Humans, Reasoning, Philosophy, Politics, Evolutionary Quirks and more.


How many friends does one person need?

Dunbars number and other evolutionary quirks.

by Robin Dunbar.

Amazon review: 4 stars.

We are the product of our evolutionary history, according to professor (of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University) Robin Dunbar. According to Dunbar, the evidence is everywhere: From the way we socially interact (Grooming, laughter, music and language), to the way our minds are actually build and onwards to the way our minds are capable of reflecting about the world. There is an evolutionary hand in it everywhere. The book is a delightful and fascinating read, sharing insights from many fields, but always with a focus on evolutionary biology.


Grooming comes in many forms, it is not just about removing fleas. It is about intimacy, it creates a sense of wellbeing and relaxed connectedness. It has to do with endorphins. Indeed, mental stress and low-level pain is dealt with by the endorphin system. Physical stimulation of the skin triggers the release of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are part of the body's pain control system. Where pain thresholds are much higher if endorphins are released in the brain. It turns out that laughter is also an extremely effective releaser of endorphins. If you have just laughed a lot, then you have an elevated pain threshold afterwards [p. 69]. Laughter really is a medicine. Music also triggers the release of endorphins. And, music also gives us a sense of wellbeing, contentednes, belonging and groupishness that is so important in the process of social bonding [p. 72] (Producing music - obviously - also has a sexual selection component, but this doesn't take away from other functions). And there is more grooming.... Language is obviously also a sort of grooming: ''I find you interesting enough to waste time talking to'' (and then of course you can even exchange information with language).
Grooming is important, because it helps us build the protective cliques that are so important in an uncertain world. And sure, evolution might have engineered various mechanisms that rewards building good social relationships. Still, maintaining relationships is costly in cognitive terms. And Dunbars number tells us that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.

Grooming helps us survive both as individuals and as groups. And sex selects the desirable traits. Even though sex is a highly complex process... and, indeed, sex can be pretty confusing (...True, it is all about X and Y chromosomes. XX gives a girl. XY gives a boy. But accidents of genetics can give many other combinations: XXY, XXYY, XXXYY, XYY - and sure, most of these chromosome types are associated with serious disabilities and abnormalities, and most are rare. But they are out there. And it gets weirder. In turtles and crocodiles your sex depends on the temperature of the nest in which you were incubated as an egg. In some coral reef fish - everyone begins life as females, but if there is no male, the dominant female undergoes a metamorphosis and turns into a male [p. 98] ...).

But, somehow, traits are passed down to the next generation. According to Dunbar, not in the simple ways you might expect. Indeed, we are not a random mosaic of bits inherited from our parents: It is not as random as we might think. It is not just: Half the population would inherit a particular trait from their fathers, and the rest would inherit from their mothers. According to Dunbar, it is a bit more complex. Instead, some bits are always inherited from the father, others always from the mother. And things gets very interesting in the brain. Dunbar quotes Barry Keverne and Rob Barton for a theory, where females have won the battle over control over (inheritance of) the neocortex, because social skills (which the neocortex controls) are more valuable to them, whereas males have won the battle over who controls the limbic system (manage fight or flight circuitry), because it pays not to think too much about what you are doing, if you get into a fight (The risk of injury or death is something the neocortex might come up with, but in games where second best means death, such cautious considerations are not helpful). The evolutionary battle of the sexes ends up being about control over the bits of the brain, though it is still something of a mystery as to how this is brought about [p. 15 - 17].

Still, the process is evolutionary and it works rather fast. Think about polar bears! Now, they might be snow white. But, remember that evolution changes things fast. According to Dunbar, it has taken only ten thousand years to produce the snow white bear from its common ancestor with other brown bears (Well, Wikipedia says the polar bear diverged from the brown bear, Ursus arctos, roughly 150,000 years [1] ago). Indeed, everything is quite new. Just consider humans. Some 100.000 years ago we lived in a world with many other species from the homo family. The last Neanderthals died out some 28.000 years ago, The last Homo Erectus hominids died out some 60.000 years ago [2]. And on Flores, Indonesia, a dimunitive member of the Homo Erectus family survived until as recently as 12.000 years ago. In Africa we were all black and as we travelled north we became white (It is not possible to travel so far south that it will make you white, but the Sand Bushmen of the Kalahari are certainly not as black as people from further north, like the Zulus, who arrived in souther Africa only a few hundred years ago).

In humans the game is all about giving us these spectacular minds that can do all of these amazing things, like reflecting on someone else's mind. Intentionality is Robin Dunbars word for our capacity to reflect on the contents of minds. As reflected in the use of verbs like suppose, think, believe etc. This is first-order intentionality. And most mammels probably falls into this category.If you are capable of reflecting on someone else's mind state (I suppose that you believe) this is a second order intentionality. The stage children arrive at age 5, when they first acquire a theory of mind. Adult humans can aspire to fifth-order intentionality, but this represents an upper boundary for most people: I suppose [1] that you believe [2] that I want [3] you to think [4] that I intend [5] . Intentionality provides us with a way for scaling cognitive abilities. And it turns out that these capacities are a linear function of the relative size of the frontal lobe of the brain.

Shakespeare was really good at this mind stuff. In Othello: Iago intends that Othello should believe that Desdemona loves Cassio and Cassio loves her. I.e. Shakespeare intends that the audience believe that Iago wants Othello to suppose that Desdemona loves Cassio and he in turn loves her. Which adds up to a six-order intentionality. Not only must Shakespeare handle this, but he is also pushing the audience to their limits forcing them to work at fifth-order intentionality. Obviously, a chimpanzee with cognitive limits set at second order intentionality could not have written Othello. And chimpanzees don't play ps3 games like Drakes Deception ! :-)

According to Dunbar, a lot comes from our spectacular minds. Take religion: Religion is also a complex cognitive structure. The system can only work if I believe that you suppose that there is a higher being who understands that you and I wish something will happen (intervention of some sort?). Thats a fourth order system just for starters, and to understand the system you quickly need fifth-order abilities. Indeed, religion is dependent on social cognitive abilities at the very limits of human capabilities. The benefits of religions are nevertheless obvious: Religion a) Gives us a system (flawed, as sometimes it doesnt work) to predict the future b) Make us feel better about life c) Help us set up a moral code to keep social order. And d) Gives individuals a sense of belonging (to group and community), which creates stronger groups and communities.

We have come a long way: Homo Erectus had a skull size (two million years ago) so he could work out third order intentionality (E.g. : ''I believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent'', i.e. personal religion). But social religion with its fourth-order intentionality comes later (some 500.000 years ago), according to Robin Dunbar. And fifth order intentionality religion only with modern humans some 200.000 years ago. And who knows what the future will bring!?

Amazon: [3], [4].
Posterous: [5].


Simon Laub

Do they think you're stupid?

100 ways of spotting spin and nonsense from the media, pundits and politicians.

by Julian Baggini.

Amazon review: 3 stars.

Faulty reasoning, spin and tricksy arguments are used around us all the time. Listing some 100 examples, Julian Bagginis book gives us some much needed tools to cut through some of the rhetorical tricks used to influence our thoughts.

Facts and certainty. Some people who don't like the theory of evolution regularly attacks it for not being a ''fact'', in contrast to what they know to be ''facts''. In Julian Bagginis words: ''Evolution is indeed a theory. We also do not know for certain that it is true. But this in itself is an uninteresting claim. Arguably we know nothing for certain. Maybe we are not hominids walking the Earth after all, but lizards plugged into a virtual reality machine on Alpha Centauri, fed the illusion of a normal terrestrial life. This is highly unlikely, but it is possible and we don't know for absolute certain that we are not being deceived in this or in countless other fanciful ways.''

Mood music. If you can't win the argument then ask (silly) questions, where noone can disagree. You might not have argued anything, but you might win votes by setting a mood. In Julian Bagginis words: ''Whats wrong with a little discipline in Schools?'' Why, nothing of course. ''Why can't politicians be more accountable?' Good question!

Flatter people. Flatter works! Flatter your audience and you win the argument!? Politicians say that they trust your wise judgement (while their opponents thinks you are too dumb to make important life-choices for yourself). Pop singers are always happy to come to the middle of nowhere, because ''they love people there'' - which always gets a huge cheer.

Appeal to loyalty. Is obviously a problem. As Julian Baggini points out: The main problem with appeals to loyalty - whether national, familial, tribal or other - is that they bypass any serious discussion of the merits of the case.

Freedom. Is something everybody likes. Surely, no one ever stood on a platform of reduced freedom for all. Still most people want governments to provide health and education services, redistribute wealth in some degree and regulate many areas of public life. So, when something can't be done, because ''it is a free country'' - then well, it isn't a completely free country....

Cui bono? Who benefits? The belief that cui bono is a question that leads directly to truth gives some bizarre conclusions. Julian Baggini gives us the following wonderful example: Over the past twenty years, the average circle of close friends has shrunk by a third. Which made one Carol Sarler reach the conclusion: The monstrously expanding counselling trade benefits for encouraging us to talk to shrinks rather than our friends, and ...

Framing a debate. The classic question ''When did you stop beating your wife'' lets us ask one thing, and assume another. By assuming something that has not been established the debate is framed. We should look out for such statements: Why is the government destroying the BBC? How much freedom should we be prepared to sacrifice for our freedom?

People don't want to believe terrible things: We cannot bear very much reality. And we dont want to believe terrible things. Which leads us into all sorts of selfdeceptions. Which is why there is never any shortage of people willing to tell us that someone charged with a crime could never have done it. Again, flatter wins the argument - nothing bad here!

Psychology over logic. We are motivated more by psychology than logic. If you don't vote in an election, you are calculating that the benefit the result will bring multiplied by the probability that your vote will change the outcome - is smaller than the effort to go to the polling station. Thats actually very rational! But as a society we prefer the story that every little bit of effort really makes all the difference. Don't be to logical if you want to win an argument....

Quality, not quantity counts. Dozens of pieces of evidence with low probability pointing to some outcome doesn't add up to make it a certainty..... Yet, people try to persuade us by lining up lists of very unlikely bits of evidence that they think should make us reach some faulty conclusion ....

Amazon: [6].
Blogspot: [7].


Simon Laub

What's it all about?

Philosophy and the meaning of life.

by Julian Baggini.

Amazon review: 4 stars.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre [8] : ''Purpose and meaning are not built in to human life, we ourselves are responsible for fashioning our own purposes. It is not that life has no meaning, but that it has no predetermined meaning.''

Which to many might ring a bit hollow: ''Ok, we can't see any meaning out there, so we are just going to make one up for ourselves....''
Really, is a made-up meaning a real meaning at all?

Yes, according to Baggini, assigned purposes are not inferior to predetermined purposes! He thinks that we should ''grow up'' and accept that there is not some hidden or secret purpose that we have not yet discovered.
Instead, our decision making should be based on what is out in the open for everyone to see: ''The whole problem of lifes meaning is not that we lack any particular piece of secret information ... It is rather to be solved by thinking about the issues on which the evidence remains silent.''

So what could life's purpose then be? Some might claim that life is all about having a good material standard of living or becoming successful someday in the future. Others claim that life is about helping others, serving humanity, being happy, enjoying each day or freeing the mind. According to Baggini there might be some truth in these answers - but not the whole truth.
The rest of the book (an entertaining and thought provoking journey) walks us through some of these ideas that people have (on lifes purpose). Trying not to be dogmatic, he doesn't reject anything completely, but does point out weak spots in a lot of the reasoning. In the end the reader should decide for himself, as long as he makes a ''Moral'' and ''Ethical'' [9] choice.

Having a good material standard of living: In the western world people want ''a great partner, who is both a terrific friend and a terrific lover. A good material standard of living, well adjusted happy children. A fulfilling job, a varied social life with amusing intelligent friends - and regular holidays abroad.''
Obviously, very few people actually have all of these things, so if this is the standard expectation, most people must obviously end up very disappointed. So, what does people do? According to Baggini, ''we imagine that we will have all of these things in the future..''
But this cannot be right. Life will never be without difficulties or worries.
And there will not be one event in the future to make everything right. - Even, if you win the World Cup, get a Nobel prize or win an Oscar. Sure, people say that if they achieved nothing else then their lifes would have meaning (with that World cup title, Nobel prize or Oscar). Meaning that a single event and achievement enables you to become something you will always be.
Still, most people know that you might not get a lasting effect from such events. And it might still be better to be a contented family man than a washedup alcoholic Oscar winnner. And surely: The recognition, admirers and sunny smiles that people want might demand some hard choices and tradeoffs. Indeed, life will never be just simple.

And it gets worse. (Even) more knowledge is not going to make us happy. Baggini turns to Mary Shelleys Frankenstein [10]. Unlike us, Frankensteins monster was so lucky to discover why he was made and for what purpose. But these revelations did not have any lasting effect. In the end the monster wanted Frankenstein to create a female monster as his companion to make his life tolerable. Knowing its origins did not reveal lifes meaning for the creature.

The joy of being an ant: Helping others helps us break free of the pointless cycle of eating to live, living to work and working to eat.
But, logically there might be a problem with having this as ones purpose. (Rather hypothetical) If there are noone to help, then ones life doesn't have a purpose?
Then what about helping planet Earth? Indeed, some take inspiration in the Bible that our purpose is to look after the planet (and avoid global warming and other threats). But why does the planet need any looking after in the first place? Turning to the Bible you might wonder why God couldn't do himself? And in the political world you don't see green people thanking polluters for giving their lives purpose!
Then what about being an ant that works for humanity?. Nevermind the hubris [11] (The progress of humanity would continue more or less the same whether you live or die this afternoon. Very few people have the power to alter the course of human history), the real problem, according to Baggini is: ''That we can't elevate the welfare of the species, which is an abstraction, over members of the species. Human beings can feel pain, joy, love and pleasure - humankind can not. Human beings can learn, think, develop intellectually - humankind can not. Purpose of life cannot therefore be something as abstract as to serve the advancement of the human species.....''
Catch 22: Either you go for some specific unfortunate souls to help (without them you don't have a purpuse) or you go for humanity, which doesn't really exist.

The phrase Carpe Diem [12] is part of the longer Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero -''Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the future.''
The true spirit of carpe diem is to appreciate the things we like: Relationships, creativity, learning, food, travel - and not put them off indefinitely. Making sure that every day counts.
This wisdom becomes folly if we assume that only pleasure counts, and life becomes an endless chain of restaurant meals, mini-breaks, holidays and so forth.
In popular culture the philosophers Carpe diem easily becomes Party on. Have a laugh, have a drink, enjoy yourself.....
Some sort of hedonism. Where hedonists differ only in their predilections.
Some seek sexual pleasure, others good food or wine, or music, travel or art. In Kierkegaards ''The Seducers Diary'' a man makes very elaborate plans to bed a woman. The goal of the scheme is a moment of pleasure - so it is possible to work and plan for such a moment.
But the philosophers warns us...a life of plesaure becomes a life of toil. Each day you are alive, you have to seek new pleasures - because you are either enjoying yourself or you are nothing....
As long as you are happy. Obviously, people know that being happy is not everything. Think about virtual reality (see my post on Nick Bostroms Virtual Reality Simulation Argument): Imagine that there is a virtual reality machine that you can step into and have any experience you want:
''Before you step into it - you decide what kind of experiences you want. If you want to be a rockstar that can be arranged and so forth. If we really thought happiness should be pursued above all else - surely we should not hesitate to live inside a virtual reality machine. Instead most people tend to reject it. There should be some ''authenticity'' to a life, according to most people.''
Life should be lived ''truthfully'', not as an idle prince or a princess in some castle doing nothing.

In Aldous Huxley ''Brave New World'' [13] people are kept happy by taking the drug soma. But, it is a dystopic future, because happiness is bought at the price of authenticity! Not the result of personal effort and ability, but the result of a drug.
Finally, it should be noted that ''Psychological studies suggest that the keys to contentment are stable and loving relationships, good health and a certain degree of financial security and stability.'' Things that can be enjoyed by anyone whether they read Kierkegaard or are pleased with just watching soaps on TV (see my post on Positive Psychology) - Anyway, pleasure is not all.

Finally, some people think that Freeing the Mind is the purpose of life.
I.e. Lose one with the universe....How this is done is not always clear though .... In Buddhism there is the ''Anatta'' [14] or no self view. An individual consists of 5 parts [15]. The rupa (the physical form of the body), vedana (feeling), sanna ( perception), sankhara (mental formation thought processes), vinnana (consciousness). The self is not any of these five khandas - rather it is the khandhas working together (think: David Hume's ''bundle theory of the self'').
Rather mysteriously, Buddhism teaches that some of the mental processes passes from one life to another on death through some unknown mechanism..... ''the Buddha reprimanded a disciple who thought that in the process of rebirth the same consciousness is reborn without change. Just as the body changes from moment to moment Because the mental processes are constantly changing, the new being is neither exactly the same as, nor completely different from, the being that died....''
Clinging to these 5 parts, as in ''what I am'', or ''mine'' gives rise to unhappiness - and is what you should try to avoid, according to Buddhism (An enlightened being is one whose changing, empirical self is highly developed. One with great self has a mind which is not at the mercy of outside stimuli or its own moods, but is imbued with self-control, and self-contained. The mind of such a one is without boundaries, not limited by attachment or I-identification).
But the idea that you can be one with the universe still doesn't make sense.....
If one genuinely lost ones sense of self, one would not be able to report back any feeling of oneness with universe. Who should do it? And it seems rather silly that the purpose of ones life should be not to have a life and self at all. To cease to exist as a ''one self'' !?

Our sense of self seems to be rooted in our thoughts, personalities and memories. We are embodied, mortal, human animals. We can't really imagine living for 200 years and still being the same person. Let alone imagine what an afterlife (should we believe in that) would be like? Baggini therefore concludes that it is futile to find life's meaning in the life to come and freeing your mind isn't much better. It inevitably just asks the question: ''From what..?''

Purpose and Ethics. After we have been given the pros and cons we should then decide. Indeed, Sartre would argue that we need to create meaning and purpose for ourselves. However, he does not provide guidance on what is morally acceptable. I.e. it would not be acceptable to find meaning and purpose in joining the Gestapo?! Still, meaning and morality are connected. According to Baggini: ''The sufficient conditions of a meaningful life is that it is of value to the person living it and it is morally good.''
But Baggini does agree with Sartre that we should make out a purpose for ourselves: ''...the transcendentalist wants what is of value in life to be underwritten by a higher order. Love is only good if it conquers everything, Morality is not morality, if it is only rooted in human behaviour....'' A view (desire for something more) that is understandable - But Baggini doesn't accept it. To confront and accept the limits of human understanding is the mature approach according to Baggini.

Indeed, Baggini might close the book here, but as the reader you might wonder, what to do with all the things you don't know and that might never be revealed to us about our existence. Sure, he can joke that we are really reptiles from Tau Ceti inside some virtual reality gear that makes us think that we are earthlings - but what if we are?!? His trust in current reality does become a bit annoying in the end. What if future generations fight artilect wars and believe that their purpose is to become non-human cyborgs - surely the Buddhist are wise to state that reality is a fuzzy thing, and that we should keep working to improve our minds - maybe there might even be some purpose in that....

Amazon: [16], [17].
Posterous: [18].

From: Simon Laub
Newsgroups: alt.philosophy
Sent: Sunday, January 23, 2011 9:35 PM
Keywords: Julian Baggini, Philosophy, Jean-Paul Sartre.
The meaning and purpose of life as philosophers see it.
Subject: Julian Bagginis: Whats it all about


Simon Laub

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