The following is a paper I wrote for one of my favorite classes in university, World Economic Development. It amused me to read through it and let myself be taken back in time. Truly, life was simpler then. Ahem. The parts that particularly stood out were the effects of electrification on our own history. How I take this for granted as I type this on my laptop, at 3am, on an online website while I listen to downloaded music! Everything is connected so deeply that we cannot see, or must relearn to see everything anew.
Language is the beginning and the end of the human experience. It is perhaps the beginning of our awareness and consciousness. Our language corresponds to the ways we experience and how we express ourselves. Language is expression and is reflective of our experience. Because language is to communicate something to someone else, it implies community and social bonds. Because our language is reflective of our community and our experience, language is a mirror for our identity, for our sense of belonging. To be able to communicate something is to have consciousness and awareness of that thing, and therefore to have power in one’s community. Our shared language and the conversations we have through it is our sense of culture.
In gaining awareness of ever more profound patterns of relating and resolving tensions, we are able to increasingly manipulate them for our ends. Because this ability to affect our will upon the world is tied to inner transformation, the process leading to mastery in engagement with the world is the same process leading to self-knowledge and self-reliance.
It’s important to note that in the context of an emergent system, selfishness and selflessness is a false dichotomy. Indeed, to think in terms of selfishness and selflessness is to be trapped in dualistic, centralized, either/or thinking. We are all various degrees of selfish and selfless at various times or in various contexts. There is also such a thing as selfish selflessness and selfless selfishness. It all depends on the observer, the relationship, and the context. What we should universally abhor, instead of some arbitrary idea of selfishness, is manipulation and coercion. When we lie, mislead, manipulate, and coerce, we deny the other the opportunity to make a free choice about whether to move towards us or move away from us. True community based on free associations can only be built on honesty. Even a selfishly made invitation, as opposed to a manipulation, is a noble thing, for it speaks to the other person as a Man or a Woman rather than as a thing to be manipulated. To invite is to exercise our freedom to move towards, and to invite the invitee to exercise their freedom as well. Invitations are humanizing, whereas coercion is dehumanizing, even if we flee from it, for in doing so we must move away from relationships and into a state of exile. To invite freedom and connection with self and with others in our communities is to create points of departure, it is to invite others to explore their own roles and selves.
All language, expression, and movement towards goodness is movement towards community. This springs from our nature as human beings. Our free will must therefore be devoted to rebuilding community and restructuring our institutions to support, rather than impede, our movement.
We are defined by our relationships, as these form a two-way feedback system between us and our context. It stands to reason that our deepest, most long-lasting, and most prevalent relationships are what most define us: our community. But as part of that web of relationships, we also affect others in that web. We contribute to the emergent pattern of that community. Touch a strand and the web vibrates. We evolved to function this way. Yet many of us drift through life with only a simulacrum of community at best. We cannot go back in time, nor should we want to. But we can craft our own, new forms of community, that look forward rather than backwards, yet that are true communities that empower and satisfy us holistically rather than isolating us as modern “community-building” technology tends to do.
Human consciousness is essentially a feedback loop, in a two-way relationship with its immediate environment. Any living organism is at its core a feedback loop attempting to avoid danger and move towards goodness. Our feedback loop became so complex, it is capable of looking back in upon itself and seeing its separateness. This act of witnessing is perhaps the key to all human experience, for the act of witnessing something creates our relationship to it, which in turn creates us.
Why do we pity people who lack consciousness?
Why do we look up to people who are more aware?
Another way to put it: no one cares if I kill an ant. Killing another human being, however, is in most contexts an unforgivable crime in modern society. This seems to be a function of our existence as conscious, aware beings. When someone dies, we mourn the lost opportunities, the life they could have lived, the moments they could have experienced and shared- with us, and with others. These are products of our consciousness, our awareness of our fundamental separation. Consciousness implies the ability to experience beauty and goodness, yes, but also the suffering of separation, loss, anxiety, death. Suffering is one of the few things we can be sure of in life. Why people commit suicide is not the question, but rather why more people don't.
Objectively, we can say that if one consciousness is not respected, then none can be respected. If I destroy the integrity of a consciousness, then I forfeit my right to be safe from having my consciousness violated. This is an argument Sartre makes, that the values implicit in any action are by definition universal value judgments. What is good for me must be good for all.
Another staple of existentialist thought, particularly De Beauvoir, is that we need others to affirm who we are. I can only be as free, for example, as the people around me are. To be aware, or conscious, we need others to be aware and conscious. This also explains the inherent value of consciousness and the revulsion we feel when its integrity is violated. After all, recall that a staple of conflict is a concerted and universal dehumanization of the enemy in the minds of a society or community. They are not just the enemy, they are devils, Huns, monkeys, alien, subhuman.
We pulled ourselves out of the mud by our bootstraps, together as a species. We are our relationships, and our relationships are our vehicle for expanding awareness. Briefly, the capacity for language is a prime example. No other, no language, no corresponding expansion of awareness. Jeremy Rifken wrote the book The Empathic Civilization describing the intricate relationship between expanding human consciousness and ever-more complex forms of relating. When we criticize our society, we would do well to criticize it with this in mind. The world we have built is not only responsible for who we are, it is quite literally all our consciousnesses mutually externalized and shared. Without other awarenesses, we would be nothing. We would be as the beasts, which we both revile and revere. We are stuck in this mess because of the other, and we stay in this mess because of the other. We, and our fates, are quite literally bound together.
The more we can recognize and act complicitly with other consciousnesses, the more our own can grow. We will always be of the mud, and to it we shall return, but together, we can find the beauty in that.
Simplistically but accurately, all we are, and indeed all any living thing is, is a complex feedback loop driven by contextually-applied instinct. Our loop may be more complex than that of other organisms we know of, certainly complex enough to have gained a degree of self-consciousness, but it is a simple system at its core. Our sensory functions, both external and internal, create feedback that our organism uses to course-correct as it seeks to pursue its goals. These goals can be broadly divided in two, corresponding to the two types of instincts we have: the instinct to move away from things valued as bad, and to move towards things valued as good.
We can say that our conscious awareness is best directed towards understanding and controlling our own state, which is analogous to the automatic routine our other-than-conscious (embodied) self runs. We can say this because our conscious awareness is a finite resource whose utility is limited as we begin to apply it to ever finer phenomenon. Combined with an understanding of systems as bottom-up phenomenon, we can also understand why managing our state is so effective. We are tending to the relationship we have to ourselves and to the world.
I was listening to the radio the other day. Streaming the French culture station. I was only half paying attention, but I remember they were talking about the book Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. And my ears especially perked up when they compared it to one of my favorite books, Don Quijote. In fact, one of the speakers was busy making the case that, in fact, the two books are essentially the same.
...sees much and knows much