BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Towards a “Protopia” ...

I know that I frequently grumble about the quality of books coming out from the “Early Reviewers” program, but this was another really great one, expansive (it's about 500 pages), strenuously researched (there are over 50 pages of small-type notes at the end), and seemingly effortlessly describing an eventually-inspiring story arc across a dozen main subjects. Author Michael Shermer is a founder of Skeptic magazine, a regular columnist for Scientific American, and has a dozen other science books on his resume. The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, while grounded in science, is more a book on history and philosophy, asking the “why” questions on top of a basis of “how” analysis. What's the book about? Well, the subtitle pretty much sketches the intent, but I found this snippet from the Prologue a good window on the whole:
... we are living in the most moral period in our species' history

For tens of millennia moral regress best described our species, and hundreds of millions of people suffered as a result. But then something happened half a millennium ago. The Scientific Revolution led to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and that changed everything. As a result, we ought to understand what happened, how and why these changes reversed our species' historical trend downward, and that we can do more to elevate humanity, extend the arc, and bend it ever upward.
Because there is so much in here, I'm going to fall back on the crutch of replicating the ToC below … as this will give you the general outline of the book, making it easier for me to touch on highpoints without necessarily having to backfill in all the context …

            Part I: The Moral Arc Explained
                    1. Toward a Science of Morality
                    2. The Morality of War, Terror, and Deterrence
                    3. Why Science and Reason Are the Drivers of Moral Progress
                    4. Why Religion Is Not the Source of Moral Progress

            Part II: The Moral Arc Applied
                    5. Slavery and a Moral Science of Freedom Rights
                    6. A Moral Science of Women's Rights
                    7. A Moral Science of Gay Rights
                    8. A Moral Science of Animal Rights

            Part III: The Moral Arc Amended
                    9. Moral Regress and Pathways to Evil
                  10. Moral Freedom and Responsibility
                  11. Moral Justice: Retribution and Restoration
                  12. Protopia: The Future of Moral Progress

Early on here Shermer establishes some baselines, citing research on other social apes, and young children of various ages … discussing “our multifaceted moral nature that evolved to solve several problems at once in our ancestral environment – be nice to those who help us and our kin and kind, punish those who hurt”, and detailing experiments that suggest:
... the moral sense of right (…) and wrong (…) emerges as early as three to ten months of age – far too early to attribute to learning and culture. Young children who are exposed in a laboratory to an adult experiencing pain … typically respond by soothing the injured party. Toddlers who see adults struggling to open a door … or to pick up an out-of-reach object, will spontaneously help without any prompting from the adults in question.
An interesting point connected to some of this research is how much the child learns in the womb – studies with newborns show pronounced preferences not only for their mothers' voices, but in general for the language spoken by their parents.

In the chapter dealing with issues of War, etc., there is a 10-point (several page) section called a “Path to Nuclear Zero”, which includes this interesting bit on the concept of taboo:
The psychology behind the taboo against chemical and biological weapons transfers readily to that of nuclear weapons. Deadly heat and radiation – like poison gas and lethal diseases – are invisible killers that are indiscriminate in the carnage they wreak. … the revulsion people feel towards nuclear weapons may be linked in the brain to the emotion of disgust that psychologists have identified as being associated with invisible disease contagions, toxic poisons, and revolting materials … that carry them – reactions that evolved to direct organisms away from these substances for survival reasons.
Of course, it is one thing to negotiate with Russia or China, and a completely different thing to be faced with non-rational states or movements who may obtain nuclear weapons. MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction – worked for decades (thankfully), but it “does not make nuclear war impossible, but simply renders it irrational”
But if your religion has convinced you that you're not really going to die, and that the next life is spectacularly better than this life, and that you'll be a hero among those you've left behind – it changes the calculation.”
Again, the challenge in giving a perspective on the book is that there is SO much stuff in there … I'm skipping over a lot of fundamental material, and trying to point to things that seemed highlights to me. Here's a key bit from the early parts of the Science chapter:
From an intellectual history perspective, I have described this shift [the move to a “Science of Man”] as the “battle of the books” - the book of authority vs. the book of nature. The book of authority – whether it was the Bible or Aristotle in the Western world – is grounded in the cognitive process called deduction, or making specific claims from generalized principles … by contrast, the book of nature is grounded in induction, or the cognitive process of drawing generalized principles from specific facts ...
Fast-forward to the American revolution, and you have these scientific approaches applied to matters of state:
Many of the founding fathers were, in fact, scientists who deliberately adapted the method of data gathering, hypothesis testing, and theory formulation to their nation building. Their understanding of the provisional nature of findings led them to develop a social system in which doubt and dispute were the centerpieces of a functional polity. Jefferson, Franklin, Paine, and the others thought of social governance as problem to be solved rather than as power to be grabbed. They thought of democracy in the same way that they thought of science – as a method, not an ideology.
The benefits of the scientific approach should be obvious, but here's a great quote for our current world situation:
The hypothesis that reason-based Enlightenment thinking leads to moral progress is one that can be tested through historical comparison and by examining what happens to countries that hold anti-Enlightenment values. Countries that quash free inquiry, distrust reason, and practice pseudoscience, such as Revolutionary France, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and, more recently, fundamentalist Islamic states, stagnate, regress, and often collapse. Theists and postmodernist critics of science and reason often label the disastrous Soviet and Nazi utopias as “scientific”, but their science was a thin patina covering a deep layer of counter-Enlightenment, pastoral, paradisiacal fantasies of racial ideology grounded in ethnicity and geography ...
Of course, even in modern democracies, there are deep divides, and Shermer details several takes on this:
The left-right divide also depends heavily on the vision of human nature that you hold – as either constrained (right-wing) or unconstrained (left-wing) … or as utopian (left-wing) or tragic (right-wing) … Left-wingers lean towards believing that human nature is largely unconstrained by biology, and thus utopian-like social engineering schemes to overcome poverty, unemployment, and other social ills are appealing in their logic and feasibility. Right-wingers lean toward believing that human nature is largely constrained by biology and thus social, political, and economic policies must necessarily be limited in their scope and ambition.
In the “Religion” chapter there's an interesting “Deconstructing the Decalogue” section, where the author picks apart the Ten Commandments, on the basis that “they were written by and for people whose culture and customs were so different from ours as to make them either irrelevant to modern peoples or immoral were they to be obeyed.” … such as #2 inspiring acts of cultural savagery by the Taliban (as noted here), or more recently by the thugs of ISIL. From an Enlightenment perspective, most of the Commandments are pretty monstrous, and Shermer suggests a “Provisional Rational Decalogue”, based on generally-aspired to principles of the civilized world.

The middle section, on specific rights movements is interesting, full of fascinating research, but not full of particularly quote-worthy bits. The chapter on Animal rights stands out, however, in that it raises the subject to nearly the same plane as dealing with slavery, women, and gays. Much of that chapter is both grim and difficult … as we, as a species, are deeply “speciesist” and have milennia of cultural acclimation to eating, wearing, and working animals. However, the research outlined in this chapter makes one pause about how animals, especially “higher” animals, are treated worldwide. The author cites a striking piece of legislation in India which suggests that dolphins should be considered “nonhuman persons” – a classification change that could make radical shifts in our species' view of others.

This leads (somewhat unsubtly) to the chapter on “Evil”, which starts out looking at the infamous Milgram experiments (and similar studies on obedience, including ones the author developed for a reality TV show), and then a deep look into the Nazis, from Eichmann on down … delving into very disturbing psychological territory … the process is sketched out as:
... these factors are interactive and autocatalytic – that is, they feed on one another: dehumanization produces deindividuation, which then leads to compliance und the influence of obedience to authority, and in time that morphs into conformity to new group norms, and identification with the group, which leads to the actual performance of evil acts. No one of these components inexorably leads to evil acts, but together they form the machinery of evil that arises under certain social conditions.
The final chapter has an odd theme – “Protopia” – which the author notes “A better descriptor than utopia  for what we ought to strive for is protopia – a place where progress is steadfast and measured … the general principle is relatively simple: try to make the world a slightly better place tomorrow than yesterday.” One of the things that's covered here is the idea of a return to “city-states” as the main level of governmental organization … where Mayors would be the big dogs, and things would be run, not by bureaucracies but by (another odd word – this one from Alvin Toffler) “adhocracies” – organizations “premised on innovation and real-time problem solving in response to dynamic and ever-changing environments that require unique solutions to new problems … decentralized and highly organic, horizontal instead of hierarchical in nature, and … engages in creative effort to find a novel solution ...”. An example given is that NASA in the 1960's was an adhocracy, but by the 1990's, it had become just another bureaucracy.

In this section there is a lot of name dropping of people on the cutting edge of pretty much everything, and how these innovators' projects may play out. One piece of information that I found amusing was the “data curve” that most people are at least generally familiar with:
... from the earliest stirrings of civilization 10,000 years ago to the year 2003, all of humankind created a grand total of about 5 exabytes of digital information [1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes] … from 2003 through 2010 humans created 5 exabytes of digital information every 2 days. By 2013 we were producing 5 exabytes every 10 minutes. … Make all that digital knowledge available to every person on the planet instantly through the Internet, and ideally all citizens of the world can become citizen-scientists capable of reasoning their way to solving personal, social, and moral problems.
The Moral Arc just came out in January, so it should be available at surviving brick-and-mortar book vendors who carry science books, but the on-line big boys have it for about a quarter off the cover price. This is not an “easy” read, as there's a lot of material here (some of it quite challenging), but it is a fascinating read, and is ultimately hopeful on a lot of levels … worth the time to work your way through it.

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