Our sustainability depends on our developing knowledge of the natural world we inhabit and the deepening of our self-knowledge as a species. Humans have been asking probing questions about such matters for a long time. Big questions, such as: What’s out there? How did we get here? What’s this place made of? And what makes us human?
Our answers always have a cultural overlay. When we look back at older worldviews we sometimes can see the oversights that we don’t recognize in the viewpoints of our own times. The most nonsensical view today is that economic growth which destroys habitats and biodiversity can go on in perpetuity.
FROM SOUL TO MIND
The astronomically-curious Egyptians thought we had a heart-based connection to a universal cosmic spirit. While they knew our brain mattered in controlling our bodies, it was removed before mummification because it wasn’t considered crucial to the everlasting “soul”. Middle Eastern monotheism, including Christianity, was influenced by this tradition.
After the darker times of the Middle Ages and the coming of the Renaissance we started to see the human world more in terms of individuals with desires. During tumultuous revolutionary times the philosopher Descartes began to distrust our senses as a reliable path to understanding. He concluded that doubt implies a doubter which led to his famous “I think therefore I am”. Was it our ability to reason that made us human and empowered us to answer the Big Questions about the universe?
We investigated our bodies with more rigor. Willis and others explored the structure and function of our brains in shaping memory and human intellect. It was starting to look like we were getting close to explaining our unique makeup. Our highly developed cerebral cortex was surely the anatomical foundation of “reason” and of “mind”. But empires and early forms of globalization somehow went hand-in-hand with the growing faith in reason. Technological reason became ever-more linked to domination, the colonization of indigenous peoples and of the natural world itself.
Then Marx’s “mind” came on the scene, arguing that empires and economies were not naturally or divinely-ordained but controlled by historically-created classes and emerging systems of production. This certainly stirred things up. Then Darwin’s “mind” entered the fray. His lesser-known interest in animal emotions accelerated the dethroning of humans from our biological pedestal. We had gone from seeing ourselves in the stars, to becoming fixated with our capacity “to reason”, to facing up to the historical systems that led to “the exploitation of man by man”, to finally starting to recognize our kinship with the animal world.
Then, after witnessing clinical studies of hysteria, Freud began to change our view of mind. Descartes’ confidence in human reason was proving one-sided; unconscious emotions could transform our physical and psychological being. We were peeking into the world we now call “post-traumatic stress”. We were perplexing even more about “What makes us human?” Then, to confuse us even more, along came Einstein’s “mind” and we started down the path of deconstructing material reality, which now leaves us with a lot more space than matter and an ubiquitous dark energy. Just when we were beginning to think we knew about the universe we faced the question “what’s this place made of?” all over again.
RETURN OF CONNECTION
The invention of the camera by Cajal, and advances in transportation and communications, gave us a refreshing perspective on the Big Questions. We soon discovered that the human brain has billions of neurons and vast potential for forming networks. It was only a matter of time before we would better understand the neuro-plasticity of our brain. Computing machines were created, initially to accelerate the decoding of enemy messages during WW II. It was only a matter of time until the spread of desk-top computers, mobile electronics and social networking. From a different angle than the Egyptians, we were getting back to a focus on connectedness. We became more interested in making the most of being here, than in “How did we get here?”
Environmental degradation and the ecology movement reinforced the shift to place and inter-connectedness. We had gone “full circle”; coming from a heart-based connection with the stars, to the shaky mind of reason, to discovering the all-powerful role of systems and conditioned emotions in shaping ideologies, to seeing our massive potential for connecting. Our ideas, our images and even our relations to each other, could now grow in scale to include all of humanity. We were thrown into a human fusion and much confusion was to come as parochial worldviews began to implode.
Psychologists like Skinner and Pavlov helped us to ask how much of our behavior was shaped by environmental conditioning. Was our self-identity really guided by a rational self-interest? Was this just another historical delusion? Were we perhaps quite vulnerable to being socially-engineered? This view clashed with the idea of a “free individual” that had carried so much weight from the French to the American Revolution. Meanwhile, expanding systems of control, including totalitarian and corporatist ones, continued to show that humans were very susceptible to reward and punishment. All authoritarian governments, including the Harper government, use control tactics that appeal to this base nature.
Some of us are recoiling from the globalization of scientific and spiritual ideas and trying to make our customary views into a fundamentalist worldview. This is happening in many places around the world. It won’t work for we are all being thrown back to asking the Big Questions. Perhaps asking rather than answering questions is “what makes us human”.
A MISSING QUESTION
We now know our brains are capable of creating convincing models of reality. We know that these come from early conditioning, connecting neural-hormonal pathways that are as much emotional as cognitive. Descartes’ mind-body dualism is now dead, except perhaps in propaganda, advertising and celebrity- popular culture. We know that these models underlie strongly held perceptions that we stubbornly uphold even when they are illusory. (Goggle the Ames-Trapezoid Room.) When these interior models are taken to be external reality they can fuel adamancy and destructive human actions. The supremacist Norwegian who mercilessly killed so many youth because he believed they were pawns in the Muslim takeover of Europe shows this all too well.
Our perceptions and our identities are constructed by idiosyncratic inner processes that couldn’t develop without conditioning from the outside. Societal-organized harm easily gets linked to our not-so-private fantasy-dream world. So now, if we wish to become a sustainable species, we must also ask the additional question: “What’s in here?” And we need to answer this in such a way that we no longer separate ourselves or assume we know as an observer. We need to fully recognize that we co-habit this place with many other persons and a diversity of creatures.
I am indebted to Nigel Walk’s BBC documentary The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion: Who Are We? (Episode 6), for inspiring this piece. Look it up on the internet.