The Human Situation
The human species therefore finds itself effectively alone in the Universe. As we will see in a subsequent volume, it is not likely that we are the only self-aware and reasonably intelligent species of life to have emerged in that universe. But the tremendous distances that separate us from other communicative species effectively isolate us, at least for now. And the human race cannot be said to have exerted, as yet, any influence whatsoever on the Universe outside of its home solar system.
Humans are a life form, a specific arrangement of energy-matter. Being a kind of animal, humans require oxygen, are heterotrophic (meaning they must ingest nutrition), require water (as all land animals do), are mobile (as are all but a few animal species), are vulnerable to illness and injury, and are mortal. These seemingly mundane facts have, in large part, set the boundaries of human life. Add to this the fact that humans possess a brain that combines autonomic functions, emotional responses, and advanced intellect. This combination gives humans a rich and baffling psychological complexity. It also inhibits their ability to understand themselves. Moreover, the brain's capabilities have allowed humans to construct societies and cultures too complex for humans to comprehend.
Further, despite their advanced brains, the members of the human species are bound by their own perceptual and cognitive limitations, as we will see in greater detail later. More specifically, humans are limited by the fact that all communication is approximate, a point I will stress several times in these volumes. Humans can never be entirely sure that their meaning has been understood (even by themselves) or that they understand the meaning of others. More broadly, humans do not fully understand their own situation at any given time, and the species exists in a situation too big and too complex for any of its members to grasp. Humanity itself is headed into a future the nature of which none of its members can predict with any certainty.
Immersed in this situation, humans tend to seek explanations for the world around them, whether they realize it or not. They ask questions about this world. Obviously, for most humans throughout our time on this planet, the chief question has been How can we survive? But humans, being intensely social animals (with a handful of exceptions) live in a mental world of interaction. They interact with other humans, they interact with the physical world that surrounds them, they interact with their own reactions to that world. Hence, wittingly or unwittingly, they have questions about these various interactions.
These questions appear to fall into several broad categories, the boundaries of which are highly permeable and the definitions of which are open to widely variable interpretation. Humans ask questions about their identity as people. They do this unconsciously, for the most part. Establishing a sense of identity orients people in reality. Humans ask questions about other people and their relationship to them. In a life filled with interaction, answers to these questions are crucial, and many people never figure out the answers. Questions related to identity and relationships with others lay the foundations upon which human social and cultural life rest. They ask questions about their place in the world, how they should live, and how they can defend those they love. They ask questions about truth, about what and why the world is, about suffering, about meaning, and about death. The search for answers to this last set of questions has been central to the human experience, and has provided the impetus for most of our religious, philosophical, scientific, and artistic endeavors.
Finally, the very act of asking these questions, whether articulated or not, affects the nature of human life itself. If humans make and have always made history, it is the search for satisfactory answers to their questions that has caused them to do this.
Questions Related to Personal Identity
Upon birth, we must suppose that an infant faces a physical reality which is totally incomprehensible to him or her. Instinctive reactions, born of evolution’s long history, govern a baby’s behavior. As the neurons of the brain interweave themselves and make connections (while pruning back others), the earliest self-awareness an infant/toddler has begins to emerge. An “I” is beginning to take shape, the sense of being an object differentiated from other objects, a feeling of being connected by the senses to the outside world. So the initial question we face is, in my view, What am I? Children tend to quickly learn some variation of an answer to this question: I am a baby, I am baby boy or baby girl, I am something which belongs to mommy or daddy, I am someone who has needs. Young children just learning to speak are often excited to see other very young children, and will often exclaim, “Baby!”, upon seeing them. This recognition of others is a crucial part of personality formation and categorization. There are big people; there are little people. The earliest memories, usually from around the age of 3, indicate (in my view) a stage in the development of the self, and a new step toward defining the “What am I” question. All throughout life, as roles are acquired and membership in various groups is understood, and assimilated into a person’s consciousness, the answers to What am I grow increasingly elaborate and complex. All sorts of categories now seem applicable: member of a family, member of a neighborhood, member of a school, member of a town, member of a nation, and so on. The answers to the question “What am I” form crucial aspects of an individual’s identity. By identity, I mean the association of the “I”, the self, with various definitions which seem to be congruent with experience. “What am I” continues to be asked (either consciously or unconsciously) all through life. Answers can include, “a child”, “a teenager”, “an adult”, “an employee”, “an old person”, and, if there is sufficient lucidity near the end of one’s life, “a dying person”. In a sense, What am I is the ultimate, primal, permanent question of life, one that follows us from birth all the way to the moment of death.
Who am I? is a variation on What am I?. The various definitions associated with the self, combined with an individual’s unique experiences and genetic predispositions, form a biographical narrative in a human brain (assuming the person in question is of adequate intelligence). This narrative is strengthened by the possession of a name, a ready identifier which becomes indelibly linked to us. We say, in various ways, “I am [name]. I have a story that is mine alone. I have my own set of characteristics and ways of seeing the world. No one else is me. I live inside of myself, and I know my story better than anyone. Things have happened to me. I have done things. I have thought and felt things. I will be me for the rest of my life.” An individual human might change the definition of Who am I several times over a lifetime. And some people never quite get a handle on it. The answers to the question, Who am I can be vague, somewhat shapeless, indefinite, and malleable, as a human’s life unfolds and follows often unexpected paths. Answers to this fundamental question can change under the pressures of new circumstances, dramatic personal events (especially crises), and new, age-related perspectives.
Questions Related to the Existence of Others and Relations With Them
Who are the people around me? is a question that very young children ask without words and receive the answer to without realizing it. If they are fortunate (as most children are), they start out life with attentive caregivers, and these caregivers have titles or names that these children can associate with them. Typically, deep and profound emotional ties are established with these caregivers, given enough time and intensity of interaction. Gradually, the orbit of a child's experience widens, as they come to know not only family members but neighbors, residents of their larger area, children in school, and so on. Children tend to categorize and make associations with these people, establishing a kind of unconscious mental map of the world outside of the self. They interact (usually) with many other humans (and with non-human animals as well). By a certain age, most humans have started to form judgments about other people, shaped by the opinions of their valued caregivers, informed by their personal experiences, and deeply influenced by the culture they have internalized. And a vital element of our relationship with others rests on our ability to trust them.
Since humans must be able to predict and anticipate the behavior of others for their own safety (and indeed this is so crucial that some researchers believe consciousness itself arose out of this need), the question, Who can I trust, and to what degree? is of the utmost importance. It’s worth looking at what we mean by the word “trust”. (See also The Sinews of Trust in a later volume for a fuller discussion.)
Trust can be thought of as the willingness to let our defenses down—to be vulnerable, either physically or emotionally, or both—with another human or group of humans. This willingness to be vulnerable is based on an assessment of the predictability of other people’s behavior. If, in a particular setting, we feel that those who are present with us mean us no harm (at minimum), are positively inclined toward us (in a middle case), or would sacrifice important things to defend us (the maximum case), there is a feeling of trust. If I know that you are not going to try to hurt me, and will in fact be my ally, I can set aside my internal readiness to fight or flee, and can relax emotionally.
There are, obviously, degrees of trust between people, ranging from trust in a person in a limited setting for a limited duration all the way to people one can trust with one’s life. Knowing the difference between those we can trust with small things and those we can trust with the ultimate things is of obvious evolutionary importance. It is trust of an unspoken kind that regulates much of ordinary human behavior, and in situations where trust between people is low or completely absent, anarchy and “the war of all against all” tends to be the rule.
Many people find out about human cruelty and perversity far too early in life, and any hope these people have of being able to count on and be reassured by the behavior of others is critically damaged, often irreparably so, by trauma suffered in childhood. Most others are more fortunate, but sooner or later, everyone is exposed to the sins and weaknesses that our complex psychologies give rise to: corruption, lies, betrayal, and injuries in endless variety. Is betrayal so sharply felt because the need for trust is so deeply embedded in our brains? There seems to be something fundamental about betrayal that causes humans to respond to it with deep anger and hurt. Is this an indication of how ancient the need for trust really is?
As a person enters adulthood and gains a broader perspective, they often ask (again, unconsciously in some cases), more advanced questions. In the face of our isolation within the physical Universe, we take comfort, perhaps, in the idea that we on this tiny planet at least have each other. But as we struggle to make ourselves understood, as we wrestle with our own natures, and as we struggle to understand others, we may find ourselves increasingly unsure of the degree to which we actually do have each other. We therefore ask the following urgent questions: Can I know myself? Can I know others? Can others know me? The answers are ones we usually don’t want to accept.
It takes many years for the typical human to understand, both emotionally and intellectually, that he or she sees the world in a way unlike that of any other human. When we are children, we simply assume, I believe, that everyone sees what we see and feels what we feel. (It could be said that when we are very young children we are so absorbed in our own reaction to the world that we simply don’t care what anyone else feels.) The different reactions of people to the events of life are puzzling when we are young, even disturbing to us. How can you feel that way? How can you not agree with me?
But as we get older, we usually find the nature of our interactions growing more complex. More and more subtle misunderstandings arise. Other people often confuse us or anger us with their seemingly inexplicable behaviors. A conclusion usually becomes more and more inescapable to us: no one can possibly know the interior mental world of another human being, and, by inference, no other human can really know ours. Of course, from our youngest moments, most of us have been spoken to and immersed in the ocean of a particular language. We have been taught to communicate with others using this medium in the hope that we could convey our internal experience to others. But the inadequacies of language—its ambiguity, its imprecision, its frequently abstract nature, its infinite shades of meaning—impede our ability to convey meaning to each other. Gradually, if we force ourselves to look at it honestly, we come to realize that no one will ever truly understand 100% of what we mean. We come to realize that even we don’t always know what we mean, as we so often try to find words for feelings that no words can express. This realization manifests itself sometimes as resentment, sometimes as sorrow, sometimes as amused resignation, sometimes as a sort of cosmic indifference. In many of us, it creates a sense of existential loneliness, and an unbridgeable isolation from other people. And there is more.
When we are in quiet moments, we often cannot get a handle on what we are experiencing at the eternal present. When we fall into the infinity of mirrors that is the attempt by the brain to understand the brain, it often produces a sense of indescribable mystification. We are reduced to thinking, “What is all this? What is experience itself?” Our brains’ inherent inability to grasp the whole reality that surrounds us strikes us at these moments, even if we don’t put the sense of how strange we feel into any words. We are simply swallowed up by our own minds, which are the product of a lifetime of sensations and interactions that have had effects on us that are simply too complicated for us to grasp. Not only are our reactions to experience too complex to sort out, these reactions are based on information about ourselves that oftentimes we just don’t have any more. We often don’t have any idea of what the root of a specific emotional response actually is. We have lost the thread of our lives, and it cannot be located again.
It is at these moments that an even darker realization occurs to us: since we cannot convey total, unfiltered meaning to each other, and since we cannot account for all the many conflicting and competing emotions within us, we not only will never understand others, we will never really understand ourselves. If we dwell on this, the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves crashes down on us. We will never know others; others will never know us; we will never know ourselves. And yet, here we all are, thrown together, having to live with each other and interact with each other. It is as if the entire human population is a set of inmates, each one a prisoner in his or her own skull, trying to grasp enough of the world to survive in it (or, hopefully, prosper), and trying to communicate with the other prisoners trapped inside of their skulls. It is in communication that our only hope of lessening our sense of isolation, and hence our existential loneliness, lies.
Communication is the basis of human interaction and in a very real sense, of human survival. Humans must convey part of their internal experience to others, right from the start of life, and must in turn attempt to apprehend part of the internal experience of others. But as I said above, such communication will always be approximate. (The more abstract and less concrete the concepts used in communication, the more approximate this communication will be.) I will examine the significant impediments to communication in more detail elsewhere. (See The Nature and Continuing Evolution of Language in a subsequent volume.)
Our only hope of understanding anything about each other is in the possession of common ground. If I refer to something as being red, only your visual experience of a red object will suffice for you to grasp my meaning. (The mathematical formulae describing red as a wavelength will not suffice if you have never seen a red object.) If I tell you something is hot, only your tactile experience of a hot object will stir any degree of understanding in you. (And your associations with the words red and hot may be very, very different from mine.) At a minimum, we need some sort of linguistic and/or gestural common ground to grasp part of each other’s meaning. We need a store of common experience and common points of reference, a certain amount of shared information and shared skills (which is why education of some form is indispensable to people). But we will have to accept the fact that since it is logically impossible to be another person, and to have the whole set of that person’s knowledge, experience, emotional state, and state of consciousness at our disposal at a given moment of communication, we will never entirely tear down the walls of isolation. We will perceive reality in a way which may be very similar to others, but it can never, by definition, be exactly the perception of any other person. (The upshot of all this is if I’m right, I can’t be 100% certain why I feel the need to express this to you. And you can’t be 100% certain you know what I mean.)
Are the ambiguous nature of communication, our resulting sense of existential loneliness, and the unanswered mysteries of our own personalities the real origins of our quest for certainty? Are they the sources of our desire to believe that we understand, and the illusion that we are understood? Do the huge questions most of us feel are so important about God, death, suffering, the meaning of existence, the nature of truth, and others like them have their root in our sense of isolation? Does this feeling of being isolated engender in us the desire, ultimately, to be connected with a reality where the self can be subsumed into a greater and more significant whole and language has a single, definite meaning? Can it even give us the desire to live in a reality where words no longer matter?
Questions Related to Our Role in Human Society and Our Relation to Its Values
When a human asks, What is my place in the world?, he or she is quite possibly asking one of several things, or perhaps several things in combination. The person may be asking, “What is my rank or social standing compared to others?” This is a question of great importance, especially if a human comes to believe that his or her rank or social standing is unchangeable. A person born into a “low status” family may come to develop a fatalistic view of human life and human opportunity, seeing himself as doomed to a life of menial labor and hardship. A person born into a “high status” family may come to develop a sense of entitlement and a feeling of superiority over those who are “lesser” than she. In a sense, when we ask about our social rank we are asking, “How important and powerful am I compared to other people?” (In societies with some degree of social mobility, the desire of many to be more important and more powerful can have major consequences.) What is my place in the world, therefore, is in one way an inquiry into the possibilities of one’s life
Another answer to What is my place in the world ? can be a human’s belief about what he or she should do for a living or contribute generally to society. In other words, it’s really the question, “What should I do?” Some people come to see themselves as possessors of greatness, those tagged by “Fate” to do memorable things and accumulate great wealth. For others, “What should I do” is a question they never really answer completely, drifting through the years with no definite course. And for most, “What should I do” is answered by accepting the advice, norms, training, education, and sometimes compulsion offered or imposed by others. Many people are never given any choice at all, and do only that which others choose for them.
Finally, What is my place in the world? can be a more abstract question related to other questions about the meanings of life and existence. A person may also be asking, “Where do I fit in the history of the world? How did I come to be in this situation at this place and time?” The answers a person gives to these variations of the basic question are heavily dependent on his or her level of learning and the cultural narratives he or she has been raised with.
How should I live my life? involves not just questions of social standing, but also an individual’s value system and personal philosophy. The most fundamental answer is, “through right living”, but the definition of right living can vary greatly from person to person. Is right living the steady and monomaniacal accumulation of power over others, the constant seeking of advantage, and the immediate gratification of all desires, regardless of the consequences to others? Right living to other people means a code of behavior to be followed, a disciplined way life, one replete with rules of conduct toward others, a life of duties and obligations. To others right living implies an effort to experience all that can be experienced while respecting the rights of others to engage in the same pursuit. There are myriad ways right living can be understood, therefore. Moreover, the definitions of right living may not have clear-cut boundaries, can shift dramatically, and can be improvised throughout a person’s life in the absence of an elaborately thought-out value system. In many ways, human history has been affected by the clash of answers to the question, “How should I live?” Many are not content to decide this for themselves—they seek to impose their answers on others out of the conviction that they, and they alone, know the proper course.
At a young age, most people begin to be given what will turn out to be a long series of instructions on what to do and what not to do. They will have these rules impressed into them in any number of ways, many of them physically hurtful ones. Also at a young age people will begin to glean lessons from the culture with which they are surrounded about what constitutes “right conduct”. As a person grows older, he or she will generally begin making judgments about the behavior of others, perhaps comparing it to the standards of behavior which they have absorbed (in their uniquely individual way) from their kinship group, neighbors, and community. Whether they realize it or not, when they do this, most people are applying a set of standards that govern a general system by which the behavior of others is regulated (and by which their own behavior is in turn regulated). They are forming answers to the question, What is right and what is wrong?
This question is, naturally, at the very heart of what humans call their moral or ethical systems, and it has been answered in any number of ways. Wrong conduct, being abnormal and disruptive, seems to be identified more readily than right conduct, which tends to become part of the human mental background, part of the definition of “normality”. Among the definitions of wrong conduct humans have given over the centuries, the following tend to be the most prominent:
· Whatever violates the sacred teachings of the religion which is dominant in our culture.
· Whatever disrupts the orderly conduct of business and social relationships in our society.
· Whatever undermines the unity of our people.
· Whatever shows disloyalty to the rulers of our society.
· Whatever violates the prerogatives of parents over their children.
· Whatever brings dishonor to and condemnation of a family.
· Whatever violates the person or property of a human being who has committed no offense against anyone.
· Whatever undermines the trust people in our society have to have in order to live with each other.
· Whatever is, in general, contrary to the laws, norms, and traditions of our people.
· Whatever actions those in power take that are corrupt or unjust.
· Any combination of any of the above with varying degrees of emphasis on the individual guidelines.
Notice that only two or three of these statements could in any way be interpreted as emphasizing the primacy of the individual or the rights of a human against the power of those who govern him. In fact, throughout human history, questions of right and wrong have seldom been left to individual judgment, nor have they focused primarily on the rights of the person. Wrong conduct has generally been defined as conduct which undermines the collective well-being of a society, conduct which attacks the institutions on which the society is based. (Right conduct, naturally, is generally considered the exact inverse of each of the above statements.) Virtually every human who has ever lived, until the last few hundred years, has lived under definitions of right or wrong behavior similar to this. Respect for the individual’s privacy and personal conduct has, in the larger context, been an aberration in human history, not the norm.
But humans face moral and ethical dilemmas of a smaller scale every day, ones for which guidelines are not always clear. How should I treat those whom I don’t know? How friendly or unfriendly should I be to those I do know? Should I always be bluntly honest, or should I value tact above all? Should I help people I don’t know, or ignore all but the needs of my own family? Can I rightfully take advantage of the ignorance or gullibility of other people? It is this mass of billions of small moral decisions that often steers the day-to-day course of our world more than the broader and more formalized rules that govern societies.
Questions of right and wrong, can, of course, be given more ominous interpretations. What is right and what is wrong? Some answers are:
- Whatever benefits me is right; whatever doesn’t benefit me is wrong.
- Whatever promotes the power of my group is right; whatever lessens it is wrong.
- Whatever hurts the people I hate is right; whatever doesn’t hurt the people I hate is wrong.
The terrible simplicity of such answers has very often been the basis for the most obscene crimes and atrocities in human history. And, unfortunately, those who reduce all of life to a simple question of whether they’re getting their way or not prevail more than we would like to admit
We see the suffering of others; we experience suffering, perhaps very severe, ourselves. We can imagine injury and pain from experience, and if we are rational (and not under the stress of life-or-death circumstances) we seek to avoid them at all costs. We especially seek to protect our children from them, very often at the price of our own well-being. We hear of or even witness horrors; dark fears insinuate themselves into our thinking, and one of the most elemental of all questions demands our attention: How can I protect myself and my loved ones from the world? I say “the world” in this formulation because many of our fears are centered in the generalized “others” who share the world with us, the strangers who may do us harm. (The issue of trust is at play here, of course.) We seek to give ourselves and those we love safe places in which to live, and we seek further to control as many of the potentially dangerous variables in our environment as we can. The inability to control these variables can lead to a feeling of helplessness, rage, frustration, despair, and chronic fear. People trapped in war zones or in generally lawless areas know the terrible urgency of finding safety, in many ways the prime objective of a living thing. The fear, caution, preparation, and alertness demanded by the need to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe has been one of the chief factors driving human history. Magnified over an entire population, the need to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe is at the heart of our defense efforts (although the individual soldier may be fighting under compulsion).
The issue of protecting one’s self and one’s loved ones is so significant that it is usually the priority consideration in a person’s life. The quest for security and the need to prepare for dangers which may emerge either from malicious strangers or unpredictable nature can lead to the sacrifice of all other values. Conversely, the failure to protect one’s loved ones (or the perceived failure) can lead a human down the most grievous abysses of despair. The protection of one’s kin, in particular, may have extremely ancient evolutionary roots; only the survival of the precious genes guarantees continuation of our line. The anguish we feel when those we love have been harmed may in part be rooted in this. Add in the depths of emotional attachment that people usually feel for those related to them, and the suffering of our loved ones becomes utterly intolerable, a fate to be avoided at any cost, including the abandonment of even the most deeply held moral beliefs. How can I protect myself and my loved ones from the world? For most people, the answer is, “Any way I have to.”
Questions About the Nature of the World and the Broader Issues of Existence
Survival may be a tremendous achievement for many people, and the minimal protection of themselves and their loved ones a true victory, given the often harsh realities of the world. But most people, at least in the more economically advanced areas of the Earth, seek something more once the basic minimums of life have been secured. Specifically, most people want to know the purpose of the human enterprise itself. They want to know, “Is there a larger purpose to life than mere survival, and if so, what is it?” This question is related to “How should I live my life?” but it is not identical to it. It contains the unspoken question, “Why do we live?” It also encompasses more than just one’s self, for it implies that humans as a group have some sort of mission to fulfill, and that this mission is both significant and discoverable. The answers people give to this question very often reveal deeply held personal beliefs or prejudices. A person might say that the purpose of life is to prepare for the establishment of the Kingdom of God, or that the purpose of life is to prepare for Eternity, or the purpose of life is to eradicate human suffering, or the purpose of life is to grab everything for yourself that you can before you die or the purpose of life is to have children and grandchildren and pass one’s family name down. Others might say in response to this question, “Purpose? There is no such thing. We just live and do the best we can, and then we die.” That statement very often also reveals deeply held beliefs, although most people might not readily perceive this. However it is answered, one thing is consistent: if a purpose is believed to exist, it is considered the main overall reason a person lives his or her life. It is the ultimate, overriding goal. It is, in essence, the root of a personal philosophy.
As a person more and more coherently defines himself or herself as a kind of living being existing in a definite kind of world, the questions What is the world and how did it come to be? and Why do humans exist? begin to be asked. The overwhelming majority of humans are taught answers to these questions by the adults in their culture, adults who have absorbed cultural traditions that are centuries or even millennia old. The dominant mythology of a given society is usually learned at a young age, and it can be remarkably difficult to dislodge from a person’s consciousness. The root of this difficulty, many times, is the fact that this mythology has been imparted by respected and beloved elders. Further, this mythology is generally learned when the brain is at or near its peak ability to learn. Mythology is also tenacious because of its strong emotional components, especially ones which exalt the group of which a child is a part. Cognitive dissonance can occur when cherished mythology is exposed to empirically-based scrutiny, and the mythology’s contradictions, illogical aspects, and general explanatory flaws are exposed.
The questions of what the world is, how it came to be, and how humans came to be form the core of a human’s mental picture of himself in relation to the Universe, and his relationship to a hypothesized Divine Creator (or creative force) who is ultimately believed to be responsible for bringing that Universe, and by extension the human himself, into existence. The answers embraced by a human to this set of questions tell us, in many ways, a person’s opinion of herself and the others with whom she lives. Many humans prefer answers to these questions that tend to reaffirm their sense of being important in the scheme of things. It is this comforting belief in human centrality that is most brutally challenged by the facts of our utter spatial and temporal insignificance.
We are confronted on a daily basis with assertions of fact, statements which people claim to be “true” in the sense that the statements are, presumably, empirically demonstrable. We are presented with claims of evidence, claims that such-and-such an event occurred in real time at a real place. We have to make decisions about what we believe to be truly real. We are faced with the question, therefore, “What is true and what is false?” Upon this question rest whole belief systems and ideologies, as well as the related issues of whether we can even reliably ascertain answers to such a question. We are forced to define what we mean by “true” and “false”. How have people gone about doing so?
Throughout human existence, people have generally thought that whatever they perceived with their own senses was true. “I saw it with my own eyes” is considered conclusive proof to most of us. As far as the truth of larger things is concerned, there have been other methods employed. In most societies of the past, for example, the test of whether something was true or not was simple: do those with the ability to contact the supernatural plane of existence say that it is? If those believed to have this power passed a judgment on such a question, it was generally considered authoritative. There are gods, there is a soul, there are gods that weigh the soul in the balance after death, there is a sacred river we cross only in death, there are sacrifices which must be made to placate the gods, things can come alive again after dying, and all manner of such beliefs have been accepted as true because those with specialized knowledge of the metaphysical said so. Until a few hundred years ago this was considered the most powerful standard of truth in the vast majority of human societies.
But there have been, for many centuries, those for whom religious authority was insufficient. Some 2,500 years ago, on the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, a small group of thinkers began the attempt to ascertain the truth or falsity of things through argument and the employment of reason, rather than by recourse to spiritual or mythological explanations of the world. In Asia, various thinkers looked beyond traditional faiths and began the search for what they considered to be the “essence” of reality, employing meditation, observation, and their own reasoning to find this essence. In each region, thinkers influenced each other, challenged each other, blended their ideas together, and created syntheses of ideas and standards of judging truth or falsehood. It was a revolution in human thinking, and it was to have huge consequences. It helped spawn the massive intellectual enterprise of science, which eventually was to transform the world and provide a systematic way of analyzing (within the limits of human ability) the nature of the reality with which humans were indirectly connected. But for most people, their own experience, and the role of authority continue to be paramount in their understanding of truth and falsehood, and that situation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. They may respect philosophy and science, but they aren’t necessarily ready to accept their findings as the last words on an issue which most of them feel is connected to their eternal fate.
And then, there is the question that has, perhaps, caused more anguish and despair than any other: Why is there suffering? Often it is in our darkest and lowest times that we tend to ask this, when the issue of suffering is confronting us in the most direct and harrowing way possible.
In the chapter entitled, “Rebellion” in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s immortal The Brothers Karamazov, one of the brothers, Ivan, a depressed intellectual, is discussing with his brother Alyosha, a gentle, Christ-like Russian Orthodox monk, the question of why God allows suffering. In particular, Ivan is tormented by the issue of the suffering of children, and he inundates his brother with horrible details of atrocities and abuses committed against children, which he has collected in the form of newspaper clippings and other documentation. One of the cases of abuse Ivan shares with Alyosha is a particularly hideous one involving the barbaric treatment of a five year old girl by her own parents. Ivan explains that the little girl, while locked in a stinking, freezing outhouse in the winter, was heard praying to God, asking Him what she had done to make her parents punish her so terribly. Then he adds:
“Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, Alyosha, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God!’ I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all! But those little ones!... I am making you suffer, Alyosha. I’ll stop if you like.”
“Never mind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha.
Ivan speaks for many of us—and so does Alyosha. (It is a measure of Dostoyevsky’s intellectual integrity, by the way, that he, a Christian, was willing to throw the strongest and most emotionally wrenching case at his own belief system.) Almost all of us wonder why those who have done nothing wrong so often suffer so deeply and horribly. It seems to offend some very deeply embedded notion of fairness in us. It literally doesn’t make sense in our way of thinking. There is no justice in it. There is no proportion. The effect seems utterly disconnected to the cause. And when the victims of suffering are helpless, innocent children, our minds can come close to the breaking point if we dwell on it too long. Our natural sense of empathy for children, and our evolutionarily-conditioned protective instincts, are outraged by the pain and fear of “those little ones”. More broadly, we often wonder how a just and righteous God can look on such things, apparently, and do nothing. It is the ultimate problem for many religious believers, as they see not just children but all kinds of unoffending humans going through unspeakable tortures and devastating sickness. As one grows older, and there continues to be no apparent, predictable pattern that this suffering follows, our faith can be tested to its limits. Paradoxically, it is just such testing that can cause many to cling to their faith even more fervently: it is their last defense against the idea of a world of random, senseless, chaotic horror. Such people must believe that God or the Universe or the Supreme Intelligence has its reasons, and that someday the believers will understand those reasons. No other psychological position is tolerable for them.
The issue of suffering can be thought of as part of a broader question, and can indeed cause it to be asked: Why do evil and injustice exist? So often in history the brutal, the merciless, the cruel, and the morally indifferent have triumphed. So often the most terrible humans have lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in their sleep while their countless victims had met their ends writhing in agony. So often the lawless and violent seem to prosper in life today, and barbarism is the norm in many, many places. (This may be part of the reason so many people want to believe in hell; they need to believe that the evil will be punished somehow, even if they escape the judgment of this world.) If God (or the Universe, or the Supreme Intelligence) is really the author of everything, is it the author of evil as well? Why does a purportedly all-powerful being even permit such a thing to exist? There is, in fact, an entire branch of theology called theodicy devoted to this question,. Religious thinkers have wrestled for centuries with the problem of evil. The best they have been able to do is to argue that God is so powerful that He or It can wrest good even out of apparent evil, or to argue that what seems evil to humans is not necessarily evil to a Being who has a plan for the evolution of the whole Universe. To many humans, such explanations are cold comfort, at best. Again, for their own mental well-being, they must believe that what is apparently evil has some larger purpose, and that in the end everything will make sense.
Two of the greatest questions humans confront, in some form, are deeply intertwined: Is life worth living? and Is there such a thing as meaning, and if so, is it discoverable? In what ways can these issues be approached?
At the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus, in the section entitled, “An Absurd Reasoning”, the existentialist writer and philosopher Albert Camus startles us with his opening lines: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to the fundamental question of philosophy.” (P. 3) To Camus the dilemma a human faces is justifying his or her existence in a Universe that is absurd, one apparently without purpose, and one in which hope is illusory. Camus asserts that belief in the transcendent, and thus the hopeful, is an illogical leap of reasoning, a sort of intellectual desperation, an attempt to hold off a conclusion that would render human life meaningless. In reply to the hopes for the existence of the transcendent, Camus writes:
I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me—that is what I understand. And these two certainties—my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle—I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition? (P. 38)
To Camus, the limitations inherent in his human perspective preclude the possibility of ascertaining meaning. And yet, this does not mean for Camus that suicide necessarily follows as a rational course of action. On the contrary, he said, humans must revolt against the absurdity of life by confronting it, by living as fully as possible, accepting the inevitability of one’s fate without being resigned to it. Camus believed that humans can be “indomitable and passionate”, throwing themselves into life totally. “The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end, and deplete himself.” (P. 41) It is in this revolt, this refusal to stop engaging the world, this refusal to be reconciled to it, that Camus found his purpose for living.
Most people probably don’t approach these questions from the standpoint that Camus did, but they encounter them nonetheless. Is life worth living? Let’s pose two diametrically opposite cases. If a human has those whom she loves, and who love her in return, is emotionally invested in the wellbeing of her family and friends, has work that is enjoyable and useful, has frequent periods of joy, and holds out hope that reality will someday make sense to her, those reasons alone can be sufficient for living. But if a human is in constant despair, without family or friends, without joy, without meaningful work, without hope, and, most tragically, suffering from intractable pain or illness, the continuation of life may not make sense to him. Personal annihilation might appear to be the most rational choice in his situation. But in real life, the choices aren’t usually as clear cut as these examples might suggest. Humans may alternate between periods of enthusiasm for, or at least tolerance of, life, and periods where they think, “This just isn’t worth it.”. Virtually no one is entranced with life on a constant basis, but most of us find the prospect of personal annihilation unthinkable and troubling. Humans live somewhere in the gray, not easily defined middle of life, muddling through, and continuing onward through inertia and habit as much as conviction.
Is life worth living? To many people, it is worth living because they are obliged to do so—they have responsibilities, which in good conscience they cannot abandon. Is life worth living? To some it is because they have personal challenges and goals with which they are preoccupied, even obsessed. Is life worth living? To some, to abandon their lives would be to do something they cannot do—quit in the face of adversity and admit defeat. Is life worth living? To many of us, the answer is simple—as long as we have and know love, it is, despite all hardships.
What do humans mean by their search for “meaning”? Here I am not talking about the interpretation of language, although meaning in language is certainly important. Here, I mean a question which in many ways is a summation of all the others. When we consider the meaning of existence, we are asking, What was all this for? If reality is the result of the will of a transcendent being, what was that will? Why does existence exist? Is there a logical reason for it, and is it aiming at some final condition, some ultimate state that must necessarily follow from its unfolding? Was there a reason we had to go through all the frequent misery that we had to endure? Most of us hope that there is some reason for all of our adversity and for existence itself. We want the story to have a satisfying conclusion, one that will resolve all our doubts and answer all of our questions.
Some have come to the conclusion that physical reality is the result of wholly natural processes, and if there is a meaning to all of this, it is far beyond our ability to discern it. To the question, is there such a thing as meaning, they might say no, and in fact they might go so far as to say that even the act of posing such a question is nonsensical. Others might reply that they don’t know what the ultimate “meaning” of the Universe’s existence is. They might add that the only real meaning they can know is that which they make for themselves, and that in the absence of certain knowledge, this is the best they can hope for. And we must ask, honestly: in a Universe in which we are so obviously insignificant, can any meaning ever be ascertained at all?
At last, the question of life’s meaning is, for most people, intimately connected with their attitudes toward death and what might come after it. The question What happens when people die? is of tremendous interest to most of us, even if the contemplation of our own demise is unsettling. The inevitability and seeming finality of death have been the subject of more speculation and discussion than perhaps any other existential question humans face. Death is a major concern of most of our religions, a major theme in our art and literature, a major subject for our philosophers, and a significant topic in the sciences. Few subjects are studied by such a breadth of disciplines. And few subjects compel our attention so strongly. It appears that the majority of the human race believes that death is not the end of the individual ego’s existence. Most humans believe in some sort of afterlife where the personality continues, or that a process of rebirth or transmigration takes place, where some essential part of the human is preserved to exist in different forms. Of course, every human who believes in these possibilities has his or her own vision of what this afterlife or rebirth might be like, and many believers have, throughout their lives, varying degrees of certitude about post-death survival.
For many humans, the idea that there might be no afterlife is intolerable. Why? First, because the idea of our non-existence terrifies many of us. After years of being, in effect, our own little Universes, it is inconceivable for many of us to imagine these Universes disintegrating into nothingness. The feeling might be described as I AM; how could I not be? For other humans, if there is no hope of an afterlife, there is no hope, period. Life would be a meaningless, futile act of mere survival. If there were no afterlife, it would mean that all their loved ones who had died would be gone forever. There would be no joyous reunions, no embracing of lost parents or lost children, no prospect of being reunited with those whose passing was made less painful only by the prospect that the separation would not be permanent. For others, the idea of no afterlife is intolerable because it would mean, ultimately, that there was no justice in the Universe. The virtuous would be unrewarded; those who had undergone terrible suffering would not find the compensation of eternal comfort and mercy; evil humans who had not been punished in life would get off the hook, so to speak. And for some, no afterlife means that there is no resolution to the personal issues and problems with which they may have struggled all of their lives, and no answers to questions that have disturbed them almost as long. For many people, a combination of these beliefs is at work. There are those who also might look forward to the afterlife as a vindication of their faith and the prospect of being united with the One, the Sacred, the Almighty, the Divine. Little wonder so many humans have, still do, and always will believe that death is not the end. They might even believe because they embrace a version of Pascal’s Wager: If they believe in an afterlife, and none exists, they won’t be aware of it, and will be none the worse off. If they don’t believe in one, and one exists, then the consequences of their disbelief might be grim indeed.
For those who do not believe in an afterlife, on the other hand, it can stir in them the urge to live as intensely as they can within the time they have. If our time truly is finite, then what is aspired to must be achieved in the here and now. There will be no second chance, in this perspective. Experience must be seized; life must be encountered. Conversely, some who have no faith in an afterlife might be morose, convinced that the only true proposition is, “Life is hard and then you die.” To such people, life might not seem only meaningless—it might seem not even worth the effort.
We do not encounter these questions in nice, orderly sequence, nor do we encounter them in neat, easily discernable, clearly marked situations. We encounter them in the flesh and blood world of everyday life in ways that are often muddled and filled with contradictions. We might never ask ourselves any of these questions in straightforward language, even if we sense their presence; they may always simply be undefined feelings deep within us, never examined in any serious way. And most disturbing of all, even if we do confront them directly, we may never find answers that satisfy us. Our questions about the human situation can pose challenges that perhaps we are not equal to. If we cannot be certain about why humans exist, what is right and what is wrong, or whether death is the end or not, we might be filled with unease and a sense of incompleteness, as if important business had been left undone. The way a human deals with the questions of existence tells us important things about them. Those who never think about these issues are personifying Plato’s famous quote: “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Those who believe they have all the answers to them may actually be arrogant and self-deceived. And those who seek answers in an open-minded way, modestly, and with a sense of humility, may be better positioned in life than most people.
In thinking about all these questions, I am compelled to say that in my opinion, most people don’t consciously dwell on such matters very often, if at all. For the vast majority of us the demands of everyday life are such that there is very little mental or physical energy left for such “idle speculation”. And yet, I suspect that these are the questions, even if unspoken or not contemplated, around which humans build their lives and about which they are most concerned. In my view, whether they know it or not, I believe most humans both want and need answers to these questions, ones that will help them reject a conclusion that for most people is utterly intolerable, namely, that existence is absurd and nothing ultimately means anything—including our own lives.
We were summoned into the world through an act that was not willed by us. As infants, we exist and perceive but we do not understand. We find ourselves thrown into a family (or some other group of caregivers). We find ourselves immersed in a particular way of life, which we come to assume is normal. We float in the river of time and we see the days pass in succession, not realizing what time itself is. We find ourselves in a particular historical era, although we are utterly unaware of this for many years. We are selves, being shaped by impulses, experiences, actions, reactions, personalities, and circumstances the nature of which we do not comprehend, but we cannot yet step outside of these selves to examine all of this. We interact with others, and we gravitate back and forth between the exterior world of this interaction and the interior world of our emotions, memories, impressions, and hypotheses about this interaction, the inner world of our emerging consciousness, the place in our brains where we process and absorb experience. This is our common inheritance as people, the reality each of us faces.
As we grow, and more and more see ourselves (usually) as a part of something larger than just us, we come to realize that the world is huge, life is complicated, that we don’t always understand what happens to us, other people can be challenging or frightening to deal with, and that much of existence just seems to be downright mysterious. Every human who has ever lived has, in my view, lived a version of this same story. Every human has found himself or herself in a world that was in many ways beyond their comprehension, but in which they were nonetheless forced to act and gather information.
Moreover, the only tenuous links these humans have to the world outside of their own heads are forms of communication which by their very nature are imprecise and approximate. Humans are trapped in a reality in which total mutual understanding is impossible, one in which their motives are often obscure or completely hidden even to themselves. They are forced to seek answers to their questions with limited knowledge and restricted understanding—and they will never have anything else.
It is these frequently confused, physically vulnerable, often talented, mentally isolated, unpredictable, surprisingly resilient, incredibly adaptable, virtually incomprehensible beings who have made and experienced the history of the world ever since the line between really bright ape and really limited human was crossed in some forever-lost moment of the past. We are going to look for the reasons why these beings want answers to questions that are often unanswerable, and why they have evolved to want and need answers to the particular questions they do. We will seek to understand (in part) the reality in which we find ourselves, and how that reality came to be. It is to the search for answers to these questions that we will now turn, even as we realize that after all of our searching and all of our examination, the answers may still elude us, as a butterfly gently hovers beyond the grasp of a fascinated two year-old.