The Sentient Mind

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”
– Bertrand Russell    

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The apoptosome is a large protein complex formed during apoptosis, or programmed cell death. In your body, about 60 billion cells die every day by this process. Image source.

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 conceptions of utopia, we have long dreamed of a perfect world. And in almost all these fantasies, human nature has been altered or removed. For millennia, scholars and theologians alike have generally presumed that our nature is somehow flawed. And today, this couldn’t seem more true. Whether it be neo-Nazis or 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.

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Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Dallas. Photo by Laura Buckman.

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 cognitive errors is a major theme: for the mass majority, meaning guides our reasoning.

The human mind seems drawn to two forms of truth: logical truth, conclusions about reality that we draw from evidence and reason; and teleological truth, assumptions about reality that we draw from intuition and faith. What we believe to be true is determined by what we deduce to be true, and by what we feel to be true. The former drives our search for certainty, and the latter our search for significance. This dichotomy reflects the apparent divide between the cognitive and affective networks of the human mind: reason vs. emotion, sociopathy vs. empathy, science vs. religion. The reconciliation of this divide guides the conception and evolution of every worldview, be it a political ideology, a minister’s theology, or this philosophy—and perhaps even your musical tastes. But more often than not, how we feel changes how we think. For the most part, emotion defines reason—not the other way around.

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 Image source. Courtesy of Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen.

Despite differences in culture and language, research indicates that both the neural encoding and physical experience of our emotions are remarkably consistent across different populations. Shown above, feelings increase (yellow) or decrease (blue) sensation in different areas of the body.

Nonetheless, people exhibit a wide range in the extent to which these emotions are processed and expressed. On the low end of the emotional spectrum are individuals with antisocial traits (about 1-4% of the human population). Those with this predisposition have diminished feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt, and love. They are often described as “cold” and “calculated,” but most are nonviolent and high-functioning in society as efficient decision-makers. However, they have a lower threshold for criminal behavior if exposed to violence, isolation, or other disturbances during their childhood. And in general, those who lack emotional empathy are more prone to behaviors that are considered selfish or corrupt.

“Sometimes the truth is not just that it hurts, but that it’s just so disappointing. You want to believe in romance and have romance in your life—even the most hardcore, cold intellectual wants the romantic notion. It kind of makes life worth living. But with these kinds of things, you really start thinking about what a machine it means we are—what it means that some of us don’t need those feelings, while some of us need them so much. It destroys the romantic fabric of society in a way.” – James Fallon, a neuroscientist and self-identified psychopath.

At the high end of the emotional spectrum are individuals with sensory-processing sensitivity (about 15-20% of the human population). Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) have a lower threshold for being aroused, both physically and emotionally. They tend to experience their feelings more strongly and are more easily overwhelmed by social stimuli. But many HSPs learn to adapt to their environments, and when comfortable they tend to engage in creative pursuits and empathetic interactions. However, they have a higher propensity for developing mood and anxiety disorders if exposed to significant stress. And when overaroused, they are more prone to behaviors that are considered neurotic or irrational.

Parade of the SS Guard, the Nazi elite, at a Party rally in Nurmberg in the late 1930s.

“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. Human nature suggests that human harmony must involve a shared emotional state. In this case, a global unity would require a love that eliminates hate, a pride and happiness that includes everyone on Earth. But these states of affect 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 demonstrated by the religious mind and its craving for relevance.

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“The deepest principle in human nature
is the craving to be appreciated.”
– William James    

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“[Regarding religion], one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting.” – Albert Einstein

While reflecting on my religious upbringing, I realized that the mind is a system that can be reset 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 former neo-Nazi realized, people become extremist “because they’re searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.” (Christian Picciolini, NPR)

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“[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

In this day an age, a truth that unifies our world must reconcile the intellectual and emotional aspects of our nature in a way that resonates with every perspective. 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. Indeed, the truth should satisfy, once and for all, our longing for “identity, community, and a sense of purpose.”

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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


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