While on a scuba diving course last weekend I was told, quite correctly, that in the marine world we are guests, and as over 70 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water it’s presumptuous of us to call the planet ‘earth’, rather than say, ‘oceania’. The instructional video also talked about our delicate ecosystem, a subject I am well aware of through reading David Quammen’s wonderful book : The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Some scientists estimate that up to half of presently existing species may become extinct by 2100 thanks to the ‘success’ of a particularly predatory and ingenious ape that walks on two legs. Yes, strip away all religious pretense and we stand here as naked apes, not apart from the natural world, but an inextricable part of it.
Certainly we have language which we use to weave a cultural fabric providing us with scant protection against a world devoid of meaning. But why should this elevate us over the natural world? Literature, poetry, drama, religion and philosophy are wonderful stories which we tell about ourselves but they don’t necessarily make us happier or more content than other animals. I have often wondered about the validity of John Stuart Mill’s statement: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” If humans are so much better off than animals because we have language and consciousness, why do so many of us want to run away from the constant chatter of civilization to join them? Moreover, why in our more contemplative moments do we feel that feint but sure sense of connectedness with all living creatures. Maybe, as John Gray suggests in, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, it’s because that bond is more real than any of the cultural artifacts we have created to separate us from the natural world.
Atheists and humanists alike have discarded the religious explanation for what distinguishes us from animals, in favor of rationalism and science. Rationalists like Ray Kurzweil see Moore’s law inexorably driving humanity forward on the rails of progress, pushed by the ever-increasing pace of technological change. Technology, it is thought, is enabling us to gain control of our own evolutionary path, something no other species has been able to do. Now, as long as moral progress lags technological progress, I think there is a good chance that we will destroy ourselves, but if we don’t, then I too am confident that we will learn to change virtually everything about ourselves, from our physical appearance to our personality. However, human nature will remain the same, with the potential to beget both good and evil. Humanists believe in secular salvation through technology and progress, but I’m more inclined to think that this ‘progress’ will still be driven by the same corrupt crony capitalists and military forces that govern science and progress today.
Scientists themselves have gone a long way in destroying the myth that they helped create of the rational individual disinterestedly pursuing the practice of science. Cognitive scientists tell us that our thought processes are riven with cognitive biases which evolved with our reptilian brain. The religious conception of free will is increasingly giving way to determinism. We cannot even control our next thought and when it arrives we have no idea where it came from. As Sam Harris writes in Free Will, “Where is the freedom in doing what one wants when one’s desires are the product of prior events that one is completely unaware of and had no hand in creating?” In large part our lives are governed by our subconscious. Most people feel they are in control but that’s an illusion. The ‘you’ that you think yourself to be is not in control of anything. We’re conscious of only a tiny proportion of what goes on in our mind. Scientists tell us that most of the time our brain initiates action and half a second later we have the experience of acting. Furthermore, in Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge, Paul Feyerabend shows that the greatest scientific breakthroughs did not come about through the strict application of rationalism and the scientific method but rather by using epistemological anarchism. He also makes it clear that science does not stand alone outside of other influences such as religion, history, culture or philosophy.
Not surprisingly, in the naked ape civilization is only skin deep. Living in the heart of the beautiful and prosperous San Francisco Bay Area, it is difficult to envisage how fragile peace and prosperity really is and nobody has shown this more clearly than Margaret Mitchel in her novel Gone with the Wind, which vividly portrays the dizzying collapse of the slave plantation economy and the southern civilization that accompanied it. Although Steven Pinker, in his learned tome, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, amasses a great deal of statistical evidence to show that the frequency of violence and war is permanently falling, I believe human nature will eventually find a way to let thanatos in by the back door. Indeed, if Freud was correct that humans have both a life instinct (eros) and a death instinct (thanatos) then thanatos has never left us.
“Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.” John Gray