Saturday, June 13, 2015

The concept of betterment, part I

There is a long-standing discussion in biological evolution about whether things develop from "inferior" to "superior" forms; about whether or not there is any logical progression, any improvement, and how meaningful this apparently relative concept is in the sense of evolution.

One could argue, for example, that everything is already good enough just as it is; which would mean nothing ever has to change, in biology or otherwise. Yet change is perpetual; adjustment is inevitable, and evolution seems built into the DNA — quite literally, in the case of biology — of the universe. That is to say, when it comes to life, and all of the active agencies that it engenders, things change, and there tends to be a progression, and that progression is, apparently, a progression of improvements — improved fitness, improved health, improved reproduction, improved adaptability, and so on. If this did not take place, when environments changed, as they so often do, creatures would all die out and that would be the end of it.

This is how it works in the natural world. Human beings have adopted the concept of betterment in an evolutionary sense to suit themselves in the civic, social, and administrative activities of life; few would argue that we don't want better food, better water, better error, better economies, better institutions, and so on. The fact that the trend seems to so consistently be in the opposite direction is another question; the bottom line is that there is a wish in mankind for improvement. Even though this is a deeply emotional circumstance in human beings, intellectuals — scientists, agnostics, and atheists, for example — still sign on to the idea based on a set of humanistic (whatever those are) principles. There are few who argue that working towards the bad is a good thing, although I suppose you could find one or two somewhere if you picked up enough rocks and looked under them.

In any event, I bring this subject up because my very oldest friend, a man I shared my childhood within Germany, and I were discussing this over lunch the other day. We work towards the good; yet do we know what the good is? We sign on to a concept of betterment; yet who knows what is better? In the end, every human being struggles with this question on their own terms; what is better, a question of truly global significance, ends up being endlessly interpreted on a microcosmic and subjective scale. In the aggregate, we hope that things will turn out better; yet the more complex the world becomes, the less likely this seems.

This external pursuit of betterment is paralleled by an indivisible, yet inexorable, will towards betterment within each individual. Individuals want things to be better first for themselves. This is the difficulty of selfishness, because of this is the only kind of betterment people want, they are wont to pursue it at the expense of others. Yet every human being, because of the combination of our emotional and intellectual capacities, has the possibility of seeing betterment in larger terms — and this is what relationship and humanity are all about. I think the issue here is that human beings can't come to grips with betterment if they don't first understand what it means to them inwardly. And this is the ground where all the great struggle in the psyche, the mind, and the soul of mankind takes place. There is no way to understand the concept of betterment without a deep inner struggle and a comprehensive education in the humanities — and these are things that are slowly being erased from the physical and psychological landscape of society, leaving us with a broad and disturbing set of questions about who we are and what we want to be.

More on this in the next post.


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