Monday, March 16, 2015

Becoming Human

“In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development.” Morgan’s Canon

The truth is, we are animals with the potential to develop humanness. Homo sapiens share the following behavioral traits with other species within the Great Ape family:

1.     Formation of social structures
2.     Establishment of pecking orders through demonstrations of dominance
3.     Cooperation within social in-groups (groups of apes/people with which one member identifies and belongs)
4.     Competition/conflict with social outgroups (groups of apes/people that are different from the ones within which a single member belongs and identifies)
5.     Use of language and development of unique cultures[1]
6.     Utilization of instinct and intuition in decision making[2]

Likely related to some unique brain structures,[3] two potential abilities that may be used to define "humanness" are higher order critical thinking and higher order empathy skills.[4] [5] Other animals have been shown to demonstrate critical thought and empathy, so these traits in and of themselves are not exclusively human. However, the human capacity for cultivating these skills to extremely high levels is unique. For our purposes, humanness should be understood as an artificial, social construct and not a scientific distinction. 

Higher order critical thinking and empathy are skills that require development. So, though genetics determine whether or not one falls into the biological category of homo sapiens, a subspecies in the Great Ape family,[6] the characteristics that define true humanness present on a continuum and are not fully developed in all members of the group, Homo Sapiens.

Like all Great Apes, homo sapiens form families and social groups. We LOVE our in-groups whether they be political, religious, regional, national, or sports related. We establish pecking orders within these groups based on dominance. On the playground, human dominance is often determined by who is biggest. As adults, dominance may be determined through superior intelligence, physical strength, wealth, attractiveness, ambition, confidence, or any number of other factors. 

Like chimpanzees, we will often cooperate with our ingroup, but we tend to view outgroups with suspicion. Our nature is to consider them threats and often to classify them as “lesser than” or even “evil.” This instinctual behavior is at the root of all forms of bigotry. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is easy to understand that a “go to” position for early humans of assuming people who are different are threats would be more adaptive than assuming their benevolence. In the natural environment, early humans were constantly at risk, so tendencies resulting in cautiousness aided in their survival. 

Intuition governs the lives of all animals. It is closely related to instincts housed in primitive brain regions. Intuition, or “gut feeling,” is an automatic, cognitive short-cut that provides a crude, organic, sort of meta-analysis of the culmination of one’s entire life experience relating to a given concept. defines critical thinking as, “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence.”[7] The scientific method was born of critical thought. It is a process designed to factor out emotional human biases, such as ingroup/outgroups behaviors. Prior to the advent of the scientific method, our natural tendencies towards preconception and superstition were the primary stumbling blocks to the advancement of our species.[8] [9]

By nature, critical thinking leads to more questions than answers. For a skilled critical thinker, issues are rarely simple. Because critical thought requires approaching a problem from many angles and many perspectives, solutions tend to come in shades of gray rather than black and white. H.L. Menken wasn’t far off the mark when he said, “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution… and it is always wrong.” The animal within us is highly attracted to simple solutions.

Prior to the Enlightenment, humans used a simple catch-all to explain any phenomena beyond our understanding, “God.” Few seemed to notice that “God” really wasn’t much of an explanation at all. It simply moved the goal post back one yard. If God causes all things, then what causes God? “God” is still the catch-all for unexplained phenomena. Science has been able to provide evidence-based, rational explanations for most of the physical phenomena we encounter in daily life. The expanse of unknowns that homo sapiens now use God to explain has shrunken to a handful of areas.

Homo sapiens are often not inclined towards critical thinking, and therefore, have a much greater tendency to interpret the world in concrete terms. For human animals, conforming to a solution posed by dominant members of their ingroups is obviously the "right thing to do." They may interpret the failure of critical thinkers to do likewise as "crazy" or "stupid." Conforming to the decisions of dominant members of one’s group is a trait human animals share with other primates. Critically evaluating the relative merits of dominant group members’ decisions is unique to true humanness.

Higher order critical thinking does not come naturally to any species. It requires ongoing training and self-discipline. The difference between the skilled critical thinker and the average thinker is as dramatic as the difference between the physique of a professional bodybuilder and that of the average couch potato.

Some guidelines for critical thinking:

1. High levels of certainly often correlates to low levels of critical thinking (Think, talk radio hosts and New Age gurus)
2. Objective evidence and logic outweigh popular views and intuition
3. "Feelings" are not evidence. "Common Sense" is not evidence. "Faith" is not evidence. "How I was raised" is not evidence. "Anecdotes" are not evidence.
4. Changing positions when opposing evidence outweighs supporting evidence is the hallmark for critical thought.
5. Ego is the greatest obstacle to critical thought.[10]

The scientific method has proven a magnificent modality for examining the world through critical thought. Application of the scientific method has enabled us to advance beyond the wildest imaginings of our ancestors. That said, alternative theories to the scientific consensus are a VERY good thing. On occasion, the scientist who disagrees with the consensus will be able to demonstrate strong opposing evidence. As opposing evidence accumulates and eventually outweighs supporting evidence, the scientific consensus will shift to the new position. So, if and when evidence opposing immunization or opposing climate change theory accumulates to the tipping point, good critical thinkers (like the scientific community) will shift to the new position.

All organisms demonstrate a tendency to avoid harm. Even amoeba will avoid aversive stimuli. This is one of the basic premises of operant conditioning. Behaviors that yield pleasing results tend to be repeated. Behaviors that yield aversive results tend to not be repeated. Amoeba have no need for morality, only self-preservation.

But, we are not amoeba. Humans are social animals requiring the assistance of other humans in order to survive in the natural environment. For humans, self-preservation is interdependent with preservation of "the tribe." Other social animals like wolves, lions, and buffalo will predictably behave in ways that promote the health and safety of the ingroup over the health and safety of the individual. These animals species engage in what might be considered benevolent behaviors even without benefit of higher cognitive functioning.

Humans are the only species capable of higher order empathy. Higher order empathy does not mean "sympathy." Many species demonstrate sympathy. The term “sympathy” is from the Greek “sympathia.” It actually means to “feel with someone.”[11] If you feel sad because someone you know lost a loved one, you are demonstrating sympathy. Sympathy can be instinctual and often requires little effort.

Higher order empathy requires the complex attempt to cognitively "see through the eyes of another." Empathy requires effort and imagination. To empathize is to “project” you into another person’s frame of reference.[12] It is our nature to criticize others from our own egocentric viewpoint. This is why we tend to judge the driver in front of us as an idiot when he slams on his brakes but feel perfectly justified when we have to slam on our own brakes. With huge effort, it is possible to put our collective ego aside and, on some level, understand the world from another person's perspective.

Research on feral children has shown that empathy is a learned behavior.[13] Higher order empathy is an extremely difficult skill that many humans rarely even try to master. If all people demonstrated true humanness and regularly employed this skill, conflict with each other and the destruction of other species could be virtually eliminated. Children reared in environments devoid of contact with people do not demonstrate humanness [14]

Take a look in the mirror. Do you practice humanness? If so, you are likely experiencing deep, meaningful relationships with other people. And, you also suffer deeply when you become aware of social injustices (homophobia, racism, genocide, intolerance, man’s inhumanity to man, etc.). You are not easily duped by the barrage of manipulative, emotionally charged, nonsense you receive from the media, the pulpit, and the political arena. You are likely able to override primitive emotions to some degree, enabling you to maintain a healthy body and a stable mind. Your moral code comes from evaluating an ideal based on universals such as “harm done,” “fairness,” and “empathetic understanding” rather than from “how you were raised,” cultural norms, or religious/legal text.

We are all human animals, and this is not a bad thing. We are literally wired to be such and wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, some of these animal traits are not adaptive in a civilized culture. With hard work, metacognition, courage, and a tireless commitment to intellectual honesty, we can all come closer to being truly human.

[1] Kappeler, Peter M., and Joan B. Silk. Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals. Berlin: Springer, 2010. Print.
[2] "What Is Intuition, And How Do We Use It?" Psychology Today. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[3] "Newly Discovered Brain Region Is Uniquely Human, Scientists Think."International Business Times. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[4] Nussbaum, Martha Craven. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997. Print.
[5] Elder, Lina. "Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines." Inquiry Winter XVI.2 (1996): n. pag. Web. 28 May 2014. 
[6] "Mammal Species of the World : A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference."(Book, 2006) []. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 June 2014.
[7] Open Source. (2014 ). Critical Thinking. Available: Last accessed 28th May 2014.
[8] Harris, William. "How the Scientific Method Works." HowStuffWorks., 14 Jan. 2008. Web. 09 June 2014.
[9] Killeen, P. R. "Superstition: A Matter of Bias, Not Detectability." Science199.4324 (1978): 88-90. Web.
[10] "Chapter 2: Six Steps Of Critical Thinking." Chapter 2: Six Steps Of Critical Thinking. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[11] "Empathy vs. Sympathy on" Empathy vs. Sympathy : Choose Your Words : N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[12] Empathy vs. Sympathy on" Empathy vs. Sympathy : Choose Your Words : N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
[13] "Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature." Choice Reviews Online 31.08 (1994): 31-4641. Web.
[14] Plessis, Susa Du, and Jan Strydom. "Chapter 7." The Right to Read :Beating Dyslexia and Other Learning Disabilities. N.p.: n.p., 2000. N. pag. Print.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Real Men are Brave and Strong

Disclaimer: Given that men and women are equal representatives of the human race, the qualities of a real man may be identical to the qualities of a real woman or simply, a real person.

I was raised in a culture that clearly defined what it meant to be a real man. As a male in this environment, the importance of achieving real manhood can not be overstated. As a dyed in the wool skeptic and moral relativist, I would be disappointed if my opinions were interpreted by anyone as some universal definition of manhood.

Real Men are Brave:

If “brave” means “fearless,” I would have to judge one who claims this quality a liar. The fear
response is hardwired into humans and most other animals, so fear is a given. True courage is the ability to do the right thing in spite of one's fear. If we use this second definition, I agree that bravery is necessary to real manhood. A real man has the guts to stand up for the underdog, the unpopular, and the underrepresented. Ironically, many of the characteristics of real men, as defined by culture, are rooted in fear and cowardice.

Real Men are Strong:

I place a high value on physical strength and put forth a good deal of effort to develop and maintain it. However, this quality can easily be dismissed as essential to real manhood. A frail and weak individual who puts himself between danger and someone vulnerable to harm would certainly meet the standards of real manhood. I would specify strength of character as a necessary component of real manhood.

Real Men Wear Prescribed Hairstyles and Clothing:

In my hometown, this prescription includes short hair, with either khaki pants and boat shoes or camouflage and boots. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the prescribed stuff, I consider one who fears to deviate from it, a coward. No courage at all is required to conform. Fear of being different is indicative of one who does not have what it takes to be a real man.

Real Men Take Care of Their Own:

This is an instinctual characteristic found in many lower animals. Real chimps, baboons, and bison take care of their own. A guy who demonstrates this quality has not distinguished himself beyond the level of a primate. I think a real man must set the bar higher. A real man should take care of all who are unable to defend themselves from abuse and exploitation regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, political group, regional affiliation, socioeconomic status, or even species. One who only takes care of his own is less than a real man.

Real Men View Homosexual Behavior with Disgust:

If this were true, we would have to exclude Julius Ceasar, Alexander the Great, and Richard the Lion Hearted from the category of “real men.” A large research study tested attitudes about homosexuals in self-identified heterosexual men. The men were then divided into two groups, homophobes, and non-homophobes. Both groups were hooked up to plethysmographs (instruments for measuring erections) and asked to view male, homosexual,
pornographic videos. Only the homophobe group became sexually aroused. This response did not occur in the non-homophobe group. In other words, guys who have huge issues with gay people are often covering for their own homosexual tendencies.

Real Men Take Charge:

Yes, I would say that taking charge when the situation warrants is inherent to real manhood. However, one who wants to take charge in ALL situations is simply arrogant and self-deluded. Real men have the maturity to defer to a more qualified individual when one is available. An intelligence that exceeds the level of any single individual within a group emerges whenever a group of people cooperates and respectfully works together. 

Real Men Express only One Emotion, Anger:

Unless damaged, all people experience the full range of human emotions. Which requires greater courage, to express emotions that show vulnerability or to hide them? Hiding is not a behavior I typically associate with being a real man.


Make your own.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Is Atheism in Men Caused by Bad Father/Son Relationships?

A few years ago, my cousin informed me that his minister delivered a sermon on atheism. The minister indicated that in men, the best predictor of atheism is bad relationships with their fathers. “YOU had a bad relationship with YOUR father and now YOU are an atheist!” This bothered me, because it was true. And, while I was certain that there was no causal relationship between my atheism and conflicts I had with my father, I could completely understand how this coincidence might inspire a compelling sense in my cousin that his minister had nailed it.

 I looked for research on atheism and father issues and found a piece called “The Psychology of Atheism,” by Paul C. Vitz, a psychology professor at NYU.[1]  Dr. Vitz admits to a brief period of atheism in his youth which he attributes to social
conformity (Interestingly, he does not attribute his subsequent Catholicism to social conformity). I have great respect for information yielded from well-controlled scientific studies in the field of psychology. However, “The Psychology of Atheism” doesn’t cite a single scientific reference. Not one! To my knowledge, no supporting scientific evidence exists for Dr. Vitz’ theory.

 Vitz’ essay presents an anecdotal argument that since Hobbes, Voltaire, Freud, Zedong, and Hitler all had fathers who were weak, unloving, or not present, then father issues must have caused their atheism. In fact, while all of these men questioned dominant religions, Hobbes was a Christian[2], Voltaire a Deist[3], Zedong a Buddhist/Taoist[4], and Hitler a Catholic. Pope Pius XI negotiated the Reichskonkordat agreement, which actually lent moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime in Germany.[5] And, Hitler made his views on God very clear, “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter."[6]

 Freud was an actual atheist and did a good deal of philosophical writing on the topic.  In “The Future of an Illusion,” he reasoned that as children, we are weak, ignorant, and helpless by nature. We are comforted through childhood by parents whom we consider strong, knowledgeable, and invulnerable. As adults, when we realize the imperfections of our parents, we would once again be thrown into a deep sense of fallibility. Freud believed it an adaptive evolutionary trait to invent invisible, magical parents who were all-knowing, all powerful, and immortal. Like our terrestrial parents, the magical ones protect us from danger, punish us when we are bad, reward us when we are good, and have the answers to all of our questions.[7] 

 Let’s stop here and ask a question. Which argument seems more reasonable? Freud’s argument that man invented God to fill in the gap left by Earthly parents, or Vitz’ argument that the atheist is angry at his Heavenly Father because of a bad relationship with his Earthly one? Neither argument was based in scientific research, but one will “feel” more true to you depending on your own pre-existing beliefs.

 There are obviously many rational problems with making assumptions about an enormous and diverse population like the atheists based on the idea that Freud and I had bad relationships with our fathers. Vitz cannot assume that this is the case for other atheists, since no supporting data exists. It is likely that many men have rocky relationships with their fathers. Some of them happen to become atheists while others happen to become theists.

 Without evidence, neither can we assume that Freud is accurate in his assumption that all religious people have needs for safety and answers. In this case, however, scientific evidence abounds. The fight or flight response is present in all animals, including humans.[8] Likewise, curiosity is an intrinsic human motivator.[9] A 2003 article cites numerous studies from scientific journals supporting Freud’s basic assertions that religious thought is a natural by-product of brain function[10].

Discerning and using objective evidence to determine accuracy is a relatively new development in humans. Making broad assumptions without sufficient evidence is much more characteristic of the way humans think. In simple terms, the mind is a machine that takes tiny amounts of information, makes sweeping generalizations, then “feels” these generalizations are accurate and reasonable. This is a fundamental cognitive error responsible for much death and suffering across the ages. Tendencies towards making sweeping generalizations are hard wired into us and are essential to navigating human life.[11] Imagine having to consider the universe of potential outcomes prior to every decision you make. NOT making sweeping generalizations based on small amounts of information would completely paralyze us!

So, we work within our inherent limitations and try our best not to screw up. One way to avoid screw ups is the choice to consciously override gut feelings whenever reason and overwhelming objective evidence disputes said feelings. In other words, if the majority of scientific evidence says one thing and my gut says the opposite, my gut has a high likelihood of being wrong. Science is never able to provide the absolute answer, only the best possible answer according to evidence available at a given time.

Just for kicks, I researched the best predictors of atheism. What I found brought a broad smile to my face. Turns out a primary predictor of atheism is… IQ.[12] 

[1] "Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism Paperback – October 18, 2013." Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism: Paul C. Vitz: 9781586176877: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[2] Fuller, Timothy "The Idea of Christianity in Hobbes’s Leviathan." JSTOR (n.d.): n. pag. JSTOR, 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[3] "Voltaire - Biography." Voltaire. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[4] "Religion - East and Southeast Asia - Modern China." - Mao, Religious, Daoist, and Zedong. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[5] Peter Hebblethwaite; Paul VI, the First Modern Pope; Harper Collins Religious; 1993; p.118
[6] Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)
[7] "The Future of an Illusion Paperback – June 30, 2011." The Future of an Illusion: Sigmund Freud: 9781614270867: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[8] "The Enduring Importance of Animal Models in Understanding Periodontal Disease." Taylor & Francis. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[9] "The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation  ." Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[10] Boyer, Pascal. "Religious Thought and Behaviour as By-products of Brain Function." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7.3 (2003): 119-24. Web.
[11] "Cognitive StudiesVol. 10 (2003) No. 1 P 76-92." Developmental and Computational Neuroscience Approaches to Cognition: The Case of Generalization. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[12] Zuckerman, M., J. Silberman, and J. A. Hall. "The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations." Personality and Social Psychology Review 17.4 (2013): 325-54. Web.

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