Monday, June 11, 2007

Putting us in our place

Based on some thoughts I had while considering some of my recent posts, I decided it would be useful to consider or reconsider things I have said or heard in the past regarding humanity's place in the cosmos. I am not trying to build straw-men cases either. These are genuine thoughts and statements I have had at some point or that I have encountered...

Humans tend to be egocentric, ethnocentric, and taxocentric (I made that last one up from the root taxonomy, or system of naming and classification - it refers to the self-importance of a species over the value of other species).

I agree.

There is no meaning in the universe except what we make up for ourselves. We are just designed by natural selection to survive and reproduce and there is nothing else to life.

I have written before that I believe meaning is inherent to existence itself (see here and here for some examples), which should not be misconstrued with purpose. Purpose is addressed by the second half of the above statement, which is a subtle variety of the "ought-is" fallacy connected to the naturalistic fallacy by way of presuming that all features are adaptive. Yeah... OK, let's say it another way: 1) just because an organism possesses a particular feature or a particular type or variety of that features does not necessarily mean it is an adaptation, and 2) adaptations are a consequence of the fortuitous meeting of novelty and selection in a suitable environmental context. Neither natural or sexual selection nor the organism itself "wills" the biological novelties upon which adaptations are based into existence, so to refer to the outcome of such processes (which are in turn the consequences of the properties of living organisms) as the "purpose(s)" of life is invokes a principles considered a no-no in evolutionary theory called teology. In evolution teleological arguments were labeled the Panglossian paradigm after a fictional character who remarked that people have noses so that they have something on which to wear their spectacles.

It is clearer and more accurate to talk in terms of qualities, properties, and their resulting interactions and processes as either generating or allowing certain results, depending on which is more appropriate in a given context. For example, certain genetic and extra-genetic information can be said to generate particular features, such as eyes, by guiding the developmental processes of an organism. Having eyes allows one to perceive a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum which is appropriately enough called visible light. However, it would be presumptuous and unsupportable (and again teleological) to claim that an organism has eyes because of the (adaptive) "need" for sight. In the same way, the properties of organisms generate biological novelty and react to forces distributing this novelty (including selection), which in turn permits the continued existence of populations of organisms through successful reproduction. Adaptations, while very cool and exciting, are the (useful) byproducts of these processes, not the "goal" or "purpose" of the existence of living things. To borrow and modify a phrase from those healthy eating types, "We adapt to live, we don't live to adapt".

Humans are just another unique species.

I agree.

Religion and spirituality always reinforces and feeds off of the idea that humans are extra-special in the grand scheme of the universe.

I mostly disagree - that sentiment is a feature of some, even many, forms of different sacred traditions and spiritual paths but it is a little misleading and not a fair characterization of all religions. I don't deny the prevalence of such thinking, but I also reject such thinking, both outright and as a necessary element of spirituality/religion.

Humans are just a fluke of nature like every other species and like life itself. The idea of connecting to some kind of transcendence is just another unwarranted conceit - why would only humans be deserving of the attention of some Greater Power.

I disagree that life should be considered a fluke of nature. There is no real reason to assume it isn't a regular feature of the universe or that the circumstances under which it can develop are so rare as to be miraculous. While I agree that humans we cannot demonstrate that humans (or something close) were a guaranteed or even likely outcome of the development of life on this planet, that in and of itself does not trivialize the uniqueness or value of humanity.

On the issue of connection, I think that something that tends to distinguish humans, our ability for creative abstraction, is an important element in spirituality. Because we can separate a clear sense of an internal "subjective" reality and an external "objective" reality, and because we can rearrange elements of perceptions and memories in original combinations, humans can lose themselves replaying the past, pondering the future, or considering altered versions of the past, present, or future in vivid detail. This in turn can lead to a strong disconnect from the reality unfolding constantly around us as our sophisticated, personalized assumptions about how the world works influences our perception through the lens of our conscious and subconscious expectations.

I don't believe in the traditional views of some Greater Power who consciously takes a special interest in the affairs of sentient beings such as the members of Homo sapiens, but I do think that spirituality can be a way for such beings to make their way back through all those layers of habituated thinking to a clearer appreciation of reality and our fundamental union with all things. If another species, say, Orangutans, were to develop similar cognitive abilities and get lost in our type of distracted living, they might find such spirituality necessary and beneficial as well. In my view religion and spirituality isn't necessarily a sign of superiority but a response to a consequence, perhaps a deficiency, caused by the extreme elaboration of our neocortex.


Just to flesh out a tangential note, people often talk about certain concepts in religion. In Christianity this concept is known as Original Sin. In the mythical narrative, this occurs when Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil after being commanded not to do so by God. My take on that story is hardly original, but I find the story to be very revealing. In my opinion the ability to develop a basis for ethics and a sense of morality relies, as I have stated repeatedly for many years, on the ability to recognize others as ourselves in an empathetic response. This is why so many ethical rules boil down to the Golden Rule of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Jesus phrased it as his primary challenge to those who who would follow him - love your neighbor as you love yourself.

If one adds imagination and reflection to such self-awareness, let alone the enhanced capacity this brings for other-awareness, one goes beyond the forms of empathy and concern shown by mammals generally to forms seen only in apes and uniquely in humans. I suspect that the capacity for such love and compassion arose with the capacity for neglect and indifference. This corresponds, then, to eating of the fruit of the Tree. I also think it offers a potential answer to many learning about Buddhism and concepts such as delusion and ignorance who ask "When did this begin?" On the one hand, it doesn't matter when it began - five minutes ago or many kalpas (i.e. eons and eons) ago. However, just for the sake of pondering, I suspect it began for our particular species thirty thousand to one hundred twenty thousand years ago (depending on which paleoanthropologist you ask to try to estimate the date for the emergence of our current form of sentience).

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