January 03, 2011
Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part One
(Wherein we dump the obsolete Adam and Eve tale of the Advent of Consciousness for a more radical and contemporary one based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience)
Fred Zackel, Ph.D.
“Something fell out of the mirror.”
"Did you hold it upside down?"
"Did you shake it?"
"After I told you not to?"
"I got curious.”
We must congratulate ourselves. Name another animal capable of creating its own meaning for its existence and then imposing it on the universe. We might even be the ones who most delay their own extinction.
Yet inside the mirror is the abyss inside us.
Let me tell you about Gregory of Nazianzus (330 – c.390) who later became Gregory, the Archbishop of Constantinople. He was known as “the Trinitarian Theologian” for his preliminary work with the emperor Theodosius on imagining the Trinity at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.
What? You think this Trinity popped out of the Church’s head full-blown like Athena out of Zeus? You think the Word became Flesh (snap!) just like that?
Gregory of Nazianzus argued just as we cannot look directly at the sun, we can know about it by seeing it reflected in water. So too we can know the Divine.
Our species may have gained self-awareness this way. We saw our reflection in the water hole. The word “epiphany” means seeing our place in the Great Scheme of Things.
One day many millennia in the past, we human beings, each of us, one after another, saw our reflections at the water hole and for the first time. Oh, not all at once, of course. Each of us saw it independently. Some of us much sooner than others. And some of us needed it pointed out to us. But each of us saw ourselves and at that moment each of us became aware of our Self. Each of us, one after another, discovered self-awareness. Each of us had an epiphany and we learned we had individual identities, and thus, one after another, we saw our place in the Great Cosmic Scheme of Things.
What we saw was either a mirage or a miracle.
The Latin root for each word is "mirari," which means "mirror." An earlier root to our word “mirage” can be found in Indo-European; that word is "mei," which means "to smile." To look at and smile, well, that works for me. Smile for the mirror, eh?
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
On the other hand, seeing the face of Jesus Christ in a taco shell is not proof of Intelligent Design. For example, my dentist says all mammals get cataracts. So much for Intelligent Design.
Evolution does seem the ONLY invisible hand guiding human beings, often against our own inclinations, toward any sort of moral universalism. It moves in fits and starts, is inherently flexible, takes side trips, doubles its bets whenever it sees a niche, and nothing is inevitable except extinction. As best as I can figure it, there is no "design" and "goals" and "purposes" in human history or in the greater Cosmos, except for the ones we humans have imagined and designed for ourselves.
Evolution constantly reshapes our POV on the Divine.
There is always a new god in town. Maybe not yet visible yet, but percolating beneath the surface, we could say. Today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems. And a new god may be Tomorrow’s Solution because the one we got now won’t be elastic enough to take us through the overnight.
All great apes recognize themselves in a mirror.
Now recognizing yourself in a mirror is fantastic. That self-recognition is critically important, while it may mean little to most of us at first glance.
All the great apes have passed the “mirror self-recognition” test and soon begin checking their teeth or examining parts of their body they couldn't see without the mirror.
This self-awareness suggests that they know they exist.
On the other hand, let’s not get too cocky. Being Aware of Yourself in a mirror, well, elephants and dolphins show similar self-awareness. Whales may, too, although we have trouble finding big enough mirrors. Rats might recognize themselves … but they may also be deceiving us that they aren’t. Although why they might want to hide the fact … is truly disturbing.
We also have empathy. Empathy is the aerial view, seeing another's world through their eyes. We learn “to walk a mile in their shoes.” We learn that, “there but for the grace of God, go you and I.” We learn compassion for others. Empathy in human beings begins around four or five or six years old. Which is just before the age of reason. Nope, this age of reason is not connected to the Enlightenment of the 18th century. This age of reason is connected in Roman Catholic terms to the age when a child is said to know the difference between right and wrong.
I like that connection, don’t you? Empathy and knowing the difference between right and wrong develop around the same age in a child. They click in; we are hard-wired for both.
We started imagining the Divine as soon as our species was capable of symbolic thinking. Some evolutionary psychologists and some cognitive scientists suggest that our discovery of mirrors – or our reflections in the watering holes of the savannah led almost inevitable, almost inexorably to self-recognition and self-consciousness -- and thus to our imagining of the Divine and thus we saw ourselves attaining a more secure position within the Universe.
Oh, there’s no evidence yet this story happened.
Evolutionary psychology, just to mention, has a huge problem. It often offers a very plausible theory but one that is difficult to test with experiments. Evolutionary psychology is story-based. Too damn anecdotal for many people.
But as a storyteller myself I love its possibilities.
But let me raise the stakes, as all writers love to do. An old bumper-sticker among creative writers says, “Desperate people tell the best stories.”
The novelist Stephen King, a fair arbitrator of the Herd’s inmost anxieties, once said, “I put a group of characters in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.” To which the short story writer Raymond Carver might have added, ”I think a little menace is fine to have in a story.”
Consider the story of our species as the Greatest Story ever told on Earth.
Let’s look at every story we tell with more than a hint of desperation.
How desperate are we for the Divine to intervene?
Perhaps we saw our reflections in the waterhole.
Well, maybe one of us did and then called the rest of the herd to take notice.
Hey, guys, check this out!
Did we drag all the members of Our Herd (however that herd is comprised) down to the waterhole to show them their individual faces in the water? Did they all, one after another, have their ah-ha! moment? Did they discuss among themselves the revelation the implication, its significance, the ramifications, the reverberations …?
Well, probably not. But we should consider them, eh?
I’m sure some of us would feel threaten by and thus might deny the waterhole episode has any intrinsic meaning or any impact on our species. Think Cardinal Roberto Francesco Romolo “Robert” Bellarmine, for one, or those who deny that the Apollo missions landed on the Moon. There is a long-standing tradition among human beings that refuses to take someone or something at face value. That resists the next quantum leap onward and upward.
Also interestingly, what did we think of those among us who DID NOT recognize themselves in their reflection? Did we think, ah-ha, he’s not as evolved as you and me? She’s not as good as you and me? Did class distinctions begin around the water cooler, oops, the waterhole? Well, he’s so dumb that he doesn’t even recognize himself in a mirror.
How was that earliest Herd comprised? Was the Herd all the members of our hunting party? Did it include our significant others? Our kin folk? Those we shared last night’s campfire with? Those we were about to leave behind? Or all of the above.
After all, Being Human, all of us today can see our faces in the mirror. (Well, maybe that bimbo over there. I’ve always had my doubts about her.)
Recognizing ourselves is a tribute to our species. (Maybe. Sort of. Possibly.)
Let us also consider that seeing our reflections in the waterhole happened independently around the world, although at different times and places to different individuals. But that the next result was an Epiphany for Our Species.
Frankenstein's Monster speaks for us all.
"Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination? These questions continually recurred, but I was unable to resolve them."
Note the progression, the implied evolution.
I view this suggested narrative as a new creation myth, merely a new way of describing who we are and where we came from. Even a suggestion where we as a species might be headed, should we decide we want to become our own Helmsman.
As such, this “reflection at the waterhole” theory is a valid as any other creation myth put forth by any other Herd. What makes it better than others is that it updates our current situation. It feeds off recent advances in cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. That alone might give us better guidance towards an otherwise unknowable future.
Consider how we update our GPS systems. No difference, folks.
How serendipitous has natural selection been for us!
But Darwin, Hubble, the eagle has landed…
Our triumphalism stopped dead in its tracks.
Look at the face of the man in the Moon.
We stood there. Where do we go from here? When will we go?
I would add more to the Epiphany at the waterhole. Our earliest epiphanies showed us the desperate situation Our Herd (*) was in at that Moment.
An Epiphany is a Cosmic Pie in the Face. Here is our real place in the Great Scheme of Things, it tells us. We sprang back from the first one, horrified, saying, Aw, there must be a better place somewhere else! Oh, we can do better than this! Geez, I want something better for my kids! A better life for my grandkids!
Oh, we gotta get outa this place!
If it’s the last thing we ever do!
Self-awareness – consciousness -- made us desperate.
We were subject to lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Awareness and Desperation are Kissin’ Cousins that arrived in the same instant.
Once we realized the Spot we were in, once we recognized both our Awareness and our Desperation, we tried desperately hard to take control of our destiny … and we lurched ahead at full speed.
Relax. Have a cup of coffee. Notice the (*) above? Saying “Our Herd” could mean saying Our Family … Our Clan … Our Tribe … Our Society … Our Culture … Our Nation … Our Religion … even Our Species. Could even be Our E-Herd … or Our E-Hive, depending how Internet-savvy we are and where we individually may wish to draw the line. (Beyond this line in the sand, I don’t think of you as My Brethren.)
Our best-loved stories are meant to be sensational because we must wake up our repressed, conformist society. (See “Our Herd” above.) Our best epiphanies must be sensational so that we take notice of them.
By definition, all societies are repressed and conformist. (Just ask that teenager over there, yes, the other scowling like a gargoyle in Paris.) No matter what you and I might think, tradition and conservatism can rapidly become stagnant.
Consider the power of Tradition has had over the past ten thousand plus years. Only since the Enlightenment was followed up by the Industrial Revolution has the Audacity of Hope been vindicated by the Benefits of Progress. Only since the Enlightenment was followed by the Industrial Revolution has Organized Religion taken any real hits at all, and Organized Religion is both repressed and conformist.
Seeking change has never been a societal goal. An individual goal, always – for a minority who believe that the grass is greener somewhere else. Think over that last cliché. That cliché had been the foundation of every society until the past three or four hundred years. To the older voices among us, it has been a derogatory phrase, a deliberate insult to those younger voices who want … Different. (“You think the grass is greener somewhere else. You’ll find out, like Dorothy did, that there’s no place like home.”) It posits Anybody Who Thinks Differently as a loser who will die from that folly. You don’t want to be a loser so stick around and keep quiet and be a part of Our Herd. Live long and prosper as one of us.
Societies have always hated Change.
The Herd is always fear-based. That’s why it congregates.
Until now. And the 21st century world looks weird!!
To be blunt: we got global vision and we saw benefits and now we won’t go back.
Consider our current greatest enemy. Those losers who believe in the Caliphate and want to go back to the 12th or 13th century. Luckily, there are no enough of them in the world to send us backwards. That they live in caves in the poorest regions or the world, that they promote their agendas with suicide bombs, points out that they and their ideologies are doomed to fail and disappear. They had to hijack a religion and its conception of the Divine to get any traction in this world or with other whackos.
Thanks to the mirror at the waterhole, our species rose above its biological condition. We saw who we were, how desperate our situation was, and we fought, struggled and sacrificed to make a better life for our offspring.
We have always been refugees from something worse.
Oops. We may not be alone on this evolutionary journey.
Posted by Frederick William Zackel at 10:08 AM | Permalink