Sunday, February 28, 2010
Rabbit Morphine and the Building of the New Compassion
In nature, there exists vastly less morality than we are able to muster. Apart from a paltry kindness expressed between kin of some higher order species, nature on whole is a cauldron of relentless violence. We are the sole creature who has evolved sentience, the ability to consciously reflect upon our world in a significant way. With our highly evolved minds, we have ironically developed both the ability to experience profound and prolonged suffering, and again to witness and recoil from it in others. For millennium we have fought one another bitterly, summoning our extraordinary cognitive powers to concoct amazing spiritual universes within which we live out our short little lives, experiencing the beauty and tragedy that is work, love, and death.
But within our lonely fingernail, it is only a tiny fraction thereof in which man has had anything like the profound resources of reflection that science has provided for us to pursue meaningful progress towards our ultimate goal of happiness and fulfillment in life. The moral arc of the universe, expressed most fully in man, has been a slow and plodding slog. Yet we are just now finally reaching the shores of a biological promised land of sorts, in which we are finally able to deliver to our feeble selves, on a universal basis, a platform from which true happiness is possible for all.
The Present Does Not Exist
One way to the think of the mind is as a razor blade, demarcating past from future. What we call the present is merely a useful conceptual illusion intended to create for us a sense of purpose. In the time it takes for us - our mind - to create a thought and then experience it, what was the future becomes the present for a split second, and is instantaneously the past. For most of us, the present is generally rarely experienced at all. Even in our most quiet moments, our minds are aflutter with mental commotion. When our thoughts are composed of little more than say, the oddity of the way a beam of light is glancing upon the kitchen counter top, or the strange motions of a pet in dream, there is no present.
The less neurotic among us likely experience more moments where no conscious thought is present at all. At these times we simply seem to float upon a bed of emotional reverie, vacantly indulging in the vague sensations of existence. The present is actually quite rare. We only genuinely experience something like it when we are actively reminded for some reason to turn our gaze markedly inward toward the passing seconds. But even here, we are not really perceiving a present. Rather, we are anticipating the seconds as they come and then noticing that they have passed.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
What went before determines what will be. What we think of as the future is simply a projection from the past. And as we are not in control of the past, we are not in control of the future. We simply experience its transfer. Our ability to predict our future (our actions) is only as good as our ability to project our past (our experiences) into the future, whether consciously or via processes that are unavailable to us as a coherent force yet are nonetheless a driving force behind decision making, if not often the sole determining force. The array of choices I see before me is only representative of what my past is able to provide for me. The degree to which I feel compelled to do anything, I will or will not make that choice. And so it is with my ultimate ability to choose one course of action. I am only as strong as I was. And I was only as strong as I was before that. And so on, and so on - back into my developing conscious mind.
In the abstract, any man can do anything that any man can do. But in reality, one man can only do the one thing that that man can do. This is what he will do. Just as if you knew the physical properties of the motion of every atom in a rainstorm, you would know exactly where a drop of rain will blow, if you knew the physical properties of every atom in a man's mind, you would know what he will do. We may not know every atom in a man's brain, but we are working on it. Pedantic quantum scientists will argue here that because it is impossible to know the precise location of sub-atomic particles, and therefore impossible to ever perfectly determine the future based on physical projections, we must realize that the thought experiment succeeds in principle. We are fully caused.
The Process Has Already Begun
We are beginning to map the neural circuitry of the mind. We know the general regions involved in specific cognitive processes. Higher-order thinking involves an overwhelming degree of inter-related patterning, making a detailed analysis of individual thoughts seemingly impossible. But at the personal level we have psychology to give us reliable data on the human psyche. And at the macro level we have sociological research that gives reliable data on broad trends among human groups according to characteristics.
For the past 100 years humans have slowly been building a sort of behavioral genome. From genetics to birth, from early childhood to adulthood, we have been mapping what goes into the human mind, what the mind then does with it, and how we then act. We have data from many different modalities, all reinforcing the scientific model that is slowly allowing us to finally step outside of our own illusion of self and see the true being that we have ever only been able guess at.
The truly beautiful part, is that the closer we come to this goal of truly knowing ourselves, the closer we get to knowing others. And the closer we get to knowing others, the more compassion we will be capable of. This compassion, based entirely in our own basically selfish desire for happiness and fulfillment, will ultimately be what allows us to enable each other to realize that dream - to the best of our ability - for every living member of planet Earth.
Onward, Evolutionary Soldiers
What's next is anyone's guess. My own question is how far we end up extending this New Compassion to the rest of the animal kingdom. To the degree that they are capable of experiencing what we think of as happiness and fulfillment, how far will we go in seeking to provide them our help. The natural order of the planet is neither happiness or suffering, but the purely technical process of natural selection. If a species' survival depends upon its constant suffering, there is no reason that it would not have evolved a sort of living hell. But these are question that may not need to be asked for generations, if were to be so lucky. There is much work to be done within our own species and its direct impact upon itself and other creatures. But I think sending aid workers out to administer morphine to dying mammals is certainly plausible.
There have of course been plenty of examples of peaceful societies throughout history. Likewise, there have been peaceful families, and peaceful individuals. And yet the violence has always been terrific. Scientists still disagree as to what extent humanity has an evolved predisposition toward war. But we know more now than ever before how to construct societies that provide happiness and fulfillment on a massive scale. We are no where close to world peace, and it could all come crashing down rather easily. Yet if the human mind, voracious in its attempt to expand its own consciousness, is destined to communicate with others in this quest it will inevitably grow ever more cognizant of what it is and how to get where it wants to go. Either as a byproduct of this effort, or just as the road upon which it must travel, compassion towards others will only grow stronger and stronger. It is built into the process, just as we are built into ourselves. In our quest to know who we are, we know each other. This is our destiny.