Provisional Conclusions

In January 2015, partially inspired by the various alternative Ten Commandments I’d been collecting (e.g. A Secular Ten Non-Commandments), and partly by the idea of knitting together my numerous blog posts, I sat down to compile this set of “provisional conclusions” about life, the universe, and everything, based on my experience in life and reading about science, superstition, social standards, morality, philosophy, religion, and of course science fiction and how it explores all these ideas, trying to understand the various viewpoints and their bases for their claims, and what I’ve concluded to be true, as far as I can perceive.

These 10 items in turn form an overarching framework for most of the posts on this blog — the things that interest me and how they relate to my worldview. My ongoing project is to not only compile evidence for these conclusions (references to books and websites), but to relate these ideas to how science fiction has explored them.

As a philosophical prelude, I mostly endorse Adam Lee’s Statement of Principles. (I reserve the right to quibble.)

  1. The universe is vast in size, age, and scale, by many orders of magnitude beyond what is familiar from human experience. The human race itself is part of a cycle of life that has evolved on Earth over the past billions of years. The evidence for these things is overwhelming and consistent across many lines of investigation.
  2. The human mind is the product of millions of years of evolution that have optimized our species for survival, but which is only incidentally, where it does not conflict with survival, an accurate perception of the real world. This is because the human environment spans only the tiniest sliver of the vast universe mentioned above, and because the human mind exhibits many mental biases, as detected by psychological research in recent decades, that are useful in promoting survival, even as they are to some extent delusions about reality. Thus, we see intent in inanimate objects; we see patterns and images where no relationships or objects exist (pareidolia); we are inclined to dehumanize or demonize other humans who are different from us in any way; we regard ourselves and those within our group as inordinately special; our memories are fallible and given toward self-enhancement.

    And especially, the human mind is biased toward narrative as a template for interpreting all phenomena: that things have a beginning, middle, and an end, that every effect must have a cause, that “everything happens for a reason”.
  3. All supernatural phenomena – gods, ghosts, angels, demons, devils, spirits, souls, ‘miracles’, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, faeries, elves, and so on, as well as attendant concepts such as heaven, hell, prophets, messiahs, chosen people, sin, karma, reincarnation, astrology, and numerology, and many other things – are projections of human behavior, motivations, fears, and desires onto an indifferent, inanimate universe. They may have some subjective ‘reality’ in the terms of how mind interprets the world, but they have no objective reality by the criteria of item #1 above.
  4. The manifestation of the human mind in an indifferent universe, driven by inevitable and unavoidable evolutionary pressures, is the entirety of human culture, with its many tribes, nations, languages, and traditions, with their music and art and literature and cuisines, with their narratives about the superiority of one’s own social group over all others, that play out in ideologies, religions, patriotism, and competitions including sports.

    These social identities, ideologies, and religious narratives are central to the quality and meaning of fulfilling lives for virtually all people. They are the meaning of life. Thus people are mostly indifferent to (or in denial of) what’s described in item #1, unaware of the influences of item #2, randomly subject to the illusions of item #3 (depending mostly on where they were born and/or local social influences), unaware of the effective discipline of item #5 (below), only dimly aware of the arcs of history (items #6 and #7) that make the present so different from the past and by implication the future so different from now — except to the extent they resist them (#8) — and are unconcerned about possible futures (items #9 and #10) beyond the next generation or at best two.

    (That science fiction does address the reality of the vast universe, does acknowledge human’s partial grasp of reality, does not defer to tribal supernatural assumptions, acknowledges the consequences of the scientific method, and recognizes the patterns of history and the possibilities of the far future and even of the deep past, is why critics, still occasionally, dismiss it as ‘escapist’.)

    The commonalities among human cultures are indicative of truths about human nature; the differences between them analogously indicate that that those variant qualities of human culture (including, e.g., language, politics, religions) reflect human culture but not any reality outside it; there is no one correct language, or religious tradition, or cuisine, in the same way that there are non-culturally specific correct mathematics, physics, and chemistry. These aspects of culture are nevertheless important in sustaining identity among members of communities and nations, especially against the threat of rivals; religion in particular is a signifier of a mutual submission to shared traditions and myths, one that enhances fellowship and trust among members even as those myths cannot be substantiated on rational or empirical grounds. Thus, while religious differences drive many of the ongoing political conflicts around the world, many individual people are oddly indifferent to the logical implications that the truth claims of other religions (creation myths, savior figures) are different from their own. It’s more important that other people have some kind of religious beliefs, i.e. a cultural submission to shared identities, with the implication that they can be trusted to behave in a predictable manner, rather than having no religious beliefs at all, which threatens unpredictability; thus the disapproval of atheists beyond the disapproval of those adhering to other religions.
  5. The greatest cultural invention (or discovery) of mankind is the scientific method, a discipline of systematic, self-correcting investigation: the idea of making observations, deducing generalizations and predictions, testing those conclusions and adjusting them as needed to make new predictions — rather than deferring to received wisdom, religious orthodoxy, or mental biases. It’s the ‘greatest’ in the sense that this technique has produced immeasurable results over human history that have led to the betterment of the human condition, in ways no ideology or religion has ever done.
  6. Thus one arc of human history has been toward a greater understanding of the real world, and the subsequent benefits of that understanding through manipulation of that world through science and technology. Our species now dominates the planet, and thrives, in a way unprecedented in history. And the pace of these changes is ever-more rapid.

    (One social reaction to the pace of this change in the past century or two is the literary form of science fiction, which attempts to anticipate the effect of changes in scientific understanding or technological development on individual lives and on humanity’s understanding of its place in the universe.)
  7. Another, social, arc of human history has been a gradual expansion of allegiance from immediate social groups to larger social groups, from families and tribes to states and nations, with the social inclusion and equal treatment before the law of more and more people previously marginalized or demonized as ‘the other’. This arc is largely an effect of the growing world population, and the consequent coming into contact of previously isolated groups, and recent social media. It involves recognition of the common humanity of children, former slaves, and women; of other ‘racial’ and ethnic groups; of sexual minorities; those who adhere to other ideologies and religions; and even other possibly intelligent (or cybernetic!) species.

    Morality has evolved, to promote the well-being of larger and larger proportions of humanity. Morality does not derive from religion; rather, religions represent snapshots of the moralities of earlier, more primitive and less enlightened, states of humanity.
  8. Resistance to these historic trends is driven by subconscious, evolutionary-motivated fears and desires about maintaining social cohesion among one’s group against threats that might undermine the group’s religious or ideological narrative (and thus threaten survival). Such conservative resistance ranges from active denial and deliberate misrepresentation of the evidence for item #1 (though only about those topics that directly impugn the central position in the universe such people feel humanity occupies); religious inculcation of children, and the shielding of them from outside influences that would threaten their parents’ worldview, and the blanket denial of education in some cultures to especially girls; shunning religious apostates even in one’s own family; missionaries and street preachers to convert the heathen and spread the good news; government censorship of opinions that challenge ideological orthodoxy; the humiliation, re-education, or killing of intellectuals by revolutionaries (Bangladesh, China); to the extremes of killing bloggers and journalists who challenge social norms, and terrorists driven to destroy ‘infidels’ who do not submit to the religious standards of their own society.

    The same trend, in a non-resistant way, applies to anyone who writes a book, or maintains a website, with the implicit intention of passing on their views about the world to others, hoping their ideas will resonate with other people and inform their worldview, as a kind of generational education.
  9. In the event of any kind of species ‘reset’ – e.g. a worldwide catastrophe that reduces human survivors to the state of primitive humankind of thousands of years ago, or of a small group of humans stranded out of contact with civilization – all progress described in the previous items would vanish, and humankind would be left only with the evolutionary motivations given toward tribalism, the value of narratives over evidence, and the susceptibility toward supernatural perceptions, that preceded them – i.e., baseline human nature, optimized for animalistic survival.

    Eventually, such a rebooted segment of humanity would create a new culture, would create new religions, new art, new music, new literature — all unlike any specific religions or art or culture that preceded them, but all of them reflecting the protocols of human nature. The science that would eventually emerge would, however, be like ours; it cannot help but be, since it would be a rigorously tested perception of the reality of the universe.
  10. Should humanity avoid any such ‘reset’, the progress described by those two arcs of history will continue: society will become increasingly global and more inclusive, religious fervor will fade as economic and educational standards rise, the race will become more homogeneous as previously separated groups intermix, the range of options for individuals and families will expand, the overall human condition will continually improve, and the potential to explore and comprehend and inhabit the universe will be enhanced in ways that supersede the priorities of mere human survival. In this sense, the sum of human awareness (and perhaps the awareness of others) will be an active consciousness of the universe, the way at least a small corner of the universe becomes aware of itself.

    (Science fiction, at its best, explores the many ways this might happen; it is a heuristic for exploring possible futures, and for understanding why any one person’s experience of the world, or perception of reality, is not necessarily the only possible one, let alone the best.)

    Still, there is no one endpoint, no one-time catastrophe or utopia. Wherever the race might land in the next century, there will always be change. (Even religions that have lasted for a couple millennia might fade away to other religions, in another couple millennia; thousands of other religions throughout human history have similarly disappeared.) Even in a utopia, unless every person is utterly like every other person, there will be differences, and differences will lead to those who want change, and those who are happy enough and resist change. This is perhaps the ultimate dynamic of human history.

Update 4feb17: Wording.
Update 1nov15: added thoughts about how religion is basically a social phenomenon, not anchored to rival perceptions about the real world — but then substantially revised, 5nov15
Update 18may15: added anchor links to relate daily blog post items to this framework
Update 30apr15: substantially overhauled and rewritten
Update 9mar15: Reversed the order of items 1 and 2, and of 9 and 10.
10feb15: Initial blog post