Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Nature of Human Nature II

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I know, I write about all of these weird philosophical topics a lot. Human nature is one that I constantly find myself coming back to over and over. I have this deep-rooted desire to understand everything, especially why I am the way that I am and how I fit into the larger structure that is human civilization. 

I have been reading several books lately, among them is How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. I've been enjoying it thoroughly so far. At one part of the book the author mentions something in passing that really struck a chord with me and I immediately took it and applied a different context to it. 

The author had mentioned how emotional the Irish were, and how their emotions that they had back them have not changed and we still feel the same way today. That was an epiphany of sorts for me. This entire time I have been looking at the answers for human nature as a cognitive or behavioral function. But it occurs to me now that this is folly. Our behavior, as individuals and as a society, changes over time. Our thought processes, individually and collectively, also change over time as we learn new things. But our emotions remain constant. For thousands upon thousands of years the emotions of the human spectrum have not changed. 

We are gifted with a wide range of emotions; angst, fear, love, hope, anxiety, despair, sorrow, joy, grief, sadness, pride, depression, fury, terror, jealousy, happiness, regret, euphoria, anger, faith, rage, remorse, pity, compassion, peace, a broad, wonderful, beautiful range of emotions. The despair and terror that we feel today are just as powerful and overwhelming as our ancestors who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago. 

I suggest, that human nature is not defined by specific actions that we take individually or collectively, but rather by the range of our emotions. Simply put; human nature is to feel. That is the curse and the blessing of the human condition. Whether the feelings be good or bad, slight or overwhelming, it is those very feelings that let us know that we are alive. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Platonic Fallacy

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Those of you who know me well know that I am a voracious reader. I read lots of book on a wide variety of topics. I've been reading a fascinating book on Irish History (one that I lost and had to buy again) called "How the Irish saved Civilization" by Thomas Cahill. It's a pretty good book, and quite insightful. One of the things that he mentions at one point is the Platonic Fallacy, which was something that I wanted to delve into a little more.

The Platonic Fallacy, of course, derives from the great Greek philosopher, Plato. The crux of the fallacy is the thought that "knowledge is virtue". This is something that I had encountered before as a youth and as a teenager, but I never really paid much attention to the deeper meaning of it until now, especially not in the context of what Plato actually meant.

According to Plato, knowledge is virtue. In his mind, the two words are synonymous and interchangeable. But are they really? The dictionary defines virtue as "behavior showing high moral standards", and lists synonyms; goodness, righteousness, morality, integrity, dignity, rectitude, honor, decency, respectability, purity, etc. Never once does the dictionary list knowledge as a literal synonym for virtue. 

Knowledge is many things. As one adage expresses, knowledge is power. That might be true, but if knowledge is power, and if Plato was right, wouldn't that also make power equal virtue? Power is many things, but Virtue it is not. As another old adage says, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". So, either this adage is wrong and power is virtue, or else Plato is wrong. Based on the words and actions of the people who are often in power, I would tend to believe that the adage is right and Plato is wrong.

Knowledge can be many things. Knowledge can be respectable. Knowledge can be pure (especially knowledge that is pursued for the sake of simply knowing and not trying to prove or disprove anything). Knowledge can also be dignified, to a point. But that is where I think the similarities between knowledge and virtue end. Am I saying that knowledge is an ill-gotten endeavor to be discredited and shunned? Hardly. I wouldn't be a PhD student if I felt that way. But, I am saying that knowledge itself does not posses any intrinsic properties which make it morally just or righteous. Knowledge is a tool. And, like all tools, the purpose and intent of the tool is shaped and defined by the will of the person who wields that tool.

Let's think about this in more depth. There are ethics; rules by which society mandates we should abide. Then there are morals; rules that our own personal beliefs and convictions mandate that we must abide. Knowledge may help shape and inform these different rules, but knowledge in and of itself is not the same as these rules.

To put this into a practical, philosophical example, let us speak of the digital age and computers. With practice, experience, and a little tutelage, anyone can learn to use computers, and learn to use them well. With copious amounts of practice, and knowledge gained through experience, some people can become quite skilled at modifying lines of computer code to change the way that the computer behaves. This is knowledge. By itself this knowledge is neither good, nor evil. It is simply knowledge that exists in a state completely devoid of moral or ethical implications, as all knowledge does. But, when a person decides to use this knowledge, then it takes on the moral and ethical implications of their actions. For example, if a person decides to use the knowledge of changing lines of computer code to steal information, or forge fake identities, or steal money, then society would typically say that the knowledge of "hacking" is evil and shouldn't be learned. However, without understanding how hacking works, then other people cannot use that same knowledge to build software and tools to protect people from those who would use that knowledge for ill.

Just because a person possesses knowledge does not automatically make them virtuous; their actions determine that. And there are certainly many people who perform virtuous actions that do not have much education or knowledge. The amount of education that a person has doesn't automatically make them better than anyone else, or more important, and certainly not more virtuous. Virtue has one simple and unequivocal measure; the intent and actions of an individual. I have more to say on that topic, so maybe "intent" will be the topic of another post in the near future. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Nature of Human Nature

[Johnathan Clayborn]

As many of you who know me well know, I often volunteer my time for various activities and organizations. I've been part of Relay for Life committees, been on the public safety council for my city, and fed the homeless more times than I can count. One of the volunteer things that I do is answer questions on I volunteer both as an English language expert, and in the "writer's block" category.

For the most part the people who ask questions there are learning to speak English and they want to know if they've used to the correct verb tense, or the correct adverb, etc. However, every now then one of my regular, recurring questioners asks me something profound. Today I got an email from one such person in Poland who has emailed me several times. As they learn more about me and my background and experiences a few of them sometimes use that channel to ask questions about philosophy of psychology. Last time I heard from this gentleman in Poland he was asking me to interpret what a particular author was saying about different kinds of love and whether or not I agreed. Here's was today's question for me:

Hello Mr. Johnathan. 
Once again I'm not going to ask about grammar or writing, but rather about psychology. 

Last time I asked you about love. Today my question pertains to a similar subject, I think. 

Do you think that all people, by nature, need someone else to share their life with? It seems to me that most of the people cannot live alone, they feel they need someone and sooner or later find him or her. Of course there are monks/priests/nuns etc. who live in celibacy, but aren't they, in this way, going against their nature? 

I think I heard or read somewhere that we are, in a sense, (I'm not sure which word is correct here) imperfect or handicapped because we cannot live (or at least it's not comfortable for us to live)without the other person - of course I'm talking about a relationship between a man and a woman.

What are your thoughts on this?

I rather enjoy this more philosophical questions as they break up the tedium of explaining verb-tense agreement and other such grammatical rules. 

This is a very complex question, with many different factors to consider and many different possible philosophical lenses to view the question from. 

I'll start with the easier part of this question, whether or not people can live their lives alone. This, in and of itself, is a complex question. Intrinsically humans are very social creatures. We like to belong to groups. As Professor Diamond explains in his book, "Guns, Germs, and Steel", this is a throwback of evolutionary psychology from our hunter-gatherer stage. Being part of a group meant that that you would have a much better chance of survival. This component of human psychology has carried over to modern society. We, as a species, do prefer to be part of a group. We often find ways to associate ourselves with a group and we actually strive for and foster that "us versus them" mentality. When there are no ready-made groups available, we often invent some so that we can develop this sense of belonging, which is one of the steps in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. With the advent of the internet, this is much, much easier than ever before in history. Now we have the ability to divide ourselves along racial lines, nationalities, political lines, religious beliefs, sports teams, which games and shows and band we like, etc. 

Just because humans have a natural tendency for socialization and belonging doesn't mean that people as individuals are always well-suited for this. There was an article in a recent issue of Psychology Today magazine that talked about the growing demographic of deliberately unmarried single adults, people who have chosen to live a single lifestyle because they are happier being by themselves than with a partner (a concept that seems strange to me, personally). As humans I do think that we all want to belong, that we all want to love and be loved, and that we all want someone to share our joys, our achievements, and our heartaches with. But I do think that there are a number of people out there who are not only capable of living alone, but who actually prefer it. Many of these people date, and fulfill their need for intimate human contact with either friends who understand the boundaries of that relationship, or with people whom they meet randomly every so often. 

But, this brings us to the question of whether or not this behavior is in violation of human nature. When I was younger I used to do a philosophy exercise. I would pick a question or a topic and then on one day I would make arguments in favor of that position. On the next day I would argue the opposite point. I would pick random things like "Can one person really make a difference?" and argue the point back and forth with myself for weeks. One of my questions was "is there really such a thing as human nature at all"? To this day I am convinced that if there really is a such thing as human nature, it is not a cleanly-defined set of rules or parameters for behavior. I think it's much more complex and abstract than that. The reason that I think this is that almost every type of human behavior that you can think of has a counter-part and opposite behavior that exists in dichotomous opposition to the first behavior. For example; there are those people who would donate and give away most of the things that they own to help others, but there are others would who steal and horde things away for themselves. There are those who would stand up and protect the weak and the infirm, but there are also those who would pick on them and prey on them. There are those who say that human nature is to believe in something greater (perhaps God), but there are also those not only don't believe in religion but don't believe that there is anything greater. I could go on, but the point is; how can any of these behaviors be "human nature" if there exists another behavior that is the exact opposite? If it were human nature, then wouldn't all people be more or less compelled to be that way through the intrinsic properties of human DNA? So, I propose to you, that maybe human nature is to be in conflict, with ourselves, and with each other, in such a way that there are no clearly-defined rules that define the human experience.