Sunday, November 7, 2010

Post Number 2: Smoothed Edges

by Conroy

In my first post on this blog I presented my broad views of man, listing what I consider to be ten fundamental characteristics of our species as individuals. I promised to follow-up with two additional posts noting my views on society and the universe, respectively. Together, I intend for these three posts to constitute a personal philosophy (or as I prefer to term it a non-philosophy) about man and this world.

For this post about society, consider these song lyrics:
"...and when you're no longer searching for beauty or love / just some kind of life with the edges taken off / When you can't even define what you're frightened of / this song will be here..." - from the song "The Fear" off of the album This is Hardcore by Pulp.
This song, penned by the highly literate Jarvis Cocker and set to an off-key and eerie guitar line, is about an individual's choice in approaching the challenges of the world, but I think we can expand the point to encapsulate society: our collective attempt to take the edges off of life.

I have eschewed the Top 10 list format of the fist post in favor of a catechism, reducing the long, rich history of man and the complex, widely-varied institutions and achievements of our species to one desired outcome - taking the edges off of life.

What do you mean by taking the edges off of life?
The universe is indifferent to life in general and humankind in particular. If God exists, he isn't an active force in our universe (there will be more on this critical perspective of mine in my future post about the universe). All we can say is that life exists, and we exist. But critically, the life of the individual is temporary, we are all mortal. We will all die one day. Some of us will die young, some will die painfully, some will live to be old, some will experience many great things. There are none among us who can know what might lie beyond death, if anything at all. As a result, we have a fundamental desire to live. However, living can be hard.

Our bodies need clothing and shelter, food, and water. We can get these things from nature, but the world is unpredictable, and abundance can be followed by scarcity. Our bodies are adapted to survive, but are also fragile, and illness or injury can easily lead to death in a world where we live hand-to-mouth and day-to-day. Human society formed in response to these vagaries of nature. To take the edge off of survival by collectivizing effort and reducing the day-to-day struggle.

How did society come about?
The fundamental unit of society is the family. Humans are born weak and helpless. So much so, that they require the care and efforts of adults, parents, to raise them from infancy through adolescence. Moreover, all parents want better for their children.

It was when families started to form larger groups like clans, tribes, and so forth to live together and live toward the future that we needed to create society. It's fundamental to understand that it is only in thinking toward the future that society is possible. The understanding that tomorrow can be better than today, and that those who come after us will benefit from our efforts, which allows society to function.

What are some of the manifestations of society?
Morality, law, government, economics, technology, culture.

Can you explain how each of these follow from the definition of society as "taking the edges off of life"?
  • Morality is the agreed upon rules of conduct for all individuals in a society. Morality defines what is right and what is wrong. Morality tells us how to behave so a large group of strangers can live together. Morality punishes the brutality we are capable of in our attempt to survive and carry out our desires.
  • Law is the codification of morality in explicit statutes, legislation, etc. Law identifies permissible behavior and the punishments that can be meted out for non-permissible behavior.
  • Government is the administration of law. Government is the institution that we devised to establish laws, enforce laws and other rules of personal and group interactions, maintain order, and interact with other governments. Government is the institution that we count upon to maintain the order required for peaceful coexistence.
  • Economics, to borrow Thomas Sowell's definition, is the allocation of scarce resources that have alternative uses. That is, the allocation of everything in this world (raw materials, products, services, knowledge, etc.). We need resources to survive. We use economics to distribute the resources that can make life easier and more comfortable.
  • Technology (and science) is the use of our intellect to understand, devise approaches, and make tools for our interaction with the natural world. Technology lets us gather, use, and manipulate the resources that can make life easier and more comfortable.
  • Culture is art, language, literature, philosophy, sport, and other activities that engage our mind and body outside of the realm of mere survival. We devised culture to entertain ourselves, and to contemplate and reflect upon our world and how humanity fits into it.
There is no explanation of religion and spirituality, how do you explain these aspects of society?
Spirituality lies within each individual and is therefore not the product of society. Religion, however, has been an important institution of man seemingly since the very beginning of society. Religion has provided a connection between man and the forces beyond man's control and knowledge beyond man's understanding. Moreover, religion provides a structure for a reality beyond the physical, a life after death, a purpose to the existence of the universe. A world without religion, where the structure and origin of the universe are unexplained, where all life is finite, is absurd, and absurdity is hard for our consciousness to accept. In this way religion provides a perspective of our existence as something more than absurd.

It cannot be ignored that religion has provided a backbone for morality, especially before secular law was as well established and administered.

What about conflict and war?
Society is created by man, and man by nature is imperfect - constrained as I termed it in my first post. Anything created by man therefore, will be imperfect. Wars are the most devastating example of the imperfection of society. Our society is capable of organized violence between factions, governments, organizations, etc., because as history and current events would seem to indicate, humans are not capable of mediating all conflicts with non-violent approaches.

If all society is accomplishing is taking the edges off of life, then where is society heading?
If history is any indication, society will continue to evolve. In the future, we will on average, live longer and healthier. We will have more time for leisure. We will learn more about the universe and devise ever more ingenious ways to  use and interact with it.

As you noted, this point of view seems highly reductionist?
Perhaps it is reductionist, but that is not necessarily an indictment. Isn't taking the edges off life (i.e. making life better) a worthy goal of man? What else should be the goal of society in this temporal existence, then reducing suffering, extending life, and maximizing the enjoyment of each individual? If life is absurd, then why not revel in our time?

How can this be? Society is so complex that a simple explanation seems wrong.
I don't want to confuse simplicity in underlying purpose with simplicity in the resulting structure. The world is made up of over 6.8 billion people, and our society is the outcome of the efforts, desires, attitudes, and behaviors of all those people, not to mention the tens of billions who have lived before us, and the millenia (at least) that it has taken for our society to evolve to this point. Society is the proof that humanity is capable of remarkable achievements, but also the proof that we are imperfect beings. Do I claim that society is simple? No, society is wonderfully complex and deeply interesting. It's just that all that effort and energy, is focused toward one goal - better living in this life.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Conroy, lots to think about. I just put up a post about the relationship between law and morality, which is something you address in your post. The subjects you raise here are far too large to address in a mere comment box. It will be interesting to see what ways your personal philosophy (or non-philosophy) will evolve from this point.