Monday, 7 March 2011

A Sociocultural Evolutionary View of Skepticism; Its Origin and Function.

I am going to give a talk on my theory of sociocultural evolution and how it applies to skepticism at our next Skeptics in the Pub meeting. As preparation I thought I would write a blog on the topic to try to flesh out my ideas.  Bare in mind, I have to take it right back to the beginning of civilisation and back again, but skepticism does appear eventually...

In the beginning there was instinct ;), and the abstract had yet to exist. Foresight and memory evolved alongside social living and created the first shared abstract notion of identity emerging from our knowledge of the world and our place within it.  Imagined communities did not exist beyond what was immediate, the 'other' incorporating everybody not of ones own nomadic tribal group.  Shared experience was limited to geographical space since communication was limited to speech, story and song.  As I see it, a few simple evolutionary maxims, once the domain of instinctive genetics but now rationalised by early humans through newly developed cognitive abilities into a cultural form, ensured the emergence of human civilisation:

1) Fear the unknown - The new and different is potentially a threat.  When applied to humans this would include cultural factors since such a difference would suggest genetic difference i.e from a  rival nomadic group, due to the limited extent of communication networks.

2) Do not waste energy fearing the known - The familiar can only become familiar if it hasn't already killed you. This is seen in various forms of habitualisation, and when applied to other humans would also include cultural familiarity since this would highly correspond to genetic similarity.

3) Defer to authority - Whether it is something akin to Blackmores imitate the best imitators, or simply an evolution from animalistic strength hierarchies, Authority has since the dawn of power structures been synonymous with exclusive knowledge/cultural production

4) Just as the brain constantly strives to rationalise our physical world, so too the brain strives to rationalise our cultural world.  Really, there is no clear distinction since both combine to make up our environment.

Then technology started.  Agriculture brought with it geographical stability and the concept of belonging to a certain area.  Power dynamics, once limited to shamans and the like within individual groups, began to grow along with the resources now available: overabundance of food, increased leisure time and specialisation leading to new weapons.  Instead of ruling a nomadic group, those first individuals to claim superiority now found it possible to rule over more than one group within a geographical locale.  The imposition of abstract knowledge (initially religion, understandable rationalisations given the lack of knowledge) from the exclusive few could now find form in art, artifacts, story, song etc which means, according to the above maxims, that enough common culture was produced and consumed by the different peoples to ensure a stable group identity (pretty much the definition of a group) under a common hierarchy. 

All over the world these cultural units formed.  Written language arrived, and with it came exclusive literacy and ability to construct and record abstract concepts.  Culture was either created by or influenced from a monopoly of the few creating the identity of the many, utterly saturating all of society.  Yet technological advance ensured the status-quo could not last.  Ships, mathematics and all manner of advances came from the opening up of these largely closed systems through trade (primarily around the Mediterranean and along land trade routes) creating cultural mixing (and bringing about the end of the Bronze Age).  Now huge empires were possible, encompassing a number of different religious identities. This did not produce for stable times, and as humanity tried to rationalise this state of affairs memes such as secular citizenship flourished. It was in effect the large scale adoption, a scaling-up, of old memes from Classical Greece and other localities that, due to their diversity, had found ways to accommodate such differences.  A new form of imagined community was created, that of the state, and it managed this not by replacing religion but by capturing a niche and constructing for itself a role separate from that of religion: politics.  Religion was relegated merely to matters of the esoteric (and even this was not free from the manipulating intrusion of political memes) and the rest of culture was monopolised by the state.  Once again, this monopolisation led to a permanent suffusion of state-memes within culture, becoming a part of all that came after.  Expanding empires made various degrees of attempts at imposing 'home' culture on plundered lands but in Europe, the close proximity of closed systems of 'others' meant the continual war of states, just as nomadic and religious closed systems fought before that.

This type of transition has happened once more since the emergence of the State.  Once again, technology was the driver.  As science led to revolutions in navigation, weapons, bureaucracy and the like, individuals began to escape the closed system of state's common vernaculars (derived from market forces after the invention of the printing press) and trade internationally.  This fresh autonomy, directly analogous to the Mediterranean traders, led once more to increased dissonance as people saw the actions of the state as counter to their desire to maintain peaceful trade. Multinational imagined communities arose such as traders and academics, the increased mixing leading to massive innovation, something the state needed to tap in order to achieve it's own aims.  Yet the memes of Commerce, those of individual freedom, were more rational than the status-quo of war, propaganda and fear espoused by the State.  Slowly, the States role was sidelined (just as Religion before it) as Commerce became the new producer of cultural, and therefore identity, production.  They had their monopoly, granted in recognition by the State (and fetishised in corporate personhood laws) in its new role as protector of Commerce, as well as in the large, inhibitive cost of production.  In this age of mass-production, imagined identity is formed by the wealthy few who censor and produce according to the narrow interests of state and commerce.  Commerce has become a fundamental identity, the democratic state now restricted to Public Service campaigns and press statements, funnelled to us through the corporate sphere.

Religion is what we believe.  The State is where we live.  Commerce is what we do.  These three monopolies, allowed to suffuse culture with their memes, have between them constructed our cultural environment and our identities.  Yet now we face a technological revolution to put all the others in the shade.  With each previous transition, cultural production has passed to more and more hands, from the Demi-God to Multinational CEO..  Yet it has always remained the foundation of the power dynamic, the exclusive domain of the few who rule over the multitude that are cast in their image.  These past transitions of imagined community have been quantitative revolutions only.  The Internet (presaged by universal education) has democratised cultural production and made it global; A truly qualitative revolution in the creation of imagined communities  Dissonance is once more rising as the communication network outstrips the reach of either religion, state or commerce.  Their 'official' imagined community narrative, based upon a now false notion of exclusivity and exploitation of the 'other', is now at odds with what we have come to understand for ourselves.  Yet this is misleading as I will come to soon... a better description would be to say that our selves are now produced by, and so now morally includes, the multitude itself: horizontally derived, global, democratising, open system (there is no one else that can be the closed-out 'other')  A new global identity is being formed based upon information, a basis which includes everybody regardless of belief, habitat or profession.  In the words of this Syrian journalist, "A real revolution is nothing like what we were taught about in our school books. No military coups, no revenge, no political bloodshed in the name of the revolution. Tunis first, then Egypt. I watched how young men and women declared their refusal of the reality that had been forced on them (my italics)

This is where skepticism comes in (finally).  The reason that we can form a universal imagined community is because we have universal commonalities.  Not only are we physically similar but we also share familiar real communities; we are all mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, we all need to eat and we all need to rationalise our existence.  This last point is key.  Because we all share the same reality, the scientific method reaches the same conclusions for everyone, creating a universal commonality based upon legitimate, agreed consensus (including agreed upon provisos, distinguishing it from dogma).  This creates an attractor, truth if you will, that objectivises creation of shared identity and thus insulates it from manipulation of the few, the powerful.  Updated: It's kind of analogous to Entropy in regard to time, in that the same false beliefs are far less likely to spontaneously appear the world over than an the ever more rational interpretation that is the scientific consensus, based as it is on a reality independent of subjectivity.  In terms of individual rationalisation, false beliefs demand a complex, specific, amalgamation of different memes in just the right order, with defense against dissonance, for the overall belief to hold up.  There are many different false possibilities, but only one consensus that attempts to describe reality objectively.  There is an asymetric drive towards belief in the rational, determined by our inate need to reason and our acumulating knowledge of the world; eventually objective reasoning will replace superstition.  I like the idea of skeptical thinking being analogous to high entropy, fits with the notion of broad, disparate knowledge as opposed to localised, low entropy dogma. The attractor chips away at this structure leaving only that which requires no dogma whatsoever, the ever-changing world of science.  

Up until now, science has retained, due to a need for trust, an exclusive network within which it works.  So long as cultural production via the scientific method remained exclusive, it remained alien and unknown to many of the multitude, resulting in the state and commerces ability to ring fence it for their own use.  This has limited the ability of science to influence the social sphere, since it was still produced by exclusive culture (even exclusive language), for exclusive groups. The Internet and open information memes are chipping at this closed structure, trying to open it up, something that I think is central to the aims of skepticism.

Skepticism can be to the social what the scientific method is to the physical.  Both seek to objectify thinking and behaviour by attempting to identify and work around our human limitations, both biological and psychological (or cultural, i.e. accumulated knowledge. The terms are to me largely interchangeable though psychological would also account for the effect of genetics too).  Objective knowledge of our world has reached a point whereby different people, applying skepticism, can come to universal conclusions of abstract notions (morality, ethics etc) in the social sphere (as the scientific method does for the physical world).  Previous forms of meta-subjectivity created for us by the few, the foundations of exclusive imagined identities, are mere constructs designed to maintain the status-quo; institutionalised culture rationalised (communicated down) in such terms as paternal (religion), duty (state, social contract) or theories of economics-as-freedom (commerce).  We must reject these dogmas, for that is what they are, and objectivize the subjective through the objectification of thought (applying skeptical rules).

This is what skepticism does.  It facilitates the emergence of a common identity through the universal acceptance (within the group) of agreed upon rules that are designed, from our objective knowledge of science, to recognise and mitigate our own mental flaws and biases.  These rules demand that we all recognise and mitigate those parts of our identity that are exclusive, that have come from an undemocratic sphere of cultural production, and instead accept the evidence of our shared reality.

This attractor of truth that is independent of humanity is a revolutionary concept when you consider its correlation with technology.  Hegel always imagined History as the story of mankind coming to know itself, but I think he underestimated the next step, getting to know each other.  So long as capitalism continues to connect people the dissonance will grow.  Yet the powerful, those purveyors of ideology, have come to believe their own dogma... how else do you rationalise greed so one is able to sleep soundly and be a good family man?  This makes them dangerous.  They have created a global gated community, inoculating themselves from the darker externalities their wealth accumulation demands.  Yet even they inhabit the self same world as the multitude and it remains to be seen how high the pull of the attractor can reach.  Each transition of imagined identity has brought with it increased reliance on the cooperation of the people and as the latter of the three, commerce can, reluctantly, change when forced to by the expanding moral spheres/communication structures of its consumers.  That those with the most to lose and of the most immoral nature (oil, weapons, finance) are the ones to have used their wealth to subvert the state, the supposed representatives of the very people that now exceed them in moral capacity, is not a coincidence.  They will be the last bastions of imposed identity, the most fundamentalist of opponents against the emerging global identity.

Everyone will always have reality in common.  This fact must not be allowed to be taken from us by the extreme post-modernists who represent the social equivalent to pseudo-scientists.  To endow validity to individual 'realities' is to erect walls where there need not be any.  Celebrating subjectivity is not the exclusive domain of those who deny a shared objective truth.  If it were so, we would be doomed to the constant threat of manipulation as we continue to allow belief to be a valid criteria for defining authority to which we are subservient.  We have tried that, indeed we have tried nothing else.  While it may have been moral according to the limited definition granted by limited communication technology in the past, it was still the cause of much pain and suffering as dissonance, caused by the attractor, began to contradict those belief systems.  The only way for us to reach a globally just and fair society is to base that society on universal commonalities of reality as it really is.  The public realm must be free from the ideologies of religion, state and commerce and be replaced with institutions that emerge from the complex network of independent minds.  The multitude must be allowed to communicate, to create global culture that eliminates the 'other' and renders the identities of the oppressors obsolete.

No longer will we be defined by what we believe, where we live or what we do.  We will be recognised for our unique set of knowledge and the social value that contributes.  In short, we will go from objectified subjectivity of the soul, to the subjectivised objectivity of a complex network.  We are a system, and a system is defined by the number of links, by relationships, more than by individual nodes. Ironically, we once knew that, as indigenous people do, but we didn't understand it.  That's why it all got a bit crazy for a few thousand years.  Now we are beginning to understand it, we are replicating that understanding in culture because it seems the most rational interpretation and eventually people will be able to grow in an environment where there is enough understanding that we can once again come to know what it is to be part of a system, both human and, inseparably, ecological. We can only know such things when we are allowed to live it, understanding clearly isn't enough.  As such, I predict that skepticism will grow to become a fundamental part of this new, information based, global identity and will eventually lead to the eradication of enforced, indoctrinated, false subjectivity to a true subjectivity whereby an individual is free to express themselves as they truly feel themselves to be, not as a call-centre worker from Hull who wishes she had the time and money to learn violin.

Thanks to @Mikeharris100 for his input!

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