I’ve been meaning to post my top ten articles for 2008 for some time now. Here’s the list, along with a top 10 ‘ever’ list (meaning since 2004)…
in order of publication
Top Ten DT Strain articles of 2009
Top Ten DT Strain articles ever (2004-2010)
Please note that these are top ten lists of blog posts. I occasionally also write longer essays, which can be found at my website: The Humanist Contemplative
Thanks for everyone whose supported me by reading and offering feedback! I’m hoping 2010 shapes up to be another good year of discovery and exploration
Empiricism may seem contradictory to many spiritual practices, but some of them manage to fit more comfortably alongside empirical approaches to knowledge. An empirical approach is one that says that all knowledge ultimately comes to us in experiences through one of our five senses. This is opposed to the claim that knowledge of things can come to us through revelation, intuition, or other means beyond our physical senses. Even mere reasoning, without some basis in experience in physical evidence is not enough to generate true knowledge on its own. Knowledge, then, is when we hold concepts about the world which are both true (they match reality), and justified (they are based on some physical evidence verifiable by the senses, and not merely true by chance or coincidence).
How can such an approach to knowledge be compatible with a spiritual practice? As a Humanist, the above describes my own position on knowledge. I look at it as a matter of humility. When asked what I think about invisible or unproved things, or the possibility of life after death, or the ultimate secrets of the universe, I am content to say “I don’t know”. Many of these things certainly aren’t impossible. In fact, it’s actually likely their are many things that are true about reality that we have not yet experienced, and may not even be capable of experiencing. But we must be humble in accepting that as limited human beings, we are imperfect in our ability to know all things. This practice of humility when it comes to ‘what we say is true’ not only applies to the supernatural, but to all things. It is a spiritual practice important to good character.
Let’s look at another philosophy: Buddhism. One can certainly find Buddhists who believe in all manner of unproved things. The various branches and ways of practicing Buddhism are many, and infused with the cultural heritage of their geographically related manifestations. But the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama), when asked about whether the world is eternal or finite, whether the soul and body are identical, whether we exist after death said that those kinds of things were not beneficial and did not lead to wisdom. He said that no matter how long you live you won’t be able to answer all of the metaphysical questions, and that these had nothing to do with the fundamentals of religion anyway. Instead, what he offered was a way to address suffering in the here and now.
What is perhaps even more central to this issue in Buddhism is the Kalama Sutra. This teaching says that one should not trust reports, tradition, or hearsay. One should not be lead by the authority of religious texts, by mere logic or inference, by mere appearances, by seeming possibilities, by delight in speculative opinions, or merely on the authority of a teacher – including even the Buddha himself. Rather, one should find out for oneself, through experience, whether something is true or effective, or if it is not.
In the West, several ancient Greek philosophies also valued reason and observation in seeking knowledge and understanding – as such, they were rationalists. The Stoics and the Epicureans believed that a person was born a blank slate, and that knowledge came to him through the senses. However, the Stoics believed there were some “common notions” or innate ideas in all people’s minds that did not come through the senses. These were very rudimentary things like, how we know to categorize and question things, a basic sense of longing for fairness or the good, and so on. These were likely struggles to understand the underlying responses shared by all newborn human beings due to the makeup and natural behavior of the human brain and our evolved instincts. Nevertheless, when looked at on the overall spectrum regarding knowledge, the Stoic model more closely aligns with empiricism rather than mysticism or other means.
So both of these Eastern and Western branches of what we today would call ‘spiritual’ or contemplative paths have some kinship to empiricism. The reason it seems so contrary today is because, often in contemplative practice, the goal is to delve into the subjective, and empiricism is thought to deal with the objective. Generally, we conceive of the scientific approach as one where we examine some external phenomenon from the third-person perspective. But what if the thing being studied is, by nature, a first-person phenomenon? In contemplative practice, we are attempting to uncover practices that result in the experience of happiness in life. In building and propagating these contemplative lessons we are trying, not to understand the function of the brain as an organ from the objective point of view, but rather to understand the nature of the experiential mind from within.
Thus we must not look solely at empiricism as it has been practiced in Western science traditionally, but must consider the essence of empiricism…
The essence of empiricism is that we do not rely on authority, revelation, or other unproved means of gathering information, but instead rely on our direct observation and experience. Certainly, this includes various means to extend our senses, as well as cross-correlation with the experiences of others.
In all cases of empirical observation, even on the study of external things such as planets and stars, and no matter how objective we try to be in our methods, the matter will ultimately boil down to a subjective, first-person experience. The most tested instrument will, in the end, show a reading that will enter my eyes and become my own personal experience.
In contemplative practices where we try to learn about practices that effect our own minds from the experiential perspective, the only way to test those practices is to perform them and experience the results directly. Because all third-person empirical observation ultimately ends in a subjective first-person experience, the only difference between these cases, and cases of the first-person empirical approach is in the number of steps removed the observer is from the observed. In traditional empiricism, there may be dozens of steps between the outer reality, and the final subjective experience of the data. In first-person empirical study of the mind, there is only one step. Therefore, not only is a first-person empirical experience the only possible way to measure the efficacy of contemplative practices on the mind, but it is actually far less prone to error than traditional empirical methods.
However, I would be remiss not to point out an important distinction. The reason first-person direct experience is the valid way to study contemplative practices, is because the alleged phenomenon being studied is a first-person phenomenon (that being, the experience of a contented life, greater long-term peace, greater concentration/focus, better handling of emotional responses, more compassion, etc resulting from said practices). Where we are prone to disaster is if we take a first-person approach to third-person phenomena.
For example, were we to think that we can ‘directly and internally experience’ the nature of the surface of Mars or the cause of a disease by meditating on it, there would be a disconnect between the reality and our final stage of data. There would be no confirmed and reliably proved method by which the external facts made their way into our heads. Indeed, some people claim these sorts of perceptions, but alas no one has ever been able to reliably and repeatedly confirm them under controlled testable conditions. Again, that doesn’t mean the truth of such claims isn’t possible, it just means that the humble person will acknowledge them as yet unverified and unknown, allowing for the possibility – even likelihood – of mistaken perception, self delusion, or fraud.
By the way, the symbol presented above is one I thought of today – a stylized venn diagram of sorts. It represents knowledge and self knowledge. The large one is the main symbol, but I’ve shown two other styles it could be presented as to the right. With such a simple form, I was surprised not to see it listed at symbols.com, perhaps meaning something else.
The outer circle represents reality. The square inside that represents us (or more specifically our minds). The circle inside that square represents our internal model of reality – a reflection, we hope, of the true external reality, or knowledge. Of course, our minds are a part of reality as a whole, which is why the square is inside the circle. Therefore another smaller square is inside the smaller circle as well. This smallest square represents self knowledge. It is our internal model of ourselves – a subset of our internal model of reality as a whole. Thus, we cannot have true understanding without also having understanding of ourselves. This touches on the possible pitfalls we face in our efforts to learn, if we are not cognizant of our own limitations on knowing and humble in our assumptions.
 See Majjhima Nikaya 63, and the Parable of the Broken Arrow.
 Classical Stoicism in a Nutshell. Jan Garrett, 2006. [link]
Author Sam Harris has recently presented before the TED conference on the question of whether science can answer moral questions. While I agree with his conclusions on moral questions, I don’t think we agree on what to do about it.
Harris makes the case that moral questions can indeed be answered through a rational approach. He asks, “Can adding cholera to the water supply be a good idea?” and answers, “probably not.” This, of course, assumes that we all share the same standards for what constitutes ‘good ideas’. Harris makes it obvious several times that he is referring to “human flourishing”, a “good life”, “thriving”, or “well-being”. Although he does not overtly address this point, this is obviously the standard by which he judges whether something is moral.
I have made precisely this argument since writing Natural-Objective Ethics in April of 2005. The point being, when we look at humanity it should be obvious that the reason for Homo sapiens’ instinctive universal tendency to form moral norms is because this enhances its chances of survival and prosperity. If we know the function of ethics, then we can measure a moral norm by how well it performs that function, and we can investigate those questions scientifically.
Harris admits that defining what is precisely meant by “well being” is difficult, but the problem is even worse than that. It is also important to note that not everyone will share our approach to ethics, and not everyone will share our assumed basis for the measure of an ethic (that being, whether it leads to human flourishing). If a person or a people believe that the basis of morality is to serve God or some other purpose, regardless of its effect on human flourishing, then Harris’ argument fails to connect, and is even somewhat question-begging.
While the arguments of my N-O Ethics and Harris’ presentation may be good ways to illustrate to rationally-minded people how there can be an objectively “right answer” and “wrong answer” to moral questions, an entirely different angle on different topics is needed to reach the fundamentalist. This failure to connect with fundamentalists on the basis of morality is an important point that will become even more important later in this article.
Rational morality: what to do about it
Harris and I agree that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions and that these can be investigated rationally and even scientifically. However, that’s where our agreement seems to end. To really see Harris’ approach, one may need to have read some of his other works and seen some of his other presentations, because much of his overall thesis in the TED presentation is subtle or even unstated at times. I’m not implying subterfuge, but rather he had a particular focus in this presentation and those not familiar with his writings may not have caught the full drift of his outlook by this one video, even though it clearly connected to his overall views.
The important question of our time is not whether moral questions can be investigated and answered through rational means. That is already happening in nearly every field; and will only continue to happen over time, whether people realize it or not. No, the important question of our time is – what are we rationalists going to do about it?
In a subtle bemoaning of his intellectual colleagues who insist all morality is subjective, Harris admits in the presentation that, to his chagrin, the majority of people w
ith whom he seems to agree on the objectivity of ethics are the religious fundamentalists! Harris does not take this as a cautionary indicator that might be saying something important to him about his views, but rather, looks at it as a case of irony that his otherwise enlightened colleagues haven’t achieved this insight.
Harris does point out that the reasons behind the fundamentalists’ belief in objective ethics are very different from his own; that being their belief that a perfect deity has delivered this knowledge to them. But I would point out another difference (hopefully) between the rational approach to Natural-Objective ethics and the religious fundamentalist approach. As I stated in Natural-Objective Ethics, there is an important difference between saying “there is a right answer” and saying “I have the right answer”. The latter is the extra step the fundamentalists take with certainty. I am not appealing to subjectivism here. The endeavor of moral progress is not one of invention, but of discovery – but like scientific discovery, we must hold conclusions provisionally, and must be open to further investigation and correction over time.
What is of more concern is what we do with our rationally-based provisional moral answers?
Harris says that we must “converge” on matters of great moral importance. I agree that flourishing is the goal, and that convergence on that
would be wonderful. But how to go about it is another matter. Harris speaks fluently about the dangers of religious extremism, but I see in his approach much reactionary fear – an overall perspective that focuses, perhaps myopically, on controlling the world and bending it into what we think it should be.
The United States was once a far less invasive nation, not only militarily but economically, culturally, and so on. Thomas Jefferson suggested that we be friends with many nations, but have entangling alliances with none. Since World War II however, the modus operandi of the nation changed to something more like the Imperialist mindset of our Western roots. We had already become more militarily involved overseas and we had shifted to a war-based economy. Powerful corporations had much to gain by continued production of war machines. President Eisenhower warned the American people of this in his farewell speech regarding the dangers of the military-industrial complex.
Through our long Cold War with the Soviet Union, the world was our chess board and smaller nations our pawns. Entangling alliances abound as each superpower did whatever it could to manipulate the global stage to its advantage. This often underhanded process set up many of the unfortunate social, political, economic, and cultural situations in other nations that today create the conditions ripe for the terrorism we now face. Throughout the process, more and more of our military bases appeared on the soil of other nations, in addition to an influx of our corporations and culture, whether greatly welcome or not. In fact, the entire history of our nation since the mid 20th Century can be looked at as one long state of war – it’s goal to cast an ever increasing net of strategic forces over the planet. This process has given us much more to lose, and created a situation in which we are frequently attacked. When that happens, we feel less secure and more fearful as a people, and our response is to seek even greater control over the globe in the belief that we can gain enough control to one day be safe. We always seem to have good intentions such as security, fighting for freedom, or liberating others – but the result is the same: the more control we try to exert over the world, the less secure and more afraid we become.
We must be careful that Harris’ correct conclusions about the objective nature of moral questions does not lead us down the path of seeking to dominate others with our vision of ‘how things should be’. Would the Crusades be any more palatable if the brand of morality the crusaders were attempting to erect by force had been derived through scientific investigation on the basis of human flourishing? There is some indication Harris seems content that a few egg shells may need to be broken in order to erect this ‘convergence’ on human ethical standards.
Harris says in his presentation that we can no longer “respect or tolerate” vast differences of opinion on moral questions in such a dangerous intertwined world. It is true that, in one’s personal life considerations, every view on morality doesn’t ‘have to count’ as he says. In fact, it’s actually important that it not – that a person have a healthy deliberative standard by which to evaluate moral opinions and assertions. But Harris takes this personal standard of healthy skepticism and seeks to apply it on a sociological level, with concerning implications.
One who has read and heard Harris’ other works will note that his objection is not just with violent religious extremists, but with the ‘moderates’ who hold similar religious views but do no violence. I point that out, not to disagree but because of its implications on how we must interact with other nations in terms of sheer number. It should be added that he has in the past suggested torture and the preemptive use of nuclear weapons may be appropriate in some limited cases.
Harris uses the example of the facts upon which safety standards of buildings and airplanes are based as being analogous to moral questions, and I concur. However, the important question is whether we go about global domination, tolerating whatever manner of violence may be necessary, to ensure that building safety standards converge in all corners of humanity, and are administered by a single board that will do the appropriate studies to determine what those regulations should be.
Recall my earlier point about the failure of Harris’ argument to connect with religionists on the underlying basis of morality. This is where that point becomes especially important. When all of these people do not share Harris’ underlying definitions and conceptions on the purpose and function of ethics, they will be immune to his arguments for a scientific take on moral matters, and when this is mixed with ourselves discarding even tolerance of ‘vast differences of opinion’ on moral matters, then such an onslaught may be the only alternative Harris leaves us.
At the end of the presentation, the questioner asks Harris what we do when a women who wears a veil says that she wishes to do so of her own accord. Harris responds that we will eventually be able to measure scientifically whether these sorts of cultural norms lead to fathers who love their daughters more. The questioner then asks, “And if the results come out that, actually they do, are you prepared to shift your instinctive current judgment on some of these issues?” To that, Harris noted that it’s not just the father’s experience of love we have to look at, but “well-being in a larger context” – that it is “all of us together”. It is true that we must defend ourselves against direct violence, but it is also precisely because it is “all of us together” in the larger scope of things that respect and tolerance must have a place, even where it isn’t comfortable.
Harris’ mistake is in his focus on achieving greater control over the actions of others. It is the traditional Western Imperialist perspective on ‘engineering the world’ as it ‘should be’ that has not changed. What’s even more concerning is the underlying incentive upon which his argument is based, which is fear. Although he mentions only briefly this world “filled with destructive technology”, fear of this destruction is the underlying motivation of his argument for discarding tolerance and respect.
Instead, we should be looking inward. Why are we so scared that we might be willing to perform nearly any act to ensure that others converge as we believe they should? Further, there are many ways to help educate and change the world, but that door is only opened through respectful relations.
Yes, what Harris says is true: there is a ‘right answer’ to moral questions, which can be discovered, albeit imperfectly, through rational means. But to spread truth requires a unique approach. The solution to these inter-cultural problems of cyclical violence is like a Chinese finger trap puzzle, which gets more difficult the more you resist it. Its solution requires no physical strength at all. The outcome of such an approach is by no means certain, but the effects of this approach can be profound.
Speaking of the Chinese, Yen Huei once came to the Taoist philosopher Chuang-Tzu and complained about the Prince of Wei. He said he was an old man of “unmanageable disposition”. Yen Huei continues, “He behaves as if the people were of no account, and will not see his own faults. He disregards human lives and the people perish… The people do not know where to turn for help.” Yen Huei suggests he may go and confront the Prince.
Chuag-Tzu tells Yen Huei that preachiness and brute force will only make wicked men hate him. Fighting fire with fire is called aggravation, warns Chuang-Tzu. On the other hand, if you begin with concessions, there will be no end to them. Yen Huei proposes all manner of approaching the Prince and Chuang-Tzu points out why the Prince will be unresponsive. What then?
Chuang-Tzu says that to know what we should do, we must first become blank – we must engage in a ‘fasting of the heart’. By this, he means we must hold back on our judgments and reactionary nature so that our ego (self) is no longer in the way of our clear seeing and understanding. At that point, it becomes easier to see that we must get to know our enemies, build relations, talk when they are in a mood to listen and refrain when not. Do so without labels and let things take their natural course, then you may have a chance of success. This is called walking without touching the ground.
What Chuang-Tzu refers to is a way of handling people and events that is more sophisticated. Like the Chinese finger trap puzzle, it is observing carefully and using the momentum and nature of the thing against which we struggle to bring about the change we desire. But to take this approach, we need to put away our egotistical judgments and obsessions which keep us from truly understanding others, and we need to temper our fears. If we can suspend these long enough to understand, then we can begin acting in ways that really are productive for the whole. Not only does it require humility, but it requires bravery, because it is so much easier to succumb to our fears and pick up a sword and shield (or machine gun and bomb, as the case may be). This approach can work, and has worked, on a national level at various times and places – if we are committed to it.
As a freethinker, a skeptic, and a naturalist, I am a believer in the power of reason – but not merely the power of my reason. Reason can and does flourish in free minds naturally. It flourishes best in minds that are not threatened or offended. Fear is a powerful temptation, and it often may be very difficult not to let it cloud our vision or make us react with blunt force. Fear is also insidious and will subtly find its way into our underlying motivations and rationalizations – all while we believe we are being very intellectual, unemotional, and rational – as Harris appears to be in his presentations and writings.
We have already tried the option of having the ‘right answer’ for the world, with unfortunate results. Compassion, tolerance, and respect can have profound effects on enemies, but we as a nation have yet to even try that approach in any serious or deep manner. It requires far more bravery than we have, sadly, yet been able to muster.
 For stoicism enthusiasts, since I often write on that philosophy: In Stoicism, the only ‘good’ is my virtuous choice. But what is virtue? Virtue consists of the correct selection among Indifferents – that being the Preferred Indifferents. And, what determines whether something is a Preferred Indifferent? Whether it is in accord with Nature. The nature of human beings is to thrive and survive, thus when it comes to complex issues we can use our ‘spark of the divine fire’ – rational means (including the scientific method) to try to understand what is more likely to lead to survival and prosperity (i.e what is more likely to be in accord with Nature).
Special thanks to Aurthur Fay for making me aware of Harris’ presentation.
I recently had a conversation with a friend I thought others might find interesting, so I’ll share part of it here along with some additional commentary. She wrote to me:
I’m in progress of reading every article on your humanistcontemplative.blogspot
Great stuff. So far, the only thing which strikes me as different from my own beliefs is the inclusion of compassion as some essential component of philosophy or of being a philosopher. Although I highly value compassion, I see it as more of a human trait; not universal but one of many emotions. I’m reminded of what Nietzsche said about empathy, something to the effect of that it drains strength. And at the risk of sounding cliché, Nietzsche’s thought has most profoundly affected me over the years. For example, the difference between what he calls “master morality” and “slave morality”.
The term Humanist only bothers me by the thought of placing some special importance on humans. I’ve settled into what I can only describe as a loose pantheism, which is sort of a mixture of what you describe in “Two approaches to desire” because I understand both the incredible transience of life, but also the utility of irrational exuberance and the dangers of rational nihilism. Um well, these are thing more fun to speak of in person but I guess it could be summed up as “The existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon”.
I’m honored you like my articles, thanks for reading
On the compassion thing, the best thing I could recommend on that from myself would be ‘Freethought and Compassion‘. On the term ‘Humanism’ and human emphasis, I’d read ‘Does Humanism exclude non-humans?‘
“Freethought and Compassion” presents a very good argument. I agree 100%.
Also the non-speciesist origin of humanism; I wasn’t aware.
Certainly living with compassion makes for a better life for the practitioner. What concerns me are moral questions such as giving to beggars. Situations where you can choose to practice either a short-sighted compassion, or something which appears mean in the short term but ultimately alleviates or prevents suffering on a larger scale.
Too many people shut off their brains while trying to be compassionate. Then there’s the mindset which so many fall into, that of looking down on and pitying others while feeding on the ego boost of being able to help slightly.
Another issue is that, as free thinkers we understand the open ended nature of reality, the lack of absolutes -and compose a personal morality based on reason. But a majority of people have neither the time or inclination to inspect reality. It leads me to think of the utility of a hierarchical or cast system, but I can’t begin to surmise what that would entail.
All good points. On the matter of short term help vs longer term, these things come up often, such as the case in which a doctor may need to inflict a little suffering to treat the patient.
In these things we will all need to run our calculus and take the best course we can, but ultimately we have to remind ourselves that our calculations on what actions will lead to what results are highly prone to error and based on incomplete information. This is why we cannot be too concerned with the outcome of externals, but rather, our internal motivation. Being sure our character, our intentions, and our actions are pure and motivated by compassion is what we must do in order to achieve a deeper contentment in life I think. How all of that plays out in terms of consequentialism is a matter for Nature/physics/the Logos/karma to worry about and therefore somewhat irrelevant to our walk.
As for the utility of cast systems, that too is an outward approach focused on seeking control over externals – in seeking to instill some larger scale template of how we imagine things “ought” to be and how others “should” behave.
When I have been at my most confused, most distressed, and all of the machinations of if/then scenarios are going through my head and I don’t know what to do – I have found that if I just fall back on the simple power of compassion and act from that, without fear, greed, or hopefully delusion, then things may not always turn out how we thought or hoped, but it will never let you down. You can rest easy knowing you acted in a pure way. At least, that has been my experience.
Good answer… I’ve not found fault with any of your augments; it just seems to leave something out that I can’t quite place -something of the animal struggle which has shaped mankind. The aspect of competition and survival of the fitted… Certainly compassion is a good strategy for both internal peace and getting along in the world.
It’s just had to wrap my mind around applying compassion to all the situations we encounter in life. It doesn’t seem possible in for example scarcity of resources –but that’s just my mind trying to grasp a more universal property of cycles; life and death. Compassion is universal-enough in the context of this human life.
I should follow our with a few comments here. It seems to me that many philosophers engage in ‘descriptive philosophy’ – that is, they seek to understand how human beings function socially and ethically, and describe it as they might describe the function of weather, the rotation of the planet, or the organization of an ant colony. This investigative realm is certainly a valid and important part of philosophy, but it is a bit different than the search for the ‘good life’ and the practices to move closer to it.
The notion of ‘animal struggles that have shaped mankind’ fit comfortably in descriptive philosophy. Marcus Aurelius himself said that life was more like wrestling than dancing. But in the end these notions are merely academic and must ultimately boil down to meaningful prescriptions on priorities, principles, and how we live if they are to be of use. Perhaps I should restate some conclusions from On Retribution, but a system focused on conflict and struggle over resources has not been shown to be a path conducive to real happiness as far as I’ve noticed. A big part of exploring how a contemplative philosophy functions in the face of scarcity of resources, will be the arrival at a place where we realize that biological survival is not the top priority, and death not the worst fate. A lot of folly has come from people getting too carried away about matters of life and death, as if any of us could escape the latter. How strange for a species whose individuals have never commonly lived even a single century.
My friend mentioned Nietzsche earlier and I am certainly no expert on his works. I’ve read that he was an admirer of Heraclitus, who inspired the Stoics conception of Nature, but that he viewed the world in terms of masters and slaves. The timeless competition between these two modes of though explained much about the history of Europe and America according to him. Yet Epictetus, with whom I’d agree, would say that we are all of us slaves, every one. It seems to me there is the potential for only one master and one kingdom – and that is myself and my will. If I am to rebel, then I should rebel first against him.
I recently finished reading A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by philosophy professor and Stoic practitioner William B. Irvine. It’s a wonderful book explaining the essence of Stoicism, with an emphasis on how to practice Stoicism in your life, and it’s a very easy-to-read book I’d highly recommend.
I have been meaning to address the issue of consumerism in my own life and in my articles for some time. I have nothing against reasonably regulated capitalism, and in fact, see it as highly relevant to personal liberty; but my concerns are more on the individual effects of consumerism on a person. There is an element to our consumer based society in the United States today that is not only of concern because of what it means to the environment and our natural resources, but also because of how it effects our freedom and how much control we lend to corporations over our lives and even or very culture. I was therefore struck by what Irvine wrote on the topic because it touched on Stoicism more intimately than I had expected:
“The Stoics, as we have seen, recommend simplifying one’s lifestyle… If you start dressing down, people will notice. Likewise, people will notice if you keep driving the same old car or – horrors! – give up the car to take the bus or ride a bike. People will assume the worst: impending bankruptcy, perhaps, or even the early stages of mental illness… And if you explain to them that you have overcome your desire to impress those who are impressed by a person’s external trappings, you will only make matters worse…
Since becoming a Stoic my desires have changed dramatically. I no longer want many of the things I once took to be essential for proper living…
I read that many of my fellow Americans are in deep financial trouble. They have an unfortunate tendency to use up all the credit that is available to them and, when this doesn’t satisfy their craving for consumer goods, to keep spending anyway…
I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. When I go to the mall, for example, I don’t buy things; instead, I look around me and am astonished by all the things for sale that I not only don’t need but can’t imagine myself wanting. My only entertainment at a mall is to watch the other mall-goers. Most of them, I suspect, come to the mall not because there is something specific that they need to buy. Rather, they come in the hope that doing so will trigger a desire for something that, before going to the mall, they didn’t want…
Why go out of their way to trigger a desire? Because if they trigger one, they can enjoy the rush that comes when they extinguish that desire by buying its object. It is a rush, of course, that has as little to do with their long-term happiness as taking a hit of heroin has to do with the long-term happiness of a heroin addict.”
I need to begin finding ways to simplify my own life in terms of possessions and material needs. My wife and I already do a fair job of living well below our means, but sometimes the amount of ‘junk’ we collect can be a cause of frustration. I also have been thinking about how one might phrase a short collection of simplified principles and behavioral standards that could help guide one away from consumerism and toward alternatives that can be even more fulfilling, especially around times like Christmas.
Irvine’s book has a lot more about Stoic thought, values, and practices in it a person can use to begin their journey. At times when discussing practice, he seems a bit preoccupied with the danger that others may ridicule you for practicing Stoicism, and this may be colored by his own experiences. But all in all it is a solid read for beginners and philosophers.
As I was explaining at my recent Humanist Contemplatives gathering, it has occurred to me that one way we can classify spiritual paths (be they religions, philosophies, traditions, etc) is on how they deal with the issue of desire and the fears we have about them. After all, if a spiritual path is about anything it is about obtaining ultimate happiness, whether you believe that is salvation, nirvana, eudaimonia, or so on – and a big part of happiness is finding some way to deal with the discrepancy between what we desire, and what we have.
The two ways are as follows:
You can have your cake and eat it too
These paths tell you that, yes, you can have what you’re wanting most. One example of this is the so-called Law of Attraction, as referred to in Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” among many other places. According to this path, it is claimed that whatever you desire will come to you if you focus on it positively and strongly enough. This allegedly happens, not simply because a person who is positive will perform better, bounce back from misfortune, and not give up. Rather, the Law of Attraction tells us that our thoughts and attitudes actually somehow alter the universe so that good things come our way.
Another path that falls into this category are the ‘prosperity gospel’ teachings of preachers like Houston’s Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church. According to Osteen, Jesus came to the earth so that you might have a balanced checkbook, and have it more fully filled with funds. He also came so that you won’t have to suffer the pains of sickness or injury. Basically, if you believe hard enough and you ask for Jesus’ help, you will allegedly have material prosperity in this life.
More traditional Christians shake their finger at Osteen saying that God didn’t guarantee an easy life, but came so that your soul might be saved in the afterlife. Interestingly enough, we find that even old time Christianity (as well as Islam and many other religions, though not all) also fall into this category. For those more concerned about their grave than their gold, these paths guarantee the true adherent fulfillment of the ultimate desire: immortality.
In addition, many of these path highlight the importance of various activities which are designed to help us control the things around us we may wish to. Perhaps they say we must chant to ward off whatever causes pain and suffering, or we must pray to ask for favors from powerful being/s. The desire to control those things we fear are out of our control is a strong one, so any path that claims to empower us in that way will always seem appealing.
Nearly all of the major Western religions, and many of its New Age offshoots, tell their members they can have what they desire most, and escape what they fear most. One unfortunate side effect of this approach is that when people fail to get their desired outcome, they are often left blaming themselves (“I wasn’t faithful enough, didn’t focus enough, didn’t do x or y”). As far as their delivery of these paths, results any large number of people can verify range from unknown to questionable. Either they lie beyond the veil of death and verification, or they have produced little statistically meaningful evidence of success. Surely, many report being happy with these reassurances, depending one one’s definition of ‘happiness’.
There is a second category under which other paths fall.
You can eat your cake, but you can’t have it
These paths tell us that we live in a vast, turbulent, ever-changing, and often unpredictable flux of interdependent causation, often outside of our control. Rather than offer us ways to control it, or offer us what we desire, these paths address the reasons why we fear our reality, and help us come to terms with it. They focus on getting us to accept, internalize, and even see beauty in such a cosmic circumstance. They attempt to teach adherents how to ‘let go’ of clinging, attachment, and the myth of permanence and see through the delusions our desires often create for us.
When it comes to control, rather than offer us rituals, trinkets, or other methods to know the unknowable and direct the unpredictable, they work on our ability to ‘go with the flow’ and adapt to the unpredictable changes that will inevitably happen in life. As for our desires, they do not attempt to offer us what we desire most, but instead seek to free us from that desire that we may live without fear of loss or its unfulfillment. When it comes to blame, these paths seek to assign us responsibility only for what we truly control, which is our own internal judgments, priorities, virtues, and choices – not externals which are the results of many causes beyond ourselves.
It is not difficult for any reader to have guessed which of these paths this author finds more fruitful. Examples of this second path include Stoicism and some branches of Buddhism, among many others – much of them Eastern, but not always. This is one reason I tend to focus on these philosophies in my own contemplative journey.
For my fellow geeky readers, these influences in the Jedi of Star Wars fame are well known. Yoda tells Anakin, “Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is… Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose…”. Why? As Yoda explained previously to Anakin, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” But it was Yoda’s predecessors who provided many more jewels than this. The founder of Epicureanism, “Master” Epicurus, revealed this ‘secret’:
“If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.”
To my readers: I have been out for a while but it’s good to be back, thanks for reading! This post has been a quick commentary, just something I was thinking about recently, but I am working on a better piece regarding “Stoic Compassion” I hope you will find interesting and worthwhile.
Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein is making the rounds promoting his new book, Good Without God. Recently he was interviewed by Sally Quinn of the Washington Post as part of their Divine Impulses series (see video). Epstein makes the point that Humanism “has always been just a little bit dangerous to the powers that be”. He says that when people have been upset about the failures of their leaders, the leaders could always promise something better in an afterlife. I presume he includes those societies in which leaders would need to conspire with the holy men/women of the society to keep people content. This reminds me of the Sid Mier computer game, Civilization. In that game of leading a nation, religion’s function is to keep people content – to keep them from rebelling. I’m not sure of Sid Mier’s beliefs, but the game seems to support the notion that, without some better life being promised to them beyond death, people would rebel continuously.
I think there’s something to be said for the notion that Humanism often may not be advantageous to “the powers that be”. However, I think: (a) the elements of Humanism most a threat to them would be its emphasis on freethought, questioning authority, and healthy skepticism, rather than the lack of belief in an afterlife directly, and (b) many faith traditions could list elements within their belief systems which are anathema to the powers that be. To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t seem to get along with those in charge, and Buddha renounced his own royal status (whether the stories are literally true in every detail, many of the values espoused by the characters would seem credible reasons for the disdain of leaders in any time). Whenever a philosophy, faith, or tradition is at its best – whenever it espouses individual autonomy and renounces the things leaders use to control us, like fear and hate – then it can be said to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be.
This is a very politically-oriented take on Humanism, and it’s one that has predominated the movement, perhaps since its modern incarnation in the 1930s. One thing I attempt to do with the notion of the Humanist Contemplative, is focus more on the personal aspects of Humanism. Likely paraphrasing the Humanist Manifesto III, Epstein also said that it is our ability and responsibility to lead “ethical lives of personal fulfillment…” Note how the term ‘ethical’ is tied to the notion of personal fulfillment. The link between an ethical life and a personally fulfilling one is a central part of the many ancient philosophies I like to explore. Yes, we need the second socially conscious part, which is “…lives that aspire to the greater good”, but it must begin with the person in the mirror. My hope is that more Humanists will come back to that point by exploring how Humanism can be practiced individually in our daily lives, and it seems to be happening.
Epstein publishes the online magazine The New Humanism for which I have recently written. The name is a response to “The New Atheism” – folks like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others who have a more confrontational tone focusing on religious criticism. Rather, the New Humanism is about focusing on the positive values we seek to promote, rather than bashing others or over-emphasis on what we don’t believe. The subtitle to Epistein’s book is, “What A Billion Non-religious People Do Believe” and I admire that approach.