The Great Experiment

26 06 2015

Bard Owl

Back to contemplating Meaning and Being while my book goes to the printer.

How does a person decide was is right? Right conduct, right priorities, right choices in who to be and whom to be with. Nearly all of us grapple with this question at one time or another, some of us more than others. We tend to buy our life philosophies off the rack. The easiest path is the one we were brought up with. Catholic, Baptist, Jewish; Democrat, Socialist, Conservative; we have ingrained guidelines, and if we are in doubt, there are authorities we can turn to.

Or, we can poke around and find out what else there is to believe, and pick something congenial. New Age Pagan perhaps, or Buddhist, or just choose a guru whose preachings resonate with you. Deepak Chopra or Dr. Wayne Dyer, or even Earl Holt III.

But why choose one over another? If we just take on a life philosophy like a suit, why ever question it? Why would a child grow to question the wisdom of a parent, or a priest question the teachings of a church? What causes that gut reaction of, “Yes, that makes sense to me,” or “No, they’ve got that wrong.”?

Because at the heart of it, we all have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. Even monkeys and dogs have a sense of justice. Much as we might want to shrug off responsibility for making moral choices, deferring to authority rather than making our own judgements and risking being wrong, the moral buck stops with us. There is some unconscious part of us that reacts to ideas and behaviors, judging them valid or invalid. And like so much else about us humans, it varies wildly.

So we can throw up our hands and embrace nihilism, relativism, or some other brand of Nothing Matters So Why Bother, or we can accept the rules of the game as given and work with them. We have to make choices. We might at well do our best to make enlightened ones.

It is quite likely that we can thank evolution for what we are, including our subconscious impulses. Empathy and cooperation solidified bonds among individuals in a group and enhanced their survival. But under some circumstances, selfish, anti-social behavior worked better, and so that was perpetuated, too. Sometimes embracing novelty is good. Sometimes sticking to what’s tried and true is good. Life is complicated and different strategies work depending on the situation. Humans excel at adapting. Our behavior can be extremely variable, thus we have an arrow in the quiver for whatever game we find.

So here we are, billions of individuals, all running a massive experiment in which life philosophy works best. Is it better to identify the enemy and destroy them? Or is it better to overcome differences and create alliances? Should we be socialistic, or ruggedly independent? Worship and obey without question, or refuse to cooperate when we think authority is wrong?

Each of us has a role to play in this vast experiment. We see how, over time, even within institutions like an organized religion, rules and beliefs change considering what works and what doesn’t. We don’t stone adulterers to death anymore. At one time, that made sense to pretty much everyone. But it proved to be a bad policy which most of us have rejected. There are still individuals out there who would advocate for it (in Saudi Arabia for example); that gut reaction hasn’t completely died out yet. But our social evolution would appear to favor mercy over retribution.

As communication improves (thank you, Internet) we have much more to consider. We have many alternatives to what we were brought up with. If we are the sort who feels that breaking the bonds of tradition is a good thing, we can strike out on our own and build a life philosophy that suits us precisely, then share it with others to see if it resonates with them. We can continue to tweak and fine-tune our philosophy as we try to live it and encounter problems. We run the experiment for ourselves. What tends to work better? Reaching out to others, or minding my own business? Trust or suspicion? Self-indulgence or self-discipline?

By my way of thinking, a practice works if it tends towards happiness and away from suffering. And by happiness I don’t necessarily mean pleasure. I mean the sort of inner peace and satisfaction that makes a person feel their life is good. And because people who feel that way are much better to be around, I want happiness for as many others as possible. So this is my contribution to the great experiment. I find Buddhism congenial, have a great respect for science, tend towards liberalism and socialism. I value compassion and empathy, and believe that being concerned with the happiness of others contributes to my own happiness. This is the life philosophy I am building (it is a work in progress) based on the person I am.

Each of us does this, more or less, consciously or unconsciously. With our nearly infinite variability, we contribute to the experiment.

And over time, the best philosophy shall succeed.

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11 responses

26 06 2015
heretherebespiders

Hope that time comes soon! We are taking an awfully long look at it 🙂

26 06 2015
justinegraykin

I hear you! But seriously, we are a very young species relative to the other beings with whom we share this world, and even five thousand years is nothing in evolutionary terms. You could just as easily say our progress has been stunningly rapid, when you consider how long we remained at the hunter/gatherer stage of our social evolution.

26 06 2015
heretherebespiders

This is true – we stagnated a long time. I wonder why? Do you think we are past that stage as a species, or is it just science and technology that have advanced?

26 06 2015
justinegraykin

In my humble opinion, information is the key. When information was coded chemically, and passed on genetically, progress could only move at the pace governed by that process. When brains began to develop, more information could be accumulated and stored, and learning could be passed on to offspring. As brains grew, the rate accelerated. Then humans began sharing knowledge with each other through trade. But as hunter/gatherers, our population was small, spread out, and we tended to be hostile to other tribes. Sharing of information in an oral culture worked well, but we couldn’t expand much on it. Hence the stagnation. But those who overcame hostility towards “others” and were willing to learn from them gained an advantage, and thus trade of information as well as goods became a successful human strategy.

Our social evolution began gaining speed as that philosophy of inquiry and exploration began out-competing the philosophy of suspicion and isolationism.
Some populations experimented with conquest as a means of acquiring goods, wealth, and the information which leads to advantage. This worked, but not as well as tolerance and mutual respect. Historically, the greatest success in the advancement of knowledge and science (and arts, too, a different sort of information) came in centers where many different cultures could safely interact in a spirit of tolerance.

But the big jump happened with writing. Information could be preserved and passed along easily to others as well as to future generations. Science began a systematic and dedicated process of acquiring, evaluating, and sharing information, building on it and expanding it. And now, the Internet. In just a generation information technology has caused a mind-blowing expansion of ideas and strategies, of accessing and evaluating information. We can systematically examine the Great Experiment and almost instantly share successes and identify failures. Folks, now we’re really cookin’!

So yes, biologically we are virtually identical to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, but thanks to the plasticity of our brains and our ability to adapt culturally, we are making grand progress if you look at the long term. Science and technology aren’t just the toys we play with; they are the fundamental key that allows us to move forward and shed the strategies that don’t work, changing who we choose to be as a species.

26 06 2015
Mary Jolles

Democracy is a good example of a philosophy/work in progress, in which people struggle to govern themselves and yet take care of each other at the same time. It’s not the most efficient form of government re safety and security, and sometimes people long for the governance of the “benevolent dictator” (is there such a thing?). Democracy takes a lot of getting used to, even for people born within the state that has adopted it as a governing mechanism. It’s hard work, yet within it are encompassed two values we hold dear: independence for ourselves and responsibility for others. Will democracy survive? We’ll see!

26 06 2015
Jeff

I believe there is an objective force that is the sole arbiter of right and wrong and that force leaves its imprint on humanity. That is why, in principle, there are some rights and wrongs that are generally accepted across all cultures. Trying to determine the correct moral code is kind of like putting the cart before the horse. I believe that trying to be in concert with that one objective force will, as a by-product, guide us in our moral choices. Just my perception. I know I may be like a fish out of water here, but I thought I would chime in anyway.

26 06 2015
justinegraykin

Glad you weighed in, Jeff. You are not alone in this perception. This force you refer to sounds a great deal like what many would call God. And in fact, they would argue that they are following God’s voice, or the voice of their conscience, which is guided by divine will. Although I don’t have that perception, it is common enough that it shouldn’t be dismissed. It’s part of what makes us human. Do you think of this objective force as being supernatural? Or an undiscovered physical principle? Personal, like many think God is?

27 06 2015
Jeff

Thanks for the welcome. Actually, I do think it is personal. It would have to be, I think, to have a moral agenda (for lack of better word). I didn’t call it “God” because when “God” is introduced into a conversation, often times these preconceived notions come into play for those who do not like the idea of God. I find that it sometimes kills the conversation and I think that is unfortunate. I think there is a lot that can be learned from perceptions not our own on every side of the issue.

27 06 2015
justinegraykin

I’ve observed how “God” has become nearly meaningless, because it carries so many, often contradictory, meanings. Wise of you to choose different, more specific, language to express the concept. As a philosopher, I feel it is part of my job, if you will, to try to understand perspectives different from my own, not to judge them as right or wrong, but as different phenomena. If an individual claims that God speaks to them, I need to try to unpack that, find out what they mean, what they are experiencing, even though I have never had an experience like that myself. Or perhaps especially because I’ve never had that experience. They can teach me something new.

I have heard some very interesting talks on the subject of perception and reality. We have a tough time explaining consciousness in terms of a purely biological phenomenon, produced by the brain as we understand it to be. It has been suggested that our perceptions of reality have evolved not so much to allow us to see reality as it is, but to see reality in a way that maximizes its useful aspects. Mystics talk about training themselves to be able to directly perceive reality in a different way, as a vast consciousness that we can merge with. It may very well be that your objective force, and what many refer to as God, or a higher power, or a cosmic consciousness, is an aspect of the universe which is closer to reality than the reality we commonly perceive.

27 06 2015
Jeff

I want to thank you for hosting such an open discussion on the subject. I think you and I see the discussion in the same way, even if we do not necessarily perceive the subject itself in the same way.

I do believe that the force that I am talking about dwells in a plane that is more of a reality in the physical world we live in. The experience I have with it seems to guide me in the thought that this world is more of a shadow of that world – that our physical package (our bodies and minds) is just a necessary interface that we need to be here. But because of that “package,” we are consumed in this world with many of us not even being able to see anything passed it.

27 06 2015
justinegraykin

You might find this TED talk interesting. It deals with what we are discussing: https://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is?language=en#t-111356

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