(Prague—October 28, 2005)
Hierarchy in human relations (social, cultural, political, economic) appears to be biologically hard-wired. That is, a powerful leader (or leaders) with many followers is the human norm. This hard-wiring, while biologically adaptive to the species in the past, now reinforces some of the more self-destructive tendencies in human behavior: tribalism, patriotism, blind loyalty, failure to assume both individual and collective responsibility.
But we humans refuse to acknowledge that we are animals with hard-wired behavior; instead, we claim to be beings with immortal souls and free will, therefore superior to the animal realm, and an exception to it.
The biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that in the history of our species, human groups who were religious were more adaptive; religious beliefs held in common forged purposeful, collective behavior. These humans better survived difficult natural world conditions; given human predatory behavior, they also successfully extinguished any human groups who lacked such collective belief and purpose. Therefore, through selection over time, religious behavior itself has become hard-wired. That is to say, the belief that we humans aren’t hard-wired is hard-wired into us.
Given the powerful tool of science and its recent technological consequences, this contradiction—hard-wired animal behavior versus hard-wired religious faith—now poses a species survival problem. Religious belief, even though it asserts individual free will to choose between right and wrong, with consequences for the individual immortal soul, permits us to deny our collective will and our collective responsibility for collective behavior. Collective human behavior falls into the realm of God’s will, God’s plan, or the “invisible hand” of God; therefore, we humans are not responsible for our collective behavior, or its consequences.
One result of this belief is that damage we collectively cause to the planet’s ecological balance is not our responsibility. Even though the ecological damage threatens our own long-term species survival, we are not responsible for it; the consequences are part of God’s larger plan.
Given current trends, unless we intervene in this collective belief pattern we will almost certainly extinguish our own species. Our extinction will result from our own success: technological success for which we are unwilling to take responsibility.
The ideal solution is for us to accept that (1) we are hard-wired animals, (2) who possess limited will rather than free will, (3) who cannot be shown to either possess or not possess immortal souls. Regarding each of these three assertions:
(1) While biological hard-wiring is a powerful force, cultural and intellectual values are an attempt to influence and even overcome such wiring. Moral codes and moral spiritual principles that are born of religion, and legal codes and principles of justice born of political systems, all are attempts to overcome biological hard-wiring. Success in this endeavor has been partial. The Ten Commandments, the legal code of Confucius, the appeals of Christ to love and forgive, Buddha’s embrace of non-attachment, the Golden Rule, the Magna Carta, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… such human constructs attempt to limit and overcome the biological hard-wiring of aggression and predation, both individual and collective. Their partial success—that is, the degree to which they fail—is evidence of how strong the hard-wiring is, how resistant it is to change, but it also indicates that such change is possible.
The above description of the interplay between biology and culture is more easily embraced by the non-religious than religious person. But it is possible for the religious believer to accept the hard-wiring of humans as part of God’s plan, and even view the human attempt to transform and overcome hard-wiring through law, ethics and spiritual values as part of that plan.
(2) The notion that free will exists as a pre-given human attribute, an attribute as clear-cut as speech or hearing, is erroneous. Will is an ability than can be learned and developed, just as we can learn mathematics, just as we can develop increased muscle mass. Therefore, “free will” is a misnomer; there is only “will,” with relative degrees of freedom.
Humans do choose; we make choices between alternatives, but any choice is limited to those alternatives. If none of those alternatives are desirable, then we choose the least undesirable or (less often) create a new, more desirable alternative. The more alternatives one has, the more free one feels, and the more will one seems to possess. It is in our interest, then, to increase the number of alternatives from which we choose.
The ability to create new alternatives is a function of creative intelligence and education. The stupid, the ignorant, they possess and create fewer alternatives, and so feel less free, seem to possess less will. Creative intelligence cannot be taught (it is hard-wired), but intellectual skills (education) can be taught and learned. The equation is straightforward: more education leads to increased alternatives, increased freedom, increased will.
In the end, will is a human ability that exists in varying degrees along a continuum between “zero will” and “free will.” A person can learn to move along that continuum in either direction.
(3) The existence of an immortal soul possessed by a human being can be neither proved nor disproved; one either believes in its existence, or does not. The belief is a function of religious faith, not empirical proof. Arguments for and against the immortal soul’s existence are rhetorical exercises more likely to create interpersonal and collective conflicts than to illuminate the actual case. The wise person chooses to avoid such discussions.
There is, in fact, an alternative to the dictum that one either believes or does not believe in the immortal human soul. I can choose to say that because belief holds no sway over the fact (it either exists or does not), I neither believe nor disbelieve; I simply do not know.
A further possibility: To treat the human soul as a poetic construction, a poetic metaphor for human aspirations. As such, the soul’s immortality is a poetic construction, as well. Still, one may decide that given what we know about ourselves, this is bad poetry.
In any case, the tendency of arguments over the existence and nature of an immortal human soul—and what we are obliged to do with it—to lead to human conflict, aggression, and even war, persuades one to affirm religious tolerance as a solution. This will not occur if religious authorities control political affairs. Religious belief must fall under the protection of a political authority, the civil power must require religious tolerance by statute, and such tolerance must be enforced if necessary by force.