What’s It All About?

One of my regular readers, Sylvia Jane Wojcik, sent me a thoughtful and emotionally powerful essay titled “What’s It All About?” It seems she is as obsessed with the question of meaning as I am. Early on she quotes from Bryan Magee’s Confessions:

This feeling, [of the inevitablity of death] when it came, was not an ordinary fear or anxiety but was hyper-vivid and preternaturally powerful.  As in a nightmare, I felt trapped and unable to escape from something that I was also unable to face, Death, my death, the literal destruction of me, was totally inevitable, and had been from the very instant of my conception.  In the face of death I craved for my life to have some meaning. I found the thought that it might just mean nothing at all–might, in a long perspective, be nothing at all–terrifying.  … (228) Confronted with this fact, I felt what can only be described as existential terror, a horror of nothingness.

To anyone in this frame of mind nearly all human pursuits seem vain beyond all description.   What can anything I do mean or matter to me when I have gone down into complete nothingness for the rest of eternity?  If the void is the permanent destination of all of us, all value and all significance are merely pretended for purposes of carrying on our little human game, like children dressing up.  It is, of course, a willing pretense: we cannot bring ourselves to face eternal nothingness, so we busy ourselves with our little lives and all their vacuous pursuits, surrounded by institutions that we ourselves have created yet we pretend are important, and which help us to shut out the black and endless night that surrounds us.  It is all, in the end, nothing—nothing whatsoever. I am biologically programmed to want to go on living, so I do: I eat, drink, sleep, try to ward off danger, and all the rest of it. But the idea that it means anything is a pathetic little piece of self-delusion. (229) …

I used to look at people going about their normal lives with everyday cheerfulness and think: “How can they?  And how can they suppose that any of what they’re doing matters? They’re like passengers on the Titanic, except that these people know already that they’re headed for total and irremediable shipwreck. In a short time every one of them will be dead, either a heap of grey ash in an urn or a corpse rotting underground with worms wriggling in and out of its eye sockets.  Why aren’t they overwhelmed with horror at it? Why don’t they seem even to mind?” … In some of my moods they seemed to me like a lot of lunatics chuckling dementedly while the asylum burnt down and turned them to ash.  (253)

To Magee’s insights, she adds her own moving description of our existential predicament:

… History shows how our lives are like so many leaves that fall at the end of each year only to be trodden underfoot by succeeding generations in never-ending cycles of birth, growth, and death.  All that living: that first kiss and falling in love, witnessing the wonders of science and technology, waging war and peace, and simple things, too—like noticing a flower unexpectedly emerging from a crack in a sidewalk or that wholesome feeling of worth and pride—of mattering—you experience by helping a child cross the street.  The tight grasp of his warm little hand around your finger says everything about the sense of safety and trust he implicitly feels in your presence. It’s all doomed for oblivion, as individual and collective memory inevitably fade and physical traces of our existence in writing, images, and place crumble into dust with the march of time.  Our individual lives are but instances of a larger exercise in meaninglessness if not absurdity—or so it appears to those who, like me, see the world through Naturalism’s disinterested lens.

How then to respond?

… I think: life can be worth living even without ultimate meaning.  There isn’t a solution so much as a way to cope by way of what I have come to call the compensations of pure experience.  This is the phenomenon of losing oneself in the flow of an activity.  We transcend the ego and seem to become a part of, or, indeed, the activity itself.  … This can range from the small thrills experienced in everyday life to the awe we feel in the presence of the cosmic sublime.  I love the joie-de-vivre I experience whenever I think of my four-year-old grandson Luke’s infectious shrieks of delight . . . at chasing a red balloon on his birthday, [or] swishing happily through colorful autumn leaves …

After outlining her naturalistic philosophy, Wojcik returns at the end of the essay to her existential concerns.

Yet, even these fulfilling episodes sooner or later fall short because we realize we cannot avoid the death that ultimately robs us everything … 

I do grant that for some of us death may come to seem a comfort—a release from pain, guilt, grief, or even boredom—especially as we age.  But I regard this, generally, as more of an aberration, a psychological malfunction, rather than a rational conclusion dictated by a dispassionate look at the facts.  We are naturally disposed to see the glass half full. Life wants to live!  We should work through injury, learn from mistakes, see sorrows in perspective, and find something to do.  It is proper to “rage,” in Dylan Thomas’s words, against “the dying of the light.”

This is not to say that we should deny death’s inevitability.  We should accept it gracefully (however grudgingly) when the time comes.  It’s just that while we are alive we should endeavor to live life to the fullest and enjoy what I have called those episodes of “pure” experience that come our way.

This is the logic by which it seems to me that Eastern concepts of resignation, founded on the denial of desire as a way to avoid suffering, do not ring true and are inconsistent with human nature.  Perhaps this difference of outlook is merely a matter of emphasis. Naturalism also accepts the reality that everything at root does ultimately resolve to eternal Being. It’s just that it’s conceived in terms of atoms and quarks, governed by quantum mechanics and who knows what else yet to be discovered, rather than ill-defined concepts of Being.

And so we endlessly go round and round, back and forth, in our hearts and minds alternating between despair that the problem of meaning has no solution and determination to figure it out.  It’s the ultimate quandary. We’re like a squirrel caught in a trap endlessly racing back and forth, crashing into the sides of the cage in a futile effort to escape. We want something to be the way it is not and can not be.  Maybe that’s why we keep revisiting the problem: we wonder if the future will somehow shed light on the problem in a way not apparent to us right now and reveal a way out.

After bumping our logical noses up against reality enough times, though, unlike the squirrel, we rise above instinct and resign ourselves to the reality of our circumstances and try to enjoy the ride such as we are able.  It’s just the way it is. The beat goes on and so do we, even if wish the melody were different.

 

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I thank Ms. Wojcik for her deeply moving essay. And for those interested, here it is in full.

What’s It All About? – Sylvia Jane Wojcik – December 27, 2018

Most of us have known some golden days in the June of life when philosophy was in fact what Plato calls it, “that dear delight;” when the love of a modestly elusive truth seemed more glorious – incomparably – than the lust for the ways of the flesh and the dross of the world. And there is always some wistful remnant in us of that early wooing of wisdom. “Life has meaning,” we feel with Browning. “To find its meaning is my meat and drink.”… So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-canceling vacillation and futility. We strive with the chaos about and within, but we should believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but decipher our own souls. We want to understand. “Life means for us constantly to transform into light and flame all that we are or meet with!” We are like Mitya in The Brothers Karamazov – “one of those who don’t want millions, but an answer to their questions.”  —Will Durant

I have wanted for the longest time to set down what I believe about the world and me in it.  This means how the world works and how to then live in that world as well as my understanding of how I think I myself am doing in it, but I’ve always had a hard time sustaining the effort necessary to produce a finished product.  Part of it is the inherent difficulty of the project, particularly finding a way to navigate the vast length, breadth, and depth of the briar patch of inquiry in a way that is both simple and truly explanatory and therefore useful in living everyday life—mine and hopefully the reader’s.  But the bigger problem is a debilitating perfectionism which sees me always second guessing myself with never-ending revisions and adding ever more material in the quest to be comprehensive, if not omniscient. The result is constant doubt and discouragement which sees me putting things aside for yet another day when I supposedly will have a clearer head and new resolve.   Also, I’m a procrastinator and am easily distracted by the next shiny intellectual idea, new book, or current event that crosses my path. Finally, it doesn’t help that I want what I write to be so good that it not suffer the fate of most such endeavors: oblivion. Knowing my efforts are unlikely to stand the test of time, I become easily discouraged and wonder “What’s the use?”  

Experience shows that when I do manage to complete a piece here and there it’s often because I am reacting to someone’s thought.  The decreased formality and limited scope allows me to relax and just spit out my ideas without undue deliberation. I seem to need someone I can imagine myself conversing with—not just to test and refine my thinking—but as much to share the excitement of discovery of ideas as well as the joys, sorrows, and regrets of some of my experiences.  In short, I need a friend, a soulmate. (I had one once but I held her off at an emotional arm’s length. Now I am nowhere with no one. My folly haunts me always, much like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s Rime.  I believe I am damaged goods—whether by nature or nurture—incapable of seeing beyond myself and letting someone into my life because there seems to be room for only me.  But that’s another story.)

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Someone who figures large in my thinking in this way is Bryan Magee.  He’s best known for bringing serious philosophy to the masses through a series of interviews of contemporary philosophers about history’s Great Philosophers presented on the BBC in the 1970s and 80s.  He gives his take on the history of Western philosophy in his 1997 Confessions of a Philosopher followed by what I like to consider as its sequel in 2016 called Ultimate Questions, about what he calls the “human predicament”—our inability to ever know ultimate reality and the consequences it poses for living in the everyday world.

Both are somewhat atypical when it comes to serious philosophy books.  They go beyond technical analysis to being very personal—at times intimate—accounts of how his take on philosophy evolved out of his life experiences as much if not more than what he learned at the academy.  With the feel of autobiography and personal essay they resonate with readers because they see that he has lived “into” his philosophy more than merely learning it in a classroom. I find it a welcome throwback to a time when philosophy was something any intelligent person could and should participate in to lead a fully human life.  Philosophy needn’t be a sort of rocket science using arcane terminology and demanding technical expertise to practice it. Philosophy, as has been said, is everyone’s business.

What initially attracted me to Magee was his interest in the problem of meaning-of-life—one of the central concerns of my life.  For those of us with a first-things-first mentality, it’s the biggest of the Big Questions and at the core of the human condition.  For why do anything without a reason and reward, why invest the effort to succeed when all will be lost at death without a compensating ultimate cosmic purpose to which our efforts contribute?  We humans seem to require a purpose in life—a reason to be—for us to fully engage with life with the zest and spontaneity it takes to live in a fully human way.  How do we cope with the reality that an honest evaluation of the facts seems to show that there very well may not be one?

His Confessions has the best account of the emotional turmoil that the topic of meaning-of-life can wreak and I am surprised that so little of it is explicitly carried over into Ultimate Questions.  He shows how the search for meaning, if taken with the utmost seriousness and carried through to its logical end, can easily become all-consuming and, some would say, unhealthy.  I take consolation in the fact that if someone as insightful and accomplished as Magee felt it important enough to invest so much energy and intellectual capital in wrestling with the problem, I am at least in good company with my obsession.  His comments extend over several pages, so I have cut-and-pasted the most pertinent into a single narrative excerpt below.

  This feeling, when it came, was not an ordinary fear or anxiety but was hyper-vivid and preternaturally powerful.  As in a nightmare, I felt trapped and unable to escape from something that I was also unable to face, Death, my death, the literal destruction of me, was totally inevitable, and had been from the very instant of my conception.  In the face of death I craved for my life to have some meaning. I found the thought that it might just mean nothing at all–might, in a long perspective, be nothing at all–terrifying.  Confronted with this fact, I felt what can only be described as existential terror, a horror of nothingness.    

  To anyone in this frame of mind nearly all human pursuits seem vain beyond all description.   What can anything I do mean or matter to me when I have gone down into complete nothingness for the rest of eternity?  If the void is the permanent destination of all of us, all value and all significance are merely pretended for purposes of carrying on our little human game, like children dressing up.  It is, of course, a willing pretense: we cannot bring ourselves to face eternal nothingness, so we busy ourselves with our little lives and all their vacuous pursuits, surrounded by institutions that we ourselves have created yet we pretend are important, and which help us to shut out the black and endless night that surrounds us.  It is all, in the end, nothing—nothing whatsoever. I am biologically programmed to want to go on living, so I do: I eat, drink, sleep, try to ward off danger, and all the rest of it. But the idea that it means anything is a pathetic little piece of self-delusion.

  There are, evidently, contemplatives who would agree with all this and view it with calmness and serenity.  I have never been one of them. I was terror-stricken by these thoughts. I felt like someone standing on the gallows with the noose round his neck and the trapdoor under his feet about to open.  I was on the point of being flung into eternal night. I raged against it with the whole of my being. And the impossibility of doing anything about it came close to sending me off my head with frustration and panic.

  I used to look at people going about their normal lives with everyday cheerfulness and think: “How can they?  And how can they suppose that any of what they’re doing matters?  They’re like passengers on the Titanic, except that these people know already that they’re headed for total and irremediable shipwreck.  In a short time every one of them will be dead, either a heap of grey ash in an urn or a corpse rotting underground with worms wriggling in and out of its eye sockets.  Why aren’t they overwhelmed with horror at it? Why don’t they seem even to mind?” In some of my moods they seemed to me like a lot of lunatics chuckling dementedly while the asylum burnt down and turned them to ash.  

The scope of the problem is magnified when we shift our focus from how it might affect us on a purely personal level to a wider cosmic one.  History shows how our lives are like so many leaves that fall at the end of each year only to be trodden underfoot by succeeding generations in never ending cycles of birth, growth, and death.  All that living: that first kiss and falling in love, witnessing the wonders of science and technology, waging war and peace, and simple things, too—like noticing a flower unexpectedly emerging from a crack in a sidewalk or that wholesome feeling of worth and pride—of mattering—you experience by helping a child cross the street.  The tight grasp of his warm little hand around your finger says everything about the sense of safety and trust he implicitly feels in your presence. It’s all doomed for oblivion, as individual and collective memory inevitably fade and physical traces of our existence in writing, images, and place crumble into dust with the march of time.  Our individual lives are but instances of a larger exercise in meaninglessness if not absurdity—or so it appears to those who, like me, see the world through Naturalism’s disinterested lens.

Maybe if we knew our species was at the top of the cosmic heap, the fear of our inevitable demise might be mitigated.  But we are merely part of an ongoing evolutionary chain—not its acme. It is likely that advanced electronic and genetic technology will result in posthuman creatures that are far superior to us.  It’s one thing to deal with death so long as we think we’re the highest form of life that ever was or will be. It’s quite another to realize we are merely another link in a long chain. We can’t stand our insignificance any more than the idea of our nonexistence.

Consider, too, how unlikely it is that any of us exists at all.  Every one of us is the product of a random union of one each of zillions of eggs and sperms from two people out of any number who could have become our parents and who, on top of that, had to survive disease, war, accidents, and natural disaster to produce us.  When such randomness of the reproductive process is compounded over centuries the chances of winning Powerball seem infinitely greater than the probability of any single one of us being here at all!

The image of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel The Shadow of the Wind serves as a wonderful metaphor for the longing we have for immortality.  It’s a mysterious place that has a copy of every book ever written–no matter how obscure—stored on tier upon seemingly infinite tiers of shelves that twist and turn down narrow walkways and tunnels in every direction with stairways and ramps here and there connecting the floors.  It’s an elaborate three dimensional labyrinth, like something out of Poe, constituting a sort of Heaven for books. Here their authors achieve a kind of immortality because their thoughts and stories have eternal “shelf” life no matter how unpopular or obscure they may have been in their time.

Each person in every era had aspirations and felt as if he mattered.  Some even managed to build monuments to their memory, but inevitably everything crumbles á la Ozymandias.  Would that there was a library of forgotten souls—never mind books! Some think it already does and call it Heaven.  But this is of insufficient comfort for the naturalists among us who want to live consciously and honestly—in the world as it really is rather than how we might like it to be.

So what does it all amount to?  Nothing—nothing at all. It ends, not with a bang, but with a mere whimper—to borrow a turn of phrase from T.S. Eliot.  Mr. Natural is right: it “don’t mean sheeit.” I have known this at some level ever since reaching the age of reason at age 10 or so after seeing the biblical epic, The Ten Commandments.  The beginning scene of what I took to be legions of slaves harnessed like mules to pull huge stone blocks for Pharaoh’s pyramid struck me as so hopeless and sad as to question whether their lives were worth living.  While the specific instance was misinterpreted (I later came to understand that laboring for the Pharaoh was considered an honor), the question was not.

I have always wanted to know the “why” about things in the very same way Magee described certain of his childhood experiences in the opening chapters of Confessions and Ultimate Questions.  I especially remember wondering about meaning.  There was something about my sense of life even at that tender age that unconsciously gave rise to the idea that our efforts require a personal return on investment, as it were, to be meaningful.  I began to see that death itself was the ultimate source of meaninglessness because it robbed us of our accomplishments and the people we love. If life wasn’t worth living, what was the point in going on, I reasoned.  I concluded humans have what I came to call “the curse of consciousness,” meaning a “knowing-that-I-know” self-awareness in contrast to the oblivious autopilot of instinct possessed by all other living things. Still I wouldn’t have it any other way.  As is said, better to be a dissatisfied Socrates than a pig satisfied. There is a certain nobility to living a fully human life however disappointed we may be with the way it ends.

So how in the world does one live in light of this terrible knowledge?  Magee and I are of the same mind, I think: life can be worth living even without ultimate meaning.  There isn’t a solution so much as a way to cope by way of what I have come to call the compensations of pure experience.  This is the phenomenon of losing oneself in the flow of an activity.  We transcend the ego and seem to become a part of, or, indeed, the activity itself.  For Magee the highest form of such experience was sex (of course, as it is for most of us) but also art and especially music.  I call it pure because it’s direct and unmediated—there’s nothing between the individual and the experience itself.

Having so much in common temperamentally with Magee leads to a natural affinity for the man.  I never feel completely alone as long as I have Ultimate Questions close at hand.  It’s a slim and compact little volume easily carried in a coat pocket or a handbag.  I look upon his book as a talisman of sorts—a means of tactile connection with someone I imagine as a friend, mentor, and colleague.  It’s the kind of thing I almost want to put under my pillow at night hoping to mystically connect with its author and channel his thoughts in a continued journey of discovery and enjoy the warmth of his companionship.  

This is not to say that I agree with everything Magee says (and doesn’t say).  For example, I do not understand why there is no discussion of the problem of consciousness.  How does that pound of meat in our heads lead to conceptual thought culminating in personal identity—that sense of “me” emerging in each of us?  Does our inability to solve this problem (so far) lend credence to dualist claims of the existence of mind as a separate kind of stuff from matter?  I would have thought that Thomas Nagel, at least, would have gained Magee’s attention for his original work on philosophy of mind in his Mind and Cosmos.  In the tradition of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, Nagel argues that because science as currently practiced has yet to solve problems like how mind arises from brain we ought to reconsider relying on traditional reductionist scientific methodology alone and look into how direct “mystical” experience might shed light on such problems.

And by extension, why no mention of New Ageism as a legitimate form of inquiry to solve this problem, even if only to refute it?  Despite a sense that Magee seeks knowledge wherever he can find it, he doesn’t invite some of the very people, like Deepak Chopra and Ken Wilbur, whose nontraditional perspectives stand to offer a real opportunity for progress, to the table of inquiry.

But my biggest beef is with his fixation on ignorance—how it limits our ability to know reality on a deep, all-the-way-down level—as the fundamental element of the “human predicament.”  To my mind the problem of meaning-of-life takes precedence. If we don’t have a reason to be, it’s awfully hard to get out of bed in each morning, for what would be the point. Intrinsic, instrumental motivation only goes so far.  For the long haul our psyche requires an extrinsic rationale—a cosmic purpose transcending self-interest to which our efforts contribute.   Just because we can’t be 110% sure of knowledge doesn’t mean we cannot know, or at least have a well-justified idea about, what is likely to be true.  His acknowledgement of the conditionality of knowledge would seem to validate such an exercise, for it’s not that (our knowledge of) truth changes so much as it’s refined.  Einstein didn’t so much prove Newton wrong as incomplete. So why the reluctance to go on record with his take on a wider range of specific issues that matter to us all? Is there a God?  Is there life after death? Is mind separate from or a function of matter (brain)? Do we really have free will? And of course that primary question with which we began, meaning-of-life: why are we here and where might we be going?  These important questions and more deserve answers however subject they may be to revision. It would be fascinating to get Magee’s take on these issues.

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It is in this spirit, then, that I’d like to do what I wish Magee had done: to produce a broadly scoped, high level statement of what I believe about the way things are in the world and what we should do to live good lives—in short, being and doing—and their relationship to the meaning-of-life problem.  My approach is to focus on those foundational ideas that allow us to get out of that bed each morning confident that when we stand up there will be a floor underneath to support us.  To my mind there are but five (albeit very wide!) boards in this floor. They involve the fundamental fact/value differentiations necessary to make sense of the world, that is to say, being able to tell the difference between the alternatives listed in the first column in the figure below:

 Distinction Topic and Question

 

Real and Imaginary Reality What exists and how do things work?

True and False Knowledge How do we know it?

Right and Wrong Ethics How should we treat one another?

Fair and Unfair Politics What is the role of government?

Good and Bad Conduct How should we compose our lives?

We judge what’s real, true, right, fair, and good by comparing what we experience to the state of our beliefs about the biggest of the Big Questions of life to which the distinctions respectively correspond shown in the second column.  Our beliefs are continually being updated based on what we learn from ongoing experiences.

Reduced to lowest terms, this is really all there is to it.  When we peer down at the world from on high this is the optimum framework with which to conceptualize existence and behavior.  It aims to be simple without being simplistic, allowing us to see the Big Picture without becoming lost in detail, and has the cash value of practicality in that it addresses what we need to know to get along in the world of the everyday.

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The place to begin is with reality and knowledge.  These two problems constitute the greater realm of being and are actually two sides of the same coin.  What we think about existence depends on how we know it and what we know can only be a function of what exists.  We can’t think about one without implicitly thinking about the other.

I think of the realm of reality as three nested topics: the world (at large), life (in the world), and man (in life).

The world-at-large is about existence and causation—what’s here and how do things happen?  There are just two kinds of things that exist: material stuff, like tables and animals, and activities of material stuff, like animals jumping from tables.  Ideas, like the concept of freedom, for example, are activities of material stuff (i.e., brains) and do not have independent existence outside of the living entities in whom they arise.  The material stuff has fixed properties and its activities are governed by similarly fixed laws of cause and effect, like gravity. When my cat jumps off the table, I can rely on him going down, not up in the air.  Because of the stability of the properties and rationality of laws, it is possible to know how things are and work and thus survive and thrive if we learn the properties and obey the laws.

How do we know all this?  The short answer is through sensory perception interpreted by reason, not divine revelation or mind alone.  But it’s actually more involved than this. Truth is an absolute. Notwithstanding the probabilistic, uncertain nature of reality as shown by quantum theory, things do have a specific, immutable identity.  They are what they are, but, because of our perceptual limitations, we have a hard time knowing them fully. So, although our knowledge of reality aspires towards Truth with a capital T, it is always conditional and subject to change as we learn more and more in a never ending process of refinement.  However, because claims to knowledge can be independently tested by anyone who may doubt their validity, knowledge, imperfect and incomplete as it is, can be said to be objective—the same for all—never subjective or a matter of opinion. Again, Einstein’s relativity theory didn’t prove Newton laws wrong so much as incomplete.

These foundational tenets of reality and knowledge, respectively, are the basis of naturalism: the idea that what exists and how things happen can be discovered by observation of nature by anyone curious and motivated enough to look and learn.  Naturalism is anti-skeptical in its view of being and anti-relative regarding doing.  There is, in principle, a single way to act in the world, just as there is a single way the world is physically constituted.

Now practically everyone would agree with this so far as it goes.  A good many people would, however, want to add one big thing that challenges naturalism’s stand-alone adequacy to explain everything that is and everything that happens.  This is the belief that the natural world is actually embedded within a greater supernatural realm controlled an all-powerful God responsible for the creation, operation, and destiny of the world including the power to intervene, whether on the basis of whim or in response to prayer, in what would otherwise naturally occur.  Man is thought to have an immaterial, indestructible consciousness, or soul, that survives physical death and is rewarded with eternal happiness in Heaven or damnation in Hell based on his conduct while alive on earth according to a divinely prescribed code of private and public ethics.  Knowledge of all this is revealed by God through certain favored individuals (prophets, and saints) with the power to “divine” what God is and wants.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the principal types of theistic supernaturalism.  The many varieties of nontheistic, secular supernaturalism seem to be of two general classes.  Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, like their theistic counterparts, hold that one’s fate depends on the quality of one’s conduct while alive.  But instead of eternal bliss in a Heaven or banishment forever in a Hell, the spirit endures cycles of physical death and rebirth as lower forms of life, gradually advancing to higher forms based on merit, until it’s finally gotten right, perfection of being is achieved, ultimately allowing merger with the eternal universe.

A second class of supernaturalism, common in the West, involves a dualistic conception of mind and matter.  The spiritual realm of mind is seen as a distinctly different sort of substance from objects in the physical world.  This immaterial consciousness is thought to survive death into eternity and includes the retention of one’s personal identity, or sense of self, in contrast with Eastern traditions in which the ego is seen as illusory and ultimately disappears as part of making one’s way towards perfection embodied in unification with the all of eternal Being.

Naturalists on the other hand do not believe in the continuity of life in any form upon death.  When we die, we are dead forever. There is only one life to be had and it is a strictly physical one here on earth.

We are all naturalists or supernaturalists.  There is effectively no middle agnostic ground to stand on and any claims to the contrary are disingenuous at best.  We may not be able to prove this absolutely (something that frustrates Magee, fixated as he is on Kantian doubt) but I think we have a pretty good idea.  You don’t have to know how deep the water is to know it’s deep enough to drown in. Despite what we might say, what we believe is revealed by what we do. We vote with our feet.

The simple fact is that all these supernatural variants are not only incorrect but, moreover, superfluous, for naturalism is sufficient in all respects to explain everything about the world in which we live.  The world is independent, not contingent, on God; mind is brain activity, not a separate stuff; miracles do not supersede natural cause and effect; and death is final and not succeeded by an afterlife or the continuation of one’s consciousness. So if there is no need to look further, why do we? Why the persistent attraction of supernatural explanations of reality in the face of ever increasing evidence offered by science to the contrary?

The answer lies in human nature’s fundamental concern with survival: we fear death, crave forgiveness for our sins, and want God on our side.  Supernatural explanations seem to offer a way past death, guilt, and disadvantage. Many of us all too often lack the strength of character to see the world as it really is rather than how we want it to be.

In this way, deciding what to believe becomes a moral as well as practical problem of how to best live in the everyday world.   We should be willing to follow the path of truth wherever it may lead, even if it means giving up long held beliefs. We are at our best—our most fully human selves—when our beliefs aspire to coincide with the way the world really works rather than how we might wish it could be.

Now this naturalistic outlook on the world is foundational.  It informs everything else we believe and ever will believe beginning with our view of life-in-the-world and man-in-life.

What drives life-in-the-world?  Life is Darwinian—it’s driven by competition for survival rather than entitlement.  We are each ultimately responsible for our own welfare and, because self-interest is thus required to live, selfishness, properly understood, is good.  Selfishness should not be conflated with self-centeredness; that is, seeking advantage without regard for the impact one’s actions have on others.  But abuse of the way some people play the game does not mean the rules need to (or even can) be changed. The fact remains that in the game of life people must make their own way or perish.  Life is about pursuit of self-interest, not altruistic self-sacrifice to any individual, group, or cause. It’s as essential to sustaining life as is breathing. In a state of nature it’s pure biology playing itself out without conscious premeditation—an unconditional free-for-all where anything goes.  In human society, however, it gets more complicated. We are social creatures, mutually dependent on one another, and can only flourish within the context of a healthy group dynamic. So there nothing wrong with kindness and providing support for others for others in times of crisis, as long as it’s not coerced, for these, too, have survival value.  The difficulty comes in knowing where to draw the line. It’s complex with much more to be said but the basic lesson here is that self-interest and benevolence are not mutually exclusive. Before you can take care of others you must first take care of yourself.

Man-in-life has identity, reason, and choice: his consciousness is not oblivious, his decisions not driven by instinct, and his choices not predetermined.  Because he is self-aware, can think analytically, and freely choose, man is responsible for his actions. Thus, the possibility of evil exists.

Naturalism’s view of reality in the realm of being as described above informs what we believe about the realm of doing.  What is right, fair, and good is that which promotes flourishing.  Since these requirements are a matter of objective fact, ought is derivable from is in principle however difficult in practice.  We don’t need God to tell us what is right, fair, and good.  All we need do is to take a realistic look at human nature.

Ethics asks how we should make personal decisions in the course of dealing with people and situations involving right and wrong.  Politics is about facilitation of interaction: the best way to organize our societies so all of us can pursue our lives without getting in one another’s way.  The challenge is to simultaneously promote the need for and restrict the abuses of the pursuit of self-interest. Life’s grounding in the biological imperative to survive certainly requires men to be selfish and look out for number one, but they must do so without allowing rampant exercise of free will to result in taking unfair advantage of others doing the same thing.  For anyone to succeed, all must have equal opportunity to succeed or else everything falls apart in a frenetic implosion in the form of violent cutthroat competition ending in mutual destruction.

Management of this push and pull of self-interest requires an ethics of hierarchical plural principles beginning at the low end with individual and group interest and then extending to duty, law, and rights at the top.  It’s not about any single principle or set of fixed rules. The Ten Commandments’ imperatives, for example, the “thou shalt not kill” rule, are clearly incapable of fitting every situation and the Golden Rule lacks specificity.  Who would question the right to kill in self-defense and why should anyone necessarily presume he knows how someone else wants to be treated?

Generally speaking, each higher rung trumps all lower rungs.  But it’s actually more complicated in that the choices we make are often affected by exceptions.  These include loyalty vs. truth, justice vs. mercy, long term vs. short, and individual vs. community.  This recognizes the importance of motive in judging right and wrong. Frustratingly, while the principles are absolute, their application is not and becomes situational because of legitimate disagreement about facts and values involved in a way that facts concerning how the physical world works do not.  It can become quite a mish-mash which is why it is properly said that ethics is as much, if not more, an art rather than a science.

Politics is about the promotion of equality as part of government’s fulfillment of the Social Contract: the idea that men give up their state-of-nature freedom in return for state protection.  This is based on the conviction that no one person is inherently more important than any other. The result is a vision of equality founded on basic fairness—establishing a level playing field of opportunity as access and rewarding merit rather than a system based on privilege or distributive equality of outcome.  As with survival in a state of nature, success is not an entitlement but must be earned. Government may provide a basic safety net as it is able but its support is not unlimited. This typically means providing such essentials that individuals can never, as a practical matter, be expected to provide for themselves: clean air and water, utilities and transportation, and education—all in the spirit of “promoting the general welfare.”   But, in the end, despite whatever support the state may provide, everyone is responsible for his own well-being. There is no free lunch in a social context any more than in a state of nature.

As in ethics the pursuit of self-interest in the political sphere is not unconditional.  Just as we are entitled to free speech but not to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater, our right to assemble to advance an agenda does not mean that a majority can tyrannize a minority.  A way must be found to balance competing interests. History shows that this is best accomplished through a multi-branched government with offsetting powers of checks and balances and a constitution institutionalizing basic equality through democratic elections, rule of law, and term limits.

Taken this far, naturalism fosters an optimistic sense of control over our lives that is so essential to human well-being.  By revealing the mechanics of being and the principles of doing; that is, how the physical world works and how to interact with one another in that world, we are conceptually equipped with the basics of a world view that enable us to set out on our own journeys in life confident that we have the intellectual tools to make the Big Question critical distinctions needed to meet any challenge.  These include the conviction that the senses are a reliable guide to knowledge, existence is stable, and physical activity is governed by fixed, rational laws. Nature stands self-contained and self-sufficient without the need for a controlling deity to explain everything that is and happens. To survive we have but to learn and follow the rules of physical nature and abide by the requirements of human nature centering on the constructive promotion of rational self-interest.

But we soon discover that there is more to it than just mechanics.  Reality and knowledge show us the how-tos of automobile operation and ethics and politics the rules of the road, to be sure, but where to go and the best route to get there are less evident.  Just as we know that we can’t stop a car without applying the brakes and that we should drive on the right side of the road and obey traffic lights to avoid accidents, we need a destination and a road map.  This is the realm of personal conduct and is all about figuring out what we want out of life and how we should act as we go about securing it.

In other words it concerns how we conceive of the Good Life, and in particular, the notion of happiness—the master motive underlying everything we do.  True happiness goes beyond mere pleasure to an enduring sense of contentment resulting from the successful pursuit of the “good” according to “right” behavior.  This means satisfying real needs rather than the whims of ill-conceived wants according to a naturalistic, rather than supernatural, understanding of how the world and society within that world work and demonstrating appropriate character (virtue) in their pursuit.  Happiness is, then, less a destination than a way of living—it’s what happens to us if we live well.

Also of critical importance to happiness is the role of attitude.  If the good can be said to be about Maslowian need and the right about Aristotelian virtue, attitude is essentially concerned with Stoic judgment.  It’s a measured disposition or point of view allowing us to keep everything in proper perspective, not only in times of stress and hardship, but as much during the course of the mundane affairs of daily life.  It’s the psychological catalyst that enables the philosophical formula for happiness—the virtuous pursuit of proper values—to work.

There are any number of ways attitude can become destructive including self-repression, assumption of unearned guilt, and unreasonable expectations of oneself or others.  We are complex creatures of mind and defining what proper attitude is and how to cultivate it is no easy task as countless shelves of books on the topic attest. I’m partial to Max Erhmann’s poem “Desiderata” which makes the case that, if we would be happy, our conduct should emulate the harmony we see in the natural world.   But perhaps the best expression of the spirit at the heart of proper attitude is Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous maxim: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Happiness is as much about emotion as reason, as much about what we feel as what we think.  

A consequence of looking back from whence we came and assessing the success of our journeys is the emergence of what is perhaps everyone’s ultimate concern: does anything really matter: why are we here, where are we going, and why should we want to live in the first place—what makes life worth living?  Together these constitute the problem of meaning, and so we come full circle, back to the topic which inspired this brief foray into life’s Big Questions.  

As we’ve seen, for those of us of a certain sensibility, meaning-of-life is life’s ultimate problem.  We can neither generate the interest nor sustain the energy required to live effectively unless we take life seriously and a large part of taking our lives seriously is living as if they have an essential permanence and that our strivings are rational and count for something.  When we realize that we will not live forever, we ask ourselves why we struggle to make something of our lives when deaths will inevitably see us lose everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve and everyone we love. We naturally wonder, too, whether there isn’t some grand plan that gives cosmic purpose to our lives so that despite our inevitable deaths we will not have lived our lives in vain.  How we reconcile a naturally felt purposefulness and zest for life against a persistent sense of life’s apparent pointlessness and indifference to human concerns determines the extent we can go on and lead fulfilling lives.

And it’s amazing just how debilitating the problem can be.  It can feel so utterly futile and exhausting—like trying to divide by zero.  We realize there is no logical solution yet we continue to search for one because we so want what we want and convince ourselves we just haven’t looked hard enough.  We persist even as we realize that achieving immortality would not and could not be life as we know it and want it to be. Where would we put all the people from millennia past and to come?  What age would we want to be into eternity? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with avoiding an uncomfortable, painful death than dying itself, we wonder. Life holds the attraction it does precisely because it is so fleeting.  Life is life because it is about change and the experience of growth.  We cannot re-experience any single moment in our lives with the same verve as if it were happening afresh.  It’s just not how it works.

Then there is the danger of dissociation psychosis in which our capacity to live in the moment becomes ever more difficult as we increasingly see ourselves from a third person perspective—like watching yourself in a movie going through the motions but not being able to let go and be spontaneous.  I most often have this experience in restaurants where, while most patrons have someone to dine and interact with, I struggle to appear comfortable in my solitude with a book or my iPhone as my only companion. People see me but filter me out of the scene as if I’m invisible—like homeless people on the street we seek to avoid and walk past as if they weren’t there.  Over time this can corrupt the affect and, as we drift further and further away from the shores of human engagement, we risk becoming emotional zombies—physically alive but spiritually numb—equally indifferent to good and evil and pleasure and pain. This might seem pathetic if it weren’t so utterly sad.

And, perhaps most serious of all, there’s the question of what to do if we’re convinced that life has no meaning and believe that we have a moral obligation to act on our convictions?  If we are honest with ourselves, are convinced that there is no purpose, and realize we cannot keep for ourselves that one thing we most treasure—our lives, what’s the point of continuing to live?  Suicide seems to be the logical and even moral course of action but it is not easy to go through with, driven as we are by the biologic imperative to survive.

The weight of these and other manifestations of meaninglessness can often feel positively Sisyphean and just about drive us crazy—if we let it.   What to do? There is no solution, only a way to cope. I believe life still can be worth living, even if it is without extrinsic meaning, by embracing the pursuit of what I call “pure experience.”  Again, this is about becoming one with the very experience itself—losing oneself in something wondrous such that our sense of self seems to dissolve and we become the experience itself.

This can range from the small thrills experienced in everyday life to the awe we feel in the presence of the cosmic sublime.  I love the joie-de-vivre I experience whenever I think of my four year old grandson Luke’s infectious shrieks of delight . . . at chasing a red balloon on his birthday, swishing happily through colorful autumn leaves, or excitedly shouting “Grandpa! Grandpa!” over and over as he runs into my arms for a hug whenever I first arrive on a visit.  As for the sublime, I remember once witnessing the full moon over Walden Pond on a perfectly still, crystal clear winter’s night. The pure white snow magnified the moon’s ethereal half-light and served as a perfect canvas for etchings of shadows of the silent black trees. Nothing moved and I breathed deeply of the cold. I was delightfully alone with the Universe at that moment and, indeed, lost myself in it, feeling an indescribable sense of harmony and unity with all things.

And it can be many things in between.  Perhaps the most precious is having a lover and soulmate—someone to come home to after a trying day, who physically wants and delights in you, someone to confide in and who understands and unconditionally cares for you.  To know that there is at least one place of refuge and solace for you in an otherwise meaningless universe helps make all things bearable. Or it can take the form of participating in a noteworthy event or making a great discovery—like Neil Armstrong’s being the first human being to walk on the moon and James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA, the chemical building blocks of all living things.  

Yet, even these fulfilling episodes sooner or later fall short because we realize we cannot avoid the death that ultimately robs us everything.  I like the way scholar John Messerly expresses this sentiment: “People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied.  Yet we are not . . .

. . . There is another voice within, another perspective that cannot be stilled.  After Gandhi, after Beethoven, after Einstein; after helping the unfortunate, playing our games, loving our family, bearing our suffering, and leaving our legacy—it still asks: is that all there is?  Perhaps this is a voice that should be silenced, but if these meaningful things are themselves ephemeral, we cannot help but wonder if they really give meaning. The voice within cannot and should not be quieted.  We can accept that these good things exist—and want more. There may be good things in the world, and we may add to that value by our creation, but that is not enough. And the reason that these good things are not enough is that there is a specter that accompanies us always.  Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is . . . the specter of death.

I do grant that for some of us death may come to seem a comfort—a release from pain, guilt, grief, or even boredom—especially as we age.  But I regard this, generally, as more of an aberration, a psychological malfunction, rather than a rational conclusion dictated by a dispassionate look at the facts.  We are naturally disposed to see the glass half full. Life wants to live!  We should work through injury, learn from mistakes, see sorrows in perspective, and find something to do.  It is proper to “rage,” in Dylan Thomas’s words, against “the dying of the light.”

This is not to say that we should deny death’s inevitability.  We should accept it gracefully (however grudgingly) when the time comes.  It’s just that while we are alive we should endeavor to live life to the fullest and enjoy what I have called those episodes of “pure” experience that come our way.

This is the logic by which it seems to me that Eastern concepts of resignation, founded on the denial of desire as a way to avoid suffering, do not ring true and are inconsistent with human nature.  Perhaps this difference of outlook is merely a matter of emphasis. Naturalism also accepts the reality that everything at root does ultimately resolve to eternal Being. It’s just that it’s conceived in terms of atoms and quarks, governed by quantum mechanics and who knows what else yet to be discovered, rather than ill-defined concepts of Being.

And so we endlessly go round and round, back and forth, in our hearts and minds alternating between despair that the problem of meaning has no solution and determination to figure it out.  It’s the ultimate quandary. We’re like a squirrel caught in a trap endlessly racing back and forth, crashing into the sides of the cage in a futile effort to escape. We want something to be the way it is not and can not be.  Maybe that’s why we keep revisiting the problem: we wonder if the future will somehow shed light on the problem in a way not apparent to us right now and reveal a way out.

After bumping our logical noses up against reality enough times, though, unlike the squirrel, we rise above instinct and resign ourselves to the reality of our circumstances and try to enjoy the ride such as we are able.  It’s just the way it is. The beat goes on and so do we, even if wish the melody were different.

 

note:

 

For those for  whom a picture  is worth a thousand (or, in this case, several thousand!) words, I show the belief system I advocate above in diagrammatic format as a separate exhibit following.

 

I invite any and all comments.

 

Please send to:  SylviaJaneW@hotmail.com.  

The Basics of Confucianism

Temple of Confucius of JiangyinWuxiJiangsu

Confucius’ life

Confucius, or “Master Kung” as he became known, was born in the city of Lu (now known as Qufu) in the Northeast of China in 551 BCE and he died in 479 BCE.

According to legend, his father died at the age of 70 and he was raised by his mother. Women in the Confucian system of political philosophy are important in childhood education, as Confucius’ mother is thought to have been in his own upbringing. Besides studying history and music, as a child, he learned hunting, fishing, and archery. Confucius exemplified in his own life the rather broad set of competencies and broad minded interests that come to be thought befitting of a well-developed gentleman within the Confucian system of education. He married but divorced.

Confucius spent a part of his early life as a civil servant for the Duke of Lu. According to legend he had great success in that position, but his job was compromised due to the jealousy of others. After leaving that position, he spent his life as a scholar and educator. He developed the system of political philosophy that would come to dominate Chinese society for more than 2000 years. As a scholar, he traveled from town to town, with students who followed him. He sought throughout his life to again find work as a political advisor, as he thought that having the opportunity to positively influence political institutions was key to creating the conditions for the self-development of individuals. He found such work again at the age of 67 as an advisor for the Duke of Ai.

The texts of Confucius 

For most of Chinese history, Confucius was thought to have edited (or written) five books which became known as the Confucian Classics. These books covered areas thought integral for the well-rounded education of civil servants. These included:

  • The Classic of Poetry — a book of 305 poems and songs, performed at court ceremonies
  • The Book of Documents — a book of documents and speeches attributed to leaders of the Chao period
  • The Book of Rites — a description of ancient rites and ceremonies
  • I Ching — a book of divination
  • Spring and Autumn Annals — a historical record of the region of Lu from which Confucius came

Besides these texts, the Analects is the collection of sayings of Confucius, early compiled by his students. It consists largely of proverbs, thematically related in sections. From this text, in particular, we cull some of the basic ideas of Confucius.

The warring state period

Confucius, like Laozi, lived in a period of political disarray in China, known as the warring states period. The time was one of political dissolution in which the unity of the Chou dynasty was eroded and small state conflict was dominant. Various philosophical and political systems were developed at this time with the aim of helping to reestablish a better functioning political order.

Besides Confucianism and Taoism, in political thought the period gives rise to legalism, which sought strong centralist policies for the empire, and Mohism, which argued for the need to rule in accord with “the will of heaven,” but offered a utilitarian standard of considering the greatest benefit (li) for the people. While Taoism argued for a return to largely self-government, or even anarchism, with the small village unit as a model, Confucianism argued for reestablishing the feudal ideal identified with the earlier Shang and Zhou dynasties.

Confucius as a model

Like Socrates’ in Ancient Greece, Confucius’ life is thought of as exemplary. Though Confucius did not think of himself as a sage, in Chinese history he has come to serve in particular as an example of a normal individual who is able, through his own efforts, to become a sage. He is not a prophet with a divinely inspired message. He is not a mystic. He is a scholar who strives to live virtuously. In fact, Confucius sees himself not as the founder of a school but as one individual in a long line of scholars (Ju chia) which extends back to the era of the Shang dynasty, circa 1100 BCE.

Views of religion

Though Confucianism was intricately tied into the state religion in China, Confucius did not teach much about the gods. His is not primarily a religious philosophy but a political philosophy. As noted in the Analects, “The Master did not talk about marvels, feats of strength, irregularities, gods” (7/21).

We often find Confucius expressing hesitancy to discuss questions of traditional religion. The following is indicative: “Chi-lu asked about serving the ghosts and gods. The Master said, ‘Until you can serve men how can you the ghosts.’ ‘Permit me to ask about death.’ ‘Until you know about life how can you know about death?’” (11/12)

Similarly, it is noted: “The Master said, ‘To work for the things the common people have a right to and to keep one‘s distance from the gods and spirits while showing them reverence can be called wisdom.’” (6/22)

That said, Confucius did emphasize the importance of ritual for a virtuous life. And the civic religious functions played an important role in this. Still, we might say that he sees religion more in the service of a good life than man in the service of religion.

Self Development

The focus on Confucius is on self-development. In the Confucian worldview this not means that one lives with a focus on narrow self-interest, but with an understanding of how one’s life and well-being is tied into that of others. One becomes self-developed through cultivating virtues and fulfilling one’s social role.

Jen and Li 

Of special importance for self-development are the virtues of Jen and Li.  Jen is a virtue entailing conscientiousness, empathy, and altruism (that is, action done for the benefit of others, not ourselves). Li is translated as rites, ceremonies, or customs. Here religion clearly played role, but Li extends beyond the religious rights tot he cultivation of custom. All of this is to play a part in helping us develop Jen. In fact, the everyday rituals and customs can serve to wake us to the special character of the everyday world we are immersed in. It can foster our empathy and serve to undergird the social order.

Interlinked connections

While both Taoism and Confucianism underline the need for self-development in harmony with the Tao, their understandings of what this entails differ from each other. The Taoists have a much greater focus on individualism and spirituality as traditionally understood. Confucianism, by contrast, sees our harmony with the Tao and our self-development as taking place always against the backdrop of our existing social relationships. We fulfill ourselves and live in harmony with the Tao by fulfilling our roles as sons or daughters, fathers, and mothers, within the family, or by fulfilling our roles as civil servants within the state.

The well-ordered society is key to well-ordered individuals. And developing ourselves requires contributing to our society in its various social systems. Human life is characterized fundamentally by a network of relationships of interlinked systems. The self finds itself interlinked with a family, within a city, within a regional government, within an empire, within the world. The Tao is aligned when each of these system levels is aligned.

Education

The study of the earlier mentioned five classics was thought integral to the education of civil servants throughout most of Chinese history. The works cover various domains of human life, and the study of them was to instill in them the importance of artistic expression, social processes and social systems, rituals, and considerations of metaphysics. These were tracked formally to the poetic vision, political vision, social vision, metaphysical vision, and historical vision. Each of these domains is key to our own self-development. They are domains of human expression that shape us. A wise civil servant shapes our social and political institutions with a view to the importance of each of these domains of human life, in service of the goal of virtue.

The Mandate of Heaven

Confucius emphasized that an emperor had a great responsibility to lead by virtuous example. As stated in the Analects: “Direct the people with moral force and regulate them with ritual, and they will possess shame, and moreover, they will be righteous.” (2.3)

The leader should be a well-rounded developed individual, who lives virtuously and properly embodies the empire’s customs and conscientiousness. Such an exemplary leader governs not for himself but to meet the needs of those in the kingdom. Seeing this, the people will follow his example. This is key to aligning the earth with heaven, for aligning action with the Tao. Under the best circumstances, this occurs, and the emperor is owed allegiance.

However, if an emperor fails to fulfill his role, then Confucianism came to accept that an empire could rightfully be overturned and a new imperial order could be instituted that did fulfill its correct purpose. The old empire — failing to fulfill its purpose — would lose the mandate of heaven. A new dynasty could then ascend and gain it. The kind of regime change that was imagined here would, of course, be extremely rare.

The rectification of names

The Confucian system developed a quite rigid set of roles for individuals within the imperial system. As very concisely expressed in the Analects:

“Let the ruler be a ruler, the subject a subject, a father a father, and a son a son” (12.11).

Confucianism became quite focused on obligations associated with the roles one had in society. These roles also paid respect to and solidified a set of “natural hierarchies”: The subject owed the emperor obedience.  The son owed the father allegiance. The wife owed the husband obedience. The friend owed the friend respect.

The obligation to retain that allegiance in each case was that the father, husband, friend, etc. fulfilled their own obligation. If they did not, then there were not considered an emperor, father, friend and so on in the true sense of the word and the obligation was not complete.

In the example, we have discussed, the emperor had a set of attributes and rituals that he was to really be an emperor. Conscientiousness about fulfilling that role was essential to retain the mandate of heaven. In the case of the other various roles, conscientiousness of the obligations of the role was also vital. When individuals lived up to the name of their role (lived up to the obligations of being a good father, son, wife, friend, minister, etc.) then heaven was thought to be unified with earth.

Criticisms 

Many Chinese, especially in the twentieth century, came to be critical of the Confucian system of government in different ways, but mainly for what we can see as its conservatism. Its emphasis of traditions and rituals meant it was somewhat backward looking. Though the Chinese had made many technological and scientific developments, the focus of the Confucian education system was on disciplines that are hermeneutic rather than scientific. The focus of education was all too often on interpreting what great men of the past had said rather than examining the world with modern science.

Other issues of contention included the rather hierarchical social order of the Confucian ethical system. In alignment with the Confucian system, children were to obey their parents, wives to obey their husbands, citizens to obey their political leaders. Individuals increasingly felt that this often lead to the unjust treatment of many. And it simply came to be thought that these characterization of natural roles (of women, for example) were simply incorrect.

Further after years of international subjugation of China to Western powers, various Chinese wondered if Confucianism was partially responsible because of its focus on obedience to those in power.

The Confucian dynasty system was finally ended in 1912. Under Mao and modernization, much has changed. Nonetheless, various elements of Confucianism are still present in Chinese culture, much like Christianity is in a now largely secular Europe …

Philosophical Pessimism

Arthur Schopenhauer, the quintessential philosophical pessimist

A thoughtful reader, John Miller, offered a rejoinder to the conclusion of my recent series on life and meaning. In it he advances an unequivocal pessimism in response to my (qualified) notions of optimism and hope.  I repeat it here, edited slightly for brevity.

… We are in a desperate place since there is so much evidence that as Schopenhauer said it is suffering which is primary to existence and our pleasures are only momentary relief from ongoing suffering or strife which is always, like time, nipping at our heels.

However, I think an honest person must as you say admit the fact that there are too many unknowns to say with any certainty what is the ultimate truth of this matter and we don’t know what the end game looks like. However, we do, to the best of our awareness know what is happening now and in the past. With that in mind, I can no longer put your kind of hope near the top of my list of things to believe in. [Just a minor point. I don’t believe in hope or even believe in having hope, rather it describes certain attitudes and wishes that I have.] There is TOO much suffering for that and not very much to your hope that this all ends up with these horrible wrongs righted and all wounds healed and anguish soothed …

You say here it’s the best thing to hope for the good and work towards that in spite of anything to the contrary but what does that mean? … Most would feed the starving and hope they survive. I would say all that does is create more misery as a full belly plus free time creates more innocent babies to starve all over again. There’s plenty of evidence for that. IMO, and that of the tiny few brother and sister antinatalists, … our most fervent and beautiful hope would be the extinction of the human race and even beyond that the elimination of all life that has a nervous system that can feel pain. I cannot think of a more certain way to end suffering and if we are honest we must admit that suffering is a certainty, whereas a happy ending for all is just another hope against hope that has never yet materialized and we’ve been preaching it for a long long time. There is really no evidence for it and if we want to go with the odds we should … have mercy on all future generations by not forcing them into existence.

I do wish I had better things to say than this. I would love to believe that your hope is worth hoping and that the sufferings possibly caused by acting on that hope might be worth it in the end but I can’t do that. I know what suffering is like close up both physically and emotionally and a reality that has this much of it is likely not planning on being kind to us in that unknown end game. Too often humans have felt that the suffering of others is a price worth paying for the chance at a better future that they want to imagine. IMO that’s callus and non-compassionate. Most don’t take the time to really see what some of this suffering actually looks like. It’s easier to look away and hope and that’s almost always what happens. That’s why our newspapers never really show the body parts with graphic close-ups or the screams on TV and radio. We can’t take that and we’d be outraged if we were forced to, but someone is taking it right now. I’m sorry to say all this. I miss that hope you seem to still have a strong hold on. I had to give it up or let’s say put it way down near the bottom of my possibles list. That or feel like a fraud. You’re a very lucky guy. I hope you know that. Best of luck to everyone, we all need it.

I would like to thank my reader for his thoughts.

JGM

Buddhist Metaphyics, Epistmology and Ethics

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and haloStanding Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2018/09/02/hindu-and-buddhist-thought-2/

Buddhist Metaphysics

While some strands of Buddhism have very thick metaphysics, there are some forms with an extremely pragmatic orientation and a general focus on practices. Buddhism rejects that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing creator God. Buddhist emancipation is in some forms tied up with devotion to Celestial Boddhistavas, enlightened saints who are thought to have the power to ease others’ karma, but various forms of Buddhism do not accept or focus on this. In particular contemporary forms of Zen Buddhism downplay the importance of such metaphysics. One of the best-known tales of the early encounters with the Buddha makes this pragmatic stance toward metaphysics especially clear.

The monk and the arrow

Once when the Buddha was visiting a sangha (monastery), after some time a monk, Malunkya, who had been practicing diligently with the Buddha became quite dissatisfied with the fact that the Buddha had left various metaphysical questions unanswered. Malunkya thought to himself that he would ask the Buddha these questions and if he was given satisfactory answers he would devote himself to further study; otherwise he would leave the sangha.

Meeting the Buddha, Malunkya then asked him his questions: Was the universe was finite or infinite? Were the body and soul one and the same or different? Would the Buddha exist after his death or not? Mulunkya further informed the Buddha that if he refused to answer the questions, he would leave the sangha. The Buddha responded, asking if he had ever asked Malunkya to join the sangha so that he could get the answers to those questions. Malunkya acknowledged he had not.

The Buddha continued, noting that Malunkya’s decision to leave the sangha for not having received the answers to those questions was similar to a man who had been shot by an arrow going to a doctor for help but then refusing to allow the doctor to help remove the arrow until he could answer many questions about the one who had shot the arrow: his caste, his clan name, his height, his skin color, the name of his hometown, what type of a bowstring he used, the shape and material of the arrow, the poison used. The man would die before receiving the answers to those questions. Similarly, a man wanting the answers to those metaphysical questions would die before the Buddha would answer them. One does not have to know whether the universe is eternal or not or the soul immortal, the Buddha emphasized. There is suffering, birth, aging, and death. The teaching is to alleviate the pain accompanying that.

Orthopraxy

For many contemporary Buddhist practitioners, this story provides a good example of the practical orientation of Buddhism. The focus of Buddhist philosophy is not on certain dogmas but on engaging in practices that change one’s behavior and mental attitude.

The eightfold path provides the set of practices that it is thought end cravings and, by so doing, eradicate suffering. In this tradition, like in Hinduism, meditation practices and ethical behavior should facilitate an understanding of the basic metaphysical truths. But for philosophical Buddhism, the three marks of existence are more fundamental metaphysical truths: impermanence, no-self, and suffering. These are viewed as rather common sense, even empirical psychological observations.

The various elements of the eightfold path work in cohort to create the necessary understanding of these, complimenting one another. Right understanding and right resolve focus on wisdom. Right speech, right action, right livelihood focus on morality. Right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation focus on meditation. Each element works together. By meditating, one breaks down the barriers of the ego and comes to be wiser, while also overcoming the wrong views that lead one to unethical behavior. The ethical behavior, for its part, can also increase one’s empathy and help one to cultivate a better understanding of the world.

All of these things facilitate a conscious living in the moment. From moment to moment what we then have is a mental focus on a particular sensation. We have one interconnected occurrence after another. In the moment, the division between the self and the world break down, as one, for example, breathes in air from outside oneself or exhales it into the world upon which one is codependent. As the zen practitioners especially emphasize, the point is to prevent one’s mind from wandering and focusing on the past or the future. It is to be present.

Instrumentalism/Constructivism

The approach that Buddhists tend to have to many metaphysical ideas … is instrumentalist. As a tendency, they are not epistemological realists but constructivists. Applied to metaphysical ideas such as reincarnation and karma, as well as Celestial Boddhisatvas, philosophical Buddhists tend to say that if those ideas serve useful purposes, then it is fine to use them. But if they do not, or if they have outworn their use, then one can set them aside.

One finds statements like this in Buddhist thinkers as diverse as D.T. Suzuki, who along with Alan Watts was influential in introducing an earlier generation of U.S. Americans and Europeans to Zen Buddhism, as well as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, two international leaders in Buddhism, who are influential in spreading Buddhist teaching to the West.

Given the doctrine of no-self, the self, as we tend to understand it cannot be viewed as having any kind of permanent existence. It instead is viewed as a construct. It is a useful convention to refer to the self. Indeed it would likely be impossible to live without doing so. And one can hardly talk of the three marks of existence without referencing some individual’s pain or using nouns that refer to stable things. Buddhists tend to adopt a pragmatic approach to these and other distinctions. Various such metaphysical ideas have their uses. But their usefulness does not mean they have any ultimate truth value.

Such constructivist pragmatism, especially about the difficult to answer questions of the gods, the afterlife, and so on, has proven attractive to many people in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere who have given up on traditional views of God but find some attraction to meditative or mindfulness practices of the Buddhist tradition, or of yoga from the Hindu tradition, which they view as improving their lives, providing them with some greater felt sense of interconnectedness with the world and others around them, or simply relieving stress and contributing to greater mental balance.

Sam Harris, who is well-known for his arguments against God’s existence, is one well-known public intellectual in the U.S. who has come out in support of Buddhist philosophical ideas and some practices. He, like various others, would like to separate this from the “religious” aspects of the tradition, as he understands those. But for him and many other American Buddhists, the constructivist pragmatism, at least about traditional metaphysical topics, is a great source of attraction.

Of the various religious systems, contemporary forms of Buddhism are probably the least heavily loaded with “requirements” for thick metaphysics. That said, most Buddhists practitioners do believe in karma, reincarnation. Many believe in celestial Boddhistavas. Pure land Buddhists believe in a Pure Land the people inhabit after death. They believe that some individuals can be reincarnated as gods or devils. In Tibetian forms of Buddhism, most believe in reincarnations of Llamas, who refuse the leave the cycle of life and death and are reborn to help lead others to emancipation …

Brief comments on ethics

Much more can be said about the ethics in these traditions. Here I have only emphasized how both Hindus and Buddhists generally believe that ethical practice is part of what helps cultivate the intuition into metaphysical truths. Similarly, they both think that the intellectual intuition that meditation cultivates should break down the boundaries of the ego so that, seeing one’s self as either linked with others in Brahman (in Hinduism) or as co-dependently arising (in Buddhism), one would not act selfishly but cooperatively. Buddhists in particular focus on the virtue of compassion. Both philosophical schools otherwise have multifaceted ethical systems beyond what can be explored here.

Other teachings in Indian Philosophy

… Indian philosophy (and science) has made contributions to multiple areas of human understanding. Amartya Sen, Harvard Professor of Philosophy and a Nobel Prize winner of economics, underlines in particular early views of the 4th century BCE Indian philosopher, Kautilya, who in Arthasastra cataloged all knowledge into four disciplines: 1) Metaphysics, 2) knowledge of right and wrong, 3) the science of government, and 4) the science of wealth. As an early thinker of economics as a mere technical field, Sen contrasts Kautilya with Aristotle, who subsumes thinking about economics under considerations of ethics. But it is Kautilya who may be the first full-fledged economist in world history; and he breaks our mold of Indians as religious thinkers.

So, too, though I have emphasized Advaita Vedanta, the best known of all religious schools of Hindu philosophy, in fact, some of the earliest known expressions of atheism, the view that there is no god, come from Indian philosophy. Of course, as we have seen, Buddhism rejects the idea of a creator god. But the Charvaka or Lokayata, beginning around the sixth century BCE, develop a decidedly less spiritual philosophy than Buddhists. They embraced a form of materialism that accepted that all things were comprised of four elements. They rejected the Vedas, a belief in gods and the afterlife. And they proposed a radical hedonism, thinking we should live for what increases our individual immediate pleasure. Even if pains sometimes arise from doing so, it is in their view, worth it.

The point is, Indian philosophers have done much more than I have been able to indicate in these general statements, where I have confined myself to issues of metaphysics as they intersect with epistemology and ethics and I have focussed in particular on the religious philosophies.

The Basics of Buddhism

standing Buddha statue with draped garmet and haloStanding Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
https://darrellarnold.com/2018/08/31/introductory-overview-hindu-and-buddhist-thought/

Buddhist philosophy originates with Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. The Buddha’s life itself weaves an interesting philosophic narrative. According to tradition, he was born the son of a king in the Magda empire of Ancient India or present-day Nepal. He was raised a prince but eventually turned away from the life of politics that his father had envisaged for him in order to pursue a life of spirituality. Specifically, according to legend, his father attempted to shield him from seeing the troubles of the world. But on various occasions, the young Siddhartha left the princely castle and escaped into the streets of the city where he saw those who were ill, who grew old, who died, and finally a monk. Seeing this suffering Siddhartha felt compelled to seek a spiritual life. He then left his home to join wandering mendicants and try to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

The sixth century was a tumultuous time, with many religious reformers who were dissatisfied with traditional Hinduism. Buddha, not himself a member of the priestly class or the Brahmin, joined these reformers, questioning the focus on the priestly class within Hinduism and more generally its strong caste system. In his search for enlightenment, Siddhartha initially engaged in strict asceticism, denying himself many of his bodily needs. But he is thought by adherents to eventually have achieved Enlightenment, after having long meditated under a Bodi tree.

The Middle Way

One of his first proclaimed truths was the importance of “the Middle Way,” which states that it is not the life of excess (such as he enjoyed as prince) nor the life of ascetic denial (which he attempted in his early spiritual search) that leads to enlightenment. Rather, it is the middle path that neither indulges nor denies basic human needs. Buddha presented some of his basic teachings in his first sermon, to monks with whom he had practiced asceticism but who were drawn to him after believing he achieved enlightenment. In that talk, known as the Deer Park Sermon, besides describing the Middle Way, Siddhartha (who now was given the honorific title of the Buddha, the awakened one) also presented his views of the four noble truths and the eightfold path, two of the most fundamental teachings of Buddhism, accepted by all Buddhist practitioners.

The four noble truths

The four noble truths outlined in this sermon are 1) that life is fundamentally characterized by suffering (dukkha); 2) that the cause of that suffering is attachment or craving (tanha); 3) that suffering can be overcome by the elimination of craving; and 4) that there is an eightfold path that makes it possible for us to eliminate this craving and thus eliminate suffering.

The eightfold path

This eightfold path consists of 1) right understanding; 2) right thought; 3) right speech; 4) right action; 5) right livelihood; 6) right effort; 7) right mindfulness; 8) right concentration. It is through the cultivation of a disciplined spiritual, ethical practice that one is relieved of attachment and one overcomes suffering. These various components of thought, behavior and concentration work in concert to allow individual liberation.

The three marks of existence

Metaphysically, Buddha also went a different path that his Hindu forebearers. While the Hindu thinkers emphasized the unity of all things in Brahman, a world substance that many of them thought to be permanent and unchanging, Buddha proposed a view of reality that continues to change and along with it a view of “no-self.” Where the Hindus focused on a unified “being” that encompassed all things, Buddha focussed on emptiness and non-being. All things, he emphasized, were in a state of constant change. The self, too, then is not “Atman” (Self, with a capital “S” or world soul) but “Anatman” (no-self).

As some Western philosophers have expressed this idea: If an object changes from moment A to moment B, then how can that object be characterized as the same object at those two times? Is it not rather two different ones? Buddha himself highlights how at any given moment the mind is aware of a sensation, a thought, a feeling, etc. These he views as “aggregates.” Where is the self behind all of these? The awareness we have is not of a self, but rather of one of these aggregates. With considerations like these, Buddha develops a considerably different metaphysics than one finds in the Hindu worldview that he grew up with. He speaks of three marks of existence that set his views apart from traditional Hindu thought: impermanence, no-self, and suffering.

Some common questions

Buddhism too raises numerous philosophical questions: For example, if the doctrine of the “no-self” is true, then what sense do moral commands to individuals have? Who is to carry them out? Who is responsible if there is no-self. And how are we to make sense of the goal of liberation or enlightenment if there is no self to be liberated or enlightened?

Buddhists, of course, have ways of addressing such concerns. Buddhists will, of course, acknowledge that as a practical matter, we will continue to refer to the self, use the words that reference the self, like “I,” “me,”  “mine.” Yet this self is not thought to have ultimacy. This language, while needed for practical life, does not, for that, indicate that there is a permanent or separate self.

Co-dependent arising

This is tied to the Buddhist idea of “co-dependent arising.” That teaching, as we might express it in relationship to certain ecological ideas today, emphasizes the interconnection of all the conventionally understood self with an entire world. For example, though we might think of the boundaries of our skin as the boundaries of our self, in fact, we breathe in the air continually. We need the resources of water and food. Cut off from those things, the self disappears.

So, we might wonder, can we adequately consider the self as cut off from the world around it? Without the oxygen, produced by the plants, we will expire. Without water for several days, we also die. The self is tied into and co-dependent upon these other things. So we might think of those things too as only conventionally existent. For they, too are dependent on other things, which undergo change from moment to moment and do not retain a permanent existence. What we have, though, is always only the happening of each moment, itself continually undergoing change.

Some similarities between Hindu and Buddhist thought

In some general way, philosophers of the Hindu and the Buddhist traditions that we have discussed here display similarities. Both emphasize an interconnection between things. Yet, while Hindu philosophers speak of the individual self as part of a larger “Self,” a kind of Superorganism in which each individual is like a cell, Buddhists question that there is some overarching “Self.” They emphasize instead that all processes are undergoing change. They emphasize emptiness and nothingness rather than “Being.”

Yet other elements of these systems of thought are similar. Both traditions emphasize the need for adherence to a quite similar moral code and the need for a set of spiritual practices in order to achieve an intuitive awareness of metaphysical truths. They both generally accept the idea of reincarnation, and that the form of one’s reincarnation is dependent on how one has lived in previous lives — that is, they accept the reality of karma. Finally, they both accept the goal of enlightenment, even if they think that enlightened individuals understand the ultimate reality differently in these two traditions.

This conversation is only hinting at some of the philosophical issues at play in Hindu philosophy and Buddhism. Various concepts described here are also understood in other ways. And it is important to bear in mind that these worldviews are not static or uniform. In fact, we find various Hindu and Buddhist philosophers, all with subtle differences in how they understand their own traditions. These are rich thoughtful systems of thought, which each contain thinkers who debate issues with each other and with the traditional bodies of knowledge acknowledged by their traditions.

Some basic questions

Questions of course abound. Many of those posed when discussing Hinduism apply to Buddhism. Some of the following apply to both worldviews:

  • Why should we accept that there is anyone who can be fully enlightened and that enlightenment comes through a spiritual practice rather than analytical thinking?
  • If there is karma, why do so many good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?
  • Is the evidence that this is somehow related to past lives in any way convincing, or does it function as an ideological foil?
  • Are these spiritual systems too focused on individual mental liberation and do they short social justice concerns?
  • Are these systems ultimately overly pessimistic? Is individual life so oppressive and disappointing that we ought desire to escape the cycle of existence?
  • Finally are basic elements of these systems of thought self-contradictory?