Neil deGrasse Tyson; Gregory Berns; the Myth of a Lost Golden Age

Vox, Sean Illing, 13 Oct 2022: Neil deGrasse Tyson gets political, subtitled “Why the influential astrophysicist is increasingly worried about scientific ignorance.”

Interview with the author of Starry Messenger, which is near the top of my TBR stack.

But his new book, Starry Messenger, represents a kind of shift in his public mission. More than anything else he’s done, it’s an explicitly political — though not exactly partisan — book. Tyson’s goal is to show how science can inform our politics and maybe even assuage some of our deepest divisions.

If the book sounds like any number of others about applying reason and scientific thinking to social and political issues, a glance through it suggests that Tyson applies this worldview to topics not usually covered in such books. More about that when I read it.

Illing thinks Tyson is naive about the importance of objective truth in peoples’ lives — rather as I’ve been here, with my thoughts that most people don’t know much of anything about the universe outside their own experience, and that it doesn’t really matter to their lives.

…I really think we overstate how important objective truth is for many people. It’s not that a lot of people have lost sight of what distinguishes facts from opinions. I think the problem is worse than that. People become attached to certain beliefs, values, certain cultural poses, and these things seem small from a cosmic perspective (and they are!), but they’re the things that anchor our identities and our social lives. That’s the stuff that drives us. And it’s beyond truth and falsehood. It’s beyond facts and opinions. It’s deeper than that.

I’ll read the interview more closely after I read the book.


Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams, 10 Oct 2022: Our memory records very little of our lives. So how does the brain reconcile our sense of self?, subtitled “In ‘The Self Delusion,’ author Gregory Berns explains why our self-perception is a ‘sort of fiction'”

Another interview with an author of a new book.

I’m familiar with the idea of faulty memories and how we continually retell and reconstruct our memories, favoring ourselves, to the extent that we can’t really trust our own memories, especially about our early life.

I was a newcomer to the concept of computational neuroscience. For those who have not yet read the book, what is this discipline and why is it significant in our understanding of the brain?

Computational neuroscience has been around, in some form or another, probably for fifty years. It used to go by different names. It first started out as AI, artificial intelligence, back in the sixties, then went through various iterations. By the time I was in training in the nineties, it was equivalent to what then was called neural networks, which now underlie everything in AI.

AI has evolved from the fifties and sixties style of AI, where people were hopeful that computers could be trained to do things that humans do. It evolved into this area where neural nets were discovered. Originally, these neural nets were based on what we knew about the brain, but then they went off on their own. As we have them today, they underlie what we now know is AI. That’s everything from image recognition to self-driving cars.

Computational neuroscience is an umbrella term that covers all of these things, but with a little more emphasis on the neuroscience side, so understanding how the human brain does computations. Then all the AI people take that and put their twist on it and make computer algorithms.

Interesting, but I’m not inclined to buy the book; too many already on hand to read.


OnlySky, Adam Lee, 13 Oct 2022: The myth of the lost golden age

Another familiar idea; it’s the core of conservative “grand narrative” of returning to a golden past, according to Jonathan Haidt, for instance.

The OnlySky site is a mix of comments about current events, and essays like this one about ideas familiar to many of us who’ve read books as much as we’ve read websites. Still, Lee has a specific point: this myth has been used to justify all sorts of atrocities throughout history.

The older I get, the more I’ve come to believe that the Garden of Eden is the worst of the Bible’s myths.

It’s from this story that we get original sin, the wicked theology which claims that humans are intrinsically evil and deserve damnation just for being born. In the name of this belief, religious believers have inflicted incredible tortures on each other and themselves. Original sin has justified child abuse, forced conversion, holy war, oppression of women, and all manner of other crimes.

To be fair, Judaism doesn’t interpret the story this way. Judaism has no such doctrine as original sin; it’s Christianity that put this spin on it. In the Jewish view, the Eden story is more like the other “just-so” stories dreamed up by ancient people to satisfy their curiosity. It tries to wrap answers to a variety of questions—where did humans come from? why is farming such hard work? why is childbirth painful? why do snakes slither on their bellies?—into one overarching myth.

Nevertheless, it’s the Christian interpretation that dominates our culture, and that’s the one that’s done the harm. The myth of the fall pervades our culture and subtly shapes our thinking. In its many versions and retellings, it teaches us to long for a golden age that never existed. Worse, it’s given us the idea that people of the present are weak or corrupt, and that restoration means turning back to the past, reclaiming a lost state of purity.

Lee quotes Bart Ehrman about how the Romans distrusted anything new. If something was true, why didn’t the ancients know it?

The essay goes on to identify fascism as the ideology of a mythical past; explain why the perfect past never existed; how people of the past weren’t better, wiser, or purer than ourselves, neither stupid nor smarter than us; how what distinguishes us from them is centuries of moral progress.

People of the past casually accepted levels of brutality and violence that would horrify us. They treated slavery as unproblematic, war as glorious sport, torture as entertainment, and hereditary monarchy as the ideal form of government. They saw it as normal that men should rule over women and that “superior” races and religions should conquer and wipe out “savage” ones.


The world is better now than it once was. And where moral progress is incomplete, the solution isn’t to go backwards. Belief in a lost golden era is a mirage, luring us off the path we need to take into a maze of shadows and fog.


Links without comments.

BoingBoing, 13 Oct 2022: Watch: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Trump, and Tucker Carlson spout KKK talking points word for word

Salon, Chauncey DeVega, 13 Oct 2022: Donald Trump has learned how to manipulate white rage — that’s very dangerous, subtitled “Donald Trump’s litany of racist grievances is petty, boring and false. The scary part? He speaks for millions”

NBC News, 14 Oct: How an urban myth about litter boxes in schools became a GOP talking point, subtitled “At least 20 Republican politicians have claimed that schools are making accommodations for students who identify as cats. The school districts say these claims are untrue.”

Salon, Heather Digby Parton, 14 Oct 2022: Donald Trump planned and directed the whole damn thing — why is anybody still defending him?, subtitled “Final Jan. 6 committee hearing yields no blockbusters but a clear narrative: It was all planned in advance. By him”

David Brin, Facebook, 13 Oct 2022: Nothing better shows the “You’ll believe anything we say!” cult than this Crime Panic myth. Back it up with wagers over fact? Like that per capita homicide rates were on average 40 percent higher in states won by Trump than in those won by Joe Biden! …

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