Rules Not Reason

Although I’m fiercely optimistic and generally positive about life, humanity, the universe, and everything, I do sometimes find myself slipping into the deep recesses of despair in response to some things in the world.

So I wanted to amble down this path and think, just briefly, about why, as a species, we’ve consistently engaged in atrocities from the holocaust, to slavery, and everything in between but just as important – why the majority agree/ignore the practices when they’re in full swing.

Allow me to focus on an issue of similar importance which is happening right now.

Animal agriculture is demonstrably awful. Let’s look at the up sides:

  1. Meat briefly tastes excellent

Now the bad sides:

  1. Billions of defenceless animals live a life of suffering and pain
  2. Those same animals are subjected to violent, painful deaths
  3. The planet is overwhelmed by the pollution caused through the practice
  4. The human body degrades heavily when subjected to animal products

And yet, thanks to extreme social conditioning most people don’t give a flying pig.

Why is this?

Not abusing animals for momentary pleasure is so profoundly straightforward and obvious, that there is no counter argument that stands to any amount of reason. And interestingly, a significant emotional response can be evoked through just showing people how animal agriculture works.

So why is it that people ignore this?

I believe that every human (and likely beyond) is running on profoundly simple rules and nothing more. Somewhere along the great evolutionary tale our ancestral biology stumbled upon a set of simple rules which it layered upon more and more rules of stunning simplicity.

I suggest the following rules as an extract:

  1. Exploit any opportunity which makes you feel good
  2. Discard any information that isn’t immediately useful or contradicts (1)

Nothing groundbreaking. Of course “feel good” is broad, so how about a definition:

  1. I pass on my genetic code
  2. I survive longer (in service of 1)
  3. I become stronger along some axis of import (in service of 2)
  4. I move up the social hierarchy (in service of 1, 2, or 3)

Mediated by the key chemical reactions in our brain, I think those rules cover a significant amount, if not all, behaviour across the animal kingdom. And I suspect that many a researcher has defined, in more detail and with robust evidence (likely by exploiting rats in a lab), similar rules.

Rules beat out reason.

Further along the evolutionary tract we started to leverage our memory and mental aptitude to conceptualise the world and apply our rules in a networked fashion with other creatures. We fell into a never-ending dream that we nicknamed consciousness.

And as this thing we call personal identity became more important, we had to reason our way through the world. We became the central instrument in the universe experiencing itself – codifying our experiences and defining concepts of extreme complexity in order to help us understand the world.

We discarded our animal kin and drew thick lines between the animal kingdom and the soulful humanity that we are uniquely possessed with. We span a narrative of god-given supremacy which morphed into scientific discovery – and we started converting the natural order into abstract notation.

We wrote the score and started to sing, dance, and write all at once. We became civilised and space-faring, freed from the shackles of unconscious, undirected, uninspired evolution, and finally we became our own gods – masters of our own experiences.

But beneath the grand cathedral of the human condition there they still lay. Motionless and unchanging.

Rules, not reason.