Saturday, November 15, 2014

Whatever works. Until it doesn't. (rinse; repeat)

We have a religious sort of faith in the systems that populate our existence: political systems, economic systems, social, societal, philosophical.

The more powerful and coherent the systems, the more likely we are to believe that they have been deliberately planned and constructed by people who knew exactly what they were doing, be they learned humanitarians or evil geniuses (depending on how much we agree or disagree with the system in question).

To illustrate this point with some examples from actual faith, consider that the religious are prone to saying things like, "See how the banana fits so perfectly in our hands; clearly it was designed by our creator so that we may hold it," or, "humanity exists on the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life; clearly the earth was created to be our home." Whereas the more scientifically minded among us will say that the banana was shaped slowly over time because the handiness of the fruit allowed for the seeds to be propagated better and farther, and the handiest fruit propagated the best, and that is why the banana is here in our hand. Such folks would also maintain that the Earth is our home because it is the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life (and not the other way around).

And just for fun; which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The egg, of course.

We can trace the origin of the egg all the way back to fish.

B O O M !

Ok, now just let that epiphany wash over your brain and clear your mind because we're moving on.

We'll start with conspiracy theories and work backwards.

Conspiracy theories take the incomprehensible and make it bat shit crazy, right?

The JFK assassination, 9/11, the Newtown shooting, the lunar landing, the Ancient Egyptian pyramids, and so on.

If you spend any time looking into these conspiracies, they are elaborately constructed and have an answer for every possible objection. And therein lies the giveaway; because you know what doesn't have an answer for everything?

Reality.

So many variables, so many conflicting interpretations, so much entropy unaccounted for; reality is messy and confounding and exists whether we recognize it or not.

Or, as our rabbi once said to a congregant who confessed that he did not believe in God, "God does not care whether you believe in him or not."

What conspiracy theories offer is a world that is more comprehensible than reality for the people who subscribe to them. A world that is tightly and expertly orchestrated by shadowy figures behind the scenes who have some master plan.

But lest we judge the reality-impaired too harshly, perhaps we should consider that we are all prone to tying up loose ends with our own assumptions. And we should consider also that the assumptions we make are more out of collective convenience than reasoned thoughts based on evidence.

What assumptions, you ask?

Well, let's look at economics for a moment.

The proponents of Capitalism like to talk about Adam Smith's Invisible Hand of the Marketplace as if it is a metaphor for an actual impartial self-regulating system that, if we just trust the process and allow the system to work its magic without our misguided interference, everything would eventually work itself out to everyone's mutual benefit.

Opponents of Capitalism will say that this whole "invisible hand" business is propaganda from our corporate overlords who want us to have faith in a system that is rigged to only benefit the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

I maintain that both these views are true-ish, and if you put them in a jar with every other economic theory and shook it up, you might end up with a belief system that is closer to the truth.

Capitalism is the economic system that runs the world, not because it's the right system or the best system, but because right now, it works. And when it stops working, either because of worldwide nuclear annihilation, or simply because it got top-heavy and collapsed when the corporate overlords stole more wealth than they could carry, it will be replaced by whatever economic system works at that time.

Or, let's look at mating practices. Why do we in the Western world strive to be monogamous? Because having one partner is morally right? Well, we in the Western world get most of our morals from the Bible, and that book is full of polygamy. Is it because a two parent system is the most effective way to raise children? Or is even more practical than that? Perhaps we value monogamous partnerships simply because, at this moment and in this place, quality is more important than quantity. We live in a complex and evermore integrated global society; not only do most of our children survive into adulthood, but preparing them to be successful adults in our society takes an incredible amount of resources. Too many children will quickly exhaust the resources of our family units, and society as a whole.

But how did we go from "be fruitful and multiply,"  to "one man, one woman, no sex before marriage, and no marriage before adulthood?" Who decided that this was the best way to mate in our culture, and how did almost everyone come to this consensus?

Ah, see?

We conveniently replaced all those questions with, "this is what we do because it's the right thing to do."

Now, for this post, I'm not concerned with the hows or whys of these cultural developments; there are plenty of competent people trying to unravel those mysteries.

The only point I am trying to make at the moment is that we do what works because that's the only thing we can do. Bananas fit perfectly into our hands because that's what worked for the propagation of the banana tree. We live on the planet Earth because there is no other planet on which we could exist.

My ultimate goal with this train of thought is not to take the meaning and purpose out of the systems that populate our existence, but to try to relieve the fear that accompanies the transition periods when one system ceases to work and is replaced.

If we can loosen our grip on the idea that our current political, economic, or religious system is the universal right answer always and forever, then we can be more willing to let go of old systems that no longer work and embrace new systems that do; because that's what's going to happen anyway.

Why waste energy and resources resisting the inevitable changes that will ensure our continued existence?

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