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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #48, 12/16/2006

The Primal Conflict

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Life is full of challenges, frustrations and disappointments. There is one main conflict, however, that is the root of them all.

I call this the Primal Conflict. It is the inevitable clash between the individual and the world he is born into.

Our consciousness, for practical purposes, has been inserted at random into a human body at around the time of our birth. When we arrive, our body is alien to us, as are our emotions, our perceptions, and the world we sense through our perceptions. The only thing natural to us is our consciousness; the other things we have to adjust to.

The Primal Conflict is our struggle to adapt to the body and environment we have found ourselves in. It isn't always pleasant. The world can bite and sting, and we are totally unprepared for it because no one gave us a briefing beforehand.

The situation we face is the same as encountered by many other space travellers, including Captain Picard of the Starship Enterprise. In a 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation ("Inner Light"), he wakes up after a strange accident to find himself occupying the life of another man on a dying planet. Even though he knows he is a starship captain, he can't convince anyone else of that, and he finds that he can't escape from this primitive place. He has to accept this life and live it through to the end, raising children and grandchildren and trying to deal with the planet's impossible problems. Only upon dying does he return to the Enterprise, where it turns out only a few minutes have passed.

Our own situation isn't quite so traumatic, because we remember no prior life. However, our body and planet are still alien to us. The fact that we have ten fingers and ten toes and can wiggle them at will is something new and interesting to us. There is nothing natural about being human. In the beginning, almost everything is weird and unexpected, and we have to learn it all from scratch.

Apart from dealing with the outer world, we also encounter a perplexing inner one. We arrive with certain internal dispositions pre-wired in our nervous system—our emotions—and these are as strange as our ten toes. For example, our attention is naturally drawn to other human faces, especially those who are caring for us. Occasionally, we feel a pain called "hunger," and this causes us to cry. All of this is inexplicable to us, but we have to adapt to it.

Just by virtue of arriving here, we have been placed in conflict. The basic clash is between our emotionally-driven inner life and the fact-based outer world. Picard's emotions (and memory) tell him that he is a starship captain, but the world he has landed in is telling him something else: that he is a mere tradesman in a small village with little technology. He can throw himself against this reality, which is what he does in the beginning, but eventually he has to accept it.

Picard's Primal Conflict is how to resolve his memories of the Enterprise and his identity derived from it with his new life on this alien planet. He has to accept reality as it is, but he also can't lose his uniqueness. Even though humiliated by this turn of events, he has to reemerge somehow as the master of his destiny. Being who he is, he will not be a passive player on this new planet. With the limited tools available to him, he will find a way to guide his new starship—which turns out to be chiefly his family and village.

The Primal Conflict is this fundamental clash between the inner needs of the individual and the outer facts of the world. It is not something that just happens at the beginning and gets resolved; it is a battle that we are fighting for our entire lives—or at least should be.

There are many sub-conflicts that branch off of the main one. Most of us have to get "jobs" and perform some sort of economic service to others, and deciding what career to pursue and how to implement it can present a wide range of challenges. We also have our own sexuality to deal with—another innate emotion that is forced upon us in adolescence rather than at birth. We must also learn to control the expression of our inner impulses in the outside world to avoid getting fired or arrested. All of these challenges arise from the conflict between inner and outer worlds.

Another inevitable conflict is the disjunction between what people tell you about life and what you actually experience yourself. You can't blame your family and friends for trying, since they want to protect you, but much of what you have been told about life is distorted or simply wrong. Only by testing reality yourself can you find out what the true rules are. On the other hand, by trying things yourself, there's a chance that you might get hurt or lose your social support.

People tell you that a candle flame hurts you if you touch it, but you really have to try it yourself to drive the lesson home. You touch the flame and discover that—Ouch!—those people were right! But even when they are right, verbal wisdom from others can never convey the full subtlety of the situation. For example, I was amused to discover that I can pass my finger directly through a candle flame without being hurt, as long as I do it quickly. That's something that no one conveyed to me verbally; I had to discover it on my own.

Advice from others is so crude and uneven that if you follow it exclusively, your life would be crude and uneven as well. You would go to work in the same industry as your parents, live as they lived and be totally unprepared as times changed. On the other hand, advice from others shouldn't be entirely ignored, as it may contain some kernels of truth.

Your challenge is to make your own judgments about the world based on your own data without getting maimed in the process. The main social conflict arises when you have to defy others and accept some loneliness to pursue your own chosen vision of reality. You family, for example, may have certain expectations of you: You are going to become a doctor like Dad; you are going to join the church; you are going to find a nice girl and settle down. There is a price to pay if you violate the expectations of your social environment. Perhaps you will ostracized. At the least, you will be alone in your pursuit.

Nearly all problems of society are an expression of the Primal Conflict. Crime is an example. One's inner life makes certain demands, and one tries to fulfill them by violating the explicit rules of the outer world. It's an adaptation problem. One way or another, you are refusing to accept the reality of the outer world, and eventually you are going to pay the price.

The solution to the Primal Conflict seems simple: You need to explore and accept the real structure of the outer world and not let your inner needs corrupt your perception. This is easier said than done, however, and even when you do discover the true facts of life, it can be hard convincing others of them.

Even if you have the right attitude, outer reality is very complicated. Even after most of your life has passed, there are still things to learn about the world and yourself. Once you learn them, the conflict lies in adapting your life to this new knowledge, even if you have preexisting commitments that hinder your path.

You can't make the Primal Conflict go away. You can't brush it under the carpet without it emerging later in some other form. The Primal Conflict will be with you for life, whether or not you choose to acknowledge it.


Reader Comments

“Unabomber Ted had trouble with technology and its attendant social displacement, too. Society (the judge) hit him with a hammer - and rightly so.” — 12/21/06 (rating=4)

“too many star trek crap” —bob mcfakename 1/31/07 (rating=2)

Ratings so far: 4 2 3 4 2 5 (Average=3.3)

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