I will begin by asking a simple, yet often ignored, question which has an odd connection with the title of this post.
What are we referring to when we use the word “I”?
As many of you already know, I have no inclination or desire to engage in sophistic arguments about what different religions, philosophies or ideologies have to say about the nature of the self. A mode or regime of thought which cannot achieve anything worthwhile beyond empty debate is utterly worthless and delusional- whether it is Buddhism or Christianity. Moreover you do not have to believe in any particular school of thought to use and understand the concept of self.
So, is “I” a property of the body or the mind?
A person who has lost multiple limbs or received organ transplantation is still the same person and retains the previous self-identity. Since the mind and hence all mental processes such as self-identity are resident in the brain, you could say that “I” is partially a property of the brain. However, a brain under deep anesthesia while alive and functional does not posses self-identity.
Self-identity is an emergent property of one or more states of brain function.
Therefore pretty much everything and anything you do to remain alive is linked to the continued survival of those states of brain activity. Even the so-called higher functions of consciousness such as desire, ambitions and aspirations exist to serve a few states of brain activity. But there is an odd facet to being aware of your own self.
Humans are also aware that they are mortal.
So how do humans reconcile awareness of their own inevitable death and the conflicting need for their ‘self’ to keep on surviving? A few just ignore it and go on, but most try to compensate for the inevitable demise with their physical form by creating something that will outlast them. This takes many forms- from having children, organized religion, art and architecture, wars and nation building, exploring the world , creating new knowledge etc. But doing all of these things requires a seldom discussed but crucial precondition.
People must believe that their actions have a reasonably good chance of success.
Since it is hard to measure success after death, people have to rely on proxy indicators that their actions are in the right direction and not in vain. The lives of those who have lived before you are the commonly used and important proxy indicators for the success of your own actions. Therefore people who have seen their parents become more affluent through hard work are far more likely to follow a similar path and approach to life than those whose parents have become poorer over the years inspite of hard work. Similarly, people who have been part of functional families where grandparents are cared for by their own kids (parents) are far more likely to keep that tradition going when their own parents reach that stage of life. Most people will therefore keep the system running as long as it delivers a reasonable chance at non-corporal immortality and sense of purpose to life.
Our concern for the long survival of humanity is therefore dependent upon the belief that doing so helps us achieve non-corporal immortality.
For thousands of years, the majority bought into the whole premise of non-corporal immortality for a number of reasons. Firstly, it offered a sense of purpose and reason for living under conditions that were frankly pretty shitty. Then there was the lack of rational schools of thoughts or open debate and doing something because everybody else was doing it seemed like the easiest course of action. However the most important reason for maintaining the status quo was that it often worked and provided enough of the basic needs and incentives for people to keep on going.
So what happens when the system fails to deliver enough of the basic needs and incentives? What happens when it is seen as the obstacle to doing so?
Now, you might think that the system is delivering because ‘average’ people can check Facebook updates on iPhones, get fresh looking vegetables at the supermarket or buy a 3 dollar chicken sandwich from some fast food restaurant. But is that really the case? Are we not confusing shitty simulacra to satisfy urgent necessities with real needs and incentives? If these simulacra were sufficient, why are so many people dissatisfied with their lives? Why are so many people living by themselves? why are husband-wife and parent-child bonds so weak? Why do we prefer to check twitter updates and Reddit posts over talking a bit more to people we have sex with? Some of you might see such behaviors as “inevitable” consequence of people getting more affluent or something along those lines. I see them as strong evidence that people are actively disengaging from “civilization” because it is not satisfying the needs of the “I” within them.
Throughout human history “civilization” always tried to satisfy the needs and desires of “I” to remain viable. However a series of technological and social changes has resulted in a rapidly increasing divergence between the two to the extent that the “I” within each of us perceives “civilization” as the problem and not the solution. While “civilization” has the power of apparent numbers and inertia, it cannot win a conflict in which its supporters simply choose to gradually disengage and stay away. You cannot have a party if nobody shows up or barely talks with each other.
We now have a society full of people who are very aware that they is no real purpose or meaning in their existence, nor any reason to contribute to it in any meaningful manner.
What do you think? Comments?