Doing What Comes Unnaturally

Far from being the conscious caretakers of paradise implied in Genesis, Adam and Eve unleashed a scourge upon the planet. Their “dominion” over other species became a death sentence. The Tree of Knowledge was hardly the Tree of Wisdom. They are still trying to find the Tree of Life, with its promise of immortality: that is, the ability to continue  foolishness uninterrupted by mere death. As the Elohim feared, they still seek to become as gods themselves.

Of course, we have come a long way from the Biblical understanding of the cosmos to the modern scientific worldview. The big human brain graces us with superior intelligence. But this intelligence is largely cunning, used to gain advantage—like all the smaller brains, only better. We credit ourselves with “consciousness” because our eyes have been somewhat opened to our own nature. While this species accomplishment goes on record, individual self-awareness remains a potential largely unfulfilled. The possibility of “self-consciousness” drives a wedge between the Ideal and the actuality of our biological nature. We are the creature with a foot awkwardly in two worlds.

The tracks of our violent animal heritage are revealed even in prehistory. The invasions of early humans were everywhere followed by mass slaughters to extinction of the bigger species. Now, remaining smaller species are endangered by the same ruthless pursuit of advantage through the cunning of technology, while a few domesticated species are stably exploited for food, which means: through institutionalized slaughter. Killing is the way of animal life. We like to think we are above nature and control it for our “own” purposes. But those so-called purposes are usually no more than the directives of the natural world, dictating our behavior. We like to think we have free will. But it is only a local, superficial, and trivial freedom to choose brand A over brand B. Globally, we remain brute animals, captive to biology.

Since the invention of agriculture, slavery has been practiced by every civilization at least until the Industrial Revolution. We early enslaved animals to do our labor, to mitigate the curse of Genesis to toil by the sweat of the brow. The natural tribalism of the primate promotes in us war of all upon all. Because humans possessed a more generally useful intelligence than beasts of burden, we enslaved them too on pain of death. Groups with greater numbers and force of arms could slaughter resistors and capture the remaining into forced servitude. Only fossil fuels relieved the chronic need for slavery, by replacing muscle power with machine power. Now we seek to make machines with human or super-human abilities to become our new slaves. But if they turn out to be equally or more intelligent and capable than us, they will surely rebel and turn the tables. As fossil fuels run out or are rejected, new energy sources must replace them. If the collapse of civilization prevents access to technology and its required energy, in our current moral immaturity we will surely revert to human slavery and barbarism.

A great divide in cultures arose millennia ago from two glaring possibilities: production and theft. Alongside sedentary farmers arose nomadic societies based on herding, represented in the Bible by Cain and Abel. The latter organized into mounted warrior hordes, the bane of settled civilization. Their strategy was to pillage the riches produced by settled people, offering the choice of surrender (often into slavery) or death and destruction. This threat eventually morphed into the demand for annual tribute. As the nomads themselves merged with the settlers, this practice evolved into the collection of taxes. Much of modern taxes go to maintaining the present warrior elite, now known as the military industrial complex, still inherently violent.

Modern law has transformed and regulated the threat of violence, and the nature of theft, but hardly eliminated either. War is still a direct means of stealing territory and enforcing advantage. But so is peace. Otherwise, it would not be possible for a few hundred people to own half the world’s resources—gained entirely through legal means without the direct threat of violence. Ostensibly, Cain murdered his brother out of sibling rivalry. We should translate that as greed, which thrives in the modern age in sophisticated forms of capitalism.

Seen from a distance, collectively we seek the power of gods but not the benevolence, justice, or wisdom we project upon the divine. This is literally natural, since one foot is planted firmly in biology, driven by genetic advantage. The other leg has barely touched down on the other side of the chasm in our being, a slippery foothold on the possibility of an objective consciousness, deliberately built upon the biological scaffold of a living brain. We’ve had our saints and colonists, but no flag has been planted on this new shore, to signify universal intent to think and act like a species capable of godhood. In the face of the now dire need to be truly objective, we remain pathetically out of self-control and self-possession: subjective, self-centered, divided, bickering, greedy, myopic and mean: a fitting epitaph for the creature who ruined a planet.

Yet, mea culpa is just another form of wallowing in passive helplessness. What is required and feasible is to think soberly and act objectively. How, exactly, to do this? First, by admitting that we are only partially and hazily conscious when not literally sleeping. That we are creatures of habit, zombie-like, whose nervous systems are possessed by nature, with inherited goals and values that are archaic and not really our own. Then to locate the will to jump out of our biological and cultural strait jackets. To snap out of the hazy trance of daily experience. For lack of familiarity, we do not have the habit of thinking objectively. But we can try to imagine what that might be like. And thereby (perhaps for the first time) to sense real choice.

To choose the glimpse of objective life is one thing. But stepping into it may prove too daunting. Unfortunately, the glimpse often comes late in life, whereas the real need now is for new life to be founded on it from the outset. The only hope for the human race is that enough influential people adopt an attitude of objective benevolence, purposing specifically the general good and the salvation of the planet. That can be the only legitimate morality and the only claim to full consciousness. It is probably an impossible ideal, and too belated. Yet, it is a form of action within the reach of anyone who can understand the concept. Whether humanity as a whole can step onto that other shore, at least it is open to individuals to try.

So, what is “objectivity”? It means, first of all, recognizing that conventional goals and “normal” values are no longer appropriate in a world on the brink of destruction. We cannot carry on “business as usual,” even if that business seems natural or self-evident—such as family and career, profit, power and status. The world does not need more billionaires; it does not need more people at all. It does need intelligent minds dedicated to solving its problems. Objective thinking does not guarantee solutions to these problems. It doesn’t guarantee consensus, but does provide a better basis for agreement and therefore for cooperation. It requires recognizing one’s actual motivations and perspective—and re-aligning them with collective rather than personal needs.

Our natural visual sense provides a metaphor. Objectivity literally means “objectness.” As individual perceivers, we see any given thing from a literal perspective in space. The brain naturally tries to identify the object that one is seeing against a confusing background, which means its expected properties such as shape, location, distance, solidity, etc. We call these properties objective, meaning that they inhere in the thing itself and are not incidental to our perspective or way of looking, which could be quite individual. This process is helped by moving around the thing to see it from different angles, against changing backgrounds. It can also be helped by seeing it through different eyes. Objectivity on this literal level helps us to survive by knowing the real properties of things, apart from our biased opinions. It extends to other levels, where we need to know the best course of action corresponding to the real situation. The striving for objectivity implies filtering out the “noise” of our nervous systems and cultures, our biologically and culturally determined parochial nature. The objectivity practiced by science enables consensus, by allowing the reality of nature to decide scientific questions through experiment. In the same way, objective thinking in daily life enables consensus. We can best come to agreement when there is first the insistence on transcending or putting aside biases that lead to disagreement.

We’ve long been at war with our bodies and with nature, all the while slave to the nature within us. “Objectivity” has trivially meant power to manipulate nature and others through lack of feeling, narrowed by self-interest. Now feeling—not sentimentality but sober discernment and openness to bigger concerns—must become the basis of a truer objectivity. All that may sound highly abstract. In fact, it is a personal challenge and potentially transformative. The world is objectively changing. One way or another, no one can expect to remain the same person with the same life. You must continue to live, of course, providing your body and mind with their needs. But the world can no longer afford for us to be primarily driven by those needs, doing only what comes naturally.