Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hiding from Reality | Symptomatic Approach : It's Origin and Ineffectiveness

Self-survival instinct is at the very core of all the drama of life here on earth.
It is the most fundamental drive in the animal kingdom, common to all living beings but individual to each one, which means that each animal is responsible for his or her own survival.
And when each and every animal is individually driven most strongly by his/her self-survival instinct, it is logical to say that only the fittest survive, because there is a competition and a struggle against one another for survival.

There are two sides to this struggle for survival - on one side animals of any species have to struggle and fight with other members of the same species for life resources, and on the other they have to struggle to keep safe from the predators.

Also to me it seems that any animal that can live freely and independently without risking his/her life will prefer to live freely.
So we see that animals like the cheetah or the eagle who are at the top of their respective food chains and have very few or no predators to fear of, can and do live and hunt independently.
Whereas a lot of other species of animals like deers, monkeys, buffaloes, elephants who are not strong enough individually to survive alone in the wild usually stick around in groups or herds.
But it is important to understand that these animals don't stick around in groups because they want to look out for one another or for the common good of the group.
Rather the fundamental reason behind relatively weak animals staying in groups is that it improves each one's individual chances of survival.

A good example to illustrate this point would be to consider a herd of deer grazing together in a field. Now if a cheetah or a pack of lions were to attack this herd, every deer would run for his/her own life away from the group rather than facing the danger together as a group.
Hence it's clear that these animals stick together in a group as long as it keeps them safe or at least makes them feel safe individually, but the moment this feeling of safety is threatened they leave the safety of the group and run away.
Same is true in case of human beings as well. Say a few people are in a movie theater, and the theater catches fire. Now what do people do? Do they stick around together and try to get the whole group out safely?
No they don't! Everyone runs for their own lives. Forget about sticking around together to save each other, in a hurry to save themselves people don't even care if they kill a few other people in stampede.

So we see that all animals come together in groups because it gives them an improved sense of individual safety, but the moment that feeling of safety is challenged, each one is on his/her own again.

We humans are animals too, animals who are capable of intelligent thought and logic and all that, but looking at what we have done with ourselves and our world, we clearly haven't let our intelligence make us very different from the rest of the animals.

Human ancestors lived in groups as well, alongside all other animals, fighting for survival in the wild.
And they started living in groups for the very same reason as all other animals did- because they were too weak to survive alone in the wild, and living in groups increased their individual chances of survival.
So we see that even the earliest human society began as nothing but a group of animals who stuck around together for their own individual safety.
And when individuals in a group are only concerned about their own well being, there is bound to be a competition for resources and power.

Just like all other groups of animals, the earliest of human groups had leaders too.
Usually the strongest one would more or less self-appoint himself as the leader, just like even in today's world.
So our ancestors lived in the jungle in families under leaders in exchange for a feeling of safety from other animals.

Slowly we came out of the jungle, and started living in relative safety of tribes and villages, under new leaders. Now we didn't have to worry too much about the wild predators. But as individuals we were still insecure about our lives and being too weak to survive alone still wanted to live together in groups.
But as I said the only reason animals/people stick together in a group or a society is due to fear of something.
In the jungles we stuck together because we had fear primarily of predators. Once out of the jungle we needed something else to be afraid of in order to stick together in tribes.
And we found this fear in form of tribes or groups of other people.

This individual insecurity/fear that people have for their own lives has been exploited by our leaders for a very long time. We as animals are always afraid for our lives, and our leaders give us something to be afraid of to keep us together under their leadership.
The leaders understand that to keep people together, they have to be kept in a constant fear of something or the other.
There has to be an enemy image for the society to stick together.
But the leaders alone are not to be blamed, they have merely played on our insecurities.
The people are the ones who want something to be scared of so they can stick together as a society, leaders just happen to want the same, so every now and then they create a new enemy for the society to face.
The current favorite of our leaders seems to be terrorism.
So we see that in a selfish paradigm where each one is merely bothered about his/her individual survival, it is impossible for anyone to live without fear. Because each one sees other people as a potential threat to his/her survival.

Now when as individuals, we feel threatened by other individuals for survival, it's obvious that this insecurity reflects at society level as well. Because if individuals living in different societies feel threatened by each other, then the societies too are going to feel threatened by other societies. A society is nothing but a collection of individuals anyway.
So we fight individually for survival with one another, and we also fight as societies with other societies for the same reason.

Our ancestors fought with one another for survival in the jungle, and we are still fighting with one another for the very same reason - individual survival.
Only thing that has changed is that those fights and skirmishes between early tribes of humans, over the years turned into bloody battles between kingdoms, and today they have turned into wars between countries.
Now we think we have evolved and are better than those lesser evolved animals because we have climbed off the trees, and come out of caves and built ourselves clean cities, and handsome clothes, and expensive cars.
But we haven't really evolved, with all this external glamor we are only trying to cover up the true animal nature that is still the driving force behind our lives.
If we have evolved anything, it is the ways in which we can compete with one another for survival.
While other animals compete with one another for survival based primarily on their physical strengths, we humans have invented a whole array of concepts to compete with one another for survival.
Religions, Castes, social classes, fashion, nationalities are all concepts that show how desperate we are to give ourselves and each other as different identities as possible, so that when we look at one another we only see how different we are from one another and hence a threat to each others individual survival.
As neighbours we fight, as different religious groups we fight, as different castes we fight, as different countries we fight. So we are constantly fighting with one another for our lives.

But now one may ask - what exactly is the problem here? Human beings are animals and they live like animals! So what's wrong with that?

The problem is the fact that we humans can think intelligently, unlike all other species of animals.
So when a powerful lion snatches away food from a weaker lion, and the weaker one goes hungry, the stronger one doesn't think about the plight of the weaker lion, because he can not. He is purely driven by his self-survival instinct and does not have the capacity to think about the consequences of his actions.
But because we humans can think, when relatively powerful human beings compete and snatch away food from weaker human beings, it makes some of us question our actions . And hence the whole debate.
Besides I think when a lion has eaten his stomach full he might leave the rest lying around for other lions to eat.
But we humans want everything for ourselves, even if we are done eating, we had rather hide the remaining food till it rots than give it to other people.

In spite of our ability to think and understand logically and even after thousands of years of technological advancements, the problems facing the human society haven't changed at all.
Thinkers like Plato from ancient civilizations spoke about the same social and moral issues that we face today. Which means that there is a realm in human existence which has remained unchanged over all these years.
This is the psychological realm, or realm of the consciousness.

But why have we failed to eradicate these issues for thousands of years?

To me this seems to be due to lack of our sincerity towards addressing these problems.
But why have we shown lack of sincerity towards these serious social issues?

When people get cancer, do they go to the doctor and ask him to just remove enough cancer cells to eliminate physical symptoms to allow them to go about their daily life or do they ask him to remove the god damned thing from the root itself as soon as possible?

They obviously ask him to remove it from the root as soon as possible, so we see that there is sincerity when an individual's life is at stake. But even though society has been suffering from these ailments for thousands of years, we have failed to face the root causes and get rid of them.

And our failure to show same sincerity towards these social cancers shows that just like all other animals,even humans are still driven purely and only by their self-survival instincts, and welfare of the entire group is of little or no importance.
There seems to be no trace of wise use of intelligence in the design of our social paradigm.
What we have done instead is that we have used our intelligence along the lines of primitive animal instincts like competition, self-survival, possessiveness, crude violence and so on. And this way, what we have created are more ways to effectively compete with one another for survival, or in other words more effective ways to destroy each other.
Remember that we humans came together and began staying in societies only because living in society made us feel more secure as individuals and not for the betterment of humanity. That is why in our society we see that everyone is competing with one another for everything- There is competition to get into school, then to get into college, then a job, and so on. So we see that we are merely living together and competing with one another for our individual survival, rather than coming together and thinking about the common good of the society.

Now when society is nothing but a group of people who are pretending to be together and looking out for one another, but at heart only care about their own life and needs, there are bound to be conflicting situations, and homeless, poor, hungry, and abused people in the society.

The reason we have failed to eradicate these social issues for thousands of years is because we have failed to understand the root cause of all these social issues. Unaware of the underlying root cause, we have only been trying to cure the symptoms that show up on the surface. But since the fundamental problem is still not understood, these symptoms like poverty, homelessness, crimes, wars keep coming back.

Of course there is no denying that a lot of people out there genuinely want to do something about these poor, hungry, homeless people.
But rather than trying to drill down to the root cause behind these problems, they go out there and try to fight these symptoms as if they were independently existing problems. Which is a very shallow approach.

In our current society, NGOs and other social welfare organizations are also committing the same mistake by trying to solve social issues like child labor, women abuse, poverty as individual independently existing problems. But this kind of approach will never work,because these problems are mere symptoms of the fundamental problem with our society- which is our selfish paradigm.
We see that these problems have been there since the inception of human society, and they are still around because we have been trying to cure the symptoms of the fundamental problem, rather than trying to understand the fundamental problem itself.

When I think about the possible reasons behind our failure to understand the fundamental issue behind all these problems - two possibilities come to my mind.

One could be that we have been so deeply conditioned psychologically over millions of years that as individuals we feel that fighting with one another for survival is the natural and the only way to live, and to us this selfish lifestyle doesn't seem to be the cause of these problems, instead we feel that these problems are independently existing unique social issues, and need to be dealt with like individual problems.

The other possibility could be that in society people who are in a position to make a difference are the ones who are well-off, the underprivileged themselves cannot do anything about their situation. And the people who are well-off including most of us and our leaders don't want anything to change because we have successfully competed against the weaker to secure a safer environment for ourselves.

I feel that the true reason behind our failure to understand the root cause behind social problems is a combination of both of these two possibilities. While on one hand as masses and individuals we have failed to evolve beyond our individual insecurities for life, on the other our leaders have deliberately kept us fighting for survival with one another so that they can continue to rule our society.

And in this human civilization of ours, which is already paralyzed by our selfish nature, invention of a concept like God has only further paralyzed humanity.
Religions of the world make people feel that everything that the world is, is a part of God's design, and so when they see problems in the society, they take it to be a part of God's plan and completely give up the idea that they might have something to do with these problems. Since people hold God responsible for everything, the whole concept of god takes away the responsibility of our actions away from us.

For such religious people here is a mental exercise - Let us for a moment agree that God is looking after everything, now think about the world as it is now - with humans and all their human problems.
Now for a moment imagine the world without human beings. Eventhough God is still looking after the world and other living beings, don't all social issues disappear with humans as well?
Now put humans back in the picture and we see all problems coming back all over again.
I think this simple thought experiment is enough to show that human beings themselves are the cause of their problems.

As I said earlier that except humans all other animals have only their self-survival instincts to live by, and there is nothing wrong with their selfish paradigm because that's the only way for them to survive.
But we humans can think, and yet we have not used a trace of our intelligence in trying to understand life better.
Continuing to live in this selfish social paradigm and then trying to cure the social problems which arise because of the very selfish nature of the society is naive and ignorant and is not the solution.
The only way to get rid of these social issues if we are at all serious about it, is for us to try as individuals and as societies to evolve beyond our selfish insecurities and understand that it is possible for us to live beside one another without having to fight for survival.
And once we understand that every person and every living being has the right to and wants to live as much as anyone of us, hopefully then we can come together as improved conscious human beings and create a society for the welfare of one and all.


  1. Thoughtful... provocative... i like!

  2. well said and accurate..

    I have a comment though ! When you say instinct to survival, the underlying player is the 'self' the ego... in the primitive times this 'self' manifested as survival instinct whereas in the modern times, when there's less threat to life, this very 'self' acts a 'self exalting' instinct.. for example, why do the leaders want to become leaders? if it was just survival, they could have as well just stuck to the group... there's competition even to be a leader in the group and this existed even in primitive times (the alpha male concept and all that)..

    So its a basic human nature to exalt the self (not just survive).. you may say being a leader increases your chances of survival in the group and hence everyone want to be that.. which is debatable of course..

    for example.. why do people want revenge? its remotely related to survival.. you want a revenge when your 'self' is hurt.. now you want to ameliorate the fallen 'self'.. take any basic human instinct and its designed to exalt 'self'..

    so i feel letting go your ego will naturally divert a person's energy to think about the group..

    open for comments..

  3. Thanks for reading people. :). Not many people bother about things that really matter.

  4. Hey,
    I'm definitely with you on the cynical side.
    But I'm not 100% there. Humans are peculiar in that we have intelligence (logic/rationalisation that suits us and our survival ie. the stuff focused on by cynics and realists), but we also have an ability to see hypotheticals and imagine other ways of living, as you have shown repeatedly in your essay.

    Certain people believe in moral progress and social awareness, and they introduce these other concepts into our society. Some of those concepts involve altruism/giving in this world that I would like to believe are not driven by either the desire to stay in a group out of survival, or the desire to compete out of survival. Examples are a cinema that is burning down: I would actually expect someone in the crowd to help a young child (not his relative or friend's child) who he sees crying, cowering in an aisle, as everyone stampedes out. Where my cynicism comes into it is that not everyone does this, only a minority. The reason for the act to help a stranger survive is, to my understanding, a developed social intention, grounded in certain social ideals ('People help each other', or even 'Americans are good neighbours/Christians/(insert other ethnicity/tribe)'.

  5. A rebuttal here might be that the act of altruism is driven by a need to belong to a group, again out of 'survival by identification'. Ie. the person thinks that by helping the child, the group benefits from:

    1. The social perception of the strength of its members
    2. The social perception of its power over its members' behaviour (ie. the member's interpersonal pressure to behave in certain ways).

    But the fact that the group is not there at the time, to me, is a pure sign of progress. This means that point 2. has not occured and he does the act, as far as he is aware, out of an ideal.

    Even if I accept the argument that the man is only acting in line with point 1., doing it alone shows he did so without direct/indirect pressure. No one will ever plead to him afterwards, 'How could you not save the child?' or 'You have shown complete selfishness in leaving the cinema when it was burning down around you! What about all of the other people with you? Why didn't you save them before yourself?' No one would say these things to him because they weren't there. The altruism was not pressured upon him by a group. He may just be a 'normal' person, having never ellicited such an obvious display of alruism in his life.

  6. If everyone acted in this way, we would have a lot less poor on the streets and a lot less drug/sexual abuse going on, even behind closed doors. So some progress has been made from very early man in this sense, because as you said, they were essentially entirely animal in behaviour and they behaved only in ways that benefitted the droup around them.

    Also, another point. There are leaders who believe in their society as more than NOT THE OTHER society, or AGAINST THAT civilisation. They believe in the inherent capabilities of their people, and do not rely on looking down on other cultures to achieve their aims. You may refute that idea with the following point, along your line of thinking:

    A 'noble' leader's beliefs are irrelevant as they are only a symptom of the true individual power they have: A strong nature, and this display of nobility is just a case of 'survival through strength' (strength of conviction, strength of character etc).

    You might also argue that such a display ensures the survival of the country or political party as well.

    I would argue that there is more going here than survival, as we saw in the man who saves the child in the cinema. The survival of the man/country/political party occurs nonetheless during the leader's reign, but in the past, we have seen that the ideals may also lead to:

    Helping the poor/suffering in their lives (welfare programs, free education, free hospitals in some countries).
    Helping improve the lives of other species.
    Esentially the man in the cinema and the leader of the country are not so different. The noble national leader has a greater reach, but he has to fight harder to make his ideals a reality as well.

    What do you think? Any comments?