Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Hitch-22, Nook or no Nook

Belief in certainty

By Morris Dean

A couple of months ago I put away the Nook tablet some colleagues had given me when I retired from UNC. Even though I had purchased a few eBooks for it from Barnes & Noble, I was finding that my iPhone gave me access to so many things to read (recorded books from the Library of Congress’s BARD website for the blind and physically handicapped, iBooks from Apple, Kindle books) that I just didn’t think I needed the Nook any longer.
    Well, I learned yesterday that there’s a Nook app for my iPhone, and I installed it, hoping to learn that I would be able to access those Nook books without the Nook tablet. Indeed I can – even if the interface is a bit klunky on the iPhone, relative to the Nook.

Christopher Hitchens, who wrote the preface for the 
paperback edition on Jan. 20, 2011, in Washington, DC,
and died on Dec. 15 of that year, at the U of Texas 
MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston
And there it was, the book I prized more than any other I had acquired for the Nook: Christopher Hitchens’s 2010 memoir, Hitch-22. And, happily, my eye fell on a new preface, copyright 2011, which I had not seen before. It was written after Hitchens learned he had esophageal cancer, Stage 4 – and, as he noted in the preface, “There is no Stage 5.”
    It delighted me that I could share some bits of the new preface here:

I hope it will not seem presumptuous to assume that anybody likely to have got as far as acquiring this paperback re-edition of my memoir will know that it was written by someone who, without appreciating it at the time, had become seriously and perhaps mortally ill.
    In any case, I believe that it might strike some readers (as it now very forcibly strikes the author) that the first three chapters, as well as many of the ensuing passages, show a strong preoccupation with impending death...I am writing this at a moment when, according to my doctors, I cannot be certain of celebrating another birthday....
    ...How different is this, in the last analysis, from the life I was living before? One always knows that there is a term-limit to the lifespan, just as one always knows that illness or accident or incapacity, physical and mental, are never more than a single breath away....
    A continuous theme in Hitch-22 is the requirment, exacted by a life of repeated contradictions, to keep two sets of books. My present condition intensifies this rather than otherwise. I am forced to make simultaneous preparations to die, and to go on living....
    Another element of my memoir – the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity – has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience. I can’t hope to convey the full effect of the embraces and avowals, but I can perhaps offer a crumb of counsel. If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing, or the making of it....
    The cause of my life has been that of combating superstition, which among other things means confronting the dreads upon which it feeds. For some inexplicable reason, our culture regards it as normal, even creditable, for the godly to admonish those whom they believe to be expiring. A whole tawdry edifice – of fabricated “deathbed conversions” and moist devotional literature – has arisen on this highly questionable assumption....
    ...The irruption of death into my life has enabled me to express a trifle more concretely my contempt for the false consolation of religion, and belief in the certainty of science and reason.
I would cavil with “the certainty of science and reason,” but I note that Mr. Hitchens refers to his belief in their certainty; he doesn’t say he knows they are certain. Science isn’t about certainty – certainly not when the topic under investigation is a person’s prospects after dying. The godly, too, can believe in the certainty of heaven, but they can’t know before the time comes.

Copyright © 2016 by Morris Dean


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Morris. I have always applauded Hitchens’ courage, conviction, and honesty regarding his contempt for false consolation. I used to read a fair amount about the history of religion: Eliade, Mumford, Kung, Campbell, Armstrong, and many others. I have come across so many explanations of the genesis of religion: the fear of dying, the search for an explanation for the cosmos, the need for a sense of cooperation with the nature powers, the occasional seemingly-transcendent moments in human psychology, the need for validation to hate the “others” or “enemies,” the desire for an ultimate moral law, etc. I have come to see religion as a stage in the evolution of consciousness. Mumford most of all sees the leading differentiators between humans and animals as being less about tool-making and more about play-making: the ability to pretend, to extend our consciousness beyond the immediate need into the future, the past, the possible. Several paleontologists, confronted with the extreme difference in the size of the human cranium between our nearest primate relatives and homo-sapiens, conclude that the brain was not necessarily a response to human activities, but rather the reverse: the frontal lobe, for whatever reason, experienced a dramatic increase in size over a relatively short span. We have, in the millennia since than, slowly been catching up. We’re at about the 10% level in terms of the use of that added capacity. Religion has been an important phase in that growth. It has helped us to become self-conscious: a supposed advance over the animal kingdom. Religion may remain a part of the planetary consciousness for some time. But we cannot remain at this self-conscious level forever. Just look at us: we’re tearing apart the planet and each other. As long as we are more aware of our minds, and the contents of our minds (including the various mental constructs often referred to as religious dogma) we are consequently less aware of the world about us, including our neighbors. The call to love is a call to be conscious. Religion, quite ironically, is the one thing that so often gets in the way. I suspect (and hope) that our evolution will continue to pull us into something deeper, more conscious, and more lovingly human.

    1. Eric, yours is the first comment on the "Hitch-22" post, but well worth waiting for. Thank you.
          Perhaps ironically, my first impression of Christopher Hitchens was negative, to something he said in support of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. (He explains that at length in his memoir.) But I quickly discovered the Hitchens whom I came not only to applaud, but also to love and revere.
          I like the way you succinctly laid out six "explanations of the genesis of religion: the fear of dying, the search for an explanation for the cosmos, the need for a sense of cooperation with the nature powers, the occasional seemingly-transcendent moments in human psychology, the need for validation to hate the 'others' or 'enemies,' the desire for an ultimate moral law." That is useful.
          Please say more about how "religion has been an important phase in that growth [in the use of added brain capacity]. It has helped us to become self-conscious." I am perhaps suffering from excessive anti-religiosity, but I find myself resisting notions that religion has been helpful (even as I enjoyed visiting French churches and cathedrals in April).

    2. This is perhaps aside from your main point, but .... it seems unlikely that the expansion of the frontal lobe happened without a compelling reason. It was an expensive upgrade. For one thing, it's an energy hog. We have to eat a lot of high-energy food to run it. For another, it caused difficulties with birth. Which caused women's hips to expand as far as they could go and still run. And which caused babies to be born with half-formed brains, needing extremely long support from parents. Surely there had to be some compelling behavioral advantage (say, elaborate social skills) to have driven evolution in that direction. Can you offer a reference on this?

    3. The lack of a compelling reason for the sudden explosion in the size of the human brain is exactly what excites the experts who have studied this issue. Alas, my references are old ones (like me), but in the years I have read on the subject, I have yet to see this contradicted. If someone can enlighten me to newer data, I am happy to stand corrected. But here’s what Lewis Mumford had to say in 1967: “…the great advance that separates man from his nearest probable relatives came through massive increases in the size and complexity of the forebrain, and therewith of the whole neural system. This mutation, or rather this succession of changes in the same direction, cannot yet be adequately accounted for by any biological theory… The current cover-up phrase, ‘selection pressures’ explains the results, not the transformation itself… the facts themselves are reasonably plain. The size of the earliest cranium that can be identified as human is several hundred cubic centimeters larger than that of any ape; while the skull of latter-day man, as far back as Neanderthal man, is roughly three times that of the earliest Australopithecine hominid—now conjectured to be one of man’s immediate forerunners—found in Africa… But note: the oversized brain of Homo sapiens cannot be satisfactorily accounted for, at the beginning, as an adaptive mechanism that contributed to man’s survival and his increasing domination of other species. Its adaptive contributions were valuable but only partial, for they were long offset, as they still are, by maladaptations and perversions. For something like a hundred-thousand years, the brain remained hugely disproportionate to the work it was called upon to do. As Alfred Russel Wallace pointed out long ago, the potential mental capacities of an Aristotle or a Galileo were already anatomically and physiologically present, waiting to be used, among people who had not yet learned to count on ten fingers. Much of this equipment is still unused, still waiting… The ‘overgrowth’ of the brain may well, for a long period of prehistory, have been as much of an embarrassment to Homo sapiens’ ancestors as a help; for it unfitted them in some degree for a purely instinctual animal role before they had developed any cultural apparatus capable of utilizing these powers…” And here’s the kicker: “The gift of a rich neural structure so far exceeded man’s original requirements that it may for long have endangered his survival. The very excess of ‘braininess’ set a problem for man not unlike that of finding a way of utilizing a high explosive through inventing a casing strong enough to hold the charge and deliver it: the limited usability of man’s most powerful organ before its products could be stored in cultural containers perhaps accounts for the far from negligible manifestations of irrationality that underlie all recorded or observed behavior.” And he goes on to list some of the host of problems you mentioned above, such as difficulties in childbirth and upbringing, etc. (from “The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development”) Thus the frontal lobe was indeed a very expensive upgrade, for all the reasons you have mentioned, but there is as yet no accounting for it, at least not for primitive man. Note that my “10%” was referring to mental capacity, not to the discredited “10% of the brain” myth. 10% is shorthand for “very little.” I suspect 1% may be closer to the truth in some cases. We all use all of our brains. But the difference between mental capacities can be measured by the difference between an average person and, say, a mathematical genius. The brain size is the same, the same number of cells, the same potential capacity, but one of its users is getting so much more out of it. As I say, I am happy to be re-educated on this topic, which fascinates me. Perhaps some of the mysteries have been solved since 1967. That would be a good sign!

    4. This isn't an issue I've studied deeply. I've only been aware of the long-standing claim that our brains expanded sharply about 50=100,000 years ago, mostly from anthropologists - together with the issues I mentioned above.
      Since Mumford was a philosopher and historian rather than an anthropologist or biologist, I'd be curious what research he referenced here. However, rather than look at fifty year old science, I went looking for newer stuff. A quick look came up with this:
      Not the last word, certainly, but it raises some issues I'd never encountered: e.g. that number of neurons is not proportional to brain size and that some authorities think the details of wiring matter more than neuron count - e.g. that expanded short-term memory might have had (and is having) a profound effect.

    5. I like this article (by Scott Barry Kaufman), and it makes a lot of sense. Have you read "Proust and the Squid" by Maryanne Wolf? It's all about the way the structure of the brain is used differently in different modes of thought processing. For instance, the electrical routes and synaptic connections (especially between right and left brain) are entirely different for readers of English than for readers of Chinese. Kaufman's main point, however, is summed up in his final words: "...our cultural flourishing in Europe was the result of a gradual use of the mental structures that already existed," which, while prioritizing "wiring" over physical structure, is still Mumford's principle curiosity: why did we get the equipment we got before we had to use it? When Kaufman notes the importance to human mental development of considering "what could be" and not just "what is," he is similarly supporting Mumford's thesis as well. I think the article expands on Mumford’s thesis without necessarily contradicting it in any important way. Most of all, it continues to emphasize the fascinating question of what caused the change in the human brain—frontal, non-frontal, or front-posterior integration—long before humans learned to make the most of it? As for Mumford not being an anthropologist or biologist, the good thing about philosophers and historians is that (sometimes) they manage to keep the big picture in view better than many of the specialists. Mumford’s bibliography to “Technics and Human Development” is 30 pages long. He was quite a reader. I would bet he checked and double-checked the theories of his contemporaries. But much has been learned in the last 50 years. Keep me posted for anything new you turn up. And thanks, Chuck, for the fascinating dialogue!

    6. Eric, I perked up at mention of Wolf's book - for I have read it! I haven't read Kaufman's article yet, however, but now I must - as I must also re-read Wolf's book. THANK YOU (& Chuck)!

    7. My (hasty) read of Kaufman's paper, and a few other things that Goggle turned up, gave me the impression that they were challenging the claim that our brains suddenly expanded beyond our ability to use them (e.g. by arguing that a larger forebrain doesn't necessarily mean more neurons, and that expanded short term memory, in the cerebellum, not the neocortex, was actually the key to the evolution of the human brain). I know that in the past, I've seen the claim that we are not using the full capacity of our brains questioned sharply. For the reasons we've discussed, these claims are implausible on evolutionary grounds. All this is interesting enough to make me read at a little more length. I'll weigh in if I learn anything.

      In this context, yesterday I read a review of "Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?" by de Waal. It looks to be one of many demonstrations that we don't know nearly enough about how brains work to pontificate about all this.

    8. Right, we are still in the infancy of understanding the brain. Anyway, I just read the Kaufman article, and there was this yesterday in the NY Times: "Updated Brain Map Identifies Nearly 100 New Regions."

  2. When I say that religion has been a necessary phase in the growth of human consciousness, I mean it in the same way that adolescence is a necessary phase in the growth of a mature person. No one can help adolescence: one’s hormones and growth patterns are pulling in a hundred directions at once. We do crazy things. It’s a miracle we survive. Some lovely things, however, do happen during adolescence. We start to learn what makes us tick. We get passionate about a hobby or a sport or an issue. We discover the other sex (or the same sex). Maybe we fall in love. We learn we’re fallible. We make mistakes and learn from them. On the other hand, no one would argue (aging rock stars notwithstanding), that remaining an adolescent indefinitely is a good thing. Eventually one needs to attach some reins to one’s escaping/raging/rebelling/joyriding, move out of one’s parents’ house, and become one’s own version of an adult. The same goes with religion. There are some lovely discoveries: love one’s enemies. But there are also some horrible antitheses: burn your enemies at the stake. Perhaps we couldn’t help it: the control, the manipulation, the hypocrisy, the killing and shaming and judging masses of humanity into the worst example of Hell on Earth. But that doesn't mean we should prolong this phase, does it? The useful thing about religion, however, from a historical point of view, is that it represents the gradual transition from human beings as passive recipients of taboos (part of what we call the Law of Moses) to morally responsible individuals (like the Sermon on the Mount, whoever wrote it). Religion is one of several mental constructs that gets us looking at ourselves, not just at what we need from the world around us. That’s a great step forward, just as adolescence is a step forward from childhood. But like adolescence, we can tend to overdo the new paradigm: we get to the point where looking at ourselves is more important than truly looking at (and therefore loving) each other. In other words, it’s time for us as a species to move on to the next level of evolution, to grow up and become adults. I would argue that those in the world who are consistent champions of mindfulness are well ahead on the road to the maturity of the species. They will be dragging the rest of us along, I hope.

    1. Eric, thanks for these considerations. I think I need to "get over it" and simply accept that, of course, religion has been a necessary component - it has, after all, been a component, and that's a sort of proof. That frees me to appreciate the positive contributions and still recognize the negatives of religion's role in human development. Both may have played roles not only in brain development, but also in cultural, political, scientific, architectural, and other developments.