Culture and Religion

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What is the Meaning of Life?

Man is a social creature. I offered my perspective on that thought on another (see my global community) page. Within this global community, everyone can contribute to the advancement of the community, and therefore of humanity.

When viewed from the perspective of a community, anyone with a job that provides goods or services is making a contribution to that community. It is interesting to note that even someone who pursues their self-interest can also advance the situation of others. An entrepreneur that starts his/her own business and then hires a few others to help can achieve several goals simultaneously: pursuing one's dream, being 'your own boss,' making a lot of money, and through the paychecks allowing others to support their own lifestyles (whether that lifestyle is simple, as a single wage earner, or more complex, as a spouse in a family).  A company, both small and large, provides a number of benefits to the global community: goods and/or services, wages to its employees, taxes to the appropriate layers of government and a regular social gathering (although its quality depends on the particular work environment).  Even those not earning a wage are making a contribution.  Those that volunteer to work in problem communities or poor third-world countries are admirable.

Within this framework, a number of people can be identified as not contributing to the community.  Business executives or managers that provide dangerous products or unsafe working conditions are hurting not helping the community.  Low wages are unfair to those whose labor benefits the management and/or shareholders.  Executives who lie to hide their crimes are contemptible.  Lawyers and scientists who lie for profit are also contemptible (the cigarette company litigation is a good example of this behavior).  Recent examples of such behaviors have provided the plots for many well known movies (such as Erin Brockovitch, Rain Maker, Class Action, are a few that come to mind).

The business activities form an important part of any community. Each person is working to satisfy his/her own needs, while the goods and services provided by his job benefit the community. Even cultures with low technology follow the same pattern. The basic agricultural activities benefit the local community. If excess is produced then that trade benefits the community in other ways, perhaps bringing in goods/services not otherwise available.

Greed is often the problem in business - or just plain personal economics. Greed is simply a person putting his own needs at such a high priority that others suffer for that priority. Recent scandals such as Enron illustrate that greed is a fault of some humans - but it requires others to tolerate such behavior for the greedy ones to succeed. The management of Enron had many others to help them on their way. There are supposed to be laws for people to prevent such misbehaviors - just like burglary and murder. As our cultures and technologies change, the laws that we live by must also adapt to maintain a productive community (at every level).

Within this framework (of a human community), a perspective can be offered on a few contemporary and controversial topics: animal extinctions and birth control. 

Since the level of our society might be considered related to the complexity of its environment (read my future society page), our society is affected by the loss of any species. As more species become extinct due to the actions of mankind, the complexity of our environment is reduced. If we manage our environment to maintain its diversity, then the quality of our environment is also maintained. I find it disheartening that some want to decide which species should be allowed to be driven to extinction. Each time such a decision is made to kill off a species from our planet, our inability to live within our environment is demonstrated and the diversity of life is reduced. I could try to express even more of my frustration with such an attitude regarding commercial development at the cost of our environment but hopefully the point has been made.

It could be argued that having many babies will advance the community. Unfortunately, such an opinion does not consider the reality that the community is only part of a bigger picture. In an animal community, if the population of one animal grows too rapidly, there are consequences. If the animal is a predator (e.g., a hawk), it will probably devastate the population of its prey, resulting in the loss of its food supply that will eventually result in an inadequate food supply (which will negatively affect its population).  If the animal is a prey (e.g., a white-tailed deer), it will probably devastate its food supply resulting in the starvation of its population. 

Nature has built-in checks and balances. Mankind cannot ignore that. When mankind was still at the level of cavemen, a boom in the human population would not have much of an impact, given the other influences (including a shorter life span, that resulted from less educated parents (for prenatal and early childhood issues) and no medical care). Now that mankind has advanced to the state where the combination of education and medical care (and more) has resulted in much longer life spans, the population issue is very different.

Many countries have a population that exceeds the available food capacity (witness the frequent outbreaks of starvation in certain regions) and then those conditions are worsened when the year's weather affects the native crop yields. Other countries, including the USA, have certain areas that are also having problems: big cities like LA have smog problems due to the traffic patterns with so many people in a small area.

In this context, the goal of more babies is not benefiting our global community. Birth control helps keep our human population (which has no real predator to help maintain the health and numbers of our community) in check. There are also other aspects to the birth control issue but this is the relevant point here.

I believe that the perspective on one's life within the global community is missing from our media and our education.

The recent movie, Contact, involved the first communication with life from another planet. (The movie, in my opinion, had a few distracting problems (like the claim that 95% of mankind believe in a supreme being (maybe 95% of some Christian communities but definitely not the world when including the Asian religions), but then Carl Sagan, the book's author, was known to lie or mislead - just review his conduct involving Velikovsky's works.) It tried to present a perspective on man's place in the universe. Unfortunately, the main character felt 'alone' until after the alien contact during the movie. The movie's story line before the final contact reveal the religious perspective within the main character (always focusing on the Christian concept of God as a supreme being (which the main character cannot fathom from her scientific perspective) while ignoring alternate religious views such as from the Far East) as well as the disarray among the American religions (so that the influence of fringe groups is exaggerated to provide a tragic twist). 

When a person sees that he/she is a member of a global community, he/she is definitely not alone. From the Zen perspective (or even from an understanding of biology and psychology), he/she is always part of one's environment. The Christian concept of the soul within the body (rather than the body within the soul) drives a person to believe in the isolation inherently part of that perspective.

Many of the events of the 20th century have shown that the contemporary religions no longer satisfy the human want for an answer to 'who am I?' from the religious perspective. Many cults and some of the political and religious leaders (like Hitler and the Taleban) take advantage of this void in our global culture to pursue their own goals to the detriment of their followers.

I believe that our major religions have to address this change in perspective:

o we are not alone (as individuals within our community or as humanity within the universe),

o we are not put on this earth for a short time just to die and remain in heaven or hell for eternity,

o what we do makes a difference in the lives of others,

o we are all part of our local community and its culture,

o we are all part of a global community.

I believe that some progress toward the resolution of our global society's problems will begin with that new perspective.

A Soul

The human brain is a fascinating and marvelous wonder. The brain does not work like digital computers, like the one being used for this internet access, where any internal state is eventually resolved to true/false or on/off or yes/no. The brain works with pattern recognition, so that its manipulation of memories with sensory input can vary widely over the lifetime (from birth, to teen, to adult, to senior). Computers can be programmed to be very predictable - which human behavior is not. The brain operates on several levels, both conscious and unconscious. During sleep, the brain transitions from a conscious to unconscious state, when the brain is for the most part disconnected from its sensory inputs. Beyond dreams (when the brain conjures up scenarios to ponder while in an conscious state), there are also subliminal suggestions, where the conscious processing with the senses does not recognize something in the environment, but another level in the brain has noted that influence.

A person's consciousness has also been called a soul. In many cultures, this soul takes on supernatural qualities - including it somehow lives forever after the person's body dies (read my life after death page). This disconnect leads to denial of obvious linkages. Studies of brain activity during certain scenarios have enabled scientists to learn more about how the brain works, though very little is yet understood. However, these ongoing studies do reveal how a person's thinking and memory originate from the brain. The concept of a soul originated before such understanding, when a personality could be considered 'supernatural', as its physical basis was not understood.

In an injury that results in brain damage, is the immortal soul also damaged? Certainly upon awakening with the damage, whether it be in behavior or just in memory, the conscious level of the brain will be working with different resources than before the injury. My father suffered a severe stroke in his upper 70's, leading to sad consequences for his physical and mental well-being. Someone with Alzheimer's disease is also seen to become transformed due to the physical effects. During sleep, does the soul disconnect from the brain (but there is still measurable brain activity?) or is brain just operating in a different state? A person's soul in an integral part of the person's body, as well as the person's environment (since the personality is definitely influenced by it, just as the person affects that community).

In the last 100 years, much has been learned about the brain and the development of a personality. While the belief in a soul is common in many cultures, upon investigation that belief is not logical. The soul is not an autonomous supernatural entity; it is just a name given to an intangible thing - a personality.

Life is a journey, with many wondrous things to encounter along the way. However it does end. There can be no life without death just as there can be no light without dark or on without off. Remember that each of us is an extension of our environment, just as it is an extension of us. That realization adds importance back to the meaning of life. That importance might be lost for someone that has always believed that a soul exists forever after the body lives for a very short time. That 'one night stand' perspective renders that human life meaningless in that context. A human life that is an integral part of its human community is never meaningless. Humans are social creatures, and the combination of that diversity enables humanity to achieve more than can be imagined for any number of individual efforts.

created - Dec. 2001
last change 11/29/2002
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