In the last post I began sketching out a plausible theory regarding the evolution of consciousness. I suggested that our phylogenetic history led us down a dead-end path of painful contradiction – the emergence of the first symbolic animal: a creature that desperately craves meaning and purpose, but exists in a physical world that has little to offer. This dilemma would be resolved by culture. Each culture can be seen as a symbolic action-system of invented meanings: to nourish our desire for purpose, order, unity, self-esteem, value, and to distract us from or deny the realities of both meaninglessness and death. In short, we create meaning out of nothingness, a psychological anesthetic, before quickly ‘forgetting’ that we were the ones that created it.
Cultural systems are the ultimate defense mechanisms that allow us to carry on with some relative sense of equanimity. We invent the symbols that contain meaning, and live by ever-changing myths that carry both. Myths are everywhere and they are often implicit: they involve an understanding about supposed truths about our existence and the nature of reality. The Western World is filled with myths. We believe, as is evident by our actions, that money and possessions will secure us happiness, esteem, and importance in the eyes of others. With science and technology we believe that we are able to harness and control nature, avoiding catastrophes, and even postpone death. We buy into vague notions of inevitable progress without ever asking what it means or what we are progressing toward. Many of us are led to believe that ‘hard-work pays off,’ and feel the frantic pressure of wanting to ‘get ahead.’ But is our work being rewarded with the correct currency, and are we ever far enough ahead to slow down?
Culture gives us a sense of meaning and purpose, so we never have to question it for ourselves; it is taken for granted. It gives us a prescription for life… we put our head down and surrender to the illusion that is civilization. However, like the positive leap from the absurd, we end up denying or distorting reality in our efforts to cope. In short, we desperately seek to escape our painful dilemma and find reconciliation by irrationally denying some aspect of man: either the symbolic self or the physical animal.
In the Western World we find transcendence through materialistic possessions that carry our symbolic worth while giving into mind-numbing distractions that prevent us from thinking too hard or feeling too much. We deny our creatureliness by avoiding uncomfortable discussions about the less glamorous functions of the human body and by spending money on surgeries and lotions that claim to keep us looking younger for as long as possible. Religion likewise offers escape into unreason, a worship of the symbolic and immortal soul, and a relative denial of the creaturely animal. Sex, masturbation, defecation, and death, only serves to remind us of our animal nature, so religion would also need to reject or avoid such things, while shaming its constituents into denying this animalistic part of the human being, as writers of the Family Guy playfully point out:
However, culture may also opt to resolve the painful human dilemma by denying the other end of the equation, the symbolic self, while trying to reconcile the human being within the physical animal. With traditional religions failing, pseudo-scientific ideologies are taking their place. Dostoevsky was right to say that freedom is a burden that man will refuse to carry. What burden could be greater than the task of creating meaning, of defining right and wrong, and of recognizing oneself to be free while taking responsibility for the life one lives? Traditional religions have assisted us by allowing us to evoke God as our alibi. We are given a prescription for living, can always ask for forgiveness for our sins, and we need not be upset or frightened about the senselessness of the world, because God loves us all, and all is part of his mysterious plan. Personal responsibility is minimized in our subscribing to something of a fatalistic religious worldview. But will the end of religion see people taking greater responsibility for their lives? This is the question that Nietzsche had in mind when he famously proclaimed that “God is dead.” He saw that people were losing their faith and saw it as an enormous opportunity for mankind. What would we do with it?
History is proving to us that this burden – for the creation of meaning, acknowledgement and acceptance of both freedom and responsibility, and for carrying the painful paradox of the symbolic animal, is just too much for the masses to bear. If we look at modern trends in society, we see growing interest and acceptance of pseudoscientific belief systems favoring a mechanistic and animalistic understanding of what it means to be human. Again we avoid acknowledging the symbolic animal that is man; we avoid carrying this painful contradiction – this time choosing not to deny the animal, but to embrace it fully. Instead of a drunken flight into irrational fantasy, we fall into numb despair. In increasing numbers, scientists are ready to tell us that our free-will is of limited capacity or an outright illusion, that our subjective minds are more-or-less controlled by our biological brains, and evolutionary psychologists are happy to tell us why we were programmed to do what we do: explaining everything from the abuse of step-children, to morality, the appreciation of art, and the nature of good and evil. The role of God is being increasingly replaced by pseudoscientific explanation. We throw down the existential burden of the symbolic self – believing ourselves to be little more than a mix of machine or reflexive animal.
Have modern Darwinian scientists localized the genes purportedly responsible for our humanity? They have not. But, they insist that it makes sense, ‘from an evolutionary perspective.’ This is nothing but another brand of theoretical bible-thumping, and the masses are buying it. Our desire to escape personal responsibility and the burden of self-creation is again stronger than our ability to employ reason. There is good cause to doubt the assertions of evolutionary psychology regarding what it was that nature selected. This is not science, but wishful fantasy of a fatalistic variety.
“It is ‘fatal’ because fate confounds good and evil without man being able to prevent it. Fate does not allow judgments of value. It replaces them by the statement that ‘It is so’ – which excuses everything, with the exception of the Creator [or in this case Natural Selection], who alone is responsible for this scandalous state of affairs (Camus, The Rebel, p. 48).”
How is the Universal Darwinian explanation much different from a pre-scientific worldview where humans were thought to be guided by an inner essence or by fate? You may have some small control over your destiny, however, the Gods ultimately have their plan for you, and in the end it will be as it will be. While the evolutionary psychologist may similarly acknowledge that there is small room for choice, culture, and learning, this is only insofar as it is activated by the ‘ultimate mechanisms’ of our genetic legacy – the invisible influences that are really responsible for our tendencies toward doing this or that. The evolutionary psychologist’s defense mechanism of biological rationalization provides us relief from the burden of responsibility and for self-creation. It is a conservative view toward our humanity, involving a subtle submission toward the inevitable, allowing us to say “it is so.” How comforting. In the end, we give up on the symbolic human project and the tension that it implies. To fully recognize the human being as a symbolically emergent self within a finite body, we must find the courage to acknowledge the meaninglessness of life while not allowing ourselves to fall into despair, to take responsibility for the creation of values and meanings of relative worth, and we must be watchful of the never-ending temptation to escape our dilemma through denial or distortion of reality. This is a tall order indeed – will we ever be up for the challenge?