Belief in a “Fully Fledged Magical Universe”?

Geoffrey Gorer, in his Exploring English Character (1955) concluded from his studies that about a quarter of the British population had given up on conventional religion and had turned to pagan, mystical and other superstitious beliefs, nothing less “than a fully fledged magical universe”. Here as the social scientist Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree also confirmed “was a nation living outside the churches… but far from happy with its new existential lot”.

The Human Paradox: Lorenz

“All the great dangers threatening humanity with extinction are direct consequences of conceptual thought and verbal speech [the greatest gifts of man]…Knowledge springing from conceptual thought robbed man of the security provided by his well adapted instincts long, long before it was sufficient to provide him with an equally safe adaptation. Man is, as Arnold Gehlen has so truly said, by nature a jeopardized creature”

Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (1963).

The Tactics of the Clever Demagogue

“… the clever demagogue, well versed in the dangerous art of producing supra-normal stimulus situations, gets hold of young people at the susceptible age [late teens to early twenties], he finds it easy to guide their object-fixations in a direction subservient to his political aims. At the post-puberal age some human beings seem to be driven by an over-powering urge to espouse a cause, and, failing to find a worthy one, may become fixated on astonishingly inferior substitutes. The instinctive need to be a member of a closely knit group fighting for common ideals may grow so strong that it becomes inessential what those ideals are and whether they possess any intrinsic value. This, I believe, explains the formation of juvenile gangs whose social structure is very probably a rather close reconstruction of that prevailing in primitive human society”.

Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression (1963).

Lorenz grew up in Austria in the 1930s and was possibly thinking here about the Hitler Youth movement. He was reticent in mentioning Nazi subjects as he himself, like may others at the time, had felt obliged to join the Nazi party.

The View of Humans from Another Planet: Abjectly Stupid

Konrad Lorenz imagined what an unbiased observer on another planet would make of human behaviour when observing Earth by telescope. He concluded that this observer would never gain the impression that human behaviour was dictated by intelligence, still less by responsible morality:

“Unreasoning and unreasonable human nature causes two nations to compete, though no economic necessity compels them to do so; it induces two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programmes of salvation to fight each other bitterly and it impels an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his sceptre.

We have been taught to regard some of the persons who have committed these and similar absurdities with respect, even as ‘great’ men… most of us fail to realize how abjectly stupid and undesirable the historical mass behaviour of humanity actually is”:

On Aggression (1963)

Inhibitory Mechanisms against Killing in Humans – Do They Work?

“In human evolution, no inhibitory mechanisms preventing sudden manslaughter were necessary, because quick killing was impossible anyhow; the potential victim had plenty of opportunity to elicit the pity of the aggressor by submissive gestures and appeasing attitudes. No selection pressure arose in the pre-history of mankind to breed inhibitory mechanisms preventing the killing of con-specifics until, all of a sudden, the invention of artificial weapons upset the equilibrium of killing potential and social inhibitions….

But whatever man’s innate norms of social behaviour may have been, they were bound to be thrown out of gear by the invention of weapons. If humanity survived, as after all it did, it never achieved security from the danger of self-destruction. If moral responsibility and unwillingness to kill have indubitably increased, the ease and emotional impunity of killing have increased at the same rate. The distance at which all shooting weapons take effect screens the killer against the stimulus situation which would otherwise activate their killing inhibitions”. This was made disastrously worse by the use of remote-controlled weapons (such as aerial bombing, nuclear warfare, etc.).

Konrad Lorenz (1963).

Can You Prove A Scientific Fact? No, Said Popper

I remember Karl Popper (1902- 1994) from my time doing a PhD at The London School of Economics and Political Science (the famous LSE). He used to give lectures on political philosophy which attracted great crowds of students. He was a rather wizened, bald-headed character with a thick Austrian accent, very forceful.

One thing I took away from his classes was his strong assertion that a scientific fact, or theory, could not be proved. Hypotheses could be advanced, but could not be proved. They could only be disproven. Science, he said, was a constant process of thinking up hypotheses from the available data, then systematically testing them. If they held up, so far so good. That could be taken as the given “truth” as long as it was not disproven.

This “falsification” principle would become a leading paradigm until it itself was challenged by new philosophers (such as Thomas Kuhn). Popper welcomed such debate. This was what science should be about.

Is Changing the Culture the Golden Key to Progress?

Students of human evolution have long argued that it has long been powered, not by natural selection, but mainly by “social evolution”. Humans can emancipate themselves through cultural change, which accumulates knowledge and passes it on directly to descendants via education. Traditions are built up ” which may take the form of superstition, myth, doctrine, or rite, or may be codified by law or taught as recognised academic knowledge. In the span of human culture, these external bodies of formalised information form a second tier that overlays the message of our genes… But we must be aware that in such a system it is risky to remove elements arbitrarily, even those that are apparently bad, for they are part of a coherent system of a complexity comparable to that of our instinctive behaviour patterns. They are so intricately linked that pulling out one brick may topple the entire structure. Anthropologists rightly warn against subjecting primitive tribes to ‘culture shock’. A culture is not easily directed from without, but can be all too easily destroyed – and the humanity of man, deprived of its supporting culture, is destroyed with it”.

Alec Nisbett (1976).