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Why? It’s a small word, but a vexing one for me, and I suspect for many others.
On the one hand, I have often been so busy, so truly inundated with things to do, that I have not been able to take the time to ask ‘why’ questions. It’s always there, though, gnawing at me, quietly building up pressure that needs to be released at some point.
On the other hand, when I have backed up and tried to answer it, ‘Why’ seems to lead to a nearly infinite regress of other ‘why’s’ that I seem so undermatched for that I may as well have never started. I am not the first to try to answer this seemingly simple question. I have mentally traced the paths of others and tried to understand their conclusions. Often contradictory, and often unsatisfactory.
So those are my choices: a brisk walk to who-knows where, or a circuitous amble that I have yet to find the end of. I am going to take a stab at the second.
This is an important question for me because I have tried at least three times in my adult life to make-do with the information I had at hand, first in the military, second (and briefly) in consulting, and thirdly in tech. All have left me wanting at least something. While I have not stepped out of the third or the first attempts, I would like to take this opportunity to back up and try again.
I hate to go back and tell the narratives of these things because all of our motivations are more rich than this. Crosscutting impulses make it difficult to point to a single reason ‘why’ I initially did much of anything. What I am able to point to more definitively is exactly what the ‘why’s’ were that left me feeling wanting.
The military ‘why’ that left me wanting. Here, I simply felt like I was no longer serving the country. I wrote this article about how I was being paid too much for the peacetime work that I was doing, and I couldn’t bear it anymore. I still believe in the ‘why’ here, and remain in the reserves in case the need arises.
The consulting ‘why’ that left me wanting. I thought it would be ideal, that I could help others create the same or higher outputs from less resources, and that this increase in profit would be enough of a ‘why’ to keep me going. I was disappointed that this profit-maximization motive was at the expense of most other moral considerations. On one consulting project, I was asked to figure out how to keep government costs down, and help the other party to power, by determining the optimal way to keep the largely-Afghan refugees, who I personally cared for, from reaching Australia. Finding the most efficient way to keep them outside of the border so that Australia didn’t have to process them as refugees. I am personally ashamed of my work here and I promised to never get myself so wrapped up in my own goals (and believe it or not there were some ‘noble’ family-oriented objectives for me to do this) that I would ever be placed in it again.
The Google ‘why.’ I find the ‘why’ at Google to be immensely attractive. To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. My little slice of this pie is trying to help the sales teams be a bit more efficient, thus increasing profitability, and support the overall mission of the Google through that. The ‘why’ that I long for here is like-minded individuals. I feel as though few people in the organization still espouse the desire to support the overriding mission of the company. Many are more concerned about personal advancement in the organization than achieving the ‘why’ of the company. I find myself increasingly supporting their mission, and most perniciously, adopting it as my own, rather than the company’s mission. I remain hopeful that through slow steady pressure, that we can be live up to the values we espouse, and I hope that staying rooted outside of the company will help with that.
There are other ‘why’s’ or perhaps other how’s to approach the same why that I would like to experiment with. To this end, I spent today in Balmain, one of those physical places that, takes you back to where your mind was at a certain time because it was intense and because you have few intervening memories in the same place.
The last time that I was there I was striving so hard to find a permanent job in Google that I dedicated nearly every waking moment to it. Now I am deliberately dialing down my time at Google to reallocate some of my time to work on other things that matter to me, and I hope, to the community more broadly.
This brief history draws me back to the start, my choice between a directionless able and a potentially infinite regress of whys. While the former is probably well understood. I suspect that the second could use some elaboration.
I will do it as briefly as I can because I do not intend to solve the problem, merely to point to my own epistemology, and move to a solution.
Briefly, why do we do just about anything? The struggle here, as with most history, is where to start, given that almost everything depends on all of its antecedents to some degree. Most evolutionists would concur that our higher levels of cognition are planning devices that allow us to more successfully pass on our genes. Even from a Christian perspective, the first exhortation was to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ The students of the former would say that those of faith have merely stumbled upon a few memes that were particularly successful at passing on their genes. The logic is somewhat inexorable. Those who choose to remove their genes (or their group’s genes) from the gene pool will not be selected for in the future and those who chose to will carry on not merely their genes but very likely the memes that the parents imbued. Memes such as the norm against in-group violence (don’t commit murder) and the norm against in-group perjury (even honor among thieves), are memes that every human grouping from the smallest bands of hunter-gatherers to very large, finely-divided societies must cope with. It is those memes that constitute the corpus of civilization.
This can be carried back to the dawn of organic chemistry, when the first A,T,G,U combined to form some proto-RNA and replicated themselves. If we were to personify the molecules on either side that didn’t have the ability to self-replicate, then we could easily say that they were either ‘not interested’ or otherwise predisposed against this kind of replication. Unfortunately for them, whether they held out for a few years or a billion, the replicators often found a way to incorporate them. Either by turning them into fuel or capital for their onward advance. I am not talking merely about modern consumer capital, but also about the investment that ATGU made into Cytosine, and an ever-growing number organelles in the cytoplasm that protect their replication. These clever replicators eventually found purposes for nearly every organic and inorganic compound found in nature. Iron to transport Oxygen (once a toxin). Potassium to carry charges. Calcium to erect an internal frame.
There is a beauty in this. The onslaught against the unstructured, unordered elements that compose the earth. We have learned to harvest the power of nuclear fusion from a star millions of miles away to defeat the second law of thermodynamics. We are, all of us, with every cell of our being at every moment, building against the chaos. This is where those who espouse the Gaia idea of us all being a mutually interdependent organism come in, and rightly so. We are all, at our very deepest level consumed by the same fight.
This is rationality, the ongoing rush of replicators passing on instructions to make more of themselves.
Here the evolutionists can bring us back to earlier cosmology, and finely tuned universe with a great balance between gravity/mass, and the strong and weak nuclear forces and say with confidence that there is no ‘why’ it just happened this way.
Others, such as the Hindu’s point to this being but a small arc in an ever-renewing universe where every component cycles back around again and again. Not merely in the small epicycles of reincarnation, but in the large cycles of global and universal birth and destruction. Again, at least from my understanding, there is no point (i.e. no teleology) to this component, only to the higher component, separating yourself from this cycle and combining with the world-soul.
Most other groups of people do not seem to acknowledge these types of pan-universal cycles, but are more content with the practicalities of running a society (Confucius), separating yourself from the pain of this world (Buddhism), or understanding it’s illusive nature (Lao Tzu).
I have been too short with all of this, but again my point is not to reach a universal ‘why’ but merely one that is suitable for me. Whether it is air-tight for others is of less importance as I am not intending to be an apologist for my ‘why.’
Let me move on to the final attempt at ‘why’ that I have admittedly dug into more based both on my upbringing, culture, and personal attraction. I find it to be, in some ways, the most soothing, the most challenging, and the most, if I am to be honest, unfulfilling.
The why in Christianity is explained in a small passage where God says ‘Let Us create man in Our image.’ Note here the plural nature, the trinity of God. God was not a selfish being desperately wanting to create himself, rather, he was so in love with the other components of the God head that he chose to make all of mankind in their own image. Though they undoubtedly have other characteristics this is often thought of as: the Justice of the Father, the Obedience of the Son, and the Love of the Spirit.
I find this soothing because it means that we are not created in the image of a narcissist who was desperate to look at himself in a reflecting pool, thus implicitly calling us to replicate ourselves at all costs.
I find it challenging because, contrary to this self-centered nature it exhorts us to follow this example and love, as in the beginning there was love between all of the various components of God and Himself, every one of the varied forms of humanity: just, strong, weak, submissive, and obedient. We are not called to be rational utility maximizers, but selfless and other-focused
I find it unfulfilling because it is limited and utilitarian.
First, the limits.
It is limited in its scope, we are called to take dominion over all of the earth, be fruitful, multiply, etc, but the unintended consequence of this has been the loss of species like the American Horse, the giant ground sloth, the Dodo, etc. If we are to believe the story of Balaam as more than a fable, at least some of these animals have sentience. If we are not, then at the very least we can appreciate the pain that they feel from hunger, privation, and death, sometimes at my own hands. Perhaps they are just more pure spirits than we are, and just as with the Fijians of yore who would great their chiefs with the phrase ‘eat me,’ seeing it as a great honor to be eaten by your ‘better’ these beasts willingly give themselves up. Unfortunately, for those of us who have ever killed an animal, we know that there is a reason that they are often shot in the rump, and why ‘leading’ them is important (i.e. they are quite literally running from death). If we can feel care for those other animals that feel pain, then why not pity on those ‘simpler’ replicators that didn’t ask to be programmed to replicate, but merely do. Why have we classified those plants that we don’t like in our yards as ‘weeds.’
This is where I stop. I could regress this to the organic/replicator vs inorganic split, but I have trouble feeling for inorganic matter. I have trouble really identifying with much other than the Kingdom Animalia, but perhaps that is my defect, my failure of imagination. Even then, I sincerely enjoy a good steak.
Here is the rub for me. What I am really admitting at this point is that I find it possible to be concerned for people and animals that I can identify with. In truth, this isn’t love at all, but merely a broader application of self-love or in-group out-group behavior. Let me explain. My working definition of love is turning ‘rational utility maximization’ on its head. Or perhaps more plainly, putting another’s best interests ahead of your own. This can even be the case when the person does not know what is best for themselves. This is with no regard to yourself. For instance, when we have children, we are expected to show unending concern for them. I recently read some things in the popular media about the uproar one woman faced for asking her son, now a professional football player, for millions of dollars. The woman was verbally excoriated for her selfishness. Likewise, our truest friends give to us without thought of return for themselves. Greater love halth no man than this, but that he lay his life down for his friends. I ask these simple questions. Would it be loving to do the following at great personal cost to yourself (my answers underneath, yours may be different)?
- Prevent your child from a drawn-out-death
- o Yes
- Prevent your spouse from the same
- o Surely (perhaps even more than the child)
- Prevent your comrade-in-arms from the same
- o Surely (perhaps even more than the spouse)
- Prevent a foreigner from the same
- o Surely (perhaps even more than the comrade in arms)
- Prevent your dog from the same
- o Surely
- Prevent a wild animal from the same
- o It seems so
- Prevent an insect from the same
- o It seems so
- Prevent a plant from the same
- o It seems not
- Prevent a bacterium from the same
- o It seems not
Here is the struggle. While we may expect these acts of care from a parent to a child, and venerate them more as the circle of care grows wider as the possibility of a selfish gene-centric motive reduces, at some point, we stop venerating them. It is a rare person who chains himself to a tree to protect it, and a rarer person still who doesn’t commit bacterial genocide by washing his hands before dinner, or by taking antibiotics when they are ill. Most of the time, the bulk of society would ridicule those people.Unfortunately, I see no logical reason that our level of concern should not continue to increase as the genetic difference between ourselves and an organism continues to widen. Most adults would not be truly indifferent to the fate of even a cyanobacterium if the rest of the world were sterilized by some as-yet invented death machine. There is something about it that is unmistakably ‘life.’
This is what I mean by ‘limited’. It seems to me that the truest love would mean that the care we have for the other organisms on this planet should not logically decrease as they become dissimilar from us, but rather, it should remain constant. I see no evidence in the Biblical example of love that this is the case. Practically, I don’t know that this level of love exists. If it did, then how could we eat?
If we accept that we must eat. If we accept the logic above, then we must also expect that this type of love is also utilitarian. That is, at some level it makes a tradeoff between the satisfaction of the needs of one sentient being with the destruction of another, lesser, form. This is not selflessness, just the opposite, and it runs contrary to the principle of increasing veneration based on increasing genetic difference.
Here is the problem. I would really like my ‘why’ to be love, but it seems that I can’t love purely. If I accept that I cannot love purely, then what circle is the right one for my circle of care? What is my in-group beyond which the fate of those organisms or non-organic matter are merely fuel? People have landed at all levels on this question:
- · Themselves
- · Immediate family
- · Extended Family
- · Clan
- · Tribe
- · Nation
- · Ethno/linguistic Group
- · Species
- · Genus
- · Class
- · Order
- · Phylum
- · Kingdom
- · Inorganic matter
- Who do I feel compelled to love? I feel like it should just be humans, but I fear that I am just a bigot, and would love to hear arguments to the contrary.
Please, tell me what you thought before reading this, and let me know if this changed your mind.
I disagreed and this did not change my mind
I disagreed and this changed my mind
I already agreed