June 8, 2014

Suffering And Injustice - Whose Awe, Truth, And Hope Will Prevail?

I am not angry at God and certainly do not fancy myself being him, as some I’m sure accuse me. In fact, I would never want to be God and have and use his imputed power and knowledge. Not even for a moment in which I might rid the world of, say, human suffering and injustice. The responsibility for such an act aside, removing suffering and injustice and all that causes, attends, and follows from them would be an unprecedented intervention in the unpredictability of the Cosmos. 

Eliminating any of the unpredictability of the Cosmos would forestall the possibility of certain serendipitous events taking place in the future. A look at the list of past serendipitous events and conditions that contributed to the origins of the Earth and life upon it, including our own, though a rare but not necessarily extraordinary occurrence in the vastness of the Cosmos, should make one, especially a God-for-the-moment human, hesitate to make any wholesale changes in how it all works. A cosmic intervention would also require certain violations of the predictable laws of the Universe that we are aware of - gravity, for example - and a number of others we so far have not discovered but would be briefly known to me, the God of the Moment, The Great Intervener. My mere tinkering, which is what it would be for such an omniscient and omnipotent one as me, would redefine every thing and every process, everywhere, forever.

Imagine that I was given such power and intervened on the side of no harm and all fairness. Henceforth, from I(Intervention)=.01∞ onward, no human harm or unfairness of any kind would ever again occur on Earth. And Earth itself would, in fact, must, in turn, exist forever for its end or harm done to it would harm us. Just imagine. No more suffering from diseases, wars, fires, floods, earthquakes, typhoons, air crashes, road accidents, or asteroid strikes. No more lying, stealing, or cheating. All that which causes us to suffer, including the suffering of other non-human life forms we might witness or the burning of our Sunday pot roast, would cease.

Humans would become incapable of doing or receiving any harm and experiencing any suffering. Also, all that which had previously deprived us of what is rightfully and fairly ours - freedom of speech, movement, access (to barbecue and ice cream and all else we desire), and the right to possessions (including tattoos, blue jeans and makeup), would cease. Everything that could occur and in fact occurred would be harmless and just. At last we would be truly exceptional, as we are currently fond of calling some individuals and nations. We would finally stand in our rightful place, fully apart, no longer in degree but in kind, from all other life on Earth. Surely, many would say, such a new state of global and cosmic affairs would be a great improvement over our current reality. Surely, they might say, we can now be happy and moral without having to make the least effort. We would have been re-made, born again, that way.

Abrahamic religious believers always seem to me to be quite pleased when they claim that God gave Humankind free will so that we, not him, must choose to cause or not cause suffering or injustices. This, they claim, is God’s test of our willingness to comply with his moral directives. And, should we comply, it would become a testament to our devotion to and faith in him - “…thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”

There is, however, evidence for a better, more compelling argument that the choice to do harm or good, to be just or unjust, appeared in human evolutionary history long before its origin was attributed to God by the Jews, Muslims, and Christians a mere four thousand years ago. Prior to 4,000BP our human ancestors were far from ruthless, amoral pack of primates no better than wolves or rats. We had standards the evidence for which is the fact that we had not the skills, teeth, or strength of chimps, wolves or rats. It doesn’t require much to deduce that the survival of a relatively anatomically weak, long postnatal-dependency primate such as our early ancestors simply had to have had some way of protecting our own from harm from within and without the group; and sharing somewhat fairly what meager victuals we could scavenge or over which we could out-compete the carnivores. Making and using stone tools and fire certainly upped our odds but knowledge of their manufacture and use required a social sophistication beyond what had been useful before - alpha males and females barking orders at subordinates and beating them over matters pertaining to food and sex.

Values pertaining to freedom from harm and notions of social justice began as a reaction to the form of social life that existed during the pre-human period of higher primate evolution. This social behavior pattern simply was not working to sustain anatomical primates such as our forebears. During these early pre-human times, as evidence from the fossil record and inferences from the behavior of extant non-human primates allow us to conclude, more often than not, might made right. Yes, there was social cooperation to find and capture food and to facilitate grooming. And, yes, there was maternal care and paternal protection of the group’s offspring. But notions of suffering and fairness were matters of secondary importance to primary matters such as food and sex which, were usually addressed by threat displays, actual fighting, and thereafter maintained by the group hierarchies they created though threats and fights remained necessary to maintain a fairly stable order among the ranks. Sorry, my baboon and chimpanzee friends and the humans who study them, this is what non-human primate behavior strongly hints at about the pre-human past. [Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey (in abstentia), Frans de Waal, Robert Sapolsky, Michael Tomasello and all of your ideological descendents, and all primatologists and ethologists everywhere, take a number and wait your turn to bash me.]

At some point on the human branch of the primate evolutionary tree, this basic primate social contract was deemed to be in need of modification. Oh, the physicality and grandiosity of alpha males and females would still rule but options for non-suffering and justice were nevertheless added to the early humanoid life schema. These ideas/values (?) were enhanced, facilitated, and formalized through the use of symbolic language and speech, and the emergence of more complex forms of reasoning that language and speech made possible.

These new counterintuitive values (counterintuitive to the full-frontal, hit-bite-grab remember-your-place-or-else approach that had dominated non-human primate social life for so long) were nevertheless eventually introduced and became part of what would separate us behaviorally, and continue to distinguish us, from all our other primate relatives. Notions of harm protection and fairness were valued in that they tended to ameliorate the brute power of the biggest and strongest group members in terms of access to resources (sex and food) and survival. Values associated with protection from harm and concepts of justice, in turn, contributed to the survival of a greater diversity of individuals possessing and introducing new behavior potentials within the population. This included individuals who were physically weaker yet as smart, or smarter, than their alpha leaders. That is, individuals who possessed new or innovative survival skills and who were therefore regarded to be as valuable, and in some cases more valuable, to the group than those wielding brute power.

Returning to the matter of suffering and justice in more recent times, I am reasonably convinced and humbly submit that religion is not all bad and that not all believers are fools, as many atheists and agnostics would have us believe. The alleviation of suffering and the pursuit of fairness, at least among their own and those who will convert, are unquestionably among the major tenets of the Abrahamic religions.

I am awed and humbled by the power of Nature and the Cosmos. I am also inspired and made hopeful by Humankind's ability to reason, our pursuit of objective truth, and our capacity for compassion. I think alleviating suffering and promoting justice are natural outcomes of a way of life founded on reason, truth, and compassion.

Imagine the Earth populated by humans who cannot or will not reason; whose knowledge is not informed by objective truth; and who have no capacity for compassion beyond that for their own kind. All who eschew or misuse reason, reject or misrepresent objective truth, restrict their compassion to the like-minded, and lead or force others along this path, live in defiance of Human Nature. When they do so in order to advance their privilege, power, religion, ideology, or nation above that of all others, they subvert the freedom of every member of Humankind to pursue an awe, truth, and hope different from their own.

To behave in such a way is to be inhuman, to be inhumane. In this approach to the community of Humankind there is no honest reasoning, no reverence for objective truth, no unconditional compassion, as only true compassion must be. This is the long-standing myth of human life as first and foremost a struggle for power - power to control another's freedom, their awe, their truth, their compassion. This is suffering. This is injustice. Remind you of pre-human, non-human primate priorities – power, food, stuff, sex?

It is our ability to communicate about the consequences of our behavior in the past and potential behavior in the future, and the collective, protective covenant we entered into with each other at the dawn of humanity hundreds of thousands of years ago that still distinguish us and represent, so far, as our species’ greatest achievements. The core principle of that covenant is acceptance of the need to agree and act upon standards related to the avoidance and alleviation of suffering and those of fairness and justice, writ large. This, in the face of threatening events in the ever-challenging, ever-changing physical and social environments, is indispensable to our humanity, to enlightened, civilized life.

Our duty to each other, whether atheist or believer, is not to stand our ground and clear the ethnosphere of ever upstart idea that challenges one or other of the currently dominant repositories of awe, truth, and hope. Ours is to encourage and tolerate all arising notions and winnow them using reason, evidentiary standards, and the conventions and protocols of the yet nascent global morality - to assess their usefulness for improving our adaptive capacities, including our panhuman hopes for freedom from suffering and justice for all.

We would thereby have, it has been shown repeatedly in our human evolutionary history, the best chance for individual and community thriving and our species’ survival. Bludgeoning each other, physically or mentally, into compliance with one worldview, one adaptive strategy, one path to fairness and justice, or one religion, ideology or another, will not guarantee success in the fluid and unpredictable reality of this biosphere and its future. Reason, tolerance, evidenced-based knowledge, and compassion, my beloved believers and atheists, won’t guarantee success either, but they do up our chances.

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