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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I confess to having no idea what you are talking about here. Are there not notions of justice in societies without writing? Hauser, who has worked extensively on the problem of language, doesn't give any sign to me of having a written-language bias. Quite the opposite.

Hauser's main point, I think, is that all societies have a kind of basic moral understanding. It is therefore a reasonable hypothesis that morality has some genetic basis. One way to approach this question is to study these moral systems as abstract systems whose properties can be compared and contrasted, much as language are, in an effort to discover their universal principles. This might give us a key to the nature of their genetic basis, if indeed they have one (which I believe Hauser would say is not a forgone conclusion).

My two cents, as usual.
BLOGGER: If Hauser’s main point were simply that “a reasonable hypothesis [is] that morality has some genetic basis,” I’d say fine. Who can quarrel with anything that vague? I think, however, he is saying something more specific, which the commenter slips when he speaks of morality’s “universal principles.” Hauser argues that we have an innate, universal morality that each of us uses to acquire our cultural morality, just as, Chomsky says, we have an innate, universal syntax that enables us to acquire the cultural specifics of our particular mother tongue.

A sense of right and wrong doesn’t have to be based on principles. It can be based on perception. We see colors as mixes of red or green, blue or yellow, light or dark, intense or weak. Similarly, we might see behavior as mixing painful or pleasurable, fair or unfair, good or bad, deserved or unmerited qualities. (The difference between fair and deserved lies in the distinction between what he did was fair and what happened to him was deserved.)

I don’t have any particular way of knowing whether one of these approaches will ultimately prove more explanatory, but I can see that experience with a written tradition encourages looking for abstract principles of justice while an oral tradition does not. That’s not because illiterate communities are not concerned with right and wrong, but because they address these concerns concretely and mythologically (i.e., in words that relate to perceptions).

Giorgio Marchetti

Good observations, Blair, those about abstract notions: but the problem seems to be even more general and not to concern only “abstract” notions such as “justice”.

Consider for example conjunctions and prepositions – for sure, some of the most used words in our languages. Where do you “see” the conjunction “and”? How can you perceive it? If someone says: “Yesterday I saw Mary and John”, you understand that the speaker saw them both either in the same place or at the same time: but who saw “and”? “And” is nowhere but where the speaker puts it.

“And” is an instruction that makes the listener put together, by means of his attention, the two things or objects it joins: you keep present in your mind the first object or thing while you are focusing on the second one.

Language is not only a matter of perception (if by perception we mean the activity performed thanks to the classical senses): language is above all a matter of mental activity, of conscious and unconscious operations, most of which are performed thanks to attention, but many other also thanks to memory, representation and other mental mechanisms.

Obviously, perception is one of the most powerful, useful and used tool to pilot attention (according to Baars it is the lingua franca of consciousness). In my opinion, however, it is not the only one: the meanings of words show just the opposite. You can pilot the listener’s attention by just using something that has no physical dimension (apart from the physical side of the word)!

Sharing attention, piloting the listener’s attention is not only a matter of pointing to something (in order to perceive it), but also a matter of making the listener perform some operations (such as those expressed by conjunctions, mathematical operators, and so on).

Giorgio Marchetti
BLOGGER: Perception does begins with the senses, though not necessarily limited to the classical five listed by Aristotle. The sound byte distinction is that the senses provide sensations while perception knows the meaning of what the senses provide; e.g., my ears provide sounds sensations, yet I perceive a waltz.

Bruce Wilder


Hypnosis is a matter of manipulating attention, to bypass abstract analysis and make "suggestions" to an emotional layer of the brain.

Socrates was part of an oral tradition in a world in which the core curriculum was the epic poems of Homer and the theogony of Hesiod and instruction of sophists in the art of oral persuasion; only Plato and Aristotle wrote things down (and, oddly, we don't have much of anything Aristotle wrote -- only the edited lecture notes of his students, so maybe Aristotle belongs in an oral tradition).

Aristotle recognized that there was a distinction between logic and persuasion, though he, apparently, did not notice the phenomena of hypnosis. Hypnosis is a feature of all persuasive argument, at least as important as logic.

Hypnosis makes use of linguistic features like semantic generalization in forming hypnotic "suggestions", but its most distinctive feature is the manipulation of attention through distraction, to create a suggestible "trance" state. It is harder, but not impossible to induce a trance state by the manipulation of written language -- here's a simple example: consider for a moment the distinction between meaning and function . . .

Many people are distracted by such a formulation, and a slightly extended narrative of on such a theme as meaning v. function will draw lots of people into a trance state.

But, trance states are not all there is to hypnosis. The meat is in the ability to make suggestions, with emotive and behavioral effects. You can tell stories, which will affect mood and self-esteem and feelings of well-being, and can give behavioral direction, implant emotional associations that will affect behavior and so on.

The ability to hypnotize has something to do with abstract, focused attention, and the relationships of language with emotions. Humans have the emotions of pack animals, which, I suppose, makes it easy for us to get along with dogs, but language lies, somehow, on top of our emotions, and implicates both meaningful narrative and logical, functional analysis of systems.

Steve Harold - London Hypnotherapist

I thought that was an interesting description "emotional layer of the brain". I have always thought that we often reach a decision based on emotions first and then attempt to find logic to support that decision. Hence you will often here someone say (or some variation on this theme) "I don't know why I think that but I just do".

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