It would be fair to say that I have spent most of my life thinking about the human condition.
The catalyst for this lifelong reflection was the profound realization, at the age of nineteen, that God does not exist. At the time, it seemed that the fact of God’s non-existence was a big deal. I also thought that a full and proper understanding of this fact would have profound consequences for the way I, you, all of us should live. I expected profound consequences because we live in ways that have been built on and around the idea that God exists. Remove the keystone of God’s existence, I thought, and the structure of everything would fall away, and we could rebuild everything anew. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that God’s existence or non-existence is pretty much irrelevant to deciding how we should live.
Then, it occurred to me that capital-T truth does not exist. It seemed to me that this was the fundamentally important fact, for more or less the same reasons that I thought God’s non-existence was so important. Again, I hoped that if I thought long and hard enough about it that I would identify some profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. I read, I argued, I taught and, in the end, I realized that the existence or non-existence of capital-T truth is as irrelevant to how we live as the existence or non-existence of God, for more or less the same reasons. Whatever you or I may believe about the nature of truth, it doesn’t really matter when it comes to deciding how we should live.
Then, it occurred to me that a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness was the key. Because culture and society begins and ends with humans, it seemed reasonable to conclude that a better understanding of the human nervous system would lead to profound implications for the way I, you, all of us should live. Moreover, for the first time in human history we had tools that allowed us to exorcise the quasi-divine conception of self we had inherited from our ancestors. The moon may have already been conquered by others but we are the first humans to tread on the very stuff of the human condition. And while it remains theoretically possible that there may be some unimaginable discovery yet to be made that will falsify the conclusion that I am about to share with you and that you should really be able to anticipate by now; but, after reading, arguing, and teaching, I have reached the conclusion that we will never be able to draw unassailable and universally compelling conclusions about how we should live based on a fully naturalized and evolutionary understanding of consciousness either.
The crucial words here are “unassailable” and “universally compelling”. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that I was hoping to find a conclusion, a claim, an idea, something that would win in every argument and always compel all others to action. I was doing what prophets and priests and philosophers and warlords have been doing since time immemorial. I was trying to derive an “ought” from an “is” and hoping that the “ought” would be so magical and powerful that everyone would be swayed by it. The subtle and not terribly sophisticated difference is that I was trying to derive an unyielding “ought” from a “not is” instead of an “is.” Rather than saying, “x, therefore you must do y”, I was saying (or hoping for), “not x, therefore you must do y.” For example, instead of “God is love, therefore, we should do good,” I was hoping for “there is no God, therefore, we should do good.” And while it remains intuitively plausible to me even now that there is some special significance in the fact that things like God and capital-T truth don’t exist, I know that it is as nonsensical to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is not as it is to draw unconditional moral claims based on what is.
And, as important as that conclusion may be, the far more important insight, I think, is that the very idea of an unassailable and universally compelling argument is a coercive fantasy. It is essentially the hope that might and right are identical and that rightness can in and of itself compel others to believe and act. It is also an idea that leads, I think, either to passivity or to oppression because, if right and might are one in the same, either unpopular beliefs are not quite right or there is something not quite right with everyone who fails to accept and act on beliefs we think are right. If a belief, idea or way of life fails to compel acceptance and motivate action, we either think less of that which was not compelling or think less of the people who failed to be compelled. So, either we end up believing and doing nothing because the burden of proof is impossibly high or we do whatever we want because disagreement is proof that those who disagree with us are somehow broken or not fully human and, for this reason, don’t deserve our consideration and can be compelled to do anything we want.
It’s also crucial, I think, to realize that might comes in many forms, is expressed in many ways, and is never in itself a measure of rightness whatever its form or expression. Most people, for example, would probably now accept the notion that the strength of a person’s muscles has no bearing on the validity of their beliefs, and yet many today still believe that the strength of a country’s military or its economy is a measure of the rightness of its moral and political values. Vote-getting, profit-making, and fundraising are often thought to be legitimate measures of rightness but they really only indicate what can attract votes, profits, and charity at any given point in time. An argument, a speech or an essay may be persuasive, but this in itself is proof only of its persuasiveness. Charm may be non-violent, but there is no reason to think that a consensus built on it is any more true than a consensus built on fear. Might comes in many forms, and it never makes right — even when it is expressed in a way we admire or by people we like.
I should, nevertheless, be explicit on this point: coercion is an inescapable fact of social and political life. We must sometimes coerce people to do things they would rather not do (remember: forcing people not to interfere in the lives of others is a form of coercion too). However, we should always coerce cautiously and from a place of humility, respect and empathy, recognizing that there will be times when we will also be coerced to do something we would rather not do. Most importantly, we must never conclude that our ability to force a person to do something that they would rather not do proves anything about the merits of our beliefs, our way of life or our worldview. Coercion becomes oppression, I think, precisely when we start to believe that our might — whether it be physical, intellectual, emotional, financial, electoral, anything — is proof that we are right. It is one thing to force people to comply with, say, a political or legal decision with which they do not fully agree, while at the same time recognizing that the decision may be imperfect. It is something altogether different to force compliance and, at the same time, insist that coercion would be unnecessary if only those who were being coerced were more rational, compassionate, or open-minded — or whatever term we might use to signal that they are to blame for not seeing it our way. We must, I think, always remain mindful of the fact that anyone of us — and not just those people who we think are the bad guys — can walk the path of good intentions from coercion to oppression.
With that important caveat in mind, we must, nevertheless, carry on living and, in my own case, I have come to embrace an attitude of, what might be called, arrogant humility. I’m arrogant enough to think I have a pretty good shot at making pretty good judgments about what is or is not the best course of action in most situations, when I do the work to gather and consider enough of the relevant evidence. I am also humble enough to accept that I often get it wrong, that I have blind spots, and that some of my most cherished beliefs and well-considered beliefs might be totally wrong. In short, I’ve come to trust my judgement, while at the same time accepting its limitations and failings. I am no longer looking for something — or a not-something — to validate my beliefs, decisions and failings.
I will not, however, claim that all people should necessarily adopt this attitude. I can’t ignore the fact that much good has come from people who have put their faith in God, who pursue the Truth, or stand their ground in the name of moral facts that they consider to be self-evident. I am also well aware that much evil has been done in the name of God, Truth, and indubitable moral facts written into the bones of nature, however, when I consider the evidence available, I am not convinced that these attitudes necessarily lead to good or evil. Whether a person has faith in God or in their own judgement, they must consider the evidence and make judgments based on it. They and I may sometimes disagree over what counts as admissible evidence, but a shared commitment to the fact that might does not make right and right does not make might seems to me to be much more important than a shared opinion about the nature of God.
And once I set aside aside worries about the existence or non-existence of God, Truth, and Human Nature, it was much easier for me to see that there is both too little and too much to say about the human condition. From one perspective, we are simple, fleeting and trivial creatures who, like all the other quirks and quarks in a cold, vast and indifferent universe, are, in principle, perfectly predictable. From another perspective, the human condition is an unimaginably rich and cacophonous kaleidoscope of boundless possibility and each human life is unique, beautiful, and precious. The human condition is a lot like the weather, I think. Seen from on high, it is simple and perfectly predictable, but, closer to the ground, it is complex, varied and difficult to predict, and, at the eye of the storm, no two storms are ever quite the same for those who experience it — no matter what the experts, instruments, and equations may say.
And that’s all I have to say about that (I think).