The Most Important Question
Humankind is an absolutely remarkable species. To the greatest extent of all creatures on earth, we are able to manipulate our environment to create the world in which we live, rather than adapt the way in which we live to the environment itself. Where other species find hollow logs, caves or even construct nests, we build cities. Where other species have evolved dense fur coats to protect themselves against the elements, we weave clothing. And, while other species may or may not encounter the concept of “beauty” within their natural world, we require it to such an extent that we forever define and redefine the concept, building monuments, tearing them down again and reconstructing the planet to suit our fancy until we are left with Disney World. Yet, we still run the place.
Why? What is it about humans that has made all of this possible? Is it the storied opposable thumb? Stereoscopic vision? Advanced Alien technology? Dumb luck? No. It is something far more complex. It is the question.
Humans ask questions of everything. What is this thing? Is it safe to eat? Can I put my weight on it? Can I “use” this to my advantage? At a certain level, the questions we ask of our world surpass in complexity those of the rest of our animal brethren. At some point in our development as a species, the questions we asked began to build upon each other as we retained the “answers” to the previous questions, and we found ourselves asking questions which could not be easily answered. Animals, if they ask questions (and I believe they do), ask direct ones which place the universe (reality) first and themselves as secondary players within it. People do just the opposite. We place ourselves and our needs first and ask of the universe how it might be changed to suit us.
I tend to think that there has evolved a hierarchical pattern to these inquiries and that at all times, there has been a most important question, one which may have been unanswerable at the time but which served as a focusing agent for thought and ultimately, change in our evolution. As a scientific or social inquest, we must admit that in the absence of the written record, all speculation into this most important question is done without absolute evidence. Never-the-less, I believe we can make a few bold guesses.
My pulse quickens each time I look at the cave paintings from Lascaux and Altamira, images some forty thousand years old, wondrously preserved and handed down to us from some of the first of our ancestors to see fit to preserve a level of knowledge of their world in record form. It is not possible to gaze upon this art and fail to see those ancestors as anything but intelligent beings, immensely sensitive to the workings of the world around them. The detail in the paintings speaks to generations of careful observation of the natural world and often reveals that same questioning nature about the workings and meanings of all things.
To some anthropologists, this delineates the moment when our ancestors developed “consciousness.” Today, we look at those paintings and ask a question back through forty thousand years: “Who were they?” We might reasonably suppose that at the time the paintings were created, those same people were asking, “Who are we?” or, on an individual level, “Who am I?” Indeed, that was probably the first most important question.
And quite a question that was. I imagine a scene in which a small group of our ancestors are huddled over the lifeless body of one of their own and a realization sets in that their friend on the ground is somehow less than what he was a moment ago. The body is the same, but something is missing, something that made him uniquely him and not someone else. And then, that human quality of asking questions would be redirected inward as our ancestor asks what it is that makes me uniquely me and not someone else. How can that question be answered without developing an entire repertoire of answers which encompass the beginnings of spirituality and personal identity? In that moment of awakening, we have the beginnings of all human civilization to follow.
So too, through time, questions have arisen which were never completely answerable, each building upon the choices of what to believe that were made to answer prior questions. If we answered the question of “Who am I?” by developing a concept of soul to explain the spark which makes us uniquely distinguishable from our compatriots, then it would follow that we ask from whence the soul arises. Who or what was the first soul? The creation myth develops and we find ourselves asking “What is God?” As people hash these concepts out and find that they have agreed to share an acceptance of a particular answer, they then ask, “What does God want of us?” or “What is my relation to God?” Each time, the question shapes the thought process of not just an individual, but of an entire community.
That notion, in and of itself, has some remarkable implications. For in community and in the idea of a communal form of thinking, people have found an ability to ascend to the top of the Earth’s food chain. And in one sense, it does not matter at all if we are right or wrong in what we think. Animals live in the real world and their continued existence is determined by their actions and reactions to real stimuli. But humanity is able to live in a world of fanciful invention and still thrive. To say it even more simply and directly, people have demonstrated that we can shape an existence out of an outright lie and not just ward off extinction, but multiply to numbers that threaten to choke the resources of the entire planet.
At one time, many people were convinced that the earth was flat and limited to an area of Europe encompassing the Mediterranean and the Near East. That did not stop us. It did not even slow us down. With the rise of the concept of a spiritual world, religions were begat which had a multitude of gods living on or about Mount Olympus, occupying the Druidic forests of Great Britain, or gathering in Valhalla. Now there is but one god, except that it may be Allah, Jehovah, Pangu, Waheguru, or Bill Gates. And that is not to forget the understanding of the Melanesian John Frum Cult, who believe that god will return to them in the body of a great silver bird, bearing gifts of clothing and canned goods. If we are to assert that any one of these concepts may have been misguided, we should ask if any of the others have more tangible evidence. If it might be the case that all but one of these ideas is wrong headed, we can not rule out the possibility that in fact all of them are. In any case, humanity continues to grow and manipulate the world to suit its own belief systems, regardless of their righteousness.
The most important question has not always been spiritual in origin. Indeed, all too secular concerns have come to dominate the thought processes of people since the latter half of the twentieth century. If the 1950’s were dominated by concerns of “Are we going to destroy each other with Atomic weapons and nuclear fallout?,” the 1960’s first put the focus on government and the question of “Can we trust our own leaders to tell us the truth?” Unable to find solace in the answers which presented themselves, the latter 1970’s and 80’s found us essentially asking, “What’s in it for me?” With only a little imagination, we can see where that has led us. Profligate credit card spending, inherited debt, the currency of the MBA degree, pyramid schemes, entertainment as institution and a communications medium which otherwise could disseminate knowledge, dominated by reality television which has reshaped Kim Kardashian into the Oracle at Delphi.
From “Who am I?” to “What’s in it for me?” might be viewed as either a linear or circular pattern of thought. If it is the former, I fear we may be doomed. If it is the latter, the wheel may yet turn. Of course, the purpose of these musings is to beg your own participation in the process, rather than a sad resignation to the suggestions herein. So, I would leave you with this most important question candidate for 2015 and the foreseeable future: “Whom does it serve?”
Among the many changes to human civilization over time, perhaps the most significant lies in the rapidity and broadness of change itself. Our world may at one time have moved at an ox-cart pace, then a sailing ship pace, steamship pace, Model-T pace and rocket ship pace. Now it moves at a laser’s pace and it does not stop to explain itself. Stop to take a breath and the world has passed you by. The risk for all of us is that it will do just that, compelling us to accept a new reality of new institutions and gods, unaccountable to all that have been left in the dust. No institution of government or commerce asks for your understanding or agreement when presenting you with the new reality. Operating under the assumption that it is easier (and more profitable) to ask forgiveness than to ask permission, these institutions which oversee our lives “assume the sale,” assume acceptance and, in the absence of protest, move forward as rapidly as possible.
It is then up to us to demand accountability of them. Like Luddites armed with spanners, we must throw into the workings of government, commerce and the media which acts as their spokesperson a wrench inscribed in that simple, yet most important question: “Whom does it serve?” At each opportunity, we must slow the process of change by demanding of our institutions an accounting. If I am to believe the current proclamation, who will benefit from that? Does that individual or institution have an agenda, which, if I become cognizant of it, would make me change my reaction to the proclamation itself? Is it not too much to ask for tangible evidence before I pledge my allegiance?
Manipulation of our thought process has become a very subtle process. Before an institution of government or commerce tries to sell us a new reality, seeds are sown throughout the media to begin the process of moving our belief systems in a particular direction. The rise of PACs and organizations which support political candidates and agendas without obvious ties to same (“527” groups like Swift Boat Veterans For Truth) is a very obvious example of a situation in which the most important question begged answering before a blind acceptance of the report could be made. For those of us with Facebook accounts, we are “Faced” with this dilemma every day. Can or should we believe the reports which come across our pages from “friends” we have made? How are their positions vetted? Who “broke the story” and what is their agenda?
Yet another election season will soon be upon us. Let us start with the supposed purveyors of information who would have us believe this or that about any of the candidates (including the candidates as purveyors themselves) and require of them a simple answer to a simple question: “Whom does it serve?” When that slick campaign ad flits across your screen, rich with images of rural Americana, patriotic music and a smiling, confidant candidate, ask yourself, “Who paid for this?” “What do they hope to get out of the election of this candidate?” “Why do they want me to believe this particular message?” Check out the answer and make up your own mind. Then start asking that same question of your leaders, your corporations, your textbooks and your bloggers.