the 20th century and particularly within what might be called the western culture, the idividual manifestation of mankind has been overtaken by a mood of hubris. It has become common to believe that we individuals, using the intelligence of which we are so proud, can both develop a code of behaviour that better suits our ethics and sensibilities and impose it universally. The concept of culture would need to be modified to suit but that is OK. The species is ignored completely. Talk of ‘… overcoming vestigial evolutionary traits’ suggests that Rationalbrain is of this hubristic persuasion, whose corollary is that somehow we are are no longer the primates we were 100,000 years ago. I think this is seriously in error. We are, more or less, physically unchanged. The ape still lives. The huge evolutionary advances made since then have been in cultural belief systems. The mechanism of advance has been competition between groups of differing culture, dictated by species demands. The role of the individual and his intelligence has been no more than to promote intra-cultural evolution, a necessary preliminary process that Rationbrain is currently involved in with this blog.

    A passing remark by Rationalbrain in an earlier post “someone’s religion (which is, after all, an imaginary distinction between people)” highlights another point on which we disagree. Religion is closely bound up with culture. It is usually an integral part of the belief system that explains the world to the group member . Acculturation is a physical process. It wires up the developing brain and is not easily undone, if it can be undone at all. It is certainly not, in my view, an “imaginary distinction between people”.

    I could make comment on the warmonger issue but enough is enough.

      rationalbrain said:
      September 29, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      Thanks Neutralturn for expanding on your passionately-held thesis, though I think you’re now crossing the line into dogma. Simply asserting that your thesis is so, does not make it so. This is generally the problem with evolutionary psychology (by this I mean trying to explain current behaviours using evolutionary means), in that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to falsify.

      You say that the notion of overcoming evolutionary traits is hubris at work, and that implies we are no longer the apes we were 100,000 years ago. What is your evidence for disputing this? Has not man been trying to think about the world more deeply since the early philosophers who considered the nature of existence itself? In more recent times, is not our desire to explain the nature of reality a complete and utter kick in the guts for a range of vestigial behaviours – for example, when once our distant ancestors would have ascribed a rustle in the bushes to a predator, we now abandon such heuristics in favour of understanding the nature of the rustle and acting in a more considered way. When once we bowed to the gods of , we (well, many of us) eschew the mysterious in favour of the natural. That’s not hubris in my book – just calling it as it is – i.e. reality.

      I am reminded of the work of Niko Tinbergen, who has done lots of research into animal behaviour, and has clearly demonstrated that animals will respond to what he calls ‘super normal stimuli’. For example, birds will look after wooden eggs which are bigger, brighter examples of their own eggs, rather than the real ones. Or drop food into cardboard beaks which are wider and redder than the real thing, even though there is no chick body. These are examples of our programming to which you refer. In the case of animals, they don’t have the capacity to see through the cardboard, but we have clearly developed much more flexibility in our behaviour, due to our larger cerebral cortex and prefrontal area for abstract thinking, and can override instincts more than other animals. There is therefore absolutely no doubt that we have the machinery to overcome those vestiges of our behaviour which served us so well 100,000 years ago. Choosing to use it is the key. Rather than being slaves to our wiring, we can be its masters. Hardly hubris.

      As for the comment regarding imaginary distinctions, I plead to less-than-precise language. What was intended was not that the distinction is imaginary, but there is a distinction between people in the form of their belief in an imaginary phenomenon i.e. religion. The phenomenon is imaginary, but, in your terms, the wiring is generally the same from an evolutionary standpoint. What differs is the cultural belief system as you say. However, drawing on my previous paragraph, we do have the machinery to overcome the evolutionary limitations – hence people who reject the notions of religion and war.

      I guess that where we differ is that I am much more optimistic about our ability to overcome and adapt the evolutionary wiring, and I believe that the science supports this. I agree however this doesn’t happen quickly, and hence we’ll continue to have war etc in the short term, which is your scenario.

      If the above sounds disjointed, it’s because I’m sitting on the balcony of our villa in Menaggio, Lake Como, at dusk with a G&T.
      My ancestors prepared me well for that activity.

    neutralturn said:
    October 2, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Central to my understanding of humanity is that we never know things, we only believe things. If that sounds a bit dogmatic I will vague it up a bit by accepting that 2+2=4, but then again, maybe not always. I should not be dogmatic about anything. I will be more careful in future.

    I am nonetheless not ready to strike my colours on the matter of vestigial behaviours; more particularly the ability of our intelligence to overcome them. I think the best we can do is to manage instincts as we can’t delete them. That can produce very worthwhile results. The management of personal violence in advanced societies is a great example. In such societies many individuals can live a long life without experiencing personal violence either as perpetrator or victim. This result has not been achieved by intellectualising violence out of existence, by convincing ourselves we don’t do violence any more, but by regulation. Only the state may exercise violence and then only thru nominated officers under specified circumstances and to controlled degrees. There are laws governing the behaviour of both the state and the individual and credible leglislative, judicial and enforcement agencies. The laws reflect the will of the people who therefore want them enforced; and so forth. I see no reason why some analogous process cannot achieve similar results in respect of inter-cultural violence.

    I find arguable the claim, in reference to the Tinbergen work that “…we have clearly developed much more flexibility in our behaviour, due to our larger cerebral cortex and prefrontal area for abstract thinking, and can override instincts more than other animals. There is therefore absolutely no doubt that we have the machinery to overcome those vestiges of our behaviour which served us so well 100,000 years ago”. This claim demands an explanation for the huge industries devoted to clothing/fashion, cosmetics, advertising and so forth, industries firmly based on the assumption that humans will choose an exaggerated image over prosaic reality. Seems these industries are in the “super normal stimuli” business and we are the birds. Scholastic metaphysicians could have had a field day with the question as to whether humans can or cannot overcome these ‘vestiges’. The simple fact is they don’t; something I find quite unsurprising.

    On the matter of our differences I think they lie in the relative importance we assign to the belief group and the individual. Your position seems to me to lie close to the main stream of christian philosophy, just without the god. Your ‘behavioural vestiges’ are reminiscent of original sin. Hope of salvation lies with the individual. The blessing of intelligence can overcome the imperfections of our origins. We must strive towards the goal of a rational mind and reject importunings arising from our unenlightened past. The reward will be peace, harmony and fulfillment.

    On the other hand, I think the life of the individual is dominated by the belief system of the culture into which he is born. The quality of life depends on the degree to which the belief system can deliver good things to everybody and defend everybody against bad things. Therefore the way to better lives for individuals is better cultures. The measure of quality of a culture is, I think, the extent to which it reflects objective reality, both in relation to the external world and to mankind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s