"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, March 14, 2014

Human Nature, Newton, And Our ‘Inner Resources’

Philosophical and political arguments have raged for centuries about the nature of Man, his perfectibility or preordination.  Liberals today, descendants of socialist reformers of the 20th century continue to believe that with collective intervention guided by the hand of the State, humanity can be improved.  There can be a future without war, borders, and fights over land and resources. Societies can live together harmoniously and peacefully, and only need education, social awareness, and commitment.

Conservatives on the other hand believe that history has shown that Man has always acted in his own self interest; and individuals alone or grouped in families, tribes, or nations will always be self-protective, expansionist, and territorial.  Whether kings, emperors, peasants, or brothers and sisters, human beings have marked out their territories, defended it against all comers, and tried to expand their spheres of influence. Out of this enlightened individual self-interest and the productive competition associated with it will come social progress.

Henry V

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David Brooks, writing in the New York Times (3.14.12) has summarized the academic, scientific research on evolutionary biology, attempting to shed light on the subject and help answer the question, ‘Are we simply animals cloaked in a thin layer of rationality?’ He cites the growing evidence that we are governed by hardwired biological realities.  Women, for example, are more attracted to strong, classically handsome men during ovulation.  Men’s testosterone levels and interest in other women drop after become fathers.

Despite centuries of historical evidence Brooks goes on to argue for a spiritual or at least inspirationally humanistic view of mankind.  We may be programmed, but that does not deny deep wells of inner, purely human, and exalted spirit.

But depth, the core of our being, is something we cultivate over time. We form relationships that either turn the core piece of ourselves into something more stable and disciplined or something more fragmented and disorderly. We begin with our natural biases but carve out depths according to the quality of the commitments we make. Our origins are natural; our depths are man-made — engraved by thought and action.

We may be governed by certain ineluctable biological realities that are common to us all, Brooks says; and then concocted in a very unique and special way – a bit of Uncle Herman’s genius, strands of great-great-grandpappy’s orneriness, and ‘those Carter ears’ – but in our very human ability to ‘carve out depths’ and to make sense of our existence in a larger world, we display our superiority over the apes.

If one is looking for human greatness, however, one does not have to look beyond the vivid expressions of our programmed, hardwired, and infinitely powerful human nature.  It is because of our native drives – our aggressiveness, insatiable desire for territory, resources, and tribal dominance – that civilizations have been built, that great palaces constructed, concertos written, masterpieces painted.  Kingdom after kingdom amassed wealth, courtiers patronized the arts, architecture, and religion.  They were the cultural spoils of war.

In other words, society works very well on its own governed by only a few basic laws. Human nature dictates that we will always act according to our own self-interest, but history has shown that this is a good thing, not a bad one. There are no internal moral regulators on human nature that automatically direct natural impulses towards the ‘good’.  There will always be Hitlers, Pol Pots, Stalins, and Genghis Khans who exist at points in history which facilitate their aggression.  In the main, however, kingdoms come and go and empires dominate, subject, and civilize like the Romans, the Persians, and the British.

Individuals, regardless of their talent and ability, are cogs in the machinery of civilization. Michelangelo burned with a desire to paint, and Pope Julius wanted a Sistine Chapel so beautiful, so inspiring, and so powerful, that Catholics for centuries would remember his name. The fact that they remember Michelangelo’s instead is irrelevant.

Martin Luther had both a religious and political vision – it was time to stop the vulgar excesses of the Catholic Church and return divinity to the people – but Protestantism spawned a whole new round of holy wars and doctrinal disputes. Out of Luther’s ideas came new political power, Protestant kingdoms, and their own patronage and ambitious adventures. Every event produces a subsequent event in ever changing but predictable cycles. Newton’s First Law works for cultures as well as for objects in motion. Machiavelli revolutionized political philosophy but opened the door to an amoral practice of war and diplomacy.

Image result for images isaac newton

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Individuals provide the energy for the engines of civilization. Far from divine beings, who look to God and their own special inner resources for inspiration, they are as predetermined, programmed, and predictable as the societies they help build.  There is no denying that each human being is different and differently endowed, but the role of society has been to exploit greatness and marginalize dissent.  More importantly, ambitious, talented individuals compete against each other in a battle of wills and ability, all to the benefit of the larger community in which they live and work. David Brooks does not agree:

So much of what we call depth is built through freely chosen suffering. People make commitments — to a nation, faith, calling or loved ones — and endure the sacrifices those commitments demand. Often this depth is built by fighting against natural evolutionary predispositions.

Brooks repeats his conviction that commitments are derived from some inner wellsprings of spiritual goodness which allow us to frame our actions within a moral context.  By such right actions we ennoble ourselves and society.

There is no need to focus as Brooks does on the duality between human nature and human spirit. They are one and the same.  If we have commitments to nation, faith, and calling, we have them because of our own individually crafted architecture of self-preservation and –aggrandizement.  We join groups for protection and to give political weight to our ideas.  We have particular callings because of parental wiring, bits of DNA from a remote ancestral past, and the formative influence of our environment.  We work hard at our calling because of a drive for success, stability, and renown which will in turn enable us to be more successful, stable, and well-known.

Human beings are not deep, and do not have to waste time plumbing depths that do not exist.  It is enough to ponder the infinitude of human expressions.  Shakespeare understood this quite well, and wrote his Histories to depict the incredible and wonderful variety of displays of human nature.  Human nature would never change, he concluded; and human actions would always fall within familiar categories; but what a peacock display within them!

                                                Henry IV

In the final reckoning there is no reason to try to figure out why we do what we do.  We know this with absolute certainty; and there is no cause to elevate Man above the animals by looking for spiritual or moral expression.  We have evolved perfectly.  We have retained our powerful human nature and instinctive drive for dominance, and have gotten ever better and expressing it.  What else could we ask for?

 

 

 

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