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April 06, 2011

More on Cognition, Empiricism and Human Behavior

We humans, collectively humanity (Homo sapiens), are clearly not the only cognitive species, but our cognitive abilities so far exceed those of other surviving Hominidae as to make us unique. Those same abilities have allowed us to develop language and writing, which in combination with our other skills, have enabled us to study both ourselves and our cosmic environment with an increasing degree of precision and accuracy, especially since the advent of empirical science in the Sixteenth Century.

Unfortunately, the process by which we developed those cognitive skills has been neither smooth nor gradual; rather it has been irregular and contentious. That the skills themselves were originally enabled through an extremely slow and irregular process (Biological Evolution), was intuited only recently by Charles Darwin on the basis of observations made during a brief visit to the Galapagos Islands at the age of 26. In retrospect, the history of Science, roughly since the Fifteenth Century on, confirms the key role played by empiricism in the parallel development of its basic disciplines: Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, in enabling the formulation of our most productive scientific theories to date; Deep Time, Evolution, and Continental Drift, to mention but a few.

Appreciation of that relationship led to Uniformitarianism, a concept first suggested by Scottish geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell and later named by English polymath William Whewell. Its validity now seems accepted, at least implicitly, by most working scientists. Nevertheless, as mentioned earlier, the evolution of Science as an approach to knowledge has been far from smooth, primarily because of the prior existence of long-standing non-empirical religious beliefs based on the deduction that a supreme deity must have created the universe. Such assumptions were well entrenched when Science literally burst upon the scene, thus it’s not surprising that our species remains embroiled in conflicts already in progress when Galileo was born. What is especially ironic is that the technological discoveries (and the information they have allowed us to compile) that most confirm the validity of empiricism are being used by its religious enemies to kill and maim their fellow humans in the name of their (assumed) creator.

The reasons are obvious. the strength of our species comes from our ability to cooperate by sharing both knowledge and physical ability to achieve common goals; behaviors clearly exhibited by other mammalian species, not to mention social insects (although in the latter, such cooperation seems more related to pheromones than to thought). To pursue that idea a bit further, it’s also clear that social insects don’t have to agree on a common goal before sacrificing their lives to achieve it, whereas humans, will not, under most circumstances, commit suicide for an idea.

However, the deliberate use of Kamikazes in the latter stages of WW2 and the currently frequent use of suicide as a weapon by members of the Moslem faith demonstrate that under the right emotional circumstances, such extreme “weaponization” becomes both reasonable and possible for humans, perhaps even for scientists.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 6, 2011 05:56 PM