Human Meaning and Original Sin

What is the meaning of life? This question is profound, but has become so cliche that its profundity is often overlooked. The problem, though, is that to produce an answer to the question requires that we hold prerequisite suppositions: what is the nature of humanity? Where does meaning originate? Does meaning itself have some yet other transcendent meaning?

The nature of humanity in the Western tradition is inexorably tied to ideas of original sin, as it is generally understood in Judeo-Christian theology. Are humans inherently bad? This is the stance taken by people like Augustine and Thomas Hobbes – the former stressing the idea that our evil nature is redeemed only by God’s Grace, the latter emphasizing the need for a government ruled over by a Sovereign to keep our bestial nature under control. Others, such as Pelagius, thought that humans were not inherently evil and could, at least in theory, live a perfectly sin-free life, since God would never have asked of us something that is impossible. Modern day secular ideologies, such as Marxism and Postmodernism, take the Pelagian idea further and say that it is the duty of the state to perfect humans through the correct sorts of indoctrination.

If it is true what Willmoore Kendall wrote in Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, that “All societies think of themselves, once they begin to think of themselves at all, as representing a truth, a meaning, about the nature and destiny of man, and thus about that which, in the constitution of being, is above and beyond man,” then it makes sense that those who see human nature as mutable would take it as their duty to ensure that humans are living the ‘correct’ life. In our postmodern secular world there is no central figure who can dictate orthodoxy – no Grand Narrative, as the postmodernists like to say – or punish heresy. Because cultural relativism is anathema to what Kendall views as important to humanity, we still view ourselves as sentinels who must jealously guard what is deemed to be the Truth, and so the job of upholding orthodoxy falls to the mob. Wrongthink is intolerable because it taints that “nature and destiny of man” and therefore what “is above and beyond man.”

But all this raises the question: is human nature mutable or are we born with original sin? I think it’s safe to say that original sin, in the Augustinian sense, doesn’t apply. The idea of sin requires further assumptions about the nature of good and evil and whether things are good and evil because God said they are or whether God said they are because they just inherently are good or evil. The Judeo-Christian conception of original sin also requires the idea of the Fall – that humans were created by God without sin and only subsequently fell into sin. Thus, unhappiness and sin came from the corruption of our true nature, rather than from our nature itself.

We can therefore adapt this idea of original sin, though, for a more updated conceptualization: have humans evolved to live and function in the society we have created for ourselves in a way that is conducive to maximize human flourishing (both our own and those around us)? If we retain the analogy with the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin, we might say that the Fall was something that happened in our sociopolitical development, namely when agriculture was invented and humans began to congregate in settled societies, specializing in tasks and participating in commerce. This is when humans began cultivating transactional relationships and viewing one another as a means to an end as opposed to the Kantian end in itself. Human flourishing ceased to mean the flourishing of us and meant only the flourishing of me.

To further analyze this requires that we examine the correlation between neurocognition and sociopolitical developments (primarily in the Western world due to its economic and cultural hegemony). Iain McGilchrist proposes in this 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World that this neurocognitive correlation to our sociopolitical development has to do with the increasing dominance of our literalist and analytic mind (the Emissary or left hemisphere) over the holistic and Gestalt mind (the Master or right hemisphere). McGilchrist seems to take a teleological or even Lamarckian view of how the bihemispheric brain evolved. For instance he writes:

In brief I believe this [development of writing, science, art, theater, etc.] is related to the development, through enhanced frontal lobe function, of what might be called ‘necessary distance’ from the world, which in turn demanded increased independence of the hemispheres, allowing each hemisphere to make characteristic advances in function, and for awhile to do so in harmony with its fellow.

This doesn’t explain how the requirement of “‘necessary distance’ from the world” works as an evolutionary selection pressure that would result in differentiation of each hemisphere’s manner in which it understands the world. The human brain is remarkably plastic, but it seems likely that the manifestation of such specialization of the hemispheres, while maintaining coherent cooperation, requires more selection pressure than just human pursuits requiring such. The left hemisphere, where Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area are located and connected by the arcuate fasciculus, are traditionally thought to be the language centers of the brain. However, newer evidence suggests a more complex and bilateral processing is required for language. In addition, the left hemisphere is often thought to be the logical/mathematical one, although mathematical processing is also bilateral. This sort of overlapping, non-specialization of functions is what one would expect when already existing neural real estate is adopted to solve related problems in order to overcome evolutionary selection pressures. While this doesn’t necessary contradict McGilchrist’s thesis, it is suggestive of a more complex – and even ad hoc – picture than is purported in the bilateral brain theory.

This is to say that I don’t think we can put cultural evolution as a cause of our biological evolution. Surely there is an interplay, where those who were able to thrive in agrarian and, later on, urban settings have produced more offspring who inherit those skills. But I think, due to the rapidity of our sociopolitical development and cultural/memetic evolution, our brains still carry with it more of the hunter/gatherer era proclivities than it does newer and less developed adaptations to our industrial, and to an even greater extent digital society.

Thus, when it comes to neurocognitive correlates of sociopolitical divisions and ideologies, I would probably look for ways in which our brain has had to (and, I would argue, failed to) adapt to the society we have created for ourselves. Instead of anthropomorphizing the brain as an Emissary that has escaped its Master, I think it would be more productive to think about how a brain, which is only able to truly relate to about 150 people, can adapt to a globalized world where we are constantly reading about the abstract “other” via the internet. This, I think, is still an argument in favor of more communal living, which would be more in harmony with the way our brains have evolved, but it doesn’t give the false sense that our nature is mutable and that we can overcome these evolutionary limitations with the right sorts of self-improvement (i.e. having the Master get the Emissary back under control) via indoctrination into right-thinking ideologies.

Interestingly, there seems to be a contradiction between the idea of human mutability practiced by the mob’s insistence that the world conform to their ideology, the inability of the mob to allow for redemption, and identity politics in general. We are all subject some original sin based on our group – race, sex, gender, orientation, etc. – and yet we are all asked – or, rather, demanded – to not only follow the orthodoxy, but to wholeheartedly endorse it and enthusiastically advocate for it, and yet doing so will never purify us of our original sin (i.e. the intersectional group(s) we belong to). This contradiction of fundamental attribution error with an ideological need to convert the masses to its orthodoxy can only spell trouble – nothing will ever be enough for the mob. Nobody will ever be pure enough, but this will only result in more stringent measures to purify the irredeemably corrupt. This has a strange Calvinist sort of thinking, in which there are those who are the Elect, Graced with such a position by means completely out of their control, and yet all must pledge fealty to the orthodoxy of the mob.

This sort of thinking, I believe, stems from the pairing of our fundamental attribution error with Dunbar’s number. Among people we have actual relationships with, we are able to understand the nuances of their thoughts and actions and know that any single thought or action is not reflective of their entire being, but with those outside our social sphere – those others who are too numerous to be within our own personal Dunbar’s number of relationships – become abstract and we therefore use heuristics to think about them: when we see a person we have never met before say or do something, we automatically attribute it to their fundamental being as a person. That single thought or action is indicative of just who they are as a person. This simplified heuristic way of thinking is a product of our evolutionary limitations. Beyond those relationships allowed by Dunbar’s number, our relationship with the abstract other is transactional; they are a means to an end. When the only end is my happiness (or, at the very best, the happiness of those relationships within my Dunbar’s number) in a shallow sense (do I feel good right now?) then it is incumbent upon me to employ the means I have at my disposal – the humans who are the abstract other – to re-engineer the world in such a way as to maximize my happiness. When society advances to such a point that my physical safety is well protected, the hedonic treadmill that, throughout our evolutionary history has been a driving force in survival and progress, is now hijacked to implore me to seek greater comfort in the form of psychological insulation from uncomfortable thoughts, beliefs, and ideas subscribed to by the abstract other. The very fact that other people think and act in ways I disagree with is an assault on “my Truth” – whether you are part of Black Lives Matter and cannot countenance the idea that others do not believe all of human history and society revolves around race hierarchies, or you are a conservative Christian who refuses to believe that transgender people exist.

It’s for this reason that this question of human nature and original sin is more than just academic. Understanding what it is to be human informs how we ought to live our lives and treat others. If we are perfectly mutable, then efforts ought to be taken to ensure that humans hold beliefs that lead to greater human flourishing (our own and others). If humans are completely immutable, as both those on the intersectional left and on the nationalist right agree on, then we truly do have a clash of civilizations. But if we are somewhere in between, which I believe, then we need to be able to account for those parts of our nature that cannot be changed, organizing our society so as to minimize the damage that evolutionary baggage will cause, while also ensuring that we all attempt to improve ourselves where possible.