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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I know this is a very sensitive topic that many readers will react to with anger, or at least denial, but recent video footage of some of the US Capitol mob praying in the Senate chamber, at the same time that other people outside were praying for peace, prompts me to write it.

For me, a huge question for those who believe in a God directly involved in human affairs is this: Who among us human animals is entitled to speak and act on God’s behalf? Many people claim that entitlement, but they convey very conflicting messages. …


Why logic, empiricism, and skepticism matter

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Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

Our brains make decisions in two useful, but different modes. The older, faster mode is what we call intuition. It helps us to avoid dangers and take opportunities by making decisions based on built-in instincts or immediate memories of similar situations. The newer, slower mode is what we call logic, but which might better be described as consideration. That can include empirical consideration of many related possibilities — what is called also called inductive logic — as well as logical deductions from premises that we have previously accepted as reliable.

The contrast between those two modes of decision-making is captured in the inconsistency between two well-known aphorisms of folk wisdom: “S/he who hesitates is lost” and “Look before you leap”. Sometimes, in extreme emergencies, we have to trust our intuition to get out of danger, but most times it’s better to look before we leap. …


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Thom Milkovic on Unsplash

In the light of recent events — political chaos, pandemic, and willful ignorance of looming environmental catastrophes caused by us humans, it’s hard for me to remain optimistic about our long-term future. We are amazing social animals, capable of accomplishing wondrous things. At the same time, we are deeply flawed, capable of dangerous delusions.

Religious leaders try to offer hope, but many of them contribute to the delusion. The influential televangelist Pat Robertson is one example. …


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Photo by Jaccob McKay on Unsplash

Although my surname is Mason, I yield to people of even older crafts: woodworkers and weavers of flexible plant materials. Descended as we humans are from ancestors who lived in trees, it’s hard to imagine older crafts than those. Our earliest tools were derived from tree limbs and roots, used as digging sticks, clubs, and spears. Related plant materials, including bark, vines, and leaves, enabled us to make tools such as snares, baskets, woven structures, coverings, and even boats.

Wood and other materials obtained from plants are renewable resources available in a variety of strengths, hardness, size, shape, and flexibility. Wood can be reshaped and sharpened fairly easily. It’s only because organic materials decay that stone has its prominence in popular imagination as our earliest material for making things. …


The only hope for our grandchildren is for us to become more self-aware

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Photo by Artem Kniaz on Unsplash

For most of our history as social animals we humans have survived by small-scale practical thinking and larger-scale magical ignorance. Only recently have a minority of us come to understand better our place, and the place of our planet, in the large-scale universe. Most of us still believe comfortable delusions — that we are special creations of an omniscient being and that we, as individuals, will live forever, either in a paradise or in a series of personal reincarnations.

So we go about our daily lives focused mainly on ourselves and our immediate environment, with only passing concern for the long-term future of our children and grandchildren and for the planet on which we live. We often let ourselves be led by confident, ignorant leaders who promise us easy solutions to our immediate problems. And most of us rest assured that a God will take care of the future. …


And the internet has enabled the power of groups that are widespread in space and coordinated in time.

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Image from PBS Newshour

It’s clear that human group brains are very different from our individual brains. As individuals we are limited in time and space, and the cells of our bodies, including our brains, are tightly coupled. Our highest priority, usually, is our own survival.

Our group brains are vastly more flexible in time and space, and we operate in many overlapping ones for the many human supra-organisms in which we participate. Those range from planet-wide organizations that operate over time scales beyond our own life spans, to very short-term pairings or small groups that may come and go in a matter of minutes, hours, or days. …


It’s not just the President who is losing his mental capacity

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Photo by Tabrez Syed on Unsplash

It’s bad enough that the current U.S President is mentally unstable and dangerous, but the decision-making system around him has become equally unstable and dangerous.

As I have explained in another essay, we individual humans function as nodes in “group brains” that control the behavior of the human supra-organisms in which we participate, either temporarily or semi-permanently. The mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol yesterday, along with the President and other people who incited it, constitute one such supra-organism. We can hope it was a fairly temporary one. The people who operate the U.S. …


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Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Self awareness is not complete if we think of ourselves only as individuals. It also requires awareness of how we interact with the people we share our lives with. (Beyond other people, we can benefit from greater awareness of how we interact with the other animals, plants, and things we share our lives with, but that’s a larger story than this essay.)

I know that other people have explored these ideas in greater detail than this already. …

About

Jim Mason

Studies language, cognition, and humans as social animals

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