The River of Humanity: Of Forces and Free Will
Like the cool drops of the Nile or the brilliant stars of the Milky Way, humankind is a vast river, but of individual souls, forging ahead into territories dark and uncertain. We have a history that is made up of countless incidents flowing from one into the other, events and occurrences that define what we have been and what we have done. Together these incidents weave a net of influence over the ever-shifting mindset of the present, and statistically determine the course of society as a group. Our behavior is formed by the history we’ve created, and the inertia of this history pushing us forward through time is a difficult force to resist. Thus, as a group, we behave in a broad and predictable manner. Someone sufficiently familiar with the history and psychology of a given group can with great accuracy predict the reaction of that group to outside influence. For example, when the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001, retaliation was to be expected by anyone familiar with the policies and psychology of the American government. Likewise, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, anyone well-versed in the history of extremist Muslim militant groups could have predicted the violent insurgency that arose. These are easy and obvious examples, but the principle holds true whether you’re talking about nations or religious groups or labor unions. Any group is defined by its principles, which have been arrived at over time, through a process of fine-tuning and adjustment in reaction to internal and external influences. The drive and direction of a group’s reaction is driven by its history, its passion and its conviction—these are difficult forces to resist, and as a result, their reactions can be predicted in a general manner.
That said, the future course of human history is not a set and determined affair, because of the free will and creativity that we can exercise on an individual level. We are all the autonomous authors of our own actions to one degree or another, but it is that variance of degree that allows for the broad, predictable group behavior alluded to above. A group will tend to act a certain way, and although all members within that group have the potential for free will, the psychological force behind society’s traditions and views serve to dampen the individual spark. Most individuals exercise their free will well within the prescribed parameters of society’s “accepted” behavior, and therefore they don’t create too many waves in the pond. This phenomenon is what lends our societies the stability they enjoy. However, there are occasional examples of individuals that push their free will beyond the self-imposed limits that others are bound by, and it is this that gives society its vitality and creativity. These are the great leaders that bring about social improvements, the inventors that create wonders, the artists that touch our souls. But the inner strength needed to break beyond the bounds of the norm is rare and difficult to sustain. This is just as well, for if we all were to challenge our society’s structures at once, our societies would collapse into chaos. The individual tendency to follow the norms is natural, and understanding this offers us a valuable chance to re-evaluate the actions and motivations of others with an informed and reasonable clarity of mind.
If we truly understand the history of a people, we cannot be so quick to criticize and to judge. As an example, the deplorable chaos found in the Middle East these days is a direct, I would say inevitable, result of a combination of historical factors: the political and economic manipulation by Europe’s hungry empires, the tribal nature of the cultures that lived there, the religious conflicts inherent in the variety of passionate views existing in such close quarters, and many others. These conflictive elements can very reasonably lead to the violence that we observe today. In any case, the particulars of this example, and the specific points I raise, are only incidental. The important point is that everything we see happen in the world is a result of events pushing upon us from the past with a certain and inexorable force. That is not to be interpreted as determinism because it reflects only a tendency toward predictability, not a binding requirement of it. We each have the free will to learn from past mistakes, to change our viewpoints, to alter the course of events around us. But this ability is an individual one, not one pertaining to entire groups. Any group, whether it be “Christians” or “Britons” or “nomads” have an undeniable and powerful hand pressing them forward through history, and the how and why of the direction they are being pushed in is determined by where the group has been and what external forces have acted upon it. The ability to exercise free will in this picture emerges at the level of the individual, who can do whatever he or she wishes, despite the forceful urgings of history. Sometimes, under exceptional circumstances, this individual may be able to affect a great number of others in his group and thereby cause a wider change to come about, which would in turn change the direction of the historical push acting upon the group.
Now, if we can gain sufficient perspective on the matter, we can step back far enough to see that the groups we are discussing here are not as separate as they seem, but are actually subdivisions in a single, world-spanning group. The historical hand now can be seen to push at the whole of humanity at once, while the subgroups and individuals within the world-group subtly affect the course of its history.
If we view this historical hand pushing us along as a physical, classical force, then the individual ability to exercise free will and deny this universal force is the quantum uncertainty in the equation. The human mind, with its structural complexity so intricate as to render its actions essentially unpredictable on an individual level, has the potential to consciously decide against the tide of forces acting upon it. On a group level, however, the behavior is much more predictable, the more so the greater our understanding of the details of the historical push propelling it forward. Think of the course of human events as a river flowing through the universal bedrock, while each individual consciousness is a molecule of water. It would be impossible to predict the location and motion of each individual molecule in this vast river, given the incalculable number of factors acting upon it—wind, waves, rocks, etc. Any single molecule could move upward or downward, speed onward or become trapped in a cove, even become splashed up onto the riverbanks. But the course of the river as a whole is much more predictable. It is as if the water cuts its way through the universal bedrock, so that its own past course propels the force to determine its future course. The unpredictability of the individual molecules is the key that introduces the element of uncertainty. If enough molecules splash a certain way, or overflow in a certain direction, the stream could be diverted, or a new rivulet be formed that would eventually become a river in its own right.
Like the wandering river’s course, Humanity moves forward through time and space. The speed and direction in which we move is determined by a combination of our past actions and ongoing universal events. These two forces are powerful and difficult to deny, and, just as a flowing river cannot simply jump one hundred feet south all at once, but must gradually alter its course as a result of slow geological forces, so it is that extreme changes in the flow of human events must usually come about one individual at a time, and in such a way that the individual can effect a stable and wide-reaching change in the behaviors of those around him. It is not easy, but it is possible—that is the beauty and the power of human consciousness.
The physicist/philosopher Amit Goswami presents an intriguing explanation of this cultural inertia within the framework of quantum physics. He points out that, in our day-to-day experience, we have the choice to follow our learned, historical tendencies or to make a creative leap into a new direction. But the learned tendencies, he cautions, are backed up by powerful forces—
"The conditioned states of our own personal, learned memories are heavily weighted in the probability pool, and the statistical weights of the new, as-yet unconditioned states are small… How do we overcome the overwhelming odds that favor the artfulness of old memory over the genuine art of the new in this game of chance?"
—Amit Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe
That is to say, when faced with choices in the selection of our actions (or reactions), we are strongly compelled to select those with which we are comfortably familiar or that are reinforced by our society’s beliefs.
All of which brings us back to the actions and views of the separate groups existing in the world. If we understand how society is propelled forward by means of its own history, we can better comprehend the futility of prejudice and divisiveness. There are differences between us, to be sure, although I would argue that there are more similarities, if the truth be told. Nevertheless, these differences are inevitably the result of each group’s past, some characteristics positive and some negative, of course, but all of them inherited by the individuals therein. To understand this inheritance is to understand that it is pointless to judge others based upon their differences. If another group possesses characteristics that seem to have a negative influence on your own group, it is unjust, and unwise, to criticize them simply for that. We are what we have made ourselves (if not individually then certainly as elements in a wider cultural flow), and few people would intentionally make of themselves a negative element. The impressions that lead one to think of another as an enemy are too colored by one’s own cultural influences to be trusted. If we are objective enough we will see that the other group believes itself to be as right and as just as does one’s own. There may be differences to be resolved, but if these are addressed from a position of objectivity and compassion, our relations will be much more positive and constructive than if we react with anger and retribution as our guides. We must understand that the position of the “opposing” group is determined by the broad forces pushing it forward, and as such it is not a consciously selected position. It is the individual we must look to if we are to affect change within the wider group. By this I refer not simply to changing others and bending them to our own will, but rather to mutually coming together to a middle course of greater understanding and cooperation. In such flexibility can be discovered the seeds of wisdom and compassion. It is only by realizing that the extreme differences between us are the unintentional results of human history, and not of a conscious decision to oppose or threaten each other, that we can come to see this middle path of acceptance and empathy. Here we may see that we are more alike than different, more like friends than strangers, more like able sailors on the river of Humanity than stowaways helplessly awaiting our ultimate fate. We can sail onward toward peace, if only we set our sights in the right direction.
November 30, 2005
by Peter Patrick Barreda, material copyright 2009, all rights reserved