Priorities

Our modern age is an age of science. Despite the nobility of science as an endeavor, to a degree that will only become clear later, this age of science has culminated in an era of spiritual violation. This is not the fault of the scientific process. Science is simply an application of respectful rational inquiry to convert magical thought into understanding. Our spiritual difficulties are a consequence of the order of priorities faced by our forebears.

To anyone who has faced the force of a natural disaster, it is obvious that life is a fragile gift. For various reasons, our urge to master the management of energy requires that we commit ourselves to the preservation of life. First, each person is a chance to achieve mastery. In some sense, they are an experiment. Unplanned interruptions of an experiment limit the understanding that can be gained from it. Secondly, we are Lamarckian creatures: we benefit to the degree that we share our journey. Disrupting that participation robs us of the chance to accomplish our goals.

Obviously, there is much to respect and admire in primitive cultures. In many cases, they manifest a lost balance with the earth that sustains us. But they were fragile, precisely because they could not reliably manage the natural tyrannies. The elements, disease, hunger, and predation were all terrifying and imminent realities that have faded dramatically in the consciousness of advanced cultures.

It is hard to argue that magical thinking did not play a significant part in how ancient peoples responded to the natural tyrannies. We know that sacrifices of wealth and life to propitiate the gods were a normal practice by ancient peoples. The diversity of the pantheons among ancient cultures would lead us to conclude that whatever basis those practices may have had in reality, the implementing mechanisms were not understood clearly by the practitioners. One significant problem, perhaps the overwhelming one, was the difficulty of training competent practitioners and channeling their intentions. Consequently, their activities produced unreliable results.

Science was the response to that difficulty.

The scale of the problems represented by the natural tyrannies has certain social implications. The complexity of reality meant that, even with the benefits of Lamarckian evolution, any individual investigator could achieve only an incremental increase in understanding over that of his instructors. Specialization was required simply to achieve mastery of what was already understood, much less to participate successfully in advancing knowledge. Finally, the effort involved in building systems for controlling the effects of natural tyranny requires the energy of many individuals. For all of these reasons, significant progress was predicated upon the development of institutions to organize, coordinate and sustain effort across cultures and generations.

By nature, successful coordination of these activities limited efforts to those aspects of reality that are almost universally apprehensible. (We commonly call this “objective” reality.) In fact, the necessary cultural focus was so narrow and intense that today we relegate to “mental health” providers all those that are unable to conform their perceptions.

Our current mental health “crisis” is one manifestation of the problem of optimization. The driving goal of science was to allow society to successfully evaluate and respond to the life experiences of its members. In part, the compact between members of society was that the experience of successful members would be transmitted to their fellows. But if society is so fragile and narrowly focused that experimentation must be controlled to avoid disruption, does the compact still survive?

On the other end of the scale, as institutions grow, the complexity of their internal working goes up as the square of the number of participants. Unfortunately, the number of managers only increases linearly. At some point, the skill of managers is overwhelmed, and organizations must be “restructured”.

In what follows, the reader will be introduced to techniques, until now largely misapprehended by science, for negotiating and optimizing the relationship between the individual and society.

On Intellect

In Reductio ad Consterno (reduction to the point of alarm), I threw out the idea that philosophy, considered properly, is the exploration of the operation of intellect. The thought wasn’t deeply considered – it was rather a convenient bridge in the essay, a way of linking what preceded with what followed.

But as I continue my reading of The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained (TPB below, by Buckingham, et al. with DK Books) I am realizing that it’s actually central to the project of my life. In Ma, my celebration of the feminine virtues, I illustrate various expressions of intellect (as defined below) through the main characters. This has the unfortunate effect that the narrative is rendered disjoint by the shifts in perspective. As I thought about this post yesterday morning, I considered the subtitle “The Philosophy of Ma and Golem” with the hope that readers might gain some insight into those works. But, given that after my father’s passing I am the only extant reader of that collection, I must now conclude (with some chagrin) that the earlier works were a type of “narrative study” for the thoughts that are crystallized below.

To set the table again: TPB contrasts the viewpoints of Plato and Aristotle as the central issue in philosophy, which the authors characterize as the search for a firm foundation for knowledge. Plato held that all events are ephemeral and rendered indistinct by our senses, and so that all knowledge is in the realm of ideas. Aristotle countered that ideas that do not arise from experience are not knowledge, but fantasy. As the history of philosophy is traced, the Aristotelian perspective is bolstered by scientific study, and in fact the proponents of Plato’s view appear less and less coherent.

Of course, the Aristotelian empiricists materialists have a huge advantage in this quest. Science, in the large, is the study of things without personality. That means that the subjects of scientific research don’t evolve new behaviors when we study them. An insulator will not start to conduct electricity, and an electron won’t shed its mass. Conversely, Plato and all of his followers insist that knowledge emanates from some form of “The Good,” which was understood to be “God” in Islamic and Christian cultures. The Good does not reveal itself, but must be courted with disciplined moral intent. So while empiricists materialists can describe things that anyone can experience, the mystic must grope for terms to describe perceptions that often are completely foreign to the reader. The empiricist materialist is popular; the mystic is obscure.

This insight sets us on a path to reconcile the two primary views of philosophy. Indeed, while much of modern philosophy tends toward  a social focus, often that is driven by reaction to cultural dysfunction that arises from trying to force people to behave as if only one view was valid. But I do not believe that our reconciliation is sufficient. There are unexamined deficiencies in Philosophy as a whole, manifested most obviously in the fact that almost all of its luminaries are men.

So I am going to conclude this post with a definition of intellect that may serve only to make it clear just how complex the problem is.

Intellect manifests in the capacity to synthesize mental states.

Our mental states are not only thoughts. They are a complex amalgamation of sensory perceptions, physiological response (or emotions), thoughts and spiritual interactions. Synthesis is accomplished through either stimulation or combination of those states.

The job of philosophy, as I asserted before, is to understand the virtues and pathologies of intellect, and to establish means to strengthen the first and heal the second. The complexity of the problem is seen in that most of the history of philosophy was spent in a fruitless search for some solid ground to stand on – some truth beyond Descartes’ “I exist.” Fortunately for humanity, most of us continued to carry on with our exploration of what is possible.

In that search, we must recognize that the intellect also has variable expressions. Just as species adopt different forms in the struggle to secure an ecological niche, so does the intellect vary. There are those dominated by sensory perception, those immersed in emotion, those lost in the whirlpool of their thoughts, and those with their eyes locked on the heavens. Each of them brings a piece of the puzzle to our attention. No perspective can be denigrated or ignored without threatening the integrity of the whole.

Spirituality without Religion: Hope or Hoax?

Sam Harris has amassed a fortune decrying religion. His latest best-seller, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, describes a journey that I must herald as a step towards personal maturity. I won’t consider the details, because his preface was enough to let me know that he’s got a long, long way to go. Harris asserts that our minds are the only tools that we have to manage life’s challenges. That’s a sort of lobotomy, and the best response I can offer is that of Hume. Following Hobbes’s characterization that the experience of most is of:

continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short

Hume diagnosed that Hobbes had forgotten “the operation of his own heart.”

That may seem a small point, but a compassionate heart is the singular difference between a monstrous ego and a great personality. In its lack, the rational mind tends to the conclusion that everything that violates its logic is error, possesses no value, and thus should be destroyed.

This is the conclusion that the anti-religious have indulged in for far too long.

Now I hope that Harris will eventually confront the errors of the axioms that allow him to conclude that religion has no value. Foremost is the confusion of correlation with causation: the fact that the brain is essential to the physical manifestation of our will does not mean that our will arises from the brain. The soul does exist. When that is recognized, the heart becomes full, and logic leads us to a different set of conclusions.

For example: Harris’s book bears the picture of a face superimposed on the cloudy heavens. What happens when spirits collide in that space? How do we negotiate conflicts? Only by resort to institutional structures staffed by experienced arbiters. That is religion.

The second erroneous axiom is that the mythical aspect of scripture proves the unscientific world view of our intellectual predecessors. Far be that from the truth: those men and women were investigating aspects of reality that Harris has yet to encounter, and doing it using practices that, if one strips away the branding, are scientific in their core. That wisdom was transmitted to us from the past through – you guessed it – religion. The alternative offered us in the modern age – schools – are prey to short-term political fashion, also known as propaganda, and pit students in a competition that places knowledge above compassion.

The alternatives to religion that Harris offers, at least in his preface, are use of psychotropic substances (a.k.a. – illegal drugs) and meditation. The former is pathetic: I raised my sons with the wisdom that love is the anti-drug. Using drugs to temporarily achieve an elevated psychological state is no substitute for submitting to the discipline required to sustain loving relationships. Lacking that discipline, the craving for love, which is built deep into our hearts, leads to abuse of drugs and self-destruction. What institutional structures confront us most meaningfully with the practice of emotional discipline? Well – religions.

Meditation is where I find hope for Harris. Meditation serves to reveal the preconditioning of our minds that prevents us from accurately perceiving experience. Through it, as Deepak Chopra inveighs in The Future of God, the seeker after truth eventually confronts the reality that love exists even when no person is present, even when no drug stimulates our senses and minds, even when we do nothing. That is the nature of God – and for reasons I have outlined elsewhere, that is the only God that could ever exist. Nothing but unconditional love can bind together things that want to be apart: the Greek word religio meaning to bind anew.

When Harris encounters that presence, I am certain that he will want to find a place in which to share his joy. That would be, of course, to find religion.