All Happiness is Individual (and Human)

The truth of the proposition that all happiness (or wellbeing) is individual flows out of understanding that happiness or wellbeing (as well as suffering) only exists within the realm of experience, that is, within an Existence which has consciousness and self-consciousness, at a level of developed complexity which is found only in Human Beings.

There may be other beings in the universe who are as cognitively complex as (or even more so than) Human Beings, but we haven’t met them yet. If we do meet them, they will either be enough like us that their individuality will also be of paramount importance in the same way ours is, or they will be so different (and perhaps even “superior”) that the diversity which we and they represent will also be worth respecting and nurturing.

In spite of the recent evidence that non-human animals have rudimentary forms of awareness and even self-awareness, these do not enter the same domain of functioning as human consciousness and thought. Animal thinking and communication do not involve the symbolic and abstract functions of human language. Animals don’t have abstract concepts of time and causality or complex logic. A bird may have the capacity to use a twig to pry an insect out of a crack in a tree’s bark, but only humans could label this as “tool using”. The bird will never create an electric drill to bore deeper into the tree to retrieve a more remote insect. Dolphins don’t build airplanes or write poetry and they don’t ask “why questions”. And this is not just because they don’t have opposable thumbs. With the evolutionary development of Humans there arises the distinction between “life” and “Existence”. This is a difference in kind rather than one of degree.

Since there has been no creditable evidence that Human Beings can directly share their experiences with each other, it is clear that the functions of conscious awareness and self- consciousness only belong to individuals. Each person’s inner world — which includes thoughts (mostly words and images), feelings, intentions, perceptions and sensations — occurs only within that individual Human Being. It is true that those experiences are influenced deeply by the physical and shared cultural world of the individual who experiences them, but their reality is unique and private. The use of the term “group consciousness” (or the idea that there is a “cosmic consciousness”) is not useful because it blurs the crucial distinction between what we know about Human Existence, and other issues which may be important but should be considered using other concepts and terms.

The intrinsically private nature of Human Beings’ inner world leads to our existential aloness and the experience of existential loneliness. The solitude of our experienced phenomenological world is one of the motivations for the attempts of individuals to communicate to other individuals and to develop shared and sharing forms of communication. Humans develop channels and modes of communication that are culturally shared, and available for individual expression — speech, writing, art, cell phones, the internet, radios. Language can connect us, but our need to connect inheres in the recognition that what happens in our phenomenological world, what we experience, is not directly known in its uniqueness by anyone else. And neither language nor art nor technology can fully bridge the gap that separates us from others.

If all of the above is true, then it follows that only individuals, as a part of their individual experience, can be happy, or have a sense of wellbeing. Or to get at it from another perspective, happiness and wellbeing are experiences and the evidence suggests that only the individual consciousness and the individual self-awareness which occurs at the human level is capable of giving rise to such experiences.

Acceptance of the proposition that wellbeing and happiness are experiences that occur only in Human individuals, along with the corollary assumption that the capacity to have such inner states has great positive value, leads to a consideration of several other possible truths.

First among these is the proposal that the individual Human Being ought to be the unit of concern in the study and understanding of Human Existence. Furthermore, it appears likely that efforts to support happiness as a goal or value for human living should also be focused on the individual as the proper unit of concern. (The Declaration of Independence indicates that it is the government’s [communal] function to protect [individuals’] right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Perhaps it should have been amended so that individual Existence, as well as “life”, would be protected by a proper political system.)

This point of view also leads to the specific suggestion that psychology should be, at its core, the study of individuals. This would mean that all group statistical methods should be seen as only capable of generating hypotheses which may prove useful for understanding individual Humans Beings. From this point of view statistical evidence should not be seen as a proper way to make fully informed decisions about how to promote human welfare or health (medical science take note).

Darwin’s theoretical formulation of evolution includes the concept that the process is driven by dynamics whose function is to promote the survival of the species. The nature of Human Existence leads to an understanding that we should be more properly directed to protecting the survival of the individual Human being(or perhaps individuality as manifest in individuals).

It is, of course, necessarily true, that if the human species doesn’t survive, there will be no individuals. If there is no species or group there can’t be any individuals to manifest Human self-awareness and consciousness and the unique worlds of individual experience they support. However, if we don’t preserve individuality and individuals who can host and create and recreate Human consciousness we have not really preserved the Human species. It is in this sense that the individual and the collective aspects of Human life and existence are two sides of the same coin. We need to be able to keep both in mind to preserve our survival in full Human form.

The word “preserve” is used purposefully, because another aspect of Human Existence is that we, with our vast technological prowess and our ability to make choices, now play a major role in determining whether we will survive and in what form. Our communally created technologies, our culture, has led us to another unprecedented situation in the universe as we know it. We can destroy ourselves collectively and individually, our Existences as well as our lives. Chimpanzees don’t build hand grenades, much less hydrogen bombs.

In addition to the possibility that we might destroy ourselves through weaponry, there is also the possibility that we will annihilate Human life or Human Existence through what we do to our environment and also through what we do to our own life form. Pollution and global warming, or nuclear holocaust might wipe out our lives, or send us back to a preliterate life without full Human Existence. However we might wipe out Human Existence through what appears to be a much more benign and salutary technological development. Our ability to change our own DNA and our biological life form could be used to preserve Human life with or without preserving Human Existence.

There are other possible paths to Human self-destruction, including a misunderstood and mismanaged relationship to the information machines we are creating. So called “artificial intelligence” might be allowed to displace Human choosing. A step in the right direction might be to start calling what machines can do, “artificial cognition”, rather than “artificial intelligence”. Among other major issues which suggest that machines can’t have full Human intelligence is that while they might become better and better at thinking, they aren’t capable of feeling in the human sense. They are not centered in a living body. They don’t have Human, individual experience.

We can’t hope to reliably and accurately replicate or improve Human Beings or Human Existence (with biological or computing technology), because we can’t reliably and accurately specify exactly what individual Human experience is (see the above discussion of our existential aloneness). We should also note that just as in the case of “superior” beings from other planets or universes, we can make the argument that we should stay in charge of preserving Human life and Existence because of their uniqueness if not their demonstrable superiority. Again, the standard is not survival of the fittest, but rather survival of what is inherently valuable because of our individual uniqueness.

Because we Humans can think systemically, and can apprehend the relatedness of all things (for example understanding that all wealth is communal) we can and do easily lose sight of the balancing truth that human consciousness and awareness only reside in individual Human beings — this truth should lead us to value the individual as precious and sacred. We need to value our individual selves (as well as “others”) enough to preserve ourselves and others. This will lead us to manage technology with a wisdom which we have not engaged up until now.

We have been smart enough to build hydrogen bombs, but not smart enough not to. We were smart enough to discover how to use coal and oil to power the industrial revolution, but not smart enough to realize we needed to do this in ways that didn’t create toxicity that would threaten our lives and existences. We are smart enough to create enough food to feed all on the planet, but not smart enough to know how to make it available to people who need it. We are smart enough to map the human genome and figure out ways to modify it to fight various physical ailments, but we have such a narrow view of health, that we may be wasting our resources in this effort. If we go further and attempt to “improve” Human life, we may destroy the goose that lays the golden egg of our Existence. If we keep unintelligently and unwisely following every possibility generated by our technological prowess, we may well destroy the very essence of what it means to be Human.

There are two fundamental metaphysical principles that describe the dynamics of the universe and these can be called BALANCE AND FLOW (in contradancing this is called “balance and swing”). These principles also define the health of every Human Being whether considered as a whole or in relation to the aspects of Body Mind and Spirit. This essay in part is written to represent a truth which balances the polarity pertaining to my previous writing here (All Wealth Is Communal). As suggested in various ways in this essay, Human Existence has essential communal and individual aspects: one cannot be without the other. In order to survive and in order to be happy, we have to understand and act with intelligence and wisdom in relation to both. The collective and private aspects of our lives have to be in balance.

The aspect of Human Existence where the individual and communal aspects of our world come together, is in the realm that is typically called spirituality. This aspect is where Human life becomes Human Existence. The spiritual world is theoretical and not material. Its central challenge comes from our awareness of death (we are the only creatures who know that we are going to die). This creates a sense of meaninglessness and the challenge of creating meaning.

It seems that any successful effort to create meaning or purpose (in the face of our awareness of the finiteness of our individual life and Existence) has to include a system of values that takes us beyond the confines of our individuality. Whether philosophical or religious, the basis of our valuing connects us to something larger than our own individual egos. One cannot construct a set of principles defining Truth and Goodness and Beauty, without reference to something beyond the self.

Our biological, material selves operate at the level of pain and pleasure and are tied to physiological and biological needs — hunger, thirst, sexuality. Our spiritual needs relate to the need for meaning, to find purposes that are beyond our individual life in its current time and place. This is what leads to the possibility of caring about others and their wellbeing as well as our own. Again, the precursors of altruism and sharing and caring for others may exist in rudimentary biological form in animals who groom each other and may fight to protect one another or share food with one another. But the development of systems of meaning that include values beyond the individual is a Human capability which also can provide the basis for balancing and transcending the destructive power of Human self-centeredness and greed, which we amplify a million-fold with our culture and technology.

The arguments presented here, still do not address the practicable, reality-based challenge of how we can move from where we are to where we ought to go. How do we promote the practice of intelligence and wisdom in our collective decision-making? How do we protect the profoundly valuable experience of every individual so that there are people who can experience more wellbeing and less suffering? How do we sufficiently increase the practice of our values so that they protect and further the communal and individual aspects of our lives and our Existences?

I cannot claim to have the answers to these questions. I will continue to explore the questions and possible answers which might grow out of the ideas presented in these first two essays (and some of my other writings (HarrisStern.com, Kindle Books, archived newsletters on Constant Contact). I welcome engagement with others who find the search worthwhile and exciting, full of possibilities and being important enough to be called an Existence and death matter.

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A non-technical philosopher and a practicing licensed psychologist/psychotherapist. I have a developing theory which I call Wholistic Existential Anthropology.