Meditations: A New Theory of Human Nature, Pt. 3
A New Theory of Human Nature, Pt. 3
A reader writes to say that he finds the new theory of human nature I have proposed in this column very optimistic, though he has questions. I’m not so sanguine myself, but I do feel that the worse things get, the more the worst and best in human beings is being drawn forth. Our case is still undecided.
What makes this one of the best letters I’ve received is that the reader grasps the basic truth that these insights are tentative, and must be questioned and tested in people who are passionate about the human prospect. So, continuing the dialogue, I’ll do my best to respond to the reader’s questions, with the proviso that these are not answers, but insights for refection and further investigation.
“What do you mean by ‘conditioned,’” this reader first asks? Without trying to be glib, this reminds me of the story of the fish that suddenly realizes she is completely surrounded by water. She turns to her friend and says, ‘My God, so much water,” to which her friend replies, “what water?”
To most people, conditioning is like the air we breathe—usually invisible. But what exactly does it mean to be conditioned? There are many layers to conditioning, from simple habits to identity itself. The assumptions with which we are raised (and to which many don’t give a second thought) are embedded not just in the conscious mind, but subconsciously and emotionally.
Human conditioning is built on our animal heritage, but it’s much more extensive, varied, and subtle. The parent conditions a child in values, right from wrong, and even avoidance of danger, thinking there is no other way. But there is another way. Children can learn to see for themselves, not react from what has been repeated or pounded into them. However that requires attention to one’s own reactions as well as the child’s, and seeing the right moment and the right way to teach the child, which is essentially non-verbal.
Conditioning prevents us from being free human beings, which is the birthright of every person on the planet. To conform to the dictates of the economy, family, and society, to accept propaganda in whatever form, certainly does not make for freedom, no matter how many times the word is repeated by cunning politicians.
The reader is puzzled by my premise that wherever life evolves to the point of producing a creature capable of symbolic thought, a trajectory of fragmentation is inevitably set in motion, culminating, without a deep and widespread insight into thought, in a growing ecological crisis.
The essence of symbolic thought is the ability to cognitively make separations at will. Environmentally, a tree is not a separate thing until it is mentally removed from the land and labeled a ‘tree.’ Socially, the division between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ which is the basis of war, arises because thought has made an essentially arbitrary separation that is emotionally held.
Therefore only a deep insight into the nature of thought, enabling the awakening of intelligence in the individual, can change the course of humankind. Intelligence is distinct but not separate from thought. It illuminates when to separate and when not to separate, allowing the mind to be still and the brain to regenerate itself.
The reader then asks, “are not many animals capable of symbolic thought?” Many animals, such as crows, pigs, and dogs are quite smart. However only our closest primate cousins, chimps and gorillas, as well as dolphins and whales, can think, plan, and communicate at a high level. But no other animal on earth consciously thinks, knows that it thinks, and can reflect on its thinking.
Finally, the reader asks, “Why would discovery of another planetary, sentient [presumably sapient] being change our concept of human nature?”
The knowledge that we aren’t alone in the universe would, in itself, fundamentally alter how we see ourselves. But it would not change us.
What if we received decipherable pulses from a laser, which some scientists believe may be the preferred method of encrypting information across space and time? Let’s suppose such a message contained the history of the intelligent species, describing how it went through a planetary crisis similar to what we’re now going through, and why. That would obviously have a tremendous effect on our concept of human nature.
I don’t think we’ll be so lucky, and I doubt that even such knowledge would radically change ‘Man.’ The transmutation will not be initiated from any outside agent, divine or otherwise, but only from within each one of us.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: email@example.com. The author welcomes comments.