Politics and No-Self

What would be the political implications of mass awareness that the self is an illusion? Arriving at and integrating that awareness through a devoted spiritual practice generally facilitates a pro-social orientation -- caring and compassion for others. But suppose the increasing reliance on artificial intelligence algorithms leads us to abandon the illusion of self that has been so powerful in the human psyche for millenia. What then? Hard to say.

Yuval Harari's new book, Homo Deus, argues that automation is making people unnecessary. In particular, the less powerful people (a.k.a. the masses) may come to be regarded as unnecessary by companies and governments. Japan and Europe provide free health care to their populations, and even the myopic US has some form of social safety net. Harari's point is that one of the motivations for government programs that take care of people is to strengthen their industry and their army. But if a country's industrial and military needs can be met with robots, governments may have no reason to care about people.

As the recent election made even more clear, voters have no particular interest in electing politicians that care about them, or in policies that promote their well-being. If governments decide that people are disposable, the people themselves will not be inclined to disagree. A majority of us have been taught to blame ourselves for our misfortunes and discount the benefits of cooperatively working together to ensure we are all taken care of.
"The reason to build all these mass social service systems was to support strong armies and strong economies. Already the most advanced armies don’t need [as many] people. The same might happen in the civilian economy." (Yuval Harari, "The Post-Human World," Atlantic, 2017 Feb 20)
Indeed, we are, in certain ways, already beginning to lose the need for our selves -- or certain parts of ourselves. We are increasingly handing over to algorithms our very own decision-making judgment -- traditionally a central aspect of what makes us who we are.
"Look at GPS applications....Today, everybody is blindly following what Waze is telling them. They’ve lost the basic ability to navigate by themselves. If something happens to the application, they are completely lost. You reach a juncture on the road, and you trust the algorithm. Maybe the junction is your career. Maybe it’s the decision to get married. But you trust the algorithm rather than your own intuition. The most important invention that’s spreading now is biometric sensors. They may become ubiquitous. Humans will consult their biometric data to determine how to live. That is really interesting and scary stuff, because we will no longer be in charge of our identity. We will outsource our executive decisions to biometric readings of our neurochemical signals to decide how to live." (Harari)
In the not-too-distant future, perhaps, we won't even decide for ourselves what to have for dinner. Some Artificial Intelligence with access to our biometric readings will tell us what foods will best contribute to our health and happiness. What's left of "me" if I'm not even deciding for myself what to have for dinner?
"What really happens is that the self disintegrates. It’s not that you understand your true self better, but you come to realize there is no true self. There is just a complicated connection of biochemical connections, without a core. There is no authentic voice that lives inside you....The very idea of an individual that exists, which has been so precious to us, is in danger." (Harari)
But "the self disintegrates" isn't quite right. Rather, the illusion of a self disintegrates. When a person comes "to realize there is no true self," they are aware of what has always been the case but they didn't know it.

Longtime meditators grow accustomed and familiar with the arising of thoughts. Thoughts simply arise. Sitting and watching them arise, we become aware that there was no decision for a given thought to arise -- it just appears. Spending some time with this awareness, day after day, gradually leads to integrating the understanding that our thoughts are not us -- our thoughts are just something that happens to us, like a cold, or a traffic jam. In meditation we see for ourselves what the Buddha taught: there is no self.

If Yuval Harari is right, then popular neurobiology and artificial intelligence algorithms are now leading nonmeditators to understand what meditators have understood for centuries: the "very idea of an individual that exists, which has been precious to us" has always been an illusion.

The path of meditation tends to cultivate compassion and lovingkindness along with insight into the emptiness of our concepts of self. Along that path, there is a natural connection between seeing the way the ego constructs its illusions and feeling an opening of the heart to care for other beings. The path of artificial intelligence may be different. Algorithms may make better decisions than the wet-ware inside our skulls -- and growing comfortable with that may, as Harari suggests, have the effect of disabusing us of our notions of a transcendent "decider" soul. It's just wet-ware (100 billion neurons firing across 100 trillion synapses) on the one hand and microchips on the other hand. But this path of arriving at the insight of no-self might do nothing to improve our compassion.

It might, indeed, merely facilitate a growing assumption on the part of our governments and our corporate leadership that humans are superfluous -- an assumption we might be increasingly making about ourselves.


Evolving Religion

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 3

Religion came to early humans as both a blessing and a curse. Faith community provided a feeling of connection, of at-home-ness, of being with our people, and in a world that made sense, just where we belonged. This blessing made early communities cohesive, and that cohesiveness proved essential to survival.

We need the blessing today as much as ever: overcoming alienation with community belonging and overcoming stress and greed with greater spiritual awakening. We need moral grounding today as much as ever, and we seem to be losing it.

At the same time, we need forms of religion that don’t do what religions often have done: inculcate intolerance and distrust of outsiders. The future holds to us the possibility of expanding the circle.

We can learn to take our sense of US-ness that evolution wired into us, and keep expanding it until it takes in, well, everything. Expand US until there is no THEM. All beings are US.

Just as nature wired into us a need for faith community, so it wired into us a propensity for going further with that capacity. Our inherited structures that made us able to bind together for war are available to be appropriated to connect us to live in peace and justice, without domination, or mastery, or hegemony. What evolution created for one purpose can now be put to a new purpose.

This is the method of transcendence that nature has often taken. When we think of evolution of abilities, we think of incremental improvements in serving a given purpose -- like the eye, starting with a layer of photosensitive cells and slowly getting better and better at seeing. An important part of evolution, however, lies not in incremental improvements of a function, but the abandoning of the original function and appropriating the capacity for a completely different purpose from the one it originally served.

  • Mammalian forelimbs turned into bat wings – or, going another direction, into dolphin fins -- though the original purpose of forelimbs had nothing to do with either flying or swimming.
  • Insect antennae turned into mandibles, with a function completely different from antennae.
  • A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles emerged for reasons that had nothing to do with hearing, but, in mammals, that small bone was appropriated and made into a part of the auditory system.
  • An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor (egg-laying tube). It was there to lay eggs, not to sting with -- yet it was appropriated and made into a stinger.
  • Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. This device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land -- which was entirely different from the purpose for which it originally evolved.

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. It happens all the time. The fact that we evolved with a given structure or tendency does not obligate us to continue the purpose for which that structure or tendency evolved. Evolution has never been under any such constraint; if it were, then swim bladders would never have turned into lungs, and we’d all still be fishes.

Building upon its inheritance, the lungfish transcended that inheritance and became a new thing on this earth. Bats and dolphins, mandibular and stinging insects, mammalian auditory systems -- and, one way or another, ultimately every complex feature of every species -- built upon its inheritance to transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth.

We, too, may transcend our inheritance: put the wiring that enabled cohesive war-fighting to a new use, building peace. The wiring that finds such comfort and delight in the company of friends, gets active during spiritual experience, and orients us to live in peace within our group, is available for being universalized beyond our group. In this case, we don't even need any further genetic evolution. We already have the necessary neural structures of social orientation. With the appropriate training of those neural structures, we can teach ourselves to expand our perceived circle of "us" until there is no “them.”

Building upon our inheritance, we can transcend that inheritance and become a new thing on this earth. Our spiritual perception can plumb more deeply, can see more than just what selective pressures once needed our ancestors to see. My awareness can be trained to know, more thoroughly than cognition alone can know, that all humans are I, all sentient beings are I; all bugs and plants, all amoebas, paramecia, bacteria, and fungi are I; all rocks and dirt, rivers and oceans; air and fire; sun, moon, and stars are I.

Church, huh? What is it good for? “Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.” And strength that joins our strength to do the work of building a peaceful and just world. What is it good for? Could be everything.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 1: Where Religion Came From
Part 2: Religion and Social Health


Religion and Social Health

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 2

“People who frequently participate together in religious rituals achieve a feeling of community that enhances their ability to cooperate and avoid conflict. Even though they may not be conscious of it, they also are able to monitor one another for the sincerity of their commitment, thus making participation in religious rituals a credible signal of commitment.” (William Irons, 2001, 364)
That's where religion comes from. Shared rituals would have included music, drumming, and dance, and a variety of ritual behaviors to perform and watch others perform. Sacred stories supported the group's moral code and reinforced the group's identity.

And a third thing: Early humans attributed a stronger sense of agency than most modern humans do to trees, rivers, mountains, animals, sky, and, perhaps, "reality as a whole." They understood these features of their world to have beliefs, desires, and various means for effecting their desires. They understood trees and rocks and sky to be watching them. This probably triggered the same parts of the brain that account for gossip's effectiveness. Feeling watched made them more likely to "stay in line."

Through the rituals, the stories -- and this sense of being watched and accountable even when other people aren’t around to see -- religion is a cohesive power.

This shows up in studies of communes – communities that hold property in common. Communes often do not last long: if you were a young adult in the 1960s, you may have some direct experience of that. They tend to fall apart because the level of trust and cooperation required is just so difficult to maintain. Studies have found, though, that “communes that base their existence on religious ideals tend to last roughly four times as long on average as do those that base their existence on a secular ideology.” Groups with shared rituals and sacred stories cohere better. Marxist or Skinnerian Behaviorist communes could have benefited from some good hymns -- as well as other features of religion.

So here’s the upshot: Religion is an adaptive strategy fostering group cohesion in larger groups than can be managed by gossip alone.

Religion gives us a sense of US. The corollary is that it also gives us a sense of THEM – a feeling that those who don’t participate with us in our rituals and story-telling are different, are other, and dangerous.

So here’s the further upshot: We have religion because we had war. War places a premium on group cohesion, and “religion” is the rituals and stories that produced what was needed. War! (Huh!) Church! (Huh!) What are they good for? Each other!

It’s no wonder that human history is filled with wars over religion. This fact once seemed to me ironic and perverse. Why do people have wars over religion, when the religion on both sides teaches peace? But it's hardly surprising that an adaptation for succeeding in war would play a role in prompting us to go to war.

Part Two: What Religion Does Today

Faith community meets real human needs. It feeds people spiritually. But it has also facilitated war, from its very beginning. And, more often than not, it is related to social problems. A recent study in The Journal of Religion and Society did a large-scale cross-cultural comparative analysis, taking into account key indicators of societal well-being for 800 million people in the U.S., Japan, and western Europe. The study found that higher levels of religiosity correlated with lower levels of social well-being. The U.S., where church attendance is high, has had more school shootings than all of Europe and Japan combined. The study found:
“in general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is . . . almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so. The view of the U.S. as a ‘shining city on the hill’ to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.” (Gregory S. Paul, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” The Journal of Religion and Society, 7, 2005. View complete article: HERE.)
Europe scores lower than the US on measures of religiosity and higher than the US on measures of social health and well-being. In Europe, a lot fewer people are in prison -- and a lot fewer people are in church.

Religion reinforces a moral code, binds members into community through ritual and story, and triggers our brains to perceive a transcendent, interconnected whole beyond and more deeply satisfying than the concerns of personality and ego. But at what social cost? Is there a way for religion to be more pro-social? Yes, there is.

Next: Evolving a Better Religion

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 1: Where Religion Came From
Part 3: Evolving Religion


Where Religion Came From

"Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?" part 1

In 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam war, Edwin Starr made the charts with a protest song: “War (What is it Good For?)” “Absolutely nothing,” was the song’s answer.

“Church” – or any sort of faith congregation: synagogue, mosque, temple, sangha, vihara – actually is good for quite a lot, though it turns out religion and war have a shared origin.

As Starhawk said:
“Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our power.”
Don’t we need that? In these times of political turmoil, of social conflict and apparent chaos in our national government, we need more than ever a way to come together so that “I” can become “we”; “me” can become “us.” We are wired to have this need.

I want to look today at where this need came from – so we can understand it better. Religion was an adaptation to the conditions of early humans. But how adaptive is religion to modern conditions? The role of religion in modern society is problematic. Let’s ask whether there is a better way to adapt our wiring to modern conditions so we have more faith and more community and less war and conflict.

Part One: Where Religion Came From

The emergence of coherent society begins with reciprocal altruism. My survival chances were enhanced if I did favors for associates who would later do favors for me – although, if I went too far, allowed myself to be taken advantage of by doing favors for associates who would never reciprocate, then my survival odds diminished. In order for a reciprocity system to work, we had to have brains “capable of carefully tracking the behavior of the other organisms with which [we] interact.” (W. Irons) So there was selective pressure to develop the capacity to track and remember others’ behavior.

A second force in the emergence of society was the need for groups to cooperate in order to out-compete other groups. Bands of primates, generally males, competed violently with other bands for food, for territory, for access to females. We see that going on in chimps today – and on campuses. This group-group competition was a powerful force driving us toward formation of larger and better-united groups. Social cohesion required rules, and some method of communicating and enforcing them – keeping most of the members more-or-less in line most of the time. These selective pressures turned our ancestors into the sorts of beings with a facility for learning moral rules.

Reciprocal altruism gradually turned into a system of moral rules. Language allowed us to keep tabs on more and more of each other, which let us maintain a larger group, which allowed a more cohesive and larger fighting force and a better chance of defeating rival groups. Our ancestors learned a technique that we readily recognize and still use, though sometimes we say we don't like it: we call it gossip. Our ancestors met in small groups to monitor others' behavior and moralize about it.

Gossip emerged among early humans because it worked. It tracked who was trustworthy, reinforced the social ties of the gossipers, and strengthened the moral rules of the tribe. There are solid evolutionary reasons why we humans are attracted to gossiping. It’s a part of the system of maintaining the social order.

There is, however, a limit to how far gossip can go. Researchers find that moral rules reinforced through gossip can maintain unity up to about 150 members. Indeed, gossip magazines today maintain a list of no more than 150 celebrities that they keep up with the gossip about. More than that, and it’s too much to keep up with – the gossip just doesn’t pull us in. Larger groups need to be held together with something else. That's where religion comes in.

Religion facilitates cooperation among a group's members by serving to reinforce commitments to each other in a recognizable way. Participating in a group's rituals psychologically reinforces your actual commitment to the group and also lets the group know you're committed to them.
“participation in a ritual tends to alter individuals' brain states and to cause them to feel emotions of identity with a group more strongly and to hold this feeling more firmly in memory.” (Eugene Aquili, The Spectrum of Ritual, 1979)
Reciting and listening to sacred stories works the same way: it bonds us to the group with which we share the story.

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This is Part 1 of 3 of "Church! Huh! What Is It Good For?"
See also
Part 2: Religion and Social Health
Part 3: Evolving Religion