The Uniqueness of Homo Sapiens
What ultimately distinguishes Homo Sapiens from practically every other species is the capacity for reflection. We not only know: we know that we know what we know. Equally, we know there are many things we don't know; and, if we are really interested, we seek solutions to such puzzles. It is this faculty which enables us to form an intention and formulate a plan of action in the hope, even the expectation, of actualising it.
Undoubtedly the greatest puzzle with which we are confronted is life itself. We know that we are alive and that we have the ability to learn from our experience of living. One of the things we learn from this experience is that each of us will one day 'die' whatever that means. So many of us can't help wondering whether this life that we experience has any ultimate meaning. We wonder whether we should live in any particular way or simply take what comes, enjoying pleasure and suffering pain until our bodies finally 'give up the ghost'. And then some of us still wonder whether 'death' really is the end of our experience or whether there may be more experience still to come.
Perhaps our experience of pleasure and pain offers us a valuable clue. There seems to be a fair amount of agreement about the sorts of things we find pleasant and those we find painful. On reflection, we find our feelings of pain and pleasure seem to arise not so much in the material body as in the immaterial mind. Even when the body is damaged, we do not feel any pain when we are anaesthetised, i.e. when the mind is not paying attention to the injury. So perhaps the mind is where we really 'live'; and if the mind can become 'detached' from the body (as under the influence of an anaesthetic) perhaps 'death' is just another form of detachment and the mind survives the dissolution of the physical body.
Another clue may be that many of us, if not all, are predisposed to look for 'meaning' in life. So it seems reasonable for us to live as happily as possible and to ponder the significance of whatever happens to us as a result. One way of doing this may be to treat life as if it were a game and to live for the sheer enjoyment of playing it. This has the merit of freeing us from anxiety about the outcome.
The game of life is very complex. Although it seems to have some rules, they are not written down in a Handbook by whoever or whatever the Governing Body may be. Each player has to work out the rules as the game proceeds. There is no single referee: instead, each player is required to distinguish fair play from foul by the effect on himself and the other players of the moves he makes and the conditions in which he makes them.
The game is played on or near the surface of a spherical playing field called Earth. It seems to have various levels of skill or difficulty. At the highest level we can readily identify with, it is played by human beings. By virtue of their powers of reflection, human beings have almost complete domination over the other animals, plants, organisms, and inorganic substances which play their own (apparently simpler) versions of the game at levels appropriate to their skills. Players at a higher level are able to modify the rules by which the game is played at lower levels.
The following remarks apply mainly to the human level.
Ever since human beings were introduced into the game some thousands (or millions?) of years ago, individuals have tried to puzzle out the object of the game and the rules by which it can be played more skilfully. Two main schools of thought have developed, mainly as a consequence of fundamental differences in approach to the game.
One school assumes that the game is essentially competitive and that the object is to acquire as much domination as possible over as many other players and levels as possible before 'the final whistle' is blown. The motto for this school could be 'Survival of the fittest'. Its adherents tend to emphasise physical prowess and the acquisition of material possessions as tokens of their own (and, by extension, their descendants') fitness for survival. We shall therefore refer to it as the Materialist School. Played this way, the game has one very strange rule: while the game continues indefinitely, each individual player is at some point arbitrarily sentenced to death and all the possessions the player has accumulated are distributed among a sub-set of the remaining players following some complicated procedures about which the participants seldom agree.
The other school adopts a co-operative approach. It assumes that the object is to increase the skills of all the participants at the present human level to enable them to play at a still higher level. Devotees of this school are 'amateurs', i.e. lovers. They play the game for pure enjoyment realising that, even in pseudo-competitive encounters, both victor and vanquished benefit from the experience of having played. This attitude tends to increase the range of satisfactions available to the player who, 'win' or 'lose', not only improves his own game but also contributes to improving the overall standard of play. The motto for this school could be 'Help one another'.
Materialists tend to assume that each individual has only one 'life', i.e. that existence begins with 'birth' and ends at 'death'. Realising that death is inevitable and reluctantly having to accept that 'you can't take it with you when you go' creates a strong temptation to enjoy the delights of power and possessions for as long as possible. This in turn gives rise to a horror of death and a schizophrenic approach to the game, pathological aversion to risk-taking on the one hand vying with debilitating excesses of hedonism on the other. Extreme materialists are therefore greedy, power-hungry, irresponsible, narrow-minded, pusillanimous, bullying, and hasty, caring little that their activities may have adverse effects on others near or far, both while they live and long afterwards. Because they have no compunction in acting against the interests of other players at all levels, they see their world as populated with actual or potential enemies and their lives tend to be clouded with fear and suspicion.
In contrast, adherents of the Co-operative School distinguish between the physical body and whatever animates it. They are prepared to entertain the proposition that this 'animating principle' is what really constitutes the human individual; that it may be immortal; and that it may be 'reborn' in an infinite succession of physical bodies in each of which it has the opportunity of adding to its range of game-playing skills. Able to look upon death as merely another milestone in an infinite cycle of incarnations, students of this school are able to adopt a relaxed, caring, helpful attitude to their fellow-players at all levels all over the world. Because their time-horizons are not restricted to the next generation or two of progeny to whom they can 'pass on' their worldly wealth, they are much more likely to treat the planet and all it contains with respect and consideration for the needs of all future generations of all species. They place a higher value on maintaining the health and fitness of the body while it is occupied than on deferring their departure from it. Extreme amateurs are therefore generous, considerate, liberal, responsible, courageous, tolerant, and patient. By collaboration with others, they are able to form multi-talented teams to achieve by co-operation objectives far beyond the capabilities of any one individual. In a society based on love of the game, there are no mere spectators; everybody is a player.
While the above classifications make a useful starting point, the game is too complex to enable all the human players to be divided into two clear-cut groups. In practice, individuals tend to occupy a philosophical position somewhere on a continuum between the extremes and to move towards one extreme or the other at different times in their lives. Both schools may also have some rules in common, particularly those which may be described as 'scientific' or 'physical' laws derived mainly from observation of the 'field' on which the game is played.
The most notable differences between the schools arise from the recognition and application by the Co-operative School of 'metaphysical' laws derived from the personal, uniquely 'human', experience of countless generations of men and women. Many pointers to these laws have been handed down to us as 'ancient wisdom', the veracity and relevance of which we may all test for ourselves by applying them in our own lives. People who live by these metaphysical laws learn that they are just as much part of 'Natural Law' as those which can be demonstrated in the science laboratory.
It may be a matter for regret that the competitive approach currently predominates in Western society. Games originally invented for the enjoyment of the players have been converted into competitive industries for professional practitioners. Throngs of 'supporters' get their vicarious thrills from becoming emotionally attached to particular individual 'stars' or teams and, for many of them, the "working" week is merely a means of earning money to spend on travel, admission fees, and purchasing gaudy material symbols of their attachment. The most ardent fans experience brief periods of ecstasy when their team wins. But for every winner, there must be a loser; and the fans of the losing side are plunged into depths of despair if the club has a long losing run. Ironically, there seems to be a tendency to celebrate success and drown sorrows in the same way by resorting to excessive consumption of alcohol or other 'mind-altering' substances.
Individuals who are good at games become "professionals" and the most successful achieve the same sort of glamour and monetary rewards as other public entertainers who are often held in higher public esteem than the highest ministers of state or of religion. But professional players are ultimately materially dependent on the fans who may capriciously transfer their allegiance elsewhere, and their careers may be suddenly ended by physical or psychological injury. In such a regime, there is little ground for security for either players or spectators.
It seems to me that if life is to be enjoyed fully, there is a strong case not only for playing games purely for fun but also for turning all work into play.
If you play the game of life in a co-operative manner you may be confident that, just as in other games, you will find by experience that you not only enhance your own enjoyment but also help to enrich the lives of those who share the playing field with you. Every player wins all the time. By cultivating such an attitude, you too could become a consistent winner.
Which approach do you feel drawn towards?