Friday, February 28, 2014

Language, Self, & the Timeless Garden

When it comes to curiosity, nothing on earth beats human beings. A dog might sniff at a foreign object curiously but he is not likely to ponder his origins, place in the cosmos, or destiny; nor is he likely to question the morality of his actions or dwell on the topic of his inevitable death.

A dog may answer to his name, come when you call him, sit on command, and so on, but these are the results of classical conditioning and should not the confused with free-will. Animals operate primarily on instinct. Biological urges dictate their actions. They are slaves to their bodies and as such are deprived of free-will as we know it.

Were it not for a single innovation developed in our distant past we too would be at the mercy of our instincts and biological needs. We would still be wandering in small groups beneath the open sky, barely clinging to survival. This innovation allowed us to codify thoughts and pieces of the external world and share them with others easily and accurately. Its discovery triggered the intellectual and technological revolution which continues to drive human progress forward to this very day.

The emergence of the self, that is the sense of "I" imbued in each one of us, would not have occurred without this innovation. And since self-awareness is the only thing that allows us to consciously override our biological urges in favour of a higher purpose or common goal, we should be thankful for this crucial development.

This all-important innovation, if you haven't already guessed, is language. Without language there are no laws to hold complex societies together; without complex societies there is no science, no history, no philosophy, and no individual.

Think about it. No, literally think about it. You hear that little voice in your mind? It wouldn't exist without language. Rational thought, creativity, ingenuity, and curiosity are all descendants of language, for how can you question something without language? How can you study the world, learn from it, and transmit your findings to subsequent generations without words? Before language and the emergence of the self, we were no different from the dog who eats another dog's shit despite his master's obvious displeasure.

Without language, we would be incapable of pondering the future. We'd be shackled to the present, quelling desire after desire after desire until our unforeseen demise.

The emergence of the Self serves as the foundation of all subsequent human accomplishments. It should be no surprise that this pivotal moment, whenever and wherever it actually took place, has been immortalized in various myths and religions. All around the world, in different regions and eras, we find myths detailing this moment of self-realization.

The first people to develop a sense of self and the ability to ponder the mysteries of the cosmos were stepping out of a timeless past. Good, evil, life, death, past, present, and future are all concepts that find no foothold in the pre-self world. These concepts cannot exist without a conscious observer; as a result, they are unique to the human psyche, their existence a by-product of language and the emergence of the self.

Perhaps the best-known mythological account of this crucial moment, this stepping out of transcendence into the realm of dualities, is found in the Old Testament book of Genesis. Now when taken literally, Genesis as a whole and the story of the Garden of Eden in particular crumble in the face of critical thought; but interpreted symbolically, the story of Eden appears to commemorate the moment in which we became aware, not only of ourselves as individuals but also of mortality and morality.

I assume you're all familiar with the story. God creates Adam and Eve and places them in the Garden of Eden where they are invited to eat from all but one tree. And God says, "But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will certainly die." Note the name of this forbidden tree. Isn't it curious that the knowledge of good and bad should cause Adam and Eve to "certainly die?"

As I said, the Garden narrative is neither unique nor logical. It's rife with contradictions and fallacies. Read symbolically though, the answer becomes obvious: before eating from the tree, Adam and Eve were blissfully ignorant of duality. They knew neither good nor evil, life nor death. They wandered in the nude, as animals do, and gave zero fucks.

The lesson as I see it is that, before language and self-awareness, we were as Adam and Eve in the garden: immortal, but only in our ignorance of death; perfect, but only in our ignorance of sin. We were free to do as we pleased but lacked free-will in any sense of the word. Enslaved by our biological urges, we gave no thought to matters of morality, no credence to questions of origin and purpose.

Free-will, tied inextricably to the sense of "I," only appeared after we tasted the forbidden fruit and our awareness of self and duality came only after we left the garden. Without options to choose from, one cannot truly know free-will, and without duality there are no options, only the needs of your meat-vehicle.

Watch the Discovery channel or Oasis HD for an hour and you will quickly realize that the animal kingdom is amoral. Predators do not pause to question whether their treatment of prey is ethical. They do not discuss what happens after death or worship some unseen creator. They obey their biology, just as humans did before they had reason to do otherwise.

The ability to label, categorize, symbolize, and mythologize distinguishes us from the beasts of the field. Language gave rise to the self; the self, in turn, forced us to question the nature of reality; and lastly, these queries birthed all that we see and know today.

This leads me to believe that there indeed exists a higher power, a divine creator. This highest power is not out there watching us from some hidden vantage point; it is inside each one of us. It is constantly creating and recreating the world before our very eyes, spurring discoveries, forging ideologies, and dishing out revelations.

All praise the scumbag brain. Amen.

/rant over
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