The protean scholar & multi-disciplinary polymath: Lessons from Michael Polanyi

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This week I’ve enjoyed reading an excellent “philosophical biography” (if that’s a genre), entitled  Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. I’ve been struck by several statements that provide insight into the remarkable character, sensibility, curiosity and achievement of Michael Polanyi, the scientist turned philosopher.

“Had one not merely to know Polanyi in an unprejudiced way to realize that here one was dealing with an Erasmian man, with the protean scholar?”

Erasmus was a Renaissance man, cultural literati and Christian humanist, as well as the intellectual nemesis of Luther who demonized “bastard reason” on behalf of authoritarian  “faith” whose glory is that it contradicts reason. Pascal would famously say that “the heart has its reasons that reason knows not of,” but Pascal, a brilliant mathematician, would never demonize critical reason or empirical science in the matter of Luther.

Proteus is the shape-shifting god who can take many forms. To be a “protean scholar” is to flexibly adapt one’s intellectual and creative inquiry to different domains of knowledge and to fluently speak the acquired languages of those respective domains without reducing all knowledge to one single privileged domain. To be a protean scholar is to transcend narrow academic and disciplinary specialization. It is to see things from multiple perspectives and even to consider the possiblility that several of they of not all of them may be partly right.

To be a “protean scholar” is also to develop a kind of epistemological variety and flexibility, just as a carpenter learns to use many different tools rather than just rely on a hammer for every building job. So people only learn how to use a “hammer” for every intellectual inquiry and for every practical situation in life. They have never met a question or a problem that they could not answer or solve by just clobbering it into cowering submission. Robert Jay

Any discussion of the “protean scholar” can hardly slip by without mentioning the related idea of “Protean man” that is credited to psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton’s idea is that the “protean man” embraces multiple perspectives at once, modifying them at will, and then lets them go only to re-embrace them in a playful (sometimes seriously playful) manner. He contrast’s the “protean man” with the “the fundamentalist.” That
The Protean man could also be considered an ironist, someone who is “always aware that the terms in which they describe them selves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves” — as stated by Richard Rorty. If there is one thing Protean man or the ironist finds difficult, it is committing to a single perspective among a plethora of options and then acting on it. Rorty distinguishes between metaphysicians and ironists, correlating with philosophical realists and nominalists, as well as absolutists and relativists. When one understands Polanyi’s highly nuanced epistemology, it is clear that he is neither an authoritarian metaphysician nor an ludic ironist, a modern scientistic objectivist or a post-modern literary narrative subjectivist. He offers a middle way, a third culture that transcends this dichotomy that runs through the modern academy and popular culture.
And then there was this statement: “Polanyi was unusual even as a scientist in that he was active in both theoretical and experimental work (as a physical chemist). A keen mind coupled with a rigorous and broad liberal education provided him with the capacity to pursue interests outside of his field of expertise (in physical chemistry); the political upheavals of twentieth-century Europe provided the catalyst.” One may possess a “keen mind” that inquires about many things but be sadly deprived of a “liberal arts education.” Or one may be given the gift of “a liberal arts education” but without a “keen mind” that dares to reflect upon knowledge and experience, to ask interesting and provocative questions, and go outside the field of one’s narrow expertise, it will count for little.

Polanyi’s boyhood education included private tutoring in English, French, German, and the Hungarian that was spoken in the home. What an advantage it is for the budding polymath to become fluent in multiple languages which involve a vast repertoire of lexicons of meaning and idioms of expressions.

Polanyi was introduced to the writings of Schiller, Goethe, Corneille and Racine. These are the great German Romantic writers. Goethe is, of course, the quintessential scientific, philosophical, literary and artistic polymath, as well as a man familiar with the civic, social, economic and political world in which he lived.

Here’s another clue: “The intellectual climate in Budapest at the time was vibrant, and Cecile-Mama, Michael’s mother, established a salon that attracted a wide variety of artists and writers. Both of Polanyi’s parents were engaged in a robust intellectual and cultural life. They were avid readers and they were friends to many different artists and writers. Imagine the stimulating influence this would have on a young mind.

As Polanyi later described it, “I grew up in this circle, dreaming of great things.” Who wouldn’t under such a rich informal apprenticeship and mentoring influence? It is not difficult to see where his idea of the normative and regulative value of “tradition and authority” within a “community of practice” comes from. He witnessed the intellectual stimulation and enchanting delight of a “living community of practice” in the presence of his mother’s conversational salon among gifted artists and writers who learned their crafts from the established masters of their disciplines as well as from each other. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” mutually benefit and enrich each other, as T.S. Eliot so eloquently puts it in his famous essay.

Emerson’s libertarian ideas of “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” are valuable correctives to slavish and unthinking conformity to ideas and traditions that belong to the historical past. But they have always needed the corrective of a highly diverse yet broadly normative intellectual and scholarly tradition that manifests itself in a mentored and disciplined “community of practice.” Without this we have no way to critically challenge “the lunatic fringe” of unbridled solipsism, pseudo-intellectualism, rhetorical propaganda and ignorant stupidity. The fact of the matter is that Emerson himself enjoyed such a “community of practice” among his highly educated and cultured transcendentalist friends. He even encouraged them to develop “portfolios” of their intellectual and creative work to be shared and reviewed by each other. His editorial work with “The Dial” is further evidence that he valued participation a “community of practice.” Emerson was not entirely again the epistemological value of  “Authority (meaning Expertise) and Tradition (meaning Legacy).” He just wanted to create a new one in America that was free of old European influence.  And so it seems clear that he denied in theory what he affirmed in practice.

Then there is this: “During the eight years at the Minta Gymnasium, Polanyi studied history, literature, language, science and mathematics. By his own admission, physics and art history were his favorite subjects–an early foreshadowing of the breadth of interest that would characterize the rest of his life.” Physics and art. I’m reminded of Leonard Shlain’s fascinating book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, and also of his later book, Art and Physics, on how new scientific theories and discoveries have often been anticipated (by decades if not centuries) by intuitive insights and imaginative visions expressed in the metaphorical and symbolic languages of literature and the arts.

This phenomenon illustrates and supports Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge mutually interact with and influence each other in a continual feed-back loop. Shlain, a brain surgeon by profession, also developed into a polymath. Like Polanyi he was a broad-minded and passionately intelligent humanist who thought about life with his whole-brain. He brought the right brain hemisphere and left brain hemisphere, the tacit dimension and the explicit dimensions together. The ancient Taoist tradition expresses this vision of the receptive, perceptive, inward-looking and affective Yin and the active, judicial, outward-looking and cognitive Yang being symbiotically inter-connected within the Integral, Emergent and Ineffable Tao. Jung’s conceptual model for psychoanalytic psychology is deeply influenced by philosophical Taoism.

Mark Mitchell also makes the point that Polanyi began as an “outsider” to the established scientific community and that he would probably not have been able to make some of his most brilliant scientific discoveries that relied upon his own tacit knowledge as much as upon established scientific facts if he had not possessed the independence of mind to think outside the system.

It is said that “a system cannot understand itself.” It cannot understand anything that may exist in a dimension, level or realm outside of above “the system.” Anything o”utside” is variously “labeled” as an anomaly, antimony, conundrum, fluke, blip, absurdity, contradiction, mystery, perplexity, problem or paradox.  We have a whole vocabulary for such phenomena. When enough of these unexplainable phenomena beyond the standard norms of deviation pile up, the system is ripe for a paradigm shift, a revolution in thinking. Intellectual paradigms and cultural zeitgeist sometimes seem to change at the speed of a glacier melting. But at other times these profound shifts occur as a “punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Jay Gould.

At such times thoughtful and inquisitive individuals begin to look for alternative explanations that can give a more full and complete account of both natural phenomena and human experience, fashioning new theories and narratives into more elegant and encompassing patterns of meaning and relationships. They often transgress intellectual boundaries and make new connections across disciplinary lines. That is why “protean scholars” and “multi-disciplinary polymaths” are so often thought leaders who live on the forefront of change and the edge of history.

It needs to be noted that even Albert Einstein, who generally respected Polanyi as a brilliant scientific thinker, thought he was wrong about some of his scientific ideas and observations. However, those ideas and observations were validated as accurate decades later by the established scientific community. There is something to be said for the independent scholar and organic intellectual who respects the authority and tradition of  established communities of practice in various disciplines of knowledge and domains of life, but who also enjoys a measure of freedom and autonomy from their potentially stultifying and leveling influences. It is a delicate balance between the extremes of totalitarian conformity and anarchistic eccentricity.

Polanyi’s later ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge are consistent with his lifelong passion for developing a diversified epistemology that vindicates multiple ways of knowing rather than only the “scientific method” as often falsely construed as a strictly empirical objectivist endeavor. He continually gleaned new insights, illuminations, knowledge and understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality as he explored the domains of science, philosophy, history, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics, values and religion. Though his early  professional expertise and success was as a chemist, Polanyi’s gradual adoption of “anti-reductionism” (that would reduce all valid knowledge to mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology) was rooted in his broad liberal arts education, placing the sciences, arts and humanities in a collegial relationship of mutual dialogue. This approach gave him an approach “to knowing and being” that understood reality on multiple levels, rather than flattened out into only one level. E.F. Schumacher develops a similar multi-layered epistemology in A Guide for the Perplexed and Small Is Beautiful. Universal Polymaths think differently than parochial specialists. In the famous analogy of the Hedgehog and the Fox, scientific specialists tend to be Hedgehogs while humanistic generalists tend to be Foxes.

In his book, More Than Matter? Is There More to Life than Molecules, by Keith Ward, the author begins by quoting Francis Crick as an example of the reductionist mentality: “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve-cells and their associated molecules.” Crick was a brilliant scientist and a co-discoverer of DNA, but his worldview is extremely limited. It reduces all of life to the one discipline he happened to have devoted his entire scholarly life to studying. It is easy to see how one might make this mistake, explaining all the complexities of nature and human existence strictly in of the algorithms, calculations, mechanisms and laws associated with math, physics, chemistry, botany, biology, or even cognitive and social science.

Keith Ward’s book is one of many scholarly critiques of such a narrowly reductionist approach. The most credible critics of one-dimensional objectivism, hyper-rationalism and scientistic reductionism are probably those, like Polanyi, who devoted most of his life to doing serious scientific work in critical dialogue among the leading scientists of his time and within an established community of practice. His unique approach avoided the snares of both modern objectivism and post-modern subjectivism.

Polanyi’s development as both a scientist and a polymath meant that he was deeply interested in understanding and engaging all the sciences, but he was also interested in exploring the philosophy of science, including its epistemological foundations. He was interested in understanding and engaging philosophy, economics, politics, art, literature, ethics and religion, each on its own terms and within its own fiduciary framework of a “scholarly tradition” and “community of practice”, without reducing them to the domains of math, physics, chemistry and biology.

Polanyi clearly had a high regard for the scientific enterprise and for scientific method. He always regarded his knowledge and mastery of scientific inquiry as the best training for his later studies in philosophy and the other liberal disciplines. But he did not “inflate” science into the sum of all knowledge and the only valid method of knowing,  thus turning science into scientism. His broad liberal education endowed him with an equally broad epistemological orientation that unleashed his ability to approach all the liberal arts as mutual colleagues rather than an imperial territorial game of King of the Mountain. And that, quite simply, is the genius of the protean scholar and the multi-disciplinary polymath!

[Note: There is much more to be said about the genius of Michael Polanyi. That I will save for another blog. A short reading list includes: Michael Polanyi, by Mark T. Mitchell. Books by Michael Polanyi include: Knowing and Being. Personal Knowledge. The Tacit Dimension. The Study of Man, Meaning. Wikipedia has a good introduction. Surf the Web. There is a Polanyi Society. Find out thinkers have been influenced by his ideas of the tacit dimension and personal knowledge. The literary critic F.R. Leavis was profoundly influenced by reading “Knowing and Being.” See who else has developed similar ideas without any knowledge of or reference to the work of Polanyi. It is not unusual to find several great minds that come upon similar ideas during the same period and under the same pressures of historical challenge and cultural development.]

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After Nihilism: “Tending the Soul & Repairing the World”

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What are we to make of nihilism? Some think it is the major problem of our times. Others think it is the normal human condition. Some think it is “the spirit of our age.” Some think it is an attitude and life stance to be passionately embraced, whether pessimistically or gleefully. Others think it is a critical challenge to be confronted and overcome.

Still others have never given it a second thought. Some may even be “banal nihilists” who have never even heard of the word and yet their entire worldview and way of life is unconsciously nihilistic. Some may be “card-carrying nihilists” who ironically find “meaning” in telling others with evangelistic zeal that “life is meaningless.” Finally, some have used philosophical and ethical nihilism as a cover to justify crime, vice, corruption, mayhem, madness and murder.

What is nihilism? The question of definition exposes the problem in formulating a coherent and consistence response to it. Bing’s dictionary offers three different meanings:

  1. total rejection of social mores: the general rejection of established social conventions and beliefs, especially of morality and religion
  2. belief that nothing is worthwhile: a belief that life is pointless and human values are worthless
  3. disbelief in objective truth: the belief that there is no objective basis for truth
Wikipedia offers a good introduction to the idea of nihilism:

Nihilism (/ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/ or /ˈn.ɨlɪzəm/; from the Latin nihil, nothing) is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism, which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.[1] Moral nihilists assert that morality does not inherently exist, and that any established moral values are abstractly contrived. Nihilism can also take epistemological or ontological/metaphysical forms, meaning respectively that, in some aspect, knowledge is not possible, or that reality does not actually exist.

The term is sometimes used in association with anomie to explain the general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realising there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws.[2] Movements such as Futurism and deconstruction,[3] among others, have been identified by commentators as “nihilistic” at various times in various contexts.

Nihilism is also a characteristic that has been ascribed to time periods: for example, Jean Baudrillard and others have called postmodernity a nihilistic epoch,[4] and some Christian theologians and figures of religious authority have asserted that postmodernity[5] and many aspects of modernity[3] represent a rejection of theism, and that such rejection of their theistic doctrine entails nihilism.

The Wikipedia article distinguishes between different forms of nihilism, including metaphysical, epistemological, mereological (or compositional), existential, moral, and political nihilism. It presents a brief history of nihilism and its critics, including Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, along with the views of post-modernism, transcendental nihilism, methodological naturalism and scientific reductionism. Finally, it identifies the influence of nihilism in culture, including Dada, literature, music and film.

If one turns to Amazon Books one will discover a variety of scholarly expositions of nihilism. One book titled Nihilism by Freydis has this provocative lead-in:

“Nihilism represents the greatest existential challenge in human history, and no matter how hard you may try you cannot avoid it! Yet despite this importance rarely has a critical concept been more widely misunderstood, largely because so many lack the words and ideas needed to visualize and describe what is in fact a remarkably widespread sentiment. And now one iconoclastic author and radical thinker delivers what may be the most revolutionary book in print since Darwin’s The Origin of Species.”

Here we are being told that nihilism is the greatest existential challenge of our time, that it is more pervasive than most people realize, and that it is a concept that is widely misunderstood. If all this is true then it appears that nihilism is a complex idea, a perplexing condition and a cultural phenomena to which we had better give greater attention.

One response to nihilism is expressed in a book entitled “F**k it.” This response seems to be saying that nihilism is the way of nature, the human condition, the ethos of modernity, and the state of the world, so if you can’t beat um, join um. Just don’t care and don’t give a damn what other people think. Go your own way and do your own thing because in the end none of it matters anyway. We’re just “dust in the wind.”

Another response to nihilism says that nihilism is a condition to be confronted and overcome. Nietzsche advocates the way of self-overcoming and the will to power. Sartre advocates existential courage to live authentically and without “bad faith” in the face of meaningless futility. Camus advocates the hero of the absurd, “imagining Sisyphus smiling.” Heidegger and Tillich advocate the courage to be and the encounter with the Eternal Now after the shaking of the foundations. Pascal and Kierkegaard advocate the existential wager and theistic leap of faith. Michael Polanyi advocates the realization of “tacit knowledge and the personal dimension” that is ontologically transcendent and epistemologically prior to Cartesian substance extension, rational theory and scientific empiricism. John Haught advocates the spiritual implications of man’s “critical intelligence” (which includes affectivity, intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics and theoria). David Ray Griffin and Christian de Quincey advocate process panpsychism. Emerson, influenced by neo-platonism, Hindu Vedanta, Kantian transcendental idealism and English Romanticism advocates transcendentalism; Loren Eiseley and Ursula Goodenough advocate poetically and quasi-spiritually enriched approaches to the sciences of paleontology and biology. Karl Jaspers and Ken Wilber advocate philosophical visions of Encompassing and Integral Reality; Terry Eagleton advocates a transcendence of nihilism through literary and social criticism, including a Marxist apologetic and critique of Capitalism. William James advocates  the pragmatic “the will to believe” in human values and spiritual transcendence in the midst of an ambiguous and pluralistic universe. Richard Rorty advocates a neo-pragmatic post-modern commitment to the values of “contingency, irony, and solidarity” without appeal either metaphysical or empirical claims such as religion and science, tradition or progress.

My point here is that there are all kinds of ways in which different persons have attempted to confronte and overcome the challenge of nihilism. Of course there are disagreements among those who have taken different paths, and some will accuse others of either evading the issue or falling short in their attempt to transcend emptiness, futility, meaninglessness and despair.

Others have been content to accept nihilism as the universal human condition and the final word on the subject. However, among card-carrying nihilists we can distinguish between three types: (1) deconstructive anarchists to say “to hell with everybody and everything;” (2) unconscious and assimilated players who take nihilism for granted and don’t think it’s a big deal. They might say “Sure, life sucks and then you die, but what are you gonna do about it? Just have a good time, life and let die.” (3) constructivist and transcendental nihilists who believe that since life has no intrinsic meaning we are radically free to construct our own subjective and personally satisfying meanings, or “immortality projects” as Ernest Becker called them.

A nihilistic constructivist might say, “In the end we all still die, but along the way we can enjoy “the illusions of meaning” and the useful fictions that we have constructed to give temporary shape and purpose to our shapeless and purposeless universe. We build our sand-castles along the seashore, knowing that soon the sea will come to wipe out our creative projects. But that’s OK because it is our instinctivenature to enjoy “lucid play” even in the face of its nihilistic negation. And who knows, maybe even if we cannot have what we really want, which is personal immortality, we can achieve a kind of ‘symbolic immortality’ in creating beautiful and useful things, and advancing the pursuit of knowledge, the care of the earth and the betterment of society during our objectively absurd but subjectively meaningful sojourn.”

I do believe that nihilism (and responses to it) represents one of the important challenges of our modern secular age, that its influence is more pervasive and banal than most people realize, that it is largely operating below our personal and collective radar, and that it is seriously misunderstood. My own response to the challenge of nihilism is a conviction that after we have faced up to and passed through the Dark Night of nihilism that we can come out the other side to begin the work of healing our souls and repairing our world. For me “giving up” and surrendering in defeat to meaninglessness, normlessness, futility and despair is not a viable option. Nor is shaking our fist in angry rage a real solution. The questions I ask of all philosophies and sciences, arts and letters, economics and politics, trades and technologies is this: What are you doing to heal the soul and repair the world? Do you have an “immortality project” or at least a “mortality project” that gives your life meaning and purpose beyond mere survival, security, diversion and amusement? If so, what is it? In what ways do you seek to realize your creative  potential and to make a caring difference in your world? If you are committed to caring and creativity, to moral courage and conscious living then you are not a nihilist. You are saying a profound “yes” to life.

The Transcendentalist Vision: Affirming Nature, Life, Mind, Meaning, Values and Hope

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There can be no doubt that “transcendentalal idealism” and “scientific naturalism” represent two divergent worldviews. Transcendentalists have no need to deny the partial truths and relative values of various theories and discoveries within the physical, natural, cognitive and social sciences, but they view reality as layered in such a way that a Higher Order of Reality informs and inhabits the physical dimension of existence. For  transcendentalists there is no need for a zero-sum debate as between Creationists and Evolutionists.  For transcendentalists the relation between transcendent Spirit and immanent Nature is not oppositional or even separate as in dualism. Conflict would only happen between the physical substance view and the mental ideation view if either the Naturalistic Perspective or the Transcendental Perspective were to dogmatically insist that it ALONE has perceived, discovered and contained the totality of reality and the summation of truth. Of course there are those who take this stance, but it is an unnecessary one.

Why does one who has been raised into the modern secular culture of scientific naturalism become a transcendentalist? Perhaps it is only when one has read the many bleak and pessimistic accounts of reality that have been given by various “sober naturalists” and has followed the “logic” of naturalism to its stark conclusion of nihilistic absurdity and existential despair that one might be ready to search for a viable alternative. “Sunny naturalists” deny any connection between naturalism and nihilism while sober ones not only admit it but wear it as a badge of honor, boasting that they at least have the stoic courage to admit that ultimately our entire existence is meaningless and futile. In my last blog I quoted three “sober naturalists” who express a vision of “meaningless existence” and “unyielding despair.” I could quote a dozen more. Yet “sunny naturalists” deny any link between naturalism and nihilism, and distance themselves from those naturalists with a more bleak assessment of man’s fragile and fleeting place within our accidental and unintended universe.

To be fair to scientific naturalism there are those writers like Paul Davies (a physicist), Ursula Goodenough (a biologist), and Loren Eiseley (a paleontologist) who do not drive a wedge between science and spirituality, immanence and transcendence, physics and metaphysics, but instead approach the Sacred Mystery within the context of their scientific disciplines. Their “religious naturalism” leans up against the door of transcendentalism without opening the door and walking through it.

The transcendentalist perspective begins with a spiritual intuition that the natural endowments of organic life, conscious mind, tacit knowledge and critical intelligence all point toward a Higher Source that informs and dwells within the physical dimension of existence but is not entirely limited or contained by it. It begins with the “tacit knowledge” that our temporal existence is rooted in Universal Being, and that the transcendental ideas of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love are not merely nominal reification of linguistically and culturally constructed sentimentality but real and enduring insights into the fundamental nature of reality.

Of course this is where transcendentalists and naturalists must “agree to disagree.” Transcendentalists maintain that without these transcendental ideas from a higher source and our anticipatory future quest “to be and to know” are both ultimately frustrated. If our entire existence accidentally and pointlessly evolved from an originally  lifeless and mindless universe, and if all the processes of our human existence and experience can be fully explained by appeals to physical, chemical, psychological and social mechanisms, and if the whole cosmic, natural, historical and human drama ultimately ends in utter extinction and annihilation, then why should we care about the charade of our fleeting and ephemeral existence? “It’s all gonna fade.” Further, why should we trust our minds=brains to know the truth of “what is” if “mind” reduces to “brain” and “brain” reduces to the accidental, mechanistic, deterministic and probabilistic epiphenomenon of lifeless and mindless matter? Why should “life” and “mind” matter in a fundamentally mindless and lifeless universe that produced us as a sa kind of freak accident, a highly improbable fluke?

Naturalists, on the other hand, criticize transcendentalists for positing the timeless reality of metaphysical ideas such as Being, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love “without a shred of scientific evidence” as understood within boundaries of empirical scientific method and the assumed worldview of scientific naturalism. Naturalists will maintain that while such “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” that includes our experiences of subjectivity,  intersubjectivity, metaphors, aesthetics, symbols and rituals, art and music are personally meaningful and scientifically interesting, they are finally reducible to observable and measurable physical and bio-chemical processes, combined with psychological mechanisms and cultural socialization.  The need of and evidence for transcendental ideas is therefore categorically denied.

Transcendentalists respond by saying that unless our transitory and improbable existence is rooted in Transcendent Being, and unless our physical, biological, psychological and social existence is informed by the “innate ideas” of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, these words have no real meaning. In this case our quest for the truth of “what is” reduces “mind” to “brain” and “sentient life” to “dead matter” in a pointless universe in which the most honest response is one of futility and despair.

When those who formally deny any appeal to these transcendental ideas continue to live as if these ideas did make some existential and moral claim upon them, they are not being consistent with their own presuppositions. They are living a contradiction, declaring that life is ultimately meaningless and futile while continuing to live as if it were at least temporarily meaningful and hopeful, and as if the transcendental ideas still had some existential and moral value for them.

This was Nietzsche’s criticism of his fellow naturalists who did not see that the logic of naturalism demands a radical “transvaluation of values,” “the death of God” and with it the death the compassionate humanitarian values associated with democratic liberalism. Nietzshe viewed these as rooted in a synthesis of the transcendental ideals of the Socratic, Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Jewish and Christian traditions, and so he wanted to replace them with the Promethean “anti-christ” and “super-man” for “whom might makes right.” In Nietzsche’s view the heroic “will to power” must replace the saintly “power of love” and the philosophical search for “eternal truth.”  “Sunny naturalists” want to continue  feeding upon the fruits of our civilization’s transcendental traditions while severing its roots. Nietzsche saw this as a cowardly evasion by sunny naturalists and liberal humanists.

Some transcendentalists emphasize the timeless and eternal nature of Being in Itself. These are identified with Neo-Platonism, Vedanta,  the Perennial Philosophy and The Traditionalists, among others.

The term Perennial philosophy was popularized in more recent times by Aldous Huxley, who was profoundly influenced by Vivekanda’s Neo-Vedanta and Universalism,[26] in his 1945 book: The Perennial Philosophy. He defined the perennial philosophy as:

“the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical to, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being; the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

Other transcendentalists emphasize the evolutionary, emergent, novel and creative nature of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being that is also the Lure of the Future. They include process philosophers and theologians, including the contributions of Tielhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Henry Bergson, Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, among others. Ken Wilber and other Integral Thinkers have combined elements of both the Perennial and Process philosophical traditions, along several other traditions as well. Wilber’s placement of various major intellectual theorists within his four ontological and epistemological quadrants is brilliant and worth examining, but that will have to wait for another occasion.

Perennial Philosophers and Process Philosophers are both critics of the worldview of scientific naturalism, also called materialism and physicalism. Perennial Philosophers locate the transcendent reality metaphorically “above” the mundane world of the senses even while it dwells within it. Process Philosopher locate the transcendent reality “ahead” in the anticipatory future. Some Process Philosophers call themselves pan-en-theists to distinguish themselves from pantheists. They may also call themselves panpsychists or pan-experientialists to distinguish themselves from both dualists and idealists. A brief visit to Wikipedia will clarify these distinctions.

What Perennialists and process philosophers, pantheistic idealists and panentheistic panpsychists have in common is their view that the “later and more complex” emergence of Life and Mind, and  of tacit knowledge and critical intelligence are more disclosing of “what is” and “what may yet become” than the reductive naturalist’s appeal to “earlier and simpler” forms of inorganic matter various deterministic mechanisms.

Let me sum up: For transcendentalists of every kind there is a shared conviction that unless our temporal existence is grounded in Universal Being and our psychological and cultural values are rooted in an appeal to such transcendent ideas as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love, the human enterprise must inevitably and ultimately be frustrated and end in meaningless and futility. I suspect that it is only when one becomes disillusioned with scientific naturalism as a total worldview that one considers alternatives such as transcendentalism. The reverse is also true. After the era of American transcendentalism that was led by such figures as Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Thoreau and Whitman, there was a counter-movement by the “anti-transcendentalists” who followed, expressed in the writings of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Twain, Thomas Hardy, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and others. The modern literary and philosophical movements of realism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, absurdism, parody and ironism tell a story of descent into the abyss, life rendered increasingly tragic, cruel, ridiculous, irrational, fatalistic, meaningless absurd. Scientific naturalism as a reductive and mechanistic worldview has nothing to offer us that will essentially alter this story of our collective cultural descent into the abyss. Transcendentalism matters because it affirms the primacy of life, mind, meaning and hope in a way that naturalism is not able to do.

What Is? The Question of Life & Mind, Meaning & Truth in the Age of Science

what is_

“What is?” It is the first elemental question, along with other questions such as what can we know about what is? How can we know it? What is nature? What is a human being? How ought we to live? How ought we to relate to others? What is the good society? And for what can we hope? These are the great questions of life. It would be a sad thing for these questions to go out of the world, as indeed they have for those who are entirely preoccupied with the questions survival, safety, security, pleasure, power, belonging, achievement, status, wealth and success.

What is? What is real? What is true? Can we know, and if so how? And how might this knowledge influence the way we choose to live? Is the ultimate reality of “what is” friendly, hostile or indifferent? Is our human existence meaningful or absurd? What, if anything, is worth caring about and striving for? Is our future bright or bleak, or is the future ambiguous and inscrutable?

I’ve been asking these kinds of questions my entire life, as I indicated in a previous blog. I’ve figured out that one of the reasons I read books is to see what others have to say about the elemental question of “What is.”

Here are the titles of several books – point & counterpoint – that attempt to answer the question of “what is” in very different ways:

The God Delusion: Why There Almost Certainly Is Not a God, by Richard Dawkins

Why There Is Almost Certainly a God: Doubting Dawkins, by Keith Ward

Nature Is Enough: Religious Naturalism and the Meaning of Life, by Loyal Rue

Is Nature Enough: Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, by John Haught

The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays, by Albert Camus

The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio

Beyond Good and Evil; Also Spoke Zarathustra, by Frederick Nietzsche

Way of Wisdom, An Encompassing Approach, by Karl Jaspers

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett

Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, by Carter Phipps

Of course the list of books that present different and opposing views on “what is” can go on indefinitely.  A “full spectrum analysis” of possible relationships between points of view would include thesis, antithesis, dialectical tension, integrative synthesis, pragmatic pluralism, post-modern eclecticism. It would also include various ways of  complexifying the issues, obscuring the terms, dismissing the question, or changing the subject: “What’s for lunch?” “What do our cats think about us?” “Who’s gonna win the Superbowl?”

Or sometimes the elemental question is set forth so starkly and in such a provocative manner that almost everyone will feel compelled to respond to it in one way or another. Here are three quotes regarding “what is” (and what is NOT) that will surely provoke a debate among those who think about the perennial questions of life:

“The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.” –Jacques Monod

“There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either.” -William B. Provine, Stanford University debate, 1994.

“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocation of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of the universe in ruins. . . . Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built” –Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship.

It is precisely this bleak assessment of “what is” that has led many people, including some scientists, to question the adequacy and completeness of scientific naturalism (especially scientistic reductionism) as a worldview.

Critics of this worldview claim that scientific naturalism leaves man as man, with his critical intelligence, out of the picture. Ramon Panikkar writes, “The traditional criticism of the scientific paradigm is that it leaves no place for God, to which the scientific naturalist responds that there is no need of one. But in truth, the scientific naturalist paradigm left no place for the human person. The great absentee in the scientific description of nature to this day is the human person. Gods there are aplenty, the form of black holes, galaxies, and infinities, etc….Matter and energy are all pervasive, as are time and space. Only man does not come into the picture. Man cannot be located among the data. Man is in a certain way the obstacle to pure information.”

John Haught observes that when man does come into the picture of scientific naturalism he is reduced to sociological, psychological, biological and finally physical mechanisms and processes in which both life and mind are explained (or eliminated) as “illusions of folk psychology.” This reductive approach assumes that there is only investigative method and only one explanatory level for all of reality. Haught maintains that we humans are an essential part of nature and that we have evolved a critical intelligence that includes affective, intersubjective, metaphorical, and aesthetic as well as theoretical and scientific ways of perceiving and experiencing the depths of what is.

We who are a part of nature’s unfolding have evolved the use of symbols, archetypes, analogies, music, arts, poetry and parables as ways of expressing what it is like to be an existential human being dwelling within the contingency of the  world “from the inside out.” Science only looks “from the outside in.” It sees the explicit order but entirely overlooks or marginalizes the implicit order, reducing it to the explicit order, to only that which can be explicitly and quantifiably weighted, counted and measured. Surely this is a limited and partial assessment of “what is.” It is an impersonal and objectivizing approach to “life” and “mind”, looking only from “the outside in.” By taking “critical intelligence” seriously rather than reducing “life” and “mind” to the inorganic matter and mindless neuro-chemical processes we begin to perceive the possibility of an alternative to the existential absurdity and nihilistic despair implied by any sober non-sentimental approach to scientific naturalism.

It may be helpful to summarize the ways in which scientific naturalism reduces the later-and-more-complex in our evolutionary history to the earlier-and-simplier. It “explains” the mental in terms of the physical; the organic in terms of the mechanical; the qualitative in terms of the quantitative; the tacit in terms of the explicit (Michael Polaniyi’s epistemological framework); the affective, intersubjective, narrative and aesthetic in terms of objectifying quantification; the radiance of Being in terms of the abyss of Nothingness; creative freedom in terms of causal determinism; and anticipatory purpose in terms of accidental contingency. When scientific naturalism shifts from being an empirical method to becoming a comprehensive worldview (a theory of everything), the transcendental ideas of Being, Beauty, Goodness, Truth and Love which anchor our practical existence in a tacit knowledge of meaning, purpose, anticipation and hope are dismissed as mere illusions or reduced to mathematical-physical, bio-chemical and psycho-social mechanisms. Man becomes “the ghost in the machine.”

Scientific materialism asks us to believe that a dead and mindless universe eons ago accidentally, inexplicably and improbably gave  rise to “organic life” and “conscious mind”, and to amazing beings such as ourselves who are naturally endowed with the subtleties of “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” as well as scientific powers to observe natural phenomena “from the outside.” Haught writes, “Design is the outcome of an evolutionary recipe consisting of three unintelligent ingredients: random genetic mutations along with other accidents in nature, aimless natural selection, and eons of cosmic duration. This simple formula has apparently banished purpose once and for all from the cosmos (pg. 101).”

What if there are, indeed, multiple dimensions and levels (all quadrants, all levels) to the unfolding Mystery of reality (as Ken Wilber and others propose) that has given rise over vast amounts of time and space to the marvels of organic life, conscious mind, critical intelligence, social relationships, abstract thinking and scientific inquiry? What if a scientific understanding of the external behavior of material substances and the external processes of complex systems is part of “what is” but not the whole story? What if internal individual consciousness and affective subjectivity along with internal collective intersubjectivity, metaphors and aesthetics give us a more comprehensive picture of “what is?” What if the Mystery of “what is” can we perceived and experienced on multiple levels, what the ancient wisdom traditions have called the material, somatic, mental, soulful and spiritual levels of reality?

If this is so then the dualistic debate between Creationists and Evolutionist, and between the primacy of Purposeful Mind versus Purposeless Matter becomes unnecessary since the Mystery of “what is” appears to irreducibly possess both mental and physical properties. What if the Mystery of “what is” possesses a “surplus of meaning” rather than a “deficiency of meaning?” What if the “last word” is not one of “unyielding despair” or “the horror, the horror,” as Kurtz cries out at the end of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Our “tacit knowledge” and “critical intelligence” may come to the aid of our one-dimensional “outside view” of scientific naturalism. We may come to see the Mystery of “what is” and “what may yet be” from a wider angle.

Here’s where I take a stand. Ultimately I bow in reverent silence before the ineffable and unnamable Mystery. But at the level of existential choice and moral commitment I’m wagering that something strong and undefeated in all of us longs to cry out against the ultimate meaninglessness, mechanistic mindlessness and unyielding despair that is the crippling offspring of scientific reductionism. Something in me yearns to remember the forgotten truth of all the great wisdom traditions. Something older than time desires to be seized by the “divine energies” and “transcendental powers” of Being, Wholeness, Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Freedom and Love. This is the quiet voice of Sophia. This is where Wisdom begins.

On the joys of receiving and reading new books

reading-a-book

Yesterday my most recent shipment of books from Amazon arrived at my door while I was enjoying a delightful gathering of friends for our monthly conversational salon. We were deeply engrossed in a stimulating discussion of the topic of “The Bohemians.” I hate to admit it but while we were meeting I found myself thinking from time to time about these new books that had just arrived like a message in a bottle from across the sea, and how eager I was to open the cardboard packaging they came in to explore these new invitations to wonder and reflection.

I’m one of those persons who gets as excited about receiving new books, whether in the mail or as a gift or loan from a friend, as I am about actually reading them.  A new book is an undiscovered territory, whether fiction or non-fiction, and I love the experience of being repeatedly “lost and found” through the reading of books that challenge my heart and mind to look about, go within and explore new worlds.

The recent batch included:

The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Society, by Kenneth Gergen

Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, by Peter Turchi

The Sacred Depths of Nature, by Ursula Goodenough (a worldview naturalist perspective)

Nature is Enough: Religious Naturalism and the Meaning of Life, by Loyal Rue (another naturalist perspective)

Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science, by John Haught (An evolutionary pan-en-theist perspective in the tradition of Alfred North Whitehead and Teilhard de Chardin)

The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love, by Ilia Delio (Primarily an exposition of Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary pan-en-theism, along with the ideas of  Whitehead, Alfred North Whitehead, Raimon Panikkar, Thomas Merton, Paul Tillich, Ken Wilber, Carter Phipps, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and others)

The Reflexive Universe: Evolution of Consciousness, by Arthur M. Young

Next week I’m expecting the arrival of four more books by the literary and social critic Terry Eagleton. I find him to be just the right mix of brilliant and provocative, insightful and iconoclastic, delighting and agitating my mind with his mixture of exposition and riposte, revelry and rant. There is no one I know who is more fun to “agree and disagree with” than Terry Eagleton. While of course it isn’t true, he appears as one of those writers who has “read everything.”

It’s obvious from this short list of “new and expected arrivals” that I’m fascinated by several primal human questions. One question is the nature of the self and the experience of “polyphrenic and multifarious consciousness” in our de-centered, dis-oriented, and post-modern society. A second question concerns the various ways in which creative writers use geographical metaphors to explain what they are doing, or what words and stories do, or how they map imagination’s forays. A third question concerns the fundamental nature of reality and a comparison of worldviews, including materialistic, mechanistic and reductive naturalism and its alternatives such as evolutionary pan-en-theism. A fourth question concerns the vocation of the literary essayist and social critics. In reading Terry Eagleton I’m interested in “why literature matters” and “how to read literature,” but also in his provcative re-assessment of Karl Marx and his Marxist critique of today’s  increasingly plutocratic and exploitative corporate capitalist society. I read Lionel Trilling for some of the same reasons I read Terry Eagleton, although Trilling was a passionate moderate, a principled pragmatist, while Eagleton is a liberal socialist who thinks that real Marxism, like real Christianity, has not been “tried and found wanting” but rather “wanted by rarely tried.”

Much of the pleasure of reading writers who expound on their views with brilliance and finesse is the opportunity to observe the capacious and creative mind at work! I enjoy seeing how the best writers pose their questions, explain their problems, identity their audience, present their theses, set forth their cases, give reasons, show comparisons, offer illustrations, construct a narrative arc, celebrate their champions, critique their critics, summarize their views, and invite a response.

Whether and to what extent I agree or disagree with them on various points is not unimportant to me. But it is sometimes of secondary importance compared to the value of the journey itself into the new and uncharted territory of another person’s complex and creative mind. I don’t want to know simply “where someone else ends up in their way of thinking about life,” but how they got there. I want to know how both the tacit dimension and the explicit dimensions of knowledge and experience have influenced them.

I have come to accept the fact that when it comes to life’s most fundamental questions about the nature of reality, the nature of human nature, the meaning of life and the purpose of history, if any, there can be no universal agreement. When I read the most gifted writers I find that I may fall under their spell. It is sometimes only days or weeks after I have set their books aside, often for other books, that I am able to look at their visions, values, stories and ideas with critical detachment and relative objectivity. And often when I pick up my favorite books and authors once more I find that their intellectual luminosity and sagacious powers remain.

Such is the alchemy of words and the allure of language in the hands of true masters. Not everyone, of course, has this passionately engaged relationship with books and writers. But for those of us who have found that the discovery of good books offer portals into alternative worlds unknown, nothing is more enthralling than to be taken upon a magic carpet ride,  escorted by an original and creative mind. And nothing completes our joy like sharing what we have most enjoyed and would recommend among our fellow readers.

Intellectual & Cultural History: Cooperating & Competing “reifications” of different “idioms”

reification

One way to understand the contours of intellectual and cultural history from antiquity to the present is to view it as an ever-changing reification of and competition between various idioms. Let me begin with a definition of terms:

Idiom is an expression or phrase that means something more than or other than the literal meanings of its individual words. The combined words become an integrative gestalt. Some words, when combined into a memorable phrase or combination of words, become greater than the sum of their parts. They function as a motto, slogan, tag-line or even battle-cry to symbolize and represent a vision of reality, a set of values, and a way of life.

Reification may refer to making something real, bringing something into being, or making something concrete and seemingly real. It can also mean treating an abstraction as if it were a concrete and real thing. Whitehead called reification “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Nevertheless, anytime we “transfer” our thoughts and ideas from what Michael Polanyi calls “the tacit dimension” to “the explicit dimension” we necessarily engage in a bit of reification. It is almost impossible for us to use abstract words and phrases without treating them as if they possessed a measure of actual and concrete reality, even if we insist that we are philosophical nominalists and not Platonic realists.

Traditional Religious Idioms: We can summarize the world’s various religious traditions in the form of different “reified idioms.” The most familiar of these reified idioms include:

Spirit – Nature – Human Being (First Peoples)

Being-Consciousness-Bliss (Hinduism)

Non-Attachment – Mindfulness – Compassion (Buddhism)

Yin – Yang – Taoism (Taoism)

Good – Evil – Cosmic Struggle (Zoroastrianism)

Justice – Mercy – Humility (Judaism)

Faith – Hope – Love (Saint Paul’s Christianity)

Light – Life – Love (St. John’s Christianity)

Transcendence – Surrender – Ecstasy (Islamic Mysticism)

Body-Mind- Spirit (“New Age” Holistic Spirituality)

Philosophical Idioms: In the ancient world as today that have always been those who have preferred to express their vision and values in philosophical rather than religious terms. In fact, what we find in the comparative study of the world’s religions is that all of them have variously been interpreted as either magically literalist, religiously symbolic, philosophical metaphysical, linguistically metaphorical and ethically normative.

One of the difficulties in understanding the world’s religious traditions is that there is no common consensus among those within any of the traditions as to which of these interpretative frameworks ought to be taken as authoritative and normative. Some insist, for example, that Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism are not religions but philosophies and ways of life. But That is not entirely true. One kind find all five types of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism if one looks more closely into the ever-changing and evolving traditions. The same is true of the western traditions.

The Hellenistic Philosophical Traditions: In the ancient Western World the various philosophies of the Materialistic Atomists, Spiritual Idealists, Platonic Realists, Aristotelian Scholastics, along with the post-Socratic Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics and Skeptics all developed their own reified idioms.  Among the many reified idioms that gained intellectual and cultural currency was the hyphenated ideation: Beauty – Goodness – Truth.

This Greco-Roman ideal continued throughout the Middle Ages in combination with the Judeo-Christian ideals of Justice, Mercy, Humility along with Faith, Hope and Love. This combination of visions and values drawn from the Greek, Roman, Jewish and Gentile Christian traditions formed the Grand Synthesis of the Middle Ages that lasted for a thousand years.

In the European Renaissance of the 14th and 15th Centuries “Beauty” become identified with “university studies” in the arts and aesthetics. “Goodness” became identified with studies in ethics and law. “Truth” became identified with studies in theology, philosophy, history and science. Eventually in the modern  age theology would go from being called the queen of the sciences” to be separated and marginalized from secular humanistic university studies. The long venerated reified idioms of theology would fall by the wayside.

In the modern secular age we too have our popular reified idioms that express different visions of reality and ways of life. The radical pluralism and contradictory messages expressed by these different idioms makes life in our modern and post-modern age quite baffling and bewildering for many.  Here are some reified idioms that have contemporary currency among different cultural enclaves that live “in different worlds.”

The Hedonic Life: Wine – Women – Song; Drugs – Sex –  Rock n Roll

The Ascetic Life: Silence, Solitude, Simplicity; Contemplation, Reflection, Serenity

The Traditional Life: Faith – Family – Freedom; Tradition – Law -Order

The Progressive Life: Justice, Equality, Solidarity; Health – Education – Welfare

The Libertarian Life: Guns, Guts, Glory; Independence, Self-Reliance, Private Enterprise

The Communitarian Life: Community, Creativity, Celebration; Nature, Sustainability, Ecology

In our highly complex modern “democratic society” there is a perpetual contest between a cacophony of  multiple reified idioms as they express competing visions of reality and ways of life. The jostling forces of religion and secularism, traditionalism and progressivism, individualism and community, hierarchy and equality, ideology and pragmatism are all “in play.”

In our democracy (some would say our “capitalist plutocracy” in the guise of a “liberal democracy”) the principalities and powers of the banking and finance, military and industry, technology and communications, global corporations and private enterprises, government agencies and non-governmental organizations, humanitarian societies and local co-operatives, educational institutions and media conglomerates,  sophisticated art and philistine entertainment are all contending for influence, even as they are required to cooperate with each other where necessary for mutual survival and benefit.

Our “religio-secular democratic republic” is messy enough, but its marriage to “corporate capitalism” and the power of money to influence and control the reins of society makes it even more problematic, an irreconcilable marriage of conflicting reified idioms, impossibly contradictory visions of reality and ways of life.

It does not appear that our cacophony of competing reified idioms will produce anything like the Grand Synthesis of the Middle Ages any time soon. Nevertheless, there are those identified as “cultural creatives” who hope that beyond the current cultural divide between conservative traditionalists and liberal progressives, left-wing communitarians and right-wing libertarians a new creative synthesis may emerge.

The critical challenge seems to be one of pluralistically integrating multiple tacit (or unspoken) assumptions and reified (or spoken) idioms while at the same time resisting the alienating and destructive forces of militarism and apathy, dogmatism and cynicism, authoritarianism and decadence, fundamentalism and  nihilism. What is needed is a “principled pragmatism” that can find wisdom in many counselors and unity of purpose amidst tacit and reified differences.

Existential Perplexity: Between Transcendental Hope & Nihilistic Despair

questions-god

I wonder if all “intellectually passionate types” are not at least slightly “obsessive-compulsive” when it comes to what Sam Keen calls the “primal human experiences” and “primal mythic questions” that have burned their way into the very depths of their being — body and soul.

Different “intellectual types” will be passionately preoccupied with different primal experiences and mythic questions. Those differences in experiences and questions may influence whether they are principally drawn to the variety of questions, methods, meanings and values that are alternately associated with the domains of philosophy, religion, history, mythology, literature, art, science, psychology, sociology, enterprise, ecology, economics, politics, or still other domains, in their quest for existential meaning, cognitive coherence, and personal fulfillment.

Some are drawn not by one domain but by many, or even by the ideal of the multidisciplinary polymath, thus attempting to “hold court” with many intellectual domains sitting as friends and colleagues around the table of intellectual and cultural discourse that alternates between constructive dialogue and critical debate.

I have asked myself which “primal human experiences” and “primal mythic questions” have set my mind on fire. While there are several primal experiences and questions that come to mind, one that seems to make its appearance again and again as a “leit motif” is the question of the tension between transcendental hope and nihilistic despair, with “existential perplexity” mediating between them. It is an experience of being “of two minds.” It is an experience that includes both ecstatic experiences of wonder and agonizing encounters with horror. Whole ideologies of philosophy and genres of literature have been based on either the primal experience of wonder or the primal experience of horror as their starting  point. Each view has its own partisans. The “existentially perplexed” live between these polarities — attempting to “take in” and “be taken in” by as much of the Mystery of Reality as they can handle.

Over the years I’ve collected quotes, aphorisms, essays and books by various writers, some who are clearly on the side of transcendental hope while others are clearly on the side of nihilistic despair. And then I’ve collected a third group who appear to live in the “betwixt and between” place of existential perplexity, oscillating from time to time between hope and despair. Still others seem never to have asked the question, a fact I find most astonishing.  I won’t attempt to cite various quote, aphorisms, essays and books in this blog, but you will not have difficulty finding all points of view represented once the right questions are on the mental radar.

Ask yourself these questions: “Do the authors I read and the thought leaders I follow see the supreme reality, whatever they conceive it to be, as friendly, hostile, ambivalent, inscrutable or indifferent?

Do they see it as ultimately meaningful and sublime, meaningless and absurd, or obscure and incomprehensible?

Do they counsel indefatigable hope or unyielding despair?  Or do they talk one minute about hope but then seem to sink back into despair, or begin with despair but gradually wind their way toward hope? If you ask someone who “talks like” an optimist or a pessimist if he “actually” is an optimist or a pessimist and he vigorously denies it, what do you make of that? If someone says he is a “personal optimist but a historical pessimist,” how does that play out in the living of a life which is, after all, embedded in history?

And what do you think when you are told by a “linguistic ironist” that the philosophical question of “existential meaning” is not itself “a meaningful question” because we live in an absurd naturalistic universe in which humans falsely reify nominal abstractions like “meaningful” and “meaningless” that have no objective reality or ontological substance?

What is the supreme reality? Is it the physical universe alone or is there “something more”, something more like “mind” than “matter”, or an integral combination of the two as co-emergent (the neutral monist view), in which “we live and move and have our being?” How did you come to this intuitive and/or analytical conclusion? What are its consequences for you?

What do you make of the fact that most people prefer to simply change the conversation rather than think about these ultimate concerns, to talk instead about matters more instrumental and mundane interest like “what’s for lunch?” or “who’s gonna win the Superbowl?”

Do your preferred “thought leaders” see human existence as primarily influenced and shaped by existential freedom, impersonal  forces, deterministic fate, causal chains or whimsical caprice? To what extent do they feel they have the freedom to re-imagine and re-create their situated lives?

Do they believe, and do you believe, that the conclusions they have arrived at, if any, are primarily the result of their intuitive and embodied access to the tacit dimension or of their rational and scientific analysis of the explicit dimension (See Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension and Personal Knowledge)? How do subjective, objective, and inter-sublective “ways of knowing” all come into play?

Is the dialectical tension between transcendental hope and nihilistic despair one of your primal human experiences and mythic questions? It has long been one of mine. There is a complex  idiosyncratic personal story beyond my own preoccupation with existential questions that I’ll save for another occasion. How do you live in the midst of existential perplexity? If you decide to “settle” on either ultimate hope or ultimate despair as your “final vocabulary,” how did you get there?

To what extent was your decision, or even your decision not to decide, primarily informed by tacit knowledge or explicit knowing, or more likely some combination of the two? What formative events in your own life experience have conditioned your response to this question? How aware are you of those formative experiences and the ways you have framed them into a normative paradigm not only for your life but for all of life?

Finally, if you are one of those “passionately preoccupied” intellectual types who finds himself “existentially perplexed” between the polarities of transcendental hope and nihilistic despair, how then do you endeavor to live a thoughtful, creative, graceful and fulfilling life from day-to-day? How do you translate a conscious and reflexive life of limitations and possibilities into the practical art of living?