Posts Tagged ‘Hunting Fathers’

Judgement Machines

February 4, 2018

From natural selection’s point of view, the whole point of perception is to process information that has relevance to the organism’s Darwinian interests — that is, to its chances of getting its genes spread. And organisms register this relevance by assigning positive or negative values to the perceived information. We are designed to judge things and to encode those judgements in feeling.

Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment

Like any paradigm, evolutionary psychology is an extreme oversimplification of our multifarious existence. Even if we accept the premise that human beings are shaped by evolutionary pressure, which I do, it does not automatically follow that everything we are is the direct result of “natural selection.” Many mutations and alterations in our genes are merely coincidental.

If, for example, a parrot with an efficient nutshell-crushing beak happens also to be blue, its descendants are likely to be blue despite the fact that their blueness does not foster their success like that marvelous beak does.

Human beings are not “designed” by evolution; we’re the product of happenstance. And nobody can say for certain what the “whole point of perception” is. But you needn’t be a natural selection determinist to appreciate Wright’s picture of human consciousness.

The Difference Between Berry and Toadstool

Wright is certainly correct to say that human beings automatically assign “positive or negative values” to “perceived information.” Every thought we have is wrapped inside a feeling. These feelings often had the benefit of keeping our Hunting Fathers alive long enough to pass along their DNA. That’s how we got here.

Determining the difference between berry and toadstool, lamb and lion, or friend and foe is an essential survival skill. Our ancestors survived and prospered thanks to the happy associations they made with the delicious berries that sustained them and the painful associations they made with frightening beasts that killed their friends and relatives.

The Old, Old Tale of Narcicussus

It’s natural for human beings to constantly analyze and reevaluate the world we live in. And, as social organisms, we evaluate ourselves in relation to others. That’s why we’re forever recalibrating our opinions of one another.

How we feel about others is a function of how they make us feel about ourselves. The world is our mirror, as W.H. Auden notes:

A friend is the old, old tale of narcissus.

Severing how we feel about others from how we feel about ourselves is not possible  we don’t exist in a vacuum. But we can examine our natural tendency to “judge things and to encode those judgement in feeling.”

Jesus commands: “Judge not.” But judgement-free perception simply isn’t possible. What we can do is listen to our thoughts and examine the feelings that ignite them.

Avoiding Misery and Masochism

Don’t squander your precious time on Earth trying to figure out who deserves to be happy. There’s always going to be people you can point to as undeserving of the gifts life has bestowed upon them. Should it really be your task in life to figure out who’s to bless and who’s to blame? By fixating on the unfairness of it all, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of misery and masochism.

I’m not suggesting that we should accept the world the way it is. On the contrary, fighting injustice and trying to make the world a better place is one of the best ways to find meaning in this crazy old world.

 

by Richard W. Bray