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Friday, February 17, 2017

what do we do?: a cognitive warning


What do we do?  Whom do we serve?  What do we stand for?  The simplicity of these questions is devastating.  It may seem easy to respond to them from the perspectives available in the state of nature.  We may say that we live, that we signal our being alive by way of motions governed by some combination of  five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, smelling).  The very saying, the act of speech, betrays our delusion.  We may claim that we serve ourselves first (the Darwinian impulse or imperative)  and  only secondly serve the not-ourselves (the Other, an unknowable Supreme Being, or the ideals of the Absurd) and refuse to consider that serving, in itself,  signals membership in a group or community.  We may claim to be self-sufficient individuals and delude ourselves; we may deny that a definition of "individual" is based upon a sense of "collective."  We may argue that we stand for (have responsibility for) nothing, thereby betraying that we do stand for something: existence or being.  The impossibility of being in the state of nature, as Huck Finn discovered, is a superb agony.  Whether we like it or not, we are condemned and imprisoned in a state of civilization. We who are most sensitive are infuriated by the lie that all of us have entitlement to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  We do not. We have to grab these wonderful things, often by trusting instinct and  using extreme brutality.

As a thinker and critic, I envy people who live happily  without having their minds ravished by the simplicity of questions.  Rick Shenkman's very readable  Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2016) has enlightened me, to a small degree, about my mood swings between happiness and unhappiness.  When I use my cognitive abilities that have been tuned by Western education, I maximize my unhappiness.  Happiness or bliss is available to me only when I float through the world by instinct, the driver of animal behavior.  For example,  pure instinct informs me that human beings are fundamentally evil with potential to be good.  I suspect that children are innocent and good up to a certain age, but even infants are born with the genetic potential to become agents of evil.  If in adulthood they become agents of good, it is a matter of accident and the cultivation of mysterious will power.  After seven decades of trial and error, I have learned that fundamentally good human beings do not exist.  A human being who professes to be fundamentally good is a consummate liar. I do not lie.

Shenkman's book has two interrelated conclusions: (1) "What science is teaching us is that if we want to elect more honest politicians we first have to be honest with ourselves about our own limits." (page 240) and (2) "If we want a democracy that works we can have one, even with our Pleistocene brain….While we busy ourselves with projects to reform the system, we need to work at reforming ourselves, too.  Science, fortunately, shows us we can." (page 247)  I am skeptical about these concluding platitudes.  Science as science is driven by exquisitely refined instincts.  It is not yet so transcendent, so divine,  as to persuade me beyond doubt that I must reform myself in order to reform the systemic, historical dimensions of American politics and culture that are designed to exterminate me.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            February 17, 2017

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