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Salvation Will Not Be Found in Politics — Updated 03/14/21

There is an apparent “war” of cultures in American politics. The so-called Red/Blue divide that seems unbridgeable. Red struggles to overcome Blue. Blue struggles to overcome Red. Each side believes fervently that it is the defender of “Truth.” Each side attempts to eke out a victory so that it might impose its view of truth on the nation as a whole. Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Garrett, in their recent book The Upswing, describe this struggle in a way that suggests a cycle. They describe one turn of the apparent cycle. The first leg of the current cycle began in the late 19th century when Blue began an ascendance and imposed its views on society. The cycle peaked around 1971 and began its second leg, which is where we are currently positioned. During the past 50 years, Red has been in ascendance and has been reversing Blue’s accomplishments and has been imposing its views on society. In discussing what needs to be done, the authors propose that the answer is to restore Blue’s programs to a dominant position. I think this is a mistake made by not taking into account the significant portion of the population that sides with Red. In my view, the only thing suppression will accomplish is to initiate a new cycle, which is not a solution at all. Both viewpoints need to be transcended.

On a longer-term basis, Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, discusses a back and forth tug-a-war between the left and right brain functions. He thinks the tug-a-war has its origins in the ancient Greeks and has been operating throughout history. He spends a considerable amount of effort to document this process. McGilchrist, a neuro-psychiatrist, discusses the underlying reason for our split brain. He says that the right brain is responsible for relating and integrating our understanding of the world. Because of its relational nature, the right brain provides a dynamic and holistic view of the world and is the source of meaning in our lives. The left brain on the other hand is responsible for separating out of our perception of the world isolated pieces, which are rendered static and then divided further into pieces for examination.

According to McGilchrist, there should be cooperation between these functions. The left brain should inform the right brain about its understanding of examined pieces of the world and then the right brain should integrate this understanding into a dynamic and holistic view of the world. In short, the left brain evolved to be a tool of the right brain, which should have the overall responsibility for our understanding of the world. McGilchrist argues that currently the left brain has gained dominance over the right brain, which evolved to be the dominant partner.

Human beings can skew the intent of evolution through their ability to form concepts and abstractions that model the world. Concepts, abstractions and models are left brain functions grounded in language. The left brain has in effect “hijacked” the functions of the right brain through the use of concepts and abstractions. Unfortunately, the left brain approach leads to fragmentation rather than the needed holistic view. Ken Wilber, discussed below, would probably agree with the essence of McGilchrist’s analysis. I think this is because Wilber argues that most of our current problems are due to an extreme emphasis on quadrant three of his model (see Table in the section about Wilber), which he thinks is dominated by scientific materialism with its emphasis on the senses of perception and an objectifying and externalizing of everything to the exclusion of humanity’s inner life and resources.

The political cycle described by Putnam and Garrett and possibly the tug-a-war described by McGilchrist seems likely to be linked to how we form identities and worldviews. Before proceeding, it is necessary to provide some background. I will attempt to describe identity formation through the lens of psychological development. I will begin by mentioning the French developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, who sequenced cognitive development into a four-tiered structure. The first tier was sensorimotor, then preoperational, then concrete operational and finally the formal operational tier. While there have been criticisms of the model and suggestions for one or more additional stages the original model, in practice, has held up robustly.

For example, the Harvard psychologist, Lawarence Kohlberg, adapted Piaget’s scheme to his study of moral reasoning. He structured moral reasoning into a three-tiered sequence. The first tier was pre-conventional, then conventional and finally post-conventional. Each tier was divided into two stages for a total of six stages. The sixth stage is often omitted from the developmental sequence. This omission occurs because its achievement is so rare that there are not enough examples of it available to study and give it a firm empirical basis (see Addendum I at the end).

Kohlberg’s developmental model for moral reasoning has been widely studied and validated in cultures around the world, including both developed and emerging societies. The structure and stages have held up across cultures. The primary differences found between cultures has been the rate of development through the stages and the stage that emerges as the dominant typical stage in any given culture.

Further, studies have confirmed a relationship between moral reasoning and behavior, though it is a complex relationship. Studies have found deficits in moral reasoning in psychopaths as compared to neurotics. Research also shows a significant difference in moral reasoning between delinquents and non-delinquent adolescents. A common finding in these studies was an association of preconventional reasoning with antisocial behavior. Development of moral reasoning has also been found to be slower and more variable in troubled children relative to typical children.

Research has also supported structured, developmental discussions of moral issues as a method for stimulating development of moral reasoning. This has been shown to be supported in programs with public school students, emotionally disturbed adolescents, college students, delinquents and prisoners. In a study to see if public school teachers could implement a moral education program, teachers successfully conducted the program and produced significant changes, which upon a two-year follow-up were either maintained or continued to progress. One caveat is that research found that moral reasoning in a natural context with real life content was lower than moral reasoning in an educational setting with hypothetical content.

The primary criticism levied against Kohlberg’s model was from a former student of Kohlberg’s, Carol Gilligan. Her criticism was not about the model structure but of the assessment content used to place individuals in the scheme. Her criticism was that the assessment material was male-centric. Her argument, which was shown to have merit, was that moral reasoning in men tends to be best assessed through issues related to rights and justice, while moral reasoning in women tends to be best assessed through issues related to care and responsibility. She would rename some of the stages in Kohlberg’s model when applied to women using names related to care and responsibility.

Here it is worth mentioning another example. A student of Kohlberg’s, Robert Selman, developed a model of social reasoning. At the end of this essay, Addendum I provides an outline of Kohlberg and Selman’s models based on material in a textbook that I wrote in 1989.

The psychologist/philosopher, Ken Wilber, suggests that about 40% of the U.S. population is at stage four and has an ethnocentric personal identity. This stage marks the transition from preoperational to concrete operational thinking. Ethnocentrists identify with others from similar backgrounds and with similar attributes. People at this stage can take a second person perspective. This stage is often described as being populated by “true believers” and conformist. They are literal thinkers that view the world through narratives (a.k.a. myths). Moral behavior is governed by internalized rules, which are rigidly held and enforced.

Wilber indicates that about 50% of the U.S. population is at stage five, which is based in thinking at the formal operations level and is associated with a worldcentric personal identity. Persons at this stage can take a third person perspective. One identifies with an integrated and unified view rooted in a concern for the wellbeing of the whole. Whereas stage four might be called an “us” stage, stage five could be called an “all of us” stage. It is an orientation that views the world as rational. Moral behavior is governed by strongly held principles or ideals. This stage did not start to take root in the west until about 300 years ago.

The third relevant stage to this discussion is stage six. This stage did not begin taking root until the middle of the twentieth century. It was first evident in the revolutionary youth movement and counterculture of the 1960s. The ability to take a fourth person perspective at this stage led to criticism of and deconstruction of third person perspectives that arose out of stage five. This stage led to an emphasis on egalitarianism, cultural relativism and multiculturalism. Wilber suggests that this group represents about 25% of the U.S. population. While the percentages for the stages discussed add up to more than 100%, it must be taken into account that due to transitions some people are double counted. The above configuration sets up a perfect situation for a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

Wilber’s model is more complex than the simple and brief description above. Wilber’s full analysis is detailed and quite complex. If you’re interested in the detailed analysis, I suggest that you read it for yourself. Probably the most comprehensive presentation is his book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. If you are put off by the word spiritual, I don’t think Wilber would mind if you simply substitute the term “consciousness,” where the term has a much broader meaning than merely being the opposite of unconscious. I have included a brief description of all eight stages in Wilber’s model below as Addendum Two.

Back to the “war” of political cultures. The bad news is that the research indicates that in American society, the majority of adults function at either stage four or stage five. This means that most Americans will have either a conformist attitude toward life or an individualist attitude. These two groups are supported by value systems that clash — traditional versus rational. The conformists depend upon mythologies or stories about the nature of the world, how it operates, what is necessary and so on. These narratives provide their blueprint for understanding the world, which can be a fairly simplistic such as “my country right or wrong.” The individualist depend on logic and rational analysis, which can be fairly complex such as scientific materialism, which assumes that everything arises from matter and that everything can be understood by objectifying it, isolating it, reducing it to its constituent parts and examining the relationship of the parts to one another. The important point here is that these beliefs or assumptions, if you prefer, are a product of an attained pattern of thinking. One does not change such patterns of thinking by persuasion or by coercion. One must develop or evolve beyond them.

If one thinks that they can be changed otherwise, I would ask you to consider the ethnic conflicts that erupted in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR had largely suppressed ethnic conflicts for many decades through its coercive domination of eastern Europe. However, as soon as the external inhibition was removed, the conflicts soon bubbled to the surface because the patterns of thinking of the involved populations had not evolved but had only been suppressed. They may have even regressed under authoritarian domination. On the other hand, let’s look at scientific materialism as an example of the failure of persuasion. For over a century evidence has been accumulating that scientific materialism cannot account for all the phenomena being documented. I have two large volumes in my personal library cataloging evidence that can’t be explained by scientific materialism, persuasive evidence developed through the methods advocated by science and meeting and exceeding the criteria established for judging such data. The response has largely been to ignore the data, discount the data, attack the researchers producing the data and so on. It is no wonder that it has been said that science progresses one funeral at a time. It almost seems that death is the only way to overcome the resistance to different ways of thinking.

Which brings us back to the American culture war. What we have here is a conflict grounded in various conflicting identities. The difficulty of ending this conflict is evident in the observation of the French philosopher Francis Jacques, who noted that participants in such identity-based conflicts usually see only two options. Either they can assimilate the worldview of the opponent or they can impose their world-view on the opponent. We see very little if any migration of members of the Red tribe to the Blue tribe or the converse. So, the exercise of the first option doesn’t seem very likely. What we do see are attempts to implement option two. Both tribes strive to attain the political power necessary to impose their worldview upon the other tribe. Even if one of them succeeds it will be a temporary victory. There will not have been a fundamental change in the pattern of thinking in the “suppressed,” nor will they cease seeking a way to regain the upper hand.

So, is there a way out of this dilemma? There may be but it isn’t a quick and easy fix. The way out is to evolve out of current patterns of conventional thinking. I mentioned research that suggested that evolution of thinking can be stimulated by educational programs. Broad-based education efforts with children is one strategy. Targeted educational programs for adolescents and adults is another strategy. The late and renowned physicist and philosopher David Bohm attempted to address this problem in his book On Dialogue. This book discusses a format for large group dialogue intended to alter patterns of thinking. His is not an educational or a persuasive approach but rather an exposure and assimilation approach. The main thing that he thinks must be overcome is thinking that one’s opinions or assumptions are necessary and therefore justify anything in their defense. He finds that sitting in a large diverse group and listening to but not challenging the freely expressed assumptions of group members will in time bring the members of the group to a level of understanding of one another and a softening of the certainty of their assumptions. Once one becomes less dogmatic about and less identified with one’s assumptions then the path toward evolution in one’s pattern of thinking becomes a possibility. It is mentioned that this careful examination of one’s assumptions can be done individually but lacks the breadth and diversity of a group process. As Bohm says, “[a] problem is insoluble as long as you keep producing it all the time by your thought.”

Ken Wilber has also suggested that on an individual level an effective strategy for changing one’s pattern of thinking is meditation. He says this because meditation is an introspective observation of the arising and dissolving of one’s thoughts. Such observation leads to a clearer understanding of the nature of thought and its influence over you. One of the principle experiential insights that meditation can produce is the recognition that at root you are not your thoughts. Another is that your core identity is non-conceptual. The operative word is experiential. This recognition is not an idea, concept or belief but an experience. You might think that skydiving would be exhilarating but until you actually have the experience it is just an idea. The meditation strategy is associated with quadrant one in Wilber’s map of human knowledge and experience shown below in a simplified format.

                        Internal                                                                 External

1. Interior-Individual-Intentional (I)

       3. Exterior-Individual-Behavioral (It)

2. Interior-Collective-Culture (We)

       4. Exterior-Collective-Social (Its)

Wilber suggests that part of the problem we face is an overemphasis on exteriorized products of thinking, especially objective knowledge. He doesn’t think objective knowledge is bad, just that it has been emphasized to the point of crowding out other equally important aspects of being human. His meditation strategy belongs in quadrant one, representing individual interiority. As the ancient Greek aphorism says, “Know thyself.”

Any attempt to implement programs like those mentioned above are certain to be met by resistance, especially large-scale educational programs imposed on the unwilling. Voluntary programs are more likely to be accepted. If such programs produce positive results, then more people are likely to be open to participation. Probably the easiest group program to implement would be a group dialogue program such as proposed by Bohm. These should be community-based to ensure that sufficient diversity of views are represented. Of course, the suggestion by Wilber to undertake a systematic observation of one’s own thought processes through a meditation program has only one person’s opposition to overcome – yours. Should you be interested in a solo exploration, I recommend his book Integral Mindfulness.

It appears to me that the only way to resolve the dilemma that we face is to evolve our way out of it. This may be a difficult solution and perhaps we lack the foresight and long-term perspective needed to succeed. All other tactics, even when they appear to be successful, will in the end prove to be temporary and we will find ourselves cycling through the same struggle again and again. How long this can be sustained without imploding our civilization is difficult to say but that is the probable price of failure.

If this post has stimulated your interest, I recommend you to read the books mentioned and draw your own conclusions. I also suggest that you take a look at the two addenda below, especially Addendum II.

 

Addendum I

Levels I,II, III.              Stages 1, 2, 3…               Models (a) Kohlberg, (b) Selman

I.              Pre-conventional

1.          a. Punishment-obedience orientation. What’s right is what avoids punitive consequences.

            b. Individuals as physical entities. One socially interacts with others who have similar superficial and      observable characteristics, such as sex, skin color, etc.

 2.          a. Instrumental-Relativist, exchange orientation. What’s right is what secures a reciprocal exchange; i.e., I’ll scratch your back, if you’ll scratch mine.

              b. Individuals as intentional agents. One socially interacts with others to temporarily secure their support or assistance.

 II.          Conventional

3.          a. Good-boy, good-girl orientation. What’s right is what is consistent with social expectations, especially with family expectations.

             b. Individuals are introspective. One employs mutual perspective taking as a strategy to further one’s self-interests in specific situations.

 4.          a. Authority-rules, law and order orientation. What’s right is what conforms to the rules set by authorities, especially social institutions such as religious authorities or legal authorities associated with the community in which one lives.               

               b. Individuals have relative stable personalities. Social interaction arises out of mutual interests and sharing with others. Relationships have duration over time based on the expectation that the other will continue to conform to one’s expectations.

 III.          Post-conventional

5.          a. Social-contract orientation. What is right is what satisfies standards examined and agreed upon by society.

             b. Individuals are complex self-systems. Social interactions are recognized as involving complex and often conflicting needs met through a variety of relationships.

6.          a. Universal Ethical Principles, personal conscience orientation. What is right is what is consistent with comprehensive, self-evolved and logically consistent ethical principles.                     

             b. No parallel.

Addendum II

Stages of Growing Up from Ken Wilber’s AQAL Model

Introduction

The following stages are based upon a large body of research by a variety of developmental researchers, such as Jean Piaget among many others. Note that developmental stages imply a progression where one must begin at the initial stage and then through developmental experience move up to the next stage in the sequence. When a move up occurs the lower stage is absorbed by the new stage rather than the previous stage being left behind. Thus, someone at a higher stage can understand where someone at a lower stage is “coming from,” so to speak. However, a person at a lower stage has little or no basis for understanding where someone at a higher stage is coming from. Further, one cannot skip stages in a developmental sequence though movement through a stage can be sped up. There is no guarantee that one will move through the entire developmental sequence. Typically, one arrives at what will be one’s final stage by late adolescence, however, there are emerging methods for stimulating development into adulthood. Keep in mind that except in transition periods, there is usually a dominant developmental stage evident in the majority of persons in a population. This does not mean that other stages aren’t present during a given period just that they are less common or in some cases even rare. Finally, note that the descriptions below are brief stage summaries and are fixed descriptions of what is a dynamic process during the developmental period.

1.              Archaic (Infared) : The most fundamental stage and the least significant. One exist in a state of fusion with the environment. At this stage, when an instinctual drive arises one becomes that drive; e.g., one isn’t hungry one is hunger. Normally only seen in infants prior to individuation. It is never seen in a typical adult. It is possible for typical adults to carry fixations from this period, which means that the person is still identified with some part of this stage.

2.              Magic Tribal (Magenta) : Very few adults will be found at this stage. It is the beginnings of a separate self. There is a fundamental distinction between self and other at an emotional level, but there continues to be some confusion around self and the exterior environment. This confusion gives rise to animistic thoughts in which human qualities are attributed to things in the exterior environment; e.g., Lightening strikes because it wants to kill me. Magical thinking also occurs in this stage; e.g., if I hold a wish intensely enough I will manifest what I wish for. If I pray hard enough I will be cured.

3.              Magic Mythic (Red) : A person at this stage engages in preoperational thinking and has an egocentric identity. A separate self is more fully developed in this stage and this leads to a concern with security and self-protection. At this stage a power drive emerges. An exaggerated power drive often produces an inner critic that may create feelings of inferiority. For someone at this stage what they want is what is right and this justifies simply taking it. They tend to be not only egocentric but narcissistic. They are only capable of taking a first person perspective (me/mine). They are incapable of being empathetic; i.e., seeing and feeling a situation from someone else’s perspective. Joseph Stalin is often offered as an example of this stage.

4.              Mythic Traditional (Amber) : This level can also be described as the conformist stage. Cognitive processing shifts from a preoperational mode to a concrete operational mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on things in the external world. A person at this level has developed some capacity taking a second person perspective. This marks the shift from an egocentric to ethnocentric identity. This means that such an individual can now find belongingness in groups; e.g., family, clan, tribe, nation, religion, political party, etc. Wilber indicates that about 40% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. People at this stage are highly rule governed and believe in stringent enforcement of rules. They are concrete thinkers and hold unquestioned belief in cultural narratives, which are viewed literally and held as absolutely true. They are easily led to place all power and authority in a single person who is viewed as omnipotent. People in this group may become true believers in a fundamentalist religion, political movement or scientism (scientific dogma).

5.              Rational Modern (Orange) : Cognitive processing shifts from a concrete operations mode to a formal operations mode. Thinking is now capable of performing cognitive operations on thought. A person at this level as developed some capacity for taking a third person perspective. They can now step back from themselves and come to a relatively objective opinion about themselves. This leads to the development of self-esteem needs and true individuality. For such an individual there can now emerge a drive for excellence, achievement and progress. Wilber indicates that about 50% of the American adult population is at this stage, which includes people not fully transitioned into it and those beginning to transition out of it. There is a shift from an ethnocentric to a worldcentric identity, which means the person is capable of taking an objective, scientific and universal perspective. This stage marks a move to an ability for greater inclusiveness; i.e., from “us” “to all of us.” Stage 5 didn’t begin to emerge in any significant degree in the west until about 300 years ago. It is viewed by Wilber to be a highly significant development. Stage 4 (Conformists) and Stage 5 (Individualists) together make up a majority of the current U.S. population and should be expected to be in direct and regular conflict.

6.              Pluralistic Postmodern (Green) : With this stage there arises an ability for fourth person perspective taking, which can reflect on, analyze,, critique and deconstruct third person perspectives. People at this stage only began to show up in any numbers around the middle of the twentieth century. The emergence of the youth revolution and counterculture movement at this time marked the arrival of the first postmodern stage. The fourth person perspective of this stage led to an emphasis on relativism and multiple approaches that rejected any universals or unified views. All viewpoints are seen as local and culturally constructed. Postmodernism especially rejects any “-isms” of any type. The pluralistic view is egalitarian and sees everyone as absolutely equal and no culture is superior to any other culture. Thus the emergences of multiculturalism in the late twentieth century. Members of this stage lead with the heart and rely on feelings rather than the head and logical analysis. Another characteristic of this stage is the rejection of all hierarchies as evil. What it fails to do is differentiate between “dominator” hierarchies and “growth” hierarchies. The self-contradiction in postmodernism, of course, is that it holds and promotes its view as being superior to all others. Wilber indicates that about 25% of the U.S. population can be classified at Stage Six. While Stage 4 at 40% and Stage 5 at 50% and Stage 6 at 25% exceeds 100% bear in mind that there are people in transition and likely counted twice. Some writers on developmental stages use notation along these lines 1, 1/2, 2, 2/3, 3, etc. This sets up the perfect storm of a clash between traditional, rational and multicultural values.

7.              Integral (Turquoise) : This stage has only begun to be noticed by developmental researchers in the past few decades. It is still quiet rare and probably evident in less than 5% of the population. It is a second tier stage and the major mark of this stage is a drive for wholeness. One result of this is that the Integral stage is the only stage that sees the value of all the lower stages and their necessity for the developmental process. Bearers of this stage function at next to the last step in Maslow’s needs hierarchy — self-actualization. At this stage, thinking and feeling for the first time are brought together in a tight integration. This stage’s value for wholeness and inclusiveness leads people at the integral level to look at issues and problems in large, broad contexts, such as seeing environmental problems as a biosphere problem not purely a local issue. This broad perspective leads to little sympathy for partisan politics either nationally or globally. As an established stage it is the stage with the greatest depth of all the stages to date.

8.              Super Integral Stages (White) : This represents possibly as many a four additional stages that would be tier three stages. These projections are based on the assumption that the universe is inherently loving and creative otherwise evolution would never have gotten underway and produced anything new at all. These stages are thought to be driven by an increasing focus on wholeness, inclusiveness, increasing consciousness, increasing love and care and concern, which is inherently built into the universe as we know it. It is thought that persons operating at this level currently exist but are very rare and represent significantly less than 1% of the population.

Are We Merely Divine Puppets?

          Self-identified denizens of the Absolute (hereafter mystics) declare that reality is an indivisible whole, and there are experiments in quantum physics that support the assertion. The whole referred to is what I think of as Source (a.k.a. God). It follows from this view that if one is an aspect of an indivisible whole then one is not, indeed, cannot be separate from that whole. If one is not separate from the whole then mystics say there cannot be any choices or actions that do not arise from the whole. In short, there can’t be separate “doers.” I think I understand this argument and agree with it up to a point. In fact, I sometimes say that “Ego is the mask God hides behind while pretending to be you.”, which I think captures the point the mystics are voicing; i.e. Source is ultimately behind everything. I agree that should one reach a state of resonance with Source (Self-realization) then one experiences “oneself” to be the Divine behind the mask. However, most people experience compartmentalized or egoic consciousnesses and are not in resonance with Source.

Here is an illustration to make more concrete the idea of being a “doer” when not in resonance with Source. The human body is a living, organic whole. If some cell, not in resonance with the body, launches off on its own and tries to become independent of the whole, what is the result? Cancer. Thus, we might say that the mass of humanity that is ignorant of the whole and often acts in a manner that is not congruent with Source are like cancerous cells that have declared their independence from the whole and launched their own program. Therefore, one might say that egoic consciousness is like a cancer cell and Self-realization is like a spontaneous remission that turns a cancer cell back into a cooperative aspect of the living body and in the process contributes to an improvement in the immune system. Would we say that a cancer cell has no independence of action? Would we say that it can’t be a “doer” of independent actions because the living body is an organic whole? I don’t think so.

A compartmentalized consciousness absent Self-realization is an egoic consciousness. So, how does an ego (I prefer fictive-self) come about. It is produced by resistance to Source or to pure being. Such an ego consciousness makes choices and pursues its own agenda in the world. Perhaps from an Absolute perspective the world is not real but that has no relevance to ego or the fictive-self. To explore this I’ll use a metaphor to explore a fictive-self operating in the world. Imagine waking up and finding yourself in the cockpit of an airplane in flight. There is no one else in the cockpit or in the plane. What are you to do?

You could realize that you are not a pilot and just sit back, relax and leave things to the autopilot. In short, you could just be and enjoy the ride and see what happens. However, the idea of placing your trust in the airplane’s autopilot begins to make you anxious. You imagine all the awful things that could happen if the autopilot should fail and you can’t fly the plane. Fear arises. Thus, fear motivated, you begin to read all of the instrument labels and study the guidance mechanisms. Further, after getting some idea about the function of various mechanisms, you turn off the autopilot and begin to experiment in an attempt to fly the plane. Some of this exploration results in things that almost panic you, some don’t appear to have an effect and some make changes that you are comfortable with. As your explorations continue, you begin to feel more and more like you are making good choices and are learning to fly the airplane. You begin to view yourself as a pilot and are excited about flying. You make a couple of successful landings and takeoffs. You are now confident in yourself as a pilot and are at ease.

However, the truth is that you are in a flight simulator that is so good that you can’t tell the difference between it and a real airplane. You are not actually in an airplane. You are not actually flying. You can’t really crash. You are not actually making any real choices, good or bad. You are not really flying an airplane, and you certainly are not a real pilot. It is all virtual reality. A virtual airplane, virtual choices, virtual outcomes, virtual control and virtual piloting. In short, it is all unreal. It is just a simulation, but you have failed to recognize it as a simulation. However, you have acquired some of the skills necessary for piloting an aircraft.

When some mystics say that reality is a “dream/illusion with no doers,” the implication is that the world as we know it, which includes life, is a simulation. I prefer the metaphor of a computer simulation to dream or illusion, but it isn’t a difference that makes any real difference. According to these mystics, the simulation we call the world is actually on autopilot, but almost every one of us goes through a process similar to the one described above and resists going with the flow, i.e, just being. Resistance results in the autopilot being blocked, a fictive-self created and behavior directed at control of the immediate aspects of the simulation undertaken. Most people are confused by the claim of mystics that there actually is no world, no people, no choices, no one doing anything, etc. Confusion arises due to a failure to recognize that the claim is intended to convey that it is all a simulation (a.k.a. dream or illusion) and not real in the sense that most people tend to think about reality.

The problem here is one of perspective. From the perspective of the mystic, the world and everything in it is virtual and therefore not real. No thing really exists and nothing “real” ever happens. However, from the perspective of most human beings both things and events are real. There are choices and outcomes. There are actions and actors. Each, from his or her own perspective, is right in terms of the reality  perceived. That one perspective is relative and the other absolute means that each looks pass the other and each is certain they have the Truth and perhaps one does.

One must wonder why, if the “enlightened” have the Truth, they think telling others about their phenomenological Truth will have any effect. Conceptual communication can’t capture phenomenological Truth. Of course, the refrain one often hears is that their conceptual communication is a pointer, but it might also be a subtle way of elevating oneself. The ghost of ego past? Personally, I find the “no doer” view no improvement over the deterministic view of causation posited by scientific materialism. What’s the difference between being a mechanistic robot at the mercy of simple determinism and lacking free will* or being merely a puppet dancing to the tune of a divine puppet master?

The risk is that the ignorant believe the mystics. The ignorant would then still live in a relative world but believe in the absolute perspective. It is important to recognize that they believe, not that they know from their own experience. Thus, believing that they live in a simulation, indeed that they are a simulation, and that they don’t have any real choices and can’t take any real actions, they stop taking the simulation seriously. I am reminded of a quote from Fred Davis’ web site, “So long as it “feels” like there are choices, its important for us to make skillful ones.” What happens to the ignorant if they stop taking choices in the relative world seriously and fail to make skillful choices?

Further, I would ask, might there actually be a reason for the simulation? Might encouraging people, virtual or not, to believe that interacting with the simulation is pointless actually be detrimental in some manner? Looking at the matter from a human perspective, one must ask, why would Source (a.k.a. Cosmic Intelligence, the Divine or God) manifest a simulation like the world, if it serves no purpose and the activity of the avatars within it is pointless? Is what we call the world merely a cosmic soap opera created by Source for meaningless amusement?

Many, including myself, reject the idea that Source has no purpose and the simulation is meaningless. So, why is there a simulation? As hypotheses about such things go, I find the hypothesis offered by Tom Campbell, in his trilogy My Big TOE, as likely as any other that I’ve heard. Campbell makes the assumption that evolution, as a process, is implicit in the nature of things or a core aspect of the whole. It applies not only to life, as we experience it but also to Source. The driving goal posited for the evolutionary process is reduction of entropy. He suggests that a simulation is the method used by Source to decrease its entropy and thereby evolve. All of the compartmentalized consciousnesses employed in the simulation are evolving toward a reduction in entropy. Perhaps Source is employing something akin to parallel processing to more efficiently reduce the entropy of the whole. When a compartmentalized consciousness embodied in an avatar arrives at a level of entropy within the simulation that can make a positive contribution to decreasing the entropy of the whole, the simulation is transcended, and one continues to progress with greater awareness of being an aspect of the whole.

This perspective is one that has something meaningful to say to the avatars in the simulation (a.k.a. the world). It says they have a purpose and they can make choices and take actions that are meaningful within the context in which they operate. Indeed, they can affect their own state of compartmentalized consciousness by lowering their entropy through those choices and actions. This breaks down their resistance to just being and can bring them to a point where they are available to the Absolute and are in resonance with Source. This in turn serves Source by decreasing the entropy of Source. Perhaps, some or all mystics might argue, based on their experience, that Source is perfect and has no need to evolve. However, why should one believe that the understanding of mystics, still living in the simulation through a fictive-self (even though greatly diminished), is itself complete and perfect. It seems unlikely to me but then who am I but an ignorant puppet compelled by the Divine to write this meaningless essay that serves no purpose.

The Looking Glass

This piece was adapted from a post by Fred Davis

You are always awake, but you are not always consciously awake.

What matters is simple recognition [that is, of when you’re consciously awake], because however you display yourself to yourself, you’re almost surely going to have to come back to fresh conscious recognition over and over again. This is the discipline part. This is the process part. Awareness colonizes the body one bit, one seeing, one unconscious pattern at a time.

In every moment that you ally yourself with thinking, which includes every activity of the mind, you are voting for thinking. It’ll take some work to shift that default position. It’ll take a lot of willingness. Thinking isn’t a bad thing, it is just that most of us do too much of it when it isn’t necessary. When your car is stuck in mud, you need to think about how to free it but when someone cuts you off in traffic there is nothing to think about.

Again and again, as you touch truth through actual experience–as you discover truth through continuous inquiry–that touch will bring a longer, stronger, more profound experience of what you always already are–that which knows what you are. Your true essence is pure awareness of what is now, not what you think about it.

Be relentlessly aware of and skeptical about your thoughts. You won’t always have to take your thoughts through a process of formal inquiry. In the beginning inquiry is necessary to purge your mind of pointless chatter. Ask yourself again and again, “Is what I’m thinking really true, or is it a belief, an opinion, a judgment or even a delusion? Even if what you’re thinking is true, do you really need to be engaged in this line of thought right now? The veil of thought arises, it’s questioned, penetrated, and it parts. Repetition is the mother of clarity. Eventually, the inquiry becomes less formal and more spontaneous. Life itself becomes constant inquiry. Like everything else, you don’t have to do a thing. It just happens effortlessly.

You may tell yourself, “It can’t be that simple.” It is.

Liberation is all about right now, this moment.

Freedom is now or never, here or nowhere.

[Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Mark 4:9]

A simple demonstration exercise follows below:

 

Exercise

This exercise based on a Buddhist meditation practice called rigpa (being aware of awareness).

Find a quiet relaxing spot where your visual awareness can be spacious. Examples of the type of setting that I have in mind might be sitting or standing on a peak gazing out across a beautiful wooded valley, sitting on a dock in the early evening gazing out across the waters of a quiet, undisturbed lake or whatever works for you. The essential feature is the relaxed mood the setting evokes, not the setting itself.

Now, just enjoy the feeling of relaxation that the scene evokes in your body, take in the spacious view before you, listen to the subtle sounds arising from the scene, feel the air move about your face and body, smell any odors carried by the air you breathe. Allow yourself to become fully immersed in the totality of the moment. When you are fully settled into the exercise you will be acutely aware but your awareness will be free of thoughts (i.e., words and images) but full of sensations and feelings — pure experience. Fully present.

This is you as an awake consciousness or in your natural mind. It is always available. It can be brought to any circumstance under any conditions. You merely need to learn to stay in this state of consciousness as your normal or habitual way of being. Practice the use of thinking as a tool for accomplishing a specific task and then put it away and become present with your immediate experience.

There is probably no end to the depths of this state of awakened awareness but you first have to learn to live in it before it can flower.

A Brief Comment on Paradigms

          Paradigms are conceptual models that serve an umbrella function for theories in diverse areas of study. For example, the current paradigm in science (see What is Science?) is scientific materialism. This paradigm serves an umbrella function for theories about such things as physical process, biological processes and behavioral process. This paradigm has its origins in the scientific revolution inspired by the scientific thinking of Nicolaus Copernicus in the sixteenth century and Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Scientific materialism as a paradigm assumes that everything is comprised of physical particles (principle of physicalism; i.e., the root assumption of the paradigm) governed by cause and effect relationships (principle of causal determinism), that change is continuous (principle of continuity), that phenomena occur within a finite space and over finite periods of time (principle of locality), that phenomena have objective existence independent of observation (principle of strong objectivity) and can be understood through reducing phenomena to their essential components (the principle of reductionism), which implies that phenomena are assembled from the bottom up, piece by piece. All theories falling under the umbrella share these basic assumptions. See Goswami’s Quantum Philosophy (Part I) and Goswami’s Philosophical Alternative for more detail.

One tenet of science as a methodology is that it holds to certain principles about the nature of knowledge. One of these principles is that our knowledge consists of models of reality and are not elucidations of reality itself. In other words, what we know is always considered to be an approximation never truth. Another principle is that what we know is held as tentatively valid until shown otherwise. How we know is through creating explanations for what appear to be related observations or facts about phenomena in the world. These explanations (a.k.a. theories) are then used to derive hypotheses that can be experimentally tested. Successful tests of hypotheses derived from theory increase the confidence that we can have in the explanation or theory. Confirmation of an hypothesis is sometimes possible by successful prediction of an outcome, such as the prediction of planetary motion based on a theoretical model or explanation of the forces governing such motion. In other and more confounded cases, confirmation of an hypothesis is sought through statistical testing in which a conclusion is reached based on probability calculations. The typical standard in such cases is a p. <= .05, which means the observed result would be expected by chance only 5 times in 100 or 1 time in 20. Standards such as this can, of course, result in some false positives but is considered an acceptable error rate for theory testing (see “What is Science?“)

The flaw in this system is that a paradigm can come to be so central to the scientific process that it begins to be viewed as Truth. Once this happens its assumptions acquire the status of dogma. When this occurs, theories subsumed by the paradigm become inoculated against accepting results that are contrary to dogma, which also means contrary to theory or theories grounded in the paradigm. Once this happens, science has become scientism. It appears that contemporary science is grappling with the problem of scientism. With the advent of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century the basic assumptions of scientific materialism were challenged. Experimental evidence refutes or strongly questions the validity of the principles or assumptions of scientific materialism enumerated above. Resistance to this challenge has been evident in a variety of fields that have simply ignored the challenges and continued to act as if nothing had changed. This is especially true in the cases of biological and behavioral sciences. Many physical sciences have found ignoring the shifting paradigm more difficult. However, even in the physical sciences the tendency has been to attempt to limit the shift to effects occurring at the micro level and preserve the paradigm at the macro level. Unfortunately, experimental evidence is accumulating that demonstrates quantum effects can also be detected at and thus have effects at the macro level.

Another source of challenge to scientific materialism that became evident during the twentieth century was the results from psi experiments (e.g., see Spirituality and Religion). One early body of experimentation was that done by J.B. Rhine at Duke University. Rhine produced evidence that certainly should have caused some serious questioning of the adequacy of scientific materialism, he and his results were widely rationalized away because they were inconsistent with the prevailing paradigm suggesting that the assumptions of the paradigm had become dogma. Later in the twentieth century a large body of research was accumulated under the leadership of Robert Jahn at Princeton University in its engineering anomalies laboratory. This work too was rationalized away to maintain the integrity of the paradigm or if you prefer to preserve the dogma of scientism. In both cases, the correct scientific response should have been intense investigation rather than out-of-hand dismissal.

There are of course researchers that continue to pursue investigation into these challenges to scientific materialism (e.g., see Society for Scientific Exploration). A large group of open minded investigators have formed an organization (Academy for the Advancement of Post-materialist Science) dedicated to finding a new and better paradigm. Whether or not a new paradigm is justified, careful investigation of challenges should be applauded, not ridiculed as is often the case from those wedded to scientism.

Why I Am an Agnostic

           To begin I want to distinguish between three terms: agnostic, atheist and true believer. True believers are simply people who uncritically embrace, on faith, any belief or system of beliefs for which there is no empirical validation. For example, true believers make a categorical assertion that a being called God exists. An atheist on the other hand denies the validity of any belief or system of beliefs for which there is no empirical validation. In counterpoint to true believers, an atheist categorically asserts that a being called God does not exist. In the cases of true believers and atheists, the psychological processes underlying their apparent contradictory positions is very similar. Both make absolute assertions about something that they can’t prove. An agnostic, on the other hand, takes a middle road between these two extremes and simply pleads ignorance.

While not limited to religious beliefs, it is within such a context that one most frequently encounters the use of the terms just described. Agnostics recognize that it is unlikely that either claim can be put to an empirical test and publicly validated. Therefore, agnostics stand aside and take no position. The existence or non-existence of a being called God appears to be a question of belief rather than one of fact. The one requires blind faith and the other empirical evidence. Clearly, a very large contingent of the world’s population have historically been true believers of one sort or another.

To further elucidate the assertions above that “The existence or non-existence of a being called God is a question of belief…[that]…requires blind faith…,” I will draw on points made in other essays, specifically The Natural Mind and Discernment, both of which can be found in posts on this site. In The Natural Mind it was suggested that what drives the vast majority of individuals is a fictive-self. This fiction is a complex narrative that is created and maintained to explain to ourselves the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that arise from our automatic programs (APs) [see Chapter One, P. 21]. These APs are acquired through conditioning over the course of our lives and remain, for most of us, largely outside of conscious awareness. In short, who we think we are is a product of the mind. In Discernment a similar case was made that what we call the world (human culture), as distinct from the earth (matter and natural processes), is likewise a product of the mind and is therefore at root purely conceptual. Imagine the earth without any humans and see how much of what I’ve called the world remains. A few material artifacts of human culture may persist for a time but the earth will soon enough consume them.

Most people mistakenly believe that their narrative about themselves represents objective reality. The basic narrative normally begins developing in early childhood and there are both personal and cultural components. Various components of the world are included that lead to belief in institutionalized paradigms representing such things as social structures, political institutions, economic systems, religion and so on. Thus, one finds that many people have a personal narrative that includes, among other conceptual paradigms, belief in a religion. Belief in a religion in turn supports belief in a God. The operative word in the case of religion and God is belief, which makes both merely an idea, a product of the mind.

There are, historically and currently, people whom many would call mystics. Mystics describe what is often referred to as Unity Consciousness, The Divine or The Absolute. The claims of such individuals are said to rest upon personal experience with a direct knowing of (as opposed to belief in) Unity Consciousness, The Divine or The Absolute. However, such assertions about personal experience cannot be objectively evaluated or publicly validated. The difference between a mystic and a religious person is that a mystic does not ask you to believe anything but instead invites you to seek personal confirmation through your own experience of what he or she reports. To put this another way, a mystic invites you to engage in a single-subject experiment that often comes with a methodology for implementing the experiment. A religious person asks you to take on faith his or her beliefs.

As an imperfect illustration, suppose I returned from a trip to a country that included a exotic fruit in its diet. I had eaten the fruit many times while visiting but you have never heard of it. I can tell you a lot of things about the fruit but you then only have some limited knowledge or information that in no way duplicates the actual experience of eating the fruit. Unless you repeat my direct experience by eating some of the fruit you will never know what I’ve tried to relate to you. The taste of the fruit is just an idea in your mind, not an actual experience. You may believe from the description that the fruit would be tasty, but you can’t know if that is true without direct experience.

Thus, if I recommend that you obtain some of the exotic fruit and try it for yourself this is analogous to the approach of a mystic. If I tell you about how tasty the fruit is and you believe what I say and begin telling everyone you know how great this fruit is that is analogous to the approach of a religious person. As is said in Zen, “Don’t confuse knowledge with knowing.” Thus, personal experience is subjective and can’t be transmitted to anyone else, except as an idea. Mere ideas are always subject to misunderstanding and distortion and often are corrupted in their transmission. One should never invest belief in the truth of an idea.

Individuals who have mystical experiences that reveal to them what they experience as “God” almost universally invite others to personally test their reports and to experientially verify them for themselves. Thus, I’m personally inclined to at least give mystics the benefit of doubt, since they do not ask anyone to believe their reports based on faith. Interestingly, many religious narratives grow up around such individuals after their death. These narratives often appear to significantly distort and elaborate what the mystic actually said or taught. These religious narratives, in my opinion, almost always serve some personal, social or political purpose. I’m reminded of my favorite religious joke that can be found on the Poetry and Personal Items page on this site.

Thus, I am an agnostic because I can see no way to give belief in the existence or non-existence of a being called God a factual basis. Related to the question of whether or not a Supreme Being exists, there is also the issue of religious belief. Because I am aware of strong human tendencies to invest faith in beliefs arising from mere ideas, which are often the product of irrational thinking, I cannot embrace any religion. Religious beliefs can have a strong emotional appeal and may moderate existential anxiety, but like all beliefs they are just ideas and have no reality outside of the mind. I recognize and accept that there are awesome mysteries about the nature and origin of the universe that I cannot fathom, but religious dogmas about these mysteries are not satisfying, and ultimately explain nothing. I am open to experimenting with methods suggested by mystics as ways one might gain a direct, intuitive and personal understanding (gnosis) of these mysteries. However, belief in institutionalized religious dogma articulated through a formal organizational structure is the antithesis of such methods. Even should I have success with methods recommended by mystics, I recognize that the experience would be personal and would not and could not extend to anyone else. The Truth known by mystics is subjective and only available on an individual basis.

In conclusion, I suggest that agnosticism should be one’s ground state. I think that taking an agnostic attitude toward any and everything that one has no experiential basis for accepting should be one’s goal.