Monday, May 30, 2016

No ghost in the machine: is humankind suffering of a global Alzheimer disease?

The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe. It is also fragile, and prone to malfunctioning. Civilization is also a complex system, fragile and prone to malfunctioning. Perhaps some ailments of the human brain, such as the Alzheimer disease, have their equivalent at the civilization level.  (image source)

My parents had been married for 58 years when my mother died. That was a terrible loss for my father, then 86 years old, and I was much worried about his health. But I was relieved when I saw that, after a few months, he seemed to have recovered from the shock. He remained active and he could manage his everyday life without special assistance. He could take the bus, alone, and walk alone in the neighborhood. He even made new friends and spent time with them.

However, something was wrong with my father. Terribly wrong.

I remember a conversation that my father had, at that time, with my son about some plants that were growing on a steep slope of the garden. He wanted to cut them down and my son, who is a geologist, was trying to explain to him that it wasn't a good idea; the roots of these plants were keeping the ground of the slope stable. But my father didn't agree and he insisted that he wanted to get rid of those plants. I watched that conversation, more and more distressed, while my father kept building up all sorts of arguments to counter my son's ones. Jumping from one subject to the other, he was able to move the conversation in a cycle; never really answering on any point, but always switching to something else. It went on, perhaps, for one hour and it ended with my father not having budged of an inch from his position, leaving me and my son looking at each other, baffled.

That conversation was the first evidence of the onset of the Alzheimer disease for my father. At that time, I didn't really understand that, mainly because I didn't want to. But the symptoms kept mounting until my father died at 92, his mind gone. Nevertheless, for a few years, he managed to hide very well the symptoms of his mental decline. He was both intelligent and brilliant and he had developed all sorts of strategies to avoid finding himself trapped in a situation that would show his problem. He would get out of troubles by a joke, a witty comment, a humorous quip, or simply by changing subject.

But my father could get away with his problem only with acquaintances. For the members of his family, his condition was evident. Maybe you know the metaphor of the "ghost in the machine;" it says that there is a little ghost in the brain or somewhere that controls the bigger machine that's the human body. That ghost wasn't inside my father anymore. He was gradually becoming something like an answering machine, a very sophisticated one, but a machine. He was like one of those computer programs that purport to simulate human intelligence. He would be able to speak to people, and even to answer to them in ways that seemed to be superficially correct. But, like an answering machine, he wasn't really listening, the ghost was gone.

This story of some years ago came back to my mind as I was reading an article by David Dunning, titled "The Psychological Quirk That Explains Why You Love Donald Trump" You may know Dunning in relation to the "Dunning-Kruger" effect, a feature of the human mind that makes people convinced that they are competent in some subject, and that makes them the more convinced, the less they know about that subject. Or course, the Dunning-Kruger effect is not the same thing as the Alzheimer disease, but in his article Dunning highlights the fact that there is a mental problem with many people engaged in the political debate. I think it is true. There is such a problem.

When I read or hear Donald Trump's statements, I can't avoid thinking about that ill-fated conversation when my father argued with my son about cutting those plants in the garden. It was the same kind of exchange: people who just appear to be debating, but aren't really understanding each other. In the political statements by Donald Trump, I see something of the way my father would react during the initial stages of the disease. The same unsupported statements shot at random, the same absolute certainty shown by someone who, really, had no idea about what he was speaking about.

That doesn't mean that I can say that Donald Trump has Alzheimer. He might, others seem to have noticed that there is something badly wrong in the way he behaves (h/t Clark Urbans for the link). But there is no way to diagnose Alzheimer with any certainty when it is in its early stages. However, the problem is not specifically with Donald Trump. No; this sensation of discussing with an Alzheimer patient comes often to me when following a political discussion in the media or in the comments of a blog or on social media. The debate doesn't seem to be among people who listen to each other. Rather, it seems to be among people who throw statements at each other as if they were tennis balls. Think of tennis players: they are not interested in the color of the ball they play with, only to throw the ball back to their opponents as fast as possible. So, in these debates, people don't seem to be interested in the meaning of what's being told to them, just to throw something back at their opponents as fast as possible.

Do you know the political tactics called the "Gish Gallop"? It consists in drowning an opponent in a torrent of arguments, one after the other, ignoring the counter-arguments. It can be used by perfectly sane people, but, at the same time, it is the ideal strategy to conceal one's mental disease. It describes very well the strategy that my father used for that purpose. So, those people whom we call trolls, are they just nasty, or are they sick? How many people in high-level position could be affected by the Alzheimer disease and yet be smart enough to hide the early symptoms? We already had a president, Ronald Reagan, who may have been in the early stage of Alzheimer during the last period of his presidency. That may not have caused big problems, but don't you have the sensation that the world is ruled by people affected by some form of dementia?

Could it be that we suffer from an Alzheimer-like civilization disease? That would explain why civilization never arrives at doing something useful about the terrible threats if faces, first of all, climate change. Maybe there really is no ghost in the machine we call civilization. It is a giant machine that stumbles around while arguing with itself in an endless squabble and getting nowhere.


My father, Giuliano Bardi (1922-2014) was an architect and a high school teacher. As an architect, he didn't have the chance to build many structures, but those that he built show the cleanliness of lines that was typical of the modernist school of architecture. He designed and had built the house where he lived until his death and where his family still lives today. I remember him for his keen spirit of observation that made him able to discover unsuspected details on anything. He was also a brilliant teacher, much loved by his students. So much that at his funeral many of them remembered him well enough that they came to say farewell to him for the last time.   


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)