I’ve been working on a framework, a foundation, for how we can build relationships, commune with one another, and cope with life. It’s a very simple framework but leads to a powerful impact on how we treat each other, resulting in more kindness, patience, mercy, and respect for others and ourselves, and also more humility within ourselves.
It starts with a foundation of just three things I think we can know.
1. We exist. (Solved by philosophy.)
To some, this might sound obvious, worthy of eye-rolling, but it’s a disputed idea that has led philosophers to near-insanity (most notably Descartes who I’m going to say solved this for us). Whether we are imagining everything we experience, as brains in the sky being controlled by aliens, or whether this is all a dream, we can’t really know. Inasmuch as we can puzzle this out, Descartes already did and I see no problems whatsoever with believing that we’re real, that our existence is real, and I do see problems with believing that nothing matters because it isn’t real. So, for the sake of being able to believe anything at all, we will start here: We exist. And…
2. We want to continue to exist. (Solved by evolutionary science, and philosophy.)
If the entire branch of theology were not enough to prove that people universally want to survive past death, evolution also proves a strong drive to survive. The urge to survive by avoiding death, overcoming death, procreating so that our genetics survive us, or parenting or seeking fame so that our stories survive us, drives about half of what we do. The other half of the time, we’re just trying to be happy.
3. We are always trying to avoid pain and seek pleasure. (Solved by math and evolutionary science.)
Where it seems like people are seeking pain, it’s only because that pain is either serving a higher order pleasure later to come (like when we lift weights to get healthy and to form an appearance we find pleasing), or it’s the case that a higher order pleasure compensates with a greater fortitude (as is the case when people experience both pain and pleasure at the same time).
Everyone, at all times, is processing a mathematical equation of pain vs. pleasure. We aren’t even aware of all of the inputs that produce the equation (see diagram below). We are impacted by fears embedded in our subconscious, things we don’t even remember that drive us. We’re impacted by subliminal messages around us we can’t remember seeing or hearing. And we all place different values on different experiences or accomplishments based on how much importance was put upon them by the people we look up to.
Additionally, pain triggers our reptilian brains which survey the environment, keeping track of dangers. Pain signifies danger because pain can mean that death looms ahead.
All of this means that we are animals constantly trying to survive… who became computers built on top of an animal foundation, now computing decisions to serve our animal selves.
Then we became supercomputers. We evolved enough to have the ability to think about our thinking. We can observe ourselves, analyze ourselves, question ourselves, and this gives us the powerful illusion that we’re deciding freely all the time when animals are actually still operating the computers.
I don’t believe we are able to choose from any or all options at any given time. We can only operate under the conditions that 1. we’re trying hard to survive and 2. we always want to experience pleasure and avoid pain. The pain and desire to avoid pain decide for us.
Even if we do have free will, it’s not to the full extent we would like to believe— on that, scientists and philosophers agree. We’ve found that we can study the brain in ways that let us see decision-making happen before the owner of the brain realizes they’ve made a decision. We’ve also found that we so desperately need to believe that we do everything for reasons within our control, that we will do things and come up with reasons later. Split-brain experiments show this dramatically.
So, what do we do with this?
I think all theories of human behaviour and what to do with it need to start here. I am calling the three points above, which I believe to be irrefutably true, The Three Immutable Laws of Humanity. These laws produce natural consequences and moral consequences.
Natural Consequences of the Three Immutable Laws of Humanity
1. We can’t “check out”. We can do drugs, we can meditate as much as possible, we can become Tibetan monks, but the pains of existence will still bear down upon us.
2. We act primally, causing pain around us so that we can avoid feeling pain.
3. We can’t be forced to do anything except through inflicting what ultimately amounts to either pain or pleasure.
4. We are predictable inasmuch as our choices and considerations are obvious or reasonably surmisable.
This leads us to the:
Moral Consequences of the Three Immutable Laws of Humanity
1. We need to do our fair share. When we fail to accept that we exist and we try to “check out”, not taking up our share of the burden of existence, we cause pain to other people who cannot cease their own existence, or ours. This is, of course, assuming we already accept that murder is wrong and suicide is, at best, a risky experiment.
2. We need to seek consent in (almost) all things. The universal principle of The Golden Rule stems not just from empathy but also practicality. If I hurt someone, there is a good chance that they will hurt me back. If I keep hurting people, I will be cast out of the tribe and I will then have a harder time surviving. We seek consent not only because we want to also be free to act only when we feel inspired to, but also because it’s the only thing that works well long term. If we force people to do anything, through shame, manipulation, or guilt, it either doesn’t work, or it produces more problems down the road. I think the only exception for when it’s okay to use force is when people are hurting other people and kind and ethical methods of getting them to stop won’t work. It’s okay to step in to protect vulnerable people. (It’s also okay sometimes, though, to let them protect themselves.)
3. It’s unfair to morally judge people for where they are at. We are so vulnerable to making dramatic, fear-based connections that start at Uncomfortable Event X, then end at We’re All Gonna Die Or At Least I’m Gonna Die. For example, our boss seems upset with us, we decide we’re probably going to be fired, we won’t be able to get a good job soon enough in this economy, we will stay with friends who will eventually kick us out when we grow so depressed that we don’t try hard enough to find work, we become homeless, we can’t get out of the cycle, and we die on the street. Something like that.
And because this road has been travelled so many times by our brains, from the time we were little, maybe without even putting language to it and just having a feeling, we know every turn, every pothole so well that we can navigate it in the dark while sleepwalking. We make these downward spiral mental journeys without even realizing it. Everyone does this to some degree, sometimes, and it’s unfair to expect people to not do this thing we all do because our limbic systems, our animal brains, are just trying to take care of us. It’s unfair to expect a person who is so captured by fear and anxiety, to act rationally. To them, they’re being totally rational with bad math, misjudging percentages of likelihood for an event.
In addition to our trying not to die every day, we’re trying to avoid any pain, seeking pleasure instead. Pleasure signifies that we’ve successfully avoided danger, we can relax, we can thrive and grow and become strong. Potent stuff. In order to get people to choose something painful over something pleasurable, they need to have the math for risks vs. rewards work out in their favour.
The equation looks something like this:
And because there are considerations we can’t know or anticipate, we’re in no logical or fair place to judge someone else’s decision making. Every time someone makes a decision, they are impacted by:
- the people in their lives we have never met
- their future ambitions
- their past failures they don’t want to repeat
- the unpredictable and upsetting ways other people have reacted to them
- their programming from childhood
- their microbiome in their gut that helps control their hormones and thus mood
- the weather
- the music around them and memories it triggers
- a movie they watched recently that bothered them
- the advertising they saw on the way to work and how it impacted their self-image
- how much sleep they got
The list is probably endless.
And while we can make some educated guesses about how people will act and what they’ll want, based on things we know about The Three Immutable Laws of Humanity, and based on what we know about most people in general, or about how they’ve acted in the past, we can also be way off in our estimations based on the thousands of things we don’t know.
We need to have humility before that. We need to allow ourselves to be confused and stay confused. Because not only do we not have access to other people’s decision-making calculations, we don’t have a right to know such intimate and sometimes inexplicable information. Sometimes people don’t even know themselves why they feel the way they do, why they act the way they do, but we can be certain that some sophisticated calculations have taken place by the most sophisticated machine on earth—the brain—using the best information and conclusions on hand by that person. Their conclusions are not our conclusions. They might, for example, have a fear of spiders that we don’t have, and that’s why they don’t want to walk a certain way to a destination but they don’t even know why. But their brain, so smart, surveys an alleyway and pattern-matches it to a time that an alleyway like that had some scary spiders there.
With all of the possibilities for why people do what they do, what sense does it make to try to judge? All that matters is that people ALWAYS make rational-for-them decisions. If we could omnipotently know their brains’ calculations, we’d have been able to perfectly predict the decisions they would make. It’s just a question of math.
Understanding all of this leads to incredibly freeing, positive outcomes.
- We blame people less.
- We show mercy.
- We live in a state of humble confusion, but peaceably because,
- we accept that things cannot be any other way. It’s impossible.
- We take less credit for our own decisions and accomplishments because we are just as much as anyone victims or benefactors to our own experiences, and we don’t get to choose what stimuli come into our lives to affect us.
As we accept and internalize all of these understandings, we can feel upset about circumstances without specifically judging anyone in particular. Having these tools to refrain from judgment comes in handy when we want to like someone who has done something we don’t like.
Which brings us to the downside of understanding and internalizing these ideas: We realize that free will is a grand illusion.
Now, from my experience talking with tens of people about this, I would guess that most people do believe that we have free will and that they find the argument against free will to be deeply disturbing. If we don’t have free will, we are just computers operating in a deterministic world, without good or evil, and therefore we earn no rewards in Heaven. (Daniel Dennett suggests that telling people they have no free will is dangerous because one experiment showed that people who were told they have no free will were more likely to cheat. This is faulty logic because it proves only one specific scenario. There has been no experiment that has shown what happens when we tell people that they don’t have free will but they still impact people in ways that cause them pain and that causing people pain can end up hurting them too.)
There’s no grand point to what we do, unless the qualia of life, the experience, is enough. The illusion that we have free will is still so powerful that it doesn’t really change our experience. A sunset is just as beautiful either way, being loved and treasured still feels wonderful, and when we still feel pleasure and happiness when we do something great, we just maybe put less ego into it.
Experience for its own sake must be valuable enough because we take it into account when we try to save the lives of animals. My friend Lisa recently saved the life of a squirrel caught by her dog. Why did she do that? Was that single squirrel so necessary to the ecosystem? Did it have a very important meeting to attend? As my partner and I were trying to decide when to put our dog Penny “to sleep”, I made the point that it was cruel to make an animal live through old age and likely pain we can’t know, just to have more time with them, and that by putting Penny down, we weren’t circumventing her from reaching any major life goals. Penny wasn’t going to cure cancer. Penny wasn’t launching a business and didn’t need to write her will. It really didn’t matter to me whether she died on a Tuesday or a Thursday, except for the burden it was on me as her primary caregiver, and the loss of her wouldn’t hurt any less if she lived two more days, or even thirty. So, my rational decision-making calculation with all of my particular inputs and values worked out to, “I might as well hurry up in feeling this loss because it will feel exactly the same no matter what, and at least my life can be easier sooner if we put her down sooner.” It was a major point of contention where we could not see each other’s views at all. But then the decision came down to wanting Penny to be able to have as many experiences as she could until she seemed to express a lack of interest in having more experiences (the trick here is for an owner to be able to see past their own needs to recognize their pet’s feelings). Without being able to articulate how it possibly mattered at all, I, too, found myself wanting to make sure that Penny had some good final experiences. I wanted to feed her burgers and take her to the ocean. Why? Where do those experiences disappear to?
I don’t know much about physics and I’m inclined to believe that there’s no real purpose to our lives. All I know is that I exist, I want to experience as much as I can, and that I wanted our dog to experience more, too. And when we want something badly, when we feel compelled toward it, it’s a sign that it has some important value, even if we don’t understand what that is.
We can try to create meaning out of Life and Death and all the cruelties in between, as Victor Frankl suggests in Man’s Search for Meaning. Certainly, we want to. But when we do, we create a very big problem. In our selfishness to believe something that comforts us, we wind up believing something that hurts others— that there’s meaning to their pain, which is not for us to decide and is absolutely impossible to determine. It wouldn’t be so bad if we just kept this thinking to ourselves and didn’t act from it, but that’s not what happens. When we believe things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and especially when we attribute specific meaning and value to other people’s hardships or experiences, we don’t feel so compelled toward improving conditions around them. We might even blame them or judge them from not recovering faster from their traumas.
Certainly, we can find benefits in our own lives from hard experiences. We can derive personal meaning from anything. But we can’t logically or ethically do this for others because they aren’t living their lives with the exact same ingredients with which we’re living ours.
All we can conclude is that life is here to experience and for all its hardships, and sometimes even due to them, life is beautiful.
If we can’t have, or shouldn’t have, or don’t have the crutch of religion or spiritual beliefs about an afterlife to make meaning out of life, we can at least experience pleasure and make art.
I don’t know why I exist but I do know that I can alleviate the pain of others, or try not to cause it. Because I have felt so much of it myself and so deeply to the point that death made more sense than this absurd and hard life, I long to use my life to alleviate pain. I long to bring people together for this purpose, to learn together and change the world together by changing conditions enough that the people around us feel inspired, rather than compelled, to join us in our cause. The goal is to experience more pleasure. We have enough wealth amongst us to meet everyone’s needs and everyone has a gift to share, even if it’s just learning by their example how we don’t want to operate.
We have to first believe that pleasure is enough reason to exist, that no one deserves pain and that the world is not served by anyone feeling pain, that everyone is literally doing the best they can, and that for the world to change, all it takes is enough small groups of people to believe that things can change, and to change the conditions enough that even people who don’t want to cooperate will do so.
While that’s happening and not at all appearing to work, while things are still painful, we can take our pain and set it to violin music that haunts a person. We can slather our streets with colour.
We can dance; create absurd performance art; create emotionally disturbing, amazing performance art; make drum songs; write poetry that soothes hundreds of thousands of people; or make millions of ceramic sunflower seeds. We leave our stories behind in art. We can be healed by art. We can make love and art.
If we make a foundation of these things we can know to be true, it can lead us to true communion with people that is respectful, patient, humble, open, productive, emergent, creative, peaceful, and happy.