Looking for feedback on writing project about how we create the world in which we live

 I am currently soliciting opinions about a project I have been working on that touches on several areas of anthropology. All constructive opinions and suggestions are welcome. I started a writing project several months ago which was initially just intended to result in a self-published book (or a book published through a tiny start up) that contained a series of informal lecture-essays on issues of interest to me and presented at a broadly accessible level. Ideas developed as I wrote, and then came themes and an arc.

The project is still ongoing, with a first draft complete, yet now the focus seems to really be coalescing around the issue of how and why people come to adopt their worldviews and how and why they change them and why this matters in the current global situation (this new rationale will need to be emphasized in future revisions). It's something that I've really enjoyed working on and, while I know that self-infatuation with ones own writing is a major trait with some academics, I started wondering if where my thinking has led might be worth the additional effort to further refine and polish this project and to try and get it published in a way that would extend beyond a few friends or random strangers. All help is appreciated, and please be honest as I don't want to waste anyone's time (including mine).

If you are interested in giving any kind of feedback, I've outlined the idea, in shorter and slightly longer versions, on my profile under the projects heading. I am happy to answer any questions you may have. Thanks for your time.

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Comment by David Stump on June 21, 2013 at 2:28pm

Hello John, and thanks so much. Your comment is very astute -- the kind of honest and insightful feedback I was really hoping to find. You are right, this is exactly the period where a larger arc is coalescing and why I decided it was time to look for educated perspectives born of experience.

I do apologize for dumping a heap of ideas, but considering how the project began, it's hard to disentangle them. I could have given a shorter, more focused overview, but then it occurred to me, "What if, out of the 3 or 4 main ideas that go into this larger picture that's forming, only one of them is of any interest to anyone?" Hence the decision to present it in that particular way, much like the hapless student who tries the shotgun approach on an essay question hoping that at least part of the answer will get some credit. In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have thought this method would have been any more effective here than when it is applied to such exams.

Perhaps the following approach might make it easier for folks here, at LinkedIn, or wherever else I look for feedback. If so, I will add it at the top of my project description as an invitation for further scrutiny and discussion. Here are the major underlying concerns and how they tie in to what I've been thinking about, with what I currently see as the bottom line at the end. You can see how they are all grounded in common philosophical/anthropological concerns:

To what degree is life a series of contingent accidents vs. organized and coordinated structure? By thinking of life as a part of stream of information guided by barrier-interfaces, there is both a very strong element of organization and coherence and a degree of freedom for contingency (leading to creativity) as this stream and the pattern-making it is involved with try to flow/grow around various obstacles.

To what degree do humans fit in with the rest of nature/how are they set apart? By seeing the "neurosocial" interface as the structure/set of processes mediating human consciousnesses and human sociality, we can see that human creativity, a meta-version of reality/information encoding in the form of the social landscape/symbolic thinking, and the development of a sophisticated system of communication/coordination fits the larger evolutionary pattern. It is comparable to intercellular and tissue system development and interaction, for example.

If humans are part of a larger pattern in nature can that tell us anything about our future? Humans are part of a larger pattern of self-organizing systems of information flow, information processing, and information replication/storage. Obstacles and barriers generate creative responses and can lead to more complex structures/processes into which smaller versions are integrated. This has produced cells, simple multi-cellular organisms, complex multi-cellular organisms, and social organisms. Human societies reflect this larger pattern on the edge of forming another, as yet unknown level of organization. We can study the previous levels to see how predictable the new structures and processes might be.

Should we try to understand human identity and behavior by reducing everything to biochemistry? The information in living systems can occupy many spaces or become embedded in/as different media. Biochemical information is one form, social is another. Information can flow both ways across the neurosocial interface and the structures that form in the biochemical and social landscapes are interactive. Strict reductionism flattens these structures and obscures their relationships. (Cue the tie in to medical anthropology and interpersonal models of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology and epigentics, and so on).

How do people come to adopt their worldviews and why do the change them? For the first question, consider that the neurosocial interface is between the brain and its biochemical information on one side and the social landscape and its social information is on the other. What we think of as the mind is interaction of these two sets of interacting information, hence the difficulty of disentangling "nature" and "nurture" in human behavior, epsecially when they are perceived to be isolated, competing forces. Your identity forms as your unique biology interacts with the social landscape, and everything you perceive is imbued with symbolic meaning. Thus you adopt your worldview as part of your growth and development and this worldview becomes embedded in your identity. Essentially, you are what you believe.

As for the second question, consider that your perception and your sense of reality is always subjective and symbolic, informed as much if not more by the social landscape (including ideas, attitudes, relationships, etc) as by your sense organs. While we can look at how these things interact, the bottom line is that our minds live inside of artificial realities (if we presume there is an objective one to be "real"). We organize these realities and our experiences into narratives which in turn shape the social landscape. Our identity is a narrative and is collectively part of larger communal and societal narratives, all interacting and influencing each other. Modifying one's worldview, then, involves changing aspects of ones narrative, such as adding or removing an element or altering the interpretation.

How do we change our narratives, and why does it matter? If we go back to the the idea of the neurosocial interface, we can compare it to other barrier-interfaces in nature which block, regulate, translate, or transform some forms of information while allowing others to move freely across. For the neurosocial, social bonds and emotions such as empathy and trust allow information to move more freely and with less modification from one mind to another. [Cue my discussion of reciprocity, etc.] We tend to overestimate the logical/analytical content of social information and underestimate the emotional and moral (ought/is) content, especially in the make-up of our narratives/social landscape but also in how we share and receive content about those elements of worldview.

What this tells us is that we will be more likely to accept/reject content about the world based on our pre-existing worldview and how it says the world is/ought to be. We adopted these views from strong influences, from people we perceived to be in authority, who we like/feel close to, or otherwise trust more than others. We accept changes, rather than explain them away according to our pre-existing views, more readily when that new content also comes from sources we trust. Social and emotional framing is key to changing our beliefs.

Why does this matter? Our survival as a species. Because we live in our artificial realities, we can explore and accept counter-intuitive ideas that seem to defy our more basic perceptions of sensory information. This can lead to brilliant discoveries and forms of expression in the arts and sciences, but it also means we can adopt and hold onto misleading or even dangerous ideas if enough people we trust concur, especially if being part of said social group/holding those ideas is wrapped up in a particularly intimate or cherished aspect of one's social persona or core identity. [Cue concerns over racism, sexism, homophobia, global warming/environmental degradation, etc.]

The unifying idea (I think?): The universe is information, and we are all stories. We are what we believe. We need a framework that allows us to think more broadly about what it is to be human that can help us respect each other and work together to shape a better future for our species. This framework needs to respect human individuality and creativity while seeing how those things fit into a larger picture of humanity.

OK, well, I hope this is a better heap of ideas than the last one. Thanks again for the helpful feedback.

Be well.


Comment by John McCreery on June 21, 2013 at 11:28am

David, the question you ask, "How and why people come to adopt their worldviews and how and why they change them?" is a very important one, especially to me. It was the question that brought me from philosophy to anthropology when I realized the futility of searching for a priori answers.

The book, itself? It is hard to know what to say. I write for a living, and in its current incarnation I don't see it attracting a very large audience. My first impressions (and they are what kept me from reading more carefully) is that the manuscript is still in that hazy transition zone where a bunch of ideas, each individually with considerable potential are presented in a heap. The unifying idea that pulls them all together and makes a compelling read hasn't yet revealed itself. It does occur to me though that you might find some like-minded people on LinkedIn in the Systems Thinking group. Check it out. Hope this is helpful.


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