Under the tyranny of erotic love he has permanently become while awake what he used to become occasionally while asleep.
| Socrates, The Republic, Book IX
The ancient Greeks, whose insight into human life arguably far surpasses anything that’s come along since, termed the soul, “psyche”—a word that also denoted “breath,” “self-mover,” and something like “life force.” Our descended form of this word, watered down through the Latin, is associated with the mind and perhaps also more broadly with consciousness, forming the root of such words as psychology and psychiatry, which seek to map, measure, assess, and treat a person’s soul or consciousness. Thus, psychosis, etymologically, refers to a sickness or abnormality of the mind, but in a sense truer to the original, a sickness or abnormality of the soul.
Plato explores this sense of soul sickness at length in Book IX of The Republic, which presents a number of arguments for the Socrates’s claim that the just life is in and of itself good, and that without virtue and a commitment to truth, there can be no true happiness—a position Plato introduces in a more abbreviated form in his dialogue Gorgias, which in this respect anticipates The Republic. One of the most intriguing and useful philosophical ideas we find in both the Gorgias and The Republic points to the close connection between soul and character, indicated by whether a person’s psyche is informed by virtue (arete) or vice (kakos).
One of the insights shared in this analysis is that the tyrant—whether a personal tyrant or, worse, a political tyrant—is tyrannized by his own tyranny, that he is a prisoner of urges and impulses that drive him inexorably toward self-destruction, a slave to a perverse side of love (eros) that drives him into ever deeper states of degeneracy, untruth, abusive and immoral acts, and along with these, isolation, fear, and suffering that can only be understood as a living nightmare. The reason that the political tyrant is worse—and worse off—than the personal tyrant, is that in rising to a position of power, he acquires the resources to indulge the sickness of his soul, the result of which is that he sets fires of resentment all around him, untempered by good judgment or any concern for consequences, even from those in his inner circle, and thus becomes even more isolated, living in constant fear of reprisal for all that he has stolen and all those whom he has exploited and injured along the way. It is a condition of catastrophic soul-disorder that eventually leaves the tyrant stranded in a living hell with no way out.
In the Gorgias, Socrates states that the person who gets away with a crime is actually worse off than the criminal who is caught and punished, since punishment serves as a penance, purging the soul of guilt and to that extent at least, restoring order. We likely all have set foot on the path of pettiness more than once, all had moments of vice or “viciousness” we regret—in our dreams at night or occasional moments when we were, though awake, asleep to our better knowing—but for most of us, there is a remedy that we see proven in philosophical counseling sessions every day, a remedy that becomes available the moment we stop blaming others and own whatever part we have been playing in the problem. Responsibility is never blame, but the creative act of taking back our power to tell the truth and do the right and good thing. Without the willingness to acknowledge and step up to this responsibility, we remain victims, powerless, slaves to the inner tyrant, whose destructive character, in the end, burdened by unbearable weight of its own tyranny, collapses on itself like a dying star.
30 June, 2017
Much has been made lately of the fact that we are supposedly living in a “post-truth” era, one in which science and reason are repudiated as elitist, relativity and subjectivism are the order of the day, and “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “perception management” have become accepted methods of government. George Orwell predicted this ascendency of untruth in his classic novel, 1984, where “doublethink” and “doublespeak” are used to control entire superstate populations. The truth has become whatever those in power say it is. Government surveillance, brainwashing, and torture are routinely used to enforce compliance in this dark dystopia of absolute and ruthless authoritarian rule.
The danger at the root of this hijacking of truth is that those who endorse and practice it are either up to their ears in ignorance or worse, manipulators without character or conscience. There actually exist a group of people who maintain that there is no such thing as truth anymore, that “post-truth” (postmodern, deconstructionist, etc.) thinking has exposed it as an empty concept, one that has been used through the ages to claim authority and wield that authority over the people. The Church is a good example. Before the invention of the printing press, the Church could claim esoteric knowledge of the Bible. Its priests were regarded as the guardians and interpreters of that knowledge, which was inaccessible to the lay person. After Gutenberg and mass printing of the Bible, the source material became widely available. The caste of priests no longer was the exclusive keeper of the sacred keys, and the Protestant Reformation was one of the more noteworthy results.
Ironically, in the so-called post-truth era, those in power seem to be bent on the same purpose as the erstwhile “truth on high” proponents, but this time the aim is to acquire and consolidate power through the denial that there is any such thing as truth at all. In Orwellian fashion, “the truth” becomes whatever they wish it to be, which is to say, whatever serves their Machiavellian interests—and who is there to question them once they have seized control of the levers of personal propaganda, promulgated largely through social media outlets? The truth can be revised or reversed in 140 characters through simple declaration, no evidence required. What was claimed as true yesterday can be denied tomorrow, because there are enough people who look to these outlets for their understanding of what is true and what is not to add up to an electoral majority. In this way, the Internet, like Gutenberg’s “Bible for everyone,” has made information available instantly on an unprecedented scale, and though this time the rhetoric involves the denial of truth rather than the sequestering of it, the effect is the same—the consolidation of power and manipulation by the few of those whose discernment requires nothing more than 140 characters.
Even a cursory examination makes clear that anyone who seriously holds that there is no longer any such thing as truth is snared in a fatal contradiction, since the position amounts to claiming that the proposition, “there is no truth,” is true. In this sense, the term “post-truth” is a contradiction. In reality, however, “post-truth” adherents don’t wish to deny the idea of truth entirely; rather, their aim is to weaken its epistemological status in order to sell their brand of it to buyers who are too gullible or ignorant or lazy to fact check, and to attack any truth, however well substantiated by evidence, that threatens their interests. “Post-truth” comes down to selfishness on a grand scale. When it rises to political power, it is particularly dangerous, and should be called out of every shadow in which it tries to hide.
Truth has ontological standing. This means that “the truth” is grounded in Being, in what is. If I ask you to tell me the truth about something, I’m asking you to tell me what is, not what isn’t. Telling me what isn’t, when it’s deliberate, is lying, and no lie is made true simply in the claim that it is true, no matter how many times one tweets the lie. What is true has the authority of Being behind it; what is untrue invariably proves to be unsupportable and so, unsustainable. Five hundred years before Christ, Lao tze put it like this: “What goes against the Way comes to an early end.”
The incessant drama of the political situation here in the United States over the past months bears witness to an Orwellian attempt to distort, misrepresent, manipulate, evade, and recreate the truth in the image of those who have come to power, or those who, through complicity and a lack of character and ethical gumption, have stood by silently while the truth was manhandled and cast aside. They have set themselves against Being, and so much the worse for them when the “alternative facts” begin to unravel. Whatever the extent to which we either are committed to a thinking life, good character, and truthfulness or in flight from these honorable practices, one thing is certain: We live on the same earth and will suffer the same consequences. What is, is. We do not change what is by insisting that it is otherwise, or by denying it. This is one of the great achievements of science, viz., to take knowledge beyond the confines of superstitious thinking and test possible truths against Being to see if they hold up. When we abandon the truth, we are abandoning Being, and may expect that, before long, Being will return the favor.
28 May, 2017
So, this guy goes to a psychiatrist to get some help with his romantic life, which never seems to go well. The psychiatrist holds up a picture of a rectangle and asks the fellow what he sees. “That’s a window,” he says, “and there are two people in there having wild and crazy sex.” The psychiatrist then holds up a picture of a triangle and asks the man what he sees there. “That’s a keyhole,” is the reply, “and boy are they having wild and crazy sex in there.” Finally, the psychiatrist shows him a picture of a circle and asks, “And here?” The man studies it for a moment, then says, “That’s a porthole—and the people in the cabin are having wild and crazy sex.” Putting down the cards, the psychiatrist declares, “Well, I’ve heard enough. I can tell you without doubt that you’re sexually preoccupied.” “I’m sexually preoccupied?” the man replies. “They’re your dirty pictures.”
Funny joke. Not so funny when this sort of thing shows up in a real counseling session. Ideally, as we mature, we learn where we end and others begin. It’s a question of the boundaries of self. Seems simple enough. Yet many miss this crucial developmental advance, and end up caught in mazes of disowned responsibility, projection, blame-shifting, denial, exaggeration of the will, victimhood, excessive or otherwise inappropriate expectations of others, overreaction, and many other forms of what the ancient Greeks understood as a “disordered soul.”
There’s a philosophical term for this sort of failure to recognize the boundaries of self, that psychic demarcation where self ends and others begin. It’s called solipsism. According to the solipsistic position, “I alone am real.” Others are mere projections, figments of my consciousness, characters in my private play. While solipsism sounds bizarre on the face of it (and turns out to be self-contradictory), it is a position that has been to a great degree promoted by postmodern thinking, which has “deconstructed” truth into something subjective and relativistic. The doctrine of idealism, which has its roots in Platonic thought, became the central problem of modern philosophy, captured in Descartes’s famous, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), and running through Berkeley, Hume, and Kant who, like the ancient Greek Protagoras, argued that “man is the measure of all things,” leading inevitably to the conclusion that what we call reality, and always have taken to be objectively “out there” in the world, existing independently of us, is an organized collection of sensory and thus empirical impressions—as far as we can know, made up of nothing more than the contents of our own consciousness, and thus having no identifiable “objective” or independent existence. Indeed, what else could we know but our own sensory data? There appears to be no escape from the “subjective predicament,” as it’s been called. Any reality, by definition, must be someone’s. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no experiencer present, we’re forced to conclude not only that the tree didn’t make a sound, but that there was no tree to fall. “Falling tree,” like the term “sound,” describes a certain kind of experience. “No experiencer” is a special condition that vetoes even hypothetical experience, since all experience, by definition, presupposes an experiencer, or if you prefer, a point of view.
This is not just semantics. It’s a philosophical Gordian knot that has far-reaching implications for every area of our understanding from quantum mechanics to what it means to love someone. In the subjectified world, “other” is reduced to the set of one’s reactions—in other words, otherness is denied. The complaint, “You made me angry,” serves to illustrate how this works. In such a charge, the plaintiff has projected his or her painful reactions onto another in a disowning of responsibility that seems to justify the accusation. In the denial of other, however, notice that the self also is denied, for “you made me angry” exports our authority and in doing so, forfeits the power we have to make choices about our inner life, reactions included. “They’re your dirty pictures” may be convincing to the subjectivist, but the stance comes at an extortionate price, robbing us not only of real others but also of our power to reinvent ourselves, to learn, to improve. When there is no standard for acknowledging a truth beyond our current view, there is nothing to call us to be more, to grow, to evolve. We can’t stand on subjective ground alone, or it soon becomes quicksand. Therein may lie the hope of our age. At some point, the reality of otherness must be acknowledged, in all its mystery, existing in its own right beyond our perceptions, preconceptions, stories, and projections. As Martin Buber tell us, reality in its fullest sense is discovered in the encounter between I and Thou.
We can begin to apply this in little ways that can make a big difference simply by slowing down and being willing to suspend judgments and conclusions, especially those that indict others in favor of taking responsibility for our reactions. No one can “make us mad” without our permission. The unwillingness to accept responsibility for our subjective states no doubt has ended many marriages and friendships that otherwise might have flourished. Everyone is carrying a burden, how great a burden, who can say? As Hesse writes, “To each his lot, and none is light.” If we take a moment to look at a situation through the eyes of another, we may be less inclined to condemn. To be sure, denying our inner experience can be as destructive, and at the end of the day, misappropriating responsibility, enabling, and willfully struggling to accept the unacceptable are no more sustainable than denial, projection, and exporting authority. It is, as always, a matter of balancing complementary truths. And this, as it turns out, is a matter of taking a moment to consider where the boundary lies between self and other. That moment can be an investment that pays priceless dividends.
23 April, 2017
Still, it can be more effective to accomplish what you need to accomplish with the minimum effort. Watch Anthony Hopkins. He doesn’t appear to be doing anything. He is so still that you can’t see him working, but you are drawn into his character through his very stillness.
| Morgan Freeman
In the 19th century, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote, “What our age lacks is not reflection but passion.” Today, we might say that what our age lacks is stillness. With knowledge now doubling every year, the sheer pace of modern life has accelerated to the point that we may rarely slow down and take the moment required to retrieve stillness and return to the misplaced present. Air travel, ever faster microchips and computing devices, overnight delivery and near instant access to information literally at our fingertips, the knee-jerk culture of social media, and the supplanting of real community with unknown others who can become our “friends” with a click—all have created an existential cacophony, and the inherent stillness of things is lost in the shuffle.
Why is this furious acceleration of human life so important, and so detrimental? Because there is an intimate connection between pace and awareness. The faster we go, the farther we stray from the present, which isn’t fast at all, because it never goes anywhere, The present simply is. Often, in philosophical counseling sessions, the first thing I do is invite the client to slow down. Speedy client narratives invariably signal a flight from the present, usually to escape some uncomfortable or difficult truth. Put another way, speediness can be a form of denial. For some clients, the willingness simply to slow down and come back to present awareness is half the work. Here is another essential equation: The more awareness slows down, the more it expands. To achieve “cosmic consciousness,” the yogi must enter descending states of stillness in which brainwave activity slows measurably from beta to alpha, then theta and even delta, and perhaps states of yet deeper stillness that elude measurement. The more we slow down, the less we miss, the more inclusive our awareness becomes. The blur of living always for the next moment and the next and the next is brought into sharp focus, and we may feel that we’re seeing things as they are for the first time.
This is not something that the mind can grasp or appreciate except in principle. One has to experience it for oneself. Awareness is a great mystery; it permeates and surrounds us, yet we may ignore it for a lifetime. To explore this mystery, as we have said, we must slow down, recall ourselves, as it were, from the speed and distractions of modern life, and enter our native state of stillness. In this state, we become aware of awareness itself as the medium or “horizon” within which all phenomena exist in time and space. If these phenomena are thought of as musical notes making up, say, a symphony, then awareness is the stillness between the notes, the orchestrated moments of silence that pervade the instrumental piece, without which music could not exist. In other words, the musical notes ride on a medium of stillness; it is not the other way around. Stillness is fundamental, not only to music, but to the entire cosmos world and every manifest thing, including ourselves. When we return to stillness, we return to our origins. In stillness, we come home to ourselves.
Socrates tells us that philosophy begins with wonder, and wonder is rooted in stillness. Note here that stillness is not the same as silence. We can be still without being silent and silent without being still. Rather, stillness is a unique state in which awareness, aware of itself, opens up in the living present until it recognizes itself as encompassing all that exists, as the horizon of being. The experience is characterized by a sense of expanding, and this sense of expanding is inherently joyful, as though life, having come full circle, is happy to be alive.
Practicing stillness grounds us in the living present, transforming us at the deepest levels of our being. Many benefits obtain as a result. Energetic imbalances in mind and body resolve, old emotional wounds are spontaneously healed without the need to consult the mind, the body releases its various holdings and relaxes into being-here, circumstances lose their ability to throw us off-center, and we may find work, sleep, digestion, and many other areas of life improved or enhanced. Even the fear of death can be mitigated by the experience of horizon awareness, within which we can sense that we are something far greater than the body. It is a consummate paradox that the happiness we may chase all our life in this or that set of worldly conditions is hiding in the stillness that abides at the center of each of us, awaiting our recognition and homecoming.
31 March, 2017
“Truth is high, but even higher is true living,” according to one spiritual teacher from the East. Nowadays, in the madhouse rush of our so-called post-truth world, with “fake news” and “alternative facts,” with social media shaping politics and trivializing what it means to communicate, and every personal reaction no matter how thoughtless or hateful or banal stealing its fifteen minutes (or 140 characters) of “fame,” we might wonder what a term such as “true living” can mean. Questions of this sort generally have been left to philosophy to ponder, the worldly being disinclined to take them seriously. During my days at university, when business majors and others would ask what I was studying, the answer typically earned wry smiles and patronizing looks. “Philosophy? What can you do with that?” Heidegger, it seemed to me, had answered this best, suggesting that we can’t do anything with philosophy, but that if we let it, perhaps philosophy can do something with us. The golden opportunity to study inspiring subjects with gifted professors seemed far too important to reduce to the business of earning a living. And then there was the more fundamental matter of how to live, of what our lives meant and could mean, of what was required to live well, to live skillfully and creatively and deliberately, so that our lives might count for something, even if only in the private reckoning of our own values. But such things were the fanciful concerns of humanities majors, and of little interest to those for whom a thinking life had no projectionable cash value.
True living must mean living in agreement with what is true, but for the ancient Greeks, what was true was inseparable from what was good and beautiful, as these three were regarded as aspects of the same eternal standard. For them, living truly involved a certain skill in practical matters, and eventually even a virtuosity in living they called phronesis. Even today, over two millennia later, this standard holds up, such that if we lived by its light, our living would be transformed into a work of art. Phronesis seeks to serve the greater good, is self-possessed, picks its battles, recognizes and cooperates with the timing of things, is not rash or reactive, moves with rather than against conditions, is humble in knowledge and willing to learn, and so on.
Sadly, the art of true living prized by the ancients appears to be a lost art. Sullied by rampant relativity and an infatuation with the subjective and the momentary promoted by personal technology and social media that borders on the narcissistic, we seem to have lost that faculty that lets us know when something is true or not, and in this, the standards of beauty and goodness have fallen from our hands, as well. We eagerly adopt, upgrade, and bring into our homes technological gadgets without taking even a moment to consider whether or not they are good for us. Convenience is allowed to trump privacy to the point that our “smart” devices seem to be smarter than we are. We engage each other less, relying instead on virtual surrogates. We get out of our chairs and off our couches less. Consequently, we move less, breathe less, experience less. If we want to know something, instead of researching and investigating it and testing it, we simply “Google” it or look it up in Wikipedia, both of which are designed to provide quick answers, not necessarily true ones. Prejudiced by algorithms that rate search returns by popularity rather than truth, goodness, or beauty, Google establishes a truthless reality as the new standard for modern life. Wikipedia entries can be posted and edited by anyone, qualified or not. In a world where everything and anything can be “true,” facts can be “alternative,” dissenting journalism can be dismissed as “fake,” and scientific and rational evidence are derided and rejected out of hand, there is no compass heading and no way to avoid the paralyzing effects of nihilism, for if everything and anything can be true, then nothing is true. We can make the truth whatever we wish it to be, and who is to refute us?
It may be hard for us to wake ourselves from the dream of relativity and subjectivism sufficiently to retrieve a sense of what the truth, apart from conflicting opinions about it, might be. And this is where the statement cited at the beginning of this piece becomes central, perhaps even saving. “Truth is high, but even higher is true living.” Plug this into the Greek equation, and a glimmer of light appears on the horizon that can guide us back to a sustainable way of being, for the qualities of true living are always beautiful and good, and in these matters, we need no one to instruct us, for the voice of the beautiful and the good, and so, of the true, lives within us. The Greeks called it the daimon, and regarded it as a divine presence placed in each person by the gods to guide him on his life’s journey.
Does anyone doubt that the qualities of courage, generosity of spirit, fairness in dealing with others, compassion, kindness, humility, and the willingness to empathize with others are good and beautiful? Will anyone, even in the age of subjectivity, seriously deny that cowardice, pettiness and selfishness, cheating or exploiting others for personal gain, mean-spiritedness, indifference to the suffering of others, vindictiveness, self-aggrandizement, hatred, and cruelty are ugly and destructive? The light on the horizon soon expands into a beacon: There is no truth in adhering to principles that hurt others. People are more important than principles, as one professor of mine told me many years ago—a truth that true living never forgets, among others.
In the Gorgias, Socrates tells us that the truth cannot be refuted. The statement is practically a definition. Put another way, the truth endures. For this reason, it—and it alone—is sustainable. If we do the philosophical math here, we find it adds up to an inescapable conclusion: We may continue living only insofar as we live truly, which is to say, in agreement with the truth. No amount of relativistic reductionism or subjective cleverness can overtake the truth for long. What is, is. Whatever sets itself against the truth—and so, inevitably, the good and the beautiful, as Lao Tze states in the Tao Te Ching, “comes to an early end.” We did not create this world or ourselves; we do not create what is true, but what is true abides, and abides in the beautiful and the good. There is, as the Greeks knew in a wisdom we would be wise to retrieve at this late hour of history, no other refuge for humankind.
26 February, 2017
One of the most remarkable things I see as a philosophical counselor is the zeal with which clients sometimes argue for their limitations. The work can run deep, so it’s not surprising that during the course of the philosophical conversation, we hit pockets of turbulence. Change can be challenging, and acknowledging a long-held contradiction or a truth denied can take more than a little courage. As a rule, the client comes to the session with sufficient willingness to move through to resolution, but not always. Sometimes, unexpectedly, a client will start defending some belief, assumption, or construct that is working against him. It can be a startling experience for the counselor, who relies on the client’s willingness to move into and through the dialectical arc to a higher vantage. One of the things that makes this sensitive is that it is the counselor’s primary responsibility to identify, call out, and deconstruct the contradictions and false opinions that lie at the root of the client’s suffering. The process is rarely head-on and always respectful. When a client’s contradiction grabs the mic and takes the session hostage, the philosophical counselor may be at a loss as to how to proceed.
Philosophical counseling is an educational rather than therapeutic process. It seeks not to treat but to illuminate. The assumptions grounding the method are that the client is 1) a free and responsible agent, 2) capable of recognizing the truth even when it is inconvenient if not daunting, and 3) both willing and able to make choices according to his or her own better knowing. It is a proven and effective method, often life-changing, due to the indubitable power of the truth to set us free, even if only through disabusing us of error. The philosophical counselor, through Socratic engagement, helps to unpack elements of the client’s belief system that are rooted either in contradiction or in some misguided belief, assumption, paradigm, conclusion, stance, or story. Almost without exception, clients demonstrate the courage and willingness needed to complete the dialectical transcendence and “break through” to a liberating re-vision of their situation, and centrally, of their participation in it. Such re-visioning implies and facilitates new choices that leave suffering behind. All of this occurs within the framework of a collaboration between counselor and client. Because the work can be deep and highly charged, however, philosophical counseling sessions leave the door ajar to some of the same dynamics that may slip in to more therapeutic models, viz., projection, transference, and projective identification. So, the client may project emotions onto the philosophical counselor, e.g., when a client harboring disowned feelings of anger experiences the counselor as angry; or may transfer feelings onto the counselor, e.g., when a client grieving the loss of a romantic partnership mistakes the counselor’s attention or empathy for romantic interest; or may projectively identify, unwittingly “placing into” the counselor some bit of unfinished business the client does not know how to resolve, e.g., when a client who refuses to call others on irresponsible behavior shows up in in session irresponsibly in order to observe how the counselor deals with it, and by observing this, to learn how to deal with it himself.
It takes a good bit of experience, intuitive alertness, and skill for the philosophical counselor to recognize when such dynamics have entered the dialogue. The best response varies, of course. The counselor whose client is projectively identifying, for example, may accept the projection and role-play a solution, which the client is then free to accept or reject. On the other hand, the more productive direction may be to point out to the client what he or she is doing, refuse the projection, and work directly on the core issue together. Transference usually resolves as the work progresses; projection almost always needs to be called out. In all cases, however, the counselor fails the client if he allows any narrative defending what needs to be deconstructed and transcended to go on for too long. The effect of a protracted client monologue on what “doesn’t work” amounts to a kind of filibustering that can run out the clock, postponing self-work and its immeasurable benefits.
In such cases, it is the philosophical counselor’s duty, at some point, to interrupt the client’s narrative, which may take on a relentless, stream-of-consciousness quality that seems all but designed to keep the counselor from getting a word in. No one likes to be interrupted, of course, least of all clients arguing for a highly charged limitation, but it is not the counselor’s job to give audience to untruth, nor to allow the client’s fear or commitment to a false or contradicted belief to use up the allotted time. It doesn’t seem to me that any counselor worthy of the title will collude with a client who, lost in immersion, seems more committed to being right than being happy.
It is useful, in general terms, to be aware that we may slip into a narrative, inner or outer, that seeks to make a case for ways of being that hold us back, deny our better understanding, and perpetuate our distress. Getting “under” such a narrative requires a profound honesty and teachability. But the fact that we can be our own worst enemy should be sobering for us all.
The first of Aristotle’s three “laws of thought,” the law of identity, tells us that “x equals x.” The second, the law of noncontradiction, tells us that “x never equals not-x.” These equations seem so obvious. one wonders why Aristotle felt the need to state them. And yet, in every philosophical counseling session, it comes down to this—to helping the client sort out “x” from “not-x,” and stop confusing or conflating them. Even when the cost of coming back to the truth is high, it is never as high as the cost of staying immersed in contradiction, false opinion, and suffering.
30 January, 2017
Deconstructing an Ugly Election
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
| John Keats, Ode On a Grecian Urn
Daphnis and Chloe by Pierre Auguste Cot
Regardless of our political, educational, economic, or philosophical differences, no doubt we can agree that there is such a thing as beauty, and that regardless of whether or not we agree that a particular thing is beautiful, there will be little disagreement about what we mean by the word. That is, we likely can agree that beauty is that quality that uplifts and stirs the soul, that it is pleasing to the senses, that it inspires, embodies balance and proportion, and so on. As an example, John Keats’s famous poem, quoted above, directs our attention to an ancient Grecian urn, whose voluptuous symmetry has withstood the punishment of centuries. Its static beauty calls us into a state of wonder about the images painted on the urn’s stony surface—a group of men pursuing a group of women, two lovers lying in a glade, some villagers on their way to an anonymous destination, leaving us with questions of whence and whither and wherefore the answers to which we can never know because the urn, both timeless and frozen in time, is mute. Yet, its beauty lays a claim on us and by doing so, offers us a profound insight into human nature possessed by the Greeks—that the only enduring truth we can know is the truth of beauty, such that in the end, what is not beautiful cannot rightly be said to be true, and to this equation the Greeks added a third quality—goodness (arete), which encompasses both excellence and virtue.
If, like the Greeks, we regard this equation today as describing three facets of one sublime reality, it doesn’t take much to do the philosophical math. What isn’t beautiful is false. What isn’t true isn’t good. Any ugly act, because it is necessarily both false and bad, will lead to bad outcomes. Beauty, in this most practical sense, isn’t limited to aesthetic evaluation. Rather, it is a light we can shine on any act, choice, or direction to illuminate it and discern its nature, a sanctuary that falsehood and disinformation cannot enter, and a compass heading for making wise decisions. Whatever honors truth, beauty, and goodness expresses the divine and invites the favor of the gods, while falsity, ugliness, and evil, as acts of hubris that defy the divine, unwittingly sow the seeds of their own destruction.
This ancient wisdom seems particularly timely here in the United Sates in the wake of a national election that it is safe to say most voters would agree was ugly, a brawl devoid of beauty in any form—generosity of spirit, civility, kindness, candor, self-possession and tasteful restraint, discourse unsullied by self-interest, respect for others, or even the most inarguable and basic standards of decency. While we have had elections before that called voters to choose the lesser of two evils, this time was different, because for both leading candidates, fundamental character was so much in doubt that nearly half the electorate stayed home on voting day, in many cases because they were unable to reconcile either choice with the dictates of conscience. Now that the debacle is over, we must wonder what the results say about the state of the soul of the nation, and many rightly fear what will follow from a contest in which beauty in both character and conduct was thrown to the dogs. What we have grounds to expect is not encouraging, for when beauty is forsaken, what is true and good has nowhere to stand.
The ancient Greeks extolled the virtue of qualities that were for many, shockingly absent during the primaries and the debates leading up to the election: prudence, temperance, and self-control (sophrosyne), lights of the “well-ordered soul” that shine in stark contrast to the dark impulsiveness of hubris, which, in willfully flouting the standards of beauty, truth, and goodness, sooner or later lead to tragic consequences under the watchful eye of the gods. There is no time off from these standards, and no exemption from their authority in human affairs. Kings and presidents and dictators are bound by them as surely as are commoners, and no victory that does not bow to them will be sustainable for long. It is a supreme tragedy that, for all the suffering that human hubris has inflicted throughout history, we insist on discounting what the Greeks knew two millennia ago. The rhetoric of hate, at the end of even the longest day, is the rhetoric of fools, and no seemingly convenient lie, no cover-up, no amount of “spin” changes the truth one whit. In the Gorgias, Socrates reminds us that the truth cannot be refuted. It is exactly for this reason that those of us committed to living life beautifully must be vigilant in our responses to the grotesque remarks shamelessly made by the candidates as though they were the most normal thing in the world, so that we are not drawn into ugliness ourselves. Rather, we must deepen our resolve to live a personal ideology that is predicated on beauty, and so, intrinsically, on what is true and good.
Voltaire writes, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” The current political reality in the U.S. has yet to unfold, but already we are seeing at the highest levels of government the same rancor, divisiveness, wanton self-interest, and abdication of high thinking that debased the campaigns. It is a sober reminder for thoughtful people everywhere, for those committed to self-examination and the improvement of their character, who know that there is no greater truth than kindness and compassion for others, and who eschew belligerence and scapegoating in the awareness that ultimately, on this rare and beautiful planet we inhabit, we either all win or we all lose. For now, we may take comfort in the confidence that the pendulum of history swings only so far before it returns, and that what follows next is in the good hands of the gods, whose ways are subject to the will of no man.
This post brings us to the end of another blogging year, as we “go dark” in December to enjoy some needed downtime, celebrate the season with family and friends, and plan projects for the coming year. We hope you’ve been enriched by the journeys we’ve shared here, and that we’ll “see you” in January. Meanwhile, we thank you for your interest in our work and wish you and yours an abundance of beauty, truth, and goodness in the new year and always.
25 November, 2016
We who live here in Florida recently dodged a bullet fired at us by Mother Nature. Matthew, a cat-5 hurricane that decimated poor Haiti, leaving a thousand dead, came roaring toward the Florida coast promising to unleash a cataclysm of weather after which there almost certainly would be deaths, injury, massive property damage, and widespread power outages. The governor of the state even declared, as Matthew approached, that the storm was a killer in the hope of persuading die-hards living near the ocean to evacuate. The Caribbean leading into the Atlantic and along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. is a predictable corridor for these devastating systems, so Floridians certainly are no strangers to the phenomenon, nor are we unique in this respect. Other parts of the country and the world have their own forms of exposure to the worst of the elements—earthquakes, flooding, drought, tornadoes, tsunamis, all of which demonstrate that we live at the mercy of forces far greater than we can control or even anticipate. When one of these natural disasters hits, all we can do is run for cover, hole up, wait it out, and hope for the best.
Well, that’s all we can do sanely. There is an insane alternative. We could stand outside in the murderous winds and curse Nature. We could raise our fists in protest, rail against the demons of earth and sky, even spit at them to express our frustration, helplessness, and sense of injustice in the face of such arbitrary and destructive power. Of course, spitting at a hurricane falls somewhat short of a good idea, because it amounts to spitting in one’s own face. Here, we have a metaphor that has far-reaching application in all areas of life where we find ourselves facing conditions that affect us, perhaps greatly, but about which we can do little or nothing.
The Greeks called such conditions “fate.” Nietzsche, who was well versed in the Greeks, went as far as to declare, “Amor fati”—love your fate! No mean task when you’re in your house surrounded by gale force winds, hoping some live oak won’t make an entrance through the roof. Maybe on a good day, we can accept our fate, work with it, tolerate it, meet it without resistance, which the Greeks regarded as a mark of good character. One of them, Heraclitus, states, “A man’s character is his fate,” suggesting that how we meet conditions that erupt into our lives without our permission and beyond our control actually determines what those conditions become for us. Our leverage then, lies not in the hands of fate, but in our hands. Fate may dictate what happens to us, but we get the last word. This is so important for living what the Greeks called “the good life,” that they viewed the refusal to accept one’s fate as an act of hubris before the gods, a failing of character that led ineluctably to suffering and tragedy.
Oedipus Rex, the protagonist in the play by Sophocles, is the classical embodiment of this hubris. Not knowing when to quit, he stirs up hurricanes and refuses to stop spitting at them, even when he is warned by the prophet Tiresias. As a result, the ending of the story of Oedipus is anything but a happy one. Having turned a blind eye to the prophet and the gods, unwittingly having fulfilled a fate too horrible to behold, he blinds himself physically. In this story, Sophocles is offering posterity a bit of wisdom that shows how deeply the Greeks saw into the heart of what it means to be human, to live well or badly, and the inescapable interplay of free will and fate—a timeless truth in that it is as relevant today as it was when Socrates was kicking up dust within the city wall of Athens.
Hubris is a sickness of the soul, one that shows up in the insane attempt to control what lies beyond our control, to manage what no one can manage, to dictate outcomes that are not in our hands, to go riding with saber raised into battles we cannot win. This insanity, as obvious to anyone not immersed in the Sturm und Drang of an overreaching will as would be the insanity of spitting at a hurricane, may be all but invisible to the psyche blinded by hubris.
In applying what the Greeks knew, we may benefit greatly in any situation in which we find ourselves struggling or stressed, by reminding ourselves to acknowledge what we can influence and what we can’t, what lies in our hands and what does not, what diligence requires of us and what must be left to larger forces and timings to be worked out. Accepting what we can’t change is basic sanity, something that seems to be in short supply these days. Yet the choice for sanity is there. When the winds of circumstance are blowing, shaking the rafters and threatening to tear down the house, we may find a refuge at the center of our character in relinquishing all efforts of the will and accepting things as they are for the time being. That sanity is available to us regardless of conditions, even as an eye of calm exists at the center of every hurricane, unaffected by the fury surrounding it. Adverse forces don’t last forever. When we’re already being blasted by torrential rains, spitting into the wind only makes a bad situation worse. This bit of wisdom is not limited to the weather. Sometimes the secret to getting through a tough time lies in knowing what not to do.
12 October, 2016
On the Limits of the Will and Philosophies of Grandiosity | Part II
In last month’s post we looked at the limits of the will and a few philosophies of grandiosity that deny those limits in the claim that the world, including other people, are constructs of one’s personal consciousness, and that therefore, one can manipulate the world, including other people, by manipulating his or her consciousness concerning them. The examples given were the so-called law of attraction, New Thought “treatment,” and Huna’s ho’oponopono. Fundamentally solipsistic, these popular philosophies discount limits of the will essential to healthy engagement with reality. The argument that I presented disputing such philosophies dealt with psychological implications, viz., that having a well-defined and undistorted sense of our will and its limits is a prerequisite of psychological health. In this post, the second in the series, I want to examine another, relatively new form of grandiose philosophy known as “quantum jumping” or “reality shifting,” which while ingeniously sidestepping solipsism, nevertheless fails to acquit itself of the charge of grandiosity, and so, like the others, is highly misleading and potentially injurious to the psyche and dangerous to others, and therefore, to be scrupulously avoided.
The first section of this article offers a summary of quantum jumping along with some of its main assumptions adapted from the new physics. The three that follow present arguments that expose fallacies in the logic of quantum jumping theory and the dangers of its practice based on scientific, epistemological, and existential grounds. Section five is a note on the Field Project Course, which while also drawing from the Many Worlds model, differs fundamentally from quantum jumping and steers clear of grandiosity. The last section shares some thoughts in conclusion.
What is Quantum Jumping?
Quantum jumping draws from several theoretically established principles in quantum mechanics describing the behavior of subatomic particles. These include superposition (existing in many places at the same time), quantum tunneling, and entanglement (Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”). Most of these behaviors are accepted by today’s leading physicists as an accurate report of how quantum entities (particle/wave hybrids) behave. Quantum jumping also relies on the Many Worlds model, developed in 1957 by Hugh Everett, which states that with each act of observation, reality splits or “decoheres” into parallel universes, each containing a different outcome of the observed event. Prior to observation, all versions of the event are co-present in state of superposition (see “Schrödinger’s Cat”). At the moment of observation, the quantum decoherence occurs, we observe one version of the outcome, and the others go on their merry way into their respective reality frameworks, each with a new version of the observer, with no two parallel realities ever intersecting. Thus, according to the Many Worlds theory, whatever can happen, does happen—in some parallel reality. The totality of parallel realities make up what has been termed the “multiverse.” Now, according to proponents of quantum jumping, we can, through meditative and various other techniques, intentionally “jump” from one parallel reality to another, effectively relocating to the version of self inhabiting that reality. So, for example, if one is struggling with poverty in this reality framework, one need only enter a meditative state in which one is aware of oneself essentially as energy, turn one’s attention to a parallel universe in which one is enjoying wealth, and direct sufficient energy to this “intention,” whereupon, at some point, one will find oneself physically and more or less seamlessly “jumped” to the new reality.
The Scientific Argument
The quirky behavior of quanta described by quantum mechanics flouts the laws of classical physics—that is, the world of our everyday experience does not behave in the same, weird way that quanta do, and we should count ourselves lucky for it, since if it did, physical objects would appear and disappear, the same object would exist in many places simultaneously, objects would move through other objects, cause and effect would happen backwards, and we might run into a parallel version of ourselves at the market. In other words, the conditions necessary for a world of ordered experience would be swallowed up in a cloud of chaos. Fortunately for us, everyday life is far more stable and persistent, allowing for life as we know it. Whereas quantum objects (particles) have no precise position but exist in all probable positions simultaneously, worldly object do have a precise position. The same can be said of momentum.
There are other discrepancies. If the observing consciousness is rendering reality at the macro level as it does at the quantum level, why do physical objects persist in time and space? If objects behaved the way quanta do, every time we turned around, we’d find them in new positions or otherwise exhibiting momentary and changing properties. In other words, if observation renders objects (an idea Einstein ridiculed), then why is that when we stop observing an object and then turn around and observe it again, we observe the same object? If prior to observation, what becomes the object once it is observed existed in a superpositioned state that gets localized at the moment of observation, like the electrons it comprises, then why does it keep showing up in the same place and with the same properties with each new observation? How does locality arise from multilocality in the transition from the micro to the macro? To these question, quantum mechanics has no answer, yet they are raised by both the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations. The incongruity between the quantum and classical realms has been a thorn in the side of physics the past near century. Because quanta appear to follow a different set of rules than objects in our world, the mathematics that govern the microscopic realm does not work at macroscopic levels. In fact, the attempt to bring these two mathematical models together set the direction for modern physics in the search for the “theory of everything.” In short the claim that the peculiar principles inferred by widely accepted interpretations of quantum mechanics based on the evidence (e.g., the double-slit experiment) operate at the classical level is empirically contraindicated and mathematically unfounded.
Furthermore, Many Worlds—which quantum jumping uses as the theoretical basis of its claims—states that, once the collapse of the wave into a specific version of particle reality is irreversible. Once the bell is rung, it cannot be “unrung.” The electron may exist in any position within the wave until the moment it is observed, but once it is observed, it is localized, and no act of will by the experimenter can send that particular electron back into a state of probability from which it may then be observed as a different version of itself.
Finally, quantum jumping distorts the quantum theory even further by suggesting that reality can be recast through an act of will, essentially reversing the collapse of the “reality wave”—yet this is prohibited by Many Worlds, which states that the various versions of reality or parallel universes are “orthogonal”—that is, they don’t intersect. Put simply, you can’t get to one from the other. Once observation assigns reality, the split off versions go their separate ways. Yet quantum jumping alleges that one can change realities the way one changes channels on a television set.
There is at present no bridge of theory or experiment that justifies the assumption that the physical world in which we move about is like the quantum world based on the prevailing interpretations of quantum mechanics. Thus and for example, if a particular wave set makes up what we call a “frog” at the classical level (we are allowing here, somewhat generously, that at the quantum level, all versions of the frog exist simultaneously) then according to Many Worlds, all versions of the frog exist simultaneously at the Newtonian level, albeit in different universes. Certainly what Many Worlds posits as true at the quantum level does not appear to be true at the Newtonian level. Furthermore, the two realms are separated by two, currently irreconcilable mathematics. Even if we allow that the frog is “made up” of superposed quanta and wave functions, this in itself does not imply that the larger system comprising these quanta and wave functions is itself superposed. The fallacy here is that of “composition.” What is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole. Finally, if Many Worlds gives us an accurate description of the innermost workings of reality, then we cannot simply ignore one of its most important features, viz., that decoherence is not reversible. Once rendered, a particular version of reality becomes fixed. The claim that it could then be revised would be a mistaken one.
For these reasons, the inference that what holds at the quantum level holds at the Newtonian level hardly seems justified, or at least bears a burden of proof that cannot be satisfied by assumption alone.
The Epistemological Argument
There is a practical argument against quantum jumping as a philosophy and particularly as a practice. This argument follows from the limitations of our knowledge at any given time. We may desire this or that version of reality, but whether the sudden appearance of that reality would be good, whether it would turn out to be a blessing or a curse in our lives, what else about our lives and the lives of those we affect would change if the wish were granted—these things we don’t know and rarely pause to consider, either individually or as a species. Yet great harm can come from looking no further than the impulse to throw a switch. Assuming for a moment that quantum jumping were possible, there is no way to avoid the problem that a particular jump might have profoundly adverse unforeseen consequences. Scientists split the atom and unleashed a power so massively destructive, all life on the planet hangs in the balance of whether we will find a way to limit and control what we have unleashed. Other worrisome examples abound: the decimation of the earth’s rainforests, the systematic destruction of the ozone layer through unchecked greenhouse gas emissions and resulting global climate change, the widespread pollution of waterways and ecosystems, coal mining and fracking, environmental damage arising from the massive overproduction of plastic and the use of landfills, the problem of how to dispose of nuclear waste—all the result of heedless forays on a road to potentially disastrous consequences that no one anticipated. Once opened, Pandora’s box cannot be closed, and it does not seem anti-scientific to recognize that there are some “boxes” that we are wise not to open. This seems to be a point that quantum jumping proponents as a rule do not bother to consider. If it were possible to access quantum power for the purpose of shifting realities, who can say what that power might do once it’s “out” in the life of the practitioner? The failure to consider consequences, and to acknowledge with humility the all but total limitations of our knowledge before we start picking at the threads of forces we do not understand is hubristic, foolhardy, and dangerous. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it.
Furthermore, loudly dogmatic proponents may insist that their model captures the nature of physical reality, any explanation of reality may be telling us more about ourselves and how we measure and interpret the results of measurement than it does about what we’re measuring. A model is essentially a map, and therefore at best an approximation of the territory it represents. The argument that a model is proved by the fact that it “works,” e.g., allows for accurate predictions or lends itself to technological application, is specious. Many models work, even ones that disagree or derive from radically different views. Aristotelian logic works; so does Boolean logic. Euclidean geometry works; so does Riemannian. Newtonian assumptions work, as far as they go; so do those of quantum mechanics, though they don’t seem to play well together. Every model has its limitations, for it is based on axioms and assumptions that are themselves not demonstrable within the model and so are more like articles of faith than scientifically established and incorrigible principles. This is why the word “interpretation” is a good one; it implies an appropriate humility before even our most convincing explanations to date. Many proponents of one model or another seem to lack this humility. They take their conclusions as the final word, a hallmark of science at its worst, as the history of science has shown us again and again. David Deutsch, for example, a physicist at the University of Oxford, has been quoted as saying that calling Many Worlds an interpretation “is like talking about dinosaurs as an ‘interpretation’ of fossil records.” Yet paleontology has frequently had to revise its “interpretation” of dinosaurs based on the fossil record as new discoveries and findings came to light demanding a reassessment of what we thought we knew. None of this leads to skepticism. I am not proposing that we discard what we know on the basis of the inevitability that our knowledge is approximate, never absolute—only that we wear our conclusions lightly, remember that even the most ingenious model is necessarily interpretive—not the fact but a way of looking at the fact, and that even our best and most convincing models are fallible and subject to revision.
While the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics are widely accepted, they are not the only ones consistent with the behavior of quanta described in the double-slit experiments. Pilot-wave mechanics, also known as De Broglie-Bohm or Bohmian mechanics, offers an alternative way of understanding this behavior that seems to be making a comeback. It eliminates the wave/particle duality paradox of the Copenhagen and Many Worlds interpretations, fits the experimental data of seemingly anomalous quantum behavior such as multilocality and tunneling without having to resort to classically paradoxical, probabilistic, or counterintuitive explanations, and does a much better job of conforming to Occam’s Razor.
The Existential Argument
At the foundation of the interest in quantum jumping is an existential immaturity primarily preoccupied with a magical way to “get things,” as are all philosophies of grandiosity. Quantum jumping manages to avoid solipsism in a clever way; as it posits an infinite number of parallel realities, the objectivity of the world is preserved to some extent. In other words, the otherness of others is not reduced to the shadow world of subjectivity, because all versions of the other objectively exist in some parallel framework. Rather than construing the world and others as constructs of personal consciousness, the practitioner is merely “tuning in” to a desired reality in which the other’s otherness conforms to the desired version. The result is that, while one has changed the world through changing one’s consciousness, the otherness of others is conserved. That said, there is still an underlying assumption that happiness, the good life, fulfillment, etc. consist in securing certain worldly conditions. This comes down to what I have come to think of as the “Amazon.com” view of the universe. If I visualize, if I repeat affirmations, if I pray, if I intend, if I quantum jump—then the universe will deliver the goods, perhaps even in two days if I apply myself and become a “prime member” of the community of quantum jumpers. The existential problem here is that there is more to happiness, the good life, and the fulfillment of human life than getting things. The ancient Greeks knew this, and nowhere is it presented more beautifully than in the life and teachings of Socrates. Happiness, Socrates tells us, is a well-ordered soul. What the world brings us—this is our fate, and we may have little to say about it. How we meet our fate, however—this is a matter of our character, and it is through the cultivation of character and excellence in all we are and all we do that we discover true and abiding happiness. In these terms, any philosophy that reduces us to consumers placing orders with the universe misses the point of what it is to be human, and what we need in order to flourish. Even if we could quantum jump into every desired reality we could want, even if the forces with which such attempts tamper turned out to be benign, we would not be any happier or wiser or better off for it.
On the Field Project Course
The Course, which I wrote for the Field Project, also draws from the Many Worlds model. While a cursory read might suggest that Field practice is thus in the same camp as quantum jumping, nothing could be further from the truth. Most notably, the Course does not present Many Worlds as a way of magically manipulating reality through a quantum leap into a parallel version of reality in which the student’s desire already is fulfilled. Rather, it uses Everett’s work as a theoretical basis for the belief that a particular desired condition already exists and so does not need to be created. This is important because belief is recognized within the Field model as generative—that is, as having the power to fulfill itself in worldly experience at least to some extent; thus the belief that a desired condition needs to be created leaves the student in the contradiction of believing in the nonexistence of something that he or she desires. Put another way, if belief is creative, and one believes in the lack of a desired condition sufficiently to be trying to create it, then the whole project falls into contradiction, since belief has cast its vote against itself, as it were. This exposes the contradiction at the root of the New Age approach to reality creating. The Course solves this problem by using Many Worlds as a theoretical basis for the belief that the desired condition already exists ((in some parallel reality), and so doesn’t need to be created. The practical result is that the student is freed to let go of all effort to “create” and rest in a state of friendly agreement with whatever identity corresponds to the desired condition, without waiting for the facts to give him or her permission to assume that identity. (Note importantly here that this unique use of Many Worlds serves the aim of Field practice whether or not Many Worlds is true.) By adopting the belief that the desired condition already exists, the student can “let go” of the desire and stop trying to “make it happen.” This releases the student from the tyranny of preoccupation with outer conditions and facilitates a shift in focus to where it belongs—on self-work. In this way, the Course uses desire as a point of departure on a path of practice that leads to the transcending of desire. The practice is in this respect paradoxical. What the Course calls “alignment” (a state of friendly agreement between desire and belief) is its own reward. Admittedly, due to the self-fulfilling nature of belief, alignment tends to inform reality according to its lights. So, for example, a stance of gratitude will tend to evoke more for which to be grateful, a stance of conflict will tend to evoke conflict, and so on. The Course makes clear, however, that this operates at the level of the form of our experience in the world, not at the level of content. Deliberately intending wealth, for example, will not necessarily create or attract money. Nevertheless, our identity will locally and nonlocally shape and inform how we experience what happens to us. A millionaire immersed in a belief in lack lives in a reality of lack even with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank, while a beggar who believes himself wealthy will see the wealth in what little he has. This is why happiness does not reside in outer conditions, but follows from the “state of the soul.”
One last thought here: The Course presents the idea of “retro-creativity,” but not in the same way this is used by quantum jumping adherents. In the Course, the student is encouraged to consider that events cannot be entirely separated from the meaning and significance we ascribe to them. This idea has its roots in modern philosophy primarily in Kant’s work, and in ancient philosophy in Plato’s idea of “participation” (in the Forms). Importantly, the Course makes clear that it is not the physical event that can be retro-created, but the event’s meaning or significance—which in effect, changes its essential quality. This idea, that self and world are “entangled,” that the observing (participating) consciousness informs reality, rendering it as the reality that it is, again directs the student’s attention to self-work. Here we have a non-grandiose adaptation of some of the elements of quantum theory. Rather than presuming that there are many superpositioned physical realities, the Course tells us that there are many superpositioned versions of reality, because there are many simultaneously available ways that we can engage reality through the meanings and significances we ascribe. The past can be changed in that we can recognize that what we call “the past” already has been informed by our beliefs, assumptions, stories, and conclusions about it. In this sense, “the past” is a construct of current belief, which is what makes retro-creativity possible. Subject and object arise interdependently. Any version of reality presupposes our participation in it. When we change ourselves, our reality changes—but self-work is the key and the focus, not trying to change the world or other people. This is a point that all philosophies of grandiosity miss, to the great detriment of those who subscribe to them. It is a fatal error that the Course diligently avoids.
Even grandiose philosophies, as noted in last month’s post, may contain a seed of truth. Solipsism itself grows out of the truth of the so-called egocentric or subjective predicament. After all, the world upon which we humans look is of necessity a human world, ordered and rendered, as Kant recognized, by the structures of our consciousness, with its uniquely human neurology, perceptual gear, and “categories,” as he called them. We can imagine that a creature different from us in these respects would inhabit a very different sort of objective reality, perhaps one in which, say, infrared and ultraviolet light are visible, or objects are not as solid as they are to us, or what we experience as past and future events occur simultaneously. The quanta of the quantum world thus may be thought of as theoretical representations of Kant’s thing-in-itself, unknown and, as Heisenberg concludes, unknowable, since it is only in the pre-world encounter between this unknowable something and an organizing consciousness that a world of whatever sort springs forth into expression. This gives us the philosophical equivalent of the principle in quantum mechanics of observation “collapsing” or “decohering” the complex of probable realities into the observed, actual one. Human consciousness, then, by definition, brings forth the objectively human world out of itself, but it by no means follows, as quantum jumping and indeed all solipsistic philosophies assume, that any individual has personal access to the levers of this mysterious ontological process, or that it is subject to his or her will or whim. Solipsisms fails because it does not recognize the intersubjectivity that establishes the objective. The organizing, ordering, and rendering structures are hard-wired, so to speak, into our being as the beings we are. To recognize and acknowledge that the objective world of human experience is necessarily rendered by human consciousness is one thing; claiming that you or I or anyone else can personally direct that rendering volitionally is quite another. While the first is true by definition and the inherent nature of the subjectivity of our species, the second requires a leap that even an electron would not be able to pull off.
Whether we live in a multiverse amid a theoretically infinite number of many worlds remains to be demonstrated. Despite the fact that many physicists regard the Many Worlds model as accurate, when we consider for a moment that the entire quantum realm we have been describing constitutes less than five percent of all that’s “out there” in the cosmos, with dark matter and dark energy making up the rest (we think), we begin to appreciate how little we really know of the nature of the universe. Indeed, the only thing we can state with certainty is that we know we don’t know. Science, at its best, becomes Socratic. As we’ve seen throughout the history of science, tomorrow’s discoveries and advances reduce today’s most educated and convincing speculations to ignorance, and so we are wise to hold our conclusions lightly. Even if live in a multiverse of parallel realities, the assumption that we can quantum jump among them is, for now, unfounded, more fiction than science. Furthermore, even if we could hop from one version of our life to another, given how limited our vision is at any moment, how little we can see of the impact that a particular jump would have on our life, it is not overstating the matter to say that we do not know enough to know where to jump. Finally, as long as we remain preoccupied with manipulating our reality in order to get this or that, as long as we view the universe as a great Amazon.com, here to take our orders and deliver what we want to our door, we won’t find what we’re looking for, because we’ll be looking in the wrong place. The universe is not a retail outlet, and we are far more than consumers. Real and lasting fulfillment lies not in having more but in being more. Remembering that and living up to it would be a reality jump worth making.
15 September, 2016
On the Limits of the Self and Philosophies of Grandiosity | Part I
Growing up without healthy personal boundaries that both develop and delimit the will gives rise to various emotional, psychological, physical, and social maladaptations such as inappropriate acting out, victimhood, overreaction, magical thinking, codependency and enabling, and in severe cases, narcissism and addictive disorders, among others.
Regrettably, there are several popular philosophies that encourage the obfuscation and deconstruction of personal boundaries, e.g., the so-called law of attraction, New Thought “treatment” methods, and the ho’oponopono forgiveness technique of Huna, all of which are rooted in some form of the metaphysical premise that the practitioner can alter material conditions by changing his or her consciousness. This idea is misleading precisely because it contains a seed of truth that opportunists can exploit to take advantage of those who for one reason or another are susceptible to the plethora of films, books, lectures, and other instructional offerings that claim to hold the key to magical manipulation of the world.
The seed of truth lies in the undeniable correspondence between personal consciousness and personal reality and within limits, the self-fulfilling nature of belief. In its conspicuous forms, this correspondence is easy enough to observe, and there is nothing particularly metaphysical about it. Someone who goes out into the world looking for a fight no doubt will find one, or one will find him. Round peg, round hole. Somewhat more mysteriously, this seems to operate at least sometimes along nonlocal trajectories, showing up as surprising fulfillments, happy coincidences, and synchronicities. While such extraordinary events do occur, none of them does so predictably; consequently none can be reduced to a method or technique, what to speak of a “law,” and this is where the seed of truth gets buried in the soil of untruth, for these popular philosophies all “package” this element of correspondence in techniques that deny the boundaries that delimit healthy selfhood, and so lead to confusion, failure, and disappointment if not far worse.
Both New Thought “treatment” and Huna’s ho’oponopono are founded on the startling assumption that the world, including other people, is an outpicturing of the beliefs of the practitioner. To treat another, therefore, one need only treat oneself, for when one has resolved the mistaken belief in his or her own consciousness that presumably is being expressed in the “patient,” the patient’s condition will spontaneously resolve, thus making the “demonstration.” This, at least, is the theory. That said, I have spoken to numerous New Thought ministers, all of whom have reported that among hundreds of their congregants who practice this sort of treatment regularly, about three percent see results. Three percent. Here is a number so low, it clearly supports the conclusion that what is occurring in these exceptional cases is a happy coincidence rather than the invoking of a universal principle. Of course, when the technique doesn’t work, its practitioner can always rationalize that the required faith was missing, that some further troublemaking belief was operating in the shadows, or that in some other way the practitioner failed to effect the required inner shift. No amount of evidence that the assumption underlying the technique simply is false is allowed to count against this sort of “faith,” because the justification is always available that the necessary inner condition must have been lacking, a tour de force of circular reasoning. Worse, these approaches often are presented as “scientific,” by which is meant that they are empirically verifiable and repeatable, neither being the case. Karl Popper’s fine work, which identifies falsifiability as a criterion of legitimately scientific hypotheses, cautions us that any proposition that would not allow itself to be falsified under any possible conditions is not scientific at all but pseudoscientific. The refusal to admit of any possible falsification is in fact a hallmark of dogmatic, fundamentalist, and militant thinking of every stripe. Yet many writers and speakers have made a living, if not a fortune, off the willingness of the credulous to swallow ludicrous, pretentious, unfalsifiable claims.
The view that the world, including other people, is a construct of one’s personal consciousness has a name in philosophy: solipsism. As a philosophical position, solipsism, which alleges that only the self exists—that “I alone am real” and that the world is my personal dream, is not only self-contradictory; it’s also dangerous. It is, in short, the philosophy of the megalomaniac. When we hear a U.S. presidential candidate declaring, “I alone can fix it,” we are in the unsettling company of the solipsist. Ho’oponopono’s contention that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for everything he or she experiences in the world is another solipsistic assertion. One can see how quickly a seed of truth can be cultivated into a convincing, highly marketable, and potentially dangerous system of lies.
Furthermore, the consciousness-reality problem is in fact far more complex, as evidenced by the profoundly influential work of Immanuel Kant in his response to the David Hume, the Scottish skeptic who in his seminal treatise An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding calls into question whether causality is indeed a law of the physical universe or merely a belief inferred from numerous observations to date. In other words, we have observed that B follows A consistently and without exception, and on this basis and this basis alone, we assume that there is a law operating, namely causality. But, as Hume points out, we have no empirical experience or evidence of such a law. We know that B has always followed A so far, but there is no contradiction implied by suggesting that B might fail to follow A, or that A might without precedent suddenly be followed by C or D or E instead. The ascribing of necessity and the status of a “law” to certain observed interactions, Hume concludes, is unjustified. What others call “causal law,” Hume maintains is merely “custom.” Kant was so struck by this, that he said Hume’s work awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” The result was a brilliant reframing of the question in what became Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In that groundbreaking work, Kant takes on the question of how it might be possible for certain observable processes in the world to operate with necessity, rather than merely appearing necessary due to customary and empirically unsupportable assumptions. In the language of modern philosophy, Kant was seeking to establish the “synthetic a priori.” He did this by turning the tables on Hume through the argument that the objective world we experience operates with necessity because certain structures of our consciousness inform and order and even render the world as such, and it is within the framework of these structures—Kant called them “categories of the understanding”—that necessity enters the picture. Without the objective organization of the world within the framework of necessity, Kant replies to Hume, one could not even raise the question.
It may not be immediately clear how Kant’s work has solipsistic implications, but his idea that the observing consciousness renders the world has led to the troubling notion that all we really experience is our own sense data, and this has in some ways drawn the so-called objectivity of the world into question in a kind of backfiring of Kant’s philosophical intention. Things as they are, in themselves, Kant called the “thing-in-itself,” which is by definition unknowable—in fact, the thing-in-itself ultimately can’t even be thought of as a “thing” at all. Unknowably, in a kind of pretemporal encounter, the structures of consciousness (Kant’s categories of the understanding) intersect with the pre-formed world (thing-in-itself), bringing forth the world of ordered experience that we know. But the synthetic a priori comes at a price. Kant saved necessity as an objective principle inherent in the world, but only by positing “the world” as something that is being somehow constructed by the observing consciousness, and in this the whole classical concept of “objectivity” as “out-thereness” is left a bit shaky, and solipsism advances. If all one experiences is one’s own sense data, then the whole world is “in one’s head,” an unavoidable conclusion that’s more than a little creepy. Clearly, the internalizing of the outer world introduces problems of its own. If, for example, what I call “the world” is in my head, then what I call “my head,” as an object in that world, also must be in my head. This line of reasoning thus ends in an infinite regress, suggesting that the original question that brought us to all this was off, and that we have strayed down the wrong philosophical road into a bad neighborhood.
None of this seems to vex those who peddle the philosophies of grandiosity. Let me illustrate the point with an excerpt from the book, Zero Limits, written by Joe Vitale, who was featured in the highly controversial film, “The Secret,” and Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, regarded as one of the leading proponents and experts in the practice of ho’oponopono. Vitale describes a phone conversation with Dr. Len, who had worked as a therapist at Hawaii State Hospital, an institution for the criminally insane. Some of the inmates at the hospital were so dangerous, they had to be kept chained, and the staff regularly quit or failed to show up for work. The narrative that follows describes how Dr. Len “treated” these patient without ever actually seeing any of them. Writes Vitale:
Dr. Len told me that he never saw patients. He agreed to have an office and to review their files. While he looked at those files, he would work on himself. As he worked on himself, patients began to heal.
Vitale, quoting Dr. Len, reports that the patients improved to the point that absenteeism and turnover among the staff disappeared. With the increased availability of staff, conditions continued to improve. Eventually, the ward was closed. Writes Vitale:
This is where I had to ask the million dollar question: “What were you doing within yourself that caused those people to change?”
“I was simply healing the part of me that created them,” he said.
I didn’t understand.
Dr. Len explained that total responsibility for your life means that everything in your life—simply because it is in your life—is your responsibility. In a literal sense the entire world is your creation.
Whew. This is tough to swallow. Being responsible for what I say or do is one thing. Being responsible for what everyone in my life says or does is quite another. Yet, the truth is this: if you take complete responsibility for your life, then everything you see, hear, taste, touch, or in any way experience is your responsibility because it is in your life.
This means that terrorist activity, the president, the economy—anything you experience and don’t like—is up for you to heal. They don’t exist, in a manner of speaking, except as projections from inside you. The problem isn’t with them, it’s with you, and to change them, you have to change you.
I know this is tough to grasp, let alone accept or actually live. Blame is far easier than total responsibility, but as I spoke with Dr. Len, I began to realize that healing for him and in ho’oponopono means loving yourself. If you want to improve your life, you have to heal your life. If you want to cure anyone–even a mentally ill criminal–you do it by healing you.
“Tough to swallow” is an understatement. Perhaps Vitale’s instincts were trying to tell him something. Solipsism certainly is tough to swallow for any psyche with a healthy sense of where it ends and others begin. Vitale’s narrative leaves us guessing what other factors might have come into play, unacknowledged, that could account for the alleged improvements in the patients’ mental health. And notice the philosophical sleight-of-hand: “Blame is far easier than total responsibility.” As though these were the only options. As though acknowledging the responsibility others bear for their actions and holding them accountable amounts to blame. As though the criterion for determining whether or not to embrace a belief is the level of difficulty. At every turn, Vitale’s truth-bending logic is so opaque, it comes across as disingenuous, like the patter of a card sharp or the ancient Sophists, who would construct any argument and prove any point for a fee. Million dollar question indeed.
Now: If one rejects the underlying solipsistic assumption, one may find value in grandiose philosophies. Ho’oponopono, for example, working with four short and highlly charged phrases—”I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “thank you,” and “I love you”—may provide some emotional release and healing in areas where one feels the need to be forgiven. New Thought “treatment” without the solipsistic element might move us to examine the preconceptions we’re bringing to a situation or relationship that could stand improvement, and one might reasonably expect that with the relevant self-improvement, the situation or relationship would improve accordingly. Even the so-called law of attraction can be useful if one takes it no further than the insightful idea that our consciousness informs our experience through the self-fulfilling power of belief, and is careful not to mistake this for the ability to “attract” or create specific conditions at will, an ability we do not have outside the pretensions of magical thinking.
In the Course, which I wrote for the Field Project, I introduce the idea of “radical responsibility,” which suggests that we approach our worldly experience as corresponding to our intentions, defined as that with which we identify and that which we take to be real—even when that experience seems to be resulting from the will and choices of others. Such a claim sounds solipsistic but isn’t, for two reasons. First, the Course makes no attempt to reduce “deliberate intending” to a law-of-attraction technique. Indeed, it states as plainly as can be stated that “the aim of practice is alignment, not manifestation.” Second, and consistent with the first point, radical responsibility is presented in the language of self-work, i.e., of taking on the curriculum of beliefs we may not know we harbor in the interests of living more consciously and working to improve our beliefs and so the influence they exert on the world, locally and nonlocally. The usefulness of this practice lies in its ability to help the student enter a state of alignment or friendly self-agreement, free of contradiction. Thus and importantly, the whole model is explicitly about self-work, not about manipulating outer conditions. No exaggeration of the will or deconstruction of personal boundaries enters into it. There is no claim made anywhere in the Course that through altering our consciousness, we can effect specifically desired conditions or change other people, and therefore, no solipsism. The influence of alignment on the phenomenal world is subtle and indirect, and although the correspondence between inner and outer can be remarkable, it is not presented as a technique one can use in any premeditated way to manipulate reality. While on the face of it, radical responsibility might sound similar to ho’oponono, it’s more like the statement by Herman Hesse, “Only that which is part of us bothers us.” Often, we suffer because we don’t see how we’re participating in a situation that seems convincingly to be “out there.” We don’t see our part in it. Radical responsibility, like Hesse’s statement, calls us back from immersion in the world to self-examination and self-knowledge. Within the Field Project model, others remain real in their otherness, and while it is true that our view of others may be filtered by our beliefs, assumptions, expectations, and so on, it also is true that we would be responsible for those filters, and not in any case “totally responsible” as Huna, New Thought, and the law of attraction would have us believe to our detriment. Indeed, the central philosophical challenge of developing a thoughtful “consciousness-as-cause” curriculum was to throw out the solipsistic assumptions of the New Age law-of-attraction model and cultivate the seed of truth—that our beliefs have an impact on our experience in the world—in a way that would elevate the conversation to a new level and introduce an element of maturity in directing the practitioner away from magical thinking and “manifestation” in favor of self-work. This was crucial, because any solipsistic model, however otherwise beautiful it may be, poisons the well through encouraging exaggeration of the will across essential boundaries of identity. Of this, no good can come.
I have said that solipsism is self-contradictory. This is due to the fact that it denies that there is any “objective” truth (in asserting that all truth is the truth of the solipsist’s subjectivity) while maintaining that its central premise, “I alone am real,” is true objectively. In other words, solipsism denies what it asserts. No philosophical position that denies that there is any such thing as objective truth can purport to be objectively true without collapsing into nonsense. The most solipsism could say is that its position is subjectively true, since it holds that only its immediate subjectivity is real—but then, it ceases to be a philosophical position at all. The same problem shows up in any philosophical model founded on solipsistic assumptions. Ho’oponopono, as we have noted, states that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for his or her experience in the world, including the actions and choices of others. Presumably this is inferred from the fact that the only experience the practitioner can have is his own. But this is what makes it solipsistic. There is a chasm between “I am experiencing the actions of others,” and “I am totally responsible for the actions of others.” The first is true but trivial; the second is solipsistic—it denies others their otherness, appropriates responsibility it could not have in any non-delusional world, and then claims to change conditions in the otherness it denies. Despite the appeal of the method’s simplicity and potential usefulness when liberated from its solipsistic underpinnings, it remains deeply counterintuitive and off-putting. Because it grows in the soil of solipsistic exaggeration of the will, it simply does not ring true.
We owe it to ourselves to be careful about what we believe. Claims that sound too good to be true usually are just that. Despite the inescapability of the subjective amphitheater, the world and others exist in their own right, apart from our consciousness. The failure to respect this otherness has cleared the way for all manner of evil wrought by the dictates of a deformed will. Because others are real in their otherness, they remain autonomous and responsible for their choices and actions. We may benefit from soul-searching and self-correction in any situation where we are playing a part in co-creating the problem, but beyond this, we are wise to steer clear of those who espouse solipsistic principles, who offer us counterfeit power by encouraging us to view the world and other people as nothing more than constructs of our personal consciousness, for they disregard essential boundaries of the self, exaggerate the will, and while promising the key to heaven, unlock the gates of hell
24 August, 2016