If you think of the human mental system in terms comparable to the operating system of a computer, then there is a curious incompleteness about it. Of course the housekeeping functions, the bits that tell your body to breath and your heart to pump are under excellent autonomic control. Just as well too. If my breathing stopped as often as I forget to take the kettle off the stove, there’d be real trouble…
But if anything marks us out in the animal kingdom, it is the drive to pursue agendas that wildly exceed looking for the next morsel to eat, or screwing the handsomest male or female that scent can find. That is, it is the drive of some of us to do other things is out of proportion to immediate survival needs.
Feeding and breeding do remain the dominant obsessions of all but a small minority. Yet even feeding and breeding for humans usually requires a meandering trajectory of plans, strategies and manipulation. All of these can easily go astray, and the ability to retrack, reintegrate and pursue a distant goal varies greatly both amongst individuals and in different cultural groups. Sometimes whole populations enter a downward spiral of lethargy, neglect and failure, so that by the minimal criteria of maintaining a mere animal population they begin to fall by the wayside. Grasshoppers and, say, fungal viruses, seem to have no such problem. What do humans need that grasshoppers don’t in order to remain energetic, goal directed and productive?
The magic constituent goes by many names. If we’re still talking about computer operating systems, you could say that the critical unit was a “dongle” (an electronic key, often taking the form of an external plug-in module, which completes a critical circuit in the computer program). If you are religiously inclined you would probably say that the dongle was god, a convocation of gods, or a population of involved spirits (e.g. ghosts of the dead). If you are an ideologue, then the dongle will be manifested in some dogma — Marxism, Maoism, Confucianism, the Bible, the Koran, Mein Kampf and so on. Textualized dogmas of this kind are often defended and promoted violently (for reasons that are beyond our scope here). If you are a psychologist in the American mould, then you will probably talk about a dominant motivation …
Although the magic dongle in the human mental system goes by many names, its function is universal and unambiguous. The dongle offers an answer to the question, WHY. Why am I here? Why should I do this or that? Why should I love my neighbour? Why should I kill my neighbour? Why should I tolerate cultural differences? Why shouldn’t I tolerate cultural differences ? Why should I delay immediate gratification? Why should I seek out new innovations? Why should I resist change? … etc. These are the “big WHYs” which have a decisive influence on the performance of a thousand “little HOWs”.
If success is performance, then the actual repertoire of big-WHYs, and the content give to their answers by some dogma, is less important than the conviction with which they are believed. If god/gods/spirits/nature/the “laws” of capitalism … favoured one group of human believers above another, or one rite of worship before another, then all the humans who were not Hindus, or Shintoists, or Christians, or Muslims, or Wall Street stockbrokers … or whatever, would be condemned to failure at best, and a fiery hereafter at worst. By some intriguing mechanism of mental computation, all of these diverse believers have no trouble in accepting that the non-believers outside of their particular sect do indeed suffer some debilitating fate.
This warping mechanism is absent from my own brain: simple observation persuades me that no group of believers has the ear of any god for favours. On the other hand, observation also leads me to admit that those who are sure of their dongle, whatever its colour, have an impressive tool for action. They have inserted a key into their mental system which allows it to go from WHY to HOW. Once given a clearance to proceed, the human brain is a superb mechanism for devising answers to HOW.