The Laws of Humanics

Isaac Asimov, in his robot stories, presented some “Laws of Robotics” which dictated the ways his robots behaved. The fun of the stories lay in figuring out the implications of those laws in various situations or how to take advantage of them to bring about desired outcomes.

I offer here some “Laws of Humanics.”

The reader may feel I am stating trivialities that “everyone knows.” However it seems to me worthwhile to state them because they “explain” so much about how people behave. Yet at the same time, hardly anyone thinks of them as principles that shape the events of our lives and world.

Asimov’s laws were expressible in a programming language and could presumably be analyzed in terms of symbolic logic and formal system theory. The “laws” presented here do not lend themselves to that sort of treatment. However the reader should be able to readily verify their validity (with the possible exception of the last one) by simply observing what goes on in his or her daily life and watching what others do.

The list is not intended to be complete.

I. (Need for order and meaning): Humans look for patterns, regularities, and meanings in the universe. Even if the right ones are beyond them, they will find something. Even if there is nothing there, they will find something.

Perhaps this is why brutal dictatorship is preferable to anarchy. Or why people might be willing to worship demons rather than live in an uncaring universe. Or why people wrap conspiracy theories around themselves like warm blankets.

II. (Herd instinct): Humans are strongly—often overwhelmingly—guided by what others say and do.

This is a mixed blessing. If the herd has been around for a while, it has likely worked out rules that help its members survive. However if conditions change, those rules may no longer work and there could be trouble ahead. See III below.

Some are less guided by the herd than others. If they know what’s good for them, they keep quiet about it. In connection with this, see VI.

III. (Homeostasis, inertia): Humans are lazy. Once they have adopted an opinion, a worldview, or way of doing things, neither facts nor logic nor imminent disaster is likely to move them to change it. In fact change is often psychologically and emotionally indistinguishable from death.

This seems an odd echo of ideas such as inertia in physics. Some thinkers (Rupert Sheldrake comes to mind) have wondered if in some sense the universe might just like to keep repeating whatever it has done before, that we do not so much have laws of nature as habits of nature.

Whether or not there is any substance to this cosmic speculation, it is not hard to see that it works in the human arena. Humans are natural conservatives.

IV. (Unconsciousness): Humans have a strong ability to filter out, ignore, or remain blithely unaware of anything which does not fit their expectations or worldview.

This is clearly connected with III. It is not so much a corollary of it as a description of a human ability or tendency which aids the functioning of III.

It is probably this ability that permits us to be dimly aware of the fact that we have overdrawn our bank account or that we are destroying the planet without it dawning on us that we should do anything about it.

Temple Grandin, an autistic scholar of animal behavior who believes her own condition is some sort of window into how the minds of animals work, speculates that the extremely developed ability to filter out details of the environment and ignore them is what separates us from the animals. If you have ever seen a dog or cat startled by some trivial thing such as a shopping bag, something that you know instantly is not a threat, then you have seen this principle at work.

One of the greatest applications of this law is the ability to remain unaware of internal contradictions in our beliefs or of upsetting implications of those beliefs. This blindness sometimes permits us to show mercy where our beliefs and rules dictate harshness, even death; so it is not all bad.

V. (Empathy): We carry within us a strong natural impulse to help others. This is not a universal impulse, though it is very widespread, and it can be trained into a habit or starved to death.

Empathy is most naturally awakened by our family or by people in our “group.” Extending empathy to larger groups of people—to people who don’t look like us or have a different religion or politics—is usually one of those difficult and exhausting acts of free will referred to in VI. It often takes years and lifetimes.

In its most evolved form, it extends beyond humans to animals and even to the planet.

VI. (Change is possible but excruciating): Humans do have free will and can change their basic worldviews or values. However this takes energy and is exhausting. Usually only limited amounts of change are possible at any given time.

Some of my readers may object to the idea that there is such a thing as free will. I take my stand with the fellow who said, “I have to believe in free will. I have no choice in the matter.”

The usual way for a change in the worldview to take place is for one generation to die off and another take over. In the modern history of the West, people have been privileged to see this happen over and over again.

Another way for this to happen is for catastrophe to destroy the established mental landscape. (Think of the South after the Civil War or Germany after the Nazi debacle.)

One way to bring about change is use an established authority against a different part of the accepted worldview. Thus Moses could lead the people out of Egypt because he spoke for God, or the prestige of science could be used to get people to accept vaccination.

Other ways to bring about such changes are stories and humor. The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an important factor in turning people against slavery. And authoritarian regimes have a special hatred and fear of jokes aimed at them; this undermines the unthinking respect on which their power is founded. Both stories and humor are ways for us to stand outside ourselves, outside our usual beliefs and values, in a way that does not feel threatening. When we do stand outside ourselves, sometimes we can change the way we think.

I append here one more “law” that many of my readers may suspect should not appear in the list. They may feel it does not really refer to any fundamental or distinctive feature of human nature. That we are only talking about the jumbled and inevitable workings of natural desires. Or about the pathological skips and glitches that occur now and then by chance in the normal operation of the human mind.

VII. (Divine discontent): There runs through the human race—but only breaking out sporadically—a yearning for something that transcends the world.

When we talk about the “the world” here, we mean something like “the way we expect things to be,” “the usual order of things.” We are not talking about a quest for mere novelty. Implicit in this yearning is a desire for something with more meaning, more significance than what we find in our normal lives.

This “discontent” may manifest itself in any number of ways: It might show up as a desire to write poems instead of advertising copy, to be a fighter pilot instead of a housewife, or to peek beneath the foundations of reality by taking LSD.

For many people, perhaps most, this “discontent” never displays itself or never leads anywhere. They may be caught up in life’s demands and worries or lack the spark that kindles “discontent.” Or they might hear the siren call—the call to start a new life, take up an unpopular cause, start a grand adventure—and never dare respond to it. Perhaps in after life, they will tell themselves, “Sometimes you get crazy ideas … but they pass.”

If they do respond, then we have a prime example of VI, the application of free will.

When we consider the impulse described in VII, one suspects it has led to most of what we think of as the “forward motion” or progress of history. To stone tools, monotheism, science, and the rights of man. Is it possible, one wonders, that there is something in human nature like a teleological drive? Like an evolutionary imperative?

If so, it is not clear what it aims at. Indeed, the present intellectual climate is quite hostile to the idea that human existence or evolution could have any aim or purpose at all. From that point of view, VII is simply a random process rapidly going nowhere in the middle of the night.