Field Notes on Observations Made on Planet earth
In ugly diametric opposition to that smarmy bit of popular folksy Pollyannaism that ‘Life is good’ stands the depressingly blunt (but fascinating) statement that ‘Life is a bitch.’ The dilemma that this qualitative duality poses is naturally limited exclusively to humanity, since lower orders of animals (fortunately for them) lack the ability to reason and consequently don’t waste precious time worrying about the quality of their lives. Theirs is therefore a more immediate or real-time experience than ours, since they lack the ability to weigh themselves down with aesthetically burdensome moralizations and systems of ethics, and are instead confronted with more immediate (and perhaps more existentially satisfying) concerns such as basic survival. Us erstwhile ‘higher evolved’ life forms are not quite as fortunate as our lesser evolved brethren is this regard, since it is this ability to make highly abstract qualitative assessments about the quality of life that is exclusively responsible for almost all of our endless human difficulties coping with life and the tragedy that often accompanies the process.
Whether one subscribes to one or the other of these edicts (life is basically good or basically bad) as a human being is often dictated first by the ability to reflect intellectually (intelligence), and second by the formative circumstances of one’s early life. Individuals who were brought up in a good conventionally religious environment (say, hypothetically speaking, in a Christian family) are taught that life is a good, positive thing, since within that conceptual paradigm life is a gift from a caring, concerned God or deity that has a purpose for creating us (no matter how mysterious it might seem, nor how far beyond our grasp that ‘purpose’ might be). One thereupon accepts the fact that we are here to somehow fulfill “His” inexplicable purpose and this in turn removes much of the burden of worry and concern about things that might otherwise seem a bit unhappy (i.e. “God’s will”, etc.), upon being subjected to cold, rational analysis. Thus these individuals embrace a personal philosophy that ‘Life is (basically) good’ and live their lives accordingly.
What about, on the other hand, those who do not subscribe to the concept that a deity has deliberately created humanity for some higher (unknown) purpose? Individuals in this group usually are not believers in religious deities and typically view the creation of human life as simply a ‘natural’ consequence of the convergence of physical (physio-chemical) forces within conditions that promote synergistic change and adaptive mutation. To these individuals, ethical concerns and questions of moral behavior lie not in the ‘hands’ of some omnipotent god, but rather fall upon ordinary human beings (who determine what is right, wrong, and good or bad).
A system that relies upon the whims of a god needs to create intermediary ‘communicators’ to interpret for that god, since ordinarily gods typically don’t reveal themselves directly to ordinary human beings (or the important and necessary ‘mystery’ stands revealed as mere human artifice); this class of interpreters who ‘translate’ the will of the god for ordinary people are called priests, kahunas, holy men, or any number of other things, according to the society or culture they are central to. The operative assumption is that they alone possess the intensity of faith, belief, wisdom, or other wherewithal to communicate with, understand, and perhaps even talk directly to the god in reference. Thus the morals, ethics, and behavioral norms of that culture (in theory) derive from a higher source than humanity. Or so goes the hypothesis.
It is interesting to note in passing that not all religions believe that their chief deity is a benevolent, well-intended, humane, and loving god, since human civilization has recorded literally thousands of ritualized religious schools of thought in which the chief god is in fact a brutal, violent, jealous, or possibly even psychologically crazed entity who demands blood sacrifice or arcane ritual tributes involving torture, etc., etc. What has set Christianity apart from many other religious cults (for the most part) is the concept of a humane, infinitely benevolent deity that offers higher meaning to imperfect, aesthetically corrupted mortal human beings in the midst of the random chaos that otherwise characterises human behavior. Chief among these ‘higher meanings’ is the promise of a reward after physical death has occurred (in the usual form of a metaphorical salvation, or ‘eternal life’). This aspect of Christian belief is not unique, since this premise figures substantially in a number of other popular religions found on Earth (Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, to name just three).
The circumstance that most sets modern Christianity apart from the many other religions on Earth is perhaps the fact that Christianity is the principal religious predilection of Americans, that unique culture of industrious and highly ingenious humans camped out on the North American continent, that has successfully welded an economic philosophy of material consumerism to its religion, using a foundation of science and technology to substantiate the resultant dogma and give it credible (so they think, at least) socio-economic under-pinnings. Christians more or less commonly believe the message of Christianity that a belief in (the Christian) god presupposes benevolence, love of one’s fellow creatures, and an overall intention of good will that extends to all human beings [Animals are usually excluded from that general benevolence in common application, although Christians can and do produce evidence when required from their ‘holy writings’ (i.e. the Christian Bible) to show that their ‘love’ extends to all creatures, human or animal (of course the chief fallacy here is that human beings themselves are merely animals that are slightly more highly evolved then their dumber fellow life forms)].
An interesting and curious observation, concerning the concept of ‘basic benevolence’ among religions such as Christianity, is that the strength of adherence to that doctrinal belief in ‘general good will’ is not only highly selective (due to many highly variable factors including intelligence, emotions, socialization, early training, and upbringing, to name just a few) and therefore greatly subject to individual interpretation, but influenced by many other circumstances including (bit not limited to) interpersonal socializing preferences, group associations, peer interactions, and so forth. Given these dynamics, the application of that belief (in overall good will) is often so diluted that it may as well not even be a consideration in any attempt to understand human behavior. In other words, the operative philologistic dialogue becomes: “God says….yes, BUT!”
Of course, all of the foregoing is merely useful context within which to understand the relatively insubstantial (and often capricious) nature of all human ethical systems governing modes of moral conduct human behavior; it shows them for what they are as rather insubstantial concepts and arbitrarily subject to a widely divergent range of highly contentious interpretations. In simple truth, the concept of ‘basic good will’ for all life is rather specious and precarious at best, even among erstwhile Christians for whom that core concept is firmly and deeply linked to the most basic essence of what might be termed as ‘good Christian philosophy’.
My purpose in putting all this out for consideration here is to illustrate the point that there are a wide range of factors that may be brought into play whenever questions of ‘right versus wrong’, ‘good versus bad’, and or ‘acceptable versus unacceptable’ are considered. Given the fact the interaction of all these dynamics is enormously variable in each and every situational circumstance involving human beings, there can not possibly be any uniformity of attitude, response, or even intent that may be relied upon to predict how any individual human being will react to specific stimuli. All that can be known is that, in much the same manner that a sea anemone in a tide pool involuntarily contracts into itself when prodded by a stick, so too will a human being ‘react’ unthinkingly and (usually) without any benefit of intelligent reflection beforehand when provoked.
Reflective intelligence requires several precursor conditions in order to be exercised adroitly, one of them being the luxury of sufficient time to consider the problem, analyse the factors involved, and respond in the manner most appropriate to resolve whatever conflict of interest (or understandings between individuals) may be implicit. Assuming the ‘reacting’ individual is a good Christian (or any believer in a faith that inordinately values basic benevolence), and sequence of reactions will surely conform to a precedent reactive hierarchy in which belief or faith trumps rational anaysis. In a threat situation, wherein an individual lacks that vital element of time to perform analytical assessments of intent, a purely reactive response based on raw emotional reactivity is predictably forthcoming.
Second only to the critical requirement for sufficient time to exercise reflective intelligence in an analysis is intelligence itself. Some might argue that intelligence is actually the more important precursor element here than the spatial element of time. Once again, when considering intelligence, mindfulness of the broad range of human intelligence is requisite for understanding, since as with all other dynamics that influence human behavior, basic ‘IQ’ is distributed throughout the species as randomly as any other essential human resource. Each individual human being is therefore as totally different from any other as a living organism may be, no matter at what level one regards the question of possible like-mindedness among individuals within any given group (i.e. social patterns of moral or ethical group behavior).
Systems of social organisation, such as any group, faith, culture, society, community, or alliance of like-minded individuals, attempt to organize their members by codifying and regulating their behavior in a manner consistent with the best interests of that group. Although a common set of ideals may be formulated and taught, ultimate compliance to those standards are inherently susceptible to variance, individual interpretation, and/or altered perceptions of individuals. In the case of a person possessed of higher or markedly superior intelligence, the application of the reflective awareness process has a substantial impact on exactly how the individual filters of perception are brought to bear upon any given set of codified standards (or questions of ‘appropriate’ social behavior).
By contrast, the process of reflective awareness on the part of a markedly inferior intelligence has little if any bearing on individual interpretation of uniform ideal standards of behavior, which are in most cases almost exclusively based on raw emotional reactivity (and not on latent reasoning ability, if any).
In common social situations each of us encounter and deal with on a daily basis, the role of ‘intelligent logic’ (‘applied reason’, if you will) ought to play a huge part in regulating interactions among individuals (or on a larger scale of application, among groups, societies, nations, civilizations, etc.), but logic, based as it is upon intelligent analysis, is a somewhat scarce commodity in any given circumstantial context. More often than not it is an unpredictable interplay of logic, intelligence, emotion, and intuitive reasoning that will come into play automatically and thereby predetermine the outcome of any human interaction. Therefore, while some outcomes are more likely than others, it can never be predicted in advance with full certainty what the actual given resolution of a conflict of human attitudes will be. The uncertainties that obtain are too myriad to allow for ordered prediction with any accuracy.
Among the reactive outlooks that are usually recurrently predictable among people of the Christian religion (when burdened with oppressive ‘Earthly’ trials and tribulations) is the attitude that ‘life is still good’, since the Christian god promises (by virtue of priestly assurances) that despite all of the tragedy, terror, grief, devastation, or whatever that is visited upon individuals by ‘God’, these afflictions are merely part of “His” greater plan that ultimately compensates all sufferers with a heavenly reward that makes temporarily ‘unbearable’ sorrow bearable (one of the constants of humanity is its apparently infinite ability to tolerate pain, suffering, misery, and misfortune—as long as there is a suitably irrational belief system in place to ‘explain’ things). This is eminently congruent with the ‘glass is half full’ attitude rather than ‘the glass is half empty’ outlook that is so inherently optimistic (and so essentially Christian).
People who do not subscribe to ‘faith-based’ explanations of otherwise mystifying hardships (and who do not allow themselves to accept religious reassurances that seemingly arbitrary severe personal ordeals are only a necessary test of faith) are forced to look elsewhere for their reassurance. That usually means turning to themselves and their own devices for whatever comfort and/or deliverance may be attainable. In keeping with that argument, it takes exceptional strength of will and spirit to accept the fact that there is nothing beyond one’s own reserves to draw upon, for if one presumes that there is no reward after all for enduring hardship in life, it suddenly becomes clear that there really are no absolute rules in life to abide by, other than that single most ascendantly important rule that governs all life (biological) on the planet: survival of the fittest.
Another way of interpreting this realization, interestingly enough, is that ‘all bets are off’. That is, ‘anything goes’, for it follows that if there is no absolute set of behavioral rules that must (according to the sacred dogmas associated with a deity) be embraced and stringently subscribed to, there is little meaningful constraint acting upon anyone to preclude formulating and imposing their own set of rules (except a lack of sufficient authority and/or might to enforce them) by which to live.
This concept, while vastly dangerous in itself and implicitly threatening to any conventionally based system intended to assure social order, is just as valid in the greatest possible context as one in which a hypothetical god imposes strict rules of human conduct on people. If one accepts the fact that truely factual knowledge of any absolute truth about the ‘meaning’ of life is a categorical impossibility, then there are also no categorical imperatives requisite of observation by humanity concerned with how to live (save those we arbitrarily impose upon ourselves) appropriately. Scary stuff indeed.
Despite the admittedly frightening potential of the above realization, fortune has smiled upon the human race by assuring that only a small and relatively inconsequential percentage of human beings will ever arrive at that conclusion, by virtue of the fact that a great preponderance of human beings are marginally or grossly below the mean level of intelligence required to even arrive at that conclusion. Consider this a biological insurance policy against the possibility of the human race ever realizing as a whole that there is no greater meaning in life than merely existing.
Awareness of this possibility is simultaneously frightening and hilarious beyond comprehension, since it would seem that nature has somehow endowed one of its many terrestrial life forms with a frustratingly complex aggregate of abilities almost guaranteed to create confused despair in any supposedly ‘sentient’ being. In humanity, the capability of being able to attempt a reasoned analysis of the unreasonable in particular is an enormously amusing circumstance to entertain. At the very same time such thoughts are often entirely sufficient to provoke irredeemably suicidal despair, if one is not strong enough spiritually to cope with the unimaginably horrible possibilities that derive there from. Greater minds than we can conceive of have, over the course of recorded history, repeatedly thrown themselves off that steep, sheer cliff of ‘unreason’ into the abyss of both corporeal and metaphysical destruction, confronted by insanities such as this.
But only the truly sensitive and exquisitely intelligent are characteristically jeopardized by the possibilities of spiritual devastation of this magnitude. As previously stated, those whose intellectual gifts are substantially inferior are not subject to the same threat, nor are they capable of being concerned by anything even approaching it, since low intelligence is quite often accompanied by congruent irrational beliefs that require almost no rational reflection…most often in the form of a religion (that ironically allows the more intelligent of the species to control the behavior of the less intelligent on the planet for whatever purpose they deign advantageous). This usually takes the express form of ‘potential for personal profit at the expense of others’. Given this random spread of intelligence quotient seemingly favored by the unknowable processes that underlie human biological evolution, and the persistent need for some sort of explanation about what life is all about by nearly all who possess the curse of reason, exploitation of the many by the few has been a notable hallmark of socially organized human civilization since shortly after the human brain developed sufficiently to permit philosophical self-reflection.
Every now and then across America one runs across a T-shirt message (usually worn by some marginally adjusted pseudo-sociopathic personality also garbed in camouflage pants) that states “KILL ‘EM ALL AND LET GOD SORT ‘EM OUT!”. Typically favored by those who are obsessed by firearms in particular (or possibly those who are simply mesmerized by the ‘glorious’ chaos of warfare itself), and invariably far right of center on the political spectrum, considered from any conventionally ‘humanely sane’ outlook. The phrase would be immediately offensive to anyone brought up within the sanitized confines of a religiously devout family (or community), since it seems to clearly espouse criminal disregard for the supposed sanctity of human life.
Seen from another (equally valid) viewpoint, however, there is nothing in the least startling about the idea, given the long history of popular homicidal and genocidal manias that have swept humanity throughout recorded history. As understood by someone of the Christian religion (or for that matter any other religion wherein humanity is cast in the image of a deity), human life is sacred, since what is a human being, if not the imperfect and flawed replication of the Christian god’s own hypothesised image (or so goes the usual dogma); to kill another human is therefore sacrilege of the worst sort and unquestionably a sin by most conventional Western religious understandings.
For someone who doesn’t believe in a god, and whose behavior is accordingly not subject to influence by the dictates of some supernatural deity, killing another human being has no greater significance other than the fact that it simply comprises the functional removal of one more consumer of resources with whom the rest of humanity is in principal competition (Thomas Malthus, Robert Darwin, et al). That is not to allow for the fact that human moral standards may also provide ample justification for the censure of murder, but in the latter case the authority is purely of human origin and not divine.
What are the functional inhibiting dynamics that make taking human so heinous, if not for the fuzzy dogma that poses as the ‘word’ of some deity? In other words, if there are no divine inhibitions, what could conceivably constitute an effective human sanction against murder (or its broader forms, mass murder and acts of genocidal extermination)? One very strong inhibition certainly could be seen as being immediate personal retribution, or the revenge of those who are related to a victims (or victims). Another less compelling inhibitor might be an aversion to causing pain and suffering that is not based upon a religious belief as much as it might be on hyper-sensitised personal empathy. Still a further inhibitor might be seen as a belief that life has a sort of inherently secular ‘sacredness’ of its own. There are many possibilities and theology has no franchise on awareness that the taking of human life is somehow uncondonable.
Seen however, from the vantage of formidable power, such as that enjoyed by a supremely powerful popular leader, there are few if any inhibiting influences to prevent the exercise of what the covert world of espionage and intelligence calls ‘terminal prejudice’. This has in fact been the case thousands of times throughout history, when the intoxicating nature of absolute power has created monsters to whom human life, even millions of human lives, means absolutely nothing at all. Ghengiz Khan, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Stalin, et al……the list is long and nearly endless in the broader accounting noted throughout the recorded history of the human species.
Clearly, there is much about the human race that gives pause for thought to an outworlder. More observations will undoubtedly follow this one.