Cultural Cognitive Models Now—Settling the Fight Between Humanism and Post-liberalism

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In the past four months or so, I have read five books that seem to circle the same debate: humanism versus post-humanism or post-liberalism. Honestly, I did not set out to investigate this debate; it just happened. In one case, an author was so biased that I was motivated to read a book that countered this bias so as to get a more balanced picture. In other cases, authors took potshots at each other. I would then read a book written by the author whose pot was shot at, again, to get a clearer picture of what all the hubbub is about. Here are the books in the order of my reading:

Strangers In Their Own Land—Anger and Mourning On the American Right by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild

Hillbilly Elegy—A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by attorney J.D. Vance

Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind by world historian Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow also by Yuval Noah Harari

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker

Hochschild teaches at U.C. Berkeley, Vance received his law degree from Yale and works as a venture capitalist, Harari lectures at the Department of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Pinker teaches in the Psychology Department at Harvard. A pretty heady crowd.

I read Hochschild’s book Strangers In Their Own Land and found it exceedingly biased. The title gives us a sense for this bias: conservatives are strangers. The implication here is that liberals have won some type of cultural war and liberalism is now the new norm. Hochschild spent five years in various parts of Louisiana trying to understand why good people, most conservatives, would work for companies—like those involved in petroleum exploration and refining, and manufacturing—that pollute the environment. She wanted to understand what motivated people to support politicians like President Trump. By her own admission, Hochschild was an outsider (a stranger herself) from a different world (Berkeley) and political persuasion (liberal). At every turn as local residents (many of whom had lived in Louisiana for generations) tried to offer up heartfelt reasons for their behavior, like prizing hard work, a desire to provide for their families, and a deep connection to place, Hochschild would fire back with some version of, “But what about the environment? You’re harming the environment?” Frankly, I found the whole thing tiresome. It’s this type of liberal preaching that gives liberals a bad name. As a part of full disclosure, I spent over six months in Natchitoches, Louisiana back in the late 1970s as a soils engineer. I then went on to work for a major oil company as an exploration geologist.

In contrast, Hillbilly Elegy looked at similar circumstances (this time focusing on Appalachian values). The big difference? Vance told his story from the position of an insider, and he did not have any particular agenda. He talks about his family, his community, his culture, warts and all. I think that’s what put me off about Hochschild’s book: it was all about how bad things were for conservatives. The unwritten message was then clear: everything is great for liberals and liberal culture.

Although mentioned briefly in Sapiens, Harari has a whole section on the myth or religion of liberalism in Homo Deus. He provides scientific evidence that suggests that the liberal idea of the autonomous self is just that, a myth. Simply, the Industrial Age needed individuals who possessed a self, so they were manufactured to serve an economic (as well as militaristic) purpose. Equally interesting, Harari suggests that, today, technology is actually undermining many of the principles of liberalism, especially the concept of self. [1] So, here’s Hochschild promoting liberalism when in fact the liberal embrace of technology (which is rampant in the land Hochschild comes from: Berkeley, CA) is doing away with such liberal concepts as empathy and perspective taking (a point I have made in my blog posts). The story I get from Hillbilly Elegy is one of wanting to hang on to such things as family, community, belonging, hard work, and culture. Maybe Hochschild’s protest is just simple psychological transference or even projection: wanting what the other has knowing that it is fading for the (mythical) self. If you’re looking for liberal rah rah sis boom bah, definitely go with Strangers In Their Own Land. If you’re looking for honesty and openness concerning conservatism, go with Hillbilly Elegy.

So, what prompted me to read Pinker’s book? Well, in Homo Deus, Harari states: “[R]ichard Dawkins [of selfish gene fame], Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific world view refuse to abandon liberalism.” Harari continues, “At the beginning of the third millennium liberalism is threatened not by the philosophical idea that ‘there are no free individuals’, but rather by concrete technologies.” Here’s Harari’s bottom line: “We are about to face a flood of extremely useful devices, tools and structures that make no allowance for free will of individual humans. Will democracy, the free market and human rights survive this flood?” Harari answers no. But I took notice of his potshot directed at Pinker.

I’ve read Pinker’s work before (The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature). He seemed reasonable enough to me. And as it so happens, Pinker just released a new book on the defense of liberalism, humanism, and science: Enlightenment Now. What the hey, I’ll read Pinker’s new book and see why Harari is taking shots at Pinker’s pot. Sadly, Pinker’s book was just as biased as Hochschild’s Strangers In Their Own Land. I’m a scientist by training (MS is structural geology). However, reading Pinker’s book made me want to go out an apologize profusely: please, most good scientists are not this biased and do not go around trying to shove science down your throat as the “be all, end all” of life. I know Pinker means well but going around telling people to “science-up” or you’re out, is offensive. Religion? it’s out in Pinker’s world. Populist conservative thinkers? out. The uneducated? out. Anti-globalists? out. Pinker engages in the very thing he condemns: He looks down on those people who do not think and act the way he does.

How many of us are able to be like Pinker? How many of us teach at Harvard and write treatises and tomes? As Harari writes in Homo Deus, “After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they [authors like Dawkins and Pinker] perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century, as if all the amazing discoveries of evolutionary biology and brain science have absolutely no bearing on the ethical and political ideas of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson.” Yes, Pinker beats you over the head with almost 500 pages of data and graphs and more data and more graphs. It was mind numbing. It would literally take you years (and a bunch of research assistants) to adequately review the data he presents. How is this not a priestly caste? How is this not a religion?

What, science has no disembodied god? Yes it does: numbers. Numbers do not exist. They form a conceptual framework that people must accept. Pinker over and over tries to convince us that we have to be “numerate” (having a good basic knowledge of arithmetic). Roll this one around in your head: most advanced mathematics would not exist without the creation of the concept zero. Being numerate means believing that nothing exists. So, in the same way Pinker tries to pull the rug out from underneath God, you can simply pull the rug out from underneath Numbers by taking away zero. At the risk of being glib, scientists pray at the altar of Zero. Today, that altar has expanded to include Zero and One.

Pinker commits the cardinal sin of cognitive science: he perpetuates the Rationalist Myth. What’s the Rationalist Myth? Allow me to tell you by bringing in an excerpt from the executive summary I wrote of cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom? I’ve edited this excerpt for clarity and to bring in new information.

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“A great many progressives function with the folk theory of the mind,” writes Lakoff, “based on a philosophical paradigm called rationalism.” He continues, “The folk version of rationalism is a myth about reason and its relationship to politics. It says that progressive thought came out of the Enlightenment in the form of rationalism.”

Lakoff then gives the reader a list of entailments that follow given that one ascribes to the myth of rationalism (as Pinker clearly does). Let me provide you with an abridged list:

  • Reason is what defines our essence as human beings and sets us off from other animals
  • Therefore, reason is universal (all human beings have the same capacity for reason)
  • Reason is conscious (we are aware of our thought) [e.g., Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am”]
  • Reason is literal (it can directly fit the world)
  • We are acting rationally when our free will follows the dictates of reason rather than our passions
  • Universal reason gives rise to universal moral principles

The above list nicely summarizes Pinker’s book. Allow me to quote at length as Lakoff describes the pitfalls associated with operating from within a rationalist framework:

Many progressives still abide by aspects of the rationalist myth, which results in destructive political consequences for progressives. For example, rationalism claims that, since everybody is rational [or should be rational], you just need to tell people the facts, and they will reason to the same conclusion. That’s just false, as we have learned from election after election [especially the one in 2016]. The facts alone will not set you free [my emphasis]. If the frames that define common sense contradict the facts, the facts will be ignored [i.e., a cultural cognitive model will filter out the information]. Cognitive science tells us why: The frames that define common sense are instantiated physically in the brain. When you hear a fact that is inconsistent with a physical structure in the brain (a frame), the physical structure (the frame) stays and the fact is ignored or explained away [usually through one of Freud’s defense mechanisms—projection, displacement, justification, denial, minimization, etc.]. Nonetheless, progressives keep using facts alone [and intellectualism is itself a defense] to argue against radical conservative frames.

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Sadly, Pinker falls into the pit of the Rationalist Myth. In many ways, Hochschild does as well. Both flail around issuing forth with a version of that saying from a popular Pink Floyd song: “If you don’t eat rationality, you can’t have any pudding. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat rationality?”

So, is there any way out? Yes, and I’ve hinted at it above: cultural cognitive models. I’ll wrap up with a quick mention of cultural cognitive models. The main point I will make is that we are currently in a period of shifting cultural cognitive models. As such, we should expect such things as reactivation of old models, current models not holding sway, models in conflict (a topic that comprises the bulk of Pinker’s book), and even the appearance of models that lack grounding (such as New Ageism). As an example, Pinker takes a potshot at Naomi Klein and her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus Climate (a book I have read). Pinker writes, “According to the ‘climate justice’ movement popularized by the journalist Naomi Klein … we should not treat the threat of climate change as a challenge to prevent climate change. No, we should treat it as an opportunity to abolish free markets, restructure the global economy [by de-emphasizing oil], and remake our political system.” Well, Hochschild also follows the climate justice model, and so Pinker’s comment is a potshot aimed at Hochschild.

OK, what is a cultural cognitive model. From the book Changing Visions—Human Cognitive Maps: Past, Present, and Future, we hear, “Cognitive maps are held by individuals, but the set of cognitive maps of individuals produces a collective kind of construction that constitutes a social cognitive map [emphasis in original].” Cultural cognitive maps allow individuals to map individual experience to social or cultural experience. Jung’s archetypes work in this way as well. We could not get through everyday life without some type of cultural cognitive map. A cultural cognitive map, “once evolved, takes on a life of its own; it cannot be reduced or disaggregated to the particular maps held by individuals,” reveals Changing Visions. Here’s the bottom line: “Since we are guided both by our own individual cognitive map and by that of our society, attention must be paid to both.” Simply, Pinker beats you over the head with data and graphs in an attempt to not only change your individual cognitive map, but also as a way of trying to convince you that the map that all societies should embrace is science. Again, this is the Rationalist Myth and it simply will not work. It’s ironic that a cognitive scientist like Pinker would fall under the spell of the Rationalist Myth.

What follows is a list of cultural cognitive maps over the millennia. To create this list I’m pulling from Changing Visions as well as from work by J.B. Calhoun, both of which express a decidedly Western bias (or filtering) as you will see:

Traditional-Sapient Revolution (circa 38,710 B.C.)—Tradition and myth formed the core of this revolution.

Living-Agricultural Revolution (circa 8,157 B.C.)—Awareness of life as a continuing process of birth, development, and death, with a dependence of one species upon another (aka “legends & tales”).

Authoritarian-Religious Revolution (circa 519 B.C.)—A conviction that there must be some directed design of the forces guiding nature and the destiny of man (aka “myths & religions”).

Holistic-Artistic Revolution (circa 1391 A.D.)—A bifurcation with one strand seeking artistic expression in philosophy, poetry, painting and sculpture; and the other seeking empirical technological procedures and machines (aka “Christianity & Islam”).

Scientific-Exploitive Revolution (circa 1868 A.D.)—Focus on the “Scientific Method” where insights are then transformed into technological devices or procedures for exploiting nature for the benefit of man (aka “formulae & rules”).

Communication-Electronic Revolution (circa 1988 A.D.)—Personal contact among the members of such a much enlarged communication network proves particularly ineffective. Thus, a new perspective of life as an information exchange network results.

Compassionate-Systems Revolution (circa 2018 A.D.)—Awareness of, and participation in, the realization of values held by others which characterizes the compassionate perspective. This perspective also includes an awareness that many individuals will experience extreme difficulty in developing and altering their roles and value sets in accordance with the demands of an overall system which is changing and becoming more complex.

Believe it or not, Harari does a great job describing all of the above cultural cognitive models in Sapiens. As a matter of fact, all of the authors I’m talking about here—Hochschild, Vance, Harari, and Pinker—would probably agree to the above list. Pinker talks about the above list quite a bit in Enlightenment Now. What these authors disagree on (and why so many potshots are flying) is what new cultural cognitive model will emerge next. Clearly we are in the Communication-Electronic Revolution. That I am typing this blog post on a computer and will post it to the Internet is proof enough for me. But notice that starting, well, about now (2018), we should be entering the Compassionate-Systems Revolution.

Harari disagrees by suggesting that we are moving into a period that will see humans become “post-human,” that is to say post-biology. In other words, humans are becoming more mechanical. According to Harari, as biology fades away for humans, so too the need for liberalism. [2] Harari suggests that we are entering a time of post-liberalism. All of this is nothing new.

Way back in 2002, Francis Fukuyama wrote the book Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Fukuyama suggests that as we continue to move toward a posthuman state, we should see certain signposts, like biotech and genetic manipulation (genetically modified foods would be an example). Other authors have also pointed to signposts marking the way toward posthumanism. Ernest Keen and Finn Bowring see feeding kids copious amounts of behavioral drugs (like Ritalin and Adderall) in the quest for cognitive enhancement as a signpost. James Barrat (who Pinker takes a potshot at) sees AI or artificial intelligence as possibly the last invention that biological humans will make before transitioning to a mechanical state. Pinker simply discounts all of this. How convenient. In my opinion, Pinker recognizes that the Scientific-Exploitive cultural cognitive model is slipping away and he’s doing everything in his power to prevent that slip. But keep in mind that it was cognitive model slip that gave way to science. This is not unlike a man or woman who has an affair, then marries the cheater and says to him or herself: “Good thing my spouse will never cheat on me.”

So, I’ll leave it there. Let me end with a quote from Changing Visions:

In the industrialized world, dominant values and beliefs have been shaped by the experience of the recent past, and as the realities of that world are changing, the concepts that mapped its contours are becoming increasingly obsolete. Serious changes started in the 1960s, at the periphery, with the Hippie, the New Age, and the early Green movements, and they kept moving toward center stage in the 1970s and 1980s with mounting concern over public health and safety, and worries over the negative effects of intensifying global economic competition. … A profound change in the cognitive map of everyday people is now in the offing. Some old and cherished ideas are being rejected and replaced, and some basic relationships between humans and nature, as well as between humans and other humans, are being questioned.


[1] – In his book Age of Access, economist Jeremy Rifkin suggests that the autonomous self is giving way to what he calls the “theatrical self”—a mercurial self that can quickly and easily adapt according to the shifting challenges of the environment.  Rifkin argues that Internet technologies, with their focus on virtual realities, provide the necessary scaffolding that allows the theatrical self to emerge.

[2] – A book that I should have added to my list but did not is The Strange Order of Things by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio. Damasio does not believe in our posthuman future and ends up taking a potshot at Harari. I’m telling you, bullets are a flyin’. Damasio writes, “In the picture painted by Yuval Harari [in Homo Deus], when humans are no longer required to fight wars—cyber warfare can do that for them—and after humans have lost their jobs to automation [as is happening with truck drivers], most of them will simply wither away.” Damasio does acknowledge that there is a battle between organic or natural algorithms (of which homeostatic balance plays a big part) and the algorithms that computer programmers write. Damasio reveals, “[F]uture lives and minds are presumed to depend at least in part on ‘electronic algorithms’ that artificially simulate what ‘biochemical algorithms’ currently do.” Damasio argues that electronic algorithms will never completely replace biochemical or natural algorithms because there is no way to put emotions and feelings into any form of algorithm. I agree with Damasio, but the goal of posthumanists is to get us to a place beyond emotions and feelings. As a result, they are spending little time (if any) porting organic emotions and feelings over to the digital world.

Now, what I find interesting is that Pinker’s whole book Enlightenment Now is about how science can get us to a place where decisions (e.g., policy, political, and economic decisions) are made without reference to emotions and feelings. Recall from Lakoff’s list above: We are acting rationally when our free will follows the dictates of reason rather than our passions. Within the rationalist paradigm decisions are made using cold hard facts. Hello? That’s exactly what AI architects are doing. They are simply embodying the rationalist scientific ethos in the form of AI or robots. You simply cannot have your cold decisions and keep your biology as well. This is why there is a whole area of cognitive science known as “embodied cognition,” that we use our bodies and our biology to think with, to reason with. George Lakoff is one of the chief animators of embodied cognition. But, for whatever reason, Pinker does not bring in embodied cognition at all.

As the kids say, it’s a hot mess. But, again, this is the type of hot mess one would expect as cultural cognitive models begin to shift. Like with shifting tectonic plates, you can expect a whole lot of rumblin’ going on.