Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Wofe and Gazzaniga: freewill: language and God: is all art/life about status?

Excerpts from the   chapter in "Science is Culture" (HT, and complete transcript here) by  Tom Wolfe + Michael Gazzaniga   (and related video below)
video

Excerpts from the   chapter in "Science and Culture" (HT, and complete transcript here) by  Tom Wolfe + Michael Gazzaniga :

TW: I think all this excitement has spawned a replacement for Freudian psychologists. They’ve been replaced by the evolutionary psychologists, whose main interest seems to be to retrofit the theory of evolution on whatever ended up happening. I read an example in your new book of a woman who’s come up with an elaborate theory that music has a survival benefit in the evolutionary sense because it increases the social cohesiveness of populations. I would love for her to read a piece that appeared recently in the New Yorker about a tribe, the Pirahã in the Maici River, a little tributary of the Amazon. This tribe, it turns out, has a language with eight consonants and three vowels. I think they have a sum total of 52 words or something like that. As a result, they have little art, they have no music, no dance, and no religion. They’re usually cited because they seem to be a terrible exception to Noam Chomsky’s rule that all people are born with a structure that enables them to put words in a grammatical form. Not the Pirahã! And they’re not stupid or retarded in any sense. They just had never increased their language abilities — and they don’t want to....

...MG: Do you think all art is about status?
TW: Well, certainly not music. Dance, maybe yes, maybe no. But literature and movies, yes. To me the crucial point is something, which I don’t think even Chomsky understands, about speech and language. Chomsky and many other people are wonderful at telling us how language works, and about differences in languages and the historical progression of languages across the face of the Earth. But I seem to be the one person who realizes the properties of speech. Speech is an artifact. It’s not a natural progression of intelligence, in my opinion — we have to look only at the Pirahã for that. It’s a code. You’re inventing a code for all the objects in the world and then establishing relationships between those objects. And speech has fundamentally transformed human beings.
MG: By speech I assume you mean language and not the actual act of speaking?
TW: To me, it’s the same, speech and talking.
MG: Okay, so what do you think language and speech are for? I mean, it’s probably an adaptation. We’re big animals, and that’s one of the goodies that we got.
TW: I think speech is entirely different from other survival benefits. Only with speech can you ask the question, “Why?”
MG: Right.
TW: Animals cannot ask why. In one way or another, they can ask what, where, and when. But they cannot ask why. I’ve never seen an animal shrug. When you shrug, you’re trying to say, “I don’t know why.” And they also can’t ask how.
MG: Yeah.
TW: With language you can ask that question. I think it’s at that point where religion starts.
MG: Right.
TW: Humans got language and they were suddenly able to say, “Hey, why is all this here? Who put it here?” And my assumption is that they said, “There must be somebody like us but much bigger, much more powerful, that could make all these trees, the streams. God must be really something, and you’d better not get on the wrong side of him.” I think that’s the way it started...

...TW: Every time we go into a room with other people, it’s as if we have a teleprompter in front of us and it’s telling us the history of ourselves versus these people. We can’t even think of thinking without this huge library of good information and bad information.
MG: That’s why the great psycholinguist George Miller, whom we shared a dinner with once, called us the “informavores.” That’s how he wanted to cast us.
When you get up in the morning, you do not think about triangles and squares and these similes that psychologists have been using for the past 100 years.   You think about status. You think about where you are in relation to your peers. You’re thinking about your spouse, about your kids, about your boss. Ninety-nine percent of your time is spent thinking about other people’s thoughts about you, their intentions, and all this kind of stuff. So sorting all that out, how we navigate this complex social world, there’s going to be a neuroscience to it, and I think it’s going to be very powerful....

...MG: Well, I think we’re saying the same thing. There is a very clever little experiment that you would be amused by, run by my colleague Jonathan Schooler. He has a bunch of students read a paragraph or two from the Francis Crick book, Astonishing Hypothesis, which is very deterministic in tone and intent. And then he has another group of students reading an inspirational book about how we make our own decisions and determine our own path. He then lets each group play a videogame in which you’re free to cheat. So guess who cheats? The people who have just read that it’s all determined cheat their pants off.
I think people who try to find personal responsibility in the brain are wrongheaded. Think of it this way: If you’re the only person in the world, you live alone on an island, there’s no concept of personal responsibility. Who are you being personally responsible to? If somebody shows up on the island though —
TW: — Friday was his name.
MG: Yeah, exactly. Then you’ve got a social group. And the group starts to make rules; that’s the only way they’re going to function. Out of those rules comes responsibility. So responsibilities are to the relationships within the social groups, and when someone breaks a rule, they’re breaking a social rule. So don’t look for where in their brain something went wrong; look at the fact that they broke a rule, which they could have followed. I’m actually kind of hard-nosed about this. I think people should be held accountable for lots of stuff.
TW: No, I would certainly agree with that. In fact, my theory of status is that all of us live by a set of values that, if written in stone, would make not me but my group superior in some way. I think there are just so many kinds of status layers due solely to likeness. You can always find a group that seems to justify whatever you’re doing.
MG: Our species seems brilliant at forming groups — indeed support groups — for almost anything. And no matter what the group is about, no matter what its character, it becomes advocatory.   complete transcript here
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