Life’s Persistent Human Question: “What Are You Seeking?”

The Search

I am a seeker. I am one of those who has been blessed (or cursed) with the need to persistently ask the fundamental questions of life. No question is more fundamental than this one: “What do you seek?”

For me there can be no single or simple answer but rather a variety of limited perspectives and partial answers. These have to do with what I seek to be, know, love, appreciate, understand, explore, discover and create in the world.

Lately I’ve been exploring six historical paradigms as ways people see the world, and so I’ve been asking the question of “what we are seeking” in terms of these six historical paradigms: the Primordial, Traditional, Romantic, Modern, Post-Modern and Trans-Modern Perspectives.

Here’s how I think each of these six “narrative paradigms” would answer the fundamental question, “What do I seek?” Please note that these are NOT all my own points of view, but rather how I think those who fully embrace each of these paradigms would answer the question of what they seek:

1: The Primordial Paradigm: I seek to be “energetically alive” and “consciously awake” to the (paradoxical) Eternally Present and Temporally Emergent Mystery of Being and Becoming, of “Eternity that is in love with the products of Time.” I believe that all of the Primal or First Peoples of the world have understood this radical and transforming imperative to live in harmony with Mother Nature and the Great Spirit.

2: The Traditional Paradigm: I seek to know, appreciate, understand and be guided by the Fiduciary Wisdom of Authority and Tradition, especially the best that has been thought and said across the ages by history’s most profound and creative minds in all the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience. I value and respect “the wisdom of the ages” as it has been variously handed down to us in both sacred and secular “exemplary founders” and “authoritative texts” that encompass the disciplines of philosophy and religion, history and literature, the arts and sciences. I seek to be more fully educated in the Western Intellectual and Cultural tradition, and also to attain a greater appreciation for and understanding of the Eastern Intellectual and Cultural Tradition as well. I admire the great Renaissance polymaths who attempted to master multiple disciplines. I believe with George Santayana that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” One of the worst plights that can fall upon any people is that they would suffer from “historical amnesia,” that they would lose all recollection and comprehension of their past, of how it has influenced what they have become today, and of where they might be heading in the future.

3: The Romantic Paradigm: I seek to appreciate beauty, romance, imagination and enchantment. I celebrate poetry, music, drama and the arts. I view creativity as man’s greatest gift and I admire the “creative geniuses” in literature, music and arts above all other kinds of genius. I believe that “imagination is greater than knowledge.” What the world needs is more “creative visionaries” and “strong poets” who can “see eternity in a grain of sand.” I believe with the philosophical idealists that man’s “true nature” as a “spiritual being having a human experience” calls him contemplate the eternal forms of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and to give creative and artistic expression to these ideals in physical world in which we live.

4: The Modern Paradigm: I seek to use my critical reason and empirical knowledge to know what the physical and natural world consists of, and to discover through experimentation and scientific method how things work in according with underlying mechanisms, principles, laws and processes. I seek to apply this knowledge in the development of useful machines and technologies that improve the quality of life and extend the reach of human intelligence.

The scientific modernist says, I don’t understand people who are not fascinated by explanatory power of science and the efficient power of technology. I am appalled that there are still many people in our scientific age who do not believe that the earth revolves around the sun, or who know nothing about the great founders of modern science and their revolutionary discoveries. Religious fundamentalists are idiots who still live in the middle ages!

For all practical purposes science has replaced religion in the modern world. In the “trans-human” future our smart machines with artificial intelligence (AI) will achieve the “singularity” as they match and surpass human beings in their capacity not only to “calculate” and “carry out complex mechanical maneuvers” but also to “think” and perhaps even to attain the miracle of “consciousness.”

“Modernism will give way to Trans-humanism as we realize that humans are really just complex machines and that we can build machines that surpass us in many ways and at the same time can enhance our lives. This will be “the brave new world.” The time is coming when our AI robots will be able to do just about anything better than us, and they will take over most of our jobs. We’ll have to think of something else to do with our time and our lives besides work because we will have been replaced by our superiors. We had better get ready for it because it’s coming.

But I can hear the voice of a different kind of modern humanist. It goes like this: Hey, I’m a modern humanist and the trans-humanists have gone off the deep end.  What I seek is not salvation through technology but social, economic and political progress within an open democratic society. I seek environmentally sustainable ways to live that do not poison our soil, water and air. I seek the values of social justice, economic opportunity, and civil discourse. I see human consciousness, sentience, subjectivity, inter-subjectivity, narrativity and aesthetics as aspects of our “critical intelligence” that will not be replicated by artificial Intelligence. Clearly we who call ourselves modern humanists have a difference of opinion about what is most important and what values we primarily seek to realize in our lives and in the world. I seek “self-creation and social solidarity.” There is no need to fixate upon intemperate utopian or apocalyptic visions of the technological singularity. Our real challenge have to do with freedom and dignity, justice and peace, rights and responsibilities, enterprise and ecology. 

5: The Post-Modern Paradigm: I seek to appreciate and respect the multiplicity of incommensurable worldview perspectives, value systems, language games and cultural traditions by which people construct meaning and values for living. We need to give up the modernist dream of objective reason and scientific empiricism solving our greatest problems and making sense of the world. There are many different ways in which people appeal to their own reason and evidences in support of different tacit assumptions and interpretive conclusions. Facts and Values are not as separate from each other as modernists believed. “We believe that we might know” as much as “we know that we might believe.” The modernist assumption that one can have “the view from nowhere” is an illusion. All human knowledge and perception is partial and conditioned, and the observer influences that which is observed. Subjectivity and consciousness is not epiphenomenal but a primal and persistent aspect of what is.  In the quantum world “mind influences matter as much as matter influences mind.” We live in many worlds and have to respect our irreducible differences.

6. The Trans-Modern Paradigm: I seek to pluralistically integrate the multiple perspectives into a Theory of Everything rather than settle for a  polyphrenic world of radical pluralism and eclectic irony. Such a Theory of Everything can make room for the contributions of the Primordialists, Traditionalists, Romantics, Moderns and Post-Moderns without absolutizing any of their perspectives. An integral pluralist Theory of Everything encompasses the internal and external, individual and collective quadrants of reality. These four quadrants we can designate as intentional, behavioral, cultural and societal. Most theorists dwell almost exclusively within only one or two of these quadrants. We need to learn how to develop “non-reductive” theories that recognize the irreducible ontological reality of all four quadrants.

An integral pluralist Theory of Everything also encompasses a revised and updated version of the Great Chain of Being as multiple explanatory levels. The original version is “matter, body, mind, soul and spirit.” A more nuanced re-visioning includes the physical, biological, neurological, physiological, psychological, interpersonal, sociological, cognitive, imaginative, volitional, ethical, intuitive, teleological and ontological levels. These levels of being are connected holistically and relationally rather than reductively. A reductive materialist paradigm reduces all levels ultimately to the physical level alone, that is, to physics. A holistic idealist model of reality relates all levels of existence as “nested” within the Fullness of Being and Universal Mind rather than reduced to Lifeless and Mindless Dust in the  “nihil” of physical oblivion.

OK, so these represent two different worldviews. Materialists and Idealists both have their own versions of a Theory of Everything. One starts with Being and Mind. The other starts with “Matter in the Void.” Dualists and Panpsychists also have their own Theories of Everything as well. For Dualists reality consists of two separate and non-overlapping realms, Spirit and Matter, Mind and Body. For Panpsychists Mind and Matter are not “dual” but rather “non-dual” in their relationship as the implicit and explicit, internal and external, mental and physical, subjective and objective aspects of a single co-arising reality.

Where do we go from here as “seekers?” How do we best account for our real differences in the ways we react and respond to the fundamental questions of life?

One way to account for these persistent differences is in the study of brain-hemisphere dominance. Leonard Shain explored this territory in his book “The Alphabet and the Goddess.” Iain McGilchrist has more recently explored it in “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Mind and the Making of the Western World.” Some people primarily see the world through the faculties of the right-brain. Their view is holistic, introspective, intuitive, affective, and perceptive. Other people primarily see the world through the faculties of the left-brain. Their view is reductive, empirical, sensory, cognitive and judicial. The right-brain is looking for and naturally sees “both-and.” the left brain is looking for and naturally sees “either-or.” Each side sees what it is looking for, and minimizes the influence of the other side of the brain. In “whole-brain learning” one attempts to integrate the two hemispheres in such a way as to make room for “both-and paradox” and “either-or logic,” for whole and parts, imagination and reason, art and science.

Another approach is to recognize that some people have a higher need for certitude than others, while others are more comfortable with ambiguity. Eric Hoffer’s book “The True Believer” and Robert Jay Lifton’s book, “The Protean Self” both explore this relationship between certitude and ambiguity, as well as the relationship between those who seek a single exclusive explanatory answer and those who prefer to live in a world with multiple and inclusive explanatory answers to the big questions they ask in life.

Religious and Secular “True Believers” have more in common with each other than either does with those who prefer to employ language and words in a metaphorical, figurative, analogical and relational way rather than in a literal, factual, absolute and exclusionary way. Literalists tend to assume a “correspondence theory” between the words they speak and a reality outside the self that they seek to properly name.

Non-literalists, some of whom but not all are post-modern ironists, see the relationship between human words and prime reality as more indirect and complex, loaded with multiple resonances and variant meanings. Non-literalists don’t deny the “external reality” of a physical world outside the self as solipsists do. They are not radical subjectivists but neither are they radical objectivists. Their linguistic and conceptual approach includes the subjective, intersubjective and objective dimensions. Michael Polanyi’s epistemology of “personal knowledge” that combines both the tacit and explicit dimensions exemplifies this approach that results in a “third culture” that stands between Romantic subjectivism and Modernist objectivism.

Non-literalists may enjoy exploring the world of ideas and be drawn to some ideas more than others, but they tend to be weary of all ideas that become “reified” or concretized into exclusive ideologies. This applies to the four  major worldview ideologies of dualism, materialism, idealism and psychism. It also applies to the four major political ideologies of conservatism, liberalism, libertarianism and communitarianism. Non-literalists are “principled pragmatists” take words seriously but not literally. They know that our abstract words always have a “surplus of meaning” and are “contexually situated.”

Those with an inordinate need for “certitude” will be drawn toward the archetypal and explanatory power of a single ideology to such a degree that they become zealous “True Believers.” Those who appreciate the rational, existential, aesthetic and ethical appeal of particular ideas may become “provisionally committed” to them and appreciate their practical utility in the present situation but they resist becoming zealously partisan “True Believers.” With Socrates the “philosophical seeker” knows the limits of his own knowledge. He knows that he do not know. With Nicolas of Cusa he practices “learned ignorance.” With Montaigne he confesses, “What do I know?” With Keats he practices “Negative Capability.” With Rilke he seeks to “live the questions.” Reverent agnosticism may make room for gnosis or “inner knowing” and for transcendent vision and instinctive faith, but it does not confuse faith with knowledge, or fiduciary trust with dogmatic certitude.

This past weekend I read Michael Krasny’s “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest.” It’s a quick and easy read, mostly autobiographical of the author’s journey as a Bay Area radio talk-show host in dialogue with all kinds of people, especially “Believers and Skeptics.” Krasny makes it clear that he respects (and almost envies) people of different faiths while he himself remains by temperament a incurable agnostic. He distances himself from celebrities whom he has encountered as “belligerent and arrogant atheists” who speak contemptuously of all persons of faith, often distorting their beliefs and pathologizing all religion.

Krasny, too, has carved out a “third culture” for those “reverent agnostics” like himself who appreciate the spiritual quest, and the struggles of those who have undertaken such heroic quests, even if the quest has not yielded any definitive or conclusive answers for him, at least none that sweep away the persistent experience of uncertainties and doubts. Krasny exemplifies the person who experiences a bit of “spiritual envy” toward those who have found peace of mind and serenity through following some spiritual path, but who knows himself well enough to recognize that he will never be at home as either a “True Believer” or a “Belligerent Skeptic.”

Attempting to live in the “DMZ” between hard-core believers and hard-core unbelievers is a good way to be mistaken as the enemy and shot at from both sides. I myself are familiar with this experience. In a world dominated by “dualistic thinking” in both religion and politics those who choose to live in “dialectical tension” must be prepared for criticism from both sides of the dialectic. It was his commitment to dialectic that landed Socrates in trouble with the authorities of ancient Athens and it still lands dialectical thinkers in trouble with the thought police today.

Even the dualistic language of “believers and “unbelievers” is problematic because “believers” don’t believe just anything, and “unbelievers” do believe some things. It would be clearer to say that there are two (and actually many) kinds of believers. In popular discourse what is implied if not made explicit is that “believers” think there is (or may be) more to reality than the material world, and that there may be more ways of knowing the depths of reality than the scientific method of naturalistic empiricism alone. By contrast, “unbelievers” deny and reject that claim in whatever dualistic, idealist or panpsychist form it takes, and insist that the material or physical world is all there is, Further, they insist that there is only one true and reliable way of knowing that world. It is scientific empiricism under the interpretative framework of naturalistic materialism or physicalism. Any “meta-physical” world beyond “physics” is categorically denied. “What you see is what you get.” So the real distinction is between those who believe in physics PERIOD and those who believe in physics and metaphysics.

What do you seek? This is a question that will remain with us as long as human beings remain capable of philosophical reflection. It is not enough simply to “eat, drink and be merry,” to live lives of mindless distraction and conspicuous consumption. We are creatures who are “natural-born seekers.” It is our birth-right and innate calling as human beings. When human beings cease to be thoughtful and passionate seekers, one must suspect that something has gone terribly wrong. To be a “seeker” is to be vitally alive and consciously awake to the mystery of reality and the wonder of our existence. Albert Einstein wrote, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein too was a seeker. What do you seek?

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