Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Fit for Life

If we claim that without natural law standards of behavior would be arbitrary and therefore potentially evil, we presuppose goodness, which we then force upon nature for our own purposes. All human behavior is natural however. We are the only ones who make any distinctions about it. Nothing beyond our species itself, for instance, has ever insisted that human beings by nature should not simply drive themselves into extinction. It is only up to us to decide whether or not we desire such a thing, and whether or not we can stop ourselves even if we want to. The human will to be well perceived is stronger than the will to survive. Let us bear in mind how many of our number have committed suicide over the course of our history, before we convince ourselves that every day we are more fit to live.


brainmarket said...

I think there are relatively few who would choose death over a shameful life. Thus the will to survive would be stronger than the will to be well perceived.

Nature's Rebel said...

Let me see if I can explain my line of thinking. The will to survive is not the strongest will we have. There are simply too many instances in our history as a species of people choosing to die or putting themselves into unnecessary situations that are dangerous. I'm not talking here only of suicide, but also of martyrdom, heroics in battle, foolishness in battle, wanting to go to battle, etc., dangerous hobbies, dangerous vocations, joining gangs (I just recently read an intriguing article about this -- highly dangerous these gangs but great for getting laid). I suspect you could add some. I will also say that my own self-observations have led me to believe that I am far more concerned about certain things than life itself, and I have found myself listing those things that I would choose to die for. I won't burden you with them (I have a post somewhere along those lines), but allow me the point.

As I thought about this evidence and thought about myself, what I found as an insuperable will was the will to be well perceived. This is enormously complicated, but also validated, by the fact that the perception of others upon us is only an indirect perception. We sense the perception of others and then apply it as part of our self-perception (again I’ve posted on this). All perception of ourselves by definition is self-perception. The perception of others is received through our senses and then interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) into our self-perception. Hence, the will to be well perceived has to be understood ultimately as the will to perceive ourselves well, even if we permit the sensed perceptions of others to form the greater part of our self-perception. When you talk of shame, you talk of the perception of others. Shame is exceedingly important (in a way I cannot develop here), but some, as you realize, are more adept at filtering it than others. But that doesn't change my point. It is our self-perception that I am talking about. The better we are at redirecting shame elsewhere, the less suicidal we might be, but we change nothing about the fact that we would rather be perceived well than be alive. I will push this farther. We cannot even conceive of life without a positive perception of ourselves coming from our own ability to perceive ourselves. The reason people engage in dangerous activities is to create this self-perception. Let’s consider the martyr. He is condemned by his society but his will to be well perceived doesn’t depend upon his society. It depends upon whatever he himself incorporates into it. How about the perception of God? If the potential martyr believes that his death will make him even more worthy in the eyes of God, he is not going to death in shame but in glory. We are able even to create the perceptions from the outside that we incorporate into our self-perception.

Those are all my own observations, but here is something more. I have been reading a lot about evolutionary psychology, that is the theory that our behavior and motivations evolved through natural selection. Our primary motivation, in the view of this science, is to get our genetic material copied or reproduced. If one accepts natural selection, it is difficult to avoid this logic. In any case, the will to survive is secondary. If something will kill us but will also allow us to leave more copies of our genes for succeeding generations, we will actually be motivated toward it. Moreover, the one factor that determined more than any other, in the period when our motivations as a species evolved, how many copies of ourselves that we produced was status. When I read that, I almost fainted. To me, it seemed exactly what I had hit upon with my will to be well perceived. But again, the only perception of ourselves that we as individuals truly know is our own. The picture that we have of ourselves is painted by ourselves. The things we do to draw status into that picture, down to inventing a god who thinks we are good when the rest of our society doesn’t, make an endlessly fascinating object of contemplation. Or perhaps we will engage in martyrdom or incredibly dangerous occupations. Or, if we simply can no longer paint a picture of ourselves that we can tolerate, we contemplate suicide. All this comes from the fact that the will to survive is a secondary motivation.

What I am really trying to do in this post is to develop this idea from the level of the individual to the level of the species. That is, if the individual is driven by motives that are potentially fatal, couldn’t the species itself be so as well?

brainmarket said...

After recently reading about evolutionary psychology, one of the first things I thought about was how modern urban street gangs might relate to evolved behavior. It seemed to me, from my own experience working with members of street gangs (primarily the perpetually warring Norteno and Sureno hispanic gangs), that street gang culture presented a crude yet very clear modern manifestation of the aeons old practice of men defending small tribal territories at great risk to themselves as individuals with the goal of protecting or expanding the present and future membership of the (loosely) family-based gang or tribe.

BTW that article about gangs sounds interesting. Is it available online?

Nature's Rebel said...

I think I found the article on aldaily.com (a phenomenal site, if you don't know it). I'll see if I can find it again. Gangs in fact provide a lot of evidence for the evolutionary psychologists. A fundamental assertion is that the evolution of our behavior came almost entirely during the hunter-gatherer phase of our existence. It's only been 10,000 years since agriculture was invented. In evolutionary terms, 10,000 years is almost non-existent.

If you haven't read 'The Moral Animal' by Robert Wright, you should. You won't be disappointed. It's probably the best place to begin with the subject. I myself am now into my ninth book on it. I am also in the process of writing an article / book on its moral implications.

I should add that my own thought was developed well before I ever read anything on evolutionary psychology, but I have found myself expanding and adjusting things in light of it.