“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” – Adam Smith
Whether it be a cell or a civilization, the existence of every living system depends on the coordination of its components. As the survival of the body depends on trillions of cells, the survival of the human system will require the cooperation of several billion minds. In the words of Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Even with the smartest technology and the most innovative thinkers, our civilization will fall if it fails to realize this truth. But how on Earth do we get seven billion people to work together?
“An organism at war with itself is doomed. We are one planet.” – Carl Sagan
From visions of heaven to concepts of utopia, we have long dreamed of a peaceful world. But in pretty much all these fantasies, one thing has been fixed or removed: human nature. Scholars have for millennia concluded that our nature is incompatible with any ideal society. And today, this couldn’t seem more true. Whether it be anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers, humanity seems fated to self-destruction. We are a species persuaded by meaning rather than by evidence. We are short-sighted, too worried about our comfort to care about our survival. It seems that we are inherently selfish, and cooperation is impossible. But though we may despair, there is a solution that many have overlooked: human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.
Premise: Human nature is a given. If it’s not something we can change, then it’s something we must use—and the following is the only rational way to use it. The axioms in this argument are assumed based on both their logical plausibility and their practical utility for the survival of our species.
Unfortunately, we all have distorted perceptions of reality. Every mind is patterned to think in ways that produce inaccurate judgements and irrational behavior. In the last six decades, nearly 200 cognitive biases have been identified from research on human judgment and decision-making. And among these biases, one theme seems to dominate: for the mass majority, emotion defines reason—not the other way around.
Despite differences in culture and language, research indicates that both the neural encoding and physical sensation of our emotions are remarkably consistent across different populations. Shown above, feelings increase (yellow) or decrease (blue) sensation in different areas of the body. Image courtesy of Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen.
“Human beings have a demonstrated talent for self-deception when their emotions are stirred.” – Carl Sagan
Emotion is how the mind assigns meaning and value to every conscious experience. Emotion drives our most pronounced behaviors and sustains our most powerful beliefs. Emotion alters our perception of reality and the scope of our morality. The truth is, we are more sentient than intelligent; human nature suggests that the unity of our species is dependent on a shared emotional state. In that case, a global cooperation would require a love that eliminates hate, a pride and happiness that includes everyone on Earth. But these states of the sentient mind are, in nearly every circumstance, bound to a sense of purpose. And the greater the purpose, the more compelling the emotion, and the more powerful the unity. This principle of human nature is perhaps best illustrated by the religious mind and its craving for relevance.
“The deepest principle in human nature
is the craving to be appreciated.”
– William James
While reflecting on human nature, I realized that the mind is a system that can be hacked by ideas, especially by ideas that align our emotions towards a shared purpose (axiom 1). Whether it be the love of Jesus Christ or the pride of Nazi Germany, we want to be part of something relevant. We want to belong, and we are defined by the groups we belong to. As one reformed white supremacist observed, we have “three very fundamental human needs: identity, community, and a sense of purpose” (Christian Picciolini).
“[Our] history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and family; next, to bands of hunter-gatherers; then to tribes, settlements, and nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. But if we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.” – Carl Sagan
A note regarding the concept of “truth”: The human mind is distinguished largely by its capacity for cognition and complex emotion. And these aspects of our awareness, what we call “higher consciousness,” are drawn to two forms of truth. The first is logical truth, conclusions about reality that we draw from evidence and reason. And the second is teleological truth, assumptions about reality that we draw from intuition and faith. The first drives our scientific curiosity, and the second our search for meaning and purpose. This dichotomy reflects the apparent divide between the intelligent and sentient aspects of the human mind: cognition vs. emotion, sociopathy vs. empathy, science vs. religion. These dueling representations of reality guide the conception and evolution of every worldview, be it a political ideology, a congregation’s theology, an intellectual’s philosophy—or even your musical tastes.
Nonetheless, the working truth must reconcile both sides of human nature. In this day and age, bringing our world together will require a single reality that the mind finds irresistible. This idea must be both objectively reasonable and universally meaningful—both logically sound and intuitively profound. It must be bigger than any political platform, economic incentive, or religious belief. It must define a purpose towards which all emotions can be aligned, inspiring a moral cooperation that is unparalleled in human history. The truth must satisfy, once and for all, our longing for “identity, community, and a sense of purpose.”
From Mark Zuckerberg’s commencement speech to Harvard University’s class of 2017:
“Today I want to talk about purpose. But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”
Our morality is limited by the extent of our emotion, and our unity by the scope of our purpose. If there is any optimism for mankind, any chance of unifying our species, then it remains in the possibility that our existence is, in fact, bound with a greater purpose. If we are to survive, then we must find an aim that is above ourselves and beyond our lifespans. Because human nature, as hopeless as it seems, is our only hope.
“If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” – Carl Sagan