Approaching Human Nature Empirically

April 29, 2017, talk at the “Revisiting Maslow: Human Needs in the 21st Century” workshop at Princeton University.

Abstract: Human nature has been a subject of speculative thinking for ages. But it is an empirical phenomenon and, as with any empirical phenomenon, the only way to acquire objective, reliable knowledge about it is to begin with separating it from adjacent empirical phenomena. Today, developments in biology allow us to know exactly what separates humanity from the animal world, to which it also belongs — we, therefore, no longer need to speculate what makes us human. The talk will focus on what comparative zoology teaches us about human nature.

 

Humanity differs dramatically from non-human social animals in its behavior and the organization of its ways of life. No other social species, for instance, organizes its ways of life (i.e., its social order) so variably or allows such an enormous scope for individual creativity/deviance. Human societies are remarkably flexible in comparison to the rigid social orders of other intelligent social species, such as lions, wolves, and even primates. This vast difference makes humanity a reality of its own kind and, therefore, a separate subject of study, which justifies the existence of social sciences and humanities: for social sciences, too, despite their name, do not focus on the many complex and highly differentiated societies that exist, from those of ants and bees to those of baboons and chimpanzees, but exclusively on human societies. Yet, it proved impossible to account for this difference by the difference of the human animal from other animals, or genetically. Genetically, our species is different from other animal species to different degrees, clearly much more different from some than from others. But even species within our biological family – the primates – remain as drastically different from us behaviorally as are those on altogether different branches of biological evolution. Only 2% of the genome of our species, which we somewhat arrogantly and in ignorance of other animals’ cognitive capacities call homo sapiens, distinguish our animal nature from that of our closest genetic relative, the chimp. These two percent must account for the different shapes of our and chimps’ bodies and sculls, postures, distribution of bodily hair, the different organic diseases to which we and they are subject, our different life spans and procreation patterns – all the things that separate two closely related species from the same family, such as horses and donkeys, lions and tigers, or chimps and orangutans, etc., from each other. None is left in this small biological difference for the explanation of the vast differences on the behavioral level – the difference in the organization of our ways of life, which make humanity stand so completely out of the animal world.

But, if it is not our biology, then what? Comparative zoology provides an answer. While all other animals transmit their ways of life (primarily) genetically, we transmit our ways of life almost exclusively by means of symbols. This is a qualitative difference – a difference in kind, which puts us into a different category of being. This is what makes us human.

The process of genetic transmission is the process of life, the subject of biology. As animals, we are involved in this process and, as living beings, we share numerous biological needs with other animals. Like them, we must breathe and eat, like many of them, we must have shelter, like all the social animals, we must belong to a group, and so on – to survive as animals. But, in addition to being animals, we are also something else. In addition to being part of the process of life and subject to its laws, we also participate in a different, autonomous process (that is, a process ruled by other than biological laws) – the process of symbolic transmission of our ways of life, which we call culture. Culture adds a dimension on top of our animal nature, superimposing another nature on it, so to speak. It is this other superimposed nature that makes us human. Human nature is cultural, in other words. To understand it, we must analyze culture.

In the rest of the talk, if there is time, I can develop on this and actually analyze culture along the lines of the two first chapters of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. What is clear even before such an analysis is that human needs (which are different from animal needs which can be deduced from the nature of the life – organic, biological – processes, which may be largely the same for a whole branch of the phylogenetic tree or, to revert to the Linnaean terminology, a whole class of animals, such as mammals) can only be deduced from the nature of the cultural process, in general, and, because of the extreme variability of cultures, from the nature of specific cultures. With human needs created by cultures, it would not stand to reason that needs of people in Tokugawa Japan, Imperial China, or tribal Arabia, for instance, would be the same as the needs of citizens of modern democracies.

To Combat Terrorism, Tackle Mental Illness

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in the New York Times, July 15, 2016

The comment of the French prime minister [“The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism”] can be interpreted as recognition that terrible events such as the mass killing in Nice Thursday night are a sign of a very long-term problem, which is unlikely to be speedily resolved. In this sense, France, like the United States, will indeed “have to learn to live with terrorism.”

Paradoxically, this is so precisely because “terrorism” is not an adequate diagnosis of such acts in the United States and Western Europe. Yes, they are acts of terror, and may even be inspired by Islamic militants. But they are also acts of mentally disturbed individuals.

The great majority of “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” terror acts are committed by people with a known history of mental illness, most often depression, which counts social maladjustment and problematic sense of self among its core symptoms. Severely depressed people are often suicidal, they find life unlivable. As a rule, they cannot explain their acute existential discomfort to themselves and may find ideologies hostile to their social environment – the society in which they experience their misery – appealing: such ideologies allow them to rationalize, make sense of the way they feel. Any available ideology justifying their maladjustment would do: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel might have been inspired by radical Islam, but Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, had a different inspiration.

In a way, such ideologies serve for the mentally ill perpetrators as ready-made delusions, which, as we know also can inspire mass murders. Characteristically, the majority of mass murders, including lone-wolf terrorist acts, in Western countries are committed by people who are willing, in fact plan, to die while carrying them out. These acts offer them a spectacular, memorable, way out – a way of self-affirmation and suicide at once. An association with a great cause – and any ideology presents its cause as great – makes it all the more meaningful for them.

The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising. Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.

 

When animals and birds take on our own characteristics

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in South China Morning Post, June 28, 2015

Have you heard of Alex, the African Gray parrot, considered the smartest bird in the world? He lived in a cage of an animal behavior lab at Brandeis University, where his trainer, the scientist Irene Pepperberg worked. He spoke English with a sweet childish voice, could count and distinguish shapes. He was sensitive and creative. When Irene appeared flustered, he would tell her: “Take it easy. Calm down.” His beak made it difficult to pronounce the letter “p,” so, when asked to identify an apple, he invented the word “banerry” — half banana, half cherry, and, not knowing how to call a cake, suggested “yummy bread.” Irene trusted him to train younger chicks and, for some years, he actually taught at a university. At the end of their working day, Irene would return Alex to his cage, lock the lab, and go home. This is how it was the night of the heart attack that would kill him. Before she left, Alex told Irene: “I love you. Be good.” The next morning, she found him in the cage dead.

Alex’s brain was the size of a walnut. But his behavior was undeniably human. Which raises the question what is humanity. Clearly, to behave — to think, feel, act — like a human, it is not necessary to belong to the biological species of hairless monkeys with big brains, such as ours. But, if it is not our vaunted brain that makes us human, what does? Comparative zoology provides the answer. In the entire animal kingdom only humans transmit their ways of life symbolically, rather than genetically. Such symbolic transmission is what we call “culture.” The distinguishing characteristic of humanity, it is culture that makes us human.

In distinction to genetic transmission, culture is not an organic but an historical process, because the meaning of symbols changes with the context and always depends on time. Being of a different nature, culture cannot be explained biologically or reduced to biological phenomena, even though it requires the body with its physical needs to exist. Rather, and analogously to life, which also requires inanimate matter for its construction but cannot be reduced to or explained by it, culture represents an emergent reality, resulting from a most improbable accident in the organic reality within the conditions of which it emerges. Like life, it is a reality of its own kind, autonomous or operating according to specific to it causal laws, which affect the organic processes related to it and transform its physical environment.

We are all familiar with the dramatic effects of culture on the material world around us: our cities, means of transportation, the clothes on our backs, fields we till, land we reclaim from the oceans — all these are products of culture, material results of symbolic processes, of our thinking expressed in words, designs, plans. On the organic level, culture leaves its deepest imprint on the brain of the creatures it affects, transforming their very nature and life. For, as it forces the brain exposed to it to process symbolic stimuli, it creates within it an autonomous, symbolic and mental, phenomenon which is unknown in the natural world in which the brain processes only sensory stimuli — the mind. Otherwise called the soul, it, speaking empirically, is none other than culture in the brain. One becomes human when one acquires a mind.

The mind is acquired as a result of being exposed to culture and the necessity to adjust to a cultural environment; it is not a genetic characteristic. This has two significant implications. The first one is that nobody is born human. A baby of human parents is just an animal who is very likely to become human, not a human being, and given how prolonged infancy is among our animal species, only rarely do our babies develop a mind (and acquire humanity) before three years of age. The second implication is that animals of other species that procreate exclusively in the human, cultural, environment, such as, specifically, dogs and cats whom for thousands of years we have involved in most intimate aspects of our life, are, just like us, sharply distinguished from wild animals by culture, and, therefore, also human. What distinguishes these animals from us is not that we have a mind, while they don’t (because they certainly adjust to and thus have culture in the brain), but that the structure of their larynx — in distinction to that of African Gray parrots, for instance — is different from ours and does not allow them to articulate sound, depriving them of speech. They are humans who are physically disabled. This is in particular true of dogs, whose brain, inherited from arguably the most intelligent wild animal — the wolf — probably equals ours in its complexity and sophistication. (The claim of dogs’ humanity will resonate with anyone who has known a dog’s companionship, though the unquestioned identification of humanity with our species would have prevented most of us from admitting the truth of this claim even to oneself. Yet, very few would be able to explain until now what made homo sapiens species human.)

It would be hard to exaggerate the ethical significance of this logical inference from the empirically based definition of humanity. Our treatment of dogs and cats becomes subject to the same standards of judgment which we apply to our treatment of other defenseless and helpless members of our societies, such as little or disabled children. Like them, these acculturated animals are thrown on our mercy and entirely dependent on us for their survival and protection from suffering. When they suffer, their experience is not different from that of such children. Because these animals are part of humanity, because what makes us human must make them human as well, decent people and societies can no longer be indifferent to their suffering or tolerate intentional cruelty in their regard.

On June 22, the annual dog meat festival begins in Yulin. Dogs are human. Thus, this is a festival of cannibalism. But it is not what happens after death that is important. Before they are butchered and eaten, thousands of dogs are caught, shoved into dirty crates too small for the numbers they contain, and tracked, hungry, thirsty, suffocating, and terrified, to the place of their death. You can easily find photos of these transports on the Internet. Meet these dogs’ eyes. You won’t be able to sleep for weeks.

A Revolution in Philosophy (and Social Science) in 800 Words

By Liah Greenfeld

First published as “Modern social science deeply indebted to Darwin” in South China Morning Post, June 7, 2015

We are all aware of the power of science and treat it as supreme authority in matters pertaining to our understanding of our world. Of all intellectual endeavors, science alone proved progressive — building and constantly adding to previously accumulated understandings, expanding their reach. This is evident in physics and biology: our understanding of both material and organic realities becomes deeper, increasing our control over them. Not so in social sciences focusing on the reality most pertinent for us: humanity itself.

We hardly understand humanity better than in the end of the 19th century, when the social sciences were first ensconced as such in American research universities — the model for the entire world. Separated by arbitrary divisions which obscured the commonality and the very nature of their subject, social sciences were misconceived from the start. They assumed that society was humanity’s distinguishing characteristic, while it is a corollary of animal life.

What distinguishes humanity from the rest of the animal world is not society, but the way it is transmitted: while the other species rely on genetic transmission, humans rely on culture (or symbolic transmission). Much more flexible, cultural transmission explains the variability of human societies as compared to the near-uniformity of social orders within all other species. Culture and not society should be the focus of the social sciences.

But, if culture is, as is commonly assumed, a function of the human brain, social sciences must belong within biology. The only thing that would justify their existence as autonomous is the irreducibility of this distinguishing characteristic of humanity to the organic and material realities. If humanity is not a reality of its own kind, they represent biological or physical disciplines and social scientists, usually biologically and physically illiterate, are unqualified to be social scientists.

To prove such irreducibility — that is, to prove that the distinction between humanity and other animals is qualitative, not quantitative, one needs, first, to resolve the 2500-years-old central problem in Western philosophy. Western philosophy pictures reality — the entire world of experience — as a universe composed of two heterogeneous elements, matter and spirit, which, derived from one source and thus assumed to be fundamentally consistent, nevertheless appear to be contradictory.

Both elements may be accessible to reason, through observation or faith, but their assumed consistency escapes logical and empirical proof. This was acknowledged by the 19th century. From this acknowledgment resulted the division of intellectual labor: the realm of the spirit going to speculative philosophy and empirical science becoming the authority over (while limiting itself to) material reality. All empirically accessible reality was deemed material and it became impossible to imagine an empirical science that was not a part of physics.

Fortunately for students of humanity, the psycho-physical problem was resolved in 1859 by Charles Darwin. This was a colossal problem for biology as well: Life, too, could be approached scientifically only through physics, but it proved impossible to explain its regularities through physical laws. Thus, the science of biology did not develop: our understanding of living phenomena by 1859 had hardly advanced beyond Aristotle.

Western philosophy – our fundamental vision of reality – did not allow for the autonomous science of biology. A new ontology was needed, which Darwin provided in The Origins of the Species. By demonstrating a form of comprehensive causality operative in life that had nothing to do with the laws of physics but was logically consistent with them, Darwin established life as an autonomous, empirically accessible reality, dependent for its existence on material elements, but irreducible to them and, as concerns causal mechanisms, not material. Thus he transcended the dualist, spiritual material, ontological vision and liberated empirical science from the hold of materialist philosophy.

Now one could imagine empirical reality, accessible through observation, as consisting of heterogeneous, though logically consistent, layers, material and organic, and, within this new ontological framework, biology, unchained from physics, rapidly developed. Influential philosophers still think Darwin established a unified framework in which everything can be understood as a derivation from fundamental physical laws; in fact, he established precisely the opposite.

Though the concept was created later, he gave us the possibility to think of empirically accessible reality, open to scientific investigation, in terms of emergence, as of autonomous layers, each upper layer existing within the boundary conditions of the one below, to which it is causally irreducible.

There are three such layers, the two upper ones emergent — the material, the organic, and the cultural (or symbolic). This justifies seeing humanity as a reality of its own kind and the existence of an autonomous group of scientific disciplines focused on it and its distinguishing characteristic — culture.

This view may save lots of resources wasted in futile attempts to analyze social structures without knowing anything about biology and to reduce culture to the brain, while motivating a systematic exploration of the fascinating subject social sciences now mostly overlook. Perhaps, social sciences, too, will deepen our understanding of the world.

Liah Greenfeld is University Professor at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lingnan University. This article is based on her lecture delivered recently at the University of Hong Kong.

Computers Vs. Humanity: Do We Compete?

By Liah Greenfeld and Mark Simes

From our point of view, the “us all” object of the question—”Will computers outcompete us all?”—refers to human beings, and presumes that the individual and collective human capacities—particularly, the capacities of the mind, or intelligence—are essentially comparable to the capacities of computers. Only on the condition of the essential comparability of human intelligence and the cognitive capacities of computers does the question of this symposium make sense. The answer, therefore, entirely depends on whether these capacities are indeed so comparable, consequently bringing into question the nature of human intelligence and thus of humanity.

Admittedly, the biological, or neuroscientific, response to this question is unclear. The prevailing approach in the field of human neuroscience emphasizes the size and complexity of the human brain vis-à-vis other nervous systems in an attempt to explain the unique qualities of human intelligence. The logic that supports this approach is based on the assumption that an increase in neuronal density and network complexity necessarily results in the appearance of qualitatively new cognitive capacities. The perceived task of neuroscience, therefore, is to unpack the complexity of the human brain to find the “missing-link”—or links, for the sake of complexity —that result in something akin to the cogito of Descartes.

The concept of technological singularity is based on a similar logic and imagines a process that travels from the original point of human intelligence in the opposite direction of biological reductionism, though its principles are fundamentally the same. Futurists predict, whatever the technological medium may be, engineering a sufficient increase in computational complexity will result in machine intelligence that replicates and perhaps surpasses the cognitive capacities of the human brain. The futurist-technological position, therefore, seeks to re-pack the processing complexity of the human brain to arrive at virtual human minds.

Gerard Edelman cites the incredible complexity of the human brain in his book, Bright Air. Brilliant Fire. In the cortex alone, he writes, there are about 10 billion (1010) neurons. The actual connections between these neurons may number one million billion (1015). As for possible connections in this matrix, Edelman writes this number is “hyper-astronomical”; he must mean this in a very literal sense because he then goes on to indicate it exceeds the number of positively charged particles in the known universe. Edelman’s preliminary conclusion from these incredible facts is that the size and complexity of the human brain make it “so special that we could reasonably expect it to give rise to mental properties” [1].

What is overlooked in such paeans to quantity and complexity, however, is the astounding regularity with which these connections/networks/brains seem to form in the billions of individual humans who span distances and generations. The essential question may not be how does this complexity give rise to human intelligence or consciousness, but instead how does this complexity become systematically ordered so that any process that an individual brain supports (that is, any individual mental process) becomes an organized, patterned process—which is to say nothing of its self-intelligibility or its intra-species communicability.

The theory of evolution provides us with an explanation of how complex nervous systems evolved in multicellular organisms, allowing animal bodies to interact with a dynamic and unpredictable external environment. This dynamism and indeterminism of stimuli in the environment are correlated with the nervous system’s unique physiological characteristics: The capacity for neurons and networks to organize learning and memory. Interactions with external stimuli effect changes in the nervous system, which organize and solidify networks of neurons to respond and combine in ways that reflect the influence and challenges of the species’ environment. In every case therefore, it is a combination of the genetic information of a species and its interactions with the environment that organize the networks of its nervous system.

In the biological world, stimuli occur as signs to an organism directly conveying information derived from a physical-chemical aspect of its referent in the environment. Empirical investigation (that is, investigation of actually existing characteristics) of human cognitive processes, however, shows humanity is essentially unlike any other animal species in this one crucial respect, from which numerous characteristic features derive. Unlike the rigid, determined relationship that animal nervous systems and societies have with signs in their environment, the defining feature of human mental stimuli is laden with meaning that cannot be traced to the physical-chemical constituents of the medium in which it is delivered. Instead, the primary stimuli in human mental life are symbolic. While all other animal species process signs in their environment and transmit their ways of life (including their social organization) genetically, humans are constantly interacting with, and transmit their ways of life by means of, symbols.

Symbols are intentionally articulated signs and, in sharp contrast to signs, they represent phenomena of which they are not a part. In this sense they are arbitrary, dependent on choice. The meaning (the significance) of a symbol is given to it by the context in which it is used and this context is constituted by associative relationships to other symbols. Language is the clearest example of this feature; words are not definite and linguistic communication is both a creative act on the part of the producer and an interpretative act on the part of the receiver. As a result of the dynamic, ever-changing meaning of symbols and their contextual dependence upon an equally dynamic matrix of other symbols, the significance of any instance or set of symbols is both constantly changing and endlessly proliferating. It is this dynamic change and self-proliferation of symbols that creates the innumerable variability among human minds and human societies. We call this symbolic process of transmission of human ways of life culture and assert that it is the symbolic nature of culture that constitutes the causal force in human history [2].

In the words of a great historian and philosopher of history Marc Bloch, historical science, which focuses on human history whose subject matter and data all social sciences and humanities share, is the science of the mind. It is focused on the qualities and permutations of human consciousness. Indeed it is one such permutation—claimed to be singular and unprecedented in its dimensions and importance—that the concept of technological singularity predicts. The verdict regarding technological singularity depends on whether history allows for such a singular and absolutely unprecedented change, or whether all great historical transformations, of which there have been many, are fundamentally the same. This leads us to consider the nature of human consciousness itself—the mind.

For those who, while perhaps experts in other areas, consider humanity only from the perspective of laymen, the mind is just another name for the brain. Thus Dan Dennett without much ado equates the human person with “the program that runs on your brain’s computer.” This lay perspective, which reduces humanity to a biological species, qualitatively, that is essentially, equating it with all other biological species, from which it may then be distinguished only quantitatively, is a necessary background for the concept of technological singularity. Only in its framework the question “Will computers outcompete us all?” makes any sense, and only in its framework it can be raised and answered.

In contrast, we argue culture makes humanity, and therefore human intelligence, a reality sui generis—a reality of its own kind. It is this process of transmission, which is unique in the animal kingdom, that explains only humans have history and in distinction to even the most remarkably sophisticated, minutely stratified, and rigidly structured, animal societies—such as those of bees, of wolves and lions, or of our closest primate cousins—human societies are almost infinitely variable across distances and generations. Culture constitutes a world of its own: an autonomous, self-creative world that functions according to historical laws of causation that do not apply anywhere in non-symbolic reality.

Of course, the symbolic, historical world of culture is supported by the mechanisms of the human brain, without which it is certain; it could not have emerged in the first place. The use of every symbol, the perception of its significance, its maintenance and transformation, is supported by the mechanisms of the individual brain and reflected in some, not necessarily specific, physical-chemical neuronal activity. Therefore, the symbolic and historical cultural process is also a mental process. But it is not from originating repetitively in newborn individual brains that culture endures, it is instead a ready-made, cultural environment, rich with symbolic stimuli, into which all new human brains are born. Culture is the symbolic process by which humans transmit their ways of life on the collective level, but on the individual level—the level of the individual human being with his or her brain in which this process is active—this process is called the mind. This symbolic process on both the collective and individual level is at every moment the same process, separated only by the focus of analysis (i.e. whether it is psychological or sociological). Thus, we can accurately call the mind “culture in the brain.”

In certain respects the brain can be compared to a computer. However complex the former is in comparison to the latter, the difference between them is quantitative, pertaining to how much information from the outside each can process and how fast and accurately. But the mind is an altogether different matter: It is not a more powerful brain than any other we know, because it is not a brain at all, and for this reason it cannot be compared to even the most powerful computer imaginable. The mind, as suggested by its definition as “culture in the brain,” instead, is a symbolic process representing an individualization of the collective symbolic environment. While the mind is by no means equivalent to the brain, it is certainly supported by the brain at every moment in the process and it may be, in fact, the symbolic processes of the mind/culture that organize the connective complexity of the individual brain.

Thus, in distinction to both the current neuroscientific paradigm and the approach of futurists who equate complex structure with emerging, intelligent capacities—remember, the foundation of these two schools are fundamentally identical—we hypothesize the symbolic, cultural environment is causally responsible for reining in the hyper-astronomical complexity of connective possibilities in the human brain. Furthermore, we argue mapping and explaining the organization and biological processes in the human brain will only be complete when such symbolic, and therefore non-material, environment is taken into account.

This approach, although most directly relevant to human neuroscience, has important implications for any project in artificial intelligence. First, it places primary emphasis on the significance of symbolic processes rather than on configuration/capacities of hardware, assuming no transformation of quantity into quality (which is assumed by the concept of technological singularity). Second, it implies the symbolic nature of human mental processes must be the central focus of any effort to replicate human intelligence artificially. In distinction to previous analogies in the philosophy of mind, it also does not liken the mind/brain relationship to systems of software/hardware. This is because the mind, the symbolic cultural process, is a self-generating and endlessly creative process—a feature that no dynamic code structure begins to approximate.

In neuroscience it is illogical to dig into the minutiae of the structure and function of the brain, with the expectation of explaining how our biological nature may have, at one original point, given rise to symbols. This activity is retro-speculative in an unscientific sense—even Darwin fervently highlighted the inability of science to explain origins.1 What we do have empirical access to is evidence of the human symbolic process all around us; the mind, though symbolic and therefore non-material, constantly creates material by-products and leaves material side effects (such as buildings, roads, domesticated animals, pollution, and computers) outside of us. As scientists we do have the possibility of taking this unique type of data into account while analyzing the incredible organ that is constantly involved in interpreting and generating the symbolic stimuli and perhaps apply our understanding to virtual models that more accurately represent the unique nature of human intelligence.

In the present paradigm, however, computers no more compete with minds than speed-trains or fast-running cheetahs compete with Shakespeare (a comparison which, however lame, is possible). A core quality of the symbolic and historical process of human life, which distinguishes humanity from all other forms of life, making it a reality sui generis on both the collective level (as culture) and on the level of the individual (as the mind), is its endless, unpredictable creativity. It does not process information: It creates. It creates information, misinformation, forms of knowledge that cannot be called information at all, and myriads of other phenomena that do not belong to the category of knowledge. Minds do not do computer-like things, ergo computers cannot outcompete us all.

References

1] Edelman, G. Bright Air. Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of the Mind. Basic Books, 1992.

2] Greenfeld, L. Mind. Modernity. Madness, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013.

[Originally published on ACM Ubiquity]

The Making of a Lone Wolf Terrorist

By Liah Greenfeld

A beheading in a workplace, a hatchet attack on a busy street, a shooting in a public high school – events following so closely one upon another and amid others, in a way very much like them, just across the border, in Canada – seemingly irrational, shocking, and yet already quite expected, they make one’s head spin. What’s going on around us – in the best, most prosperous, most open, liberal, societies on earth, most dedicated to the values of freedom and equality, most vigilant about safeguarding human rights? It cannot escape one’s attention that these hair-raising events, which happen with oppressive regularity, happen precisely in such societies – our own United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain.

Is it a coincidence that the frequency of random shootings, without a clear ideological motivation (such as yesterday’s tragedy near Seattle, the Newton massacre, or the one in a Colorado movie theater) increases together with that of targeted ideologically motivated attacks? No, it is not. These tendencies are related. To begin with, both kinds of violence are irrational in the sense of not being able to benefit the individual committing it in any objective way and often implying a great cost to this individual. At the same time, random violence without a clear ideological motivation is a phenomenon different from ideologically motivated violence.

These phenomena are related but different. They are related through a common social cause which leads to different psychological effects. These effects then, under certain conditions, may result in these two different kinds of violent behavior. Such enabling conditions, in the case of ideologically motivated violence, obviously include the specific motivating ideology. But it is important to understand that the elimination of the specific ideology, won’t eliminate the primary cause of such violence (the social cause), or its secondary cause (the psychological effects of the social cause), and that any other ideology can take the place of the one that is eliminated.

The primary – social – cause responsible for the frequency of irrational violence in the United States and other open, prosperous and liberal, societies is the systemic inability of such societies to offer individuals within them consistent guidance in the construction of their own individual identities. (In social science such systemic inability is called anomie). The very values of our societies – equality and liberty in the sense of freedom of choice for how to define oneself and live one’s life – forces our societies to leave the construction of their own identities to the individuals themselves. In less open societies (for example, in religious societies, in societies with strong secular norms, or rigid systems of stratification) one learns who one is from the environment, depending on the social position to which one is born. In our societies, given the fundamental equality, and interchangeability, of all their members, one is left free to choose who to be. A personal identity is our cognitive map, everyone must have it to know what one’s rights and duties, expectations, relationships with other, and behavior in general are and should be. An identity, this cognitive map, tells us how to live our lives. In our open societies, we have no help from the outside in construction such a map. For many of us this is a great boon: we love the freedom and the control of our destinies this gives us. But for many others this is a heavy psychological burden, a task they cannot accomplish.

Our sense of self and, therefore, our mental comfort (sense of ease or dis-ease) depend on having a clear and stable identity. People with malformed identities go through life confused and insecure, they are uncomfortable with themselves and maladjusted socially, because they never know who they are and where they belong. They lack an inner compass. A minority of them develops a functional mental disease as a result, which can be diagnosed as schizophrenia, manic depression, or major unipolar depression. Such disease is called “functional,” because, while the organic bases of it are uncertain and in many cases no organic irregularity may exist at all, the people who suffer from it lose the ability to function in society. They may be unable to distinguish between what happens in their mind and outside, taking one for the other, their maladjustment becomes an acute distress, and they cannot control themselves. This impairment of will – the immediate cause of their inability to function – most commonly expresses itself in a complete lack of motivation, but can also be expressed in uncontrollable actions which the individual feels are either willed by some force beyond him/herself, which must be obeyed, or are actually committed by someone else populating his/her body. The phrases “I was not myself,” “I was out of my mind” in retrospective accounts of such actions reflect these feelings. Given this impairment of will in clinically mentally ill individuals, it is extremely unlikely for such individuals to be acting under the influence of any shared ideology, though they may develop an elaborate delusion (an ideology entirely their own), which would include some common cultural elements.

In common parlance such truly sick individuals are called “crazy,” “insane.” These terms may convey certain insensitivity, but the understanding behind them, in case of violent crime that comes to trial, justifies insanity defense, because such people cannot be held responsible for their actions. This is not so in regard to ideologically motivated acts of irrational violence. The very fact that the individuals committing such acts shape their behavior (i.e., control their actions) in accordance with an ideology testifies to their fundamental sanity.

The great majority of people who are unable to develop a clear, stable identity in the conditions of anomic, open society, and, as a result, lacking an inner compass, are not mentally ill in this clinical sense. They are confused, insecure, and maladjusted, to be sure, but they can very well distinguish between what is happening in their mind and outside, and, though they can often be unmotivated and moody, their will is not impaired to the point of making them unable to function in society. Their discomfort, the general mental malaise from which they suffer takes many forms: some turn to drugs and alcohol, some become extremely conformist to whatever social circles they frequent (that is, give up their individuality and unreflectively imitate what the others around them are doing and saying), some become envious, and some become very angry. Such disturbed but not insane individuals, in general, become attracted to all kinds of ideologies which justify their feeling uncomfortable in their society, and thus politically available. Those whose psychological discomfort takes mainly the form of envy and anger are likely to be particularly attracted to ideologies which specifically encourage the expression of these feelings, legitimating violence against those the maladjusted individual resents. At this point in the causal chain leading to violence, ideology becomes the enabling condition, and the specific character of the ideology chosen can explain the nature of violence and its targets.

[Originally published on Psychologytoday.com]