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Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes

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"Dr. Teitelbaum! Excuse me Dr. Teitelbaum but you must help me! I'm supposed to graduate in November and I've just been notified that McGill won't credit me with Marketing Management II that I took last summer at U.B.C. and I won't have enough credits without it and ..." I looked at the teary-eyed, agitated undergraduate and said nothing. Long experience has taught me that there is no point in explaining that I am not Dr. Teitelbaum until they calm down.

Although Avraham Dovid Teitlebaum (a fellow chassid) and I resemble each other only slightly, McGill students seem incapable of seeing beyond the beard, yarmulke and tzitzit, and I am forever being mistaken for the former Associate Dean of the Faculty of Management. Presently, the student stopped for a breath and I pointed out her error. However, it didn't register. Rejuvenated by a lung full of fresh air, she pressed her suit with renewed vigor. I identified myself again. She ignored me and continued pleading. I interrupted her and once more indicated that she had the wrong person. She frowned impatiently, clearly annoyed that I wasn't giving her proper attention, and without breaking stride, continued her presentation. As she paused to marshal her thoughts for the final assault, I took advantage of the lull and insisted slowly, distinctly, and emphatically that I was not Dr. Teitlebaum. She scrutinized me for a few moments and suddenly her face lit up with the wonder of discovery. Her eyes grew wide and she exclaimed, "Oh my gosh! there are two of you!"

There are indeed two of me. What my flustered friend probably doesn't realize, however, is that there are also two of her. There is she1 who operates on the instinctive level and who equates appearance with reality, and there is she2 who is capable of recording, analyzing and weighing information and arriving at a reasoned conclusion, appearances notwithstanding. As far as she1 was concerned, I had to be Dr. Teitlebaum simply because it was counter-intuitive that there could be two people on a university faculty with the exotic appearance of Dr. Teitlebaum. She2, who emerged only after she1 had been repeatedly challenged, correctly interpreted the available evidence and surmised that there were, in truth, two faculty members at McGill who shared the same unconventional features.

The fact that there are two of everyone is unsettling. The idea that our consciousness is not the unitary expression of a single self but rather a composite of independent components seems absurd for the simple reason that no one feels like more than one person. Nonetheless, such is the case and it can be convincingly demonstrated using the diagram depicted below (taken from The Self and Its Brain by Karl Popper and John Eccles, 1977, Springer International. p.63)

The diagonal line in the center of the picture is divided into two segments A-B and B-C by the middle vertical line. If you had to determine which of these segments is longer, without measuring them, your inclination would be to select segment A-B because it looks longer than B-C. If you were then told that the three vertical lines are parallel and equidistant, you would have to conclude, on the basis of basic high school geometry, that segments A-B and B-C must be of equal length, regardless of appearance. You thus have 2 different answers produced by your two different "selves". The instinctive, unreflective, and uncritical self simply takes appearances at face value. The other self, who is intellective and analytical, assesses the data and arrives at conclusions based on abstract reasoning and logic.

How is it that most of us spend our lives blithely unaware that two such incompatible individuals room together in our heads? The answer is that usually only one self is active at any particular time, and it is most often the intuitive, non-intellective self. Intellectual processes, whether creative or analytical, require effort. It is much easier and far more natural to simply accept things the way they appear to be. Thus, the instinctive self represents the default mode, and we, therefore, sail through life, oblivious to the appalling fact that our navigator is, distressingly often, a shallow simpleton. Worse, since we regard ourselves as intelligent beings, and since the "ourselves" that most often runs our brains is the shallow simpleton, we celebrate its fallacious, foolish, insubstantial fancies as wisdom.

In Chassidic terminology, the two disparate cognitive dimensions described above are defined as hergesh (instinct) and sechel (intelligence). Whereas hergesh is a trait common to all mammals, sechel, embodying abstract creative or analytical intelligence, is uniquely human. Consequently the description of man, by anthropologists, as an "intelligent ape" is singularly appropriate (albeit for reasons very different from those that led to the creation of the expression). Although hergesh is an attribute that we do indeed share with apes, we are also endowed with sechel, which would elevate us above all other members of the animal kingdom were we to make use of it. Since, however, this sublime quality is only sporadically engaged, the ape is alive and well, and very much in charge.

It is hergesh, not sechel, that generates the materialistic/naturalistic assumptions underlying modern secular man's view of the world and of himself. A mere glance out the window is sufficient to create a powerful impression of a multifarious world made out of variety of independent and self-sufficient things, held together by a few simple laws of nature. A brief perusal of the morning paper is all that one needs to conclude that earthly life is governed by random, chaotic, impersonal forces; natural, social, and economic. It is intuitively obvious that all forms of life evolved from simpler antecedent forms because, in our experience, everything comes from a prior something, and all animals do share common biological features. A glimpse at a corpse is proof enough that nothing survives bodily death. G‑d and G‑dliness are nowhere to be seen, and since, as far as hergesh is concerned, seeing is believing, they do not exist.

The common feature of all of these intuitive inferences (hergeshim) is that they are drawn from the perception of "things". Hergesh is not a function of the mind, but rather of the senses and as such, it does not deal in ideas or abstractions. Since hergesh can identify only "things" as real, it comes as no surprise that the values and goals of a hergesh-based society are centered on acquisition and power. Success in life is measured by the number of things that one is able to amass and the number of people (living things) over whom one has control.

One may well ask how it is possible that such a highly educated society should entertain an ape's-eye view of existence, and pursue such crass, shallow aspirations? The answer is that much of what the educational institutions impart is not sechel but rather hergesh disguised as sechel. The University is, after all, an instrument of society, and society runs on hergesh. The language, conventions, and styles are those of sechel, but the ideological content of a university education is based on hergesh. The curricula are contaminated with the germs of amoral, relativistic, materialistic, and secular bias and it is the rare student who emerges from the educational experience un-infected.

There is no joy on the planet of the apes. There are no lofty goals. There is no transcendent purpose, no meaning, no ultimate truth. There is prozac. There is also a burgeoning entertainment industry that keeps us anesthetized and oblivious to the painful realization that a hergesh-based life leads nowhere. There is also a way out. We can choose to stop being apes. We can think. We can break our addiction to hergesh and actively engage sechel, and if we do so, we will discover that the world is a very different place then it appears at first glance.

Revolutionary observations in physics, beginning in the early twentieth century, indicate that the "things" that constitute our world are shockingly ethereal. The discovery that mass is not a unique definitive physical property but rather a variant form of energy, that the electron described in high school physics as a little negatively charged BB can also be accurately characterized as an immaterial wave, and that subatomic particles/processes understand and obey abstract rules indicate that "being" is not a static, inanimate state but rather a dynamic, active process. The upshot of this is that a palpable, inert, "thing" such as a rock is, at its core, an incorporeal spiritual entity, pulsating with life, purpose and intelligence. Indeed, on the subatomic level, the rock has more in common with thoughts than with things. Moreover, the appearance of physical autonomy is an illusion. The recent experimental verifications of Bell's Theorem demonstrate a non-locality or "connectedness" underlying physical processes. In other words, at the subatomic level, the "things" that constitute our universe "know" each other and behave as different manifestations of a single, unified reality.

On another front, recent developments in the relatively new field of Cosmology show the universe to be far more improbable than any one ever imagined. In fact, a universe such as ours, designed to sustain intelligent life, is so improbable as to be virtually impossible. There are simply too many meaningful coincidences for it to have happened by chance. Intelligence and purpose permeate the cosmos. Remarkably, the only explanation as to why the myriad of diverse and seemingly unrelated physical constants and other parameters should converge to produce the universe in which we live is our presence. If any of these values were other than what they are, we could not exist. This realization has given rise to the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, the strong formulation of which concludes that man is the cornerstone of the universe, i.e. it was designed and implemented specifically with us in mind.

Similar advances in molecular and cell biology have inspired a biological version of the Anthropic Principle. It has become increasingly evident that the biochemical and molecular processes essential to the life of cells are far too complex and interdependent to have developed in response to natural forces and chance events. The irreducible complexity in fundamental biological systems and the expanding evidence of intelligent, purposeful design have rendered evolutionary explanations for the origin of life untenable.

Near death experiences have recently become a major focus of scientific exploration. Because of the subjective nature of these phenomena, they are very difficult to interpret, much less to explain. Research in this area has, nevertheless, produced powerful objective (corroborateable) evidence that awareness can exist independent of the brain and that the essence of human consciousness is spiritual.

A critical, impartial examination of a large body of hard evidence, readily available to anyone, does not support the materialist/reductionist view of reality with which we are so innately comfortable. One of the most delicious ironies in the history of science is that the very technology that was supposed to deliver mankind from the "higher superstition" (religion), has led it straight to G‑d's door. Thus, counter-intuitively, sechel is a portal to faith, not an exit.

How, then, do we deal with hergesh? Do we view it as a pathology, an unfortunate but inescapable aberrant dimension of consciousness that must be constantly suppressed, the ape within? Hergesh is, in fact, a priceless gift, which if properly utilized, complements and perfects sechel. Finely honed and properly directed, intuition elevates the intellect and takes the mind beyond the structured logic of sechel. It is a unique source of insight that is unrestrained by the rules of language and mathematics. What about the ape? The ape is not hergesh, but rather hergesh abused. Hergesh functions properly only in concert with sechel. When it is focused on the intellection, the ideas, engendered by sechel, it illuminates the conceptual crannies inaccessible to formal thought and it imparts color to the black and white cogitations of the rationale mind. However, when sechel is inactive, hergesh is left without a mind, and its subsequent undisciplined, undiscerning and uncritical activity, directed toward things rather than ideas, produces the shallow, distorted world view and empty values so common in contemporary society.

Our challenge, then, is to be whole, to use all of our G‑d-given faculties in pursuit of truth. King David perceived the hand of G‑d in everything and encountered Divinity everywhere. "Yours is the heaven, Yours also the earth. The world and all it contains, You have established them" (Psalm 89, verse 12). The same Divine Providence that has designed the universe to meet our every need, has also imbued us with the intellectual attributes , sechel and hergesh, necessary to recognize the power of the creator in creation. It only remains for us to utilize them toward this end.

Dr. Yaakov Brawer is Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. He is the author of two books of Chassidic philosophy, Something From Nothing and Eyes That See
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Discussion (3)
January 8, 2013
Re: Hergesh Atheist
I am unclear how atheism indicates descent from apes. No matter to what extent someone allows Hergesh to dominate his or her life, they still have the capacity for Sechel and the ability to rise beyond their natural impulses.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org
January 5, 2013
hergesh atheist
so, is it okay to say that atheism is proof we descended from apes?
Anonymous
pasadena
February 16, 2010
The last part of your scripture I like most, of course.
When I think of hergesh, as you explained it, in my case this part of me is not interested in collecting money or having power over others, but to see all the beauty around us that G-d has created. To feel sun on our skin and in summer the water of the sea, that is hergesh also. Or am I wrong?
And loving G-d I do not have in common with apes or flowers.
(By the way, sechel I appreciate also very much. I like to listen to somebody who has got a lot of it from his Creator.)
Thank you. It was interesting to read.
Michal