No Magic Required

Posted by on May 18, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments

NoMagicRequired2

Image from “I, Robot”, 2004, 20th Century Fox

“I’m a robot, and you’re a robot, but that doesn’t make us any less dignified or wonderful or lovable or responsible for our actions. Why does our dignity depend on our being scientifically inexplicable?”  – Daniel Dennett

Why is it that people continually point at the inexplicable, the undefinable and the unprovable when talking about the incredible uniqueness that humans hold among the animal kingdom? Any fool can see that humanity has taken a place in the world that no other animal could hold, due to the many seemingly unique qualities we display, and the degree to which we display them; We can communicate in intricate and specific terms, we can manipulate our world to change it to our wants and needs, and we display an unmatched propensity for inventiveness and shared learning. We have built our own world up from the harsh and natural world our forefathers found themselves in many centuries ago, and we continue to build from these meagre beginnings with an aptitude and tenacity unwitnessed in any other species on earth. In this sense, we are a special case, and we are all too aware of this. We know we are special, but we deny what it took to get us here.

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.” – Salisbury

We are only as advanced as we are because of the centuries of thought and evolution that have brought to this point, and this point is by no means a “destination” or “end-state”. When describing humanity, many fall into the trap of removing ourselves from the world, a false dichotomy of “the natural world” and “the human world”. This is understandable, given that we do display so many seemingly unique traits as a species, but it is very misguided thinking, and has caused all manner of problems in our current world. Once we remove the veil of our superiority as a species from the picture, once we look inside our own past, once we understand that the journey from “lower animal” to “higher animal” is a long and slow process, then we can understand what it really means to be a human in our current world. When this process is misunderstood, or in some cases, denied, we invent ways to explain our existences, we create extra baggage in the form of invisible and inexplicable phenomena to fill these gaps. Like the opposite of Occam’s Razor, we pile on unnecessary and imaginary complications to explain ourselves, simply because we lack the understanding of who and what we are, needlessly complicating the process of what I see as quite simple. What and who we are is much more simple, and at the same time more complex, than any mystical or superstitious thinking may have you believe.

And it is both beautifully poetic in its simplicity, and amazing in its complexities, but in no way necessitates or implies the need for supernatural intervention.

In order to see this, we need to take a step back, and look forward from the past to where we are now. All aspects of humanity can be explained when we look at where we came from, and it doesn’t require the intervention of an invisible all-powerful agent to help us along. As this is a blog and not a 100,000 word essay, I will only touch on the major ideas in this journey, but as you will see, most if not all of the mystical thinking about humanity’s place in the cosmos can be explained through gradual change, through adaptation, and through a hundred centuries of thinking and discovery. I will start with a common misconception about humanity, then attempt to explain in a way that shows that the supernatural is either unnecessary or absent in the process. The points below are human-centric in nature, and go a long way toward showing us just how selfish humanity is.

Morality

The emergence of the idea of morality is easily explained, if one is willing to accept that people have a want and need to be well. We are intelligent enough to realise that our own well-beings depend on the well-beings of those who surround us. We are social animals, and therefore depend heavily on our societies to thrive and flourish, so it is in our best interest to do what maintains others, not what destroy others. Morality is just a name for treating others in a caring and sufficiently constructive way for the whole of a societal group to perpetuate. However what is known as “morality” is so often bound up with individual judgement that the whole idea of morality today is basically a bankrupt concept. The term has been hijacked and loaded with personal ideals by those who see the actions of others as abhorrent, and could have only ever come to this stage via the guiding hand of religions an personal politics which seek to impose their own ethics and loaded moralities upon others.

Genesis

The idea of “genesis”, or a spontaneous coming into being, is what was used by thinkers of a bygone age to describe where humanity came from. It was the best they could come up with at the time, having limited knowledge and limited access to the world around us. We now know that humanity, or anything else on this planet, didn’t just spring into existence, but is the result of billions of years of gradual change and adaptation.

It is tempting therefore to ask within this framework “When did the first human appear?” assuming again that things just popped, fully formed, into existence. Of course, with gradual change and adaptation, every stage of development is different from the one that precedes it, and the one which follows. The first human therefore, is impossible to identify, because we are still changing and evolving.

In short, there was no genesis, definitely on in the biblical sense, and in an evolutionary sense, humanity emerged slowly and gradually from previous life-forms.

The Soul

Humanity is obsessed with itself. We are self-aware, and able to change and adapt to our surroundings, and also to make changes to our surroundings to suit us. We are also intelligent enough to realise that we will all die, and cease to be among those who love us, and those who we love share the same fate. A combination of our self-obsession, and the obliteration of self due to mortality, leads us to wish for eternal life, because the other option seems so uncomfortable that we’d rather not think about it. To deal with the ultimate futility of life, we have invented the idea of the soul. This soul represents our inner life-force, our uniqueness, and ultimately ourselves, but is intangible and eternal. And people fight tooth and nail to try and prove its existence, even if this “proof” is only wishful thinking.

The idea of soul only emerges because of our inability to deal with our own death, and the deaths of those around us. It is a coping mechanism to deal with the uncomfortable reality of the ultimate fate of all living creatures on this planet, and the food-chain which sustains it. In order for one individual to live, others must die. Once one comes to terms with the realities of life and death on this planet, the idea of the soul is only useful as a way to bend the wills of others to do the bidding of theologians and their mega-corporations, the religions. It is also a political tool which utilises the idea of eternal reward and punishment to motivate people into action against their neighbours.

Without the soul, the Abrahamic idea of heaven and hell falls to pieces. Without an eternal soul, there is nothing within these religions that relate to humans, and little value but a couple of guiding ideas that are of little relevance in a self-aware society like the one we live in today.

Empathy

As witnessed in what we call “upper primates” such as chimpanzees and gorillas, empathy is not unique to humans. Empathy is the ability to sense in others feelings and emotions, as well as the propensity within us to “feel” them also. Pain of others is reflected in our brains as pain to ourselves, therefore we tend to avoid painful situations without having to experience them ourselves. When we see someone stub their toe, our “mirror neurons” kick into play, and we empathise with the person who is in pain. We also comfort them, because in our minds we felt what they felt. Empathy is key to human evolution, because, as social animals, we learn mistakes from others rather than having to go through the learning of pain ourselves. This is a key to human societal evolution, for we have built up societies to best suit the needs of the group, not the self.

Society

Our societies have evolved because of a combination of the above series of human traits. We have constructed our societies in a way that suits the individual within the group, and therefore the group as a whole. Although much of modern society is geared toward the profits of the few, the basis for this society came from an ability to see and assess what is best for a group and work collectively  toward this. Along the way we have developed cultures and religions, specific to our geographical location, and diverse due to the separation of groups to these geographical areas. The evolution of societies, much like the evolution of language, is a good metaphor for the evolution of species in this way.

God

As I have said in the past, the notion of god is simply a way to fill the gaps in our knowledge in a way that satisfies our curiosities, at leas in a superficial way. However, the notion of a god with purpose, a god which oversees our daily toiling, and a god that punishes and rewards us for our actions, is the single most selfish thing humanity has ever devised. It’s easy to plea the case for god once one removes humanity from the context of nature, and even easier when a person claims they have a soul with which god will chose its destiny. Despite the arguments of contingency for god (i.e. that in order for the universe to exist, god is necessary), the arguments for a personal god (i.e. “I know god exists because I can feel his influence” ), or even the human-centric view that god has created the universe specifically for us, there is no evidence for this existence except for ignorance of facts.

With our current knowledge of the universe, and the continual growth and accumulation of evidence about the way the universe works, we see more and more that humanity is just one of many possibilities that the reality of this universe has to offer. We are special, at least insomuch that we are the only acutely self-aware species on this planet, but this self-awareness has had the tendency to centre ourselves as the “purpose” for this world, and with such grandiloquence as to be embarrassing. It’s time we grew up and saw our true place in this universe, one of fragile and fortunate circumstances, not as the spoilt child of an omnipotent all-seeing father figure.

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3 Comments

  1. By the way, I liked your Hypatia quote on your blog’s opening page so I tried to verify it.  Sounds like it might be fabricated by Elbert Hubbard in 1908.  Check it out:
    http://bedejournal.blogspot.com/2009/11/encyclopaedia-britannica-hits-rock.html

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  2. Boy, it took a lot of identification work to make a comment here.

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  3. Paragraph 2: “Ockham’s Razor speaks to the necessity of Ockham’s Beard: that which needs to be trimmed”
    Pairing humanity down to primate evolution is perhaps the surest way of raising hackles and re-enforcing the discomfort levels of your interlocutors :) They won’t switch so effortlessly from “natural selection via DNA” to mere evolution-as-metaphor. They’re wary.
    On morality, those “personal” parlances (gut instincts, theologies) are quickly defended as arguably better; hence any groupish (apish) approaches of modernity or liberalism –those ethicists of academe– are easily judged as humanly corrupt, misguided or wrong.
    On genesis, those biologically explanatory theories of human genesis cave to deeper counter-intuitive “unbelievable” theories; abiogenesis, krauss’ universes from nothing etc.
    On the soul, those minds cannot come at their own consciousness being fully contained within that squishy brain inside their skull. And confirmations are busily bubbling up from those subconscious regions –pre-humanoid and evolutionarily sufficient– as narratives to an  (over-rated and over-confident) cognitive executive function.

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