Saturday, December 10, 2011


One of the most dangerous features of our culture is our loss of a sense of connection with totality, our almost autistic obsession with yet more detail. We are unhoused and alienated in the very universe that gave rise to us. Increasingly, we think and behave as if we had only ourselves to thank for our existence. The problem lies with the nature of our understanding that views reality through the narrow slit of empiricism. We possess a bewildering array of facts about the cosmos, but the more we know, the less of a connection we have with it. Blaise Pascal was right to be spooked by the cold vastness of space. The more science tells us us about the universe, the more futile it appears.  What’s more, we believe that this purely factual, thing-obsessed conception of the universe delivered to us by scientific geeks is a healthy state of affairs as opposed to that of the religious or mystical consciousness that sees itself as fundamentally keyed into an intelligent universal process.

The self has to operate in the context of a superordinate whole. This superordinate whole can be many different structures at different times. It can be a family, a church, a football crowd, a company, a government, a school, a factory, a committee and so on. But fundamentally, the self has to feel itself at home in the universe. It has to recognise itself as a stakeholder in the universe, rather than just an accidental cog in some small, arbitrary machine in some obscure corner of the world. People can and do find significance in their membership of all kinds of organisations, from a group of regular drinking-pals to the Catholic Church; but fundamentally, when the self takes into consideration every aspect of its existence, its arrival on the scene as a result of long and ancient natural processes (natural selection, heredity etc.), its birth, its short span of conscious life and its inevitable death, it cannot prevent itself wondering about its place in the whole pageant of events that we call the universe. It is in the nature of consciousness so to think. This locating of the self coherently within the universal process is identical with the impetus to do philosophy, as already noted, and is central to what we mean by the phrase ‘the meaning of life’. The self has to feel itself at home in the universe rather than merely desperately building a little home for itself in a particular social group, a particular town, a particular country, a particular social role and so on.

Of course, the vast majority of humans are too preoccupied with the daily business of making a living ever to give a thought to their place in any grand scheme of things. Indeed, the culture of celebrity, through which our civilisation expresses its principal values of egoism and possession, is designed to keep people in a state of suspension of self in which the meaning of their existence is provided vicariously by those they admire, while they themselves serve the economy as various types of wage-slave. The culture of celebrity convinces people that the sense of life is essentially to be seen in terms of fulfilling an enviable social role supremely well. Since most people are unable to achieve this they have to contemplate it in others, the rich, the famous, the powerful; and the media reinforce this practice by their constant harping on the doings of these people to the exclusion of almost any other issue. Newspapers, television-screens and radio-broadcasts are dominated by the antics of famous actors, politicians, musicians, sportspeople, crooks, writers, captains of industry, the rich and indeed any other kind of individual who appears to have a claim to eminence of any sort. The non-eminent thus have no significance for the media and only get into the newspapers if they distinguish themselves or are distinguished by some event or act that propels them to celebrity-status, however briefly. The significance of so-called ‘reality TV’ is ostensibly to repair the gap between celebrity and non-celebrity. That it fails is only in part due to the personal mediocrity of those who go in for this sort of self-exhibition. It fails more seriously because the distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity is a symptom of a wider failing in our society: namely, our inability to discover the essential dynamics of the self. We lack the means to understand ourselves and appear to believe that narcissistic egoism is the summum of human existence.

Eminence of any sort is a function of the supposedly enviable social role of the person concerned, for the meaning of existence in the modern west is seen only in these terms. Once one has identified a range of human types as abstractions, which is what the thing-ideology does for the human species, once one has fragmented the human species into identifiable types, then the sole meaning of human existence becomes the filling of a representative role, defined in terms of a particular function. Then, since the filling of an identifiable social role is the only meaning to life, the prevailing belief is that the more enviable the role (in terms of popular notions of 'success'), the more meaningful the life. Any notion that the self could have a unique importance, a unique destiny, quite separate from its social function, its ego, its persona, its external relations with other persons and the like, is completely lost.

Now the contention here is this: that the sense of human life has to do precisely with not identifying the self with the socially dependent ego or persona, but rather with the self’s own place in the universe as a whole. The persona, i.e. the social function, is only a means to a particular practical end in a particular specific context and no more, though it is usually a means of bolstering the self-regard of the ego. It does have its purpose, but this purpose is a temporary part of the developmental process, like all stages of education. Neither ego nor persona have any intrinsic relevance to the self as such; they are the causa efficiens in the self's growth, but their relevance is to the social structure in which they are rooted. The intrinsic and unique self, on the other hand, is completely dispensable to this social structure, since only the function – the social contribution, if you like – is of any value. The philosophies of Utilitarianism and Marxism realise this and exploit it to the full – which is why they are universally regarded as inhuman. Now the self is precisely not identical with the ego, persona or societal function and incapable of identifying itself in any way but temporarily with these. The self requires a destiny and an identity that go beyond social ambition and the social structure altogether. The persona and the ego inhibit the development of the self precisely to the degree that they begin to dominate the personality. The essence of the personality, however, and the focus of any meaning to life is the self.

The self requires nothing less than the ability to see itself as creatively part of the universal creative process of nature. Nothing less will do. Less than this is not satisfying to the self, despite its awareness of its own lack of importance; and it is for this reason that throughout the ages, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, from the I Ching to the modern horoscope, people have persistently sought to account for their lives, as a whole, in religious terms or quasi-religious terms, terms that located all the separate contexts of their daily life within the total context of the world as such. These terms functioned by invoking those agencies that were thought to be responsible for maintaining the entire order of nature, whether they were conceived as recognisably divine or not.  It is for this reason that morals and values have persistently been considered to be dependent upon the divine, or at least on some universal co-ordinating agency, rather than on any immediate social context that a person may be committed to and that thus may have a claim to be valued. Only the myopia of the thing-ideology has blinded us to the sense and value of these traditional attitudes. It goes without saying, that so-called ‘divine command ethics’ is merely a mythological distortion of the essential insight that true morality is a matter of the individual’s place in the cosmos.

The model of the universe with which we operate nowadays sees it as a complete process in which many types of apparently independent systems cooperate to produce a world containing all the staggering variety that we are able to witness. It is, however, the notion of process rather than object that is important, since coherent processes amount to something, go somewhere, achieve something and contribute meaningfully to a superordinate process. We see the fifteen-billion-year history of our universe as an integrated process, but we are incapable of working out whether it is a coherent, co-ordinated process, that is to say whether it amounts to anything, or not. Indeed, we deny actively that this knowledge could in any way be possible, because the cognitive criteria of our science do not allow it. We think that it is impossible because for us, reality is no more than a bunch of inanimate objects. Meanings, purposes, values - these are unreal. We deal with this ignorance imposed upon us by the thing-ideology by convincing ourselves that in all this process, in which nothing seems ultimately to endure, there are nevertheless stable entities that do not simply pop into existence and go out of existence or transform themselves into quite different things. Our ability to identify at least some stability in the universal flux reassures us in some small way. These stable entities are the ultimate ‘things’, the building-blocks of the universe and the rules or laws that govern their motion. So we elaborate a view of the universe as a collection of identifiable three-dimensional objects, all of which are made out of some ultimate three-dimensional objects that hang around for much longer than any others. We cling to these ‘ultimate’ things with a kind of desperation.  Thus we come to regard these fundamental building blocks as ultimate reality in all the change and as a consequence we come to regard ourselves as no more than collections of these fundamental building-blocks. The process that is our self loses all significance because it is not seen to endure. It has no stability. It has no substance. It appears and then, after shifting inconstantly, disappears almost immediately and nothing seems to impart to it the enduring identity of the tangible thing.

Small wonder, then, that we are unable to see ourselves as parts of the universal process. But the really depressing feature of our supposed understanding of the cosmos is that despite our instinctive awareness that something staggeringly meaningful is going on and that the universe looks as if it is a gigantic put up job, we are unable to allow ourselves any suggestion that the whole system might be intelligently coordinated. And so we are left with an improbable tale of countless improbable accidents piled upon countless improbable accidents which just happen to get things exactly right. This so-called 'Anthropic Principle' is the most mysterious feature of our current scientific understanding of the world and all attempts to deal with it scientifically lead only to yet more improbability.

The Big Bang (which just happened to get the initial conditions for our cosmos spot-on) produced the first generation of particles. The second generation suns just happened to have the capacity to produce the particles that make up our world. (It was the emergence of carbon at that stage that convinced the atheist Fred Hoyle of the intelligence of the universe.) The processes by which our planet came into existence just happened to be a consequence of the external dynamics of these particles. The organisation of matter into living systems then just happened to be another consequence of the same dynamics (though it is not, because the information of the genome has no chemical explanation). The emergence of consciousness – again, something that just happened – we see as a product of still the same dynamics. Our lives, our societies, our entire human world just happens then to be a product of the same dynamics. The staggering series of accidents that we believe produced us and our specifically human world have nothing at all to do with the nature of that human world, with what is of value in it and with what makes it precious to us. The universal process seems to our science completely different from ourselves and to have no possible relevance to the self. The self relates to other selves; and the universal process that produced selves – so runs the thing-ideology – has no resemblance to the self and its concerns at all. It is not surprising then that we view the whole universal process of the universe as completely irrelevant to us, as completely foreign to us - just another bunch of things to be used. No wonder that we see the corollary to this as true, as well, namely that our lives, our preoccupations, our values have no relevance to the universe as such. No wonder, either, that we are fragmented and alienated and that we retreat into the ego, from where we see the significance of our lives as lying in what we do every day or in what we aspire to do every day and as having no significance outside of these activities. 

We never pause to ask ourselves, however, whether these beliefs held by modern man are not deeply misguided, deeply harmful and deeply wrong. The simple truth is that they are; but the conspiracy of the modern democratic, industrialised society, sedulously fostered by politicians, pundits, journalists, academics and educators, is to suppress every possible belief that militates against the thing-ideology and that militates against the conviction of governments and industries that only an existence devoted to the production of yet more things has any sense. Modern democracies and modern industries are obsessed by the production and consumption of things and yet more things. That is the only activity that has any measurable value and meaning within the view of the universe imposed by the thing-ideology. In a world in which things are, at least initially, randomly thrown together by the forces of nature and by chance, the essence of the human meaning seems inevitably to be the control of the universal collection of things and the consequent production of different things by means of our conscious intention; otherwise consciousness is completely meaningless and quite superfluous. Our identity and our view of ourselves is now bound up with the ever more frenzied production and consumption of things. We are things. Our main purpose is the frantic production of yet more and yet newer things; and all the organisations that constitute human society have the sole purpose of generating still more things. We have to generate more things than our competitor. We have to possess more things than our neighbour. We are drowning in an ocean of things and as we produce them in ever greater quantities, we cut ourselves loose from the sustaining universe and pollute both it and ourselves with the by-products of our hard work, our ‘industry’ our ‘growth’, our thing-production.

The power of this social aspect of the thing-ideology is so great that one begins to wonder whether there is not some greater significance to it that we overlook completely, some ‘cunning of reason’, to use a Hegelian phrase. Perhaps, if we think holistically and teleologically for a moment, the universal process of evolution may require this distortion for the achievement of some creative leap forward, just as the profusion of the Cambrian explosion of species was required for the later production of robust and complex survivors. That may be the case, but one still has a duty to combat the injurious effects of this fragmentation and the concomitant reification of the self because those who suffer from and are damaged by it – and they are a significant number, if not the majority – do not necessarily have to submit to it. They certainly do not have to believe the ideology that supports it. The world as a whole, the planet, the ecosystem would obviously be far better off if human beings adopted a more integrated and harmonious relation to the natural systems that spawned them and upon which they depend. We see ourselves as foreign to nature, as apart from nature, as superior to nature in intellect even, but as inferior to nature in our transience, as locally dominating and exploiting nature, but as being finally defeated by her (short of making ourselves immortal!); but this is only because we see nature as fundamentally nothing more than a collection of insensible things, whereas we are things endowed with consciousness, which is intrinsically more valuable than things. This jumble of half-baked beliefs about ourselves and our world divorces and estranges us from the world to such an extent that we are incapable of understanding it despite all our science. That is the principal reason why, as it were, we pelt our mother with filth.

The confusion in our own view of ourselves – things, yet not things – shuts us out of the cosmos. If we could see ourselves and our consciousness as intimately woven into the universal process, such that every aspect of our being, mental and physical,  is rooted in an aspect of that universal process and every event of our lives is both influenced by and has an influence upon that universal process, we would be a little more careful and a little more concerned to know more about the nature of our connections with that universal process. This cannot be achieved by considering ourselves as just one more thing – however mysterious, paradoxical or anomalous – amid a universal collection of things. We have to be able to understand the manner in which we are integrated into the whole and the manner in which the processes of our individual life chime harmoniously with the whole. We have to understand how what we consider to be merely a collection of alien things is in actual fact the dynamic, intelligent milieu in which we have come to be and which is not in any sense alien to us but intrinsically related to us. It generated us and it has a place for us. We have to be able to see what we call ‘matter’ as of the same kind of subtle, ambiguous stuff as ourselves, not as some inert, brute ore from which chance and necessity have absurdly extracted us. We have to be able to see mind as a universal property of the universe as a whole, from its tiniest filaments to its entire, coordinated flow.

We now believe in the ‘emergent properties’ of wholes; and that is the only handle we can get on minds. But maybe we are seeing them in the wrong light: in a causal light. We are so wedded to the notion of antecedent cause, that we think that the so-called emergent properties of a collection of parts are caused by the aggregated properties of those parts. Of course if the parts are not present, then the whole effect will not be present, right? Well who knows? It may be that the levels of complexity achieved by material systems merely permits the expression of antecedent properties, particularly with respect to mental properties. If reality is inherently intelligent, then maybe any system resulting from evolution is merely the expression of a particular aspect of that intelligence. This is the way we view the cultural formalisms that express our own increasingly complex thoughts: we can conceive of relativity, quantum physics, multi-dimensional space, black holes and all the rest because we have the language to express these notions. The language does not cause the notions, the notions do not emerge from the language – at least scientists would not thank us for saying so. The content of these thoughts existed before we evolved the language to discuss them. If we admit that possibility then it is not difficult to admit the possibility that the states of mind which ‘emerge’ in the human exist prior to the evolution of humans and come to expression because the human body and its brain have come to exist. Since emergent properties characterise the evolution of matter in our universe, it is possible to see emergence at all levels as the evolution of form adequate to the expression of pre-existent content. Perhaps there are higher mental states beyond ours that require large numbers of humans for their expression and  maybe that is why the human race as a whole has emergent properties such as large-scale cultural and societal phenomena. If we extrapolate this logic to the universe as a whole, then it may be that a network of life-bearing planets is connected by an emergent property that binds together a galaxy and so on up the scale. We do not have to view this sort of phenomenon as causal, such that, for example, a deity is generated post facto as an emergent property of the universe - though this has been speculated. There is nothing shocking in the thought that the material universe is the medium of divine self-expression. This sort of speculation is inherently no more ridiculous than the speculations concerning the emergent properties of termite-hills, crowds, economies or the process of the evolution of species. It is speculation, but something like it is needed to break the choking stranglehold of the thing-ideology. Something like this is needed if we are to make real and satisfying sense of our lives in the universe we observe.

In order to obtain a better understanding of why this is of vital importance, we will have to look a little more closely at the functionalisation of the intellect and of the person.

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