The search for the meaning of life has dominated philosophical thought throughout recorded history, with various disciplines contributing pieces to the puzzle. Very little has changed over the ages, and contemporary theorizing is generally a reformulation, or “rediscovery” of ancient concepts. Each viewpoint on the nature of life and the universe has helped us in our contemplation of how it all fits together. Some of the assumptions regarding existence are likely wrong simply because they are not provable, and fall under the category of pure speculation; but the concepts that are repeatedly lost and found warrant closer scrutiny.
An example of changing old knowledge, and promoting it as something new, is found in the modern philosophical hypothesis of “reciprocal partnering”. This is simply an over-complication of determinism, using obscure discipline-specific jargon to make the theory appear to be profound and innovative. An awareness of determinism has existed from the beginning of civilization, and likely long before that. The omniscience of gods, fate, destiny, prophecy, and magic are just some of the ancient beliefs which demonstrate an understanding of cause and effect.
The knowledge preserved in the form of written history must be interpreted with the awareness that most of it is tainted by mysticism. Until relatively recently, much of what was known was in some way attributed to the magical activities of deities, and the older the written material, the more likely it is to be intertwined with theistic dogma. Just as all governments were once theocracies, there was a time when all philosophical thought was part of religious doctrine; but the core concepts are often still valid, once the mystical qualifiers are stripped away.
Much knowledge has been lost or destroyed over the ages, yet cultures separated by time and/or geographic location independently come to the same conclusions. This is mainly due to the structure of the human mind; given the same empirical input, people per se will follow the same chain of reasoning. Although this commonality of thought could be described as a purely genetic circumstance, such conclusions can also be seen as human “truths”, because we always return to perceiving these particular concepts in the same way.
Information frequently must be rediscovered due to the narrow-minded actions of “clans”. Groups are aware that to control all of the knowledge, is to control the thoughts of the masses; consequently they fear anything that would allow individuals to consider concepts that are different from that which is disseminated by those in charge. Our understanding of the nature of the Earth is a good demonstration of how this works. The ancient Greeks knew that the Earth is round, and presumably, so did the neighbouring advanced civilizations. Due to events put in motion centuries prior to the Axial Period (800 - 200 BCE; marking the end of the Mythical Age), things were destined to change. The ancient Hebrew religion evolved from the earlier African tribal beliefs, which were the primitive anthropomorphic concepts of basic hunter-gatherer societies. The Hebrews of that early age were simple semi-nomadic barbarian tribes, and believed that the Earth was a flat expanse, floating upon the waters which made up the universe. This original oral tradition continued until they began to create a civilization of their own, albeit because they were often under the control of conquering nations, and developed a written religion. By the Axial Period, Hebrew exposure to the great societies of the time would have taught them that the world was actually a sphere, but they failed to include this fact in their books. Much later, when Christianity developed from the Judaic beliefs, and Islam grew from Christianity, a literal interpretation of the early tribalistic writing convinced these new religions that since the gods had stated the Earth was flat, it must be so. Many centuries of death and destruction followed, where the Abrahamic sects managed to eliminate much truth from Western culture. Truth, however, ultimately prevailed, and despite the tyranny of the theocracies, the West gradually rediscovered the shape of our planet.
In evolutionary terms, man’s ability to think is much the same as it was eons ago. Given a situation where the people have the opportunity to contemplate ideas beyond mere survival, they have been capable of reasoning out the most intricate of concepts. Sigmund Freud is credited with discovering the duality of the mind: the conscious and subconscious separation of our awareness. However, the works attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (560 - 480 BCE) plainly take this duality into account. Modern nuclear physics is founded on the discovery of the atom by the Greeks prior to the Common Era. Brain surgery was performed in South America long before the arrival of Europeans, and the Mayan calendar was only surpassed in accuracy with the introduction of our modern Gregorian form; sadly, the wisdom of their culture became a mystery, when Christian missionaries to the New World burned almost all of the Mayan books. The Egyptians once possessed great engineering expertise, yet we have no idea how much knowledge was lost each time the ancient library of Alexandria was burned. Recorded history is only the remnants of what was once known; much more has disappeared, than has been preserved.
Carl Jung, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, speculated on this ability to retain, and rediscover, knowledge. He called it the “collective unconscious”, and felt that humans were genetically imprinted with thoughts, memories, and feelings from past generations; these “archetypes”, or “primordial images”, are symbolic representations of human history. The concept of “racial memory” is part of what is termed Jungian psychology.
We know that variations in the design of specific traits is programmed into each cell, which accounts for physical attributes like eye colour. Even some errors, such as hereditary disorders, are “remembered”. We also are aware that, because life begins as a single cell, each contains the knowledge and ability to construct a complete life-form. Innate emotions are carried over through each generation, and our behaviour as it relates to interaction within our species, is coded in our DNA. Was Jung correct in determining that memories of the past are also included? Looking at it from the perspective of life-in-general, evolution may provide some evidence. When creatures evolve to adapt to changes in their environment, the “blueprint” which the cells contain must change to ensure that all subsequent members of the species are constructed as the new form. The first creatures that carry the new trait grow from the zygotes which began the process, and every cell replicated in the being contains the revised design, including all sperm and egg cells. The prior blueprint is “forgotten”, and the new one is “learned”. This conclusion is, of course, based on the modern evidence supporting “evolution through necessity”, rather than the old belief in random mutation.
To explain the fact that many life-forms within a species can spontaneously make the same adjustment to the environment and reset cellular instructions, it was suggested to me, by a philosophy professor, that it could be a case of preprogramming; with the evolutionary change occurring as a result of certain conditions being met. This idea would require one of two scenarios: either a cell already has the knowledge of an infinite number of possibilities, and the appropriate reactions to each; or the pattern of life is pre-outlined, and cells know the sequence of changes that will occur over the period in which life exists -- in other words, a complete map of cause and effect.
Living things must also make behavioural modifications to adjust to evolutionary change. If a creature changes in order to eat a food different from what once sustained the species, it must innately desire the new substance. A life-form which adapts to breathing air, rather than water, must no longer fear being out of a liquid environment. Changes to sensory organs means that one must respond to previously unknown sensory input. Reactions must be based on the new genetic design, and prior behavioural knowledge is “overwritten”.
How do we define memory? Do we consider it to be of an empirical nature; that is, must something be learned through experience? If such is the case, then Jung’s archetypes cannot be a “racial memory”, because once knowledge becomes a genetic property, as it passes from one generation to the next, it is no longer empirical. If we classify a memory as something that was “once-learned” through experience, then all innate knowledge ultimately becomes a memory because the “foreknowledge” that establishes the design and behaviour of the first living thing of any particular type, is verified by experience; and all subsequent generations therefore carry a memory of the success of that initial trial of said design, or behaviour.
Whether or not we include the significant events in the lives of our ancestors as being among the memories encoded into the nucleus of a cell, we come up against a paradox. No mind could possibly contain the knowledge attributed to a single cell. Just the blueprint for constructing a viable human being is well beyond our ability to retain information. How is it that each component of the whole surpasses the aggregate?
All the cells in our body are capable of communicating either through the physical pathways (junctions) which connect adjacent cells, or through chemical messaging via the bloodstream. This ability to coordinate activities is evident during foetal development, where the cellular community handles growth, construction of specific organs, and the precise timing of how and when systems come “on line”; much of this accomplished prior to the fashioning of the brain. The brain, of course, is simply a community of specialized cells which contribute to the sum of our awareness; all knowledge that makes up our consciousness is still contained within these cells.
The cell’s extraordinary capacity for storing information within its nucleus brings up the question of why we have a brain at all. If cells share knowledge, and can function as a community; why evolve a distinct area in the body, which confines our awareness into one critical, and vulnerable, spot? Why maintain the most complex information on a level which our minds cannot comprehend? Obviously, brain size has little meaning, when a cell can contain everything pertaining to the existence of a species. Some life-forms do not have a brain; and the knowledge held in the speck, that is the mind of a social insect, is in no way proportional to its size. Everything that is necessary for the well-being of the lineage of any particular living thing is known by a single cell; whereas the empirical information in the brain only has indirect significance to the perpetuation of a species, yet it is essential to individuality.
Basically, the amount of knowledge that is important to the continuation of any given type of creature is the same as all others. The thoughts that occur in animals with what we perceive to be higher mental functions are only characteristic of the life-form, and in the larger scheme of things, do not reflect any sort of relative value; none are greater or lesser. An awareness of this point is not new. The two belief systems that spawned almost all of the world’s existing organized religions, Hinduism and the Hebrew faith, as well as the animism which accounts for the remainder, acknowledge this fundamental equality.
Innate coded knowledge influences every mental process. Inherent emotions and goals are inseparable from the thoughts which occur in the brain; so although creatures can have personalities unique unto themselves, every one is still connected to the general genetic path programmed into the species. Individuality, for the purpose of this discussion, is unique only within the confines of instinct; for everything in the universe is unique: no matter how much alike two things are, they occupy a different position in space. Two atoms may be side by side, yet they are each closer to the effects of differing sections of the universe. Your personality is singular, but on a fundamental level, it is the nature of all things to be as such.
Cellular-level information is common to all life; however, life-forms which do not possess individuality only respond to change, they do not directly cause it. This means that we must separate how we use and store knowledge into two categories which reflect this difference between passive and proactive attributes. The fact that we have a brain allows us to use our knowledge in an abstract way, and provides us with the ability to manipulate our environment. To us, the effects caused by individuality in other creatures appear inconsequential, yet they can still alter the destiny of a species. The cautious, “unfriendly” cat hesitates to cross the street, whereas the playful, “friendly” one is unconcerned: the latter is run over, and its genetic legacy is lost forever, while the former lives to pass on its genes, potentially changing the characteristics of a significant number of animals in the distant future. This does not include the cool demeanor, for that is a learned behaviour, and part of the life experience that forms a personality.
Human individuality has its greatest impact when manifested as innovation. The invention of the steam engine by Denis Papin ultimately led to the industrialization of the world, which has forced many life-forms to adapt to the changes this has made to the Earth’s ecosystem. The creation of mechanical steam power was inevitable due to prior events, and was more-so the culmination of knowledge accumulated over the ages, than the actions of one man; but that particular person applied this knowledge using his unique form of individuality. Subsequent inventions by others resulted in our modern mechanized world, with an atmosphere, water quality, and distribution of flora and fauna that would never have occurred otherwise. Life has adapted to living in this environment, ourselves included.
All life learns on some level, either genetically or empirically. Simple organisms have been shown to possess the ability to learn from experience. For example, flashing a bright light prior to introducing an electrical current to water containing “mindless” creatures, eventually causes them to respond to the light, in anticipation of the pain. We perceive the capacity to learn as being related to the complexity of the brain, yet we judge this using human values. Volume of knowledge, and amount of reasoning ability, is relative to the needs of the species. Whereas our mental acuity offsets our physical shortcomings, other creatures are physiologically better suited to survival, and have no need for our level of cerebral activity. Mankind’s history of death and destruction amply demonstrates that a highly developed brain is not always a positive attribute.
continued as Part 23