2022-07-30

Sidetracked though misadventure: Time to reflect

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by Neil Godfrey

The past week I have been met with a series of costly misadventures (I blame it all on Australian dentists charging outrageous prices) that have led me to Indonesia and last night was the first night in a week I have had to truly relax. The restaurant where I ate displayed this thought-provoking picture:


2022-04-14

The Necessity of Scepticism Contra Cynicism

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by Neil Godfrey

Mention scholarly research into a matter that someone feels deeply about while holding contrarian or conspiracy theory views, and one is likely to be told that the academies are filled with institutional bias that compels them to ignore or hide or tell untruths about “the real facts” of a matter. Sometimes the criticism can go deeper than certain perceptions of institutional bias and target the scientific method itself:

The scientific method is what is wrong with the world

I mentioned once to Harold, the friend mentioned earlier who falls constantly for quack medical remedies and diagnostic methods, that the scientific method is based on a demand for evidence and that he should think about being a little more scientific (i.e., skeptical) about unverified claims. Harold replied that “the scientific method is what is wrong with the world and with people like you.” I suppose what he was saying is that by being skeptical I am cutting myself off from various mystical and creative aspects of the human experience. That is certainly a possibility, but I think that Harold may have been overreacting to the word “skepticism” (and to my implicit criticism of him) and assuming that I meant something other than what I actually meant.

His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility

I believe that Harold is confusing skepticism with cynicism and thinks that I am saying that one should never believe in anyone or anything. In fact, Harold is probably much more cynical than I am (he sees the evil hand of conspirators everywhere). His cynicism, ironically, contributes to his gullibility, in that he champions alternative medicine in part as a way of saying “screw you” to the more mainstream medical establishment. To my mind, a knee-jerk reaction of “no” (the cynical stance) is no more justified than a knee-jerk reaction of “yes” (the gullible stance) and the essence of skepticism is nothing more than saying “I will maintain an open mind but I want to get a better understanding of the truth of the matter before I commit myself.” However, the evidence is often ambiguous and incomplete, and the skeptic is someone who holds out for a higher and more rigorous standard of proof (and of one’s own understanding) than the fact that you like someone or want what he says to be true.

Our author is zeroing in specifically on quack remedies and “spiritual forces” and “mysterious agents” in the world but the same reasoning applies to anyone seeking “confirmation” that governments of the western world have come under the powers of conspiratorial elites who are using the fear of Covid-19 as a pretext to introduce controls that will eventually lead to new totalitarian tyrannies. The result of that kind of thinking is either a complete disengagement from the political processes or attempts to sabotage them: either way, positive action to defend and deepen democratic processes is the loser.

Perhaps what Harold was really saying is “I pity people who do not believe in magic.” Skeptics are people who believe that the laws of nature and probability underlie all phenomena, and are dubious about claims that there are realms of functioning that are immune from such laws. Harold definitely believes in magic (the real, not the conjuring, kind) and his evidence for this belief is likely to take such a form as “I was thinking about an old friend and the next thing I knew I got a phone call from her.” Harold is not likely to be persuaded by the argument that “you thought of 500 other things or people during the same day without such a congruence, but you are focusing on a single congruence that confirms your belief in magic and then holding it up as proof that it couldn’t have been a coincidence.

The passage addresses belief in magic but the same “intellectual laziness” applies to beliefs in conspiracy theories and any other belief that avoids the drier texts based on the scientific methods of research. Conspiracy-theory believers may consider themselves more astute, sceptical and informed than others but in fact the opposite is true.

one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable

Belief in magic is an intellectually lazy stance to take, as one can absolve oneself of any obligation to master complex reality by passing it off to forces that are unknowable. Belief in magic contributes to gullibility as one can be too easily influenced by misleading external realities or superficial explanations. Just as Harold pities me for not being more intuitive, I pity him for not being more rational. People who eschew skepticism are people at the mercy of charlatans, bogus experts, and false claims. Although I generally admire and like people who are trusting more than people who are distrusting, I think trust needs to be tempered with an understanding that it can be misplaced. Blind trust can be a formula for disaster, as countless stories in this book illustrate. One needs to be alert to warning signs of untruth, whether or not it emanates from conscious deception. To refuse to heed those signs, and to refuse to ask for proof when proof is needed, may be to put oneself in harm’s way. 

On reading the above passage I am reminded of little questions that arose along the way of my journey into a religious cult many years ago. Little points of errors in facts seemed to be only minor and unintentional glitches in the literature I was reading. I should have stopped and stood my ground and demanded to find out why and how such “little errors” were there in the first place. It might have led me to discover behind all that glossy, free literature was an institution that was geared towards psychological manipulation.

The following depicts the end result of what I have come to call “ideological” or “principled” thinking. Now there are good ideologies and there are good principles to live by. The problem is when people espouse “ideological” or “principled” ideas that at some level treat those principles as more important than the full lives of real people (either by thinking of most people as stupid or as faceless numbers to be manipulated in a power and control game) then we have the seedbed of vicious totalitarianism.

Trofim Lysenko

An example of how cynicism is compatible with gullibility can be found in the life of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless dictator who ruled the Soviet Union through periodic murder sprees for several decades. In a review of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s (2005) Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Ian Buruma (2004) described Stalin, and the equally murderous ruler of China, Mao Zedong, as extraordinarily cynical, that is motivated by power rather than Communist ideology, and generally distrusting of everyone, including family members. There was one area, however, in which both Stalin and Mao were overly trusting, and that had to do with agriculture policy. Driven by an emotional commitment to the notion that Marxism–Leninism had made possible a “creative Darwinism,” both men “appear to have been completely taken in by the crackpot science of Trofim Lysenko” (p. 5). Lysenko’s experiments in high-yield wheat proved to be a complete disaster in both countries, “but these failures were blamed on ‘saboteurs’ and ‘bourgeois scientists’, many of whom were killed, even as people were dying of hunger in far greater numbers than ever. Such things might not have happened if Stalin and Mao had been complete skeptics. But they were gullible as well as cynical, and that is why millions had to die” (Buruma, 2004, p. 6).

Greenspan, Stephen. Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It. Westport, Conn. : Praeger Publishers, 2009. http://archive.org/details/annalsofgullibil0000gree. pp 181-182


2022-01-02

The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

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by Neil Godfrey

From ABC website

We need to discard the widely held belief that a high IQ and rationality go hand-in-hand, argues David Robson, author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes.

He says while intelligence quotient (IQ) tests have become the benchmark for smarts, they’re highly selective and only measure one’s ability for certain kinds of abstract reasoning.

Worst of all, they say nothing about a person’s common sense.

“When it comes to things like analysing evidence and thinking about it in a fair, even-handed way, or looking at the news and being able to work out what’s true and what’s false, actually IQ is really bad at predicting whether people can do that kind of thing,” Mr Robson tells ABC RN’s Future Tense.

And individuals with a high IQ score are just as vulnerable to cognitive biases as anyone else.

“The most important one for me is this idea of motivated reasoning,” he says.

“If you have a hunch or an intuition that something is right and it fits with your overall worldview, then you will only look for the information that supports that point of view.”

And, according to Mr Robson, when it comes to motivated reasoning, the crucial difference between highly intelligent people and the rest of us is that so-called smart people are simply better at it.

“They have that mental agility that lets them rationalise their points of view in a more convincing way.

“So, what you find is that on certain polarised issues, more intelligent people become even more polarised.”

Extracted from Are some of us destined to be dumb and is there anything we can do about it? by Antony Funnell for Future Tense on ABC Radio National.


2021-12-18

On Charity and Tyrants

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by Neil Godfrey

When reading about Herod the Great recently I was reminded at one point of my recent post about The Dawn of Everything. Herod prided himself on showering the poor with free food — following the “bread and circuses” custom of aspiring and established political leaders in Rome.

https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/images/potlatch-ceremony.jpg

Northwest Coast societies, in contrast, became notorious among outside observers for the delight they took in displays of excess. They were best known to European ethnologists for the festivals called potlatch, usually held by aristocrats acceding to some new noble title (nobles would often accumulate many of these over the course of a lifetime). In these feasts they sought to display their grandeur and contempt for ordinary worldly possessions by performing magnificent feats of generosity, overwhelming their rivals with gallons of candlefish oil, berries and quantities of fatty and greasy fish. Such feasts were scenes of dramatic contests, sometimes culminating in the ostentatious destruction of heirloom copper shields and other treasures, just as in the early period of colonial contact, around the turn of the nineteenth century, they sometimes culminated in the sacrificial killing of slaves. Each treasure was unique; there was nothing that resembled money. Potlatch was an occasion for gluttony and indulgence, ‘grease feasts’ designed to leave the body shiny and fat. Nobles often compared themselves to mountains, with the gifts they bestowed rolling off them like boulders, to flatten and crush their rivals.

So far so good. The authors towards the end of the book describe the archaeological evidence of the first Mesopotamian city, Uruk, and the evidence for the temple complex there accommodating the poor:

It is often hard to determine exactly who these temple labourers were, or even what sort of people were being organized in this way, allotted meals and having their outputs inventoried – were they permanently attached to the temple, or just ordinary citizens fulfilling their annual corvée duty? – but the presence of children in the lists suggests at least some may have lived there. If so, then this was most likely because they had nowhere else to go. If later Sumerian temples are anything to go by, this workforce will have comprised a whole assortment of the urban needy: widows, orphans and others rendered vulnerable by debt, crime, conflict, poverty, disease or disability, who found in the temple a place of refuge and support.

One wonders, of course, about the possibility that these people were slaves. Graeber and Wengrow note,

There is a possibility some were already slaves or war captives at this time (Englund 2009), and as we’ll see, this becomes much more commonplace later; indeed, it is possible that what was originally a charitable organization gradually transformed as captives were added to the mix.

From here, we move on to the question of how authoritarian societies arose and to quote a portion of what I covered in an earlier post,

The shorter version of Steiner’s doctoral work . . . focuses on what he calls ‘pre-servile institutions’. Poignantly, given his own life story, it is a study of what happens in different cultural and historical situations to people who become unmoored: those expelled from their clans for some debt or fault; castaways, criminals, runaways. It can be read as a history of how refugees such as himself were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited, again much like the women working in the Sumerian temple factories. In essence, the story told by Steiner appears to be precisely about the collapse of what we would term the first basic freedom (to move away or relocate), and how this paved the way for the loss of the second (the freedom to disobey). . .

What happens, Steiner asked, when expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter – erode? Why does this so often appear to be a catalyst for situations where some people can exert arbitrary power over others? Steiner worked his way in careful detail through cases . . .  Along the journey he suggested one possible answer to the question . . . : if stateless societies do regularly organize themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with?

You’ll recall how both Lowie and Clastres were driven to the same conclusion: that they must have been the product of religious revelation. Steiner provided an alternative route. Perhaps, he suggested, it all goes back to charity. In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals.

Bread and circuses, charity . . . and the rise of tyrants. The message to me is the importance of allowing everyone to participate in the distribution of their needs.


Graeber, David, and David Wengrow. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.



2021-12-09

Where none shall hunger

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by Neil Godfrey

Here are a few extracts reminding us that humanity does at times embrace the value of caring for the basic needs of one’s fellows. One political view current in Western societies is that the public purse must dole out less than the poor need to survive lest they become dependent and fail to seek a job and care for themselves. Other societies have had a different perspective. Different ways humans have organized themselves and treated others are addressed in The Dawn of Everything. Below are some extracts from that book as well as others:

Dampier also remarked on other key aspects of Aboriginal life—small-scale societies, close communal living and the habit of sharing all procured food:

They have no houses but lie in the open air without any covering . . . they live in companies of twenty or thirty men, women and children together. Their only food is a small sort of fish, which they get by making wares [weirs or traps] of stone across little coves . . . Every tide brings in the small fish . . . at low-water they seek cockles, mussels and periwinkles. There are very few of these shellfish . . . At their places of abode . . . the old people . . . and tender infants await their return; and what providence has bestowed on them they presently broil on the coals and eat it in common . . . Whether they get little or much, every one has his part . . . 

Two societies could hardly have differed more than Georgian England and Aboriginal Australia. English society was based on the Christian work ethic and the sanctity of private property, whereas Aborigines saw no value in work except the food quest and believed in the sanctity of communal property. Each society tried to make the other change. Aborigines expected Europeans to share their food and other goods; Europeans tried to instil principles of private ownership and regular work into Aborigines. Instead of mingling, they lived uneasily side by side . . . .

Wrasse was the most abundant species in Tasmanian prehistoric deposits until 3500 years ago, when fishing abruptly ceased. Toxic fish are often confined to a small area and toxicity varies seasonally, but it seems that 3500 years ago Tasmanian fishermen suffered such severe poisoning that no Aboriginal Tasmanian ever risked eating fish again. The Aboriginal custom of sharing all food means that a single meal could wipe out a whole band. News of such a calamity would have spread quickly, leading to the universal taboo.

Flood, Josephine. Original Australians. Crows Nest, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin, 2006. pp 5, 57, 72

 

His people were very generous and, hospitable. . . . The value of sharing was impressed upon the missionaries wherever they travelled in south-east Queensland. Gift giving and sharing valued possessions was essential to cement relationships. ‘The worst character they are able to give of a man,’ Reverend Christopher Eipper noted, ‘is that he does bail give it’ meaning ‘he will not share’.

Connors, Libby. Warrior: A Legendary Leader’s Dramatic Life and Violent Death on the Colonial Frontier. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015. p. 10, citing Colonial Observer, 23 July 1842, p. 347.

 

Moreover, it is really honour which forms the mainspring of their actions. I wish no other proof of it than what this same honour makes them do in a case of extreme necessity, at the hunting season when they are so often exposed to hunger that there is almost no year that someone does not starve to death. Then, if a cabin of hungry people meets another whose provisions are not entirely exhausted, the latter share with the newcomers the little which remains to them without waiting to be asked, although they expose themselves thereby to the same danger of perishing as those whom they help at their own expense so humanely and with such greatness of soul. In Europe, we should find few [people] disposed, in like cases, to a liberality so noble and magnificent.

Latifau, Joseph François. Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, Volume II. Edited by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. Vol. 49. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1977 [1724]

 

Although the dialogue of Lahonton with a certain native spokesman have in the past been considered fanciful, more recent scholarly study has come to a different view: that they do indeed reflect the arguments of the Americans Indians.
Sioui, Georges. 1972. ‘A la réflexion des Blancs d’Amérique du Nord et autres étrangers.’ Recherches amérindiennes au Quebec 2 (4–5): 65–8.
—. 1992. For an Amerindian Autohistory: An Essay on the Foundations of a Social Ethic. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
—. 1999. Huron-Wendat. The Heritage of the Circle. Vancouver: British Columbia University Press.”
Steckley, John. 1981 ‘Kandiaronk: a man called Rat.’ In J. Steckley, Untold Tales: Four Seventeenth-Century Hurons. Toronto: Associated Heritage Publishing, pp. 41–52.
—. 2014. The Eighteenth-Century Wyandot: A Clan-Based Study. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.”
Mann, Barbara Alice. “ —. 2001. ‘Are you delusional? Kandiaronk on Christianity.’ In B. A. Mann (ed.), Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands: Selected Speeches and Critical Analysis. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, pp. 35–82.”

Lahontan on the other hand urges Adario to become a European, to which Adario says, “How could I watch the Needy suffer, without giving them all I have? . . . “

Brandon, William. New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800. Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press, 1986. http://archive.org/details/newworldsforoldr0000bran. p. 91

With all these vices, they are exceedingly vainglorious: they think they are better, more valiant and more ingenious than the French; and, what is difficult to believe, richer than we are. They consider themselves, I say, braver than we are, boasting that they have killed Basques and Malouins, and that they do a great deal of harm to the ships, and that no one has ever resented it, insinuating that it was from a lack of courage. They consider themselves better than the French ; ‘ ‘ For, ’ ’ they say, ‘ ‘ you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; [32] you are thieves and deceivers ; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind ; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor. ’ ’

Letter from Father Biard, to Reverend Father Christopher Baltazar, Provincial of France, at Paris, In The Jesuit relations and allied documents : travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. https://archive.org/details/cihm_07535/page/n7/mode/2up

Much like Biard’s Mi’kmaq, the Wendat were particularly offended by the French lack of generosity to one another: ‘They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being any indigent beggar in their towns and villages; and they considered it a very bad thing when they heard it said that there were in France a great many of these needy beggars, and thought that this was for lack of charity in us, and blamed us for it severely.

. . .

Do you seriously imagine, he says, that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris, to take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make-up, to bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happened to have been born with an inheritance? Do you really imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry. . . .”

. . .

Wealthy men – and it should be noted that all these societies were decidedly patriarchal – were typically seen as providers for poorer dependants, improvident folk and foolish drifters, by virtue of their own self-discipline and labour and that of their wives.

. . .

There are a number of things worth noting here. One is that it makes clear that some people were indeed considered wealthy. Wendat society was not ‘economically egalitarian’ in that sense. However, there was a difference between what we’d consider economic resources – like land, which was owned by families, worked by women, and whose products were largely disposed of by women’s collectives – and the kind of ‘wealth’ being referred to here, such as wampum (a word applied to strings and belts of beads, manufactured from the shells of Long Island’s quahog clam) or other treasures, which largely existed for political purposes. Wealthy Wendat men hoarded such precious things largely to be able to give them away on dramatic occasions like these.

Excerpts From: David Graeber. “The Dawn of Everything.” Apple Books.

.

.

The first Mesopotamian City:

Uruk: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/3D-Visualisation-of-the-city-of-Uruk-3000-BC_fig1_280134491

It is often hard to determine exactly who these temple labourers were, or even what sort of people were being organized in this way, allotted meals and having their outputs inventoried – were they permanently attached to the temple, or just ordinary citizens fulfilling their annual corvée duty? – but the presence of children in the lists suggests at least some may have lived there. If so, then this was most likely because they had nowhere else to go. If later Sumerian temples are anything to go by, this workforce will have comprised a whole assortment of the urban needy: widows, orphans and others rendered vulnerable by debt, crime, conflict, poverty, disease or disability, who found in the temple a place of refuge and support.

Excerpt From: David Graeber. “The Dawn of Everything.” Apple Books.


2021-12-06

The Big Question We Should Be Asking of Human History

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by Neil Godfrey

Here is an extract from The Dawn of Everything (see previous post) that I feel at liberty to quote in full since Youtube programs of public discussions (see below) of the book show co-author David Wengrow reading this section in full to his audiences:

If there is a particular story we should be telling, a big question we should be asking of human history (instead of the ‘origins of social inequality’), is it precisely this: how did we find ourselves stuck in just one form of social reality, and how did relations based ultimately on violence and domination come to be normalized within it?

Franz Steiner

Perhaps the scholar who most closely approached this question in the last century was an anthropologist and poet named Franz Steiner, who died in 1952. Steiner led a fascinating if tragic life. A brilliant polymath born to a Jewish family in Bohemia, he later lived with an Arab family in Jerusalem until expelled by the British authorities, conducted fieldwork in the Carpathians and was twice forced by the Nazis to flee the continent, ending his career – ironically enough – in the south of England. Most of his immediate family were killed at Birkenau. Legend has it that he completed 800 pages of a monumental doctoral dissertation on the comparative sociology of slavery, only to have the suitcase containing his drafts and research notes stolen on a train. He was friends with, and a romantic rival to, Elias Canetti, another Jewish exile at Oxford and a successful suitor to the novelist Iris Murdoch – although two days after she’d accepted his proposal of marriage, Steiner died of a heart attack. He was forty-three.

The shorter version of Steiner’s doctoral work, which does survive, focuses on what he calls ‘pre-servile institutions’. Poignantly, given his own life story, it is a study of what happens in different cultural and historical situations to people who become unmoored: those expelled from their clans for some debt or fault; castaways, criminals, runaways. It can be read as a history of how refugees such as himself were first welcomed, treated as almost sacred beings, then gradually degraded and exploited, again much like the women working in the Sumerian temple factories. In essence, the story told by Steiner appears to be precisely about the collapse of what we would term the first basic freedom (to move away or relocate), and how this paved the way for the loss of the second (the freedom to disobey). It also leads us back to a point we made earlier about the progressive division of the human social universe into smaller and smaller units, beginning with the appearance of ‘culture areas’ (a fascination of ethnologists in the central European tradition, in which Steiner first trained).

What happens, Steiner asked, when expectations that make freedom of movement possible – the norms of hospitality and asylum, civility and shelter – erode? Why does this so often appear to be a catalyst for situations where some people can exert arbitrary power over others? Steiner worked his way in careful detail through cases ranging from the Amazonian Huitoto and East African Safwa to the Tibeto-Burman Lushai. Along the journey he suggested one possible answer to the question that had so puzzled Robert Lowie, and later Clastres: if stateless societies do regularly organize themselves in such a way that chiefs have no coercive power, then how did top-down forms of organization ever come into the world to begin with? You’ll recall how both Lowie and Clastres were driven to the same conclusion: that they must have been the product of religious revelation. Steiner provided an alternative route. Perhaps, he suggested, it all goes back to charity.

In Amazonian societies, not only orphans but also widows, the mad, disabled or deformed – if they had no one else to look after them – were allowed to take refuge in the chief’s residence, where they received a share of communal meals. To these were occasionally added war captives, especially children taken in raiding expeditions. Among the Safwa or Lushai, runaways, debtors, criminals or others needing protection held the same status as those who surrendered in battle. All became members of the chief’s retinue, and the younger males often took on the role of police-like enforcers. How much power the chief actually had over his retainers – Steiner uses the Roman Law term potestas, which denotes among other things a father’s power of arbitrary command over his dependants and their property – would vary, depending how easy it was for wards to run away and find refuge elsewhere, or to maintain at least some ties with relatives, clans or outsiders willing to stand up for them. How far such henchmen could be relied on to enforce the chief’s will also varied; but the sheer potential was important.

In all such cases, the process of giving refuge did generally lead to the transformation of basic domestic arrangements, especially as captured women were incorporated, further reinforcing the potestas of fathers. It is possible to detect something of this logic in almost all historically documented royal courts, which invariably attracted those considered freakish or detached. There seems to have been no region of the world, from China to the Andes, where courtly societies did not host such obviously distinctive individuals; and few monarchs who did not also claim to be the protectors of widows and orphans. One could easily imagine something along these lines was already happening in certain hunter gatherer communities during much earlier periods of history. The physically anomalous individuals accorded lavish burials in the last Ice Age must also have been the focus of much caring attention while alive. No doubt there are sequences of development linking such practices to later royal courts – we’ve caught glimpses of them, as in Predynastic Egypt – even if we are still unable to reconstruct most of the links.

Steiner may not have foregrounded the issue, but his observations are directly relevant to debates about the origins of patriarchy. Feminist anthropologists have long argued for a connection between external (largely male) violence and the transformation of women’s status in the home. In archaeological and historical terms, we are only just beginning to gather together enough material to begin understanding how that process actually worked.

Some online discussions:

British Library Event

(19 October 2021)

Brooklyn Public Library Event

(11 November 2021)

LSE Online Event

(16 October 2021)

 

 


2021-12-05

A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It

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by Neil Godfrey

Everything I read, learned and taught about the stone ages and beginnings of civilization was wrong. An anthropologist and an archaeologist have got together to update us all on the discoveries that have been appearing in the scholarly literature over the past sixty years. The findings give great encouragement to those of us who are concerned about humanity’s ability to change course in the interests of our long-term survival.

I once liked the idea of Rousseau: in our “native state” we are innocent, good; it is the chains that have come with civilization that have degraded us.

But over time I came to fear Hobbes might be more right than I wanted him to be: in our native state our life is “nasty, brutish and short”; it is the controls that civilization has imposed that have obliged us to live according to the “better angels of our nature”.

No. Neither Rousseau nor Hobbes had the right model. We know that people as a whole cannot be lumped under either of the simplistic labels of “good” and “bad”. We can be very, very good and we can be very, very bad. For those of us who see the need for change in the way we live if we are to get through the threats we are facing now of runaway climate change and nuclear war and god knows what else and are keen to join any organized action for a better future, we can take heart from David Graeber and David Wengrow who, in The Dawn of Everything, demonstrate that humanity has done things better in the past and humanity can change.

The Dawn of Everything is one of those books that really does change everything about the way we see ourselves as a species. Several Youtube programs of over an hour length are available for anyone wanting to see the authors’ scholarly peers discussing the book. By bringing together the findings of anthropology and archaeology from the last generation they really are giving the public promise of a new vision. They are not dogmatic about their findings: they simply present the evidence and raise the questions. The rest is up to us.

Luckily I did not know when I opened my electronic copy of the book (one of questionable legal status) that it was over 700 pages long. If I had known that I most likely would have put it aside until I found “the time” to read it. But in Rousseau-like ignorance I undertook my journey and read nothing else for the next two to three days.

Facts:

— Agriculture did not ruin us. We, humans, did not organize ourselves into cities and kings once we “discovered agriculture” and the need for all the land management that is necessary to make it work. Jared Diamond was wrong when he said in Guns, Germs and Steel that agriculture was humanity’s biggest mistake, leading to overcrowded cities and diseases, poverty and the rest.

— There is nothing inevitable about living in a hierarchical or bureaucratic society: people, the same people, have been known to switch on a seasonal basis between highly authoritarian rule and open, small-scale, democratic self-government.

— Big cities are not, by definition, bad: people have created large cities that are non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, and open to regional self-government and significant forms of equality. And no poverty.

— Poverty is not inevitable in any society, large or small. It is indeed possible — our experience as a species proves it — to live in a just society without judges, police, jails.

— Steven Pinker’s thesis in The Better Angels of Our Nature was flat wrong. The evidence does not support his view of a relatively violent “pre-civilization” past and a comparatively more peaceful present. In the past there were indeed periods of warfare but there were also very long periods of peace.

— Western civilization as understood according to its historical European base is not the bee’s knees of human accomplishment. We take it for granted that we must study, pass exams in degrees of literature, philosophy, whatever to enter the “public service”. We copied that from the Chinese. We take it for granted that our base-freedoms of liberty equality and fraternity were the products of the European Enlightenment. Rather, European philosophes were inspired — it almost feels like heresy to say it — by “savages” in the New and other worlds they conquered. (For evidence of this claim one can see another work more readily at hand on archive.org: New Worlds for Old : reports from the New World and their effect on the development of social thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (As I said at the beginning, Graeber and Wengrow are not writing a whole lot of new ideas: they are bringing to the public awareness the evidence that has been accumulating in scholarly publications now for the past fifty to sixty years.)

Graeber and Wengrow identify three freedoms that they suggest “make us human”, and three corresponding forms of control that are found in the evidence. They do not say that these are “THE” freedoms of humanity. They acknowledge there may well be others, but for a discussion starter these are the ones they identify: Continue reading “A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It”


2021-10-01

Why We Stopped Flogging

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by Neil Godfrey

And I thought we were just getting nicer. Nope, the data seems to point to another reason.

Norfolk Island, flogging 1823, from State Library NSW

According to an article by Penelope Edmonds and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart, ‘The whip is a very contagious kind of thing’: flogging and humanitarian reform in penal Australia, the reasons for the declining use of flogging were complex but two factors do stand out as primary movers.

  1. A more effective method of behaviour control was found: solitary confinement in particular. It was so effective that it had the proven ability to send men mad, and shorten their life-spans. Prisoners feared solitary confinement more than they did whipping. Where flogging was prevalent such as in the chain gangs, the convicts were generally reluctant workers, doing the bare minimum to avoid being flayed. Where prisons had the resources to be able to build solitary confinement facilities there work productivity improved while fewer men had to be punished that way. The treadmill was another penalizing innovation that some prisons introduced with a similar effect.

The decline in flogging in Van Diemen’s Land appears to have had more deep-seated causes than top-down reform powered by humanitarian advocacy. Our analysis suggests that it occurred in inverse proportion to the capacity of penal stations to punish convicts. This is an important finding. It suggests that the colonial state deployed different forms of terror at different times and for different purposes. As the array of punishments available to it expanded, less use was made of public displays of violence, whether through execution or flogging. Such an approach is consistent with Foucault’s famous observation about the decline in the use of judicial terror in Western Europe. [Discipline and Punish, 293-308. My bolding in both quotations]

  1. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, it is said, but there was one way convicts could “fight back”:

Many reformers were particularly concerned about the manner in which convicts turned the performance of flogging into counter-theatre. The prisoner who resisted the violent will of the state by refusing to scream was lauded, while the man who broke down was shamed. Flogging became a battle of wills—a form of blood sport fought out across the frame of the prisoner.

.

Two implications come to mind:

What does it mean for our interest to combat the practice of the public displays of terror in states like Saudi Arabia?

What of humanity’s future if we fail to meet the challenge of climate change or if for some other reason our societies revert to a major decline in resources and a breakdown in central authority?

There are other significant questions, too, that are raised by Michel Foucault in Disciple and Punish.


Edmonds, Penelope, and Hamish Maxwell-Stewart. “‘The Whip Is a Very Contagious Kind of Thing’: Flogging and Humanitarian Reform in Penal Australia.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 17, no. 1 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1353/cch.2016.0006.



2021-08-06

Apophenia — perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and more

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by Neil Godfrey

 

Klaus Conrad (1905-1961)

The German psychologist Klaus Conrad called this premonitory state apophenia, defined as perceiving patterns that don’t actually exist and referring them back to an unseen authority who must be pulling the strings. It’s a theory he developed as an army medical officer specializing in head traumas under the Third Reich.

Today, it’s analogized to political conspiracy thinking.

. . . leading us to….

The conspiracy theorist will believe that institutions can be understood completely as the result of conscious design; and as collectives, he usually ascribes to them a kind of group-personality, treating them as conspiring agents, just as if they were individual men. As opposed to this view, the social theorist should recognize that the persistence of institutions and collectives creates a problem to be solved in terms of an analysis of individual social actions and their unintended (and often unwanted) social consequences, as well as their intended ones.

. . . . The social theorist is a public thinker, oriented toward improving society; the conspiracy theorist is a victim of institutions that lie beyond their control.

Edward Snowden, from Conspiracy Part 2

We talk about conspiracy theories in order to avoid talking about conspiracy practices, which are often too daunting, too threatening, too total. — Conspiracy Part 1

2021-06-17

The Etiquette of Modesty among the Naked Aborigines

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by Neil Godfrey

We have seen early photographs of Australian aborigines completely naked but I did not understand their modesty. Paradoxical, but explained by anthropologist Peter Sutton:

People were not prudish about nudity but valued modesty, expressed in sitting positions and in averting the gaze, for example. An early record of this etiquette is from First Fleet member David Collins at Port Jackson: ‘… and although entire strangers to the comforts and conveniences of clothing, yet they sought with a native modesty to conceal by attitude what the want of covering would otherwise have revealed’.

Sutton, Peter, and Keryn Walshe. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?: The Dark Emu Debate. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2021. p. 97

He goes on to show how items of clothing that were worn by some Aborigines some of the time were for embellishment or served symbolic purposes rather than for comfort or covering.

In another place he quotes James Dawson noting that a local tribe in winter wore large kangaroo skins with — contrary to our fashion-oriented expectations — “the fur side inwards”.


2021-05-20

The difference between listening to someone and giving someone a platform to spread their hate

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by Neil Godfrey

Arno Michaelis has a webpage, The Forgiveness Project.

From a discussion about one of the factors in the leading cause of death among men 18 to 44 years old is suicide — the role of loneliness, resentment or disconnectedness in a world more technologically interconnected than ever before: From The Drum, an excerpt from a former white nationalist, someone who grew up in an alcoholic home, was a bully all his teen years, and was attracted to white nationism through skinheads at 16 years of age:

Arno Michaelis, former white supremacist, at about 25 minutes into the video:

. . . When people like a Jewish boss or a lesbian supervisor or black and Latino co-workers defied my worldview by just interacting with me human to human it really drove home how wrong I was. Our society has a habit of rejecting anyone that we find distasteful. It’s very easy to be like, Unfollow, This person is now shut out of my life. They’re off all my social media channels.

There is a difference between listening to someone and giving someone a platform to spread their hate. The difference between those two things is compassion. If you do things in a trauma?-informed way, which means if you see someone behaving poorly you don’t say What’s wrong with them? you say What happened to them? As far as I am concerned the political extremism of one flavour drives political extremism of the other flavour. It’s important that everyone really commits to an active practice of seeing themselves in others and seeing others in themselves. All the more so when it’s someone who doesn’t look like you, or think like you – that’s when that practice becomes most important and most powerful.

 

 


2021-01-17

When, Why and How People Change Their Minds

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by Neil Godfrey

I especially loved these words towards the end of the same podcast — I cannot pinpoint a single “straw that broke the back” of my religious beliefs; I look back instead at a series of moments that led me towards atheism. One can also understand why it is so easy to demonize those on “the other side” of a political or religious fence and from there begin to appreciate what it takes for our minds to change.

People are not perfect Bayesian reasoners as much as we would like to aspire to be. People do not have a set of priors that are well delineated and then collect new data and update them according to Bayes’s formula, that’s not what people do. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t change their minds, people change their minds all the time.

soft landing

1:29:48.7 SC: What often happens is something that can be very familiar to physicists who know about phase transitions, the thing that causes someone to change their mind might not be, and in fact, rarely is the straw that broke the camel’s back. There can be a little thing that they get, the little piece of information and experience, whatever it is, that is associated in time with the moment they change their mind. But the actual cause of them changing their mind is a set of many, many things stretching back in time, okay? You have a person with an opinion, with a belief, a credence in a certain proposition, and they get data that is against that proposition, and data in the very broadest sense, it’s not like they’re being physicists, but they get information, experiences, new stories, conversations with friends, that cause them to think about that particular proposition, and then they don’t change their mind immediately, ’cause that’s not how people work, but that has an effect on them. Even if the effect is invisible at the level of their actual beliefs in propositions, hearing that thing can nevertheless affect them at a deeper level.

1:30:56.8 SC: And if they hear something else, and something else, and something else over a period of time, they can eventually be led to change their mind without it ever being possible to associate the reason for that change with a particular piece of information that they got. Not to mention the fact that often, this data in a very, very broad sense is not data. In other words, the thing that is causing people to change their minds is not some piece of information or some rational argument, but something much more visceral, something much more emotional. Realizing that this person who is a member of a group that they have hated and denigrated for years, they meet a member of that group and become friends with them, suddenly maybe their minds change, right? You are against gay people getting married and then you have a child who turns out to be gay and wants to get married, maybe you change your mind, right? For no especially good reason epistemically, rationally, but you realize that, “I wasn’t really that devoted to that opinion in the first place.”

1:31:55.4 SC: There are many ways to change people’s minds, and it really does happen, and all of this is just to say it’s worth trying. It’s not worth trying reaching out to the extremists, to the crazies, but there are plenty of people who are not like that. There are plenty of people who are just not that devoted. And those people might not be wedded to the views that they very readily profess to believe in right now. This is part of the challenge of democracy, those people count, just as much as the most informed voters count. And of course, there are hyper-informed voters who are extremists on both sides, so it’s not just a matter of information levels, but there are people who are, in principle and in practice, reachable and people who are not, and we should try to reach the ones who are reachable. And again, I would give that advice to the other side as well, if the other side thinks that they wanna reach some people who are on the opposite side, they can try to reach me and I’m here to be reached, right?

1:32:54.6 SC: Change takes time. Often it is not a matter of marshaling better arguments, it’s just setting a good example, providing people with a soft landing. One of the hardest things about changing your mind politically is that it is associated with a million other things in your life, your friendship networks, your families, etcetera, your beliefs about many different things. The joke we had back in George W. Bush’s days, I think Michael Berube was the first person who’ve made this joke, but the joke was, “Well, yeah, I was a life-long Democrat but then 9/11 happened, and now I’m outraged about Chappaquiddick.” The point is, for those of you young people out here, Chappaquiddick was this scandal where Ted Kennedy was in an automobile accident and Mary Jo Kopechne, a woman who was in the car with him, and he plunged into the river and she died, she drowned and he was able to swim to shore, and survived obviously, and continued in the Senate. And Republicans were outraged though, this was like a terrible thing, and Democrats made excuses for it.

1:33:57.7 SC: And the joke being that once you change your tribal political affiliation, your opinion about this historical event changes along with it, because these are connected to each other. And so, I wanna mention this in the opposite way also, so not just that all of these other opinions will change along with you if you do change your mind about something, but that in order to get someone to change their mind, you have to make it seem reasonable for them to live in a whole another world, right? For them to live in a world where a whole set of beliefs are no longer taken for granted in a certain way. That’s what it means by offering a soft landing.

Anthony Pinn

1:34:33.9 SC: One of the very first podcast I did was with Tony Pinn, who was an atheist theologian, who reaches out to black communities and tries to spread the good word of atheism to them. And one of the points he made over and over again is that black people are very religious in part because atheism does not provide them with a soft landing. You can make a rational argument that God doesn’t exist, but they need to figure out a way to live their lives and in the lives of many black communities, religion plays an important role, and if you simply say, “Well, we’re not gonna replace that role, you gotta learn to live with it,” then they’re not gonna be persuaded to go along with you. So part of persuading the other side and reaching out to it is making them feel welcome. And again, I get it if this seems hard to do, if you just want these people to be punished and they don’t deserve it, etcetera, etcetera, I get that, but that’s gonna make living in a democracy harder for all of us, if that’s the attitude we all take.

The key takeaway point makes the third point here the one to think about the most:

 


2020-10-13

Laughs, Ghosts & Peace Crimes

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by Neil Godfrey

Catching up with my favourite interviewer Philip Adams on my favourite interview program Late Night Live and must share two comedies and one tragedy. . . . .

What’s the purpose of laughter? (links are to the home pages of the interviews where they can be heard/downloaded)

Interview with Jonathan Silvertown Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Edinburgh. First thing of interest was to learn that other animals do laugh. Even mice, though at a pitch we cannot hear. I have sometimes seen acts by animals or birds that I have immediately wondered if they were done in some sort of jest, but my mind, aspiring to be totally rational, tries to dispel that thought. Has the professor has given me licence to revisit those thoughts? I don’t know. Perhaps if I read his book, The Comedy of Error, I will find out.

When Philip suggested laughter is cathartic Jonathan Silvertown pointed out that if that were the evolutionary motor that led to it then once the cathartic effect of, say, a Marx Brothers movie, had been accomplished after, presumably, the first 15 or so minutes then we would not find the rest of the film funny. Interesting.

The evolutionary driver that Silvertown hypothesizes is that laughter was primarily a sexual attraction, like the peacock feathers. So that’s why “must have good sense of humour” is always listed as a desirable attribute by those seeking a mate.

True Ghostly Hauntings

This one was with Kate Summerscale about her book The Haunting of Alma Fielding. Ghosts and seances were very popular post World War and through to the Second World War and Summerscale’s study focuses on the investigations of one “sceptic” (though a sceptic in a positive sense since he really did hope to prove the existence of the paranormal but only by rigidly honest means) Nandor Fodor, chief ghost hunter at the International Institute for Psychical Research.

I was intrigued enough to find an inexpensive electronic copy of the book online in order to find out what tricks Alma Fielding used to convince so many that poltergeists were responsible for moving and smashing things.

Pine Gap Peace Crimes

This one struck a little closer to home. I knew some of those who had been arrested and put on trial for entering the Pine Gap US satellite surveillance base and assisted with them publicizing their experiences afterwards. Further protest actions followed. Kieran Finnane has written a book about Pine Gap and the more recent protests. It would be easy to think that nothing was achieved by those efforts. The protesters were treated with utter contempt in court and even by some of the media. But a book has been written about the base they were protesting against and their efforts, and those efforts, though small, demonstrate quite vividly the extremes to which Australian governments have gone to hide all knowledge of the functions of the bases from the public.

It’s a book (another one) I want to read. Peace Crimes.


2020-07-22

Gods – 5 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods)

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series:

Gods (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-12)

Gods – 2 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective) (2020-07-13)

Gods – 3 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-14)

Gods – 4 (An Anthropology of Religion Perspective — Why People Believe in Gods) (2020-07-17)

Where Does Morality Come From? — a fifth mental tool (2020-07-18)

Another Interlude with Morality — Why Moral Beings Can Be Brutes (2020-07-19)

 

Brian Greene discusses a conversation he had with Richard Dawkins on our proclivity to be led “irrationally” by our “mental tools”:

In a one on one conversation his views were very similar to mine. . . . I was saying to him, There are times I go around the world and I will do things that are utterly irrational. I’ll knock on wood for good luck. I’ll speak to my dead father: I know that he’s not really there. I’ll pray to god on occasion if I think that I can use that backup. Not because I think that there’s some bearded individual in the sky; it’s just a behavioural tendency that I find to be comforting and useful. And I said this to Richard. And he said, I totally get it. . . . In fact, I don’t like to sleep in a house that has a reputation for being haunted. . . . For me it was such a beautiful human moment where we were just like being human beings. And he said, We’re both sinners. And I agreed. We are both sinners in that sense, because we know how the world works, we know this doesn’t make any sense, and yes it’s still part of somehow how we behave in the world.

Brian Greene Shares His Surprising Take on Religion and Science 6:50 – 8:00

When our respective mental tools work together we might conclude that amazing things can happen. Our Agency Detector, we might say, like to take the hand of our Theory of Mind in order to intuit the agency’s intention. Does that agent coming in our direction want to kill and eat us? But what about when we experience unexpected fortune or misfortune? As social animals we are very attuned to social consequences of what we do or fail to do. We know there are rewards for conforming to social expectations, rewards for even doing more than is normally expected to profit our social group, and punishments for acting against the interests of our society. If we suddenly find ourselves confronted with an unexpected reward or disaster we like to have an explanation for the change in our fortune. Focus on some examples before continuing.

Sudden death, famine, crop-failure: if we cannot understand the sudden event in terms of our basic (naive) non-reflective grasp of physics and biology then we readily turn to seek some agency or social blow-back to explain what has happened.

Extraordinary luck in life, hunting, crop yield, social favours: ditto.

We have seen how easy it is to imagine the existence of “minimally counterintuitive” agents like spirits or gods, persons without bodies, yet who, like any other person, are interested in social and personal relationships and behaviours. And being without bodies, they are invisible. And being invisible, they can intrude and make themselves aware of behaviours that are hidden from the rest of us. They know what people do in secret. And as persons without bodies that are also moral agents, with an intuitive morality like the rest of us (and as covered in recent posts). They have an interest in punishing and rewarding us.

Gods enter the story because of having particular sorts of minimally counterintuitive properties. Many have unusual powers or invisibility that would allow them to bring about the fortune or misfortune without being directly detected. Perhaps more importantly, their invisibility or super-knowledge gives them strategic information about what people do in secret. Hence, the gods could be acting to punish or reward moral failings that no human could know about. In this way, fortune or misfortune can be easily understood as the action of an agent, motivated by moral concerns. These moral concerns, too, are cross-culturally recurrent because of another mental tool: Intuitive Morality (Boyer, 2001). (Barrett 193)

Further on Intuitive Morality:

Intuitive Morality generates non-reflective beliefs about what constitutes moral behavior. One author has suggested that from an early age, children appear intuitively to differentiate between moral codes and social conventions (Turiel, 1998link is to earlier post discussing Turiel). Though the precise catalog of moral intuitions is a matter of continued empirical research and debate, it appears as though individuals and groups converge upon general rules of behavior that typically frown on murder, adultery, theft, deception, treachery, and cowardice, especially as directed toward one’s own group. These moral intuitions may have a different quality to people than mere regularities of behavior or useful guidelines that might be amended at a later date. Rather, people regard them as immutable (Boyer, 2001; Lewis, 1947 [there is no explanation for this citation in the work I am using]; see also Katz, 2000 for suggested evolutionary origins of morality).

Gods fill a major explanatory niche

Couple with Intuitive Morality otherwise inexplicable fortune or misfortune, and an important explanatory niche arises that gods fill naturally. By working in concert with these non-reflective beliefs, god concepts gain reflective plausibility. The more non-reflective beliefs that converge upon a candidate reflective belief, in this case the belief that gods exist and act, the more likely it is to become reflectively believed. (194)


Further, is it not only a natural step from there to finding out ways to win the favour of those gods for oneself?

Agency After Death

Sometimes our mental tools find themselves in conflict with one another. Our naive biology device tells us clearly that anyone who has died no longer can live, no longer needs food, no longer can be part of one’s life in a real sense. But our understanding of minds is not necessarily tied to our raw understanding of biology. I have hyper-linked the studies or discussions of the studies cited in the following:

But children’s understanding of minds allows and even encourages the idea that mental functions continue after death (Bering, 2002; Bering, Hernandez-Blasi, Bjorklund, 2005). Data from children and adults in different cultural settings suggest that two of our mental tools. Naive Biology and Theory of Mind, offer conflicting non-reflective beliefs concerning death—perhaps especially the death of a loved one (Bering, 2002, Boyer, 2001)

When we think about what others are thinking we usually do so in an abstract sense. We can think about their mental states, their intentions, quite apart from their actual bodies. It is not difficult to imagine how beliefs in ancestor-ghosts might arise, and how their values, wishes, might be called upon to explain unexpected tragedies or good-fortune in our lives.

I’ll give this series a break for a little while but do hope to return to continue Barrett’s explanation for “why people believe in particular divine attributes”. Why is it that we believe gods with super-knowledge, super-powers, down through the generations?


Barrett, Justin L. 2007. “Gods.” In Religion, Anthropology, and Cognitive Science, edited by Harvey Whitehouse and James Laidlaw, 179–207. Durham, N.C: Carolina Academic Press.


 

 

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