Sunday, August 29, 2010

Fox news host Glenn Beck had a rally yesterday about "America returning to God" and it was a supposedly a grand success. Whatever be the merits of the rally, I began to wonder how scores of people are swayed by the romanticism the phrase "return to God" encaptures. It seems to me that this purported yearn for "return" to a certain nostalgic familiarity comes from subliminal fear of loss of an identity or the extinction of an idea that defined our personalities and society once upon a time. Glenn Beck's rally was about trying to prevent the loss of free-style capitalism that once characterized American way of life. Each day, we similarly witness the once-sacred institutions, ideas, cultures, civilizations, theologies and philosophies that gave us the identity and the sense of belonging are becoming redundant in a similar fashion. If that is the case, do we need to protect our identities? Can we even protect them if we want to? Or do we form new sophisticated ways of fulfilling the need to belong? Can the old civilizations find a context in the future? Or are we creating a totally new kinds of civilizations and identities?


Before we dive in, let us understand the underpinning need for an identity for an individual. I would like to refer you to this amazing talk and video by economist Jeremy Rifkin titled, "The Empathic Civilization":

The video talks about how recent developments regarding discovery of mirror neurons has put our entire human evolution in a whole new perspective. It is not long before an average child figures out about birth and death; that :
(a) the  life is fragile and vulnerable; 
(b) we are fortunate to get one all-unique personal trip till death. 

Rifkin argues that this "existential crisis" creates and nurtures the feeling of empathy for the pain of other creatures around with a subconscious understanding that "empathy is grounded in celebration of life and acknowledgment of death".  The mechanisms of mirror neurons in our bodies make us "soft-wired to experience another's plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves" resulting in a  empathic distress in life as a cultural phenomena. Furthermore, mirror neurons makes us not soft-wired for "aggression, violence, self-interest and utilitarianism" but instead soft-wired for "sociability, attachment, affection and companionship". 

Rifkin puts a brilliant argument about how the identities that defined us are a function of size of community we interact with. In the medieval ages, the sense of identity was limited to only a local tribe. Hence, our empathy extended up to only blood ties. In the hydraulic and agricultural economy, more sophisticated interactions gave rise to collective and theological consciousness that detribalized us and extended associations based on religious ties ("All Christians saw each other as their extended family"). The industrial revolution created the nation-state identities as we see today. And the internet age is making us feel empathic on a global scale to the suffering as we witnessed the overwhelming response through the internet to the victims of the Haiti Earthquake in 2009. He questions if  we should stop at our attachment to identities of a nation and whether we would eventually empathize with all human life and ultimately, the entire biosphere and planet. He concludes by saying that we have no choice but to feel the oneness of life and look at all world as large extended family and attune ourselves

A screenshot from "The Empathic Civilization"

If what ever Rifkin opines is true, does it mean our pride is misplaced when viewed on grand evolutionary timescale? Take a look at what Joseph Campbell's Facebook status displayed today:

Don't miss the underlined parts : "Application of science ultimately dissolves all cultural horizons that no separate civilization can ever develop again". Scary. Isn't it? 


We humans always considered ourselves to be special and differently-abled from animals because of our tendency to cultivate culture and civilization.  But what if we got it all wrong? What if specific cultures and civilizations are mere paths to recognize a more sublime way of life? Is this an evolutionary bummer that is forcing us (like other animals) to reconcile our identity conflicts between belonging to a family, religion, nation, state, human kind and largely, the cosmos for the survival of species?  May be all pre-human life-forms have gone through a similar struggle of exclusive, unique lifestyles/cultures and eventually had to do away with them? Does it mean evolution eroded the subtle cultural differences in other species' societies and therefore, we never observed them importantly enough. Are we being forced to enact the same script? Or will we lose the future to protect our past? Our science and our collective consciousness today is forcing us to get to rethink our identities and get in tune with our home and our mother - the planet's biosphere. May be I am sounding poetic here. Doesn't this take us back to the ancient concepts of Ubuntu and the core essence of Hindu Philosophy - "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" (meaning "the whole world is one single family" - Thanks Krishna garu). May be there is a pride in conformity ... may be that is the true "return to God" !!!

(The above views are mere conjectures based on the referred work. Of course, the debate of identity cannot be trivialized so easily. It tends to be a much layered topic as Identity in relation to an individual is a subjective attachment and cannot be resolved in a logical manner, always! Please don't forget to watch Riskin's talk -  the prime motivation for this post)

Suggested References :


விடுதலை | Viduthalai said...

very nice!

Post a Comment

Go Ahead. Blurt it out ...


Copyright 2010 F L A W S O P H Y .