The dilemma of being human centers around our ability to turn our shoulder toward any facet of reality we do not like and choose to not include it in our knowledge of the world. Because we have big brains, in which we keep a map of the world in our memories, we can alter our maps without reality changing and so become delusional. Even worse, we can then claim that we’ve done that for a “higher purpose” and so claim that while it is unrealistic, it is just or moral.
Life thrusts upon us many choices, but each of those choices is made for us by our previous underlying assumptions. For example, if we believe that quality is always more important than quantity, choosing the expensive organic peas over a giant bucket of peas grown in an industrial wasteland is easy. If we believe family is more important than mass media, certain political decisions are already made and await only articulation.
Underneath all of our decisions then, or at the top of a hierarchy of assumptions upon which we base our decisions, is the question of how we should make decisions. We need some kind of pragma that tells us what is important for us to use as the basis for decision-making itself. Whenever a society starts feeling it has no “narrative” or “goal,” what is meant is that this highest level of abstraction is missing.
In human affairs, one very basic choice confronts us. We are physical beings with minds that predict more than our immediate state of comfort. Do we use our minds and strive for something more than our physical preservation and state of comfort, or do we zealously defend our physical state?
The latter produces a philosophy akin to both anarchy and consumerism, a kind of atavistic individualism that states we only do what we decide we want to do; we only act for ourselves “in the now”; and any action that offends us, requires us to change what we want to do, or requires sacrifice except for the preservation of ourselves and all other individuals is taboo. It is self-preservation bordering on selfishness, and if we choose it, over time it moves from the former to the latter.
The crux of human decision-making and our highest abstract level of choice can be summarized in this question: do we accept that physical reality is a means to an end, while all ends are abstract, even if they include perpetuation of the means?
Before we’ve had a chance to think about it, this question seems paradoxical. We, as we know ourselves, are part of the means; we would like ourselves to be the end, so that all things work for our self-preservation. But when we recognize that our survival depends on the order imposed on all of us together and our environment, we have to re-assess the question.
While we can easily group ourselves into a mob that demands atavistic individualism for each and every individual, this leaves many questions unanswered. If society as a whole has no goal, that leaves us with a marketplace and a lack of clear behaviors which reward us outside of our own convenience.
Thinking on that for a moment, we can see how hollow such an existence would be, and how it would lead others into desperation and drag itself down with the weight of many desperate people acting selfishly but still feeling unfulfilled, tempting them toward more consumption, self-importance and other grotesque human traits.
With that in mind, we can see that this crux boils down to acceptance of life itself. We are mortal; we cannot forever preserve ourselves. Furthermore, acting only for ourselves through convenience and material comfort is not rewarding. Acting for the world at large, whether educating bright hopeful children or nurturing an old-growth forest or writing a symphony, is what connects us to reverent, transcendental meaning in life.
This gives us a choice to either accept that life is not absolute and eternally preserving of us, or to demand that it “should be” and deny our mortality and our need for meaning. If we accept life as not absolute, we see that we ourselves are not absolute, and that we should find a goal for which to aim which makes our daily struggles and eventual deaths pale in comparison to the meaning we find in life.
If we demand, instead, that life be absolute like our fear for our own physical presence, and deny the need for an abstract goal which transcends ourselves, we face a path of increasing denial of reality. Even more, we will eventually atomize ourselves, or lock ourselves into worlds of ourselves where by acting for ourselves we shut ourselves off from meaning, creating a cycle of consumption and neurosis where we seek meaning through means that cannot deliver it.
When our ancestors spoke of “good” and “evil,” they designed these terms to be used situationally, meaning a bad or good outcome. Similarly, when they spoke of the importance of life, they believed themselves to be means and not ends: hands that labored toward a better society not only for individuals, but for the education of better future generations, nurturing of old-growth forests, and writing of symphonies.
In the modern time, with our rationalist logic encouraging a utilitarian outlook, we have translated “good” and “evil” into absolutes derived from situational fears — fears for our physical selves — and have made absolute a goal of preserving the means, and made it into an end. This closed-circuit outlook on reality starves us of meaning and makes us desperate, but because we’ve defined the world outside the self as most likely “evil” and threatening, we have no escape from that cycle.
The crux of how we face reality is whether we can accept death and invent meaning, or whether we balk in fear and push back at the knowledge that we are temporary and meaning is outside of ourselves; in effect, that we are means to an end that is far bigger than ourselves. That fear causes us to reject our true salvation, which is not only within ourselves to discover, but if recognized allows us to stop protesting against life, accept it, and make from it a beautiful world of meaning.