The Creation of Humanity, Part 2
Concluding the abstract begun in The Creation of Humanity, Part 1.
What do you know to be true? What makes a fact a fact? Is knowledge innate or learned, or can it be both? If one person knows something to be true, and a second person knows the same thing not to be true, is it always the case that one is correct and the other mistaken? If so, how do we know who is right, and by what criteria?
There does appear to be a set of facts that we all agree on; for example, it is an unassailable fact that some things are dangerous and life-threatening, like firearms, fire, falling from great heights, and large carnivorous animals. It is also a fact that we must eat and drink (or be forcibly provided food and water) to stay alive. If we fail to pay attention to these facts, we will probably die at a young age. And death—the irrecoverable loss of life—is another unassailable fact of life. These are things that every person beyond a certain developmental stage knows to be true. That is, they constitute objective reality, a set of facts that everyone fortunate to live long enough learns at an early age.
But there are other facts that are less relevant to human survival, and the status of these facts is more contentious. For example, I recognize evolution to be a fact—for me it is as obviously true as the nose on my face, or the fact of gravity—but many folks disagree with me on this point. Similarly, many of us recognize it to be a fact that the earth is round, spinning on an axis, and orbiting the sun, one of millions of stars on the fringe of a galaxy composed of billions of stars in a universe containing billions of galaxies. But there are still folks who would argue that this is incorrect. Several hundred years ago, such facts were (or would have been) considered to be heretical opinions. So, it appears that the veracity of knowledge regarding things that are not life-sustaining or life-threatening is subject to heated debate.
Perhaps then we should define factual knowledge more narrowly as being that which we all know to be true, by virtue of its undeniable positive or negative impact on the continuance of one's life. Everything else then is not factual, but theoretical. In addition to evolution, a round earth, and global warming, this would include the existence of God; and for that matter, anything that you or I do (or experience) that is not experienced by every other human being—in other words, anything that can potentially be construed as being a matter of opinion or “your word against mine” (and which, depending on circumstances, may at some point be questioned in a court of law). So knowledge that is not common we will refer to as being theoretical rather than factual.
But we may nevertheless ask: to what extent does any body of theoretical knowledge accurately depict objective reality? And can the theoretical knowledge of one person be closer to or further from the literal truth than the theoretical knowledge of another who happens to disagree? Is theoretical knowledge entirely subjective, forever a matter of personal opinion that can never be verified?
This is ostensibly the purpose of reason and science: to test the veracity of theoretical knowledge. However, while some kinds of theoretical knowledge are amenable to such testing, others are clearly not. While evolution falls in the former category, the existence of God falls in the latter. Thus, we may distinguish two kinds of theoretical knowledge: that which is, by virtue of its empirical testability, scientifically tractable, and hence somewhat (if not entirely) objective; and that which is scientifically intractable, and hence entirely subjective.
From this it is clear that knowledge is itself evolving: like humanity itself, it is still being created. It is largely subjective but, depending on its material underpinnings, more or less amenable to empirical verification, and subject to debate. Beyond the immediate facts of continued life and death, what we each know to be true may or may not have anything to do with what is objectively real, and may or may not be accepted as factual by anyone else.
Knowledge as such is entrained by two opposing human tendencies: belief and curiosity. Belief stems from the desire (need) for certainty; whereas curiosity stems from a fascination with that which is uncertain, and hence unknown. Our survival depends on both. But whereas belief refers to prior knowledge, which may or may not reflect objective reality, curiosity opens the door to acquiring new knowledge, knowledge that may actually help dispel mistaken beliefs. So the state of knowledge, and its potential for continued development, ultimately comes down to how comfortable we are with uncertainty. In other words: how free is your mind?
Freedom is often claimed as a basic human right. But what does it mean to be free? Freedom means not being constrained by something that is otherise constraining. For the American colonists in 1776 freedom meant losing the constraint imposed by Imperial British rule and taxation. For many modern citizens of the United States freedom means being able to say and do whatever one pleases, within the law. This encompasses the economic ideal of ‘free enterprise’. So, the imposition of new laws that constrain free enterprise (e.g., regulating industry for the sake of environmental stewardship) is often viewed as being contrary to the American ideal.
But how realistic is this ideal? And even if we believe in the ideal, who is really free? It appears to me that in the modern US of A, no one is really free except for the very rich. The rest of us have very little freedom, in that what options we have are highly constrained by economic realities. Supposedly, we can still say whatever we please, but even that is not always advisable—the thought police (some of who justify their vigilance by invoking ‘political correctness’) are everywhere, and if you aren’t careful they can make your life miserable (just ask Larry Summers). What you say has freedom-limiting consequences—for example, it can cost you your job, or prevent you from getting a new job. And if you move to a small town, you need to be very careful about what you say lest you find yourself becoming ostracized, with the result being that your options for the ‘pursuit of happiness’ within that town are much more constrained
So, while we are all free to say or do whatever we choose, what we say and do has consequences that, depending on our circumstances, subsequently constrain our ability to say or do things, thereby making us less free. It is completely context dependent: if you are poor, the only possible way you can exercise the choice of living like a millionaire is by stealing, in which case you will likely end up in jail and lose most of your freedom. If you are rich and famous you are free to do just about anything you please (short of murder, and even that in some cases), even if it is illegal—for if you get caught you can hire a talented lawyer who can get you off with little more than a fine and very little jail time. So the ideal of freedom is one thing, but the reality is something quite different. In the real world freedom is not a human right, but an economic privilege.
Be that as it may, shouldn’t we nevertheless strive toward the ideal—to do everything we can to make freedom a right, rather than a privilege? Perhaps; but in that case it behooves us to first think of what we really mean by the right to freedom.
For clearly we can’t allow everyone to do whatever they please, without consequences. Anarchy might sound good in the ideal, but it won’t work in reality because there will always be sociopaths among us. Therefore we need laws, and the purpose of laws is to constrain freedom. So our ideal then gets back to freedom as being the ability to do or say what we please within the law.
But does that suffice? I would say no it doesn’t, because sometimes activities that are entirely legal are nevertheless unethical (or more generally, immoral), because the consequences are detrimental to someone else, or to the common good. Therefore, the right to freedom needs to be constrained both by laws and ethics.
But it gets even more complex—for what do we do when laws themselves are immoral? Ultimately this leads to changing the laws. Conflict, as it relates to the right to freedom, arises when overturning an immoral law that grants one group legal freedoms (e.g., the freedom to own slaves) results in the loss of those freedoms. Such changes typically result in an outcry from the newly constrained group about their loss of freedom. But the general consensus is that such changes are for the better, because morality trumps laws. The question thus ultimately becomes: how do we define morality?
It used to be that morality could only be defined by invoking an external authority who laid down the law—i.e., a god. Many folks still feel this way, arguing that without God, there can be no morality, because in a Godless universe everything is arbitrary and relative. Without a God-given definition of absolute truth how can we humans say what is moral? And who’s to say? After all we’re only human, and hence bound to sin. Therefore we need God (or his representatives among us) to tell us what is good and what is evil. Or so the argument goes (even now, in the 21rst century!).
But the argument doesn’t hold water, and hasn’t for at least 2000 years. Ironically, Jesus himself showed us how to break free of this childish mindset, providing the key to an entirely humanistic morality that requires no God, no external authority whatsoever. The answer is the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s all there is to it . The beauty of the Golden Rule is that it is a self-referential measure that allows anyone to determine whether a given action is morally good or bad. No need to ask a higher authority—just ask yourself: if I make this choice, does it have any consequences for someone else that I personally would not want to suffer?
Of course, the Golden Rule can only extend as far as our knowledge; so if we wish to behave morally it behooves us to develop our faculty of reason, so that we may better know the consequences of our actions.
But even if we are highly enlightened we can’t know all the effects our activities have on others—there are always unintended consequences of some kind. And in this industrialized global economy, the more economically privileged we are, the more uncertain and far reaching those consequences can be. So it is possible to apply the Golden Rule to the best of our knowledge , and still adversely affect someone else. For example, we might shop at Wal-Mart because of its low-low prices, and not have a clue that those prices are so low only because the foreign workers who made the products we are buying are paid next to nothing and thus have few of the privileges (“rights”) that we take for granted. Or, we might drive gas guzzling vehicles and live extravagantly without having a clue that by polluting the environment we are adversely affecting the health of our children and their children. Or, we may drink like a fish while we are pregnant, or smoke like a chimney in a house full of kids, creating all kinds of future health problems (and lost opportunities) for those kids. In all these cases are we being immoral? No, because in our unknowing ignorance we are innocent. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.
Well, I’d be hard pressed to say that the folks who nailed Jesus to the cross didn’t know what they were doing, but then again, I’m not Jesus. It is clear that all of us do things that adversely affect others, and many (perhaps most) of us are cognizant of these negative consequences at some level, but choose to ignore it. Willful ignorance—otherwise known as denial—is a state that most of us live in. So we are all, at one time or another, immoral—we are all sinners. And because of that we (at least those of us who seek to behave morally) need forgiveness.
And this is where a lot of folks who might otherwise be open to the idea of a humanistic morality still get hung up: for if there is no God, how can there be any forgiveness? Isn’t that Jesus’ purpose—to forgive us our sins, which, no matter how hard we try to be good, we inevitably commit? We may be okay with the idea that morality is possible without an absolute authority, but don’t we still need “Him” for absolution?
Not really. Forgiveness comes from within. All you need is love.
Love is that which drives us to create and do good. Through love, we lose ourselves in the act of creation. So, if God is defined as the creator, then I can only conclude that God is Love.
There can be no higher human aspiration than to be motivated entirely by love in all that we do.
The creation of humanity, which is still ongoing throughout the world, is thus ultimately a matter of learning how to give oneself completely over to love. In my experience when that happens, questions of purpose, meaning, value, knowledge, freedom, and morality are easily answered.
More by this Author
The Search for Lost Gods and an Innocence of Certainty--A review of Julian Jaynes's remarkable theory of consciousness.
Ideas, such as those presented here, are imaginary creations. Human imagination is strong medicine. The theistic mythology that motivated the development of western civilization is imaginary...
It is often said that the existential question “why are we here?” is beyond the reach of science. I disagree: science has already answered that question....