Cambodia Giant roots overgrowing a temple ruin
The Human Condition Part I
The human species is a strange lot. We are on the one side full of loving kindness, selflessness, we are cooperative, easily willing to help, and so on. On the other side we are brutal murderers of our fellow men, and ruthless exploiters of the earth, its animals and the other human beings. This is not only paradoxical, it is outright crazy, given our consciousness with which we should know, and do better. It is what is commonly called the human condition. This has always been a pressing problem, but nowadays more than ever before, because we might wipe out ourselves as a species by overexploiting the earth, or by an atomic disaster.
Many prophets, religious leaders and philosophers have tackled this problem, and many solutions have been proposed, but until today the paradox of the human condition has not been solved.
It might be easy to see that the idea of enlightenment is bound up with the human condition, and that liberation is seen as the ultimate transcending of this condition.
In Flight of the Garuda the human condition is explained in Song 5, where Zhabkar says that due to a mistake we have perceived the manifestations (that is what we seemed to see outside) not as the beautiful expressions of our own Buddha mind, but as outside threats. We did so individually, but it should be clear the this also happened collectively. Zhabkar tells us that in origin we are pure and guiltless. This aspect of our mind still lingers somewhere deep down, and liberation is the recognition of this original Buddha mind that we are.
We only have made the mistake that when consciousness arose the manifestations were not seen as what they were, the reflection of our pristine pure mind, but we sensed them to be threads, and since we retaliated, and we were cocooned in Samsara. What is put as a proposition here is that our most inner being still is good, is Buddha, but that through a psychological mistake we are still living in Samsara, i.e. the human condition.
It might be clear that this explanation of the human condition is tied up with the Buddhist religious view on life. It is in this way a narrative truth that only speaks to people who are willing to accept the preposition, i.e. the existence of a pure and guiltless inner core. But what if that preposition would get sustained by other views on this point?
Recently I came across a book of the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, called: FREEDOM: The End Of The Human Condition.* In this book he comes up with an explanation of the root of the human condition that resembles Zhabkar’s Buddhist point of view.
Let me first tell Griffith’s explanation of the human condition.
About 2 million year ago consciousness arose in different species of the genus Homo. Until then we were living by instinctual drives. By then, being on the brink of the development of higher consciousness, he argues that the rise of consciousness was only possible because the parameters had become right for consciousness to arise. For this argument Griffith relies on Bonobo research. Bonobos have communities in which peace and cooperation thrives through 3 features: 1. Prolonged selfless loving nurturing of babies; 2. Matriarchate; 3. Selection against male aggressive dominance. According to Griffith we must have been so once. So, we are ‘good natured’; the ground of our being is good, although aggressive male dominance still lingers.
Griffith then argues that when consciousness arose also a conflict between our instincts and consciousness arose. Instincts tend to keep things to the known ways. When consciousness arose with it came inquisitiveness, and with that stepping out of line with the old ways of doing and perceiving things. While instinct is not a fast learner, and wanted to keep things to the old ways, it protested in the only possible way by letting us know though feelings and emotions that these new ways of operation were not good. This created an internal dissonance. We made great discoveries, but because our instinct reproached us, we felt bad, and later on thought that we were bad, just because our instinct did let us know that we were doing things outside the instinctual line. But what we did was only seeking knowledge, which was not bad, but only not in line with our former instinctual behaviour. Primitive man, like us now still, could not understand this reproach, because this inquisitiveness had great results in the way of the easement of the hardships of life. This intern instinctual criticism was, like we (or many of us) still do nowadays with criticism, perceived as criticism on the person itself, not being good as a being. Not able to understand what was going on we individually and collectively retaliated, and projected our feelings of dissonance on our environment, as we still do.
The core argument is thus that not our consciousness but our instinct is the culprit of our human condition. The great task, taken upon by consciousness of exploring the world was convicted by our instincts. We could not understand, projected the dis-eases outward, and saw the environment as the culprit, and retaliated as mercilessly as we still do.
In short, the human condition is due to a fallacy.
This explanation of the human condition can be seen as a narrative, or as a scientific discovery. In the latter case, Griffith should come up with scientific proof of his claim. He tries to do so, but unhappily his views go against many of the accepted truths in science that are held valid today. His argument relies heavily on ethology, a very young science (less than 50 years that is as fractured as a young science can be). Science as a system of thought is, as Thomas Kuhn has shown, stubbornly and hard-headedly against any shift of paradigm. So, in science Griffith’s explanation is not accepted to his uttermost chagrin.
I believe however that his explanation seen as a narrative has great explanatory power. My reason for this choice is that it cannot, and in the foreseeable future will not be scientifically proven how consciousness arose in the human species, and under what circumstances. There would be endless scientific debate with no conclusion, while as an explanatory narrative it can be accepted on its intuitive appeal. When this has happened, science will follow in due time.
In the next blog, I will focus on the implication of Griffith’s argument in the light of religious lore.
* In this blog I will not give a critical review of the book. I can only say that the book, which has many interesting ideas, is not written very well, has a lot or repetitions, and the pejorative use of language is irritating.