Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Who am I?"

A friend of mine asked me a question today that had "who am I?" as part of it. And it got me thinking about how to answer that question in the general first, and then the specific. And my answer starts with, what you are.

You are an animal. A member of the only species to ever build, and move into, its own zoo. And now you live in the finest cage that money can buy. You have the urges and drives that make sense on the plains of Africa¹, most of which haven't made any sense since the agricultural revolution.  

The story of The Fall, of being ejected from the Garden of Eden has, to my mind, a kernel of truth. For the Christians the thing that explains all of our sinful urges is original sin. That is why we lust and rage and whatever it is we aren't supposed to do. And there was a time before that sin where we lived in harmony with our surroundings and I guess didn't have sex or something. But now we live in a fallen world where everyone is born flawed and disobedient to gods will. 

The kernel of truth that I see² is based in evolutionary psychology. I think that there was a time where we were more in tune with the world. When what we wanted to do was the right thing to do much more often; when our desires did not get derailed by gambling or record collecting; when ennui was obliterated by the bright light of immediate mortality. I do not think that this was a better time to be a human being. I do not think that it is a state to be venerated or sought out. But it was a time when it made more sense to be a human being. And now the demands, capacities, and luxuries that agriculture and industry have provided make for a strange environment in which to be a tribal ape.

Evopsych is a very tricky tool to use, and one should be very cautious when trying to divine "what we should be like." There is no direct evidence to be had, and as the video I linked will show you, even the basics of our evolutionary path are up for grabs. But I don't think it’s risky to say that the environment we find ourselves in does not comport to the basic psychology that we developed evolutionarily. And I think that we would do well to understand that it is not just religion that leads us into maladaptive practices, but indeed our entire environment is at some level, mismatched with us as animals.

Our drives were instilled in us by evolution. Evolution prepared us for an environment entirely different from the one we find ourselves in. I think that part of religions role to date has been to make up stories that helped people cope with this conflict. And I think that the same service can be rendered by secular thought.

This is an opportunity for secular ministry. Religion tells people why the world is unfairly frustrating and what to do about it. In Christianity it is the story of the fall and redemption in the afterlife. In Hinduism there is a story about reincarnation and what to do in this life to improve your next one. But science's story is that we evolved for one thing and now we do this new thing. We can look at human psychology and the world around us and try to modify both, purely on rational grounds, towards an increase of human flourishing. There is nothing morally wrong with us or with the world, but there are endemic problems that can’t be fixed, only coped with.

You are also an embodied autobiography. You have grown and changed in light of your experiences and the interpretation of those experiences. There are the physical ramifications of that; you might be healthy, and you might not be. You might have been born into a body that is different than most, or have a body that was wracked by injury. What you have eaten and how active you have been, what you have smoked and what you have drank all have long lasting effects. And your day to day self is in part a result of those actions and conditions. The point is that you have a body and it matters what condition it is in.   

You also have a mind³. There are stories of all your experiences written in your brain. And which stories you tell, and how you tell them effects how you see yourself and how you behave. There are stories but there are also the interpretations of those stories. What happened to you is what happened to you. But how you feel about it and how you choose to talk about it are variable. A story that ends with a trauma is a sad story. A story that ends with overcoming that trauma is uplifting. And I know, from personal experience that you can change who you are by changing how you interpret the autobiography that you tell yourself.

Some of us were badly mistreated; others taught unhealthy ways to look at the world. Some lucky ones among us must have been treated well and are perfectly adjusted, but I have never met one. And if you are systemically unhappy you should know there are ways out of that unhappiness. I used to give up on people. I used to look at the misbegotten and think “there’s no hope for that one.” But I have seen the hopeless thrive, in time and with help. So much of what we think of people is determined by what sample we use. I think we need to wait until a person is dead to judge their life. To do otherwise is to condemn the redeemable, or to canonize the fallible.

So this is what you are. You are a social ape that lives in the zoo that he built; an ape whose life history, and its key to interpretation, are engraved on his body and mind.

¹I have no idea what to make of this video.
²This idea I've gotten most clearly from this book, which is fantastic for other reasons that I should write about.
³I might at some point try and explain my view vis-à-vis mind versus brain versus body but now is not the time


  1. Edited for clarity. Also blog post is now co-authored by Adam Vangsness and Liam Clegg.