Posts Tagged ‘ human nature

The Bikecast Episode #32: The Common Denominator Betwixt God and State

Underpinning all arguments for both theism and statism is fear. Most people spend their lives, consciously or unconsciously, afraid of their fellow humans. At the end of the intellectual exercise of dispelling the illusion of deities and of a just and noble state, many people retreat to the unsubstantiated position that a free and clear-eyed humanity is simply too dangerous to be contemplated.

Non-believers tire of the absurd idea that, without the fear of a judgemental god and his/her/their divine and eternal retribution for earthly “sins,” people would kill, rape, and steal with reckless abandon. Similarly, anarchists constantly encounter concerns about how humanity would be “controlled” if it weren’t for the police and prison system forcing people not to fall on each other in endless bloody conflict.

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A couple friends and I were discussing statelessness. One admitted that the argument that came to his mind to dispute the possibility of an anarchist society is the same argument that he hates to get when talking about the “danger” of widespread atheism. The argument is that people cannot be trusted unless they are constrained by the state (with the atheist corollary: unless constrained by a belief in god).

The pattern that he noticed is striking and matches what we’ve encountered in a couple of bikecasts thus far. Arguments based on instilling fear are rarely supported by evidence. More specifically, arguments based on fear of humans rely on the fear of some bloodthirsty other that will materialize when a particular criteria is met (lowering “our” national defense [sic], disbelief in god, abolition of slavery, abolition of the state, etc.)

As I’ve noted a number of times, atheism is “running ahead” of anarchism in acceptance by increasingly sane, disillusioned people. Most competent adults[1] understand that god isn’t stopping criminal behavior–not even professed belief in god seems to deter criminal behavior.

In a parallel way, the understanding is slowly growing that the state doesn’t curb crime and in a number of ways, state institutions increase the amount and severity of crime (besides criminalizing victimless activities, making criminals of peaceful people).

If the state security apparatus were all that stood between robbers and possessions, we would quickly be stripped bare. Luckily, most people don’t want to steal or harm people, with or without the existence of god and state.

It makes sense, in fact, that a society premised on the use of force to determine right and wrong would be more prone to acts of violence. It’s also reasonable that in a world in which god’s will trumps human morality, one person could be convinced that god is compelling them to harm or rob another. When the use of violence can be “good” under certain conditions, it opens the door to individual judgements about what violence is appropriate and what remains off limits.

As we’ve talked about before, human beings are naturally disinclined to violence. It requires the will of a god or a state to push most people into immoral courses of action (they often helped early on by brutalizing parents that kill the natural empathy of the child).

Speaking of children, another common feature of theism, statism, and fear of others is that they need to be introduced early in life. Bible stories (or Koran stories, or whatever) don’t make any sense–they’re obviously artifacts of primitive, albeit inventive, cultures filled with great hallucinogens and scribes with plenty of time on their hands.

The great national stories of the world are equally obviously fictitious and collapse under a moments scrutiny. For this reason, both kinds of stories must be introduced and repeated endlessly during the victims’ childhood.

As the child ages into adulthood and begins to question (for those that retain the capacity to question), the stories become more nuanced and less defined where challenged. Should a hypothetical adult, fully formed, be told of either Adam and Eve or of a slave-holding nation “of the people,” he/she would understand it to be pure fiction.

In the end, it’s the fear that keeps the whole bloody hierarchy in place . . . and the police and armies, of course[2]. So strong is the fear of one’s fellow humans and so strong is the lifetime of indoctrination and so ubiquitous is the suspicion and distrust among us that we cling to illusion and violence rather than face the challenge of a humanity free from illusion, coercion and authority.

In the bikecast, I make reference to claims that atheists are no less “moral” than theists:
The Secular Web
has the most comprehensive index of related research and thought that I’ve ever encountered.
The Atheist “about” pages are pretty strong too.

  1. [1] I show my euro-centrist racism on the bikecast by attaching the leading edge of disillusionment to “educated westerners”. It turns out that Japan is the most thoroughly atheist country by many metrics. My bad.
  2. [2] We can see that religion still maintains it’s deathgrip even when it’s not officially allowed to kill disbelievers anymore.

The Bikecast Episode #24: Getting From Here to There, The Arc of History

Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In this podcast, I continue with the theme of “From Here to There,” with a look at the big picture, the “arc of the moral universe,” and the accumulation of information that fuels exponential growth of human knowledge and the corresponding shedding of illusions and heightened moral clarity.

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The bending of the arc of history, I propose, coincides with the increased ability to encode information in such a way that it can withstand the rigors of time to serve as a record for the analysis of later generations.

As ideas are encoded, copied, compared, modified and spread, those corresponding to reality and resulting in advancement and flourishing will drive out those that fail by these criteria.

As an example, even a medium as fragile as paper was enough to encode sufficient writings from the classical western world to ignite, or at least propel, the renaissance and the enlightenment [1].

My claim is that, once an idea is captured on a sufficient number of decipherable media, we can guarantee that it will have a chance at future evaluation. Thus, the idea that knowledge comes from favoring evidence from the physical world over the conclusions of of human reasoning survived in the writings of Aristotle. When brought back to the west, the truth value of Aristotle’s proposed manner of understanding the world swept back into widespread acceptance aiding the rediscovery of the scientific method.

Now, the premise that “all humans are equal” has gained evidentiary as well as moral grounding and has been encoded countless times in countless media. Wherever/whenever the ideas of human equality encounter societies in which a sufficiently frustrated majority are held captive to a supposedly superior minority, the traditional forms of social organization will not stand.

The ideas and evidence for the sustainability and societal superiority of equality, freedom, and nonviolence have been established, encoded, and distributed so widely that they will survive any purge or dark age that could possibly occur (may it never be!). This underlies my claim that, after some number of collapses of the dominant violent power structure(s), these ideas and the history of the implementation (and more often and disastrously, their non-implementation) will provide a sufficient basis for non-hierarchical societies to form. Once this process begins, it will be subject to the exponential growth that successful technologies and organizational structures undergo in human society.

Even today, with imperial collapse looming, these notions are rapidly spreading because of their clear practicality and liberating nature. Each additional person who examines these ideas and sees their role in a just and non-violent world becomes a vector for these ideas in their communities.

Hopefully, they will spread widely enough quickly enough. There are always cries for an increase in violence and an increase in the disparity of power between the rulers and the subjects. When the current social structure fails, there must be a critical mass of people calling for an end to dominance based social orders. If this is not the case, a new hierarchical society of some sort will be built on the ashes of the old, and the process will begin again. This next time, however, there will be an expansive, highly redundant and variably scoped set of records, accounts, and ideas for future opponents of hierarchical social orders.

Sounds Like the Arc of History is Really Damn Long

I understand this doesn’t sound hopeful. With the majority of the west believing in God and the necessity of violent hierarchy for social order, the peaceful world that we imagine seems impossibly far away.

It may be so. However, these types of societal changes tend to explode out of kernels of social enlightenment. I talk about this more in the next podcast (I think), but the span of time between the first meeting of abolitionists and the end of slave-states in the western hemisphere is less than 100 years. The time between Martin Luther proposed the Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms
and governments with the separation of church and state as a founding principle was less than 200 years.

An additional hopeful factor is the degree of popular buy-in that is required for societal change. It’s very small. There’s no need to convince everyone that, for example, all people are equal and that, therefore, slavery is immoral. All that’s necessary is to get the state to stop subsidizing slavery. The cost of controlling a human being is extraordinary. Without the police, military and legal system providing support at community expense for slavery (i.e. without a slave-state), slavery quickly ends.

The majority of white people in the early 19th century were likely neutral or in favor of the continuation of slavery–after all, if slaves were freed, social upheaval and eventual societyal collapse were inevitable (sound familiar?). Nevertheless a combination of state self-interest and the spread of abolitionist ideas by a small-but-growing group of clear-eyed human beings brought about the end of the western slave-state.

Without a state providing coercion, mandatory religious affiliation is also impossible. It’s prohibitively expensive for the church to compel an entire population to participate in their activities–the cost far outweighs any tithe that could be stolen. For this reason, a society without a state sponsored church doesn’t experience religious homogeneity.

When the idea that the church and state should be disassociated was first put into practice, the majority of people probably would have been in favor of a political mandate that their particular religion be the one true faith in a legally compelling way. Again the small but growing sentiment that governance should be divorced from superstition was able to prevent the state from supporting a particular church, ending compulsory religion.

The arc of history is clarity driving out illusion. It’s the replacing of false beliefs that lead to stagnation and despair with truths that lift up, ennoble and invigorate all of humanity allowing for increasingly complex and beneficial technologies and modes of social organization to be put into practice. This process is rapidly accelerating and cannot be stopped. It’s simply a question of “how long?” No matter what the answer, it’s too long.

  1. [1] I note in the podcast that many of the scrolls that survived burning, theft and entropy are lists of works that no longer exist. For example, there are 123 recorded plays by Sophocles, only 7 of which survive. Only 1/3 of Aristotle’s work survive to the modern day. Oh, and Archimedes was not cataloged there, but his writings were also mostly lost.

I also included the audio from this clip in the podcast. This guy–I have no idea who he is–may be a transhumanist. He’s a little over the top, but I find myself striking the same notes many times.

The Bikecast Episode #20: Human Nature Expansion Pack

I’ve gone a long time without saying it–in fact, I’m not sure I ever said it in a podcast that ended up surviving–thanks for the comments and the feedback. I received a couple comments related to episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human behavior and related material.

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It’s heartening that I don’t get push-back when I point out the monstrous war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by government. I didn’t get alot of static from my comparison of communism and fascism and my pairing of the two as very similar forms of totalitarianism. Nobody disagreed substantially with the idea that the Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. People have some very strong beliefs, however, that violence, obedience, and animal response to base instincts are immutable aspects of human nature.

I’ve found this attitude fairly prevalent within the social circles I travel. Nobody vouches for the virtue of the state, nobody supports the military or the neo-colonial policies of the corporate ruling class. Nobody thinks that justice is being served in the court system or the the prison system is anything but a racist racket for those who build, provision, and staff prisons. The one trait that separates these people from the anarchists I’ve met is their fear of other humans. Take the following email correspondence for example:

I’m not convinced of your points about human nature. I don’t think human nature is some monolithic entity, of course there is a large amount of variation. Some small percentage of people seem to lack empathy (sociopaths), and there seems to be a genetic component (that is, sociopaths are not necessarily created by their environment).

Humans are capable of horrible, unspeakable things. My point in episode #17 was that those are the result of mental and physical trauma during early development. The science around this topic is, as far as I’m aware, entirely conclusive. Sociopaths suffered some subset of a very well understood suite of supremely sub-optimal developmental conditions. This isn’t to say that no genetic pre-disposition exists, but it won’t be expressed without a traumatic developmental environment. I think the next bikecast will elaborate on this a bit further.

Hobbes famously described life in his hypothetical state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short”, which is why we come together to create society.

The social “we.” It’s awfully convenient for the wealthy and privileged that “we” came together to subsidize their industries, fight to maintain control of minerals and supply lines, and replenish their riches when they suffer losses. Hobbes and the other enlightenment political thinkers depended for their very lives on the ruling class. From the enlightenment onward, it became increasingly clear that decreases the power of the aristocracy and the lessening of the oppression of the peasant and merchant classes lead to far less bloodshed and even the beginnings of prosperity. Because of their situation, they were in no position to follow their logic to its conclusion.

This isn’t to discount the novelty or value of their thinking, but Hobbes, for example, existed in a time in which the scientific method was in its infancy. He had no understanding of anthropology, sociology, psychology or child development. He and his intellectual peers provide an interesting look at the modes of belief in their day, but their opinions as to the necessity of Leviathan based on human nature, I feel safe discounting in the face of modern discoveries and understanding.

I think you are a bit quick to dismiss any dissenting evidence. For one thing you seem to focus on individual human nature – but as we know, individuals in groups behave differently than individuals alone. There was a famous case of a brutal rape in NYC in the 80’s in which at least 50 neighbors heard what was going on but nobody intervened or called the police – they all assumed that someone else would help.

I am interested in dissenting evidence, but I think this is another non-example of said evidence. I agree that people behave differently in groups–that’s been clearly demonstrated in both the laboratory and in history. I maintain however that this instance and many similar instances in which even more thoroughly evil activities are participated in by otherwise “normal” people are examples of broken people with broken minds acting in groups. The group may amplify the individual lack of human connection to a person being raped and beaten in earshot, but it’s fairly far fetched to imagine that happening in a crowd of self-aware, empathetic and emotionally healthy human beings.

In a related facebook post of this video,

I got the following comment:

I have to question this idealistic principle of global empathy. I find it difficult to empathize with the Haitians and I attribute that kind of phenomenon to the fact that I can only manage care for a limited set of other individuals at one time. I read in some book years ago that the average group size of primates (don’t remember if it was bonobo or chimp) is around 200. And to me it seems likely that it hasn’t been that long since 200 was a large number of contacts for humans as well. However, within a few hundred years, we are expecting ourselves to be able to really grasp caring for 6.8 billion people? Maybe I am just being contrary, but I think it’s asking a bit much.

Then again, it’s not people like me who care for a small group that is the main problem–it’s those who regardless of their environment tend toward narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive behaviors, right? Or perhaps this man is implying that those traits are completely a response to our societal structure??

Here’s my reply:

. . . I think that understanding that it sucks to lose one’s family to aerial carpet bombing, or to be so poor that one lives in a plywood shack on a hill on a seismic fault line is really all that’s necessary. We *should*, if we are mentally healthy, be able to understand that those things are painful and to be avoided–even if we don’t experience it at the same level that we would experience *our* family being murdered or *our* hovel falling to an earthquake.

The speaker sort of skips that part and pretends like people generally do feel that level of empathy. I don’t think that they do. He wants to expand people’s empathy, I think that the issue is developing that empathy in the first place.

The narcissistic, materialistic, aggressive people among us are damaged humans, not examples of human nature. I think that’s the most important part of the piece . . .

I’m entirely convinced, after considerable, albeit amateur, research that it is the case that the damaged sociopaths among us are products of horrific childhoods. The contrapositive, of which I’m also convinced, is that loving, nurturing developmental conditions leads to healthy, social adults.

Even if I’m wrong, the anarchist position on the optimal social structure still stands. I’m straw-manning a bit here, since neither commenter outright claimed that their views of human nature necessitate a state. If sociopathy is an immutable aspect of human nature, then the very worst mechanism on which to found societal organization is violence. Sociopaths can dispense violence without concern for the victims or lingering regret. They are natural authoritarians, both as physical enforcers and as social engineers who can indulge their intellects by experimenting on human societies.

It makes intuitive sense and is amply borne out by the facts that social structures based on violence select against empathy, cooperation, and participants seeking win-win solutions to problems. It selects for narcissism, materialism, aggression, and a disregard for the health and well-being of others.

Instead of shielding society from the activities of sociopaths, the current system gives them weapons, badges, uniforms, legislative power, armies, prisons, and nuclear arsenals.

In either case regarding the nature of humanity, statelessness is optimal. In the one case, it’s inevitable, without a culture of violence, the state is impossible. In the other, it is essential: if violence is an inevitable aspect of the human condition regardless of upbringing, then the state must not exist if the species is to have any hope of long term survival.


I make reference to The Project for a New American Century in the bikecast as an example of policy promotion that assumes the necessity of a violent management structure for all of humanity. It may not be the best example, but it’s what I thought of at the time, so here’s the link.

The Bikecast Episode #17: Human Nature vs. Human Behavior

Last week, the secretary of state was in asia threatening North Korea. The proximate reason for this round of threats is the sinking of a South Korean ship six miles off the N. Korean coast. This is a true gem of political theater: a country that is actually in a declared war with it’s adversary sinks a military vessel closer to it’s shoreline than I am from work and it’s up for international reprimand. The country delivering the reprimand has murdered, maimed, tortured, imprisoned, and destroyed the lives of tens of millions of non-combatants thousands of miles away from any conceivable “national” interest.  I am in no way defending the North Korean attack, but the obvious hypocrisy of the U.S. condemnation renders them morally impotent.

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There is an interesting parallel between the language in the international missive and the threats and promises made to a child in order to “make them behave.” This is the purpose of the language. When we hear it, even in a 2 minute propaganda piece, it immediately registers with us. The schema is the irrational child who could be playing with friends and enjoying goodies but is choosing to behave badly despite increasingly harsh punishment from a just authority.

This narrative has two purposes, the first is to turn the rebellious nation, group, or person into an irrational actor who we should be angry with for not knowing what’s best for them. The entity or person who is punishing/promising rewards is always in the right and always has the disobedient entity/persons best interest at heart.

The second purpose is to make us afraid. We smart, obedient people should always remember that there are bad/crazy/evil people out there and they just won’t listen to reason! The only thing standing between them and us are the various agencies of state security.

It is important to the power structure that we believe that this unpredictable, dangerous element is essential to human nature. Its eternal presence requires eternal vigilance on the part of our brave and ever expanding defense forces. This narrative is critical and must be told as many times per day as possible in order to counter-balance the obvious cataclysmic failure of the state in all aspects of social management.

In conversations with “very smart people,” I find that we can quickly dispense with the formalities of demonstrating the the state is a vile, murderous institution. They get it, but they fear a greater state of chaos that lies in the uncontrolled interactions of their fellow humans. Most of the people I’m talking with aren’t mystics or nationalists, or any other kind of fantasy dwellers. They’re skeptical and accept reason and evidence as the ultimate arbiters of truth . . . unless the claim is that humans are, ceterus paribus, social, cooperative animals. A claim supported by any number of studies as well as classical economics and modern game theory.

The existence of numerous genocides, wars and conflicts around the world do not represent a refutation of the premise that the natural state of human society is cooperative. Rather they provide instances that we can examine in order to determine what factors lead to the exceptional case of violence and the disintegration of civilized society.

The statist will attempt to indicate the strong, central authority as the structure around which peaceful societies grow, and claim that weak central authority or statelessness leads to the tragic human conflict we find around the world today.

This is a classic piece of “Big Lie” propaganda. States are directly involved in every modern conflict and, in fact, the most powerful states are implicated–directly and indirectly–in the most heinous genocides.

What is the difference between societies, or segments of societies, that follow the default human condition of peaceful cooperation and those that disintegrate into self-destructive chaos?

The difference is how children develop and is another aspect of the genius of evolution in creating a hyper-adaptive programmable organism. A child born to a mother who is relaxed and cared for by his/her community; a child who is nurtured and cared for, loved and interacted with; a child who sees empathy modeled by the other members of its society, will grow up to be a thoughtful, peaceful, empathetic and intelligent adult. What the society needs and communicates through the conditions of childhood, the biological organism will seek to provide in order that it and its species survive and prosper.

Meanwhile a child whose mother is exposed to malnourishment and stressers (such as the type encountered in a warzone or as a refugee) while in the womb; who’s starved and neglected in early childhood; who grows up surrounded by brutality and violence; will not develop empathy, gentleness or reason. The survival of this individual and his/her society requires an unquestioning killer, an unthinking brute. Where generation upon generation are born, grow up and die in this manner of human strife, the sociopathic behavior will deviate increasingly widely from the norm to the point of demonic barbarism.

Recovering from such a state–a state such as existed in Europe during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries–take many generations. Hundreds of years later, we’re just beginning to emerge into the light. The children of today, are pioneering a realm of peace, self-awareness and mental health yet unexperienced in the history of humankind. A small number of them will have a tremendous influence on the trajectory of humanity in the world.

When discussing this topic, the opposition usually ignores the reams of behavioral, psychological, and economic science on the matter and refers instead to the realm of fiction: The Lord of the Flies, The Heart of Darkness, episodes of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone to support their position of an essential darkness in human nature. They also misapply “the prisoner’s dilemma” and the “tragedy of the commons” in an attempt to lend some legitimacy to their claim that the state, despite it’s obviously monstrous and anti-human nature, must exist in order than we may avoid chaos.

I’m always optimistic in situations like this because it’s not really a matter of opinion anymore. The beauty of the truth is that it will out-wait any malformed opposition. Going forward, I believe an increasing number of people will acknowledge the evidence and the logic of the situation. They will do so, I believe, via an empathetic connection to the reality of the harm being wrought which will force a dispelling of propagandistic narratives and a reexamination of the evidence.

I hope we reach a critical mass of enlightened humanity before too many more millions of innocent people have to die.