Archives for posts with tag: brains

As a person who is present to some extent in modern social media, I find that I am exposed daily to an unhealthy dose of bad advice from apparently well-meaning but deeply confused people who want so desperately to be right that they are willing to sacrifice truth to their hunger for the feeling of certainty. One of the more insidious forms of this offense begins with an admonition to “think for yourself.” There is nothing inherently wrong with this advice. It might actually be one of the best pieces of advice one can give, but a number of hideous flaws can creep silently in hiding in its shadow if we are not cautious. The most egregious and abhorrently poisonous of these wretched little gremlins is the notion that doing one’s thinking in a vacuum is the only–or perhaps worse, the best–way to go about the task of figuring things out.

The title of this piece is intended to provide an unequivocal demonstration of why this method is not only disastrously stupid, but so easily repudiated that anyone who cares to can do so inside of a minute or two. Masturbation is an intrinsically solipsistic sort of activity: you need only your brain, your hands, and whatever plumbing nature has supplied you with to conduct it. I will for the moment dismiss the exception of fetishists who require something of outside manufacture to reach a satisfactory level of excitement; it is possible at least in theory for those persons to either substitute sufficient imagination or manufacture the necessary adjuncts themselves which leaves us back at our starting point. The point to be taken away from this is that masturbation does not inherently require a second sentient being, and while it does co-opt the use of various mental circuitry related to reproduction, it does not constitute a functional replication of the reproductive process.

In other words, you are never going to have a baby no matter how much you masturbate. Barring incredibly rare abnormalities like Turner’s Syndrome, you will never be able to become pregnant (especially if you have an XY phenotype body) in the absence of another human sentient. In any case, that sort of exception is physiologically unrelated to masturbation and so even that would not disprove the example. The long and the short of this is that if you attempted to “reproduce for yourself” in the absence of another human, you could spend as long as your heart desired at it without the effort contributing to your goal in the slightest. You may have a fantastic relationship with Rosy Palm and her five sisters, but none of them are going to be your baby daddy, sorry.

It is in precisely the same way that “thinking for yourself” in the absence of evidence will get you nothing aside from a warm, fuzzy feeling. If that is all you are after, allow me to refer you to the former example as it will allow you to obtain that result with significantly more regularity. Merely “citing your thoughts” is mental masturbation. You may always share your thoughts, but as soon as any of them purport to be representative of anything outside your opinion, you may have begun to waggle your intellectual wang, (or started “bluffin’ with your cranial muffin”,) in a most embarrassing manner. Do have a care for any impressionable people who might be exposed to your intellectually indecent exposure.

To get a bit more into the nuts and bolts, when we say, “think for yourself” honestly what we mean is, “examine the evidence for yourself and come to a conclusion that is not biased by another person’s assumptions.” The phrase presupposes that not only is the evidence available in full, but that the recipient is interested in perusing it and constructing his or her own theory to explain it. Or at least examining the available explanations and selecting the one from the source he or she judges to be most likely to be correct. Even the latter method is rife with peril if it is not accompanied by a basic understanding of reality, some fact-checking, and a firm conviction that truth is preferable to comforting sophistry.

I will be blunt: anyone who tells you to rely on your own thoughts and feelings to the exclusion of evidence, skepticism, and communication/cross-checking with other people, that person is either a contemptible lout or a lunatic and more than likely wants to sell you something, be it a used car, a religion, or the dubious privilege of his presence between your thighs for as long as it takes him to do his business. Thought without evidence or logic is like sperm without an egg or a womb and it will get you just as close to producing truth as the latter will to producing a baby.

No matter how many people you get to agree with you that it is otherwise, the facts will remain the facts. So when you say, “think for yourself” you had better bloody well mean it and the rest of you who gobble up that vacuous piffle in the spirit in which it was intended, cut that shit out before civilization collapses beneath your vacant and incurious bulk.

Ille equus mortuus percussus est.


I thought rather long and hard for an acceptable title, and it finally boiled down to the one you see for a very good reason. You see, I want you to treat me like I am gay, or black, or Latino, or poor. All at once. Preferably while also thinking of me as white, cisgendered, heteronormative, and socially acceptable.

Here I will spare a moment for the postmodernists, confused feminists, and bigots of all stripes: I do not care for the privilege or oppression that you want to give me based on accidents of neurochemistry, genotype/allele frequency, or cultural nurture. I care neither for your hatred of ‘faggots’ and ‘dykes’ or for your loathing of ‘kikes’ or ‘niggers’. Certainly I care nothing for the nearly insensate babble of moral relativists or the self-satisfied and myopic wailing of certain racialists and feminists about privilege and invisible knapsacks.*

The fact of the matter is that yes, a large amount of work is necessary to understand the origins of racial privilege, gender privilege, and so on; but I find that those concerned with these things frequently spend what seems to me to be entirely too much effort chasing their own tails in self-justification. The point to be made from these studies is that our human brains, while extremely impressive in many respects, suffer from some adaptations that were useful in the past, but are now useful only if we deliberately co-opt them for our own purposes.

In short, human brains spend a great deal of energy typifying things and attempting to locate our own position within that constructed space. This constructed space is exactly that: an artificial model that we use as a tool to provide ourselves the ability interface with reality. This sort of unconscious process is very useful to a primate species whose greatest strength is its ability to form complex and sophisticated social structures in the interest of accomplishing things that a single homo sapiens cannot hope to do by itself.

The distinctions created seem palpable to us because our neurochemistry requires ‘hooks’ to control our behavior. Thus we have feelings that are related to these distinctions, and this helps us in many ways. We do not try to team up with lions to hunt or trees to build in the same way we team up with other humans precisely because our brains contain the means to draw distinctions between “us” and “them.” This is where the trouble begins, and why I say to you: treat me like I’m not in the fuzzy and safe categories you have drawn up for yourself, however unconsciously.

It is critically important both to the advancement of human civilization and to our personal morality that we understand the reality of this process. At the most basic level, the only way to ensure we act in a morally sound way is to take command of this mental mechanism and bend it into a coherent shape through long and arduous effort. This is damnably uncomfortable, which explains easily and rather thoroughly why prejudice is alive and well in the modern era. I would challenge you then, to take responsibility for your mind, its mechanisms and contents, and begin to work at chipping away at those opinions of yours which formed under the supervision of apathy and in the service of expedience.

So to return to my original request, we must accept that others will never be identical to us, and that this does not automatically mean that they are of lesser merit. I wish you to treat me as though I were gay predicated on the assumption that you dislike or are made uncomfortable by the idea that two penis-bearers can give one another sexual pleasure. I wish you to treat me as though I were straight predicated on the assumption that you distrust people whose own preferences run in the direction of penis and vagina, if only due to past experience of prejudicial treatment.

I wish you to think of me as black if you look at people with dark skin who are of historically recent African descent as inferior. I ask that you think of me as Caucasian if you feel oppressed by people who are white. Just the same I want you to think of me as Latin, Asian, as a Pacific Islander, as an aboriginal native of any continent, or as a mixed-breed. In the interest of avoiding the derailment of my point into an endless enumeration of the infinity of possible distinctions, I challenge you to think of me as whatever and whomever you dislike.

In the end I remain confident that while you might not have any liking for me as a person, you will at least be forced to respect my insistence on occupying whatever divisions you have assigned negative emotional responses to categorically and in the absence of rational and evidential thinking. Please note that this differs from say, insisting that you think of me as a murderer or a child molester because we can draw some relatively clear distinctions about that group and provide clear evidence that can be woven into a coherent objection to those practices.

Without getting too far off topic, let me say that the group “murderers” are persons who deprive others of life for reasons that do not include the preservation of liberty and life in a substantive way. We can similarly say that the group, “child molesters” can be defined as persons who knowingly and willfully expose those too young to understand or defend themselves to hurtful touch not conducive to their current or future well-being. Quite simply the difference between these groups and say, homosexuals or persons of a differing skin color is that while the former can be defined by action and judged by the results of their actions, the latter cannot.

I am fully aware that this is a subject that, if bitten off, would not easily succumb to the jaws of this particular piece of writing. However, I maintain that we can draw further distinction and provide at least the tentative sketch of a defense by examining the way in which we assign labels. A murderer or child molester, for example, is so called because they have committed murder or molested a child. They have been labeled not because of their passive traits but because of their willful and chosen actions. There is no simple way to call someone a murderer before the act takes place–by definition referring to someone as a murderer means that they have already, in fact, committed murder.

By contrast, a person who has XY chromosomes and a phenotypically normative development who happens to be sexually attracted to other phenotypically normative individuals with XY chromosomes need only be so attracted to be gay. In precisely the same way, a person whose skin reflects light of a certain general wavelength in the visible band need only emit light in such a way to be called black, white, brown, or even nearly endless gradations within each single color label. It is a fact with its origins in their existence and not in their willed actions.

In brief summary: a gay man has sex with another man because he is gay; he is not gay because he has sex with another man. A person is black not because she deliberately chooses to actuate the biochemical reactions her body uses to produce melanin, but because she happens to have skin containing an amount of melanin that is relatively greater than some other portions of the human population. Our brains are not well suited to drawing these distinctions as a matter of course, so it falls to us to put forward the effort to draw them ourselves as a willed act.

Therefore judge people, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “by the quality of their character”–by their willed actions, and not by your mind’s instinctive schemata. Be suspicious especially of those judgments that seem most right and good; pull aside the cloak and examine the foundations, lest you find that your entire constructed view of reality has been resting on sand, sophistry, and somnolence in the mind’s faculty for reason. We have had quite enough time spent on that method in the history of our species, and while I cannot speak for you, I personally would rather it be gently but firmly shown the way out of human thought.

I am not you, and neither is anyone else. Get over it, but until you do: treat me as though I was those things you despise for no reason. At the least, I will be able to see something of who you choose to be, and in seeing can make meaningful decisions about your tentative placement in my own constructed reality.

Ille equus mortuus percussus est.


*I suppose this had better be the topic of another post, because wish to banish any possibility of being misinterpreted: I am firmly and insuperably egalitarian in principle, to include all positions along sexual, gender, skin color, financial, social, and political and related spectrums.

There are a lot of people in the world. About is 7.036 billion, actually [USCB]. If we assume we can get to know someone in a cursory 30 second chat, assuming we all spoke the same language, it would take about 6700 years for everyone to meet and greet everyone else even if we assume rigid 30 second time periods, no time for sleep, no eating or drinking (or at least none that interferes with talking) and instant switching from one partner to the next.

Even if we allowed for a mere 3 seconds for changeover between each conversation, that would still tack on another 660 years. Giving everyone eight hours of sleep would tack on another 2300 years or so. Giving everyone an hour time to bathe, brush their teeth, and so forth is good for another 290 or so. Grand total: 9950 years–and that’s still assuming that say, robots are doing all the labor to sustain our industries, agriculture, and the giant conveyor belt never, ever breaks down and always functions perfectly.

The result is that, if humans lived for ten thousand years, and everyone did nothing but meet other people, we would still spend 99.995% of our lifetimes meeting other people. This also assumes, of course, that the birthrate is zero. But let’s divide it instead by the average human lifespan of 69.6 years [World Bank]. The result is about 143–yes, that means that if you had 143 average human lifetimes, you might be able to have a single, thirty-second conversation with every person *currently* alive on the planet as of this instant.

Obviously, then, anyone proposing a system by which we base our actions exclusively on personal relationships would be laughed out of town by anyone who had thought about it for longer than about five minutes. Some kind of compromise has to be made, and our rather curious brains, having evolved as they did to help us maintain relationships among comparatively small social groups of primates, provide us with a surprisingly functional but somewhat problematic solution.

Stereotyping: This brilliant shortcut lets us establish correlative relationships between superficially similar things, which has obvious benefits. If you see someone eat a brightly colored frog and die, you are more than likely going to benefit from avoiding the consumption of the whole category of brightly colored frogs. If say, you are living in a tribe among others and the possibility of violent conflict exists, you are more likely than not to benefit from associating their phenotypical features, clothing, language, and mannerisms with danger or at least the unknown of which you should be wary. So on, and so forth.

Where we start to get into trouble is that while these correspondences are easy to establish, they are difficult to break without a great deal of effort. The mechanisms themselves are quite intricate, and as a I am no neuroscientist I will not attempt to explain them, but the upshot is that what is in actuality a useful approximation can be unintentionally conflated with a bit of guaranteed predictive information. This actually would not even be a problem if a “stereotype” was established with an arbitrary but large degree of precision and applied only with respect to things that met the specific definitions, but that would be antithetical to the purpose of our rather fuzzy system of categorizations.

They are of value specifically because they allow us to benefit from prior knowledge even when dealing with novel situations. Learning by analogy might be the best use we have for these ‘fuzzy’ correspondences. Math, science, and art all rely on establishing correspondences to our previous experience and constructing mental tools of ever-increasing complexity.

A very young child can be said to be starting on mathematics when they establish the line of demarcation between a single discrete object and a group of them. The child continues by learning the words that correspond to specific discrete quantities and learns to place them in order, learning to count from one to two, two to three, and so on. From there it’s a hop, skip, and jump to addition. Subtraction is only addition in reverse, multiplication only addition of group quantities. When we divide, we are splitting a quantity into groups and the problem can be framed as a ratio with fractions. All math problems inherently possess at least one variable, and algebra is just learning to break up a single problem into smaller discrete parts and manipulate those parts. Once we have that, we can look at the relationships between real world shapes and equations with geometry.

When we look closely at a story, the fuzzy correspondences are being made use of any time something happens in the text that we have not personally experienced. When Cervantes’ Don Quixote charges the giants, explosions of neurochemicals construct the notional realities of the errant knight’s tale–he is able to charge the great four-armed beasts never seen on Earth because we have had the experience both of seeing something and having been mistaken and having felt something we wanted to be true even if cold reality stonily folded its arms. We are Sancho Panza, observing Quixote with bemused, if phlegmatic, marvel. We have never been in these situations, but nevertheless a string of correlations forms the connective tissue that allows us to use language to grasp something of value and meaning from the story.

I submit, therefore, that the problem with stereotypes is only that they underlie so much of our accomplishment both as individuals and as a species, that we forget sometimes to confine them to their proper category–probabilistic approximations  useful only in providing a general estimate that allows us to act without freezing, but that can and very often are imprecise, inaccurate, or even outright mistaken. If we remain willing to juggle people between our categories, shift those categories around, re-write their boundaries, or even dispose of them entirely if we find too much evidence against them–we will not go too far afield to treat our fellow humans decently even if we do not know them personally.