If we honestly explore the question of “who we are” using empirical evidence as the foundation, we must first acknowledge that in general terms, we don’t know too much. Our development of collective self-awareness thus far includes the intellectual baggage of the sort that typically stems from isolated observations. In a broad sense, our perspective is like the person observing the sun go up in the morning and go down in the evening with no other perspective to lend vision to the deeper nature of the relationship between the earth and the sun. To make sense of the world based on limited perspective carries with it inherent hazards. Because of this, we should have a healthy mistrust of conclusions that seem obvious even if they are based on the finest of observational foundations because of the inherent flaws that emerge due to a limited perspective. Even more than recognizing some of the more obvious shortcomings in our current array of self-knowledge, what we think we know using solid evidence as the basis should be highly suspect if we honestly factor in how our biases can so easily warp our thinking. Confirmation bias for instance can easily turn our perceptions into a self-congratulatory, albeit delusional parade of verbal vanities. Sincerity and self-assurance is no guarantee of accuracy.
Some of the ideological currency in circulation propose to explain who we are using a partially or totally mystical, “revealed truth” idea base. While these ideas can imply a foundation for what we can or should be doing or not doing, in order to buy into them as true we must be willing to accept abstractions such as authority or tradition as truth at the same time we diminish or suspend hard evidence. Because some of these ideas are so culturally pervasive, they can sometimes masquerade as mere social convention and be absorbed and treated as de facto truth without ever being questioned. Mystic perspectives can provide those that hold them with a certain confidence and/or hope in what is otherwise an undefined and perhaps frightful view of the reality of the human condition, but they can also hide assumptions that are insidiously destructive at the same time they produce this false confidence. We need to be mindful of the fact that certainty has never been a guarantee of accuracy.
Before any of us who sincerely believe we espouse a reasoned approach to life fly too close to the sun with wax wings we should caution ourselves that there is a difference between the refutation of an irrational argument and the actual presentation of a reasoned alternative. This second aspect, that of presenting a reasoned alternative, appears noticeably absent in the current cacophony of public debate on reason vs. faith. Because of this, a reasoned response is what is being attempted here.
Assuming we steer clear of all things mystical we still must contend with the powerful influence of bias in order to attempt a clear view of ourselves. Because of the inherent flaws in our perceptive capacity due to our inability to spot and segregate our personal biases from actual evidence, a strictly pragmatic and empirical approach to the question of who we are must not venture too far into the mushy pockmarked fields of meaning and purpose, but be confined to a simple set of rather obvious facts. This is not to say that meaning and purpose are not worth exploring, just that this is not the topic at hand.
Our notorious capacity to “fill in the blanks” in our limited vision with theological duct tape is very handy as a survival skill if we need to quickly assess a potentially dangerous situation. In certain cases, our capacity for inductive vision well suited to compensate for the limitations of our senses to absorb a complete picture. We run into trouble when this same capacity to fill in the blanks is applied to things where the value of the information can only be extracted if we have a clear view. When this occurs, it is quite possible to strip both the usefulness and the effectiveness out of our ability to intentionally shape our experience of life. A deeply held conviction about the Great Pumpkin might be socially admirable depending on the culture, but it is unlikely to result in many toys on Halloween.
Quite often we fill in the blanks out of fear, unquestioning acceptance of cultural conventions, the need to belong or some other factor. This moves our capacity to perceive from a potentially useful tool with which to navigate to a potentially destructive generator and perpetuator of poverty. In order for vision to be useful, what we perceive must serve as an accurate explanatory force in relation to the behaviors that contribute to, or discourage the relationships that lead to our fulfillment.
The lens through which we see can serve as a means to shape our experience in purposeful and satisfying ways, or it can range in power from ineffective to destructive. To effectively cultivate a satisfying experience of life, raw sensory perception must be coupled with the ability to synthesize information into effective courses of action in the context of our needs. To do this requires that we take more than a casual approach to understanding our needs and our capacities to meet them. We must understand how to align our collective information processing skills and behaviors to the task of influencing the environment in intentional ways to satisfy our biological state of being. This state of awareness must include an understanding of who we are, the context in which we exist and how well this relational environment is suited to or toxic toward cultivating our full potential.
To cultivate clear and useful vision we must have a standard that reliably communicates what it is that actually fulfills us and evaluate the nature of the filters we place on raw sensory data against this standard. This can be a difficult task with so many competing standards currently in circulation. Biology is what we will use here as the lens through which we establish the foundation of who we are.
As a biological organism, we are composed of complex interactive, interdependent structural systems that are built on what are by comparison concentric rings of comparatively less complex relational systems. Assuming an ideal healthy state of being, the principle of mutually beneficial relationships between elements of structure is at the heart of what we are. Unless our heart provides a valuable behavioral function to the rest of the body, and the rest of the body does the same with respect to the heart, the integrity of the system breaks down.
This simple empirical observation can tell us a lot about who we are. For instance; when we consider the mutually nourishing relational systems on which we depend for existence, it explains why we never see anyone who is both excessively selfish and satisfied at the same time. The reason for this is plain: it violates the relational dynamic that cultivates our full potential. In effect, when we behave in ways that dominate our living peers, we generate a hunger for balance that we experience as dissatisfaction. This also explains why the most satisfied and fulfilled among us serve something greater than themselves, while seeing to their own needs. It is not an either or situation, it is both to nourish and to be nourished in the context of what satisfies the larger body of life of which we are part. This is why becoming a parent is often so powerfully transformative in the lives of those who experience it. It deepens our perspective of who we truly are.
I hope you find this a valuable contribution to the value of what we know.