If you’ve read any Christopher Hitchens at all, you’ll have run across his frequent use of the word “solipsism” to describe humanity’s tendency to think of ourselves as the point around which the universe revolves. Hitchens uses this tendency as explanation for the nearly universal notion that there is an eternal an omnipotent personal God, creator of heaven and earth, that is deeply interested in each of our prayers, no matter how trivial or ridiculous.
The refreshing slap in the face that wakes us up to the absurdity of such a notion is that religion — which claims to represent the properly humble posture of man before God — is actually more representative of our fully-flowered narcissism and inflated sense of self importance. God — the thing above which there is no other — cares for ME, little old (humble and meek) me. There is nothing in such a statement that is either humble or meek.
Yet the easily observable reality is that a great many people believe just that: that we are — if not the center of God’s universe — certainly the primary focus of his attentions.
To take a less cynical view, it is completely understandable that we would naturally view everything from a “me” perspective. As evolutionary psychology might describe it, our self-centeredness is a product of our capacity for survival and adaptation that made us the successful species that we are.
But having evolved the kinds of high-functioning minds we carry with us, we have also developed a remarkable capacity for self-examination. We can step outside ourselves and observe our own thoughts, behaviors and emotions. (Of course just because we can doesn’t mean we always do — we are highly evolved animals, yes, but — to paraphrase Darwin — we still “bear the indelible stamp of our humble origins”). It is this self-reflective capacity that makes humans capable of philosophy, poetry, art, music and literature. It is this capacity for perspective that allowed human minds to examine the evidence of geology, biology and cosmology to come to the mind-blowing conclusions that we are elaborate replication systems for DNA, evolved over millennia from earlier life forms on a planet formed by cosmic explosions which we are barely able to comprehend.
None of the evolutionary worldview was obvious (one suspects) to our ancestors that built first a magical view of the world, the forces of nature and the actions of biology. And even now that we understand the mountains of evidence we have catalogued over the last few hundred years, there is a majority of our global population that persists in believing in the magic, not the science. (For a fine overview of that “mountain of evidence” for evolution, read Richard Dawkins’ latest book “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” — previously reviewed on this site).
This persistent belief in the irrational is a reminder that — despite the innumerable (and remarkable) human achievements in science, art, self-government and industry — we humans are not as rational nor as powerful as we suppose. For here, again, a mix of human-centric religious thinking mixed with our innate tendency towards a self-focus conspire to create in us an evidence-poor notion of our own mental and analytical capabilities. We secretly suppose that we are capable of anything we put our mind to.
But the human mind is highly distractible. It has likely evolved to be that way as part of its survival strategy. In sleep we dream because this enormous, calorie devouring computer in our big skulls never shuts off. Just look around and you’ll see the limits of our minds: how many of us have everything in their house put away, have painted the trim that needs painting, fixed that squeak in the car, written that letter, updated that resume. Or expand this out to all of the issues we are daily made aware of: starving children in Africa, rain forests being razed in South America, keeping up with who’s running for office locally and nationally, or the oil spill in the gulf.
The BP oil spill is a good example, in fact. We have laws and regulations, legislators and regulators that are paid to pay attention to the application of (and compliance with) the laws. But is there ever enough time or resources to enforce every regulation (or, from the corporate side, to comply with every regulation)? The reality of our lives, both personal, corporate and national, is that we are forced to make choices all the time about where to focus our limited resources of time and attention, because there is never enough (of either) to do everything our busy mind calls upon us to do. Hence a neglected friend or spouse has to put his or her foot down, and demand some “quality time”. Deadlines are missed; the house repairs are put off. We do the best we can and hope to do better tomorrow. And yet the public uproar over any disaster or lapse in government oversight indicates to me a deeper belief in a human capacity approaching that of omniscience and omnipotence. Every arm-chair critic knows how to easily fix the problem, or imagines the presence of some great conspiracy among the “top minds” that are working the actual problem “on the ground”. Both views ignore the very real possibility that we are not the complete masters of our world, or even of our individual lives.
This is where I come to the evolutionary point of view as the one that gives us a more realistic understanding of our own capacities. Religion both diminishes and inflates us in all the wrong ways while claiming to do it in the ONLY right way. (And it’s not just religion — there are those that actually believe, for example, that an electric car would make their driving “Carbon neutral”, ignoring the vast resources required to both manufacture and maintain the vehicle and produce the electricity to run it. Though clearly the better choice, we shouldn’t delude ourselves about how much we really consume).
The naturalistic, evolutionary, scientific view is – I would argue – the path to true humility in the face of the complexity of both our own and the earth’s origins. A scientific understanding of where we came from, and what we really are is what, in the end, puts us in our place. There is no room for false pride (in Science, not individual scientists of course), and there is none of the false humility of religion. Instead we are free to develop a true appreciation for both how limited and how remarkable we are in the vast parade of life.
There is no better antidote to our natural self-centeredness-parading-as-humility than to look up at the stars twinkling in the night sky and recall that the light we see has travelled many millions of miles and could well be the last beams of light that left a dying star eons ago; that the minerals that build our body were brought to this planet by ancient objects from space that slammed into our boiling planet in it’s nursery years; that each of us is the living result of uncountable generations of lucky and adaptable ancestors that survived the remorseless culling of natural selection; that in a very real way, our bodies are primarily ecosystems for bacteria. In such understandings as these lie the basis for our true humility, and a healthy pride in our species’ capacity for survival.
This is humankind standing naked before the true creation, open to what the heavens are telling us. Now what was it I was going to get done today?