All of us who identify as human have large and complex brains. We are capable—or most of us, anyway1—of holding different and sometimes conflicting thoughts on the same subject. This is because we live on many mental levels.
Our daily experience is structured around a large, capacious, and persistent memory and a system for its recall. We can summon—accurately, we believe2—past events, as well as the experiences and emotions surrounding these events. We can also draw inferences and rules or imagined truths from these pieces of our personal history. Add to this set of “real” memories the “shadow” experiences, different from but concatenated with our real-life experiences, associated with everything that we read, see in movies and plays, or are told by our parents, relatives, friends, and the people we trust. It all goes into the retentive sponge that is our memory.
We also live a good part of our lives in the future. We have an active life in the portion of our brain called the prefrontal cortex. This is the area that controls “executive functions” like decision-making, planning, anticipation, and—because they are usually associated with consequences—personal and social behaviors. Using the prefrontal cortex, we consider current events and map them forward into an imagined future, enabling us to make decisions and plan our future actions. But that executive function also opens up a Pandora’s box of wishes, dreams, and fantasies that can affect our daily lives and intended actions.
What our brain is actually “thinking” at any one time depends on what we bring forth from this stew of past, present, and future beliefs, knowledge, and imagination, either by active, intentional, conscious, thoughtful focus and recall, or by the random firing of related neural circuitry that we associate with the “subconscious mind.”
And so we all live multiple lives that generally can be resolved into what we believe versus what we know to be the fact. And most of us are better at adhering to one or the other, depending on the situation. From this point on, I’m going to be treading on some metaphysical toes. If you are easily upset or angered, please stop reading. Anyway, this—like all of my blog postings—is just a thought experiment.
We all—or most of us—tend to believe that we have within ourselves some unending part: a soul, a spark of life, an enduring energy that will continue after our personal death. It will not just continue as a metaphysical force, like a raw radio or light wave, but carry with it our consciousness, our memories, our emotions … everything that makes us a real person except for our physical strength, sensation, and bodily needs. This part will endure for eternity in some place or dimension, and usually there we will meet our parents, family, ancestors, pets, and lost loves. The absurdity of continuing forever in a place that is not-living, not-growing, not evolving—a kind of limbo, however pleasant the circumstances and the company may be—is lost on those of us who so believe. And the idea of meeting not just parents and grandparents but g’g’g’great-to-near-infinity-grandparents whom we never met, going back to the great apes and little fishes of our genetic ancestry, is an aspect we never consider. Still, all of this belief comes to us from the religion we practice, the stories we’ve read, and the insistent looking-forwardness of that prefrontal cortex.
And yet we also know—or most of us—that death has an undeniable finality and stillness to it. Many of us have encountered isolated deaths, either that of a pet or family member as a child or among acquaintances in our extended community as an adult, if not in worse and more memorable circumstances like war and environmental catastrophes. Much as we would like to believe that something eternal is preserved from that ended life, we know on an intellectual level that the dead are not going anywhere and not coming back. Yes, there are stories, plays, and movies about consciousness existing and love enduring beyond the grave. But unless we are so crazed with grief that we try to conjure the dead with the aid of a charlatan, we know that these are just stories. We know that everything comes to an end: plants, animals, people, cities, empires, planets, and stars. The universe is old beyond comprehension and everything in it exists in an impermanent state of flux. So why should our personal selves be any different?
In our current politics, literature, and media environment, we are now bathed in stories of apocalypse, of the end times, of the collapse of civilization, of the destruction of the world. My generation has been living through prophesied doomsdays since we practiced duck-and-cover for nuclear war in grade school. Then it was overpopulation and Malthusian starvation, next Y2K and the collapse of the economy, and finally global warming and rising sea levels. Apocalypse has its attractions: you no longer have to pay rent, get up and go to work, or put up with the daily frustrations of living in a crowded society. It will be every man or woman for him- or herself, and the rules about just killing anyone who annoys you will be automatically rescinded.
Another current political belief is the notion that human nature is somehow defective and that, if we could only change people for the better—make them nicer, kinder, more giving, more reliable, less selfish—then we can achieve utopia here on Earth. It has been tried by several societies, of course, most recently in Venezuela. The utopian ideal is another form of end-times thinking: the end of struggle; the end of nations at war; the end of hunger, poverty, and fear; and the end of history as we know it. Once we achieve this perfect state for humankind, nothing will ever change again.
And yet both of these states—apocalypse and utopia—are fantasies. Yes, catastrophes happen: hurricanes and earthquakes destroy whole towns at a stroke; war and invasion wipe entire civilizations and cultures off the map; and war itself is a long and terrible experience. Yes, healthy and happy societies are occasionally formed and live through a golden age, where almost everyone has something interesting and fulfilling to do in their life, gets enough to eat, and lives in relative peace. But neither state is the end of times or the end of history, and all of them finish up and are replaced by something else. And usually, no one notices or can pinpoint the end of either condition. The Roman Empire took a couple of centuries to fall, and for some people in some places—think of Constantinople—it endured for a thousand years after the sack of Rome in the Western Empire. So while we may indulge fantasies about end times, we all—or most of us—know that history is a process of slow change, that no state or civilization endures without constant revision and reevaluation, both upward and downward, and that most people are now on the upward curve of both spiritual and technological human progress—as we have been since the founding of Sumer in Mesopotamia some seven thousand years ago.
In our current politics and morality, many people—if not most—believe that humanity is divided by race, ethnic affiliation, political or religious views, or some other distinction between ourselves and a presumed “other.” And we can entertain notions that those others, even if they share 99.99% genetic identity with us, are somehow different and less than human. That they don’t have the same human drives, love their children, possess a sense of purpose and dignity, want to earn their living and come home at night, and want their football team to succeed just as much as we do.
At the same time, many people—if not most—believe that all human beings should be equal. This is not just about being treated equally before the law or receiving equal opportunities for education and personal and commercial success. This is the belief that there is not much innate difference among human beings in all groups and conditions, except for those unfortunates with a developmental disability or some form of physical limitation. So therefore any differences in living standards and personal outcomes between individuals and parts of society must be due to that previous belief in racial or ethnic difference and to overt discrimination, or else due to some structural unfairness in society.
And yet anyone with experience in the world knows that no two human beings are the same. Everyone is born with a unique and personal complement of traits, talents, intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses, family background and history, genetic inheritance and innate health, and that undefinable element we call “luck.” A fair society can try to compensate for some of the worst and most obvious deficiencies in any of these areas. But nothing can make all of these varied human beings equal in terms of their health, longevity, success, and happiness.
Finally, in our sense of the universe, we all—or most of us—like to believe that our world, our lives, and our fates are rule by some unseen yet benevolent hand that establishes our current circumstances, foresees all outcomes, and ensures that things will turn out for the better, that right and love will triumph in the end, and that the world and each life in it—or at least my life in it, because I am special—has a definite purpose. Again, this is a residue or distillation of the religion we were taught and the stories we’ve heard. It is also the product of a twitch in the prefrontal cortex that engenders hope.
But we also know from history and from personal experience—unless we deceive ourselves with selective memory—that bad things happen about as often as good, that sometimes innocent people die without reason, and that the finger of evolution is a wandering one that makes ravening wolves as well as gentle deer, and sometimes it also creates a platypus. Life on this planet doesn’t come into being and function because it has a purpose. Life, the union of egg and sperm and all that comes afterward, is the purpose. Species develop in relation to environmental niches for which their genetics have haphazardly adapted them. They exist only for so long as they can, and then they die out. Humans, with their big brains and clever hands, have learned to adapt their technology and culture to many different environments; perhaps one day they will learn to adapt the environment itself, both here and on other planets, to their needs; and eventually they may even adapt their own genetics to environment yet unimagined. Or human beings, too, may die out. And for each of us, if there is a purpose to living, we must find it for ourselves.
We all live on many levels of mental activity; of intellectual curiosity, honesty, and dishonesty; of desire, fear, and hope; and of belief and fantasy. All those levels sometimes override both previous knowledge and common sense. And that complex internal life is also part of the human condition.
1. Here I will allow for different kinds of human mentation, due perhaps to disease, accident, or developmental damage. I cannot know, for example, that a person with severe autism or one whose frontal lobes are destroyed by a stroke engages in the kind of mental activity described here, or whether such a brain experiences reality directly without the filters of belief and knowledge.
2. However, some recent studies suggest we are all susceptible to the phenomenon of “false memory” (see for example “False Memories and How They Form” by Kendra Cherry from 2018). It also seems that a memory is not just recorded once, when the event was experienced, but is re-experienced, shaped, and edited every time it is recalled. This tends to create a “collage” of perception around the memory rather than a fixed and indelible image.