Some twentieth century thinkers spent considerable time trying to understand what, exactly, one can know about the world. They thought that the fundamental basis upon which our knowledge of the world rests is suspect, based, as it is, on imagined truths originating from cultural orientations that define reality in terms of conceptual dualisms. Human inclination was to seek a secure ground of being in God or, perhaps, science that could provide reliable answers in dark times of stress and desperation. Such grounding led to unverifiable premises that produced false assumptions about the nature of the world.
A number of these deep thinkers dismissed the reliance on the eternal and infinite as being outside the realm of finite human understanding. All that can be known for certain, they thought, are the facts that exist in this world. These guys thought a primordial ground of being as disclosed through conventional world views was not to be found. An honest search would instead reveal an abyss, a nothingness beneath the cultural veneer. To live an authentic life, they believed, one must man-up, face uncertainty, tempt fate and step away from the safety of familiarity.
Other philosophers of the time thought a subjective ground of being could be found. Realizing the freedom to do what one chose depended upon a spiritual component to lift such a person beyond causal necessity. This ground of being will be personal and dependent on a belief in an existence beyond factual knowledge.
I have to say I admire these great thinkers living as they did through difficult times, unstable finances and psychological angst, who spend so much time and energy pursing ideas that provide us all the opportunity to at least contemplate how we can live our lives authentically.
He felt pretty good, confident in his aerobic fitness, you know, for his age: looking forward to the post-workout high that follows pushing oneself to near exhaustion. Nothing like cross-country skiing to achieve a full-body workout. A couple more strenuous climbs and he’d be home.
And then, a new experience: he found himself levitating above the ski trail. Below him a skier lay. He must have had trouble navigating the steep uphill. A voice above him offered context: “Well, it had to happen sometime. The old heart finally gave out; happens pretty regularly if you want to know the truth.”
The skier found himself thinking, reviewing events from his past, reflecting on relationships, choices made, evaluating his character: did he think of himself as a good person over-all? One has regrets, things he might have done that he didn’t and vice versa.
The voice again reading his thoughts: “Everyone who’s honest has regrets. Human failings are an obvious given, but all in all you’ve done less harm than good. You’re no genius but you keep seeking answers, simplistic as they may be. I know you think of me as a figment of your imagination which may in fact be so, but maybe internal conversations do have good answers to offer.”
“Anyway, shake it off, snap out of it, you only bumped your head.”
I’ve been trying to understand, lately, what exactly perpetuates the fairly widespread ideas of conspiracy theory surfacing these days in the political sphere. It occurs to me that perhaps many of us are being visited in our thinking by a deep-seated primal intuition: that appearance and reality are intertwined.
The problem with such thinking is that appearances change; what appeared to be one thing one day takes on different meaning at another time in another context. For mythic believers, a rigidity develops. The idea that once an ‘appearance’ is defined and locked in and what is thought to be the case must be the case, any sort of subtle change in or redefinition of what appeared to be the case can only be thought of in terms of conspiracy. Someone or something must be manipulating Truth.
I suppose one who engages in mythical thinking does realize a richly imaginative existence, one that can be shared with other like-minded conspiracy theorists, of which, it appears, there are many. One would hope, in the interests of a healthier society, reality will make an appearance at some point.
I’ve been reading about some of the deep thinkers of the early 20th century, how they struggled to come to grips with the tumultuous uncertainty of the time. Clearly, the 1920’s must have been difficult: the western world had just endured a devastating world war that put question to the very value of human life. The dissolution of long held beliefs brought about by Darwin’s theories of evolution 20 years earlier had serious religious implications for many and Einstein’s relativity theory upset the belief that time and space were fixed entities.
So, the philosophical search was on to find a grounded reality. Questions abounded: What lies within the bounds of knowable truth? How does language determine what can be thought? How do social norms repress spirit? In various ways a common thought occurred to these brilliant thinkers: In order for man to rise above the moral and spiritual ennui of the times he must muster the courage to intellectually move beyond, to take the leap into the freedom of personal choice without any assumption of reward, earthly or heavenly, expecting nothing and assuming total responsibility for one’s existence. Setting aside the false assumptions brought about by the mythical thinking embedded in language will lead one to realize a truly authentic life: to being one’s true self.
How exciting it must have been for those who dared take the leap beyond conventional foundations, accepting one’s existence fully in place and time, realizing the freedom of personal responsibility. The headiness of absolute personal freedom, I suspect, was eventually tempered by the need for close relationships and the giving they require.
I’ve been reading a very interesting article about the tiger population in India. Bengal tigers, considered a threatened species, have been given protections against hunting as well as a large protected reserve in the jungles of Madya Pradesh were they share the land with the indigenous forest villagers. To the east, in the Sundarbans mangrove swamps between India and Bangladesh the growing tiger population, facing a scarcity of traditional food animals ( due in part to human incursions exploiting resources), have turned to humankind as an easily obtained substitute, killing and eating one or more villagers a week.
This got me thinking about the food chain. While we may entertain the notion that we, humankind, have an advantage, a superior position among our animal neighbors in securing our piece of the environmental pie, upsetting the natural balance would seem to be a dangerous ignorance. Logic would have us focus on providing necessary habitat and resources for survival of all species. When one species grows and exploits the earths finite resources beyond what is fair to all, perhaps limits should be imposed.
Just wondering if we might not have a moral obligation, you know, in terms of the health of all earthly inhabitants to encourage the tigers to eat the villagers.
Doing my daily stretching regimen the other day and finding it occasionally painful has gotten me thinking about the inevitability of the physical downslope I’m descending. Ageing has a way of putting one’s physical prowess into perspective. Memories of the stamina and flexibility that once were mine have become distant.
So, as a counter measure to deal with this somewhat depressing realization I’ve obtained a wrist mounted device that measures my daily physical activity. I get encouragement sent to me online if I meet certain daily parameters. The device functions as a personal trainer to keep me on task, keep my physical activity reasonably high, keep the calories burning. This athletic enterprise has me, for the time being, feeling pretty good about my physical health, stamina and weight stability. My daily exercises, though, aren’t getting any easier. I remain aware of the reality of my situation, that the best I can hope for is to maintain an equilibrium for awhile.
I’m not giving up. Better, I think, to at least stay mobile. I’m determined to use it until I lose it.
I’ve been reading about the idea of man as a perpetual adolescent, forever youthful (in mind anyway), playfully making and thereby discovering and inventing. Given time to play without the pressure to produce, the theory goes, valuable discoveries and innovations may very well result.
History informs us that, indeed, such a process has been the impetus for quite a number of important innovations. Brilliant people engaged in playful thinking (Isaac Newton, Leonardo DaVinci among them) have produced profound concepts that have contributed to our collective knowledge. Sometimes invented toys become practical machines: the wheel may have first appeared on a child’s toy in Pre-Columbian America.
I guess it’s the unique nature of humankind to have a prolonged childhood unlike many of our animal relatives who must be ready to hide or fight, defend or flee almost immediately after birth. As annoying as the perpetual adolescent may be to our adult pragmatic selves, with a bit of encouragement perhaps the slacker living in the basement might conceive an idea that will improve life for us all. At the very least it might get her into her own apartment.
I’ve been reading, lately, about the common man, the 99% of the population that make up the social milieu and wondering what exactly common men have in common. I’m guessing these folks (well, us folks) are mostly of middle-of-the-road social and economic status, probably have limited educational accomplishment, likely adhere to some sort of religious beliefs and most certainly rely on a social network of other individuals of more-or less like mind. We’re the everyday working stiffs who execute our often-uninteresting daily toils in the hope there lies ahead a future of personal economic progress which will provide and secure leisurely retirement.
The uncommon man on the other hand is the intellectual or man of action who drives the public narrative. Maintaining his superior status in a democratic society requires he keep a finger on the pulse of the populace. When the common man begins to lose his sense of hope in a favorable future the uncommon man, in order to maintain his status, must placate the masses by providing a positive vision that a favorable future lies in wait. To maintain societal stability, keep the masses striving for more and better, the uncommon man paints a picture of prosperity near at hand, the good life awaiting those who sustain the necessary drive to be successful.
The philosopher Eric Hoffer thought an uneasy, socially and economically threatened populace of common men who, perhaps, had lost the dream of upward mobility have the potential to produce mass movements that have in the past and will likely in the future dramatically affect the course of history.
Given the state of our world, these days, it seems to me, what we need to do is seek out an uncommon man who can produce for us all a vision of hope and cooperation.
In the winter of his eighteenth year this young man fell madly in love (well, it was a serious crush anyway). The object of his unrequited affection was a demure sweet young lady who turned the young man, usually easygoing and affable, into a tongue-tied moron (or so he thought and was in fact true).
The episode was simply reflective of the young man’s nature. He conjured imaginings of romantic scenarios; of heroic stances he might take. He lived in a world of fictional narratives reinforced by the heroic storylines he regularly indulged: good triumphs, tragedy is overcome.
It would seem in retrospect such an imaginative reality would soon be repressed but it was maintained far longer than it might have been by avoiding unpleasant confrontation, keeping a distance from uncertain challenges and living in an (overly) protective home environment. As a college student our young dreamer immersed himself in studies of an impersonal nature, solitary endeavors not requiring excessive personal connections. He had friends of course. College life teems with unassuming young people of an accepting nature, all thriving in an essentially responsibility free environment.
Eventually, over time, even an impractical dreamer will have to face harsh realities. The awakening for our young man came with the threat posed by the draft lottery and the likelihood of involuntary military service. Basic training was eye opening. The young man found himself verbally assaulted. Name calling the likes of which he had never previously encountered (but guessed often referred to perverse sexual acts) was common.
Military service didn’t cure the young man, didn’t redirect him toward a more functional pragmatism. Even now as he passes middle age the man finds himself playfully toying with ideas and entertaining flights of fantasy. He has somehow been able to navigate through life being sufficiently useful as not to be a particular burden on society, you know, has basically paid his own way.
It’s good to know, I guess, that sometimes life provides a path for those who need to live an alternative reality.
I’ve been thinking lately about the multitudes of good and sincere people in the world who have arrived at dramatically conflicting views as to the nature of reality.
Most all of us rely on what we consider to be unimpeachable support sources for our views and usually a contingent of like-minded others that reinforce our beliefs. The evangelical Christian, the Qanon conspiracy buff and the liberal mainstreamer will tend to approach daily occurrences with sets of premises and then conclusions that are quite different. Such conflicting perspectives are the stuff of the social divisiveness manifesting itself these days; the dilemma of free thought in a free society free from coercive oversight, I guess.
I have no answers other than responding with patient tolerance in the knowledge that most everyone deserves respectful acknowledgement of their usually carefully considered views. The hope is that we can all spot disinformation when it presents itself. Hopefully, we can think past the response of the recently interviewed lady asked why she embraces her position on a current controversial idea. ‘I know it’s not true’, she said, ‘but it’s consistent with my beliefs.’