The Human existence is fraught with many conundrums and dilemmas, the chief among them being how to live a good life and how to resolve the various contradictions in the service of that goal.

Conundrum novel cover

Conundrum novel cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To start with, I noted in an earlier post that even infants are able to reason about the world and themselves and others using four cognitive frameworks:  they see self and others as animals (biological reasoning system), as agents (psychological reasoning system) , as separated individuals (sociomoral reasoning system) and finally as impartial observers obeying physical laws(physical reasoning system).  We as humans are all of these- both animals and individuals; agents and observers.

We also face significant challenges when thinking of ourselves in these domains; thinking of us as mere animals that will die one day brings existential dread of death and wants us to transcend that by asserting or cultural identities (see more here).

  1. Awareness: As an observer our primary role is to become aware. Aware of ourselves and aware of the world. Aware of our separateness from the world and the need to transcend that and become aware of us being a part of the world. There is a trade-off between being aware of one as separate and being aware of one as a part of the world. Mysticism or spirituality where one merges with the world is one thing that enters at this level.
  2. Being: As an animal our primary role is to just be…for as long as possible. Being authentic and true to our self is a prime motivator here as is the desire to transcend death and become a part of cultural milieu by playing adequately the role assigned to us by our culture. There is a dynamic tension between juts being ‘ourselves’ and fitting in to cultural expectations of norms and roles to be a good cultural animal. Culture enters the equation at this level.
  3. Choice: As an agent our primary role is to exercise choice. Being free to make choice is a keen motivator but so is the need to commit ourselves to certain values, certain moral principles that can justify our choices. Having certain moral values and principles means that we precommit to certain ways of acting and thus are not entirely free to make choices. There is a dynamic tension between freedom of choice and commitment to moral principles. Morality enters the equation in this stage.
  4. Doing: As an individual our primary role is to interact with others- to do somethings for or with others. Being proactive and self-propelled is a great motivator and we proactively interact with others for fulfilling our needs, but the awareness that they are sentient beings just like us means we start factoring in their needs and start responding and acting contingently. There is a dynamic tension between autonomous action by us and reciprocal action demanded by quid pro quo interactions.  Our need to have needs to be balanced with our need to help and connect.  Sociability enters the equation.

There is also tensions and interplay between these different functions:  Being and Doing are sometimes contrasted and so is Choice and Awareness. Overall I find the above conceptualization very interesting and informing.

While we can never hope to resolve the human conundrums perfectly, being aware of them ids a first step towards successful resolution.

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