Religious skepticism birthed the modern world, but its ideologies have largely failed to deliver. Could neuroscience cure the ails of human society? In this fascinatingly brief tour of world history, Joscha Bach suggests that us moderns still toil in the mud of feudalist peasants. We talk highly of resilient rights and institutions, but resiliency against what? Ourselves, it seems. If we turn our gaze to the structure of the human brain, however, we discover a system that is remarkably effective. So what if human institutions were modeled on natural, organic systems? The results might be something entirely new, argues Bach.
JOSCHA BACH: I think that religion probably got us from the first million individuals—and we had been at a million individuals for a very long time in history—to the first one hundred million.
And then this monotheistic religion, we got to something like three hundred million.
And at the turn of the times at 1 BC we were about three hundred million individuals.
And at the beginning of enlightenment, that is somewhere around seven hundred AD approximately, we were still four hundred million individuals.
And at this point we evolved in our culture the ability to doubt. We started doubting the religion. And feudalism broke down as a result, and we started building a modern much more productive society.
This society got us two billions of individuals.
And then came the next revolution and the twentieth century. These were systemic societies. Societies that were grown in the lab from people that created ideologies. Fascism, socialism, communism, market liberalism—These were all things that people thought of and invented and lapsed [??] and then implanted them in societies.
Incidentally they all failed, and now in something like a post-systemic age and we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work. And when we want to describe our society we sometimes use words like “resilience” or “anti-fragility” and so on, which are good words for muddling through. Because we don’t really know how to organize these societies in these days anymore.
It’s a very big problem; we need to deal with this and many countries try to find different answers to their problem.
So in a way this ability to program ideologies and then project them onto people has been a very big breakthrough for our species, and important it is for mass media.
Mass media made the twentieth century possible, because mass media synchronized the dreams of large numbers of people, the ideas about the world that they lived in.
And now due to social media, mass media has lost much of their appeal. You know that U.S. in some sense had two realities, the CNN and the Fox News reality. They were two narratives that were pretty much incompatible.
Two stories that were being told to the people and that affected their minds. And now due to social media people have stopped believing these media narratives to a very large extent. People believe random stuff basically. That’s why we are so obsessed with the idea of fake news, which is incidentally not the propaganda that we are afraid of falling victim to. It’s a propaganda that we don’t want others to infect. Right? Random bits of information, viral bits of information that come from the internet and that get people to disbelieve the same dream that we are dreaming.
It’s actually very dangerous because it’s going to splinter society into parts that we don’t know how to glue together again.
I think that our brain is doing an amazing thing that we don’t know how to do out there in the real world. Our brain is a self-organizing system that processes information in a near-optimal way. Sometimes you have defects where the brain starts lying to itself, but mostly it doesn’t happen. Our nervous system is pretty accurate in the sense that it doesn’t lie to itself very much.
And the way we build our organization in the world of our governments and so on, which are in some sense the nervous systems of our societies, they lie to themselves. They are corrupted by local interests and so on. And we haven’t really found a way to build information processing networks out in the world that manage to be for the most part always truthful and relevant. And if we understand how our brain is pulling this off to self-organize in such a way that many, many small units can link up in a way that organizes itself to do the best for that particular organism, this is something that we need to pull up in our societies too.
So I do think that insights from understanding how our minds work and how our nervous systems work are going to be very helpful in understanding how to build better societies and better organizations.