The First Scientist — The Beary Adventures of Puffles and Honey

“I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experience nothing can be sufficiently known. For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that […]

The First Scientist — The Beary Adventures of Puffles and Honey

What is the Enlightenment? — C. B. Scott

The Enlightenment was a philosophical revolution that grew out of Europe in the 16th century and spread to the Americas in the 17th and 18th century (Szalay, 2016). This movement, also referred to as the Age of Reason is often contrasted against the irrational and superstitious Middle Ages and focuses on rationality, skepticism of customs […]

What is the Enlightenment? — C. B. Scott

What is a Nation-Ernest Renan 1882 — Advocatetanmoy Law Library

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received. Messieurs, man does not improvise.

What is a Nation-Ernest Renan 1882 — Advocatetanmoy Law Library

The biology of our best and worst selves. A 2017 TED talk by Robert Sapolsky

This posting is a summary of a 2017 TED talk by Robert Sapolsky, which was suggested to me in an email by TED Recommend, and I listened to it today. I thought that it was very enlightening, especially in the current climate of worldwide street activism that followed the sad death of George Floyd in police custody on Monday, 25 May 2020.

Whenever the atrocities of the 20th century are discussed, experts normally quote the old saying “Those who don’t study history are destined to repeat it”, but according to Robert Sapolsky, a world-recognized neuroscientist, it is not the history we need to study to avoid evil, but the extraordinary history of the human evolution, which includes the long, the medium, and the short-term events and processes that shaped our genes, and affects how our genes respond to situations. Sapolsky thesis is that in order to stave evil we need to understand evil, and we can only understand evil by studying “the biology of what can transform us from our worst to our best behaviours”.

According to Sapolsky, since the human spaces share the same neurons, the same neurochemicals, and the same biology, there is a potential for violence and for altruism in every individual. This explains why humans have conflicting values, such as the coexistence of altruism and violence. We normally assume that humans love altruism and hate violence. However, even the most decent and law-abiding people can sometimes fantasize evil. And the latent violence in humans often awakes and plays havoc in society. And as Sapolsky explained, humans don’t hate violence but the wrong kind of violence. An individual who openly stands against capital punishment can also fantasize about the killing of a person they consider evil.

What neuroscientists like Sapolsky do is to try to explain human behaviour biologically. The brain tells the spine, which tells the muscles to do something that is perceived as the behaviour. The same action can be considered aggression or violence a situation and altruistic in another, so it is important understand the context behind behaviours. The problem is that behaviour results from a process and every step of this process can be affected by various things. In short, there is no single mechanism that could explain behaviour. What is known is that the initiator of behaviour is the amygdala part of the brain, or rather, the chemicals that were present in the amygdala seconds before the initiation of the particular behaviour. But, what were the conditions of the environment that impacted the amygdala, producing the particular chemicals that served as a trigger for a particular behaviour? Many are the conditions of the environment that can impact the amygdala. A stranger who approaches you holding a gun is a classic example. If the stranger who approaches you is holding a cell phone which you think is a gun, it will trigger similar results.

There are many circumstances in which this threatening situation would become augmented. If the stranger happens to be big, male, and of another race than yours; if you are in pain, tired or exhausted; things that happened the day before and affected the level of hormones in your body, especially testosterone in males; things that happened many months before, like past stressful and traumatic experiences; things that happened many years before, as if in your adolescence, when your frontal cortex was sculpted; things that happened in your foetal life, such as the effect of the stress that a mother suffers, which could cause epigenetic changes, by activating certain genes and turning off others; pushing it further, the genes of the fertilized egg can determine behaviour, and although genes and the environment interact, carriers of the gene for MAO-A (Monoamine oxidase A), are far more likely to commit anti-social violence; pushing it even further, to our ancestors, if they were nomadic pastoralists, they would have adopted a ‘code of honour’ that are still present today. The evolution of man produced individuals with very low to very high levels of aggression, and all these variants are still part of the human species.

If one wants to really understand a certain behaviour that occurred, he or she needs to take into account all the events that happened, from seconds to millions of years before the event. Every bit of the biology of an individual can change in different circumstances. Ecosystems, culture, and brains change with time. An individual who commits something dreadful when young may eventually admit that he or she committed a mistake; he or she may feel remorse, and even ask for forgiveness.

Often human behaviour is studied simply from the stand of culture, which is the ‘nurture’ in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. However, both nature and nurture contributes to the processes that triggers human behaviour. For this reason, studies in human behaviour must also include biology. If there is a potential for both violence and altruism in every individual, we must accept that even the most evil characters are part of the human fold. We can consider an allowance from nature that wrongdoers  have the capacity to repent and make amends, while those on the receiving end also have the capacity to forgive and move on.

____________________________________________________________________________

Robert Sapolsky is one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, studying stress in primates (including humans). Oliver Sacks called him “one of the best scientist-writers of our time”, and with good reason. Sapolsky has produced not only a vast amount of scientific papers but also books for broader audiences, including A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: Stress Disease and Coping, and The Trouble with Testosterone, and  Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In the latter, Sapolsky examines human behaviour in search of an answer to the question: Why do we do the things we do?

Jo Pires-OBrien is the editor of PortVitoria.

Anti-Science Totalitarians Blamed for Harassment of Scientists, Medical Professionals — Green Jihad

A very concerning news report from The London Times citing a study pointing out that a large portion of scientists, physicians and other health professionals are the subject of harassment, threats, violence, and intimidation. This is the result, not just of anti-vaccine organizations, but animal rights groups too. In one way or another, an organized, […]

Anti-Science Totalitarians Blamed for Harassment of Scientists, Medical Professionals — Green Jihad

On the ambivalences of character and judgement

Editorial. PortVitoria – A biannual digital magazine of current affairs, culture and politics centred on the Iberian culture and its diaspora – www.portvitoria.com

Human character is ambivalent by nature and by nurture, and this ambivalence is reflected in almost everything that man does. Nietzsche identified this ambivalence in art, through the concepts of Appolonian and Dyonisian art, the first appealing to logic, prudence and purity, and the second to emotions and instincts. Psychologists recognize that people often fall in one of the two clusters of values. One very common representation of human ambivalence is the different judgements of historical persons, while the capacity to judge oneself is another. This edition of PortVitoria has essays on three historical individuals who were judged incorrectly by public opinion: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) and the Marquis of Pombal (1699-1782). As Wilfried McClay suggests in his article on Freud, he was vilified for about forty years, but that a fresh look into his legacy revealed him as an endowed and original social philosopher. In my essay on the Marquis of Pombal, I try to show that for over a century he was reputed as a power craze tyrant, until a fresh look on his life revealed his great intelligence and statesmanship in guiding Portugal in the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Michelle Raji`s article on Agassiz, a Swiss biologist and geologist who in 1832 became a university professor first at Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and in 1847 of Harvard, when he gained notoriety for his method of observing and analysing fishes, deals specifically with an expedition he made to Brazil from 1865 to 1868. As Raji points out, Agassiz was a ‘sensational figure in his day’, loved by many of his colleagues, although one of the students who accompanied him to Brazil spotted his biases and was disgusted by them. The student in question was no other than William James (1842-1910), the future founder of pragmatism. A fourth character in this edition is the Mexican poet, thinker and a polymath Octavio Paz (1914-1998), a man I consider the most brilliant mind that came of Latin America, but who is sadly underappreciated among the speakers of Spanish and Portuguese.

It is easy to make mistakes in judging the character of other people; it is easy to ignore the deserving and to put the undeserving on pedestals. However, the problems that arise from our mistakes in judging others are now much greater, since the advent of the digital age and the availability of social media make everyone a potential judge of character, deeds and reputations. As early as 2013 Bruce Schneider, a technologist in safety, raised the alarm regarding the recrudescence of the court of public opinion since the advent of social media, in an article published in Wired,  here republished in Portuguese. To Schneider, the court of public opinion is about reputational justice, when the arguments of each party are measured in relation to reputation, and the end result is not justice but the loss of reputation. Reputation is also an important theme in the essay by Fernando Genovés, which is an excerpt from his latest book Dinero S.L De la sociedad de proprietaries a la comunidad de gestores, or Money Inc. (From the society of owners to the community of managers, Kindle edition. 2020). In this book, Genovés shows that in the existing conflict between the left and the right, the left wins not because it is the better alternative but because it has a kind of glamour that attracts people to it. As he points out, people don’t go for substance but for images, which is why it makes no difference that the glamour they fall for is false. Reading Genovés book reminded me how universities have become cohortative to the cult of image and false glamour. It inspired me to write an essay on the history of teaching and the universities, which I hope will serve as food for thought on the future of middle and higher education, especially in my native Brazil.

On a final note, when I created PortVitoria as the magazine of the Iberian culture, back in 2010, what I had in mind was well-informed scholarly articles that could incentivize reflection and discussion. This is obviously a disadvantage in a world that highly addicted to soundbites and images. The reader of PortVitoria is an individual who is well-educated but never takes his education for granted, habitually reflects about things that matter, and enjoys face to face conversation with others.  If this is you, and you would like PortVitoria to continue, you can help by putting a link to it in your site, or by simply spreading the word of mouth about it.

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

July 2020

Done over in the Vatican Museum. Avoid this scam

On our recent holiday in Rome my husband and I had the unfortunate incident of falling for a scam in one of its museums, which I thought we should share with others so that they don’t fall for it as we did. This happened on Tuesday 3 March 2020, at about 11.20 am, at the Vatican Museum. Although we saw a sign saying “On line tickets only”, there were no signs for ordinary tickets that we  could see. As we were trying to figure out what to do, somehow we started to talk to a man who happened to be standing nearby, who offered to show us the place to buy the tickets. We followed him into a side street and into a Tour Operator shop. A man on the other side of the counter offered us tickets as part of a guided tour, insisting that this was the only ticket option available other than those purchased on line. Fearing that this could be our last opportunity to see the Vatican Museum, we agreed to pay their ‘child’ discounted price of 48€ per person, for the next available tour in English at 12 o’clock. They gave us two stickers and the receipt.

We went to have a coffee in a nearby coffee shop, to rest and wait. Just before 12 o’clock we returned to the Tour Operator shop, where we were joined by six or seven other persons plus our  guide, a man of about 40 years of age, tall, stout, full head of dark brown hair, wearing shabby khaki trousers and shirt, and holding a partially extended collapsible umbrella. After we passed through the security inspection, a man we had not seen before approached our group and handed a ticket to the Vatican Museum to each person, with a price of 17€ stamped on it. Our guide then took us to a desk to collect individual receivers and earphones, after which we followed him through the entrance of the museum itself, next to which we spotted the Ticket Office and several people purchasing ordinary tickets without guides.

Although we were very upset when we realised that we were duped into spending 62€ more than it was necessary, we resigned to follow our tour leader in the hope that we could get knowledgeable information from him.  Unfortunately, that too was a great disappointment. I began to suspect that he was a charlatan during his first and lengthy stop, still in the entrance hall, when he mixed up historical facts with religion, talking about the construction of Saint Peter’s basilica on the site of the burial place of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ apostles. I became certain on his second stop, in the courtyard still outside the Museum, in front of some panels showing reproductions of the Sistine Chapel paintings, he gave an even longer speech about the scenes painted by Michelangelo, digressing to the unification of Italy, the formation of the Vatican State, and how the Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, exhibited at the Louvre, in Paris, had been acquired by the King of France himself. If most of what he said were superficial information, at least his account of how the ‘Mona Lisa’ ended up in Paris was wrong. It was then that I persuaded my husband to cut ourselves loose from this dodgy tour guide.  That was one sound decision we made that day.  JPO, UK

Portuguese and Spanish below

Ludibriados no Museu do Vaticano. Não caia nesse conto do vigário

Em nossas recentes férias em Roma, meu marido e eu tivemos o infeliz incidente de cair num golpe  em um de seus museus, o qual decidimos compartilhar com outras pessoas a fim de evitar que elas também caiam no mesmo golpe. Isso aconteceu na terça-feira, 3 de março de 2020, por volta das 11h20, no Museu do Vaticano. Embora tenhamos visto uma placa dizendo “Ingressos on-line”, não havia à vista nenhuma placa para ingressos comuns. Enquanto tentávamos decidir  o que fazer, de alguma forma nós começamos a conversar com um homem que estava ali perto  o,  que se ofereceu para nos mostrar o lugar onde comprar os ingressos. Nós o seguimos por uma rua lateral até uma agência de turismo. Um homem do outro lado do balcão nos ofereceu bilhetes de uma visita guiada, insistindo que essa era a única opção de ingresso disponível, descontando aqueles comprados on-line. Temendo que essa fosse a nossa última oportunidade de visitar o Museu do Vaticano, concordamos em pagar o preço ‘com desconto de ‘criança’, de 48€ por pessoa, para a próxima turnê disponível em inglês, às 12 horas. Eles nos deram dois selos adesivos da turnê, mais o recibo.

Fomos tomar um café em uma cafeteria próxima, para descansar e esperar. Pouco antes das 12 horas, retornamos à Agência de Turismo, e nos juntamos a mais seis ou sete pessoas, além do nosso guia, um homem de cerca de 40 anos de idade, alto, corpulento, com fartos cabelos castanho-escuro, usando calça e camisa cáqui desgrenhadas, e segurando um guarda-chuva dobrável parcialmente estendido. Depois de passarmos pela inspeção de segurança, um homem que não tínhamos visto antes, se aproximou do nosso grupo e entregou a cada pessoa um bilhete do Museu do Vaticano, com um preço estampado de 17€. Nosso guia então nos levou a uma mesa para coletar receptores e fones de ouvido individuais, após o que nós o seguimos pela entrada do próprio museu, ao lado da qual avistamos uma bilheteria e várias pessoas comprando ingressos comuns, sem guias.

Embora tivéssemos ficado muito chateados quando percebemos que havíamos gasto 62€ a mais do que era necessário, nós nos resignamos a seguir o nosso guia na esperança de que pudéssemos obter dele informações periciais. Infelizmente, isso também foi uma grande decepção. Já na sua primeira e longa parada, ainda no hall de entrada, eu comecei a suspeitar que ele era um charlatão, ao notar que ele misturava fatos históricos com religião, falando sobre a construção da basílica de São Pedro no local do cemitério de São Pedro, um dos 12 apóstolos de Jesus. Fiquei certa de que ele era um charlatão durante a sua segunda parada, no pátio do lado de fora do Museu, em frente a alguns painéis que exibiam reproduções das pinturas da Capela Sistina, onde ele fez um discurso ainda mais longo, iniciando com explicações das cenas pintadas por Michelangelo, e divagando sobre outros temas como a unificação da Itália, a formação do Estado do Vaticano, e, como a ‘Mona Lisa’ de Leonardo da Vinci, exibida no Louvre, em Paris, fora adquirida pelo próprio rei da França. A maior parte do que ele disse era superficial, e o seu relato sobre como a ‘Mona Lisa’ acabou em Paris estava errado. Foi aí que eu convenci meu marido a abandonar esse duvidoso guia. Essa foi uma decisão acertada que tomamos naquele dia. JPO, UK

Engañados en el Museo del Vaticano. Evite esa estafa

En nuestras recientes vacaciones en Roma, mi esposo y yo tuvimos el desafortunado incidente de ser engañados en uno de sus museos, que decidimos compartir con otros para evitar que también cayeran en el mismo golpe. Esto sucedió el martes 3 de marzo de 2020, alrededor de las 11:20 a.m., en el Museo del Vaticano. Aunque avistamos un letrero que decía “Boletos en línea”, no había a la vista ningún letrero para boletos ordinarios. Mientras estábamos tratando de decidir o qué hacer, de alguna manera comenzamos a hablar con un hombre que estaba cerca, que se ofreció a mostrarnos el lugar para comprar los boletos. Lo seguimos por una calle lateral hasta una agencia de turismo. Un hombre al otro lado del mostrador nos ofreció boletos para una visita guiada, insistiendo en que esta era la única opción de boletos disponible, descontando aquellos comprados en línea. Temiendo que esta fuera nuestra última oportunidad de visitar el Museo del Vaticano, acordamos pagar el precio “con un descuento de niño”, 48€ por persona, para el próximo recorrido disponible en inglés, a las 12 del mediodía. Nos dieron dos sellos adhesivos de la gira, más el recibo.

Fuimos a tomar un café a una cafetería cercana para descansar y esperar. Justo antes de las 12 en punto, regresamos a la Agencia de Turismo, y nos unimos a seis o siete personas más, además de nuestro guía, un hombre de unos 40 años de edad, alto, corpulento, con cabello castaño oscuro y pantalones y camisa caqui desaliñados, y sosteniendo un paraguas doblado parcialmente extendido. Después de pasar la inspección de seguridad, un hombre que no habíamos visto antes, se acercó a nuestro grupo y le entregó a cada persona un boleto del Museo del Vaticano, con un precio de 17€. Nuestro guía luego nos llevó a una mesa para recoger receptores y auriculares individuales, después de lo cual lo seguimos a través de la entrada al museo, al lado del cual vimos una taquilla y varias personas comprando boletos regulares, sin guías.

Aunque estábamos muy molestos cuando nos dimos cuenta de que habíamos gastado 62€ más de lo necesario, nos resignamos a seguir nuestra guía con la esperanza de poder obtener información experta de él. Desafortunadamente, eso también fue una gran decepción. Ya en su primera y larga parada, todavía en el hall de entrada, comencé a sospechar que era un charlatán, cuando notó que mezclaba hechos históricos con religión, hablando de la construcción de la basílica de San Pedro en el sitio del cementerio de San Pedro, uno de los 12 apóstoles de Jesús. Me quedé segura de que era un charlatán durante su segunda parada, en el patio afuera del Museo, frente a algunos paneles que exhibían reproducciones de las pinturas en la Capilla Sixtina, donde pronunció un discurso aún más largo, comenzando con explicaciones de las escenas pintadas por Miguel Ángel y divagando sobre otros temas, como la unificación de Italia, la formación del Estado del Vaticano y, como la ‘Mona Lisa’ de Leonardo da Vinci, exhibidas en el Louvre de París, fueron adquiridas por el propio rey de Francia. Si la mayor parte de lo que dijo era información superficial, al menos su explicación de cómo la ‘Mona Lisa’ terminó en París estaba equivocada. Fue entonces cuando convencí a mi esposo de abandonar eso dudoso guía y visitar solos el Museo del Vaticano. Esa fue una sabia decisión que tomamos en ese día.  JPO, Reino Unido

Good-bye, Roger Scruton

Good-bye, Roger Scruton

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Roger Scruton on 12 January 2020, aged 75.

Scruton was shunned in his own country for exposing the follies and fallacies of the demi-Gods of the Left, such as Foucault, Derrrida, Althusser and Gramisci. In spite of all the hardships that he had to face, he succeeded in attaining the ‘good life’, which is the mark of all true philosophers.  May his life serve as a warning to all societies, of how easily it is to misjudge people, giving unwarranted praises to some and shunning the truly merited. The curse of postmodernism  exacerbated considerably this error of judgement.

I had the honour of meeting Scruton in 2012, in London, during the book signing section that followed the debate between him and the literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton, promoted by Intelligence Squared. Having introduced myself briefly, I told him that I had created a magazine called PortVitoria, hoping to disseminate the ideas of classical liberalism to a Portuguese and Spanish audience. I mentioned that I would like to translate some of his essays to publish in PortVitoria, and that I had already published there a review of his book Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet. When I explained that PortVitoria was a start-up and still unknown, he put me at ease by telling me that he too had edited a magazine that had only some twelve hundred subscribers. He was referring to The Salisbury Review, a ‘quarterly magazine of conservative thought’ founded in 1982, which he served as chief-editor for 18 years. Although The Salisbury Review has a digital edition, its original paper edition survives to this day. I was very happy when he told me that I could translate his essay ‘The Green and the Blue’ into Portuguese and Spanish, to publish PortVitoria. I will always treasure my signed copy of his book The Face of God (2012), where he wrote “To Jo, with best wishes”.  Good-bye, great philosopher.