The debate on Free Will continues

The-Negative-Effects-of-JudgmentalismWatching the recent sparring between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris over the nature of “free will”1, 2 – the idea that human beings have conscious volition over their physical actions – has helped me immensely to refine my own opinion3 about this ancient and fascinating human intuition.

Sam’s view falls squarely in line with what neuroscience tells us. We know today that our subjective thoughts about a given physical action (like “lets turn on the light”) are preceded by unconscious neural activity that, if detected by the appropriate gadgetry, predicts the decision we “make consciously”. For example, if we were hooked up to the right kind EEG or FMRI scanners to measure our neuronal activity, we’d be able to first detect the neural processes that would make us “turn on the light switch”, and thereafter we’d have the subjective thought “lets on the light”. Finally, we’d physically turn the light on. Benjamin Libet first demonstrated this rather spooky phenomenon back in the early 1980s, through his famous “experiments”4.

It seems that Sam’s argument against free will emerges from this foundational scientific discovery, and is strengthened by his own, unique intuition based on introspection, that we don’t know where our thoughts come from, before they actually occur to us5. We don’t rationalize why we want to throw the light switch on, until the thought comes into our minds. Of course there would be physical causes for our actions, such as the ambient lighting in the room being low. It seems we make contact with the external world unconsciously, and a path of action falls into place unconsciously, and thereafter a thought bubbles into consciousness like “lets turn on the light”. Similarly, a myriad other thoughts may bubble into consciousness retrospectively, such as “its dark, that’s why I put the light on”. We are able to connect the dots – i.e. attach semantics to our actions in our consciousness – but only so far as our sensory inputs and other unconscious cognitive processes allow.

Therefore, a close study of the nature of our subjective thoughts and their relationship to our physical actions seems to nullify the long-held notion that we are in some sense absolutely free to “consciously preside and decide” over a multiplicity of options, when faced with a physical situation. Moreover, it seems that we usually don’t “think first and act later”. Rather, it seems on deeper analysis that we actually act deterministically, and rationalize or attach meaning to our actions later.

Sam has contrasted this important learning from neuroscience with the widespread advocacy for punishment, and the keenness for judgment in today’s society. Everyone wants to judge and punish others, because they falsely believe that wrongdoers “consciously decide” there actions and therefore are accountable for them in some absolute sense. In contrast, the concept of accountability it seems has no scientific grounding in an ontology of determinism, however complex and convoluted the deterministic processes that generate a given wayward action may be. We are never ultimately accountable for our actions in some puritanical sense, where if time were reversed magically, we’d have been able to “not switch the light on” (or more appropriately, “not plunge the knife in”). Therefore, according to Sam, we are better off sans the concept of punishment, and its allied judicial proceedings that focus on inflicting suffering on the wrongdoer, for making his “bad decision”. The practical implication of Sam’s central theme is not new, and in fact many countries practice a restorative system of justice (as opposed to a punitive system, that was instinctively rejected even by ancient sages like Christ) that, in theory at least, aligns well with the absence of free will.

It seems we aught to live in a world where wrongdoers are re-branded as errant human beings, or beings who are misguided, poorly trained or otherwise psychologically or physiologically maladapted to harmonious living. It is a well-known hypothesis that some people are by nature unempathetic towards others, due to physical abnormalities in their brains such as deficiencies in their mirror neuron systems6. It would seem less useful to understand such persons as “evil”. So we better off coming to terms with the fact that we live in a society burdened by weirdos, but not by “morally depraved persons” who must be punished or purified of their transgressions.

Therefore, systems of justice must focus on protection, prevention, restoration, and behavioral modification via training, if the latter were possible. The lives of such grossly harmful persons may still require termination, but merely as an act of self-defense by larger society. We don’t require a death sentence, nor do we judge people to be “evil” – instead we either sequester or (if absolutely necessary) kill extremely dangerous people as painlessly as possible, when we have concrete evidence of their impending transgressions.

Dan Dennett brings in an entirely different, but equally important dimension to the debate on free will. In summary, he believes that free will is a useful practical intuition (although perhaps an illusion in a theoretical sense) because it’s an effective way of minimizing and marginalizing errant behavior when living in an interconnected society. It’s socially advantageous to be “offended” and slap back, when someone slaps you, rather than contemplate about the inevitability of the first slap and the lack of volition on the part of the slapper. By placing the mantle of accountability on others, and punishing the wrongdoer, society jockeys towards a harmonious balance-position, where errant behavior is minimal.

The instinct to assume the capacity for an absolute freedom of choice in our neighbours, must have evolved for the above reason. To dwell on this point – how does the attribution of free agency to others become ubiquitous in a society?

The sense of pain (or discomfort) is the ultimate learning tool of evolution. Pain is useful because we have memories of us undergoing painful experiences. So when one has experienced a nasty slap for a particular action one has taken, the pertinent neural network associates that discomfort with the action. The next time that an opportunity presents itself for a similar physical action, an extra parameter comes into play during the early, unconscious part of the neural processing. The slap is not carried out, because its painful consequence is also fed into the neural network. When the subjective thought surfaces, the meaning of one’s action is expressed: “Lets not slap this guy, he may slap back”. So in a world where we punish people because they are “accountable” for their actions, we find society conditioned reflexively to expect a reprisal, and hence become more guarded. In the early days of human evolution, this would have amounted to an avoidance of death, and hence genes that predisposed a person towards retributive action, if they indeed exist, would have been selected.

There seems to be merits to both Sam and Dan’s points of view. I personally have developed weariness towards adopting Dan’s “social” or “3rd person hypothesis” of free will (which I used to empathize with some years ago).

The reason is this. Unlike in our evolutionary past, where person-to-person violence (strike and counterstrike) played an active, mediating role in behavior, we live today in a world where person-to-person violence appears to be on the decline7. Society has been trained to avoid person-to-person violence. Instead, large-scale violence organized via memes or catchy intellectual instruments of a punitive nature seems to be the order of the day. “Assad is an evil dictator” or “the west is greedy for Middle Eastern oil and is destroying the Islamic world trying to grab it, so we must defend ourselves” or “Corrupt Dictators are running some countries, lets punish them and do their countries a favor” or “Russia is an evil empire” are the sort of intellectual instruments behind global violence and suffering today. And, at some corner of these catchy thought patterns, lies the potent core idea of punishing leaders of countries, or even entire nations or communities, for what is perceived (and oversimplified) as their willful wrongdoing. The consequences of these crude attempts at justice often leave the world worse off then before.



  1. Free will, a debate between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett in a bar:
  2. Emails exchanged between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett on Free Will:
  3. Ruwan’s early thoughts on Free Will:
  4. Libet’s experiments:
  5. The determined nature of thinking:
  6. Empathy and mirror neurons:
  7. The decline of violence in the world:

Image acknowledgement: taken from:


What I’m worried about; the relegation of mind in science

Most of us know, that we don’t know how exactly we know something1, 2, 3. Yet, when we know something, we reflexively think that it exists independently of how we know it, and, furthermore, that it exists even if we don’t. Rocks, bricks, atoms, electrons, superstrings, the idea of space-time bent by mass, the algorithm of evolution through the natural selection of mutations and even such notions as “free will” are all entities in subjective consciousness; and yet are often referred to in such absolute, external and eternal terms during public scientific discourse.

One has only to listen to Dan Dennett speak of the algorithm of evolution4, or Ed Witten speak about vibrations in superstrings5, to get an idea of how absolute and literal these concepts are to their inventors or advocates. There is no hint in their discourse of the metaphorical nature of the concepts they speak about; no room allowed for highlighting the limitations or abstractions imposed by the minds that envision these ideas.

The possibility that many scientific theories and laws are in fact models or metaphors (chosen out of countless ill-suited ones) in our consciousness is daren’t spoken. When we do care to, we seem to consider consciousness and “how the mind works” in a vacuum, outside of physics, biology, engineering and even outside of such “sciences” that are deeply rooted in human psychology like management. The role of the mind-machine is ignored, it seems to me. Mind or rather consciousness is relegated to neuroscience, philosophy and certain sections of “Computer Science” such as AI. I worry that this might be a huge mistake.

Perhaps this literal certainty (or even “intellectual arrogance”) with which we put forward our working models in physics in particular, and science in general, springs about from what philosophers call the “transparency of mind”6. That is to say, an evolved brain generates the world that we experience, and one of the Darwinian adaptations of this “world” we experience is blindness of how we experience it. Therefore, possible shortcomings in our picturing of the external world (or to be more accurate, the external unknown or noumena as Immanuel Kant put it) seem unlikely. In fact, it probably doesn’t occur to us at all to be cautious about the completeness of our subjective “world” in comparison with the external world, since our scientific theories yield good practical results.

Furthermore, the “objectification” of any sophisticated mental construct comes naturally, like “equating” the subjective experience of (say) rocks with that of (say) superstrings. After all, our ancestors from their unicellular days evolved banging into entities such as rocks. The more sophisticated and convoluted impressions that are formed in our minds today, like superstrings, are also erroneously processed in our mind-machines as being similar to rocks. So both rocks and superstrings become entities that are absolute and external, once we accept them as “true” after experimental verification. There is no instinctive gradation of “quality” placed upon perceived reality, no matter how far we have extended our reach through instrumentation and imagination.

So what is the evidence for this sort of absolutism in current science as being damaging to our intellectual development? “Big Physics” for one is stagnant and compartmentalized. Everyone has a theory, some of which contradict the others. The age old Big Bang, the Multiverse, the Universe From Nothing, The Cycles of Time, The Holographic Universe etc. they all stumble on each other’s toes. You cant have a cyclic universe that came from nothing, but which came from the halo of the evaporation of a previous universe, which then collapsed and is stored as information on the event horizon of a Black Hole, which is just one probabilistic copy of another universe that didn’t collapse, etc. This may seem a hideous dismissal of some profound mathematical musings; yet they remain profound musings in a state of contradiction.

Perhaps we need to throw in a profound functional model of our brains, the nature of consciousness and perception into this game, in order to proceed forward and untangle this mess? I worry that we haven’t done so as yet. And I don’t believe it’s impossible. After all, we already have some (albeit limited) knowledge of how our brains work, and of the philosophical implications of it7, 8, 9. It’s about time we incorporate these implications into physics, cosmology and suchlike.

Of course, I’d worry a whole lot more if we chose to abandon the scientific method. The last thing on my mind is a suggestion to herd us back to irrationality and superstition, citing the intellectual relegation of mind. I’m assuming that we have past this primitive era, at least in the scientific community. In such an enlightened environment, it worries me that we are clinging to theories too literally and absolutely, utterly ignoring the nature and paradoxes of our subjective consciousness’ itself.

PS: This essay is in response to the excellent collection of ideas titled “What should we be worried about” published in 2014 by, under John Brockman’s editorship. I saw no essay address this particular issue head-on, hence this.

I for one am not an absolutist or naïve realist; I see the world through mental models, some more efficient than others. For example, I think space-time warping due to massive objects is a better mental model for dealing with the external world, than to think that every object attracts every other object according to an inverse-square law.

I know the very worry I expressed above, even if it has pragmatic value in eliminating silos of thinking within science, is in itself a crude psychological instrument, which would likely be superseded by another once we understand more about our brains and minds.


  6. The Ego Tunnel, page 7 and elsewhere:

An ode to the emotion behind free will, though it may be imprisoned by causality

[An open comment to Sam Harris]

Free will?Dear Sam,

As a layman with a keen interest in modern ethics and its development as a serious science, I am deeply grateful for what I think is the main political thrust of your recent discourse about Free Will1, 2, 3. Your supreme achievement through this discourse is, in my humble opinion, a powerful attempt to provide a scientific underpinning for morality in general, and a rational appeal for the eradication of judgmentalism from society in particular. A brief scrutiny of the evening news on CNN will show us that judgmentalism in some form or another is still a strong force in the world4, 5, in spite of the fact that sages throughout history have cautioned us against its efficacy, and suggested its replacement with equanimity6. Moreover, in some backward regions of the world like Saudi Arabia, a form of tribal judgmentalism exists7 that is a direct result of the mistaken belief in an absolute freedom of thought outside of one’s environmental backdrop, and hence outside of the metaphysical principal of causality. I think all rational thinkers aught to applaud your efforts toward guiding the masses away from these ideologies.

However, as your esteemed colleague and friend Dan Dennett was quick to point out, there are problems with completely dismissing the colloquial idea behind “freedom of will”. I will not comment on Prof. Dennett’s views on the matter, but instead respectfully introduce another line of thinking for your kind consideration. I apologize upfront if the way I present my idea is somewhat dogmatic and amateurish, it still merits your reading in my humble opinion.

Whether you admit it or not, you had intuitive expectations of Dan being a free agent, in every colloquial sense of the phrase, when you published your rebuttal8. This goes against the logic of your argument. That very paradox brings us quickly to the heart of my conjecture – we all instinctively posit a “theory of mind” on other human beings9, whose principal characteristic is the assumption that the other being can act in the world, and does so outside of our influence. Furthermore, a punitive reaction is commonplace – not against Dan perhaps, but for example striking out at a petty burglar you have just collared, accompanied by that reflexive feeling of outrage (“why did you do that???”). This behavioral reaction is akin to what folks like Antonio Damasio might phrase as an emotion accompanied by a feeling10, 11.

Neuroscience tells us that we humans (and perhaps apes, monkey and other mammals) seem to be having the necessary “firmware” (mirror neurons and other complex functions of brain centers like the Amygdala for example) to attribute a “theory of mind” to other creatures12, and posit on others the benefit of  “these are thinkers like us”. I conjecture that, if one were observant of society and intellectually honest, one would conclude that this precisely is the origin of the folk psychological idea of “free will”. It shows every sign of being an inherited emotion, universal amongst humans and possibly other animals (apes or monkeys for example). I conjecture that free will comes into play when we interact with another physical entity that we have posited a “theory of mind” to. I propose that it is not a concept built up through logical deduction based on intense self-reflection (a meditation “we don’t seem to have a clear causal link to our thoughts, therefore we are free” etc.) Rather, it is an emotion (and its accompanying feeling) about another physical entity that we have attributed as being like ourselves – machines of agency beyond our definite influence.

The sense of outrage (“why are you robbing me, you rascal?”), accompanied by retributive action (throwing a punch, for e.g.), is one of the commonest emotional reflexes we see in humans. It matters not if we are educated that volition is causal or not – i.e. if the inputs categorically predetermine the outputs, and if the thoughts itself are a mere post hoc epiphenomenal play. The judgment still comes reflexively into our thoughts. It appears to be a Darwinian crutch for dealing with other humans in a society.

And, I propose we are able to have this emotion about our own phenomenal selves, due to the complex and functionally hierarchical nature of cognition. Which is why we feel “free from others influence”, “in control”, “angry” etc. at ourselves. Whatever the exact nature of this process, I conjecture that its basis is an underlying emotion for dealing with other persons.

The key question is, is the thought of “freedom” that we reflexively posit on others (and ourselves) indeed a Darwinian adaptation? If it is, then one must necessarily admit that in a society of humans, the public concept of free will has sound empirical grounding – i.e. it mediates the physical evolution of human beings.

You might argue, so what? There is no independence of subjective thoughts from prior unconscious events (as “proven” by Libet’s experiment) and ultimately our entire cognitive capacity and behavior is based on prior environmental conditions. My point is, free will is another playing field – we are not worried about causality when we instinctively feel that others (or ourselves) are free, accountable, in control etc. Rather it is an emotion that is empirically effective (in a raw Darwinian sense) to thrive with other complex, unpredictable creatures in a society.

“Free will” after all is a language construct, and I propose is an approximate way of communicating a complex evolved emotion. It’s a language construct that has efficacy nonetheless, except when it’s given more credence than it deserves (e.g. introduce a cause-less Cartesian-type “soul” that must be punished etc.) That type of free will, which you propose is the instinctive meaning of free will, and which I think is not, is plainly beyond rationality. It arises from a confusion of ideas at best, and is the bathwater that must be thrown out. The baby, the instinctive treatment of others (and oneself) as independent persons, must remain.


  8. “I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running”. – You are hurt Sam, ‘cause you instinctively feel Dan’s an unconstrained thinker. See more at:
  10. A recurring topic throughout this excellent book:

Pareto optimality and brain-evolution in Late Pleistocene Hominins

paretoA guest opinion by R. Chandrasoma, that understanding the world and adapting to it are not quite the same

It seems right and proper to suppose that the whole is maximally good if each of its parts is fashioned to be the best in its own right. Much of biological thinking on matters of evolution and adaptation is underwritten by this assumption. Thus, the wing of a bird must be aerodynamically the ‘fittest’ if the bird as a whole excels as a survival machine. If we treat the living body as a system of interrelated agencies each with its own foibles and limitations is it not an error to suppose that what is best for each part is necessarily the best for the whole?

In this connection the notion of a Pareto Improvement (much discussed in the social sciences) is very illuminating. Given an initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals, a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off is called a Pareto improvement. An allocation is defined as Pareto efficient or Pareto optimal when no further Pareto improvements can be made. This thinking can be directly extended to engineering gystems and it is this extension that impacts directly on our concepts related to the evolution of biological complexity. Suppose that an engineering system is Pareto efficient – this does not mean that parts cannot be improved – it means that the parts hang together in such an integrated fashion that any improvement in a part in a Pareto-efficient machine imperils the whole in terms of overall efficiency or goodness.

Before we discus our hypothesis about Brain-Evolution in the late Pleistocene and the seeming ‘Pareto compulsion’ in the dynamics of change in that challenging age, it is useful state some generalizations framing the classical understanding of the mechanisms of organic evolution. This classical theory – that which is understandably called Darwinian Evolution – is based on the genetic dynamics of parts. The evolutionary challenge takes the form of a question ‘is this part in its mutant form better in the struggle for life in a specified environment? While not contesting the usefulness of this explanatory paradigm in our understanding the history of life, it appears that significant aspects of organic evolution are ignored or misinterpreted if it is too rigidly relied on. As an example of such limited thinking is the conventional analysis of mutational advantage in a given species – the question asked standardly is ‘ does it (the mutation) confer benefits in terms of survival and reproductive advantage to its bearer? While this is, undoubtedly, an impotant facet of investigation, it appears that two highly relevant issues are buried or obfuscated by those who fancy a doctrinaire approach in such matters. (An approach sometimes pilloried as Darwinian Fundamentalism.)

The first troublesome issue – mostly ignored in traditional Darwinian explanations – is that organic evolution is not an ‘open’ process of the kind fancied by diehard exponents of a ‘pure’ or ‘classical’ Darwinism. This purist line of thinking is epitomized in “Dawkin’s Law’’ expounded by the renowned author Richard Dawkins. According to this ‘Law’ reproducing entities, simple hereditary processes and mutation in a punishing environment are all that are required to ignite a process that leads to the wondrous complexity of organic life we see in such places as Planet Earth. Does not this astonishingly lean approach to organic evolution miss something very important – that the process-dynamics of material systems have an ‘intelligence’ of their own that sharply limits morphogenesis? Organic ‘complexification’ of the kind seen in the history of life on our Planet has a stamp that strongly reflects an inner morpho-dynamic of material systems – unrelated to the Darwinian logistic – that is barely understood today. The prescient biologist JBS Haldane asked a very pertinent question – why are there more species of beetle – by far – than of any other Metazoan group? (With the Nematode worms not far behind in this number game.) The answer to this question must go beyond Darwinism since it is rooted in an understanding of the eigentransforms of epigenetic systems that current science has barely touched on. The early naturalists were struck by the persistence of organic archetypes and saw the hand of the Creator in the strange regularities in morphogenesis. We will not pursue this matter further except to note that organic forms are often exuberantly beautiful – surely a paradoxical feature for those accustomed to mean and lean explanations of the doings of nature. Beauty cannot be ‘reached’ by the accumulation of beautiful parts.

We examine next a lesser problem in many ways – but pivotal so far as our own evolution is concerned. A pareto-efficient system – as explained in our opening paragraphs – is such that parts cannot be modified without ‘degrading’ tha whole. Why are animal archetypes so resistant to change? Consider a Frog – its bizarre design has persisted for millions of years – so have the crazily constructed Tortoises and Turtles. In understanding such morphological paradoxes it is surely silly to spin yarns about a history of selective shaping and a morphological excellence that defies all winds of subsequent change. The truth is that both frogs and turtles (like the the beetles referred to above) are primarily expressions of an ontogenetic intelligence that is ‘quantized’ – that is, driven by ill-understood morphie forces to produce archetypes. Why are prawn-like forms so abundant in nature – that which naturalists call the caridioid facies? Is it because the prawn-like form is a marvelous match to conditions of life in oceans, rivers and puddles? The answer is the same as with the Beetles – what we see is the expression of an eigentransform of organic nature that battles with the world (the struggle for life in the Spencerian sense) to survive and reproduce.

Allow us to hypothesize further on these lines. The ‘natural archetypes’ are largely pareto–efficient because of inner morphic constraints about which we know very little. This means that evolution is largely about the mysterious appearance of archetypes and their subsequent ‘fine-tuning’. It is naïve error – albeit widespread in the community of the learned – that archetypes are the result of the ‘stitching together’ of ‘useful’ mutants. The ‘explosive’ appearance of Metazoan complexity at the very dawn of multicellular life is a great conundrum to evolutionary gradualists of the classical school of Darwinism if this ‘accretion’ theory is supposed to be correct. Since such remote events (the Cambrain drama) cannot be unambiguously assessed for meaning and significance, let us deal with events closer home – the evolution of monkeys and apes in the Miocene and later ages.

Let us – first – ask a question. Is the Simian facies (monkey-like body-form) an evolved adaptation of a generalized kind engineered by stitching together over time of individually useful mutations? If this, indeed, is the case, why has this Simian facies appeared independently in the Old World and the New? Why is the New World Horse (now extinct) a near exact copy of its unrelated Old-World counterpart? Why is the Marsupial Mole so close to true mole in overall morphology ? To the ‘classicist’ in such evolutionary matters there is no enigma – the environment shapes its counterpart organic form and where environments are similar and their niche-structure parallel, the forms evolved will ‘converge’ to a morphic type dictated by the ‘opportunity-structure’ of the environment.

This is a kind of Zoological Platonism in which forms of life exist before their evolutionary realization and are expressed materially through mutation and selection. Having digested these generalities, let us turn to the natural history of Man to see things against a background constituted by what we have said above on Archetypes, Pareto-efficiency and Zoological Platonism. These ideas are, arguably, a foundation for a new approach to the understanding of our history as an organic species – an evolutionary saga that mixes tha classical Darwinian ‘plodding’ with extraordinary turns of events that makes us what we are today. It is reasonable to suppose – in the light of what we have said earlier – that the simian facies (Monkey-like form) is not an evolved adaptation in the sense that its overall design was not piece-wise engineered by the smart choice of chance mutants in forms struggling to survive.

Evolution – here we refer to the grand sweep of this awesome transformation of life – proceeds through developmental innovations that arise by an unsettling of ontogenesis in survival machines pressed to the limit. Instability – the precariousness of the fine balance of metabolic agencies in the germ – results in a sudden and novel program of organic unfolding leading to new ‘appearances’ that are subject to the stern test of survivability across time. Thus the simian facies is a proffering – a deus ex machina – of a primed developmental system as a possible answer to the great challenges encountered in that day and age. Monkey–like vertebrate forms appeared across the world not in answer to a specific environmental opportunity but because ontogenetic systems in the vertebrate category were everywhere primed for such a shift. The environmental challenge provided by trees and forests concretized a potential that had little to do with point mutations and Darwinian selection. Thus monkey-like forms appeared in near synchrony in the tropical and subtropical parts of the world as if ‘The Maker’ had suddenly (and lately) favoured the Monkey form just as he had a great fancy for Beetles in an earlier age.

If some critic finds this explanation fanciful, let them recall the paleontological history of the early mammals for which the osteological evidence is plentiful. At least a dozen independent lines of Synapsid evolution moved relentlessly in the direction of mammalian organization. This is most astonishing because mammalian features were not selected for but educed independently in parallel in the history of this group. The relevance of this extraordinary history to our musings about archetypes and Simian evolution is very clear. Let us return to our primate ancestors. We said the advent of the simian facies is a unique and historic ‘presentation’ in the unfolding of what can be called the ‘potential of the germ’ – not to be confused with the ‘potential of the gene’ through variation and selection. The latter is in a true sense a peripheral affair incapable of creating archetypes. The hominin facies – if we are permitted to use this neologism – is a sub-archetype within the larger schema (the simian facies) and appeared repeatedly in diverse parts of the world by the kind of parallel evolutionary eduction that some of the synapsid mammals grandly displayed at an earlier age

Let us throw further light on the murkier issues. In consonance with the thinking adumbrated earlier, the hominin archetype refers to a simian form that is erect, freely bipedal, large-brained with emancipated forelimbs and hands capable of more than simple grasping. Speech and social consciousness reach a pitch that sets this group apart from all other living organisms. We are speaking of men and women, new and old. There is an entrenched belief that the earlier ‘men’ were truly ‘archaic’ in that they lacked brain-power and the finer feelings that led to the fantastic artifacts and ‘mentifacts’ that characterize our age. This is a popular but totally false picture of human evolution. If we are to speak of the perfection of the hominin archetype – not to be confused with artifact-wizardry and high living – this was achieved in the late Pleistocene by such splendid Hominin forms as Neanderthal Man and the Cro-Magnon Man. These large and impressive hominins had heftier bodies and much greater brains that any contemporary human type. (The brains of these ‘ancients’ were around 300 cc larger than their counterparts found in hominin variants living today and their bodies robust to a degree unheard of in modern populations of Homo sapiens.)

It must be remarked at this point that most living human types represent a regress from an earlier state of ‘exuberance’ in the overall moephology. This is true for most mammals and birds that had a megafaunal phase prior to the latest glaciation of our Planet. All this may soud heretical – indeed unbelieveable – given that we live in an age where the current version of Homo sapiens rules the world in a way that no prior version of this species could dream of matching. Are not the earlier forms mere savages in comparison with the masters of technology that have the very planet they inhabit in thrall? It is here that the notion of pareto optimality plays a decisive and illuminating role. Note first that great brains were formed – evolved in the hominin line – long before civilization and the mastery of the environment that characterizes our species became an expressed reality. Indeed, this ‘civilizing wave’ reached ‘early humans’ very late in the day and its ‘torchbearers’ were Semitic nondescripts of the Afro-European region that were far inferior to the pioneer Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals in brain-power and physique. This is the great paradox.

It is the universally held belief that great brains in beautiful bodies were sine qua non for thre rise of the kind of civilization that we celebrate as our hallmark. The reality is that brute ‘brain-power’ may have obstructed such processes as social action through division of labour – the instinctive capacity to serve so called ‘leaders’ in hierarchical social structures. The unassailable truth is that ordinary people led beastly lives of servitude to leaders in so-called civilized societies right up to modern times. For most, then, high reflective intelligence is a maladaptation and the extra-large brain he carries in his head is not all unalloyed goodness.

As as aside, let us note that in the Late Pleistocene a wondrous Megafauna developed across the World that encompassed mammalian species ranging from the Imperial Elephant to such ‘oddities’ asGiant Lemurs in Madagascar. (We shall not speak about the Giant Birds of this period.) The are twin mysteries wrapped in this megafaunal ‘explosion’ that surely bear on the episodes of late anthropogenesis we are discussing. Why did animals far superior in size and majesty come to be replaced by lesser forms? Why was the Imperial Elephant (a species of Elephas) ‘succeeded’ by the a clear inferior – the Indian Elephant? Why did great forms die out while inferiors carried on? Let us recall the principle of pareto-efficiency. A system can be improved significantly in parts and aspects while diminishing in long term survivability . Without more ado leat us try to answer that question wrapped in enigma – Why did very large-brained and superior hominins (exemplified by such types as the Neanderthal Man and the Cro-Magnon Man) suffer the ‘indignity’ of being replaced by lesser human kinds? The question ‘Why did the Imperial Elephant face doom while its lesser brother survive?’ enraps a parallel evolutionary enigma. An organism that is seemingly better in the ‘engineering sense’ can be defeated by a lesser competitor because the latter has the advantage in pareto-efficiency – the greater clout or goodness of the competitor in parts being more than offset by a decline in overall survivability. It is useful to pursue this argument with the aforementioned paradox of the lesser gaining on the greater in mind. Let us call the large-bodied and large-brained hominins of the past (Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal etc.) as Apex Humans. The great question is then best phrased as follows – why were these physically better men and women replaced by their clear inferiors in brain and body? This situation is by no means unique – as we had occasion to point out earlier.

The existent mammalian fauna is a poor version of a grandeur that prevailed before the recent Ice Ages. Large brains – or very large brains – may be ‘dysgenic’ in that too much cogitation – or deep reflection – may lower fertility while boosting meditative states that diminish social cohesiveness and the ‘sex drive’. It is no surprise, then, that men with smaller-bodies and less acute brains outpaced and, finally, exterminated their clear superiors in size and intelligence. There are many kinds of humans on Planet Earth in this day and age – which kind will be found a thousand years hence? Surely not the largest, the cleverest and the most beautiful? A great ‘superstition’ must be debunked here – that the greater the brain-power or intelligence, the greater the chance of adjustment and survival in a challenging world. It is this myth that makes us suppose that longe-lived aliens in other worlds will be far superior us in science and technology. The ill-fated SETI program foundered on this erroneous supposition. As Prof. John D Barrow has pointed out in his recent books, superlative feats of science and technology can recoil malevolently on its inventors and, far from helping mankind,  could be the cause of its premature demise.

That this dismal scenario is not fantasy is clear to unbiased observers of the world we currently live in – where unrest and a deepening social malaise seem to be the fruit of too much cleverness on the part of our over-dominant species – Homo sapiens. Understanding the world and adapting to it are not quite the same.

For the love of reason

famous philosophersWhatever the critics may say, we Sri Lankans are approaching a decisive juncture in our history as a nation. Evidence suggests that we are poised for economic prosperity on a scale we’ve never seen before. We are rapidly reaching that stage where, no matter what internal or external turbulences we may face, we would never look back again except as a developed economy whose citizens enjoy a high physical quality of life (PQLI).

Our road to prosperity could also encompass what we could call an “intellectual emancipation”. By which we mean an awakening of intellectual spirit based on reason and a love of understanding the world as it is, on par with the west and the “new far east” (i.e. China). Without such an awakening of spirit, its unlikely we’d ever see eye to eye with those very societies that inspired us to improve our lot in the first place. We are not speaking here about us morphing into a sort of “Kalu Sudda” Version 2.0, who speaks a kind of Queen’s English. Rather, we could consider uplifting our “education system” (by which we mean not only classroom lessons, but also other key streams of learning such as parenting) to instill the basics of secular reason and freethinking in our children.

One might ask, “Do we really need to change the intellectual outlook in Sri Lanka? After all we’ve got a rich cultural heritage of over 2500 years that helps us in our intellectual development. What evidence is there to show that we lack the right philosophical outlook to navigate through the modern world? After all we study “western” science at school, and we study engineering, management and medicine at university. We have Buddhism and other Judeo-Christian religions that serve as our moral compass. What more must we want?”

Let us address this question by sharing a few commonplace examples of social phenomena prevalent in our country that reek of intellectual underdevelopment.

1. Consider the Marriage Proposals section in the Sunday newspapers (which incidentally covers several broadsheets of classified adverts in a paper like the Observer). Here’s a sample: “Father (executive grade) with assets over LKR 30 Million seeks suitable partner for daughter. Govi/Sinhala/Buddhist, 5” 4’ pleasant and young looking [:-)]. Kuja Kethu 07 Rahu 1 [a zodiacal planetary position at birth, for those who aren’t familiar]. Seeks handsome businessmen son of similar cast. Apply with Horoscope.”

The reference to the horoscope “Kuja Kethu 07 Rahu 1” (an absolute fiction) and a cast (!) is bad enough, but not so bad as there being a Sri Lankan father who would like to palm-off his (albeit plain-faced) daughter to a greedy opportunist. Provided his horoscope and cast is compatible, of course. This father is reminiscent of Walter Bray in Nicholas Nickleby, the very antithesis of a loving dad.

2. Consider a random Buddhist sermon. You’d never hear a more eloquently presented but philosophically unsophisticated discourse as the average Poya Day sermon, which is at best a polite exposition of the canon to underline commonsense ethical habits (like respecting one’s parents) to little children. At its worst, it is a discourse full of “Yakkas” [Devils] and portents for disaster, which could only be circumvented by providing regular “Dane” [Alms] to the temple and by stopping the consumption of fish and meat. Moreover, an ethical conundrum for a monk, which merits a sermon, is for example the wearing of slippers by children when monks are around. Apparently the demerit acquired by this symbolic sin against the clergy is significant enough for rebirth in an unsavory world (“narakadiya”).

Buddhism in its core essence – i.e. the endless continuity of life through rebirth (sansaric journey), as a direct outcome of Karma, and the need for escape from this (apparently) unsavory birth/death cycle through meditation and the achievement of higher mental states – is scientifically unverifiable. However, there are many interesting ideas in Buddhism such as transcendence through reason (vipassina bhavana) or a soulless mind (annatha), which could fit in easily into modern analytical philosophy. Many of the moral teachings found in the dammapada are apt for children today, provided the fantastical backdrop is openly acknowledged as metaphorical.

We must be grateful for this rich metaphysical endowment that is Buddhism. The shortcoming is that there is no modern intellectual insight absorbed into the knowledge base of the saasana [clergy], resulting in the standard of the discourse being laughably crude. How can a Buddhist monk afford to be ignorant of the basics of modern philosophy of mind, psychology or science? Buddhism is all about the mind and our phenomenal world, after all. The “cheap” conversion of the Buddhist philosophical tradition into a “bakthi religion” due to the isolation of the clergy from advances in empirical knowledge is indeed a pity. Many monks have fallen, through sheer ignorance, into the trap of being petty moral dictators of congregations even more ignorant than themselves.

3. Consider the number of “systems of medicine” flowering in Sri Lanka, ranging from Homeopathy to Acupuncture. We are taught in medical school that there is only one system of medicine: the one that is based on evidence of efficacy through double-blind clinical trial. And yet all one has to do is drive around Colombo and read the boards of the quacks, or travel to the provinces to be treated by “Welding Vedas” [welding doctors J] who heal broken bones, or consult those physicians with smoking pots who invoke the spirits to cure cancer, to see that the knowledge that there is “only one system of medicine” (i.e. empirical medicine) is largely absent in Sri Lanka. All these quacks operate at a great cost to their patients, both financially and physiologically.

We suggest that behind these three social phenomena lies a deep-seated irrationality, which, leave aside science, is not even rooted in respectable historical tradition. In this day and age we cannot excuse these practices as harmless examples of “divergent opinion” in democratic society. Divergent opinion is, for example, the decision made by an expectant mother to abort a two week old fetus due to economic hardship, or to have the child and hand it over for suitable adoption. Or, divergent opinion could even be the belief in a personal god in a socially harmless fashion, where you engage in daily prayer to Buddha/Jesus/Mohammed/Vishnu/Skanda to improve your wellbeing, as opposed to being an atheist who shuns prayer and “takes life as it comes”. But this is not the case with the three examples we sighted earlier; they represent socially harmful ideology in a modern global context. And there is plenty more nonsense of the same class prevalent in our country ranging from gross misconceptions about the intellectual capabilities of women, to crafty politicians brazenly campaigning for ethnic/tribal interests whilst overlooking the greater good of the country.

At the heart of this irrational and socially harmful conduct is the absence of an early training in freethinking, akin to that which the enlightenment philosophers taught in the west. Whilst even little children in Sri Lanka know that the west had a few great scientists like Newton or Darwin, they seem to lack that greater understanding that both moral and intellectual enlightenment happened over the entire course of world history, with seminal ideas being contributed by a vast number of western thinkers worthy of study in eastern schools. Also, the ideas of Newton and Darwin are taught in a kind of intellectual vacuum in Sri Lanka, as though we aught to follow their laws in a narrow, “engineering” sense. The business of molding a broader outlook to the world is left to “cultural Buddhism” (or cultural Christianity or Islam), where a framework of rules based on inherited mythology guide our ethical and intellectual conduct, sans the benefit of evidence for efficacy.

It is noteworthy that many years ago, E.W. Adikaram (a pupil of that great oriental philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) saw this weakness in Buddhist cultural practice in Sri Lanka and attempted to uplift the intellectual standard of Buddhist discourse by squaring it with science and common sense.

We don’t see this sort of social reformist at work today, or else there won’t be so many Poya day sermons that demand a cessation to the consumption of all animal flesh under any circumstance whatsoever. All evidence is that a prawn for example, lacks the necessary sophistication in its nervous system to perceive a subjective world like higher mammals/apes do. Besides, we humans have evolved with a taste and bodily needs for “meat”, and the ethical problem of not infringing upon the wellbeing of other (possibly) conscious creatures is a tough one to solve. A viable long-term answer would be something of the nature of affordable commercially cultured animal tissue fit for consumption, which has all the subjective and nutritional properties of meat, but lacks a functioning nervous system. In the meantime, reasonable stopgaps include humane slaughter, consumption of non-mammalian flesh such as fish or shellfish, consumption of eggs (the average egg in the store lacks any tangible nervous tissue and is for all practical purposes “dead”). In a country like Sri Lanka the cost of maintaining a balanced vegetarian diet is unaffordable for most families. Their children would become physically and mentally stunted if they “went veggie”. The clergy need to take into consideration these facts before they preach.

Not to meander from our main topic, it is not just the Buddha or Jesus, or even Newton and Darwin, whose ideas are worthy of study. The worldviews of folks like Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, William James, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, T.H. Huxley, Johann W. von Goethe, Charles Sanders Peirce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Allen Turing, Jerry Fodor, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachandran or Thomas Metzinger (to name a few) could all be absorbed into the curriculum of our sciences and social sciences. Their free and open spirit has helped shape our modern world. We mustn’t let young adults walk away from school thinking, “we know far more than those western hooligans who can only make love and smoke pot”.

We don’t live in a perfect world, and as such many of the issues stemming from the absence of reason in early mental training, are on the rise in western nations themselves. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the southern United States is an example of this social degradation. However, if we are going to deny an attempt to straighten out this significant kink in the education of our own children in Sri Lanka by sighting these lapses in other countries, we then are on track to becoming a wealthy but intellectually and spiritually underdeveloped nation.

So here is our plea. It is not governments that must respond, but parents and teachers from all corners of society. Our next generation must get as intellectually agile as our brethren in the west. Its time we threw out our historical garbage when we deal with our children, like astrology, faith healers and hells. Instead, we could teach our children to appreciate the external world in its raw sense, and discuss morals issues that are of practical benefit, in a strictly non-judgmental fashion. We as a nation are healthy, and rapidly becoming wealthy. Its time to get wise 🙂 Let us part with this apt quote:

Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.” – John Locke, 1632 – 1704

Insights from the search a pragmatic theory of consciousness

A short talk within the sphere of Analytical Philosophy of Mind, that presents an integrated view of our current understanding of consciousness:

Hard Problem, easy problem or No Problem?

A verbal response to Prof. Dan Dennett’s opening comment on the Hard Problem, in this interview:

Here is my response: 

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