A Scientific Description

by stephenpalmersf

One of the arguments offered by conservative opponents of progression is that progress can only be a movement towards some goal. What is that goal, and who decides what the goal is – and anyway how would we know that it’s been achieved? The implication of such criticism is that a progressive elite decides the goal, which thus invalidates all that they stand for. How for instance could such progressives have the right to dictate to others?

In an earlier blog Cumulative I noted that I hoped for a full, true description of the human condition via the scientific method. This isn’t a new idea – Erich Fromm suggested such work decades ago. I’m going to contrast here two methods of investigating the world, using the concept of narcissism that I mentioned in my post Narcissism & Donald:

Our entire attitude to the world is characterised by how real we conceive it to be; that is, how narcissistic we are. Human beings, uniquely lacking the great majority of instincts utilised by the rest of the animal kingdom, make sophisticated mental models in order to survive. These mental models are incredibly flexible at the beginning of life – a human infant can become almost anything, and overwhelmingly this depends on their quality of parenting and other social bonds. But an infant has almost nothing of a mental model when they are born, and has to painstakingly piece one together through experience of life. All human beings are born 100% narcissistic. Narcissism, in the general sense of the word, is the essential glue that binds together an infant’s inchoate sensory perceptions, memories and experiences. Without it, no human being would be able to create the essential mental model required to survive in the real world. A human life, on this view, is thus a gradual process of the sophistication of the mental model, including the reduction of and eventual overcoming of narcissism.

The faith-based method of explaining the world is imaginary – that is, it can be characterised as narcissistic, since reality is filtered through the screens of faith, whether that be religious faith, faith in the random supernatural, or faith in anything that lacks evidence. But the scientific method explicitly promotes the independence of the real world. It can be characterised as a specifically non-narcissistic method of investigating and explaining the world. (This incidentally is not to say that science, the social construct, is the same.) As Philip K. Dick memorably said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Suppose then that a description of the human condition could be created which coincided with the real world. Human beings appeared after four billion years of evolution. We were not and are not the culmination of that process, but nevertheless that process did create us. There must therefore be an independent explanation for our evolution; and that, crucially, includes the evolution of consciousness. Readers of this blog will already know of my admiration for the work of Nicholas Humphrey in this field, and will not be surprised that I think his social intelligence theory is the basis of the answer.

So if we could agree on a scientific description of the human condition, it would perhaps act as a fundamental reference point in our understanding of human behaviour.

Before I move on, however, I need to say this. Just as biological determinism is merely the application of the false notion that genes entirely determine us and are the cause of all inequalities observed in human societies, so a true, generally agreed description of the human condition should not be used in a kind of human determinism. There is no utopia. There could be an ecology of utopias, each decided by local social conditions and humanely designed in reference to our understanding of the human condition – but there cannot be a new fascism like the old.

Having said that, it is my opinion that human nature and the human condition are different things. I do not think the fundamentals of the human condition vary in any significant way over time now that we are conscious. I think those fundamentals were created by evolution over the last few hundred thousand years. Perhaps over millions of years there will be some change; we can’t know.

As for human nature, I think that varies according to historical period. What was deemed “human nature” in 3000BC is not what we deem “human nature” now.

This, then, is why I hope for a scientific description of the human condition. It would act as a generally agreed reference point for the explanation of human behaviour, a reference point existing at the most fundamental level and achieved by the use of the scientific method. No human problem was ever resolved by not understanding it. Understanding must be at the root of all our endeavours, and therefore explanation must be our method of progress. Reality cannot in the long run be avoided, because reality always has consequences.

A progressive is at heart an explainer.