Photo credit: Hernán Piñera; https://www.flickr.com/photos/hernanpc/
What steers my mind to make me believe that there is a right and a wrong? How do I develop a liking for one thing and an aversion to the other? Sometimes, I am even fooled to strongly believe that there is an universal ‘right’ path for me, for my whole family, or for my society to follow. How do I develop this fondness? Who is the master of my choices and actions?
Truth is a beautiful and terrible thingHarry Potter and the Philosopher’s stone
Truth is the weakest contender. Even the most respected value, “All men are created equal”, is not a true statement. Each one of us are unique at all levels, molecular to behavioral. Believing that we all are created equal allows us to school, train and test everyone the same way. This ultimately allows us to unequally divide resources and makes us to believe that the act is fair and just. Truth is a frequently and loosely used word during conversation. It could have a range of meaning depending on the individual’s conceptual system. For the purpose of our discussion, we could use the simplest and the most useful definition of truth. It has two components,
- Truth is the inherent nature of everything within and around us
- It is the principles that underlie the mechanisms behind all the changes that are continuously happening in this universe
Understanding and knowing the truth helps us to successfully function in the physical world. But an important feature of truth is that it is impersonal. Truth is morally neutral. It cannot answer questions of right vs wrong. It can only impartially lay out the cause and effect changes to our actions. It will describe how the events will unfold based on our choices but it makes no judgement and will always assign equal value to all choices and actions. An example to highlight the neutrality of truth is the act of dumping food into trash. Seen from a human standpoint it could be considered as an act of wasting a precious resource. But truth will just nonchalantly inform that this is an act in which food substances are broken down by smaller life forms and everything will still remain in a continuous cycle. Waste is a point of view concept. It depends on the person’s interest and the purpose assigned to a particular thing. In nature, there is no universally valid single absolute point of view. Like right, wrong and better, the concept of waste does not mean any universal truth. The more the truth we uncover, the more we learn about the inhumane nature of the physical world. The truth reveals us that this earth did not choose us, we are here just because of few freak accidents along the path of evolution of life. She has not designed any glorious destiny for us, and she is yearning to zap us out as soon as a more resilient form arises. Truth is deaf and mute to our emotions. Hence, it cannot single-handedly help human to build his society. It could even lead us to disaster if it is blindly followed. Truth is not the master of our choices, but, it can accurately guide us to the destinations our mind has chosen.
Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excessOscar Wilde
The fact that you and I exist today is because our ancestors had an ineradicable longing for power. All contented life forms were eaten away by the forces of evolution. There is a strong innate desire to avoid death and stay alive. This force is hardwired in our genome and the knowledge to survive is embodied in our brain. The knowledge molds our behavior to compete with rivals for power, in order to survive. We not only seek for food and energy, but, there is rabid desire for more. It could be property, money, identity or a position in the social hierarchy – an yearning to stand out and survive! The temptation can grow so much that it could even breed unfavorable emotions like worry and fear if unattended.
The only way to resist temptation is to yield to it.Oscar Wilde
These were built in our system by the competitive arm of evolution over millions of years. Indiscriminate and complete lack of these desires could have fatal consequences for life. All of the egocentric motives and actions emerge out of this need for self preservation and it is probably much stronger and robust in simpler life forms. Less sentient organisms would mercilessly take on its rivals to preserve itself. Human actions are also governed by moral values that moderates the expression of his competitive side.
Existence is an endless war of each against allMax Stirner
Humans have a great respect for righteousness. We believe in justice and fairness. There is a strong sense of fulfillment and gratification when we act selflessly. How is this paradox possible in an evolving life? Why do we firmly believe that having integrity is more important? Why can’t we just follow the rules of deception to evolve and grow? How is it possible to get so much pleasure by being nice?
We did not innovate all these virtues out of thin air. There must be a strong neuro-biological basis for all of these motives and actions. Humans are a social animal. We live together as families, communities and also form massive units like nations. Progressive human integration provided by these social structures is the major reason for our strength. We are not growing and evolving individually, we are doing it collectively. If a human is left alone in the forest, he would barely survive few months. Collectively we can fly to the moon and even build a town on it.
Moral values have great survival potential due to its ability to bring about human cooperation. Cooperativity is seen in many other life forms. It is not only the fittest that survives, it is also the most adaptable and the most cooperative ones. Bacteria form colonies to enhance their survival. The rise of multicellular organisms from single cellular species is due to the property of cooperation. Cooperation is a trait in which the individual cells invest in behaviors that are costly to themselves but benefit the organization. The cells have the higher knowledge to understand that fitness of an individual depends on the survival of the organism.
It is very much possible that these behaviors and it’s associated neural structures have been selected and preserved by the forces of evolution. Trustworthy humans could have formed tribes containing larger groups and might have eliminated robust but egocentric apes and humans who lacked the capacity to form a stable group. Clever and privileged humans have the ability to invest in morally superior acts and in turn derive greater power due to their ability to integrate with more humans. People who lack socioeconomic privileges have a greater tendency to manifest their competitive nature and hence are more vulnerable to further fail in a society. Morality is as important as corruption to survive and evolve in a callous world. As our society evolve, we collectively dial the moral compass according to the needs and conveniences of ourselves and our society. What was right yesterday will become wrong today, and the idea of rightness and wrongness keeps evolving depending on its survival potential similar to how claws and teeth evolved.
Ultimately, we are at the mercy of our emotions. An emotion is a state of the brain that produces a characteristic mental experience and physical changes in the body, that can be felt and as well seen by an observer. This can be easily explained by an example. Euphoria is an emotional state that we all must have experienced at some point in our life. Mentally it is felt as a state of intense pleasure and well being. It is associated with involuntary physical changes in the experiencer that can be observed – facial expressions, rise in heart rate, slurring of speech, increased breathing and shakiness in hands and legs. I was euphoric when I first heard the sound of Aadhav’s heart beat. One can never forget those moments, as if that state had left an ever repeating echo inside the brain.
Our emotions can be effortlessly divided into two groups – Favorable and Unfavorable. Experiences like happiness, calmness, serenity, excitement and joy are favorable and our drives and actions are designed in such a way to seek and maintain the brain matter in that physical state. Feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, worry and shame are unfavorable and we make desperate attempts to choose behaviors that will help avoid such states of brain. Guilt and shame could drive people to perform actions that could even end their life. Euphoric drugs can enslave a person. Our emotions single-handedly drive our motives.
Evolution selectively chooses behaviors that preserve life and its propagation. Temptations that help to acquire power by competing and even eliminating another life easily passes the test. For a sentient being, accomplishing such acts are rewarded by a sense of joy and happiness. However to form groups and to evolve collectively one needs additional set of tools. Righteousness is a great quality to bring about the most needed cohesion. It is likely that our ancestors who had the precise neuro-biology which produced a pleasurable brain state for every righteous act done towards their allies laddered up gradually. They must have eliminated their opponents by collective aggression. The rules of jungle did not change. It was just rearranged strategically once a new tool got into our genome. Once an act is chosen by our emotions, influenced by balance of power and values, truth gave us the exact path to be followed. If cooperativity is our cornerstone, then we might progressively incorporate the elements of natural world into our bubble of togetherness considering its survival value.
- Monod J, Chance and necessity: An essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology, Knopf, New York, 1971
- Bernhardt B, Singer T, The Neural Basis of Empathy, Annual Review of Neuroscience, 2012
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