Monday, November 12, 2007

Pondering and Pontificating

When my mind wanders—as, you may have noticed, it does constantly—it sometimes goes a bit further off the beaten path than normal. Today I found myself pondering imponderables, revisiting one of my favorites: just how fascinating our species truly is when we take a moment to step back and look at it as though we were an alien seeing it for the first time. I realize this teeters on the brink of pontification, and may not be everyone’s cup of tea (on rereading it, I wonder if it is mine), so I’ll understand if you decide to skip it.

I wonder, for example, if aliens might in fact consider mankind be a single, living organism, and each of us as —but totally unaware of being—individual cells within that organism. I’m not sufficiently versed in philosophy to know if anyone else has advanced this theory, though I’m sure someone must have at some point. And the universally-recognized “preservation of the species” imperative just might lend support to it.

Ours is a civilization of rituals, most so deeply ingrained in us that we never stop to think about…or marvel at…them. But without them, civilization—and we as individuals—could not function. We establish, and for the most part observe without thought or question, laws designed for the common good—pulling over when emergency vehicles pass, for example—which is in fact an extension of the preservation of the species imperative.

As individuals, we are programmed to be protective of those closest to us: our family and our friends. In emergencies or disasters, we are capable of demonstrating amazing courage in coming to the aid of others. Why? We never give it a thought…we just do it. We establish schools and hospitals and police departments and fire departments to assure the continuation of our species.

All of these things emphasize our instinctual recognition that we are part of something larger than our individual selves, and that we have a duty to our fellow humans. The Golden Rule is an encapsulation of the philosophy of survival of the species.

Our individual need to acknowledge that we are part of something greater than ourselves is also reflected in our need to gather together, and the comfort and pleasure we derive from it. Patriotism is an example, as is the fact that we derive pleasure from gathering together at concerts and theaters and sports events. We create books and music and plays, and find a sense of universality in them. Yet how many of us recognize, when we sit in a concert hall or at a ball park, or gather together on holidays exactly what we are doing and why?

So many fascinating imponderables. So much of what we do is instinctual, and we never give thought to why we do what we do. The other night, I attended a concert performed by the DePaul University Symphony Orchestra. When the conductor enters the hall, the audience applauds: why? (Applause itself is a unique human ritual to which another entire blog could easily be devoted.) That we do not applaud between movements of a lengthy piece, even though the orchestra has stopped playing has its own fascination: how does everyone know what to do, even in a piece of music we’ve not heard before? Obviously we take a cue from the others in the audience. But how? Why?)
I hope I’ve not bored you with this little meandering, but I trust you find such things as fascinating as I do. And if you’ve not thought of such things before, please do. Our capacity for fascination is boundless, yet we too seldom exercise it. We should do much more.

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Gary Brown said...

Richard Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene lends some insight into your questions.

Gary Brown said...

Richard Dawkin's book The Selfish Gene offers some answers to your questions.