Ant Biggs explores the cognitive, narrative landscape; A human condition of unavoidable complicity, as both hacker and hacked is exposed. A landscape full of danger that appears to be at the same time both difficult to escape but also one in which individuals may still yet claim full responsibility.
This is Episode 11 of COW – the podcast “Tracking The Brain Hack” in which as Yuval Noan Harari might say, the myths that frame our reality are revealed, the deep biological nature of our narrative landscape, the mechanisms that drive social adoption, evolution and extinction and the function of the individual in that dynamic process to show how we have been glued together, how our abilities have been turned into superpowers and how we have risen to great heights.
But we are more than static automata, simple products of our past. We are an ultimately adaptable species, able to switch from one narrative to another within a moment of evolutionary time.
Uniquely able to swap from niche to niche when required.
The trick is to know when the narratives that bind us, are no longer relevant.
And to know where these superpowers must take us…
More about being mindful
of who we are,
about making an effort to become the observer
so that our lives don’t lead us blindly
straight over a cliff.
More about how we do have free will
and how we can make decisions that will
change our lives and change the world.
I think there’s information
starting to make sense,
and beginning to hit the mainstream
with has huge implications for how we do things.
and how we think.
We need to be aware of it.
This week I’m taking another look at the role of narrative in general, and at our cultural myths.
How narrative works for us
But also how it works on us.
What is it?
And where do we get it?
Where does it come from?
And you’ll know maybe, if you are a regular listener that
what I’m doing here is essentially
recording my own personal journey
of philosophical discovery.
Putting it out there and
At the heart of it,
is the idea that something isn’t quite right.
This is the search for it…
Comments much appreciated…
If you’re finding the episodes of any value and you’d like to help
You’ll find details at COW – the podcast.online
So what’s key?
To me, Its as though the narrative,
that we share,
is like a map, that guides us.
Like an inbuilt GPS.
And we have to have a map of some sort
and this is the main point
ours is only programmed for the motorways.
Yes, we’re all going the same way on it,
going all the way,
overtaking, swapping lanes, breaking down
and getting stuck in daily traffic jams
and the accidents are pretty few and far between
so it feels pretty safe…
but only a few miles down the road,
round the next bend
we can’t see it
but the bridge is out,
They haven’t built it yet.
So more about the narrative landscape we inhabit
through the smoke and mirrors of our monkey brains,
The importance of that landscape
to social cohesion
to our shared memes and culture.
And how we as individuals respond to it
and how it responds to us.
How our narratives, our myths,
are like a dam to a beaver.
You don’t have one without the other…
a living part of our biome…
The trick is to understand how these major narratives work for us, or on us.
And over the weeks I’ve been drawn into the power of the evolutionary argument,
and especially the place of neurological factors,
and the idea that social organisms,
and have their own lives,
like artists talk of their creations,
being let free into the world.
Cultural units, memes
at the same time
are influenced and guided
in an extended feedback loop
ultimately by the individual.
According to Dan Dennet
In this cultural or societal narrative,
an epigenetic narrative,
genes are not the DNA,
Genes are the information carried by the DNA,
And once you get this then you have a meme,
the unit of cultural information.
The DNA of a meme then becomes language,
in any form.
Signs, myths behaviours…
The potency of language
as a medium
for the transmission of information
can’t be denied and neither
its similarity be to genes.
Like C, G, T, and A for the different DNA nucleotides
language is also composed of simple elements.
They are the basic sounds of language
known as phonemes.
We are able to instantly recognise and decode
these combinations of these sounds
in highly sophisticated ways
so that we can transfer information,
even without understanding what it means!
A meme according to Dawkins is
an element of a culture
or system of behaviour that is passed
from one individual to another
or by some other non-genetic means.
Human culture is composed
at least in part
that are like genes,
mutating and evolving
and thereby creating and maintaining the cultural structures and themes
that we are familiar with.
They are metaphors laid
layer upon layer
very real ways of dealing with social cohesion,
of managing belief,
And with language we copy the sequences of phonemes…
passing on cultural significance
like the minute machines we can see transporting
proteins around at the genetic level
never truly conscious
of the meaning we are perpetuating.
Like a cold virus for example,
which isn’t for anything
other than creating more copies of the cold virus.
And we can draw a parallel here with the memes,
or at least early memes
more like a virus,
infecting community through replication
or behavioural habits.
As memes come to represent better ways of doing things
they come to dominate.
A process with very many parallels across behaviours
And this needn’t be conscious.
more a subconscious falling into place.
more of an evolutionary inevitability,
emerging as a by-product
of an irresistible march towards chaos.
Survival – an inevitable consequence of statistics.
Perhaps a culture developed hand washing,
they lived by a flowing stream,
and always washed their hands, and they thrived
whilst their neighbours kept dying of infection…
Now memes begin to select for fitness,
and the roots of culture, or society can be seen.
As words, within language have been selected for fitness,
and go extinct as they do,
so culture and society is composed of units which have histories
lineage, kin and an ability to adapt, or to combine
and the result is a creative melting pot within which
ideas and benefits evolve for the good of all,
for the community, for society
and without the need for the knowledge of the individual.
The power of the meme is to speak for itself
in terms of fitness and advantage
and in partnership with the biome.
Like the dam…
And this culture is transmitted through language,
not with a detailed evolutionary analysis
but through myth and landscape.
The trick is in trying to step out of the existing narrative.
To stand calmly on the hillside,
to view the landscape.
as a viewer,
conscious and purposeful.
Religion V Science
Material V The Ideal
Determinism v Free Will
Who is in charge of all this?
I came across an interview with a guy named
Yuval Noah Harari,
Israeli historian, professor of history
ted talking, best selling author
The interview was on his book Sapiens
and it blew me away so I’m going to pass it on to you here
let me know what you think?
We developed cognitive abilities 70,000 years ago.
This is just a moment ago,
a click of the fingers,
a blink of the eye in evolutionary history.
We were just another mammal,
but we became the most powerful mammal there has ever been.
We got to the top table,
the top of the food chain,
just like tigers, or sharks
but in record time.
Sharks and Tigers exist
in harmony with their own ecosystems,
They have evolved with checks and balances in place
They have evolved slowly.
We, 70,000 years ago developed,
suddenly into Gods…
bending it to our wishes,
able to shape the environment that supported us.
And what did we do?
With communication networks,
Creating our own ecosystems.
but we destroyed too.
50,000 years ago, homo sapiens arrived in Australia.
Some few thousand years later 90% of the larger animals were extinct.
15,000 years ago, homo sapiens crossed the Bering Straits
and made their way South through America.
70% of the the larger animals were extinct
in 2000 years.
The process continues,
and the animals that survive today
only do so because we have decided they will.
We don’t understand how to wield this power.
We are like children,
As sheep with nuclear weapons…
worse than wolves
because we are afraid.
With this cognitive revolution
came larger social organisation,
more complex structure
able through co-operation
to move mountains, to thrive
And Harari argues it is held together by myth.
We don’t know the fact.
It’s possible we never will
but in order to survive we have a layer
of made up stuff
that we can all share.
Everyone on the same page,
telling the same story,
again and again,
To their children and their children’s children…
And this is a necessity.
We have to believe,
Because without belief the group will disintegrate.
In a free and liberal culture like the UK,
yes, we may have differences,
but at the least we will agree on some basic myths,
humanism, human rights, capitalism and the economy.
And it is not that an Illuminati have
held a meeting to structure these myths and thereby take control of the sheep.
The myths arise out belief.
The priest and the bankers believe their stories.
And they get passed on.
We believe them.
What is interesting in terms of homo sapiens
is the ability we have to hold separate
and often contradictory beliefs
And that we can believe them all at the same time.
One will take precedence but
and this is key,
we are able to drop one for another in an instant
to re-cast ourselves in a new fiction, or role
as and when required.
It is the niche of homo sapiens to be able to create and inhabit
different niches, quickly
and much quicker than any genetic adaption would allow
We have adaptive culture,
in which any myth can be replaced in the blink of an eye,
and we can re write our own myth.
Think Second Reich,
Weimar Republic, Nazi regime, the Communist East and then a liberal democracy.
Same people, same DNA.
same real beliefs,
but people completely forgetting their past
Maybe you can recognise this in yourself,
the ability to switch between different narratives,
and to shut down the alternatives.
See how fundamental the myth is to human
And how they work according to Harari is that
the Myths invoke group belonging.
But Myths also divide.
In order to create group identity
where there needs to be an outsider,
Maybe the myth is they work to bring people together.
There are different gods,
different politics and cultures
but even Osama Bin Laden had nothing against the US Dollar.
Money is perhaps the most successful story ever told.
Monitoring the brains of an American Baptist Congregation
listening to their Preacher
provided perhaps a surprise.
The prefrontal cortex shut down.
Theory has it
that we are hard wired to accept authority, charisma, bollocks!
As we know,
there is no reason for us to be specially selected to know reality,
We have not evolved for the truth,
or from the truth.
We have our smoke and mirrors,
our tricks and go tos,
just as the Jewel Beetle does.
tells a tale of what stories we believe in.
Our narrative experience is deeply rooted,
and so it must be.
we express it
accept it without thought,
and this is a necessity for survival.
Large social organisations
require shared narratives.
If we couldn’t shut down the prefrontal cortex
it wouldn’t work.
So to elites, to mythical groups,
not mythical in existence
but held in position by myth.
If the fact is that 400 years ago
my grandfather had a horse,
or a sword and stole your land from you
what would stop you taking it back?
Because my grandfather had a horse,
and was a warlord.
Will you accept that?
And bring me my taxes and sell me your children for that reason?
Or will you accept a myth
a caste system,
And to Gender,
The priority of men over women
is a worldwide narrative …
Why so stable?
This is not an accident,
it happens everywhere…
Are Men stronger?
But social power is the result of social skills.
Pope Francis didn’t get there by beating up the other Cardinals.
And women’s social skills could be better than men’s.
Perhaps the narrative exists because of childcare?
and in elephants
there are matriarchal, organised groups that work together to raise the young.
The males are shunned.
So why is this not the case amongst human beings?
Perhaps the social skill of women is limited to personal networks.
Men are better equipped to deal with the alienation of large corporate myth.
Which I guess brings us to money…
even whilst we witness huge financial crisis we believe in money.
We are not prepared to give the myth up.
The fed created a trillion dollars to hold the banks up.
3 billion dollars a day. Out of nothing!
They just typed noughts into a computer.
and the world believed it.
Money is made of trust, faith…
and the narrative that goes with it is
key to all problems
Whatever you want… you name it
you can only get with economic growth.
And at the personal level if you have any problem
all you need do is buy something to fix it…
the myth of the consumer.
A product, a service, a car, yoga, marriage guidance, whatever you need.
At the collective level – economic growth,
at the personal level – buying more stuff.
But the stakes are high.
If we stop believing in these stories for example, the capitalist system will collapse…
And then Religion,
with all of the self contained cognitive dissonance…
Conflicting beliefs and behaviours…
What will they look like in 100 years time?
Maybe techno-religions will form out of Silicon Valley.But looking back we can see how a moral narrative formed out of a lack of religious relevance.
In the 19th Century the most violent behaviours came out of fundamentalism
in protest against the industrial revolution.
See out of Taiping and the Heavenly Kingdom
It was socialism that emerged,
the relevance of the fundamental religious narratives had nothing to say.
And Socialism took up the cause.
Changing our lives completely.
Allowing us a narrative switch
When we look back we do not remember an age of faith.
We remember the technologies,
and the social upheaval.
The main agents of change are different now.
The main products of the future will be in technology and in biology
They will be bodies and brains and minds.
The bible and the Koran have nothing to say
to those that will have no work,
to those who will and who are becoming irrelevant.
And while science brings us new technologies
Science does not provide any ethical answers
to problems that we face.
It needs allies for that.
That science and religion are locked in a mortal battle for our souls,
and that it is hoped one day science will prevail,
and provide truth over darkness,
Science is about power rather than truth.
Yes individuals involved in the scientific project might be interested in truth
but the scientific project must form alliance with some or other ideology or religion.
And yes some theories conflict with the guiding religions
but in the main.
Science provides the power
Religion tells us what to do with it.
We recognise these narratives,
that Harari explains are so important for social cohesion.
And we identify with them.
Become so wrapped up in them
that we become fused with them.
in the cognitive fusion of the monkey brain.
They do after all represent the culture we are immersed in.
The story of money,
and of the state for example
They are our truths.
We forget they have been made up.
appearing self evident.
And this we need,
this necessity in itself
for a shared myth
becomes an extension of the culture.
We want to belong
we want others to belong.
We become immersed in the narrative
and we police the immersion of others
with rewards and punishments
based on social acceptance
Meaning that we don’t question any of it.
But we don’t want to hear this.
This runs contrary to our own myth
of being free and self determined
out of brilliance, or worthiness,
or out of divine inspiration
of creating whatever we will
out of a pure strength of will.
Capable of actions that for their innate goodness
will be rewarded.
Yes we can do amazing things but they spring out of our culture.
The knowledge required for technological advance for example is not passed down through your genes.
as a lone competitive example of humanity
It is acquired from the ambient environment
and it requires perception
Our perceptions, which are at once capable of forming and being formed by our beliefs…
If we change our beliefs, we can change our behaviour.
The number one question
has to be,
What is reality
What is really happening
And this requires concentration
And learning to be the observer
Through meditation perhaps…
we can practice the ability
To be able to tell the difference
between the stories that the mind keeps generating
about the world, about ourselves, about everything
and the actual reality.
This is about the primacy of story
In the way that we tell ourselves stories
That don’t quite describe the reality
that Don’t quite map on to what is really happening.
And that these rules or conventions are useful
without them we have no society
we have no trade,
but they are useful only in so far as they serve us
not when we begin to serve them
or are forced perhaps to defend them,
to fight over them
to crash and burn blindly in
the race to destruction.
We need to know that God, Nation, Money
Are all made up…
The story of the West
or the story of Capital
has been vastly successful
it has been a good story
But we need to be conscious that it has evolved from the past.
As part of that story
We have to be able to see it for what it is.
Not to fight for it blindly
We must adapt
We must take what serves us
Discard that which doesn’t.
It is not nor has it ever been anything more than a fiction
We have used as a glue
We need to adapt
I hope that we might agree on that.
With technologies now that bring into question
even our fundamental narratives of freedom
and free will.
It is not good enough to expect to follow your heart
when your heart can be manipulated by
Which is the reality of now.
We need to ask what humans really need,
to understand how we really function
and what we are truly basing our thoughts and structures on.
To start we might begin to recognise these stories,
for what they are,
understand the difference
between fact and fiction,
dogma and discourse,
We must not be swayed from being able to discuss
No issue must be sacred.
Even issues of human rights,
or liberal democracy,
If only to prove ourselves worthy of a fair and just outcome
in the coming century
Rather than falling for an outcome that is no more than simply apt.
At the heart of this is my need to re-map my own personal cognitive landscape. To take a look at some of the side roads. Stop off at a lake maybe do a bit of fishing. And there’s no doubt I guess that if I knew where all of these roads were leading if had all of the answers right here I might be putting this in a book. Everything beautifully structured laid out step by step. But this is more truly about the research, following the questions as they arise. So you listening get what comes up. Its an expanding landscape, where sometimes we set out to find the coast eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and other times we meander around to fill in some of the detail, the river delta, city streets. a cave at the beach we wander the forests or maybe head on up to the top of the mountain to get some orientation to get our bearings the source of the river… I could go on but you should have the point by now Look I know I’ve been swayed one way and another on many of the questions. This week… I’m a materialist no doubt that’s where I’m standing. Last week I was an idealist. And there are shifting sands to navigate in the grand narratives we may come across But underlying this I’ve come to understand even then that there’s a danger a desire to become taken in by it all. To lose the view from the mountain to get caught in the mud. The same can be done with politics, or religion, social structures, the state, A similar phenomenon emerging in politics, for example? Once the dividing line drawn between left and right made the distinction easy. And maybe it’s just me but as we become less immersed in traditional divides, as we step away from them and become the observer this left right distinction becomes more and more blurred. Authoritarianism, Totalitarianism, Erosion of liberty. And it becomes clear that this kind of violence is rife from both political wings. There’s often an absolutism implied in the way we are presented with philosophical arguments, everyday issues even that either one or another viewpoint must be right… We can easily become seduced by our own biases and weaknesses, our need to belong, and to be protected. We define our reality through left and right, black and white… Through contrast and difference and we forget that this in itself is yet another narrative, a myth! I’m not denying that we need to have a certain degree of moral certainty but many times when the conversation is hijacked it seems that really what we have is a battle raging for power, for control of opinion, control of the narrative. And any moral judgement gets clouded by it. We have to step back, We have to peel back the layers Might we not be asking the wrong questions?