Members of democratic nations, especially Americans, have almost unlimited personal freedom because the constraints of class, local communities, and family have been greatly weakened. But we are also free to choose to step off the consumer treadmill, refuse to seek material success for us alone, and attempt to serve others, materially, emotionally, and spiritually.
In December 1897, Paul Gauguin finished his masterpiece, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a large oil on canvas, 55 in x 148 in. (See illustration, note title in upper left-hand corner.) Gauguin intended the canvas to be read from right to left, with the three major figure groups answering the questions posed in the title from the perspective of Tahitian culture. The first group, three women with child, is the beginning of life; the middle group is engaged in the sweetness of daily living; the woman in the center has to only reach up to pick luscious fruit; in the final group, according to the artist, “an old woman nearing death appears to accept everything, to resign herself to her thoughts;” at her feet, “a strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claws, represents the futility of words.” The blue idol in the background signifies what Gauguin described as “the Beyond.”
From his observations of everyday life in France, Gauguin concluded that his fellow citizens were spiritual empty; industrialism had forced them into the meaningless pursuit of material gain, leaving their emotional life stunted. To rediscover the depths of feeling, Gauguin left Europe, what he called the “Kingdom of Gold,” for Tahiti, where he believed the material necessities of life could be had without money. He thought that “when in Europe men and women survive only after unceasing labor during which they struggle in convulsions of cold and hunger, a prey to misery, the Tahitians, on the contrary, happy inhabitants of the unknown paradise of Oceania, know only sweetness of life. To live, for them, is to sing and to love.”
If Gauguin lived in America today and painted the three big questions, perhaps the first panel would show a singled-cell organism emerging from a primordial soup about four billion years ago; the second panel would portray the life of acquiring more and more, people amusing themselves to death with laptops and smartphones, living under an impenetrable concrete dome that cuts them off from the transcendent; the final panel would be of an old lady in a nursing home, being wheeled to the left edge of the painting, a black stripe, signifying nothingness.
Or maybe, Gauguin would consult the wise men and women of our tribe, the scientists who paint the verbal picture of the ultimate meaninglessness of human existence. Listen to how physicists, cosmologists, and evolutionists answer the three big questions:
Where Do We Come From? The intellectually enlightened ones of science answer, “’You are an ‘organized assemblage of ten billion billion billion atoms,’ the ‘farcical outcome of a chain of accidents.’ Genes created you, body and mind; their preservation is the ultimate rationale for your existence. Chance and necessity fathered you.”
What Are We? The modern wise ones reply, “Humans are lumbering robots manipulated by genes inside of them. You are a ‘meat machine.’ ‘The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.’”
Where Are We Going? The answer is obvious: “To oblivion, to nonexistence.”
Even if we find the Kingdom of Gold and the Empire of Nihilism revolting, few of us have the luxury or courage to drop everything and move permanently to French Polynesia. Besides, my upper-class friends, high-end consumers, who take at least one exotic trek a year to gain status and also to flee the boredom of modern life, tell me that Bora Bora has become a major tourist destination and as a result, the “natives” there have been thoroughly corrupted by American movies, pop music, and digital technology. Nevertheless, we can take seriously Gauguin’s attempt to compare Western and “primitive” cultures to determine if the wise men and women of our tribe express reality or are merely voicing their cultural perspective.
Most scientific cross-cultural studies contrast collectivist and individualist societies, which to my ear, indicates the prejudice that modern Westerners are superior to East Asians and Native Americans. Who wants to be collectivist, mindlessly following the dictates of the group? Wouldn’t you rather be an individualist, the Marlboro Man, subservient to no one? We adopt the neutral terminology, group-centered and individual-centered.
Prince Modupe of the So-so tribe says that at the turn of the century in Africa, “Any destiny apart from the tribe was, of course, beyond the limits of either imagination or intuition. It was as unthinkable as that one of the bright orange legs of a millipede should detach itself from the long black body of the creature and go walking off by itself.”
Chief Luther Standing Bear reports that a Lakota “could not consider himself as separate from the band or nation…to cut himself off from the whole meant to lose identity or to die.”
Alexis de Tocqueville emphasizes that in premodern Europe an “aristocracy link[ed] everybody, from the peasant to the king, in one long chain.” Jacob Burckhardt, the great scholar of the Italian Renaissance, explains that during the Middle Ages a “man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation.” If I were born in Medieval Europe, I would have understood myself as a part of a whole. When asked “Who are you?”, I may have replied, “A Vignola from Padua, a stone carver, and a member of St. Anne’s Parish.”
Thus, in a group-centered culture the self is believed to exist only in relation; the self is a node in a network of human relationships that include parents, mentors, spouse, children, friends, neighbors, and ultimately all members of the clan, tribe, or village. (See illustration.)
Tocqueville, the first person to use the word “individualism,” reports “that word ‘individualism,’ which we coined for our own requirements, was unknown to our ancestors, for the good reason that in their days every individual necessarily belonged to a group and no one could regard himself as an isolated unit.” The Latin word “indīviduum,” the root of the English word “individual,” means an indivisible whole existing as a separate entity.
In a modern democratic society, especially in America, the links between generations are broken; consequently, in such a society, individuals do not understand themselves in terms of tradition, class, family history, or nature. The only reference point is the isolated, autonomous self. Such a self typically sees itself as “alone at the center of creation” and believes that everything in existence is there to satisfy its desires. (See illustration.)
A revealing visual representation of the modern definition of self was given by a former student of mine in reply to the question, “Who are you?” She answered, “I am everything in here,” tracing her hands over her body from head to toe, “and nothing out there.” This young woman thought of herself as living inside an imaginary bubble, isolated from the world.
Writer David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College Commencement Address, in 2005, told the graduates that “our own present culture has harnessed these forces [‘fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self’] in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”
Social psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, in their extensive study of how culture determines the self, report that the modern Western view of the self is an individual who is an “independent, self-contained, autonomous entity.”
Habits of Understanding
In a group-centered culture, children at an early age learn to see themselves as a harmonious part of a larger whole, not unlike the orange leg of a black millipede in Prince Modupe’s metaphor. The elders teach the young that each person occupies a proper place in society and must restrain his or her desires and emotions to maintain group harmony. To reduce accidental social strife, children become adept at reading the minds of adults, so they can later accommodate themselves to the desires or idiosyncrasies of others. In this way, desires and emotions—the interior life—become paramount for a child. Later in life, children transfer the habit of thinking of themselves as a harmonious part of a whole to plants and animals. Thus, in a group-centered culture, the primary habit of thinking is to understand something, see how it is a harmonious part of a larger whole.
In an individual-centered culture, children in grade school learn to understand themselves, not in terms of family, class, or nature, but as isolated individuals. By the sixth grade, students have learned through report cards, spelling bees, and math knock-downs the first great principle of capitalism—I succeed only if someone else fails—and the second great principle—my success is entirely due to me, and no other person has a legitimate claim on its benefits. Students, of course, have no inkling that in the fifth and sixth grades they are being prepared for the workplace, where “the isolated individual has to fight with other individuals of the same group, has to surpass them and, frequently, thrust them aside,” writes psychiatrist Karen Horney.
Family therapist Virginia Satir gives the criteria for the isolated, autonomous individual to be healthy and happy: He or she says, “In all the world there is no one else exactly like me; everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone choose it; I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or to myself; I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears; I own all my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes.”
The habit of thinking of oneself as an isolated individual becomes a general rule: To understand something, isolate it, so it exists apart from all relations.
The Three Cultural Biases of Modern Science
We modern Westerners believe that every part can be separated from the whole and that the whole can be understood as simply a collection of parts; each one of us is at heart a Cartesian reductionist and attempts to understand every whole solely in terms of its parts. But the smallest parts of anything are material. Hence, the culturally-given habit of thinking the whole is a collection of parts makes us firm believers in materialism—we cannot think any other way and just “know” that the universe, including all aspects of human life, is the result of the interactions of little bits of matter. Thus, the we arrive at the first cultural bias of science—matter is primary.
Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asserts you and I are epiphenomena of neurons: “‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules….You’re nothing but a pack of neurons” Choosing a smaller unit of reductionism than Crick’s, biologist Lynn Margulis claims we are assemblages of nucleated cells: “For all our imagination, fecundity, and power, we are no more than communities of bacteria, modular manifestations of the nucleated cell.” Pushing reductionism to its ultimate limit, theoretical physicist Murray Gell-Mann declares we are collections of elementary particles: “All of us human beings and all the objects with which we deal are essentially bundles of simple quarks and electrons.”
In a group-centered culture, on the other hand, soul, spirit, mind, or whatever the nonmaterial essence of the human being is called is primary, not matter. Fortuna, an old Indian woman from the San Ildefonso Pueblo, a group-centered culture, twenty miles from Santa Fe, New Mexico, repeatedly told me that nature reveals the supernatural; a rock is never merely a rock, or a bird just a flying machine, or a human being an animal that appears between one nothingness and another. Nature always expresses the transcendent. But for modern Westerners, nature is opaque, mute, transmits no message, and holds no key to existence.
The second cultural bias of scientists follows directly from individualism. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and business ethicist, claims, “the simplest and greatest insights into human social nature is the Bedouin proverb: ‘Me against my brother; me and my brother against our cousin; me and my brother and cousins against the stranger.’” According to Haidt, the individualism of the Bedouins is a “basic aspect of human social cognition,” which “means that we have eternal conflict.”
From the perspective of a group-centered culture, Aristotle expresses the contrary understanding of human nature: A person isolated from a polis is “either a beast or a god.” Between family members a natural affection exists; “parents love their children as themselves…children love their parents because they were born of them, while brothers love one another because they were born of the same parents.” Cousins “feel a more or a less close attachment to one another, depending on how close or remote the common forebear is.”
The third cultural bias of scientists is that humans lack free will, a bias that stems from the belief that everything in the universe is the result of the interactions of little bits of matter. Psychologist Joshua Greene and neurobiologist Jonathan Cohen give an excellent statement of the determinism adhered to by most scientists. “Intuitively, the idea is that a deterministic universe starts however it starts and then ticks along like clockwork from there. Given a set of prior conditions in the universe and a set of physical laws that completely govern the way the universe evolves, there is only one way that things can actually proceed.” In this picture, the current state of the world is completely determined by the laws of physics and by any one of its past states.
Greene and Cohen rightly point out that in the Newtonian Cosmos every event with the possible exception of the Big Bang results from prior mechanical causes. That I would appear in the universe with a small mole on my right temple was in the cards one second after the Big Bang. Yesterday, a long chain of mechanical causes made my wife buy a new, Marimekko dress. The precise attunement of particles in the early universe led Francis Crick and James Watson to discover the structure of DNA, Charles Townes to conceive the laser, da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa, and Mozart to compose the Requiem Mass in D Minor. The deterministic outlook that permeates all science necessarily proclaims that human beings possess no free will, that we are machines, mere pawns moved about by mindlessly forces in a mechanical universe. (See illustration, an artist’s rendition of “every decision is a thoroughly mechanical process, the outcome of which is completely determined by the results of prior mechanical processes.”)
In a group-centered culture, no one doubts that every sane person has the capacity to make free choices, to choose truth over falsehood, good over evil. For “otherwise,” Thomas Aquinas argues, “counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain.” Aquinas compares free-will to the whole world of judgment: “Some things act without judgment, as a stone moves downwards; some act from judgment, but not a free judgment, as brute animals. For the sheep, seeing the wolf, judges it a thing to be shunned, from a natural and not a free judgment, because it judges, not from reason, but from natural instinct; man acts from judgment, because by his apprehensive power he judges that something should be avoided or sought. But because this judgment, in the case of some particular act, is not from a natural instinct, but from some act of comparison in the reason, therefore he acts from free judgment…” If human judgment were determined by instinct like the sheep who runs from the wolf, then humans would not be rational: “Forasmuch as man is rational, it is necessary that man have a free-will.”
Things Exist Only in Relation
The division group-centered and individual-centered nicely splits cultures into two logically disjoint sets—things either exist only in relation or in isolation. One of these cultural dogmas must be correct and the other false. In the modern West, democracy, capitalism, and science are founded on the precept that the self is an “independent, self-contained, autonomous entity,” and as a result, things exist in isolation is rarely questioned. Furthermore, the achievements of science and the innovations of an ever-progressing technology convince most Westerners that other cultures are at best premodern. For Westerners, things exist in isolation can only be examined through science; any appeal to sacred texts, such as the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Bible, carries no weight or to invoke classic philosophical texts, such as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, no matter how rigorously argued, are not persuasive. Surprisingly, once the blinders of culture are stripped away, science confirms the principle things exist only in relation.
In the nineteenth century, physicists hoped that someday they would isolate the atom from the cosmos, for they believed that knowing the properties of isolated atoms was the key to understanding the material world. Physicists later, however, discovered that the more an atom is isolated the less actual it is. Atoms and elementary particles do not exist in the same way that billiard balls and cue sticks do. Atomic entities exist as potentialities or possibilities rather than as definite concrete objects. In the twentieth century, quantum physicists were forced by nature to renounce the cultural dogma that the world is made up of autonomous parts, each with a separate, independent existence. Renegade physicist David Bohm, who is right on the mark in this case, sums up the essential feature of quantum physics: “The primary emphasis is now on undivided wholeness, in which the observing instrument is not separated from what is observed.” And, of course, the observing instrument includes the experimenter who set up the equipment.
Nothing has an independent existence separable from everything else. Things exist only in relation—and, this has always been true, even in Newtonian mechanics, although physicists for over two centuries unwittingly promoted the fiction that the world is made up of separate, independent parts.
In the daily work of science, physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers apply Newton’s three laws to idealized objects that exist by themselves in an imaginary universe. Often professor and student alike take what is constructed for mathematical convenience as reality; such idealizations fail to capture the interconnectedness of nature. Physicist Richard Feynman, for example, demonstrated that “even simple and idealized things, like the ratchet and pawl, work…in only one direction because it has some ultimate contact with the rest of the universe.” He showed that if a mechanical watch were in a box, isolated from the universe, the heat buildup from friction would eventually cause the watch to keep time in a chaotic fashion. For a watch, an automobile, or an electric motor to keep running in one direction, it must dump the heat it generates into its surroundings, and at some point, this requires that the heat generated on Earth be radiated into empty space. The Earth can cool off only because the universe is expanding and cooling down. Thus, a watch can keep time because the Big Bang started the universe in a one-way direction. For a physicist to understand completely why a machine can run in only one direction, she must understand the Big Bang.
We must not be misled into thinking that things exist only in relationship applies exclusively to the exotic realms of quantum physics and cosmology. If we were raised from infancy as isolated individuals, we literally could not understand what we see. For human vision to be meaningful, a person must be a participant in the world. This surprising property of vision was demonstrated in a series of classic experiments by Theodor Erismann. He fitted persons with vision-distorting goggles that made straight lines appear curved, right angles seem acute or obtuse, and distances seem expanded or shortened. Amazingly, after a few days, a subject’s vision was no longer distorted; he saw normally and functioned normally, even skiing and riding a motorcycle!
The key to vision returning to normal was that the subjects were allowed to move about and act freely, enabling the strange new visual data to be integrated with the subject’s experience of self-movement and self-sensation through touch. Subjects not allowed to move on their own, though they were pushed on gondolas through the environment, never experienced normal vision while wearing the distorting goggles. To see the world we must be participants, not mere spectators.
The senses are meant to be engaged with the outside world, and the mind with something other than its own thoughts. In isolation, the senses and the mind create phantoms. Experiments on human subjects in isolation tanks demonstrated that extreme sensory deprivation induces psychic disorders, such as mental confusion, hallucinations, and panic.
A human being exists only in relationship. Perceiving, feeling, imagining, thinking, and willing are impossible in isolation. A person in isolation from a larger whole, say nature or community, is a meaningless abstraction, an idealization that can only occur in philosophical treatises and political theories. The isolated, autonomous self is a cultural myth, whose realization would reduce a person to nothingness.
Markus and Kitayama confirm that human beings exist only in relationship: “Persons are only parts that when separated from the larger social whole cannot be fully understood. Such a holistic view is in opposition to the Cartesian, dualistic tradition that characterizes Western thinking and in which the self is separated from the object and from the natural world.” In their convoluted, social science prose, Markus and Kitayama agree that the Cartesian mantra “begin with the parts” should be replaced by a new mantra “begin with the whole.”
If we could sever all our ties to nature, family, and community, then we would cease to be. The DNA that each of us bears in every cell of our bodies came from our parents, half from our mother and half from our father. If we tried to remove every trace of parents from our lives we literally would not exist.
The self exists only when connected to others. Members of a family share the same hopes, the same joys, the same sorrows, and the same experiences; each family member lives a common life, each a part of the others. Divorce severs certain legal obligations, not the ties between the spouses and their children, which are inseparable. For better or for worse, a common life yokes persons of the same family together forever. We do not live separate, parallel lives; we are not separate, isolated selves; each member of a family is a part of the others.
A former student of mine, Maggie Burnham, a street-smart “kid” from Somerville, Mass told me, “My parents were just two people who happened to live in the same house as me. Whenever they forbid me to do something I would be furious that they had the nerve to do such a thing.” When her mother suddenly became ill with ovarian cancer and died, the daughter felt a great loss in her life.
Sometimes family life can be so extraordinarily painful and damaging that we wish to be rid of our family forever. A friend of mine in graduate school, John Sullivan, an Irish Catholic from South Boston, hated his family and wanted nothing to do with them, for reasons unknown to me. John escaped to Ann Arbor, cut himself off from his family, and even refused to answer telephone calls from either his parents or siblings. Every weekend, he would drink and curse fate for giving him a family of drunks, nitwits, and general, all-around perverts. Somehow, his parents got my telephone number and communicated important messages to their son through me. One day, John left a message on my answering machine, telling me that he could not stand his family any longer and that he was moving to Australia, so his family would be out of his life forever. Three years later, I received a letter from John. He was in Australia; yet, every morning he woke up cursing his family. He had not learned that he could move to Mars and his family would still be inside of him.
What to Do?
First, we laugh. The belittling descriptions of the human species voiced by scientists—“farcical outcome,” “lumbering robots,” and “chemical scum”—are high comedy, worthy of a modern-day Aristophanes updating Cloud Cuckoo Land. Only a young child, an inveterate drunk, or a one-eyed scientist can believe the pronouncements issued daily from the governing board of the Empire of Nihilism. For some of us in the twenty-first century, broken free from the Dark Ages of Science, Gauguin’s “strange white bird, holding a lizard in its claws,” represents the death of things exist in isolation, the fundamental principle of our culture.
Second, we cry. Gauguin’s Kingdom of Gold still stunts our emotional life. In the sixth grade, I saw my best friend, Joey Prinko, miss a “stupid word” in the school spelling bee contest and watched him cry. Shirley Divine won the championship, and everyone held her up as a winner; from the smile on her face, I knew she felt good about herself. Joey’s failure was his problem, not hers. In the schoolhouse, winners are taught to look to the good they have gained and ignore the unavoidable, emotional damage caused to the losers.
The goal in a competitive society is to win without violating the rules. That’s how the game works in America, and that’s how the natural empathy young children feel for the pain of others is squashed. Later in life, Joey, Shirley, and most of my classmates out of “ignorant and coarse” self-interest learned in grade school would be indifferent to the fate of the three million children in America who live in abject poverty, the kind found in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Third, we are free. In every historical epoch, in every culture, collectivist or individualist, every person is in principle free to choose truth over falsehood, good over evil, because by nature we are free beings. We moderns, however, can exercise our freedom substantially easier than Medieval Europeans, traditional Japanese, or even Paul Gauguin with his heroic attempts to carve out a new life for himself. Ironically, things exist in isolation has given members of democratic nations, especially Americans, almost unlimited personal freedom because the constraints of class, local communities, and family have been greatly weakened. In America, a person can live virtually any life that he or she wishes.
Despite what neuroscientists and physicists tell us, we know in the twenty-first century that we are not determined by genes or culture, and that we can free ourselves from our culturally-given habits of thinking and feeling. We have the freedom to adopt a new mantra—things exist only in relation—a mantra that corresponds to reality. With John Donne, we can embrace the truth that “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent… never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” When we hear the bell toll for us, we step off the consumer treadmill, refuse to seek material success for us alone, and attempt to serve others, materially, emotionally, and spiritually. In short, without moving to Tahiti, we begin to live a new life.
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 Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897, Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Public Domain.
 Paul Gauguin, Letter to Georges Daniel de Monfreid, February 1898, in Paul Gauguin, The Letters of Paul Gauguin to Georges Daniel de Monfreid, trans. Ruth Pielkovo (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1922), p. 95.
 Paul Gauguin, Letter to J. F. Willumsen, 1890, an excerpt in H.W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson, History of Art, (New York: Prentice Hall and Harry N. Abrams, 2001), sixth edition, vol. II, p. 933.
 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 345; Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 154; Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 21; Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Knopf, 1971).
 See Dawkins, p. 21.
 The quotation “the brain happens to be a meat machine” is widely attributed to Marvin Minsky, although I could not find the phrase “meat machine” in any article or book published by him.
 Prince Modupe, I Was a Savage (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957), pp. 53-54.
 David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Address, 2005.
 Helen Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation,” Psychological Review 98: 224.
 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, (New York: Scribner’s, 1994), p. 3.
 Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, “Strange Fruit on the Tree of Life,” The Sciences 26 (May-June 1986): 43.
 Murray Gell-Mann, “Let’s Call It Plectics,” Complexity 1 (1995/1996), no. 5.
 Jonathan Haidt in conversation with Chris Anderson, a TED Talk.
 Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen, “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing and everything,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London B (2004) 359: 1777.
 Robert Voight, Gear of the Human Mind, Shutterstock.
 Greene and Cohen, p. 1781.
 Markus and Kitayama, p. 224.
 See Ivo Kohler, The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World, trans. Harry Fiss (New York: International Universities Press, 1964).
 See Richard Held, “Plasticity in Sensory-Motor Systems,” Scientific American 213 (November 1965): 84-94.
 Markus and Kitayama, p. 227.
 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 527.
 National Poverty Center, Extreme Poverty in the United States, 1996 to 2011.
The featured image is “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” (1897) by Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.