"It is in human nature to think wisely and act in an absurd fashion."  Anatole France

"Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is what we were put here to rise above." spoken by Katherine Hepburn to Humphrey Bogart in the movie The African Queen.

Human Nature was formed to benefit our genes in an ancestral environment, and it has always been a bad guide for the individual; it is an especially bad guide for individuals in the modern environment.

The boxed statement is this book's guiding thought for the person who wants to fine tune their personal philosophy for living.

It is important to have this thought in the background of our thinking as we consider the merits of the everyday push and pull of our emotions. The enlightened person's goal should be to understand the "ultimate causation" explanation for the origin of thoughts and emotions. This challenging task can be done best in calm moments. The process should also be the basis for the amendment of one’s "value system."

Mount Cognoscenti

The more one understands the world, the greater the challenge for reconciling internally generated drives and goals with insight and logic. The person climbing "Mount Cognoscenti" at some point arrives at an altitude where he begins to see the "existential dilemma." The dilemma starts with an acknowledgement that life is inherently without purpose, after eschewing the plethora of false goals meant only to serve our genes. "Salvation" takes on a new meaning. How does one re invent a life? How can an individual who has discredited gene contaminated goals invent new ones which make sense and have value to a mind disciplined by logic? If all values are ultimately derived from tricky genes, how can an individual invent new values that are free of genetic trickery? As Nietzsche argued, when God is at last dead for Man, when he feels surrounded by the darkness of an uncaring universe, how does one go about inventing new values to live by? The dismay following these questions is an "existential dilemma."

Throughout history individuals have recorded what now can be seen as groping attempts to confront the existential dilemma. The dilemma can only be sensed by those who are able to see themselves as "individuals"   entities with distinct identities, theoretically separate from the crowd. Early societies had cultures drenched with mysticism, and naturally the first groping attempts to understand the individual's existential dilemma were greatly influenced by mystical thought. It is an awesome irony that there are superficial resemblances between the wisdom of early mystics and the new scientifically based wisdom that I espouse.


Figure 22.1 The two paths to wisdom sometimes converge.

It can be disconcerting when someone else arrives at the same destination after traveling a less disciplined and less arduous path. The above cartoon (by my high school friend Frederick L. M. Doll, 1999) suggests that a left brained scientist’s insights resemble those of a right brain mystic. For example, the physicist's F=ma conception of a mechanical universe states that every particle in the universe is connected to every other particle by the four forces of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, weak and nuclear). In other words, the universe is a fully-interconnected system in which everything affects everything else, and in every corner of the universe things unfold in response to the influence of every other thing in every other corner of the universe. This description has an amazing resemblance to a tenet of Eastern Thought, that everything that happens in the world does so in accordance with a universally interconnected "flow."

For another example, consider the longstanding quest for salvation. I remember when I was with a high school friend (the same person who drew the cartoon, above) and we encountered the phrase "What shall we do to be saved?" in Pilgrim's Progress (page 64, a significant number in math, as I noted at the time). We laughed mockingly at the quaint question, realizing that it referred to salvation from a non existent Hell, yet the same question can be recast with a modern sociobiological and existential context, which I am in effect doing with this book.

Life'a a Funny Proposition, Indeed

As the George M. Cohan song says, "Life’s a funny proposition, indeed!" We're not "supposed" to understand why we exist, for to do so would put one on the road to emancipation! Our minds are an assembly of modules for getting a job done, which is to promote genetic longevity, sometimes at the expense of individual welfare. There can be no coherent understanding by the character at the center of this predicament until he strays into the forbidden territory of logical, left brain insight, and is lucky enough to discover the secret genetic tricks that have victimized him. It is no accident that the biggest questions surrounding the meaning of life appear to be inexplicable for most people. Each person must "know thyself" in ways more profound than Socrates could have imagined.
Life is Backwards

Life is "backwards" in the sense that only near the end of life do we have some sense of how to approach life wisely. It is ludicrous that cruise ships are filled with old people, who have the money but are losing the energy to explore the world. If "youth is wasted on the young" then wealth is wasted on the old. Health and wealth are too often found at opposite ends of life.

Risk Aversion is Backwards

Another oddity of human nature can be found in a pattern of "risk aversion." The young, who have a whole life in front of them and therefore have the most to lose from mistakes, seem prone to taking risks with an abandon that ignores large potential consequences. The caution they should practice can only be found in the old, who have the least amount of life at risk. Perhaps as people age some of them begin to break loose from the genetic grip and realize that risk-taking is for fools.

The Genes are Never Satisfied

As Schopenhauer wrote, “…how insatiable a creature is man! Every satisfaction he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so there is no end to the wishes of each individual.” “For intellect is fundamentally a hard-working factory-hand, whom his demanding master, the will [genes], keeps busy from morn to night.” (Schopenhauer, 1851, pg. 127). We serve the genes, and no matter how much we’ve accomplished they are never satisfied. Schopenhauer bemoaned man’s preoccupation with attaining what is close enough to touch but not close enough to grasp, instead of appreciating that greater wealth of what is already possible. When I retired I placed a sign in my office “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart, your work is done.” (Ecclesiastes, 9:7, altered)
Wellness Begets Wellness
Another of life's little ironies is that the better off one is, the better off one becomes.  The converse is also true – the worse off someone is, the harder it is to recover.

Over the years, after noticing many life paths, I have come to realize that the world is a great place   provided you are physically and emotionally healthy. It takes health to stay healthy, just as it takes wisdom to gain wisdom. To know that exercise promotes health is only useful to the person who is healthy enough to exercise. The healthier a person is, the more feasible and fun it is to exercise, and the more that exercise improves the person's health. Similarly, the smarter the person the more able he is to learn and become smarter from such places as the internet and judicious reading. But the person who never learned how to read, for example, has lost many opportunities for new learning. Thus, there is a tendency for people's mental and physical health to continue to improve if it starts out above average, or to degrade if it starts out below average. Over time, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer   in more respects than monetarily. There is something inherently "unfair" about these life destinies; most people sense this but can't express it. This version of how the world works is captured by the following motto: "Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."

The More One Knows, the Less There is to be Known

The more a person lives life with eyes open, the less of it that makes sense. To cite an oft quoted commentary on the nature of the cosmos by a Nobel prize winner, "The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more pointless it seems."  (Steven Weinberg, 1977). To follow the crowd, or even to follow one's predispositions, is the quickest path to folly. There is wisdom in the perverse method of searching for Truth which states that you start with beliefs sustained by the masses, and turn them upside down. The mystics sensed the fraudulence of common beliefs, and fled to the quietude and clean air of the mountains. I share this instinct, but do so guided by a left brain instead of a right.

Don’t Follow the Crowd

Don't follow the crowd! That should be one of the first rules for living. The crowd does what the genes want done. At least, this is the case in environments resembling the ancestral one. And since some of our genes are outlaws, anyone following the crowd unthinkingly is open to fraudulent exploitation by these tiny "outlaws."

It is especially difficult to instill this idea in children. They take their cues from peers, while ignoring good parental advice. Their desperation to "belong" is so strong that even an enlightened parent can feel helpless. Thankfully, most of us survive the silliness of youth, and get second chances to face foolish fashions. By adulthood there are no excuses for failing to be true to one’s self. As said by someone I overheard in a bookstore, "When you live by someone else's standards, you betray your own."

Be Careful What You Wish For

In retrospect, I am thankful that in childhood the Forces of Fate denied me some cherished longings. A part of me, a dumb part, wanted to be popular with the prettiest girls. Thankfully, this was not to be, and my interests turned to less popular aspirations   such as making telescopes and home made cameras for photographing the planets, auditing university courses while in high school, and taking hitch hiking camping trips every summer. Only later did I recognize the wisdom in the saying "Be careful what you wish for, for you may get it." There must be a part of me that does battle with residual primitive wishes, for it counsels that "When you get what you want, you deserve what you get." Sayings like these help discredit what is bad for us, that comes from within us.

Let the World Leave You Alone

Someone on the street asked “Are you Clint Eastwood?” and Eastwood replied “Only when I’m alone!” The greatest gift to an individual is to be left alone, even if it means feeling unwelcome in a dumb world of hand-me-down beliefs and values. A resourceful individual will invent new values to live by, and if he is lucky they will be better. As Nietzsche counseled, start worrying when people claim to understand and agree with you. You may think that Life dealt Nietzsche lemons, so he made lemon aide; if so, it was a lucky deal.

Beware Inner Wisdom

Ironically, whereas my first specific advice is "Don't follow the crowd" I am also counseling "Don't follow your inner self." Neither the crowd nor one's inner self can be trusted, since both are creations of the genes - some of which are outlaws.

So what's left if you shouldn't follow either the crowd or your inner self? My advice is "Don't follow anything; start thinking for yourself!" In other words, start relying upon left brain insights, and figure things out for yourself. Following is for fools; wise men blaze their own trails.


I will accept the charge of being an aesthete! Aesthetics is as old as the record of human thought. From the ancient Greek philosophers to 20th Century philosophers, and especially during troubled times, there has been a place in the mind where this theme resonates. Irwin Edman’s The Contemporary and His Soul (1932) has given eloquent expression to this haven; it is an eternal “place” that an individual can create when surrounded by tumult and confusion (see Chapter 24 for more on aestheticism).
Brief Encounters

The book Brief Encounters by Coleman and Edwards (1980) states what should be obvious to every sentient being, and which is therefore not obvious for humans: things can have value even when they don't last forever! A brief conversation with a stranger in a supermarket line, for example, can leave both people feeling good for the rest of the day (if this hasn't happened to you, maybe you're hopeless). Friendships don't have to last forever for them to have value. Nor do marriages, necessarily. Too often people view others as having to be there for them forever, and if they’re not useful to you for life then they’ve violated some kind of social contract. Some of this is understandable considering that our natures were fashioned in tribal settings at a time when life spans were shorter than now. Social interactions were based on a long-term exchange of favors, called reciprocal altruism, and this binding social force can become unglued when one person gets ready to leave. The old tribal requirements for social relationships are no longer valid, and it takes effort to think of brief encounters as possibly having value.

Consider the logical consequences of the hypothetical position "My pet cat is destined to die from cancer in a matter of months, so why bother to keep it alive with medication and extra care?" The pet cat is destined to die sometime even if it were healthy, if not one month, then 5 years, so why have a pet cat in the first place. Each one of us is going to die in a few years, or decades, so why do we bother living? Each day of continued existence is brief when measured in cosmic time units, yet we bother to strive to enjoy each day. The brevity of our days should not diminish their value. Indeed, this brevity should enhance their value!

Categories of Time

In my view there are two categories for life activities: 1) life justifying activities, and 2) all others.

For me, life seems justified by such activities as reading a good book, having a good thought, listening to good music and enjoying the company of friends. I also feel life's justification while hiking in the mountains, breathing clean air, enjoying expansive views and having the quiet opportunity for "connecting" experiences and thoughts from that other life among humans. I feel a part of the universe after viewing it with my telescope, or photographing what the eye cannot see of a distant galaxy. These are things that meet two criteria: 1) they do not interfere with the lives of other people, or malign their beliefs, and 2) they enliven the individual's experience of life and contribute to the feeling that life is worth living.

The second category of life activities, "all others," is comprised of several sub categories. The most important of these is the sub category that makes possible activities of the first category. For example, before you can partake of life justifying activities, you must eat and have shelter, and for this you must earn money. Becoming self sufficient requires that you have a job that pays the bills. These things should go without saying, and I won't belabor the point.

Another sub category of "all other activities" is to fulfill obligations which are the result of decisions taken, or actions made, earlier in life. For example, if one has children then there is not only a moral obligation but also a natural desire to be responsive to their needs. If one has volunteered to help some organization that meets community needs, then fulfilling these obligations is a moral obligation.

I almost forgot a third category of time: that which is wasted!

Attending to the Positives

Returning to the matter of the life justifying "positives," each person is different and must make his own personal list of what makes sense for him. By intentionally thinking about these positives a person is probing the values that unconsciously underlie one's life. The mere acknowledgement of this category of activities, and the act of identifying them, should by itself "sensitize" the individual and empower him to take steps to "protect" the life justifying activities from less worthy ones. A technique I use is to "score" each day with two numbers, a score for the degree to which my day's activities contributed to the logistics for living in life justifying ways, and a score for how much the day's activities were life justifying. My goal is to live so that both scores are high, but especially the second one.

It would be somewhat maudlin and mawkish for me to recite hobbies, pastimes and favorite activities that for me are life justifying beyond the examples I have already given. Suffice it to say that everyone has a right to have favorite activities, and to be "true to themselves" by trying to work them into one's daily lifestyle. I leave it to you, reader, as a "homework assignment," to make your own list of life justifying activities.

Attention paid to life justifying activities is not only life affirming, it is individual  affirming. After all, tending to things that enhance the individual's appreciation for being alive is equivalent to taking the stance that the individual "I" is more important than the "self that is employed as a tool for the genes." Any person who takes these matters seriously will become engaged in a life long program of "personal liberation from one's genes."

After taking care of oneself as an individual by asserting the right to an experience of good things in life, the greatest challenge will be to avoid the negative, life denying activities that somehow "capture" us, and steal chunks of our finite time on the earth. “Negative people” must be avoided. We sometimes need to intentionally think about this negative category of activities, and I claim that we will be usefully guided in this task by identifying and eschewing those thoughts, emotions and behaviors that were selected by evolution for the benefit of the genes while incurring an expense to individual well being. The next chapter is a guide to this task.

In closing this chapter I offer some Schopenhauer aphorisms that pertain to wise living:

“In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.” Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands and thousands of years of non-existence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more.” Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism

"Each day is a little life: every waking and rising a little birth, every fresh morning a little youth, every going to rest and sleep a little death." Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Counsels and Maxims, 1851

“Most people, if they glance back when they come to the end of life, will find that all along they have been living ad interim: they will be surprised to find that the very thing they disregarded and let slip by unenjoyed was just the life in the expectation of which they passed all their time. Of how many a man may it not be said that hope made a fool of him until he danced into the arms of death!” Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism

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