Follow by Email

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Illusions of the Righteous Mind.

While awaiting Bernie shopping for a dress, I amused myself in one of my favorite pastimes: wandering the floors of Barnes and Noble. Guess which new books were prominently displayed during this time of political conventions. Here was a book demonstrating how Obama is ruining the nation next to another identifying all the lies they are telling about the President. There was one opening the doors of the White House to show all its detail and another discussing White House secrets. Here was one on Mitt Romney showing his great leadership in building fortunes for the rich and another portraying the real Romney. And the various books by economists and fortune hunters both supporting and attacking whatever policy you could think of.  Now step over to the religious and inspirational section!

Righteous minds, indeed!

"This class in archeology is about facts. If you want to deal with truth, go down the hall to Professor Dawson's philosophy class," (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). But we pick our facts and arrange and see them the way we want. Mostly based on our own interests, affiliations, and values. So I am afraid there is little truth even in Professor Dawson's philosophy class--much less in all the books, slogans, ads, speeches, and emailed slop in a political campaign. My cousin Vinnie says I am stupid in my liberal leanings, but of course I know that he is. And so we do not talk, much less listen.

One of the methods that science uses to at least approach truth is dispelling illusions. All these campaign-timed books think they are doing just that. Yet it is often easier, the Jesus saying goes, to see the sliver in your enemy's eye than the beam in your own.

A few blogs ago, I summarized the tensions in the human nature that we have become and said that each of these tensions carried its own illusions. Let me elaborate on this as a way of stepping back from the political fray to try to understand how Vinnie and me and all of us can be so stupid--especially in discussing and doing politics and religion.

The four tensions I considered, you might remember, were 1) sociality, the tension between self and other, 2) spatiality, the tension between inner awareness and outer things, 3) temporality, the tension between our memories and our projections, and 4) ideality, the tension between the world as we are living it and the world as we think or would like it to be.

I feel we are living in such an exciting age when evolutionary biology and psychology and neuroscience are dispelling the illusions we have in our human universe just as physics, astrology, and quantum mechanics have been doing in our physical universe.  And then, through a higher viewpoint, they inquire as to how these universes are the same multiverse.

So through science we have dispelled some illusions about the sun going around the earth, the place of the earth and us in relation to everything else, the age of the earth, universe, life and our species, and even what we are all made of and came to be. But now let's look at the illusions that are at the foundation of all these and other illusions because they arise from the very dynamics in the nature of humanity.

1) Sociality and the illusion of the Self.  As the baby feels, sees, and learns to imitate mother and other caregivers, both the self and the other are gradually distinguished. It is not long after and for sure as bodily and verbal gesture are being acquired that the child takes on three illusions that may last his lifetime. There is the illusion of an independent, permanent, self-directed, free-willed ("self-made" if he becomes a Libertarian) Self. An immortal soul that was created at conception or perhaps earlier and makes it murder and a mortal sin to have an abortion. Then with theory of mind and maybe mirror neurons, there is the illusion of other selves starting with parents and siblings which are also self-contained, permanent, changing only accidentally (e.g. by adding or removing stains), never substantially. And finally there is the illusion of invisible and supernatural agents that make things happen that are outside human control. Child psychologist Paul Bloom describes the process well in Descartes' Baby. The wholly constituted self (including the other as self, free will, and invisible free self-directed agents) is the illusion from which a sense of "righteousness" easily arises. What is there of course are emerging, growing, changing, interacting organisms with the developing capacity for self-awareness and symbolic expression.

2) Spatiality and the illusion of the Object.  The human capacity par excellence is that of symbolic expression which includes imagination--making images and using them to get hold of and deal with the environment. Language, art, myth, religion, science--our ways of forming, enjoying, knowing a world.  In expression through symbolic forms, e.g. artifacts, we confront objects and experience ourselves as subjects confronting objects.  But our focus is on objects, things out there, as if they are the whole of reality. It is what John Dewey described as the "objectivistic fallacy." We believe that the symbols that we have collectively, historically created to deal with our environment are the non-artifacted things in themselves. This is the source of our icons and idols and our corresponding and often warring ideologies and iconoclasms. Simply part of the human condition? Yes, but so also is the hope that we can pass beyond these illusions. We have been trying to do at least since the Axial Age (see Karl Jaspers and Karen Armstrong)--the age of Confucius and Buddha, Lao Tsu and Zarathustra, Moses and Jesus, Socrates and Zeno.

3) Temporality and the illusion of the Absolute. We always know ourselves in the now. We live between our memories and our hopes, short-term and long-term. But our sense of the past and the future is often expressed as though they are separate from us. We believe that the founders, the saints, the gods did it all right, but we have departed from their ways. We believe that if we live correctly, if we sacrifice, confess, become martyrs, follow the right path, say the right words, and join the right group, we will come to the promised land. We often express the past mythologically as a golden age, a paradise before the fall, or the future as heaven, a paradise after redemption. The illusion is of a past and future that is separate from our interpretation and anticipation, distant from who we are and what we do now.  It is an illusion of a time outside of time, without beginning and end, before and after we exist and the universe is. The illusion is of an absolute beyond ambiguity. This is an illusion that shows itself in the religion of condemnation and salvation and in the politics of restoration and revolution, the ancienne regime and the novo saeculum saeculorum, the righteous Right and the righteous Left.

4) Ideality and the illusion of the Real. The fourth is a really a composition of the first three. Just put the Self, the Object, and the Absolute all together. There they are in the convention speech and many a Sunday sermon. The notion of Reality as out-there-separate from what we are imagining it to be is  greatest obstacle to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness.  And yet that illusion is part of our species greatest and defining power: our ability to express, communicate, imagine, symbolize which is also our ability to think and act together--the very definition of power.

On the one side, this illusion is confusing the real with the ideal, expecting the world as we live it to be the world as we think it should be.  On the other side, the illusion is separating the real and the ideal, forgetting that what we see as real is in fact the results of our imaging or idealizing.  As in most queries, the task is to distinguish but not separate.

So in conclusion:

These are the illusions behind those Barnes and Nobel books fueling our political and religious passion and intolerance, partisanship and exclusion.  It's okay.  We are all in the stretch, the pulling and pushing bands of the tension between self and other, inner and outer, past and future, real and ideal.  We may often believe so, but none of us are at the term or resolution of the tension.  The tension may be a problem, but it is also our solution--since we are the tension.

Our goal and our happiness is not to escape the ambiguity of existence, to step outside time and space and interdependence, to attain the "mind of God."  On the contrary, it is to fully engage in our time, space, and community in all its ambiguity, relativity, and messiness.  It is as I have often declared to transcend beliefs through faith.  Beliefs divide; faith unites.

If only we could recognize this, we could all get along with ourselves and each other, here and now.

And tone it down, right? And laugh!

No comments: