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The Strange of Order of Things: Antonio R. Damasio

October 7, 2018

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of CulturesThe Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures by António R. Damásio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the last few chapters I give this a 5 star rather than an anticipated 3 or 4 star rating, because I think what he has to say here provides potentially a very useful framework for how we can find a reasonable connection between biology and culture in our future speculations on humanity and its place and purpose in the world.

The main arguments surround a few key points regarding affective neuroscience:

1) The homeostatic imperative
2) The importance of feelings to monitoring and regulating this homeostatic state
3) The importance of feelings to giving us a sense of value and purpose to our subjective assessments of things.
4) The interaction between the monitoring of feeling states in our own internal organism and our cognitive models of our external surroundings through reasoning to form intelligent cultural responses to our condition.

Here is a good summarising quote from the book:

“This approach would regard the notion that reason should take charge as pure folly, a mere leftover from the the worst excesses of rationalism, but it would also reject the idea that we should simply endorse the recommendations of emotions – be kind, compassionate, angry or disgusted – without filtering them through knowledge and reason. It would foster a productive partnership of feelings and reason, emphasizing nourishing emotions and suppressing negative ones. Last, it would reject the notion of human minds as equivalent to artificial intelligence creations.”

And for the future culture:

“would require upholding human dignity and reverence for human life as nonnegotiable, sacred values; it would also require a set of goals capable of transcending immediate homeostatic needs and both inspiring and elevating the mind as projected into the future.”

This whole approach of affective neurobiology is a welcome and refreshing change from the limitations of functionalist accounts, behavioral accounts and those accounts that start from some notion of inherent selfish or self directedness in organisms and expect to contrive a purely procedural or computational strategic solution to moral and cultural human problems from there. This latter is simply not going to work, other than to feed dystopian imaginings. It will not create a viable and healthy long term culture for humanity. Because it ignores the felt subjective experience of human beings and how critical this is to our whole biological and cultural evolution as a species.

Culture is an ongoing negotiation with our own feelings, with others, and with our environments. It is a negotiation with self, other and the world, not merely an exploitation or instrumental manipulation of them. The choice is not the polarised selfish exploiter or the selfless altruist. Both these options in the west ignore your own personal feelings. The choice is a reasonable negotiation between your feelings and the surrounding world that you must be striving to always be aware of. When we can regulate our own feelings in modern cultures much better we will rely less on the instrumental manipulations and technological machinations of a predatory elite group of people, and we can maybe make some steps towards a democracy, not just in name, but in our real lived culture.

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