A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Goal of Life

A person can have many different goals, but ultimately only one basic life goal, and that will necessarily be a choice between trying to find ways of giving one's biology expression and freedom or finding ways of restraining, controlling, even denying one's biology.

Living for and within one's biology requires sensitivity, awareness and an inquisitive nature.  Living with the restraint and denial of biology requires that something be created to stand in its place as a substitute for it and protection against its uninvited expression. 

Being alive is a consequence of the design order of biology; only biology has the property of life.  All of the energy of the solar nuclear furnace, the powerful and complex activities of volcanoes or the intricate slow "muscularity" of ocean currents totally fail to be alive; it is not raw power, but design that gives biology its special place.

To be alive and to express one's biology seems like a simple and obvious equation: life = biology = expression of both.  However, in a paradoxical twist, like a Zen koan, much of the human species have adopted the life goal of rejecting their biology in one way or another.

There must be good reasons for this.  The basic physical and behavioral biology of humans evolved as a continuous process from the primates, great apes and hominids.  We are a hairless ape with an outsized brain that evolved an adaptation to life new to the earth and possibly new to the universe; and we are a great contradiction: a primate with primate biology thrust with terrible speed into an adaptation of incomprehensible scope and power -- consciousness/culture.  Our primate behaviors became quickly uncomfortable in our cultural clothing.  Our anger, our sexual antics, our habits of rest and work all speak of a primate living as a hunter/opportunist in moderate sized family groups sparsely populating the landscape. 

We immediately understand a baboon troupe or a band of chimps.  We understand their relationships and can easily pick out those who are like us in their various social roles.  And yet in a cultural society, one of size and history, one with an endless memory and "impossibly" rapid adaptations to a ponderously slow environment, our “basic primate” is as lost as a forest chimp coming to live with the Cleavers.  

This is not to say that our biology is the same as that of the living great apes, it's certainly is not, but is to say that the full and unfettered expression of our biology would be seriously out of place in our conscious/culture space and that that creates a great dilemma which has been primarily solved by repressing, denying and “overcoming” nature.  

It is quite possible that more pain and suffering has come from this process than in the whole world of life before us. All other species are integrated into an ecosystem; their place in life is a given and if they could question it, which they cannot, the sense of purpose and belonging would be complete and palpable.  Other organisms die in seconds, minutes or at most a few hours when under tooth and claw or from injury or the last ravages of disease.  But humans live long and often die long, many live long in physical suffering and many live long in the madness of questions about their place in the world. 

When Buddhists say ‘life is suffering,’ they mean conscious life and especially life in conflict: to be sensate is the first requirement of suffering, the second is that there be a world of conflicting sensation -- we meet both conditions. 

And so it is here that our choice is before us; the biology of our bodies and species, millions of years of evolution and billions of years of genetic continuity vs. the ad hoc conscious/cultural product with its manifest power in the moment. 

The arguments are monstrous: cultures claim to be eternal when, in fact, they change so fast that we have such stories as Rip Van Winkle falling asleep for a few years and awakening completely out of place; and in claiming to be eternal, they justify forcing adherents to their designs with draconian means: laws, economic sanctions and ostracism. 

But it is our biology that gives the cultural order such power.  We grow up imprinting, not on a mother goose in the first few hours of life, but on a whole world of variety over several years, i.e., our biological designs wrap themselves around the details of the world we're born into -- no other organism does that.  And yet no matter how well we do it there is still the "world" that our genes have prepared us for -- a world that our biology expects to be there. 

We live in groups, go mad without them, and will adapt to and adopt their ways: lost sailors become good islanders, captured West Indians became good Europeans, Islamists become Christians, Buddhists become Hindus and Christians become pagans.  Biology says to belong to a group, and the group says to deny biology (at least some significant parts of it). 

Biology is just as monstrous: trillions of cells in your body, each one with a complete copy of your genes -- and these are not just any set of instructions.  These are copies of copies that go back in an unbroken process for over 3 billion years to the very first living things, and they contain the efficacious evolutionary history of all life, your kingdom, Phylum, etc., all the way to your species and to you individually.  The genes function by expressing themselves as the physical structure of your body and the physiology that is the basis for your life and behavior. 

It would just make sense that the fullest expression of that biology would be a desirable thing.  On what basis would you be willing to say that 3 billion plus years of efficaciousness proven by an unbroken sequence of trillions upon trillions of DNA replications was wrong?  Replaced by something thought up a few geological seconds ago by a limited human mind?  Not likely! 

For me it is biology first; that is where the reverence is.  Respect for my own biology, and therefore for my psychology and spirituality.  In fact, spirituality (not religion) is the key.  What we call spirituality is the practices and subjective conditions that attach one particular expression of the genes to the universe as a whole.  Every organism other than humans do this in the normal process of their lives; every thing other than humans exists naturally in the spiritual.  Humans did also for a very long time, but then began to imagine themselves outside of that relationship and so went out of it.  And so now with appropriate practice and a reverence for biology we have to imagine ourselves back into such a relationship once again. 

This is by far the best personal choice.  Since, while it is possible to live with a reverence for biology and to practice a fulfilling spirituality and still live in effective contact with a basically mad society, it is not possible to be reverential of such a society and live in sufficient contact with your biology and spirit to be of any use.  But ultimately the choice has to be between a dedication to the principles of the society or the principles of your own species biology -- your specieshood. 

You know what society requires -- you must accept its values whatever they may be (human sacrifices for the Aztecs, lots of travel for the Mongols, believing political lies for the 21st century Americans) -- but what do you do to live in specieshood? 

First, you give your body good food and exercise, keep clean and as free from contaminants as possible -- you create the conditions for your body to express its biology without injuries from pollutants or stimulants.  Second, you give your consciousness the opportunity to develop itself and express itself, also by what you "feed it" and avoid allowing it to consume.  This is a much more difficult matter.  Just as your body needs a daily regimen for its health, so do your mental faculties (these are not separate from your body, but do require special “grooming”).  Relaxation, meditation, exploration and stimulation are words that tend to suggest the activities. 

Avoid the prepackaged mental products the way you avoid fast food or MSG contaminated food.  Commercial messages are everywhere -- this is a world for sale, but life is not about a world for sale.  It is about an incredibly improbable process and living out its possibilities. 

At one time what was real was what was experienced and such experience was tested by survival.  We might today, with our science, reject a particular explanation for a proven action, though not the action itself.  But now we are dependent on science and the scientific method to get at the truth of things -- and on the writings of those thinkers who have risked their persons to dig into the heart of our dilemmas. 

Study widely, learn science, develop your own critical sense, avoid "media" and other coercive communications beyond what is needed for a basic recognition of events.  After awhile what is most likely true will began to stand out in relief: history, science and philosophy and your own body sense will create the background environment in which you live.  Deceptions will become transparent and lies foolish diversions. 

Such a way will often stand at odds with the society of which you necessarily are a part and put you in conflict with people who give society their reverence, but this will be clear to you and you will be free to deal with it as you feel you must.


Michael Dawson said...

Sage advice. My only addendum would be to slightly rephrase the formula. As the historians McNeill and McNeill say in their worthwhile book, _The Human Web_, the universal goal of human life seems to be to arrange one's life and circumstances to come as close as possible to one's ideals/hopes.

Of course, what you're saying is that what we conceive of as ideals and hopes is the linchpin. We radically underestimate the place of biology, having been steeped in cornucopian "no limits" dogma. We also radically underestimate what I the importance of sociology, which can explain the why and the how of the huge ways our ideals and hopes are coerced.

James Keye said...

I am adding a layer of definition to the Joe Campbell formula "follow your bless" to include the idea that a species of life has a species' bless. A beaver can't be a beaver in a concrete pond -- even if it has never lived elsewhere. A species has a 'way.' For humans, these days, it is a life's work just to rediscover being alive as a member of the human species. I conclude it is well worth it; it is the one thing worth doing.... just ask the beaver!