Month: February 2023

Ethics, Morality and Worldview

There is, in my opinion, a critical attitude that is important in the application of Ethical and Moral Principles, which includes the UUA’s seven Principles. Principles such as, treat everyone with respect and recognize their inherent worth and dignity. That critical attitude is being non-judgmental, which promotes acceptance of others. Less than full acceptance leads to rejection or mere tolerance, and results in less than optimal application of principles. Granted, tolerance is better than rejection and may be a step on the path to full acceptance, but one should be cautious about becoming too self-satisfied about having achieved mere tolerance. Below is a quote from a book written by a former journalist who spent several years living on the streets as a homeless woman, for reason I won’t go into. Of the help she received that allowed her to resume a productive life she said:

“To those who helped me, I will always be eternally grateful…However, while you stand in your place in the accepted social hierarchy of giving and receiving, looking down on those you deem worthy of helping, would you please stop to notice how you are slapping us in the face with the very hand that you have extended in your goodwill?”

I would suggest that what is implicit in this quote is the recognition by her that some of her benefactors were merely tolerant of her and tolerated her as much to enhance their own self-esteem by being seen helping her as to compassionately respond to her and her circumstances.

So, what do I mean by judgment? Judgment is based on categorical thinking. A way of thinking that classifies people and treats them as categories. I am reminded of a comment by the late David Bohm, a quantum physicist and philosopher, who said that all genuine knowledge will only be found between categories. Others, such as Martin Buber in his book, I and Thou (see also my post On Buber and Bohm), make the point that only through a relationship of acceptance of the other can you respond fully to the humanity of another person. Likewise, the philosopher Ken Wilbur, in his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, points out that our culture has a history of objectifying people and classifying them as objects characterized by the status of its.

Judgment employs a system of filters or beliefs, represented as cognitive constructs, that are arranged into a hierarchy or decision tree. These beliefs are acquired through Social learning. You acquire them, one might say absorb them, from your parents, siblings, extended family, peers, community and social institutions such as schools and churches. These filters or algorithms are subconscious and automatic (hereafter, APs). Practically, everyone has such APs running outside of their conscious awareness that affect their perceptions of people and situations. What you are most likely to be aware of is a mental label, emotion or impulse to act in a certain way arising into awareness. Often this is the end product of an AP with an implicit bias. What most frequently happens when a judgment or impulse arises into awareness is that you generate a rationale, to incorporate into your personal narrative, to explain the judgment or impulse. The rationale then becomes part of your idea of yourself. There is seldom any connection between the AP and the rationale for its output. The rationale is more likely to be self-deception.

Some subconscious biases or APs can be revealed through Harvard University’s Implicit Attitude Tests that are available on Harvard’s website and are free to the public. You might find it interesting and possibly useful to take some of these tests that cover such topics as sexual orientation, race and gender identity, among others.

You can also personally pursue locating your APs , first, through carefully monitoring your responses to people and situation and then, second, employing introspection to drill down and find the underlying source of your reaction. This is not always easy and will often be confounded by the camouflage that your rationale justifying their output creates. In such cases, there are other more sophisticated techniques that might be employed or you may need professional help with the task.

Not all APs are dysfunctional. For example, you have APs that are instrumental to you being able to drive an automobile safely and with hardly any conscious effort. You are more likely to find APs that support biased perceptions in those related to people, organizations and situations than among those helping with the routine tasks of getting through the day. If you find any dysfunctional APs, you should modify, replace or eliminate them. Doing this will aid your spiritual evolution, which – as will be clarified shortly – is your purpose.

The flip side of judgment is discernment. Discernment is an unbiased evaluation that is free of APs. Discernment can only be practiced by treating each encounter with people and situations as unique and worthy of individual consideration rather than as a prepackaged categorical response. Systems of judgment, while not entirely dependent upon, are supported by one’s worldview. Your worldview can, therefore, aid or hinder cleaning up maladaptive APs or even being able to recognize them.

Let us now turn to a brief discussion of four western worldviews. The first is theistic dualism. This worldview has been around for several thousand years and most of us can easily associate it with such dualities as God and Satan, good and evil, heaven and hell, saved and damned. It is not a worldview designed to promote acceptance. The second I’ll call Descartes’ Compromise. This was a compromise suggested by René Descartes in the 17th century. This suggestion was an effort to moderate religious interference in the work of naturalists (today we’d call them scientists) attempting to understand the processes underlying the physical world. Some of their work attracted potentially deadly attention from religious authorities who judged some of their findings to be heretical to church dogma. What the compromise suggested was that concern with physical processes be left to the naturalists and considered secular in nature, and concern with spiritual matters be left to theologians and priests and considered religious in nature. The compromise was an improvement on the purely theistic worldview but was still not one that fully promoted acceptance of people in all their diversity. In short, judgment is implicit in a dualistic worldview.

Descartes’ Compromise eventually morphed into secular or scientific materialism. This came about, over time, by excluding half of the compromise from the worldview, turning it into a purely materialist worldview. The materialist worldview takes as its root assumption that everything arises from matter — matter is primary. The narrative supporting this worldview posits that all matter first came into existence through what is described as the Big Bang. The late Stephen Hawking, a physicist and cosmologist, when asked by someone to explain where the Big Bang came from, replied that it was “spontaneous creation from nothing.” The Big Bang is sometimes also described as a cosmic accident. This narrative further posits that the physical universe and ultimately the life in it evolves through random processes. So, matter came into being through a cosmic accident and the stars, planets, the life planets support, solar systems, galaxies and the universe all evolved by chance or through random processes. What is denied by this worldview is that any of this had any purpose behind it. To my understanding, anything without purpose has no implicit meaning and is, in many ways, a nihilistic philosophy. Nihilism rejects all values as being baseless and offers no grounds for promoting acceptance.

The fourth western worldview that will be covered is analytic idealism, a nondual philosophy, perhaps best represented, at the current time, by scientist, technologist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup. Recently, Kastrup has taken the position of director of a foundation, The Essentia Foundation, whose goal is to promote idealism as an alternative to materialism. An organization with a similar goal is the Academy for the Advancement of a Postmaterialist Science whose membership is comprised of scientists and academics.

Kastrup’s presentation of idealism, especially Rationalist Spirituality, takes as its root assumption that Consciousness or Universal Mind is a field of Consciousness or Source Consciousness (hereafter just Source) that is infinite, eternal, intelligent and creative. It is not, however, capable of metacognition or self-reflection. Everything arises from and returns to Source. Think of a wave arising from the ocean and returning to the ocean. It is all water whatever form it takes. Therefore, everything must be unconditionally accepted by Source because to do otherwise would be to reject itself.

Kastrup suggests that the physical universe is an experience engine that is running within Source, which means Source can’t be equated with the physical universe, being much more. In Kastrup’s model, Source needs experience to evolve and realize its potential. Further, life is a carrier of Source that experiences and evolves, while also providing input for Source’s evolution. Kastrup argues that Source is an evolving phenomenon because if Source were perfect there would be no need to create an experiential universe. He argues that even if a perfect Source had created an experiential universe it would have to reflect that perfection and it is clear from our experience that his is not a perfect universe. The bottom line of this presentation on idealism means that personal evolution contributes to Universal evolution, which gives life a source of purpose and meaning.

One explanation for how experience comes about is that experience arises from complementarity. The concept of complementarity was first proposed by the late Niels Bohr, a quantum physicist and one of the founders of quantum physics. He originally introduced this concept to help understand and talk about the wave – particle duality in quantum physics. He subsequently indicated that he thought the concept had a much broader application and could even be used in such fields as psychology. See also my post Love and Hate in Human Thought.

Here is a mundane example that should be easier to follow than a discussion of the complementary pair of wave — particle. Consider the pair hot — cold, This pair can be represented on a dimension with each member of the pair anchoring an opposite pole of the dimension. It is the gradations that are made possible by this bipolar construct that makes the experience of temperature possible. If you would like to carry this illustration further, think through other complementary pairs such as male and female.

Members of a complementary pair can be thought of as partial reflections of an undivided whole. The writer Arthur Koestler referred to such wholes as holons. Each holon is both a whole and a part. It is a part of a greater holon, which in turn is a whole and a part of a greater holon. If you extrapolate this process to its logical end point, you will arrive at a holon that encompasses the entire physical universe. Such a holon can easily be thought of as a singular representation of the physical universe or a unity of physicality. However, one might go further and imagine this holon as a whole and a part that is a part of a greater holon yet, such as Source. Perhaps Source is the ultimate Holon, which exists as a part of nothing, being both infinite and eternal. You can find a fuller discussion of the concept of holons in the Ken Wilbur book linked above. You can find a fuller discussion of the unity of physicality (in physicist speak, the entanglement of all the particles in the physical universe) in my post Reality Appears to Arise from Mysterious Foundations about the perspective of the quantum physicist Menas Kafatos.

In the East there are several nondual philosophies, such as Buddhism, Tantra, Taoism and Vedanta. If you have heard of Tibetan Buddhism, headed by the Dalai Lama, it is also known as Tantric Buddhism, which recognizes that it is a fusion of Buddhism and Tantra. I will try to present a brief, homogenized and probably unjust description of these traditions to the best of my understanding.

In this worldview, life is an expression of Universal Consciousness and much that was said about Consciousness earlier is also applicable to one degree or another. Human functioning in this view ranges from Ignorant to Enlightened, which in this view means ego consciousness (self) at one pole and a more purified Consciousness at the other pole (Self or authentic Self). In nondualism, our goal should be to rise above our ignorance, and realize our inherent divinity. In other words, transcend ego consciousness. This is not unheard of in the West. In the twentieth century the psychologist Abraham Maslow placed self-transcendence at the apex of his hierarchy of development. It is not unusual to see his hierarchy taught without the final step of self-transcendence, which is probably because it doesn’t fit very well into the prevailing materialist paradigm and is therefore ignored. Carl Jung, a twentieth-century psychiatrist and proponent of depth psychology, made self-transcendence the ultimate goal of psychological integration. Jung proposed that this could be achieved, though not easily, by integrating the unconscious, subconscious and ego consciousness and thereby expressing one’s higher Self.

In nondualism, bad behavior is viewed as a product of ignorance, not of evil (a link to my post The Nature of Evil). We often classify certain forms of behavior as evil but a non-dualist would say that it is simply an expression of ignorance. This does not excuse it, but the focus here is the behavior, not the person. Consequently, bad behavior requires a non-emotional response that is non-judgmental and includes respectful, dignified and just treatment of the actor. This type of response is, to a non-dualist, one that is least likely to be an overreaction resulting in a non-productive counter response and one most likely to promote the spiritual development of the one receiving it. Finally, these traditions usually see the process of moving from ignorance to enlightenment to be one that unfolds slowly and requires a great deal of time to have and to benefit from the necessary experiences. Thus, you frequently see reincarnation as a component of these traditions, since it provides the necessary time to complete spiritual evolution.

The original Unitarian and Universalist denominations came about in the 16th century and arose for Christian denominations that disagreed with some of the prevailing theology of the Christian church of the time. The Christians that became Unitarians affirmed the unitary nature of divinity and thereby rejected the theological concept of a Trinitarian divinity. They also rejected the dogma of “original sin.” The Christians that became Universalists rejected the dogma of selective salvation or reconciliation with divinity for universal reconciliation. They viewed some theological concepts such as reconciliation as being a fundamental truth that has universal application unbound by any constraint. This position is sometimes compared to the principle from the Rig Veda ( a scripture from Vedanta) that holds that “Truth is One; sages call it by various names.”

In consideration of the above, I don’t think it is a great stretch to say that Unitarian Universalism has within it the potential to become a western representative of a nondual worldview (a panentheistic view) that has theological roots rather than purely philosophical roots. Personally, I think it would be a more productive direction than it has been following, which seems to me to be attempting to establish a humanistic option within materialism. Currently, it is in the process of revising its principles and appears to be making Love as the center piece of this revision. I would suggest that this is a step in the right direction.

A few closing comments on nonduality: In nondualism, being against others includes being against the self since both you and the other arise from the same Source and share the same core divinity. Thus, nonduality promotes acceptance of self and others. Because of complementarity, you can’t live in nonduality, but you can know and use it as a perspective.

Nonduality can be known both intellectually and experientially. To illustrate the difference, consider someone who knows nothing about music, including having never heard music played. Now imagine that this individual is given a workbook on musical notation and a book on musical instruments that explains what they are and their basic mechanisms for producing sound. After studying these materials, our imaginary character has a pretty good intellectual understanding of music. Now imagine that we take this person to a symphony hall and let him or her listen to a symphony play music. The individual will come out of the symphony hall with a very different understanding of music from the one s/he entered with. The person now has an experiential understanding of music to go along with an intellectual understanding. The experiential dimension could be deepened by learning to play an instrument as well. Nondual traditions place a preference for the experiential knowing over intellectual knowing, while recognizing that in most cases intellectual understanding precedes experiential understanding. Thus, one should be open to the experience of nonduality, Unity or Source. Most traditions that advocate experiential knowing promote the practice of contemplation and meditation as methods that can open you to the experience, though they will also tell you you can’t make it happen. In fact, trying to force it will do nothing more than push you further away from the experience. You don’t take it, it takes you (see my post Taken).

Next month: Meditation: What it is and why do it.

P.S. Limiting ourselves to western worldviews, some might ask which is True, Scientific Materialism or Analytic Idealism?

I would say that neither is True. Both are philosophical systems that rest upon a core assumption. In one case, the Primacy of Matter and in the other the Primacy of Consciousness. So, the question posed is pointless. Both probably contain some truth. A better question is, which one has the greatest depth and range and which has the best chance of enhancing humanity?

My answer is idealism and I offer that for several reasons:

1.               If the interpretation of the double-slit experiments in quantum physics that assert that Consciousness is responsible for the collapse of the wave function are valid, and a lot of evidence supports this interpretation, then Consciousness is Primary and matter is an epiphenomenon of Consciousness. Thus, it seems likely that matter requires Consciousness to come into existence.

2.              Idealism can subsume materialism similarly to how quantum physics subsumes Newtonian physics. This provides a much broader and deeper paradigm for understanding the nature of reality. The reverse, however, doesn’t expand our paradigm because it requires that human consciousness be a separate and isolated phenomenon generated by the brain rather than the brain being its receiver and moderator. This negates all the advantage to be found from looking at Consciousness as primary and there is a significant amount of evidence backing the view that Consciousness is Primary though in some quarters it is not viewed as being conclusive.

3.              Even given all other things being equal, I go with idealism because it is a narrative that gives humanity purpose and meaning. This has the potential to bring humanity together in a positive way and thus make it more likely to survive and evolve and possibly to continue to contribute to Source’s evolution. The likely alternative is to become a dead end.