Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Distant Descendants, Dystopia or Utopia?

In the context of the Basic Imperative, I've been speaking of our descendants. The term needs clarification and further exploration. Often we think of descendants purely in terms of biological lineage. But as indicated by the social practice of adoption and the usage of the term in ontological taxonomy, it's biological usage is just a special case of a much more general concept. Descendancy does indeed have to do with inheritance, yet another term often associated with biology. But again, it is the abstract meaning of inheritance that counts and not the genetic mechanism with which we came to associate it during the last half of the 20'th century. When entity B is structurally based on entity A, we say that B is a descendant of A. B inherits structural characteristics of A. It's in this abstract sense of "lineage" that descendant must be interpreted in the context of the Basic Imperative. Broadly speaking, we can talk of biological versus social descent, and social descendancy is far more important in the context of the Basic Imperative albeit not in complete exclusion of the former. Why? Because what most distinctly defines us as a species is our social nature and our capacity for agency. We have reached a stage of evolution where our consciousness allows us to adopt behavioral characteristics by conviction and experimentation. And yet being conscious as such still depends on our basic biology.

I don't doubt that people like Steven Pinker are right in that our biology plays an important role in shaping everything from our capacity for language to our moral attitudes. But I'm also quite certain that our capacity to share ideas, merge and alter them plays an immensely important role in how we act. People are not born Christians, Buddhists, marxists or objectivists. They are converted to these specific belief systems. They become their agents by choice and not by pure nature. Even if they are born into a Catholic family, it's by a degree of choice that they remain Catholics throughout their lives. Sometimes the structures imposed by their biological nature and wider environment seem to vastly reduce their choices. But it's my conviction that, to a greater or lesser degree, there is the capacity for idealistic self-sacrifice along the lines of Perpetua in most humans. And I would assume in most social beings with a similar capacity to learn and transfer complex knowledge. At the very least, it seem extremely difficult if not impossible to predict who will commit themselves to a new idea with as much exuberance and finality as Perpetua and Felicity.

If we could not change our minds, then how could we learn to use even the simplest tools? I think it's important to note that this ability to change our minds is what decouples us to a large extent from our pure biology. We don't use wheels because of some inborn "wheel-wheeling" characteristic. We use wheels because our ancestors, those who came before us, taught us how to make and use wheels. We talk about bodhisattvas because our ancestors told us about bodhisattvas. We are inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh because someone cared to inscribe the tale on cuneiform tablets. The archetype of its storyline may be inspired by our biological dispositions but it is not as such stored deep in our DNA. Gilgamesh and Enkidu and their adventures had to first be invented by conscious beings reflecting on their human condition. We are beings that can receive, process, transform and send extremely complex information and thereby deeply influence each others way of being. It is in this transformative social context that our most important lineages our found and not in our specific genetic structures. The Abrahamic faiths were not spread by semen but by word of mouth and through the written scriptures.

I believe I am myself a case in point. I was born in Stockholm and both my parents were born in a small Swedish town by the name of Motala. I am of Scandinavian ancestry dating back to at least the late Middle Ages and probably much further. Does that make me a Geat? Hardly. Growing up I was never told the story of Ottar Jarl or encouraged to go viking because of some ancient tradition. Nor was I told that, if I were brave, I might one day find myself in Fólkvangr. What remains of ancient Scandinavian traditions are some superficial holiday celebrations that bare almost no resemblance to what they once were or represented. Unless the Norse jumped around the maypole singing "little frogs are funny to see, they have no ears, no ears and no tails" as they drained the blood of a goat hanging from a tree. Yes, there is to a very limited extent neopaganism in Scandinavia. But it has more to do with recent romantic nationalism. It's not something that was inherited and preserved from generation to generation through some genetic process.

My lineage could be described very roughly as a Scandinavian variant of the Abrahamic faith's Hellenistic branch deeply transformed by the Enlightenment. There seem to be some Norse elements in my heritage, most notably a certain commitment to governance by assembly. I conjecture that the ancient Scandinavian idea of the ting is of some importance to the modern form of assembly that I believe is an efficient means of stabilizing our evolution. But what I have inherited from the Norse seems negligible compared to my Hellenistic roots.

A repeated concern is that the Basic Imperative will not necessarily produce a society we would be willing to support. It might even produce a society so antithetical to our sentiments of what is good that we would rather see it annihilated. Essentially, our descendants might because of their capacity for agency betray our ideals. This especially becomes a concern if we consider descendancy as a term for our future biological lineage. If we instead consider descendancy in terms of a social lineage, that is as an evolving system for regulating conscious beings devoted to a shared existence, the problem is somewhat minimized. But it is by no means eliminated. Since each agent in the system has the capacity to change their minds, the system as a whole may by aggregate conversion evolve into something very foreign to us, something that again does not espouse our values. We can explore this very simply by considering a hypothetical trip to Athens around the time of Plato, or of bringing Plato to the Western world in the early 21'st century. What would we think of each others worlds? Would Plato recognize anything of ancient Athens in, say, New York City? Would he marvel at what we have become? Or would he find it a frightening dystopia? And what would we think of the life lived and opinions held by a contemporary of Plato? Would we describe some of their forms of justice as pure cruelty?

Are the city-states of Hellas as distant from our Western nations as the megazostrodon, a creature that would probably be terrified by our predatory ways? Or is it just a small leap back to the Cro-Magnon, people we could probably form functioning alliances with and go hunting? My guess is that we would have an easier time convincing the ancient Hellenes in assimilating than we would have tolerating the existence of their forms of governance. Of, course I can't be certain of this. I speak with a lot of bias, to say the least! Nonetheless, I see NATO intervention somewhere in this thought experiment. But more importantly, the question is if the Athenians, assuming they had the power to, would see a reason to politically and militarily intervene in our state of affairs for moral reasons?

Although decoupling the Basic Imperative from pure biological lineage makes it easier to envision (from our perspective) a just and good future, it clearly does not resolve it. But I think there is a possible resolution if we to some extent subdue our pure intuitions. Not eliminate them but put them under the scrutiny of science. The core problem I still see is that if we judge social organizations from some ideal concept of justice and morality, justice and morality is no longer rooted in nature, that which is. It is again relegated to the nebulous realm of groundless oughts. Somehow it's not about my or your sense of what should be. It's about what should be in order for organizations of conscious beings capable of agency to continue persisting. It seems that rational considerations married to empiricism should be able to lay out a framework that would work with gradual modifications across the aeons. Not necessarily, but work with high likelihood and produce something not so entirely alien. I conjecture that the our willingness to assimilate with the society of our distant descendants would probably be greater than their willingness to accept our current and primitive means of organizing our world.

1 comment:

Hasan Sonmez said...

Dear Andreas

I do agree with pretty much all you've written here. I think the concept of ideal evolution as opposed to merely biological evolution is an important one.

The only thing I take issue with is making the "Basic Imperative" the basis of all ethics and morals. It begs the question: what is good in the first place?

I would agree with our ancient Greek philosopher "ancestors" that in order for there to be any morality at all, there needs to be an Absolute Good from which to determine what is good and what is not good.