Monday, January 28, 2008

I am who I am...

Each and every one of us is a product of our experiences. I can't state it more plainly than that. How we see the world, how we interact with each other and what our beliefs are, all these things are filtered through our experiences. How could it be otherwise?

To understand how it is I came to be the person I am today, one would need to have a deep understanding of how I grew up and the experiences I had. We are beings that can only exist in the moment. We can only remember the past imperfectly at best. We cannot know the future at all. Having any 'knowlege' of the future will, by definition, change that future. Using that logic it's easy to see why time travel is a fundamental impossibility for beings who are temporal. We exist in the moment. The person that I was this morning when I was stuck at a dead stop for 30 minutes on I-495 Northbound...he's gone. The experiences I've had over the interval of time since then and this moment have made me a different person! Granted not much has changed but CHANGED I am. What is the point of this existential analysis? I cannot be anything else but who I am at any given moment.

I often read about or hear from people, most of the time they are theists of some flavor or another, who claim to have led shall we say less than moral lives up until they found whatever religion they now espouse. They will say how they were BAD in some way or another. "I did lots of drugs" or "I drank to excess every night" or "I hung out with the trouble makers" or "I slept around" or "I stole often". Sometimes the people relaying the narrative did not just one but many of these things. Inevitably the stories all have something in common: they all have a point where the teller hits rock bottom. A point where the subject has nothing or no one else to turn to. This is where they 'find' or 'found by' their religion. The person then relays how he or she was 'changed' by the message of the religion. Often it's a compelling story of the triumph of faith in the face of huge odds. Clearly, the person who has live this experience owes much those who helped he or she find the way back to socially acceptable behavior. For my part I am glad they had the experiences they did and can now be counted among the good in society.

So what is my point? Simple. What if a person has always led a more or less moral life, in the conventional sense, without the burdens of substance abuse or promiscuous behavior or anti-social tendencies? Or maybe some combination of all these pathologies? I am such a person. I have never used any sort of illicit substance, I've never had any run in with an authority figure of more consequence than a moving violation while driving. I have never exhibited any on-going pattern of anti-social behavior. Am I more moral than people have had such behaviors? What accounts for the differences in our lives?

The answer seems simple enough to me. We are products of our experiences. Generally people are not born predisposed to anti-social behavior short of brain defects. We aren't 'born evil' and have to be taught to be good. I would defy any parent to look at their infant child and say, "Oh my! What evil little monster! I'd better 'hop to it' and start teaching him to be good!" An infant only knows that it needs. It doesn't even know what it needs very early on, only that it's uncomfortable in some way. This discomfort is effectively expressed in rather loud manner! It doesn't stem from some evil nature. Generally the source of the discomfort is hunger or wetness or gas pressure or even loneliness. It only knows it needs. After an all too short period time an infant realizes, "when I cry, I get attention". There's no evil involved. As the child grows into a toddler the parents start to teach empathy a higher human behavior. This behavior while not necessary for the basic survival of the child it is necessary from the standpoint of a civilized society. Generally we agree that it is a good thing to consider the feelings of others BEFORE we act. A child who hasn't been taught empathy is NOT evil. However, a person who HAS been taught empathy and and HAS exhibited empathy in the past and then chooses to act in a way contrary to the norms of a civilized society for no reason other than selfish motive can be called evil, and more or less rightly so. So whence comes this 'evil'? A better question is what is evil? The eternal question...

Is evil the work of demons or some sort of other-worldly agent? Are we nothing but the pawns of unseen Good and Evil spectral beings? If that's the case can we really be blamed for our actions or inactions? In such a view we are naught but chess pieces in a game between powers we cannot perceive. What then becomes of the concept of freewill? Would it not make more sense that evil or behavior we categorize as evil be nothing more than human unwillingness to empathize with our fellow humans? This could stem from the failure of the parents to teach empathy or the environment in which a child was raised that didn't foster and encourage empathy. Most of us are born to parents who are part of societies. Those parents if they are free within society must exhibit behaviors that are to some point conducive to living in that soceity, or they wouldn't be free. Sometimes though, the conditions of the family are such that a child does not get a good example of what it means to live in a soceity. Anti-social behaviors go uncorrected. So a child grows up to believe that there are no consequences to anti-social behaviors. The child is the product of his or her experiences. We could spend years talking about what leads to this breakdown between parent and child. But it's clear to me the failing is there in the relationship between parent and child. Not the influence of spectral beings.

I grew up in a moderately observant Roman Catholic home. For the most part I obeyed my parents, even when I believed their wishes were wrong or at least suspect. In my early to mid teen years I attended church, CCD and partook in the sacraments even though such participation chafed against my growing skepticism of Catholic dogmas. Why did I do this? Because I lived in my parents house and I realized that they were acting in what they thought were my best interests. What good could possibly come from my rebelling against my parents? I knew that the time would come when I would be able to stand up for the views that I believed. I decided to empathize with my parents and from that I realized open and wanton rebellion against them would only hurt them and strain our relationship.

Today, I am a confident and proud atheistic-agnostic. I have a deep and meaningful relationship with my parents who respect my choices even if they are contrary to theirs. I have a deep and moralistic view of what it means to be a member of soceity. I credit my upbringing for this morality not the divine. I feel that my own moral compass is far stronger than some of those who profess to be Christian or Muslim.

Contrast my own journey with that of a person who describes their own arrival at a moral sense through a relationship with the divine. Who has a better claim to morality? Can anyone even definitively make such a judgment?

We are all products of our experiences...the doorways we choose to go through or forced to go through....


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