Monday, March 4, 2013

Knowledge and Human Identity

Piet Mondrian - Composition for No. 1

The procession of successive generations through varied civilizations has reaped thousands of years of accumulated human experience recorded as written knowledge, a rising foundation of understanding from which all future advancement is built.  One extraordinary result of this process of intellectual growth, beyond the assimilation of vast new libraries of information and their attendant concepts, is the expansion of hitherto unrealized capacities involving human reason and associated mental powers. 

A biologically modern human, equal in potential with any human of today, but living tens of thousands of years ago would have no inkling of his power to read a bewildering array of abstract symbols as easily as hearing the spoken word or that he possesses an enormous capacity for absorbing vast amounts of information and translating them into an understanding of general concepts or that he has the ability to perform highly technical skills demanding painstaking precision and concentration.  These appreciations would never be know to primitive man because he had yet to develop within a society capable of investing enormous time and resources into his mental development.  The fascinating possibility of unleashing new human mental potential still exists as civilization’s acquisition of knowledge picks up its already torrid pace.

All biological organisms respond in various degrees to their surrounding environment.  More complex animals, particularly vertebrates, are capable of learning and retaining particular pieces of information.  They familiarize themselves with their surroundings and they learn to locate themselves in relation to their home, their food source and areas of possible danger.  They learn survival tasks.  They identify other individuals.  They do not appear capable of understanding concepts.  The understanding that all animals are born has no baring on survival.  Prey is to be eaten and there is no need to think beyond the fact that it is food.  All animals respond to fear but, beyond that, it is unlikely any animal other than man considers the certainty of their own inevitable death.  Life as a concept is an unnecessary consideration for an animal to exist.  A wolf, a deer, a hawk considers its present circumstance in regards to need, urges, opportunity and danger and then acts accordingly.  Who am I?  What meaning is there to existence?  These aren’t questions they likely entertain.  What survival benefit is there to such an inquiry? 

When did we as a human animal form first arrive at this point of self-inquiry?  Is there the germ of philosophical question in the face of a zoo gorilla?  What Darwinian evolutionary motivation is involved in the search for meaning in existence?  Is the concern for meaning associated with the elemental desire for the survival of self?  Yes.  Obviously human consciousness has crossed a bridge and entered a realm where physical survival has manifested itself to a level of concern for individual identity.  We have moved beyond an instinct for physical preservation to developing a sense that our sovereign existence is rooted in a unique individual identity of greater value than our corporal body of tissue, nerve and bone.  Our emotional response to being confronted by a hungry lion would be that of a deer – a flight to survive.  The deer, though, does not experience our concept of self.  It probably has little, if any, self awareness as we understand it.  As a member of the animal kingdom we seem uniquely self conscious.  As Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”  We regard ourselves as a self-evident proposition.  It is one of the few certainties of our existence.

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