THE QUESTING OR SPIRITED SELF

question mark with speech bubles, vector on the abstract background

In his book, “Hymns to an Unknown God,” Sam Keen explores the idea of “the Questing or Spirited Life” through listing a variety of “perennial human experiences” and asks some “perennial mythic questions.”

The Perennial Human Experiences include wonder and awe, joy and gratitude, longing, creativity, loneliness, compassion, boredom, despair, disillusionment, compulsion and addiction, resentment, personal guilt, ecological guilt, disease and alienation, fear of death, and horror.

The correlating Mythic Human Questions include: Why is there something rather than nothing? How do we celebrate and give thanks for the gift of life? What would satisfy me? What do I desire? What are my gifts? What is my vocation? What can I create? Am I loved? Can I love? How close should I be to Father, Mother, other men and women? Who are my people? Who is included and excluded from the community? What is my passion? What will renew me? Is there any meaning in my life? Can I know the truth? Am I free? Can I change? How do I punish or forgive those who have wronged me? What is taboo? What ought I to do? How do I make amends? How can we heal and tend the earth and animal spirits? What is wrong? Can I be healed? How? For what may I hope? Do I survive death? Why is there evil?

These are profound mythic questions, and they do indeed correlate with a variety of perennial human experiences. Sam Keen makes the point that different individuals who have been marked for life by different formative experiences will be preoccupied (if not obsessed) with different mythic questions. For example, it is important to realize that such historical icons and cultural exemplars as Siddhartha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Lucretius, Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Bach, Beethoven, Marx, Freud, Rembrandt, Picasso, Albert Einstein, Max Planck, among others, were preoccupied with addressing kinds of questions within the diverse contexts of their experiential and constructed worlds. There is an “incommensurability” between their answers to life great questions because they are asking different questions and they are asking them in different historical and cultural, economic and political context.

In other words, it simply will not do to say that they were saying the same thing in different languages and traditions. Nor will it do to say that they were saying opposite and opposing things that must conflict and clash with each other. Each one experienced and viewed the world through a different personal and cultural lens, and was asking questions that emerged from primal human experiences and felt needs.

But there’s something else happening here as well. The various liberal domains of intellectual and cultural inquiry each constitutes its own “symbol system,” “language game” and methods of inquiry. The inquiring domains of Philosophy, Religion, History, Mythology, Linguistics, Literature, Music, Visual Arts, Science, technology, Mathematics and Logic each becomes a complete and self-referencing and self-validating language game and hermeneutical circle. “Scholars” and “Experts” within each field tend to talk to and read each other, and to ignore or subordinate the theories and ideas that come from outside their preferred field, regarding “outsiders” as having marginal credibility and limited relevance to the questions at hand. What we’re talking about here is “the sociology of knowledge,” or in layman’s terms, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

I recently read a New York Times article on Steven Pinker‘s latest book on The Angels of Our Better Nature with the provocative thesis that human nature has been slowing improving through evolutionary processes and that violence has been on the decline throughout history. Responses to his thesis are all over the map. Much of the response has come from other “cognitive and social scientists.” Some “optimistic idealists” want to believe he is essentially right. Many “pessimistic realists” think he’s wildly out of touch with the horrors and atrocities of the chaotic and violent world of modern warfare, that he has a myopic view despite his scholarly credentials. Is this a debate that any one can win? I don’t think so. “We see what we choose to see” and ignore the rest. We can’t separate the “facts” from the “values”, much as we think we can.

But here’s the thing: It’s not only cognitive and social scientists who have weighed on in the perennial mythic question of human nature. Philosophers, theologians, novelists and artists, historians and mythologists have been debating this question for centuries. It is a particular conceit of the modern age that “science” finally has the empirically factual and rationally true “answer” to the age-old mythic human questions. In the past we merely had superstition and speculation, stories and conjectures, but now we know the TRUTH because SCIENCE, god of the modern age has shown us the way. I’m not dismissing the considerable value of science, only pointing out that it can over-reach the boundaries of what it’s discipline and method legitimately allows. And of course we can distinguish between the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences which each has its internal claims to relative hegemony.

There are some kinds of questions where empirical science is the best discipline for finding reliable answers. These are questions of measurement, calculation, data and facts. But when “science” becomes “scientism” it attempts to subordinate or even replace the other liberal domains of human inquiry with its own assumptions and methods, assuming that there must be one objectively and rationally true answer for every kind of question that human beings are capable of asking. Is human nature good or evil, or a mixed bag? Are human being evolving morally and ethically; or are we devolving into technologically skilled but intellectually stunted and morally bankrupt Barbarians and Philistines; or are things pretty much the same as they’ve always been – a muddle of contradictions? Are science and technology the solution to our biggest problems and our hope for the future; or are science and technology themselves at the root of the problem of alienation and dehumanization in a mechanistic, impersonal, algorithmic and robotic world that is replacing human beings ; or are they both part of the problem and part of the solution? These are not really the kinds of questions that can be “settled” by scientific studies, and it is folly to think they can. There can be no consensus within the general public, the academic world, or the scientific community where scientific and technical questions of facts and information are really hidden philosophical and moral questions of meaning and interpretation, and where the “applications” of selective information and different interpretations are subject to wildly divergent consequential choices for good or ill in the everyday world. One can be committed to the scientific enterprise but remain wary of it whenever it over-reaches its boundaries to became a self-inflated pathological scientism.

The Questing and Spirited Self will appreciate the variety of perennial human experiences, the perennial mythic questions, and the variety of intellectual and cultural domains that have sought to explore and understand these experiences and questions in many different ways. There is no need to make an idol or god of any of our intellectual and cultural domains of liberal knowledge and creative experience. Each has a valuable but limited contribution to make in serving the human project.

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