In a study such as this one, it’s necessary to define one’s objectives as clearly as possible. So these are the questions I want answers to. There is an element of incongruity in this, however. One of the premises of this book is that no human is capable of finding definitive answers to these questions or even of fully understanding them if they did.
But I still have to ask.
What is the reality in which humans find themselves, and what are its essential features? How does our perception of reality restrict our understanding of it?
How did consciousness come to be, what seem to be its main characteristics, and what have been the consequences of its emergence?
What is a human? How have humans interacted with each other? Why have humans interacted with each other in the ways that they have?
How have humans attempted to understand the reality in which they find themselves, and how have they acted on what they believed to be their understanding?
What are the variables that have affected or are affecting human history, and in what ways do they seem to interact with each other?
Why has human history taken so many unexpected turns? Why have human affairs generally been in disarray? Why has it been impossible to predict the direction of human affairs? Why do humans so often find themselves overwhelmed by the world?
What might the human prospect be, and what, ultimately, is our place in the Universe?
Propositions and Premises
Before we dive into the heart of this book, I think you have a right to be told explicitly what my assumptions, assertions, hypotheses, and perspectives are. So here you go:
All of our propositions, including naturally all of the ones I am presently positing, are based on a point of view which is unalterably human. All of our definitions and our understanding are predicated on the anatomy and physiology of the human nervous system and the way in which that system typically creates the experience of consciousness. (Even the term "nervous system" is, in itself, a human mental construct.) Therefore, every attempt to use language to describe our experience is inherently limited.
The human frame of reference is inescapable and no examination of our condition can be anything except “subjective” (however that term may be defined). It is logically impossible for humans to stand outside human definitions, perceptions, interpretations of perceptions, or human mental constructs. The human perspective is the only one of which we are capable, and we cannot climb out of it in any way. This study, therefore, will inevitably be a victim of its own assumptions. Its author cannot escape the limits of his own perspective, nor can any potential reader.
Emergence is a fundamental quality of reality. Chaos resolves into a level of order, which resolves into a higher level of order, and so on.
Either mathematical probability or another in a series of periodic events triggered the beginning of the Universe. From the physical forces there emerged the particles out of which everything physical is composed. From physical reality chemical reality, biological reality, sociocultural reality, and historical reality arose in turn.
Humans are therefore an intrinsic part of the Universe. They are composed of the same materials out of which other common physical bodies are composed. They are subject to all the fundamental rules of the Universe, and in fact reflect in themselves all of the Universe’s basic features.
The human species evolved from the larger web of life, and all human traits ultimately have their origins in this fact. The human nervous system’s evolution, especially the evolution of the central nervous system, is the key to understanding the way in which humans perceive the world around them.
There is a free-standing “real” reality that exists outside of us and then there is the reality we perceive from our human standpoint. Humans do not perceive reality in and of itself. They perceive a version of reality through a nervous system that evolved in such a way that human survival chances were enhanced.
The brain and “mind” in all probability evolved in a synergistic fashion, as intelligence facilitated the survival of the brains that possessed it. Consciousness and all other aspects of human perception exist only within the physical confines of the brain (although the brain may—may—be able to transmit electrical signals directly to other brains by means as yet not understood.)
The human is a species of animal, not something apart from the broader web of living things. Humans are physical objects, subject to the laws and processes of biology, chemistry, and physics. Humans do not have bodies—they are bodies.
Human reality is related to the “real” reality and, in ways perhaps forever beyond our understanding, reflects it in some way. Mathematics may be the closest we get to directly contacting this reality.
Both solipsism (the idea that everything exists only in my own consciousness) and idealism (the idea that things don’t exist independently of our perception of them) are fundamental errors, perhaps even definitions of insanity. We will assume that all humans are real and that the forest exists even when no one is watching it.
Organic evolution did not have as its “goal” the creation of the human species. The evolution of humans was (from our standpoint) a fortuitous event but it was not preordained. As Stephen Gould said, if we “rewound the tape” and started the process all over, there is no guarantee that anything like us would come to exist.
What humans call history is the attempt to describe the story of our species, a species which has evolved in a particular way. This evolutionary process has brought about beings with a distinct way of perceiving the Universe around them. Human history is therefore the story of what humans have experienced and done within the framework of their consciousness.
We may therefore argue that the world the humans have built around themselves is nothing more or less than a reflection of the internal functions of their brains. Those functions in turn reflect the evolutionary history of the brain itself. Consciousness could therefore be thought of as an amalgam of instinctive, emotional, and intellectual impulses and capacities, although distinct boundaries between these capacities may not exist.
In relation to this, therefore, human behavior is a mixture of “primitive” autonomic processes, need satisfaction, emotional expression, and intellectual processes, reflecting the long evolution of the animal, mammalian, primate, and hominid brains in succession, although not in a seamless or sharply chronological manner.
Human behavior is a synergistic interaction between genetic inheritance and life experience, an interaction that is relentless and ceaseless, in an infinitely complex, shifting mosaic.
Human behavior, therefore, has exceedingly complex origins. The actions the human animal takes and the way the human animal perceives the world defy simple description (with the exception of instinctive self-defense or protective reactions, such as withdrawing one’s hand from a hot surface). The evolution of high level consciousness in the human therefore makes him/her the most complicated living thing on the planet. This complexity means that humans are capable of the widest range of possible actions and responses of any living thing, and are therefore the least predictable living thing.
The human brain has not evolved to give humans complete understanding of the world around them. It has evolved, rather, to help them survive within it—a far different mission. Survival skills and knowledge are much more strongly developed than the capacity for philosophical certitude.
No one fully comprehends his/her own motives or impulses. No one completely understands why he/she is doing what he/she is doing. There are degrees of understanding, ranging from reasonably good to totally absent.
Humans enter the world at birth not only completely helpless physically but also completely without comprehension of what is happening to them, and probably without any mental sense of being a self whatsoever. The process of growing up involves, therefore, not only physical maturation and an increasing ability to care for one’s self, but also an attempt, whether conscious or not, to make some kind of sense of the world in which the individual ego finds itself immersed.
Human consciousness evolved in group settings, and it requires interaction with other humans in a culture to manifest itself. No child’s consciousness can develop without some form of language-based interaction.
Humans generally like to have an effect on the environment around them. Humans generally like the experience of having caused something to happen, at least at first. Children quickly learn that doing certain things causes other things to occur. The adult impulse to change the world or affect history in some way may simply be an elaboration of our child-like delight in causing something to happen.
Human males and females evolved in order to reproduce and care for offspring. They did not evolve to understand each other’s complex and distinct way of processing reality. The male and female outlook and perspective are equally valid and equally part of the definition of what it means to experience the world as a human. There are degrees of maleness and femaleness in all humans, regardless of sex, and therefore even the terms male perspective and female perspective have to be qualified. There are fundamental differences between the male and female brain, but their impact on behavior and the general perception of the nature of the world is not yet fully understood. Cultural factors deeply shape gender definitions, often crucially so.
Every human who has ever lived has experienced the world in a unique way. No two human biographies are identical. We are able to relate to each other, at least somewhat, because there are enough common or similar experiences we share to permit a minimal level of understanding.
Basic human sensations (such as the perception of red, the feeling of physical pleasure, and other somatic events) cannot be described in such a way as to be meaningful to someone who has never experienced them. They are irreducibly fundamental. I have to have actually seen a red object in order for me to understand what you say when you describe something as “red”.
Language is inherently limited as a communication device. The idea of “perfect” communication is a hopeless ideal. What communication exists is based on the existence of enough experiential common ground to permit it. Language is an imprecise tool. No one means exactly the same thing by the use of a particular word as someone else, because the mental associations attached to that word in the brain of its user are unique.
The awareness that death is inevitable has probably been the major driving force behind most of the world’s religions and philosophies, as well as a major force in human artistic expressions.
The genus Homo has existed only for a brief period relative to the known Universe’s existence—perhaps 2.5 million years out of a period of about 13,800,000,000 years, less than two-tenths of one percent of the Universe’s existence. This was discovered only recently in the history of the genus.
The home of the human species is extraordinarily miniscule in the physical context of the Universe, occupying a space so tiny that if the Universe were reduced in size to an object the size of the Earth, the Earth itself in turn would be reduced to a size less than that of a single atom. This is also a recent discovery.
Humans are therefore temporally and spatially insignificant. Outside of the human community, human history means absolutely nothing (so far) and has had no effect whatsoever on the larger Universe. This could change as humans reach out and explore small areas of the Universe (or perhaps seed the Universe with self-replicating devices).
Human philosophies and religions were basically all created before the knowledge of humanity’s temporal and spatial insignificance was understood. The fact of human insignificance is not yet widely comprehended, or even accepted as true.
There is no reliable scientific way of ascertaining whether there is a god of any kind. There is no philosophically sound way of either conclusively proving or disproving god’s existence. Therefore metaphysical explanations of human history will largely be absent from this study.
Human memory is particularly unreliable because it did not evolve to provide a comprehensive record of human experience. The development of information storage systems external to the human brain reflects an understanding of this limitation.
Human consciousness emerged before humans realized what it was (or even where it was located). Only gradually have humans understood the significance of the anatomy and physiology of their own brains.
Human consciousness creates what we call human psychology, something we only dimly and incompletely understand. Humans therefore do not have a full understanding of why they do what they do or feel what they feel.
The superior level of human intelligence relative to other animals accounts for the dominance of our species over all others and the spread of our species across the surface of the planet.
Humans have, up until relatively recently, been forced to make a living out of whatever the immediate environment provided them in the way of resources.
Because humans adapted to a wide variety of ecological niches, a correspondingly wide variety of ways of life emerged.
Because language—the use and manipulation of symbols to represent ideas and convey descriptions of the world—emerged as a property of human consciousness (in a synergistic, self-reinforcing manner), human culture was able to emerge. Language is therefore the basis of culture. Culture may be thought of as a way of life consisting of the material objects created by a group and the ideas, customs, traditions, beliefs, and methods of doing things the group passes from one biological generation to the next.
Since many, many sounds can be used to represent the same kinds of objects and ideas, many human languages emerged. The greater the physical isolation of human groups from other human groups, and the less such groups linguistically interacted with others, the more unique the group’s language tended to be.
Human society emerged out of the physical inadequacies of our ancestors in relation to the environmental dangers surrounding them. The individual human was generally no match for the kind of predatory animals, harsh climatic fluctuations, challenging topographical conditions, and hard-to-extract resources of the areas in which the early humans evolved. Only by living in groups and cooperating in teams could humans make a go of it.
Human morality emerged out of the need of humans to create rules by which the group could survive and flourish. There may also be some very deep biological roots to such concepts as “fairness”. There is no need to infer a supernatural origin for moral behavior, although such an origin is not automatically ruled out.
Human groups tended to develop, as a survival skill, “us versus them” orientations to those outside of the group. The use of violence, something rooted deep in animal evolution, to ward off such outsiders or steal their means of survival, is very ancient, very useful, and the root cause of interpersonal, intragroup, and intergroup violence. Some violence appears to have no instrumental purpose at all, and is merely the expression of disturbed mentalities.
The use of tools—objects from outside of the human body used to accomplish work—was absolutely essential to the survival and flourishing of human groups. Tool making encouraged, in a reciprocating manner, dexterity, eye-hand coordination, abstract conceptualization, and other physical-mental skills. Those who had the best brains made the best tools. Tool use facilitated survival, which in turn gave a genetic advantage to those who made them. Even better brains produced even better tools, and so on. Therefore, human tool making and human evolution affected each other in a synergistic way.
Because humans, like almost all other animals, can physically suffer, the threat of such suffering has always been an effective tool of social control. No rational individual wants to be injured or suffer physical pain, and the knowledge of just how bad such experiences really are allows those who control the means of violence and social authority to rule over others. Fear is a very ancient tool of human interaction, rooted in the very animal natures of humans themselves.
Human sexuality has been a key variable in the unfolding of human history, as has human violence. The distance between the two is not as great as many people might imagine. Human sexual expression has covered the entire range of physical possibility, and a human’s sexual nature is a key element of his or her basic self.
Human beings as a group consistently overestimate their own understanding of the world and their understanding of themselves. The human brain is not evolved to either fully comprehend reality or to completely grasp the nature of the self and consciousness. This is because the human brain is a jerry-rigged, haphazardly evolved structure that developed as it did because it was useful from a survival/reproductive standpoint.
The human world reflects our lack of understanding. Human history has careened forward in totally unexpected ways. They are unexpected because the human species, as a group, does not understand what is happening to it at any given moment. There are simply too many variables operating at any given time for such an understanding to be even remotely possible. Human history is also affected by mathematical randomness and quantum indeterminacy. It may not even be possible to predict anything about the future direction of human life.
Human social interaction and social relationships are fraught with difficulties because of the inadequacies of human communication, the existential loneliness of the human being, and the fathomless vagaries of human psychology, itself the product of our haphazardly evolved brains.
Life and reality are ruled by a set of interrelated processes, most of which are usually hidden to human perception.
As a result of our convoluted history and fundamental ignorance, the vast majority of humans have lived lives that by contemporary standards in the Western world would be considered abysmal and miserable.
The vast majority of human beings believe there is a supernatural plane of reality, a belief which is deeply rooted in the evolutionary processes by which their brains developed. These beliefs are massively shaped by cultural inheritances as well.
As a result of variations in human brains and individual human life experiences, there is no action, no matter how debased or atrocious, that has not been taken by at least someone, somewhere, at some time.
The average life is spent in the carrying out of routine tasks.
The average life is undramatic and ordinary. The day to day life of the human species has probably always been this way.
Many humans are certain that they know the truth of any given matter, when in all probability this is not the case.
The arts are rooted in the human attempt to explain, interpret, react to, and/or express the reality humans perceive.
The sciences are rooted in the human attempt to explain the rules and nature of reality by use of methods which strive as much as possible to eliminate all elements of “subjectivity”, even though the sciences still operate within the limits of human perspective.
The world probably does not exist for our benefit. But who knows?