"Let each one turn his gaze inward and regard himself with awe and wonder,
with mystery and reverence... Let us reintegrate."
Henry Miller (1891-1980), The Cosmological Eye
"I now state the thesis that the explanation of this active attack on the environment is a three-fold urge: (i) to live, (ii) to live well, (iii) to live better. In fact the art of life is first to be alive, secondly to be alive in a satisfactory way, and thirdly to acquire an increase in satisfaction."
Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason , 1929
Here we shall consider those aspects of our psychological makeup that relate to evolution, society and learning and to how they interrelate in our behaviour and interactions. The hierarchical nature of our needs is contrasted with the integrated nature of our current civilisation.
What makes up a human ? We often regard ourselves as a higher form of life but just what does this mean ? It is clear that we are of animal descent since we maintain many behaviours that mimic those of lesser creatures (e.g. aggression, territoriality, fear), yet we also create towering societies of knowledge and beauty. Let us therefore investigate just how our minds develop and deliberate also on how we may best put them to use.
First let me state that "we can't live otherwise than in accordance with our inner natures", i.e. our behaviour must relate to our inherent personality. This allows us to raise an interesting issue that relates to the interplay of the various levels of our being. Like most dualisms, the debates that have raged about the extent of nature versus nurture in our education have ignored the multilevel aspects of our mind. Behaviours have many causes, so it would be inaccurate to adopt an either/or position to any question of growth, yet it is also true that we can distinguish aspects of our inner natures that relate to specific aspects of our wider environment, both historical and present.
When I use the term 'inner nature' here I am referring in a general sense to the holistic whole of our evolved being, in other words to the amalgam of nature (genes), nurture (experience) and culture (society) that builds our personality or psychological profile. This profile is partly what we see when we first meet a person, in the image they present to the world around them. We can however, reasonably, distinguish the external pressures of society to conform (our outer social shell), from our desire to be individuals (the inner me), so let us look more closely at these often conflicting drives.
If we allow 'outer nature' to mean our position in a larger social context, that is how we choose to behave and describe ourselves socially (e.g. "I'm a philosopher"), then we need also I think to distinguish two aspects of what remains. Firstly we have our evolutionary pre-dispositions, as part of our animal heritage. Data from 'wild' children subsequently brought into society indicate that our genetic development patterns are sufficient (as we'd expect) to account for our more basic behaviours (feeding, mating, etc.). Yet these children cannot later be taught our full human behaviours, that opportunity window in childhood, which enables us to form those mental structures corresponding to human characteristics, has been missed. In other words we are still basically animal in our nature unless we are 'improved' early in postnatal development.
On top of this animal foundation, we add an upbringing which is cultural. It is our experiences that helps build our personality, to add the layers transcending those of wild animals and enhancing our potential. Such layers develop sequentially throughout childhood and include attention, recognition, association, interpretation, planning and beyond. The experiences creating such functional networks vary greatly, depending upon our specific society, but all modern human societies have certain characteristics in common, at least in some form. These include play, language, obedience, sharing, reading, writing and arithmetic, together with cultural specifics concerning religion, work, laws, status, education and so on. We are raised to be social beings, to form part of a society and so naturally inherit its values, consciously or unconsciously.
If we have a higher part of our nature, then (in the absence of supernatural learning) this must result from the interplay between the genetic and social worlds as we grow. This I'll call the 'middle nature', redefining 'inner nature' to be just the instinctive (untutored) aspect of our being. It would seem that all those treasured 'human' aspects of our mind must reside in this 'middle nature'. These include not only intellectual and ethical, but also sensual and emotional, plus any other aspects that we can claim to be spiritually or psychologically valuable. These aspects of our nature are often reflective, they allow us to stand back from our day to day world and to consider our options, to compare values and fitnesses and to test out ideas before acting upon them. They can also simultaneously take into account needs at multiple levels, if we choose to allow this.
We must distinguish these abstract abilities from the more down-to-earth ideas that form our outer natures. Outer nature here relates exclusively to inter-personal relations which we can often regard as just as mindless and primitive as our instinctual responses. This is true since they come into being in exactly the same way, as trial and error responses to events in the world. The only difference between social and animal instincts relates to timescales, genetic instincts are the long term embodiment over aeons of environmentally advantageous behaviours whereas these same behaviours can be learned over the short term as social skills (the translation from learned to genetic behaviour is called the Baldwin effect). Darwinian survival of the fittest behaviours occur frequently in social situations, we submit to those socially superior, dominate those weaker, set up hierarchies and generally run our societies along instinctive lines, forms of extended animal patterns. The extent of this is studied in Evolutionary Psychology and it is interesting to reflect just how much of our day to day social behaviour mimics a zoo...
Given the differences in experiences between individuals, and the differences in the societies of which they are a part, it perhaps comes as no surprise that so many disagreements and conflicts between individuals (or between individuals and group, or between groups ) take place. Our education is a mish-mash of conflicting information - just read a few newspapers to see the frequency of opposite views of exactly the same event ! How on earth do we deal with this as we grow up ?
I'd suggest that we internalise the conflicts - having some part of the mind wanting one thing and some part another. It is known that our minds are modular, and from studies of multiple personalities we know that different parts of the mind can certainly be in conflict. Again from split brain patients we see that this can escalate so much that parts of the body can even fight each other or refuse to recognise their common nature. When we make decisions we must balance out these conflicts and inconsistencies. Decisions thus need to be compromises, we should choose whatever option has the highest probability of satisfying whatever proves to be our greatest need at the time. This could be safety, hunger, paying the mortgage and so on. Only when these 'priority interrupts', to use some computer jargon, have been satisfied can we attune to the higher aspirations of the mind and spirit.
This multi-level prioritisation scheme is called by AI researcher Rodney Brooks 'Subsumption Architecture'. It relates to the idea that systems are layered and that a lower, less advanced, part of a system can take overall control if a critical variable falls to an unacceptable value (e.g. energy becomes exhausted). We see this in the human brain, in the ability of emotions to overcome thought and in the ability of instinct to cause reflex behaviours (knee jerk reactions) if sudden threats arise. On a slightly higher level, we cannot concentrate if we need to go to the toilet for example or are very thirsty. Our hormonal concentrations, driven by the body's sensors, change the priorities around the brain and help implement, in rather complex ways, such a multi-level control system.
We must put our physical survival needs (animal) as the most basic level, in accordance I think with what we observe - civilisation invariably breaks down when people are dying of starvation or war. Physical security seems a pre-requisite for the pursuit of more advanced behaviours. On the next level up (group), people are more concerned with cultural needs (houses, clothes, respect, position, etc.). This is a social survival aspect, less critical than the animal version but just as real and vital to a person's self respect and view of themselves as a human being. Readers of this essay are lucky, they are perhaps among the few people in the world with the leisure to pursue the next level, spiritual survival needs. This is the ability to go beyond the world as is and to look towards other possibilities, better ways of living. After all, if we had 'real' problems in our lives we wouldn't be here now chatting would we ?
Despite the considerable emphasis many people place on social standing and their outer natures, this aspect of personality is ultimately trivial and empty. The abilities of a person reside in their middle nature, it is here that they can deal with social inputs and it is from here that the outer shell gets generated. This shell can change depending upon circumstances, it is a plastic construct without intrinsic value. Taking for example a person describing themselves as "a company director" and placing them alone on a desert island should dissolve that self-image - it no longer has any relevance. If that person then feels valueless and powerless it simply shows that they have failed to realise that a persons worth is embedded in their middle nature and not the outer shell.
All people therefore, whatever their social standing, have potentially equal value. It resides in their current 'human level' abilities and not in the culture of which they form a part. It is an ongoing and developing worth, and not a fixed value. We cannot in advance, or from a single social context, evaluate this worth, this needs a much deeper level of analysis, to which intelligence tests and personality assessments are rather flawed approximations. We do not yet know enough of brain function to assess what is good, bad or indifferent here, nor how to measure it adequately. Yet we have our own lifetime experience, plus thousands of years of historical wisdom to call upon. It does not matter whether we call this knowledge base spiritual, philosophical, common sense or just folk wisdom, all these are merely labels. But by using this background we can recognise good in people or bad, we can recognise ability and incompetence, we can develop our own minds to higher levels of understanding and mental ability. That alone constitutes the real me.
In common with many cultural traditions, we will here consider those higher levels of our being to relate to spiritual aspects, as these have (so far) been investigated more deeply in religious writings and disciplines than in scientific or psychological ones. Given the multiple physical and social pressures on our development, due to various animal and cultural biases (which we can minimise if we so desire - as Buddhist monks do, for example), it isn't perhaps surprising that most modern people do nothing about their spiritual level development - they find they have no time to contemplate. Yet it is wrong I think to imagine (as some anti-technology people like to do) that the past was something of an idyllic paradise, where our inner natures (in the earlier wider sense) were better developed in this respect. Certainly some people may have managed to do this (mainly the rulers and leisured classes ?), but in those days also, even more so than now, the majority needed to put survival first. A good analysis of this is found in Matt Ridley's 'The Origins of Virtue' where he argues that ethical or eco-friendly behaviour wasn't part of our human past at all ! Our opportunities today seem to be far greater than they were in the past, at least as far as the majority of the population are concerned. This is due largely to the ability of technology to cheaply provide for all our animal needs, in terms of food, water, shelter, security. As a consequence, most of us now work at optional activities, having nothing whatever to do with basic survival issues, and largely concerned with obtaining material enhancements to our lives.
But why don't we instead use these new opportunities more effectively, to better enhance our creativity and the other higher mind functions ? Firstly I think because of a lack of relevant education - how much of what the readers know of the deeper spiritual subjects, if anything, arose in school ? Even for those given a traditional religious education, most such instruction relates to divisive rituals and sectarian specifics, not to the underlying, unifying and culture-free, spiritual meaning. The second aspect relates to a past dominated by a materialist dismissal of spirit. This may originally have been for political reasons, in opposing the power of the Church, but has the effect that science (through technology) now concentrates only on things, and society has thus been brainwashed to only consider things important - all matter and no mind. The main reason however I think relates to a social viewpoint that emphasises parts and largely ignores the interconnections between them, their co-evolutionary effects on each other. Our 'middle nature' is generated by these interactions, so ignoring them leaves us impoverished in the recognition and study of our potentially uplifting higher human values.
The inclusion of interconnections transforms our viewpoint, from one considering a static world of things to one comprising a dynamic world of processes. Connections naturally convey information through time and such transfers of information force change. All objects are potentially subject to this evolution, so we can generalise the concept of process to cover all forms of evolution. On this view an object (or matter) is just a process without change, whilst at the opposite end of the continuum we see spirit (or energy) as a process with only change. This can be regarded (if you like) as 'seeing the glass as half full' (a 'thing' view) vesus 'seeing the glass as half empty' (a 'relationship' view). For a full description of any event it seems obvious that both aspects need to be taken into account, yet in our current science this second aspect (what does not stay the same, what one thing does to everything else) is largely ignored. Most of our reality therefore will consist of concepts that partake of both constancy and change, and thus we can use process thinking to integrate all aspects of our world and to deal with the concepts of both science and religion, by adding in the missing relationships to the wider world (expanding science and grounding religion).
Process thought is concerned with the development of systems, the becoming rather than the being, and this fits in well with our emphasis here on the development of mind, rather than the static abilities usually assumed in social studies. Processes come in many forms, with both regularities (cycles) and irregularities (novelty) living alongside more static aspects. Complexity science concerns the study of involved processes like the mind, and here we look to understanding the effect of complex interactions upon the evolution of systems, partly internally but especially in the context of their wider environment, in their co-evolution with multiple other co-existent systems.
One aspect of spirit is concerned with ethical issues and this also relates to such interactions. If we are disconnected psychologically from each other, then what happens to you is of no consequence to me and vice versa. But if we regard ourselves as connected (in a higher level version of how our left and right legs relate for example) then the state of the whole is highly dependent upon how one part affects another (try walking if your left and right legs don't co-operate !). We are, in fact, socially connected in such a way today, none of us can now even survive without all the various specialisms around us (farmers, builders, weavers, doctors, power companies, etc., etc.). And our quality of life is dependent upon a whole lot of other people also - inventors, technicians, artists, musicians, writers... Being attuned to the modern world is, in one sense at least, recognising this multi-level interdependency.
Once the extent of this interdependency is realised, and we drop our pretence to individual self-sufficiency, then we can start to make progress in recognizing that many of the issues (traditionally part of religion) that address the relation between self and the world around us, are still valid today. Rather than viewing interactions in the dualist mode of 'competition' versus 'cooperation', we can instead adopt a more evolutionary perspective, that of fitness. Looking at each aspect of our behaviour from the viewpoint of whether it enhances our quality of life (positive-sum) or reduces it (negative-sum), allows us to see that cooperative and competitive behaviours can both do either, it depends on the circumstances. We can, in the same way, consider instincts and social norms also, identifying whether these drives and pressures are still of value or not, in a modern world far different from that in which they came into prominence.
We have seen how we can usefully view our minds as being made up of three aspects, the instinctive (living), the cultural norms (living well) and the evaluative (living better). Only the latter forms part of what we can regard as the higher aspects of our species, since both the others are also evident in many animal societies. Evaluation doesn't just mean logic here, we need to integrate all forms of abstract abilities, artistic, intellectual, emotional and spiritual. Judging a multi-dimensional world requires an holistic viewpoint taking into account not just ourselves but our effects on others and those of others on us. Today we need more socially responsible evaluations that fit in better with our global multi-cultural societies.
Before we can grow as humans we first need to learn. We need to be able to transcend the instinctive behaviours of our past, the biases that layer our reactions into considering only one aspect at a time. We need also to transcend the idea that cultural values are all important and to recognise that people's worth is inherent in their mental and physical potential and not based upon their social position or any other discardable single dimensional value system. All levels are important in contributing to our quality of life and all aspects of our planet contribute also. Our tendency either to specialise, achieving depth but not width, or to generalise, achieving width without depth, serves us badly in an interdisciplinary world both wide and deep. We have nowadays enough information to educate ourselves to do both, to see the wider picture, to develop our full potential. Let's give it a try...