Reason, consciousness or morality?
What is it that makes us really different from the other primates?
I tried to suggest earlier that reason is certainly useful but somewhat over-hyped while “Dubio” might have been what Descartes had in mind when he coined “Dubito ergo cogito, cogito ergo sum”. So what is ‘reason’? Nothing but the ability to compare two or more alternatives. The point is that you have to have those alternatives in the first place AND at least a criterion, a yardstick, to use when trying to choose between those alternatives. And for those of you who love etymology “reason” and “rationality” come from Latin were “ratio” basically means ‘taking into consideration’.
Let’s see now what ‘consciousness’ is about. Experts seem to have a hard time trying to decide one way or another. You have here a 14 pages long dissertation about ‘how to’ and ‘how to not’ define it. I’ll look someplace else for help. There is an evolutionary biologist turned philosopher who says that we are not only conscious (every living thing is) but “self-conscious”! His name is Humberto Maturana Romesin. In a nut shell his arguments are that anything that has a membrane separating an inside from the outside and is able (to a certain degree, of course) to choose what passes through that membrane and what not is ‘conscious’, in the sense that it is somehow able to determine what is good and what it is bad for itself and act accordingly. Humans, says Maturana, are not only conscious but self-conscious: they not only do the choosing but also ‘watch’ themselves doing it. ‘Self awareness’ in plain English.
OK. So we have self awareness to supervise the ability to choose. Why keep on looking for anything else?
Well… you remember the ‘criterion, the yardstick to use when trying to choose between the available alternatives’, don’t you? Where do you get this criterion from? OK, self-awareness might help here in the sense that ‘preservation of self’ might provide a quite valid one. ‘Does it serve my interests? Is it helpful for my survival? Then it must be good!’
In fact this is exactly what Nietzsche said when he justified his Uebermensch’s actions: “What is good? All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? All that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” And where did this attitude drive Nietzsche himself, and some of his followers – Hitler among others? To disaster?
Are you troubled by this line of reasoning? Do you feel that the relentless pursuit of your own interest is legit? Do you believe in Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’? You’re not alone!
Unfortunately you’re not right, either. According to Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, Darwin never said/wrote such thing: it would have been contrary to the very idea of evolutionism. “Fit”, in this context, means “adapted” – not strong, trained, etc. and being perfectly adapted to your medium actually means you are not able to survive to the slightest modification. For those of you who have some trouble accepting this consider the notion of ‘just in time’ management: carrying additional stocks, anything more than what is necessary right now but enables you to adapt to a malfunctioning in the supply system, is considered unacceptable costs. Same thing with ‘being fit’, the fitter you are – the more adapted to a certain medium and only to that medium – means you make a more efficient use of the resources at your disposal BUT that your ability to cope with an eventual change in the medium you are living with is proportionally lower. Consider the giraffe: it has a competitive advantage over other herbivores because of it size and ability to forage on trees but if the trees become higher or disappear altogether it will be the first to die of hunger.
Rephrasing Mayr, evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unable to adapt. And what has this to do with our problem? With the relentless pursuit of one’s own interests, NO MATER WHAT? The real problem is right there, at the end of the previous sentence. Following one’s interests is a very legitimate business, as long as the actions of that individual do not endanger the community of which that individual is a member.
One of the most important contributions Mayr made to evolutionism is the notion of ‘Biological Species Concept’. Bluntly put, this is about the species being the object of evolution and not the individuals. When it comes to individual HUMAN beings this is rather hard to accept given their huge adaptability but we should keep in mind that Mayr was speaking about biology while individuals evolve ‘culturally’ and ‘socially’: they adapt, themselves, their communities and even sometimes the medium they live in, by cooperatively using information gathered in time, by themselves and by their ancestors. It is rather easy to understand and accept the fact that a newborn has absolutely no chance of survival without some grownups taking care of him but the fact of the matter is that nobody, absolutely nobody – no matter how strong, wise or both – can survive, let apart evolve, alone. Just think about what Robinson Crusoe had to endure and he was stranded along with some technological artifacts AND with a considerable selection of the information accumulated by the humankind until the time of his misfortune.
This whole thing is getting rather long so I’ll try to wrap it up. My hunch is that it is morality – our ability to get along with each other – that really makes the difference between us and the rest of the primates. Without morality we would never had been able to cooperate, we would be forever embroiled in a constant struggle akin to what is going on in a chimpanzee or baboon troupe. Even more, morality not only creates conditions for cooperation but also sets the rules for competition – without which social adaptability and hence evolution and survival would be impossible.
Please comeback for updates on this, I’m not completely satisfied with it but I have to leave it for now – I have to take care of my material side, dinner has to be cooked.