As far as I know, there is no cognitive bias that has been explicitly named the “parochialism bias,” but one might plausibly say that parochialism involves a whole cluster of related cognitive biases. Bayesian conservatism, mere exposure effect, selective perception, status quo bias, and the Semmelweis reflex could all be identified as aspects of parochialism as a cognitive bias.
By “parochialism” I will here mean arbitrary limitations of an individual’s cognitive horizons largely due to personal history (in contradistinction to the definition of parochialism in terms of sacrifices made on the basis of in-group preference, as in Schwartz-Shea & Simmons, 1999, Egoism, parochialism, and universalism, Rationality and Society, 3, 106–132).
I am in a position of being able to investigate parochialism by way of introspection. My formative years were spent in rural Oregon — not in an urban context, or a suburban context, or even a small town context. My upbringing was strictly rural, confined to the countryside. For me, visiting a small town was a trip to the “city,” and not an event that occurred with any great regularity.
Marx famously wrote of the “idiocy of rural life,” and in fact being a country person marks an individual in a way not unlike a distinctive accent or manner of dress. It is an ancient theme: the story of the town mouse and the city mouse goes back to classical antiquity, and is mentioned in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
As it happens, the closest small town to the area of rural Clatsop County where I was raised is Astoria, Oregon. Astoria is one of the most historic spots on the west coast of North America, though many people have not heard of it because it remains, to this day, a small town. Although an old town, Astoria never grew, and in fact is smaller in population than it was in the nineteenth century. (The population of Astoria for the 2010 census was 9,477.)
Sometime in the early 1970s a small theater opened on a side street in Astoria — the Red Balloon Theater. It was what we could today call an “art house” theater, showing offbeat films to small audiences. Among the films shown was the 1973 production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I had, as a child, developed a kind of fascination with the 1970 recording with Ian Gillan, and knew the words to the whole thing. I wanted to go, and one of my sisters, at that time only just old enough to drive, was willing to take me.
The evening represented many firsts for me, but, strangely enough, one of the things that sticks with me was the realization that a town might have more than one movie theater. For most of the years of my youth, Astoria had one movie theater — the Liberty theater, which is now refurbished as a performance venue — so that if a person wanted to go to a movie, you had Hobson’s choice: the choice between what is offered and nothing.
When the Red Balloon theater opened, suddenly there was a choice of movies in an evening. It was, of course, a choice between what is mainstream and what is marginal, but still a choice. Later, another theater would open in Astoria, and this one with two screens in it. (It was in this theater that I saw Altered States when it first was released.) thus there came to be a choice of many films in any given evening, but from my earlier childhood memories it was normative for me that a small town should have only one movie theater.
Later I came to realize how limited my view was. In any city of any size, there would have been many movie theaters, and there were probably many small towns with two or more theaters. While for many of you this may sound quite unremarkable, for me this was a kind of unprecedented moment of understanding, because i associated an earlier period of history (defined in terms of my personal history) with particular norms (also defined in terms of my personal history). Although this is perhaps a trivial example, the assumptions I made about movie theaters were a perfect example of parochialism, and from this humble example I was enabled to see how completely integral my parochial assumptions were with my outlook and my life.
Recently in Kierkegaard and Futurism I wrote, “the individual life serves as the ‘big picture’ context by which the individual, the individual’s isolated experiences, derive their value.”
The “big picture” derived from the individual’s life can be limiting or liberating. The rare ability of finding a noble and worthy object in life is to be able to mix the intensely personal conception of the world one finds in a parochial outlook with the big ideas that have motivated the great developments in civilization.
Evolution means that human beings are (or were) optimized for survival and reproduction in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).
If human beings change, or the environment changes, or if both human beings and the environment change, our biological optimization for the EEA is no longer relevant.
Nature has a simple “solution” for this: extinction. Human beings have, however, voided the natural solution to the problem of its non-optimality for changed conditions by the means of civilization, which changes both human beings and their environment. By transforming our environment (and its selection pressures upon us) through civilization we have simultaneously separated ourselves from the circumstances under which we evolved and been the cause of changed circumstances that will be the environment of evolutionary adaptedness of the future.
We now live in an environment that is radically different from the human EEA. The longer our civilization endures, the more markedly the environment it offers to human beings will diverge from the EEA. The longer that human beings live in an environment that diverges from the EEA, the more differential survival and reproduction will diverge from that forced upon us by the EEA.
Evolution and selection for human beings now takes place primarily on a social basis within civilization, and it is what survives and thrives within civilization that goes on to experience reproductive success in a civilized context.
Survival beyond the EEA will impose selection pressures on human beings, and thus the civilization that we have created will ultimately shape the future of humanity through the selection pressures we have created ourselves.
The environment of civilized adaptedness (ECA) is now the context of our present and future evolution.
At some point in the distant prehistory of our species we passed an important threshold that goes uncommemorated — we have no record of exactly how or when this threshold was passed, but we do know that it was passed. The threshold to which I am referring is that of the moment when human beings had effectively reached “the ends of the Earth” and had, by their adaptive radiation, passed into or through every biome and every geographical region on the planet (with the exception of Antarctica, which now hosts a few scientists but no other human settlement).
The initial human settlement of the planet I call extensive exploration, and I contrast this to intensive exploration. Once humanity turned the corner from extensive exploration and settlement to intensive exploration and settlement, there were no fundamentally new biomes or geographical regions into which human beings could migrate for the first time, though population movements continued as one people would supplant and displace another.
The first uncelebrated anniversary of civilization I will call extensive totality, that is to say, the moment (or the day, since I am speaking here in terms of anniversaries) when humanity had extensively covered the Earth in its totality. Intensive totality is when extensively distributed populations begin to fill in the interstices and ellipses of extensive exploration. I consider it an open question as to whether we have yet attained intensive totality, though, if we have not, we are surely close to it.
The second uncelebrated anniversary is commemorated, but for another, though related, event. The known and celebrated event (though less celebrated today, given changing perspectives on European exploration and colonization) is the Columbian discovery of the New World and the subsequent Columbian Exchange.
The European Age of Discovery, led by navigators like Christoper Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan, subsequently resulted in the encounter between the peoples of the Old World and the peoples of the New World. This, as I see it, is one of the major events of intensive exploration of the Earth.
Of the five earliest independent civilizations on Earth, three arose in the Old World (the Indian, the Chinese, and the Mesopotamian) while two arose in the New World (the Mesoamerican and the Peruvian). Up until the Columbia Exchange, the civilizations of the Old World and the civilizations of the New World had developed independently and knew nothing of each other.
This absence of knowledge between eastern and western hemispheres of the Earth was a result of changing climatic conditions. When human beings freely walked from Siberia to North America, the ice age at the time had locked up so much water in glaciers that sea levels were much lower, which meant that many regions that are today islands were connected to the mainland by now-submerged continental shelves, and Russian and Alaska were connected for similar reasons.
Within each hemisphere, the various civilizations, as they grew and diverged and geographically extended their reach, did eventually learn of each other, and in the Old World the Chinese, Indian, and Mesopotamian traditions of civilization eventually formed an arc that reached across Eurasia, while in the New World the series of Mesoamerican and Peruvian civilizations spread north and south eventually encountering each other.
It was only with the meeting of the Old World and the New World that globally distributed humanity (a result of extensive totality) came face to face with itself as a global species, and those branches of the human family that initially went east, and those branches that initially when went, came full circle around the globe, linking up in the moment approximating intensive totality.
An alternative periodization of human history — in the spirit of Big History, but not following the principles of emergent complexity especially emphasized in Big History — might take the form of a tripartite division, consisting of the period prior to extensive totality, the period of time between extensive totality and intensive totality, and finally the period of time following intensive totality.
Recently in my Centauri Dreams post Extraterrestrial Dispersal Vectors I wrote, “Because of our anthropocentric moral standards, we will likely have less moral compunction about modifying other species for their use on space settlements or other worlds.” I want to say a little more on anthropocentrism here.
One way to understand anthropocentrism is as a form of human exceptionalism. A product of anthropic bias, human exceptionalism holds that human beings are unique. But how exactly are human beings unique? If human beings are unique in the sense of constituting an exception to natural laws, biological descent, philosophical principles, or moral norms, then human beings are truly exceptional.
It is not at all clear, however, that anthropocentrism identifies human uniqueness in any of these senses, though it would not be difficult to cite examples of all of these possible ways in which human beings might be an exception to a “natural” order (which, of course, begs the question as to what exactly constitutes a “natural” order).
It is often unclear what people mean when they employ the term “exceptionalism,” and by extension the idea of human exceptionalism might be similarly unclear, but Francis Fukuyama gave an admirably clear and unambiguous characterization of human exceptionalism:
“Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.”
Fukuyama has here described human exceptionalism as a convention, and then gone on to describe the convention in religious terminology. Even though clear, this is a curious admixture of the arbitrary and the eschatological, though I suppose no more curious than the lack of clarity noted above in most formulations of anthropocentrism.
Even if we take human exceptionalism at face value, and do not attempt to question its metaphysical foundations, there remains the question as to what exactly constitutes an exception.
What constitutes an “exception” is in same cases relative to temporal scale. As I previously quoted in Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, Carl Sagan rightly noted this:
The Earth is a lovely and more or less placid place. Things change, but slowly. We can lead a full life and never personally encounter a natural disaster more violent than a storm. And so we become complacent, relaxed, unconcerned. But in the history of Nature, the record is clear. Worlds have been devastated. Even we humans have achieved the dubious technical distinction of being able to make our own disasters, both intentional and inadvertent. On the landscapes of other planets where the records of the past have been preserved, there is abundant evidence of major catastrophes. It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million. (Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter IV, “Heaven and Hell”)
In the context of this observation about exceptions and inevitability, Sagan was talking about catastrophic cosmological events like major asteroid collisions with Earth. However, Sagan’s observation may be equally true for “events” like the emergence of life, intelligence, technology and civilization.
The principle of mediocrity is a guiding idea in cosmology (and one not strongly distinguished from the cosmological principle and the Copernican principle — further analytical work is needed here), and would seem to be the antithetical position to any claim of uniqueness or exceptional status. In so far as mediocrity characterizes humanity, our intelligence, or our civilization, the same cannot be exceptions.
Are human beings an exception, and, if they are, what is the rule to which they constitute an exception? If human beings are an exception, are they an exception to some rule established by cosmology, by the earth, biology, or some other discipline, standard, or existential condition?
One way to understand the Copernican principle is as a specifically human formulation of the principle of mediocrity, i.e., a narrower formulation of a more general principle. Thus, one way to understand the anthropic cosmological principle is as human exceptionalism incorporated into cosmological theory. I considered some of these questions previously in Formulating an Anthropic Cosmological Principle Worthy of the Name.
It would be an exception — a non-mediocre event — if human beings were the sole intelligent and civilized species in the cosmos, but we already know that human beings are the only species to produce a civilization on Earth, and at that level human beings are an exception, and therefore non-mediocre. Remaining at the planetary level is a question of scope, which is a more general instance of the idea of temporal scale as mentioned above. Scope might include temporal scale, spatial scale, and level of abstraction or generality of our thought.
Science requires of us that we expand the scope of our thought, and as a result of scientific historiography, our historical consciousness has been expanded to include a universe 13.7 billion years old and consisting of billions of galaxies. A particular effort is necessary to force the “exceptional” human mind to grasp the dimensions of the world in which we live.
In the fullness of time, when human minds are set in the context of non-human minds (as a result of the continuing development of science and technology), we will be less likely to casually endorse the fallacies of human exceptionalism, though on a visceral level the human as such will always have an attraction to us that the non-human is not likely to possess. Some few individuals identify more with other species than with their own species, but this is the exception to the rule of in-group favoritism as extrapolated beyond sociology to comprise biological relationships among species, and perhaps even among higher taxa.
In the future, when we must contend not only with non-human minds but also with non-terrestrial life forms, it seems likely that terrestrial life will exhibit a natural tendency to prefer other terrestrial life over non-terrestrial life, and vice versa.
It is one of the functions of reason to force us outside our casual and comfortable assumptions and to adopt a perspective external to the feelings, impressions, prejudices, and biases that come naturally to us. This process of self-alienation has been called de-familiarization.
Science is the defamiliarization of the cosmos — once called the “disenchantment of the world.” Mythologies of our earlier axial ages gave us a cosmos on a human scale, suffused with human values, human meanings, and human feelings. In this way, the world entire seemed like a familiar place. Science functions by defamiliarizing this familiar conception of the world.
Human exceptionalism was a keystone of the familiar cosmos of mythology, and as science develops and demands greater and greater effort on our part to understand the knowledge that we have begotten through science, human exceptionalism in its mythological form will become as untenable as belief in a flat Earth. But in so far as all of this is a consequence of the effort of the human mind to rationally reconstruct the world in which we find ourselves, we have a human exceptionalism of an entirely different order, and the human exceptionalism that gives birth to reason, science, and knowledge will not be as easily defamiliarized as the cosmos of mythology.
Every nation-state in the world has laws against spying, and every nation-state in the world maintains an espionage infrastructure. This is one of the many contradictions of the nation-state, specifically, of the anarchic international system in which states enforce the territorial principle in law within their borders but no institution can enforce any law between nation-states.
Those who say that Edward Snowden is a traitor are simply taking the predictable line of nation-states in systematically condemning the actions that they practice. Why not be a hypocrite, anyway, since there is no cost attached to hypocrisy within the nation-state system? Why not let slip with glittering generalities from one side of your mouth, while from the other side of your mouth you threaten, cajole, and manipulate?
There has been a lot of speculation, and a little bit of hard information, that Edward Snowden has created an extensive “doomsday” cache of as-yet-unreleased documents, that is to say, that he has stashed away a lot of information that is set to be released if anything should happen to him, which is wise, because there are already some who have publicly talked about the extrajudicial killing of Snowden.
A doomsday cache is an insurance policy for Snowden, but it is an insurance policy that declines in value over time. Information has a time value; in the immediate present it is actionable intelligence, but as it ages it becomes mere salacious gossip, and eventually a curiosity without value.
If the information held back by Snowden names agents in the field (that is to say, NOC, agents under non-official cover) the US and other spy agencies part of the “Five Eyes” (the anglophone intelligence agencies of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) has already had months to bring its agents in from the cold, and is likely to have months or years to take similar actions to render the information less valuable than it was at the time of its acquisition.
For a personal analogy, if you don’t know that your wallet has been stolen, you are vulnerable to having charges run up on your credit cards; if, however, you know that your wallet has been stolen, you cancel all your credit cards and get new ones. The cash in your wallet is gone for good, but the damage that can be done beyond the immediate initial period of ignorance is limited. In so far as your knowledge extends, you are in a position to mitigate the damage.
However, if NOC agents are highly placed and productive assets, their handlers would be loathe to bring them in from the cold and lose the intelligence bonanza that such a source represents. Here the calculation becomes a little more complicated; there is a tension between the possibility of the release of the information leading to the capture of the agent, and playing it safe by bringing the agent in.
The question here is a trade-off between risking continuous incoming intelligence (HUMINT, to be specific) and the life of the spy. However, since we know that the good of the state has been systematically placed over the good of the individual in the contemporary security state which has become the be-all and end-all of the nation-state system, there isn’t much question about which horn of the dilemma will be chosen: the valuable agents will be left in the field, and if their identities are revealed, those agents will be marked men (and women).
It is important to emphasize that this is a choice. HUMINT networks could be quietly dissolved, agents brought in from the cold, and these agents could then be used as experienced handlers to rebuild new networks in the field. This would impact intelligence gathering, but it would safeguard the lives of the agents.
If any agents are revealed by Snowden’s doomsday cache, should it come to light, and should it name names, this was because a conscious choice was made to leave these agents at risk.
Recently in Third Time’s a Charm I discussed the possibility of counterfactual civilizations that did not arise during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, and asked whether there are constraints upon civilization other than the development of a large, complex brain.
Do the counterfactuals implicit in naturalism suggest, in turn, counterfactual intelligence (or intelligences), and thus, by the principle of civilization-intelligence covariance, counterfactual civilizations?
I have elsewhere remarked that one of the prominent developments in the philosophy of mind during the late twentieth century was that of emphasizing the role of embodiment in mind, which, if taken seriously, strongly suggests that differently embodied minds would be very differently constituted, and very differently constituted minds would converge upon differently constituted civilizations.
In so far as there is a robust supervenience of civilization upon mind and of mind upon brain, the relationship between brain and body takes on a special significance. The brain in the context of the body, of which it constitutes a wholly dependent part, cannot be disentangled from the structure and function of the body within its environment, and this can only be understood in both its ontogenic and phylogenic developmental contexts. The natural history of the mind follows from the natural history of the body.
There is a sense in which all evolution is the coevolution of the body and its environment, but we generally don’t think of this as an example of coevolution, because the individual life as embodied in the individual body is vulnerable and easily selected for or against, while the environment changes on a different scale of time, and the individual does not seem to have the power to select for or against the ecological niche in which the individual establishes its way of life. And on the individual level, this is true, although populations do, over time, select for or against environments, and eventually make the environment in which their descendents live.
The shared natural history of individual, population, species, and environment reveals much more than particular structures like the brain; it reveals the place of an individual or population within the food web, and in so doing reveals ecological relationships of competition, predation, symbiosis, mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.
On earth, we have found abstract intelligence only in omnivorous primates among the mammals (dolphins may well have commensurate intelligence, but being an aquatic species they labor under the disadvantages of aquatic intellects I discussed in Third Time’s a Charm). As a counterfactual thought experiment, however, we can attempt to imagine mind and intelligence emergent at any trophic level of a food web (or at all levels), or from a species fulfilling any (or all) of the ecological interactions found in a climax ecosystem.
In accord with the principle of civilization-intelligence covariance, it is to be expected that mind emergent from distinct ecological contexts would give rise to different forms of civilization. That is to say, the civilization of a predator could be expected to be different in essentials from the civilization of a prey species or a parasite. In this way, our taste for meat, to which our large brains have been attributed, may be constitutive of our civilization in ways distinct from that merely of making a brain possible that is capable of abstract thought; there is also the temperamental dimension of being a predator, and all that comes with that niche in the ecosystem.
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There are times when I have been surprised how readily traditional conservatives — if you can get them alone, and if you can press them hard — will admit that they believe don’t really believe the religious claptrap that they relentlessly push on others, but that their support for religious dogma is almost entirely based on the idea of religion as a form of social control, without which our society would surely collapse.
If we take this fear at face value — the tertium non datur of either we keep religion and society survives or we dispense with religion and society collapses — we have to ask ourselves what the value of contemporary society is. What is the value of a social institution that is existentially dependent upon an illusion?
Say we dispense with religion, and society does not collapse. No harm done. No harm, no foul, as they say. Say we dispense with religion and society, as predicted, does collapse. What then? Is this any loss to us?
Of course, I don’t grant the simplistic tertium non datur assumed by the imperative that religion must be sustained in order that society may be sustained. Nothing in the real world is quite that simple.
It could be argued that traditional society, such as traditional conservatives would like to see maintained, has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.
It is only because the transition from traditional society to modern society has been so slow that some among us can pretend that traditionalism is still a viable social model — sufficiently slow of a transition that an individual might pass a lifetime without experiencing anything more dramatic than mild shock or irritation due to unexpected and unprecedented social change.
Julius Evola said that traditionalism is the most revolutionary ideology of our time. I can understand the principle to which Evola was appealing in this pronouncement, but, strictly speaking, he was wrong. If traditionalism had been revolutionary, it would have had a great career in the twentieth century, since the twentieth century liked nothing more than radicalism and revolution for its own sake. But instead the twentieth century represented the utter defeat of traditionalism.
What remains? Traditionalism is not a radical or revolutionary ideology, but it is, almost by definition, a perennial ideology. Like capitalism, traditionalism is like a weed that keeps coming up no matter how many times its eradication has been attempted. That these two perennial ideologies — traditionalism and capitalism — cannot comfortably exist side-by-side accounts for some of the instability of western civilization in the modern era.
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