[This is the fifth piece in the series published on 3QuarksDaily]
Our contemporary secular worldview, though filled with knowledge and insights, is inadequately developed. It fails to provide the means for comprehending some important realities that religious perspectives, from which the secular culture has departed, were able to provide.
It is not surprising that the secular worldview would have some such deficiencies.
- For one thing, it is of relatively recent origin: religious traditions had millennia to develop their systems to provide people the means to understand and cope with the various realities that human life and history compel people to deal with.
- For another, the religious traditions operated with an epistemology that enabled people to “make stuff up,” drawing on a mythological imagination, whereas the predominant epistemology of the secular worldview – to arrive at truth through applying reason to evidence – is far more constraining.
Which just means that we who give our allegiance to that approach to the truth have work to do: we need to develop our secular worldview further so that it provides us with more of the understandings required to deal with the realities of the human world.
In previous entries in this series, I have attempted to do some of that work.
- In XXX, I tried to demonstrate the reality of something that can reasonably be called “a Force of Evil” in the human world.
- And in XXX, I tried to show that the emergence of such a force would be an inevitable consequence of any creature’s taking the step of extricating itself from its biologically evolved niche by inventing its own way of life—i.e. the step onto the path of civilization.
- And I tried there also to show that something reasonable to call “a Battle between Good and Evil” would inevitably be at the heart of the drama of any such civilization-creating creature. Including the human story since our species’ civilization arose.
This present piece will attempt to establish the reality and importance of two more of those dimensions of the human world that are not adequately recognized in the contemporary secular worldview.
Namely, the reality and importance
- of the “Dimension of Value,” and
- of “the Spiritual Dimension.”
As will become clear, these two dimensions have much in common:
They are both emergent realities—dimensions of reality that did not exist at all, and that then came into being through the evolutionary process.
Both became real through the emergence of creatures that evolved to have certain experiential capabilities and tendencies.
Those experiential capabilities are selected for because of their survival-enhancing consequences.
It is therefore costly if people understand their world through a worldview that deprives those dimensions of their proper life-serving power because of a failure to recognize their reality and importance.
It is confusion embedded in the secular worldview about things like “objectivity,” and “reality” that results in those two dimensions getting short-changed in parts of our contemporary culture. It is a current of thought in which if something isn’t “out there,” it isn’t real.
But our experience is real, and properly recognizing what that experience signifies is an essential part of the task of developing our secular worldview so that the destructive forces at work in our world can more effectively be fought and defeated by people empowered by the full strength of their moral and spiritual passions.
The Reality of Value
Perhaps the source of the confusion in our contemporary secular culture about the connection between “objectivity” and “reality” is due to how science – with its objectivity, its investigation of the world from the outside – has proved so powerfully successful in illuminating so much about reality.
Perhaps that’s what has led a lot of people to think that whatever can’t be found “outside” isn’t really real.
But that fundamentally leaves out some of the most important aspects of our reality — crucial dimensions that are real because we experience them.
It’s worth revisiting the argument regarding the reality of value presented previously in How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise to a “Battle between Good and Evil. It bears repeating not just because of its importance in addressing the moral relativism that is a widespread current in contemporary thinking. But especially in this present context of how important dimensions of reality come into being through the realm of experience – when our experiential realm has been shaped by an evolutionary process that consistently chooses what serves survival over what does not.
In some currents in our secular culture, Value is regarded as “merely subjective.” Reduced to “just a matter of opinion.” You can’t find Value in the cosmos, viewed objectively – so goes the argument — and so it cannot be real.
That way of thinking about Value significantly weakens the ability of the secular culture to muster the power of moral passion. Which is a high cost to pay for a way of thinking that is built upon a logical error: for that reduction in the status of Value shows confusion about both what Value can mean, and what it must mean.
In a lifeless universe, nothing can have Value, because there’s nothing and no one for whom anything is “better” or “worse” than anything else. If there’s nothing to whom anything matters, then it doesn’t – it can’t — matter even if whole worlds are destroyed.
But as soon as there are sentient beings who experience some things as better and some as worse, Value comes into existence. Once there are creatures for whom some experiences are welcome and some experienced negatively, some more fulfilling and some harder to bear, it begins to matter what happens.
That experiential foundation of Value quite naturally will emerge as an effective strategy for Life’s unfolding. Once there are living things of sufficient complexity, there will be creatures that will divide their experiences into those they are motivated to seek out, and those to avoid. And such an evaluative framework will naturally evolve as the fruit of a selective process that sifts through what has proven life-serving or life-destroying in creatures’ ancestral past.
Value, as sentient creatures like humans experience it, denotes both what has objectively tended to be the path to survival and what has subjectively been experienced as Good.
Which means that creatures like humans (but not only humans) have an inborn system of values. And this inborn system of values – however we imagine it to be – is a real part of our creaturely nature. It is grounded in the experiential realm (as value must be). And it serves the vital purpose of motivating us to do what has served the task of survival.
Which means that this inborn system of values is, in some comprehensive way, structured according to life-serving criteria. Value is an important means by which Life defeats death.
It’s true that we’ve undergone a major transformation in the circumstances of our lives since the period when our human ancestors did the great majority of their evolving, most recently as hunter-gatherers. Even at that hunting-gathering stage, though we had become cultural animals, the way of life in which our species evolved was fundamentally continuous with our origins as primate bands.
Civilization changed all that. It wasn’t culture, but civilization that marked the major point of discontinuity in the history of our species’ societies—with transformations in size, structure, means of subsistence. These transformations of the circumstances of human life had implications for the strategies required for human survival.
But, despite the changes wrought in our lives by civilization, it seems that the basic nature of the Human Good – as founded in the experiential realm of us sentient creatures — would have remained the same: human thriving and experiential fulfillment.
And some basic ingredients for our thriving and fulfillment seem pretty certain to have been there all along, and remain still.
If what was fulfilling when we were evolving as hunter-gatherers included a human world where there was peace and not conflict, love and not hate, kindness and not cruelty, intrapsychic harmony and not a psyche at war with itself, etc., it would seem likely that the same basic ingredients would make our lives experientially better and not worse in the changed circumstances of civilization.
Human thriving and fulfillment define the domain of Value, and that domain deserves all the respect we can muster. Value is not only real, it is one of the most important parts of our reality.
The recent history of America – in which Liberal America has lost much ground to “a coherent force that consistently works to make things worse” (and democracy has lost much ground to fascism) – shows how dangerous it is to weaken the power of the moral passions with a worldview that diminishes the status we afford to Value. That illogical belief system (“merely subjective”) weakens the Force of the Good when confronted with something that acts like “a Force of Evil.”
The Reality of the Spiritual Dimension
Similarly with another experiential reality: transformative spiritual experience.
It is a significant fact that a non-negligible portion of humanity has experiences of a special kind, experiences they describe as breaking through to a dimension of reality that’s deeper, bigger, more illuminated. And as making contact with a realm felt to be sacred.
From such experiences, people can return feeling “spiritually transformed.” And bearing what they regard as “spiritual truths.” Such experiences are exceptionally impactful, often changing the course of a person’s life.
That is a factual reality in the human world. And, as with Value, this reality necessarily exists in the experiential realm (where “the sacred” is experienced as Value to the nth degree).
It is not a question of what is “objectively” real. For nothing could be sacred in a lifeless universe where there was nothing capable of experiencing that special level of value. What could “sacred” mean if it was sacred to nobody?
Conversely, as with Value and Pain, the fact that people have such special experiences is sufficient to prove that the spiritual dimension is real. (What could be more real that something that can blow a person off one life-path and onto another?)
And the fact that people experience this breakthrough level of experience as having a special level of importance is sufficient to confirm that it is important.
We can infer something more about the capacity for these real and important experience: this capacity is also life-serving, as we can infer from these facts:
- The capacity for such an experience – one that feels like a breakthrough, and perhaps even “revelatory” — seems to be widespread in the human genome. A significant fraction of the population reports having such experiences. (And it’s possible that many more have the potential for that special dimension of experience, but have never realized that potential.)
- Such a capacity would not be a widespread part of the human genome unless it had been actively selected for. (It does not seem plausible that something of this kind would be just some accidental by-product of some other adaptive characteristic. I.e. not one of Stephen Jay Gould’s “spandrels.”)
- It wouldn’t have been actively selected for had it not proved to have survival value. (I.e. had it not proved to be the case that those populations among our ancestors that contained people with the capacity for deep spiritual experience were more likely to pass their DNA into the future than those who lacked that capacity.)
And it seems that it has been life-serving not just for the individuals who have such experiences, but also for the societies in which such experiences happen. Which points to another evident fact: that cultures around the world, and throughout the history of civilization, have given special status to some rendering of such experiences: societies have utilized such experiences in creating their cultural worldview, in defining their values, and in guiding how they navigate their way through the world.
But it would seem that this life-serving (evolutionarily-selected) function of experience at the spiritual level must long precede civilization, for the ten or so millennia of human civilization seem far too short for this capacity to have become so well-established in the human genome. This capacity must have been valuable over the longer stretches of time when our ancestors lived in hunting-and-gathering bands.
And indeed, support for that idea is found in the spiritual functions of the Shamans among the aborigine groups of Siberia, and of the wizards of the tribes in the Amazon jungle: people making contact with a sacred realm, delivering messages that help their society find its way.
If we looked at a big sampling of the “messages” that people have received through such spiritual experiences – at least so I would wager – we would find that their predominant collective impact is much more toward Wholeness than toward Brokenness. I’m imagining that there are moments of spiritual epiphany – experiences of value to the nth degree — that served as the points of origin of such ideas in sacred texts as
- “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” in the recorded teachings of Jesus;
- “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” in the Ten Commandments;
- “Let anger by non-anger be overcome,” in the Buddhist tradition.
All suitable ingredients in a recipe for a world of enhanced human thriving.
This capacity for a special kind of experience might be unique to humans. (Though also perhaps not. If others of earth’s species have such experiences, it would be hard for us to know.)
If it were true that this new dimension of experience emerged only in our species, one can imagine how that might make evolutionary sense. We are the species that has specialized in cultural adaptations. That means that our path is less governed by the ordering force of inborn instinct, which kept lives within a tighter range of options that stayed within a biologically-evolved niche. With the wider range of potential paths that cultural animals confront, one can imagine there would be a particular need to replace the weaker influence of instinct with some other good source of guidance—such as the spiritual dimension of experience seems to provide.
Whether or not the experiential realm of other species contains anything akin to the breakthrough level that’s part of the human repertoire, one thing seems clear enough: that – somehow — our species has access to a special kind of experience that is both life-serving and profoundly impactful.
That combination would certainly declare this “spiritual dimension” to be something of great importance – as achieving a marriage of goodness and power is one way of describing the big challenge that we face as the civilization-creating creatures. (For, as argued previously in this series, “the problem of power” XXX that inevitably arises with civilization unleashes inevitably unleashes a powerful “Force of Evil.” XXX)
A Reasonable Challenge
At this point, the very reasonable challenge might be made: What about all the brokenness we can point to that has arisen out of such “spiritual” experiences (like, at an extreme level, the example of a crazy person who claims, “God told me to kill them”) And what about all the brokenness that has been connected, too, with what cultures have enshrined in their “sacred texts” (like all the wars waged in the name of what some group regards as “sacred truths”)?
That’s a challenge worth taking seriously. But these two points enable me to maintain the belief in the fundamentally life-serving nature of “the spiritual dimension.”
First, even the purest elixir will get contaminated if poured into a dirty vessel.
The civilized world has been, from the outset, beset by a Force of Brokenness so powerful – see #’s 2 and 3 in this series – that it is no surprise that even messages from a life-serving “realm of the sacred” would get interpreted by their human recipients in broken ways. (Those Fascists who raised a toast to Death were initially fashioned, like everyone else, by a process that continually selected for Life over Death.)
It is not surprising, in view of how that Force of Brokenness works in the human world, that the cross that symbolizes the man who taught “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love thine enemies” would be hoisted up later by the Roman Emperor (Constantine) to lead his army into battle.
And second, there remains the evidence that this capacity for transformational spiritual experience has been ingrained into the human genome, which seems a clear indication that this capacity has played a life-serving role.
Moreover, even despite all the brokenness in the human world, I would wager that if we were to study a substantial sampling of individuals reporting what they’ve received from that deeper-feeling level of reality, we would find that the great majority of those messages directed people in constructive, life-serving directions. (Leading more people, for example, in the direction of loving than killing their neighbors.)
Messages We Need to Heed
It seems that this spiritual dimension of experience is a means for human beings to get good guidance delivered with such impact that it commands our attention.
An example more recent than the ancient epiphanies is the story of “the Blue Marble.”
By a kind of synchrony, connected with the great acceleration of humankind’s technological powers, at the very time that the danger that humankind might destroy its home – the Earth – our civilization also started putting human beings into outer space from which those humans could see our planet from an unprecedented vantage point.
Whatever the forces at work, it happened that for some of the astronauts, seeing our home planet as this delicate-looking, borderless globe, floating in the vastness of space, led to powerfully transformative spiritual experiences: They found it revelatory to see how precious and fragile our planet is.
As for the “spiritual truth” that came with that experience, the “message” taken was that it is imperative for humankind to be better stewards of our “only home.” (And for a couple of those astronauts, that truth came with an impact that changed the course of their lives.)
[Profound Things Happen When Astronauts First See Earth From Space (businessinsider.com)]
[Astronauts’ awe gives them an “overview effect” after returning to Earth — Quartz (qz.com)]
As with many other spiritually transformative experiences, the message the individual received was transmitted to the wider cultural system. One important means of that transmission was through the famous “Blue Marble” photo, showing what the astronauts were the first humans to see. Made into a poster, that picture of Earth soon was everywhere. Many people were moved by this image to feel that there’s something sacred about the Earth, and we must take care of her.
However it is that we should regard this notion of “messages from the spiritual realm,” it does seem clear that this spiritually transformative vision of the “Blue Marble” entered human consciousness at a time when it was urgently needed.
Some Things Are More Mysterious Than Others
The “reality of the spiritual dimension” seems clearly a fact. But, though factual, it also seems something of a mystery.
For many philosophers, the fact of “consciousness” is itself a mystery. (It’s called, in some quarters, the “hard problem.”) How can creatures made out of mere material stuff have consciousness? Or, as I would articulate how I understand how those philosophers see that mystery, “How can mere meat have subjective experience?”
Sometimes I can see that there is a real mystery here.
But sometimes I don’t see a problem there at all, don’t see any supposedly unbridgeable gap that makes the reality of our having “consciousness” – which I understand to mean the capacity to experience our existence – so much harder to comprehend than everything else about our reality (all of which seems, ultimately, filled with mystery).
Whether or not there is some seemingly unbridgeable gap that some very intelligent people are laboring to bridge, it does seem clear that somehow a bridge did get built. We know that, first, because we actually do have subjective experience. And second, if we accept the scientific understanding of how such sentient creatures as ourselves came to be, we know that over eons of an evolutionary process the material stuff of this planet was gradually assembling self-replicating creatures like ourselves who do have consciousness.
Hence, mystery or not: the fact that mere “stuff” can become conscious seems to have been demonstrated.
Whether we regard “consciousness” per se as a mystery, I must confess that – of the two dimensions of experiential reality discussed here that have been emergent in the evolutionary process that has created us, I find “the reality of the spiritual dimension” mysterious in ways that “the reality of Value” is not.
“Value” is based on sentient creatures’ experiencing things in terms of “better” and “worse.” With experience of the “spiritual dimension,” by contrast, it seems harder to conceive of what’s going on: i.e. what’s happening when sentient creatures – humans at least – experiencing some truths as more emphatically true than others, experience some things as “sacred” rather than mundane, or experience themselves as receiving messages from some revelatory place of mystery (rather than through the usual means of knowing).
It seems that the “moral” dimension and the “spiritual” dimension may be related: I’ve suggested that the experience of “Value” is the foundation of the “moral dimension,” and that “the sacred” is “Value [experienced] to the nth degree.”
But I find mysterious that “breakthrough” quality — to a different level of experiential consciousness – that “spiritual dimension” of some human experience. Just what happens when someone breaks through into that deeper, more real, more compelling level at which important truths can be gained, and life-changing impacts can be absorbed? Is it some kind of heightened mental voltage? Is there more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy?
The Spiritual Experiences That Have Dictated My Own Path
In my own life, there have been several such experiences of that “spiritual dimension” that led me to what I experienced as important truths, and that changed the course of my life.
- One, in 1970, was when I “got” the basic insight into the evolution of civilization that I presented here in “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large.” It moved me to make a solemn promise (I knew not to what) to do my utmost to develop what I’d seen and to convey it to my fellow human beings. It eventually bore fruit in the publication in 1984 of my first book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.
The germ of the vision came in that moment of breakthrough to the spiritual dimension. I felt not that it was “me thinking” but that it was me being shown something.
After that “revelatory” moment, I spent years doing the R & D to test and develop that vision (ending up with a 33-page bibliography). What I saw in that single moment has stood up well ever since to my best efforts at empirical and critical scrutiny.
But that “revelatory” aspect – the only time in my life that my consciousness went into that “revelatory” mode of spiritual experience — represented was and remains a huge mystery.
But that aspect also lay at the heart of that experience, and remained central to me for several years after that moment. Gradually, that centrality receded because my worldview provides me with no answer to the question, “If it was what I experienced it as being (rather than just some neurological illusion, what was doing the ‘revealing’?”
- There is nothing that’s comparably inexplicable to me about the second life-changing spiritual experience. This one occurred in 1983, and led to my writing the book, published in 1988: Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War. That, too, blew me off of one path and onto another — at least to the extent that I felt compelled to buy my way out of a contract (with Harper Collins) to write a different book (titled In Over Our Heads), in order to develop the spiritual insights that this experience delivered.
Those insights concerned the alternative routes of fear and love. It felt very personal, yet at the same time it dovetailed completely with the vision of The Parable of the Tribes: it illuminated how the traumatic impact of that social evolutionary process – the inevitable war of all against all, and consequent reign of power and the Spirit of the Gangster – would have broken the human beings compelled to live in such a world. And how broken people would inevitably become more likely channels for the perpetuation of the conflictual nature of the civilizational system.
And its transformative impact on me was an opening of my own heart, a setting aside of fears and acceptance of vulnerability. And that experience was essential, I believe, to making possible the fulfilling marriage I’m in now. ?The Sacred Space of Lovers.XXX?)
- Then came a moment, in 2004, when again I had an experience at the spiritual level that I cannot explain. I saw something—saw it with a kind of “seeing” I’d never experienced before, and that I cannot explain. What I saw was “Evil” – so I immediately identified it, as the impact gave me gooseflesh. I saw that something “Evil” was rising in power in America.
(Again, the course of my life was changed. I felt compelled – obligated — to abandon, a project I absolutely loved, which was to become a book titled Mapping the Sacred. After a lifetime of focusing on what’s problematic in the human world, I had welcomed being drawn to explore “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” But what I had somehow “seen” seemed to require me to investigate and combat “the Evil, the Lie, and the Ugly.”)
That moment of a kind of seeing I find inexplicable is what launched me into an investigation of “Evil” that still continues. But what I saw at the outset was not the “brokenness moving through time” way of seeing it that I presented here in the third piece of this series, “The Discernible Reality of a ‘Force of Evil.’” XXX Rather, it was through seeing the emergence of a particular “actor” – in this case a political party – that was “consistently working to make the world worse.” It was a rising force that checked most of the boxes of what might reasonably be called “Fascism.”
It was only through investigating what I came to call this “Pure Case” – an entity that shows itself at a particular time to be “a coherent force that consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness – that I eventually saw how the brokenness spreads through time.
(In the next piece in this series – TITLE – I’ll show that “Pure Case” that began my understanding of “Evil.”)
Throughout our species history, it seems that humans have been having spiritually transformative experiences that
1) have been impactful on the paths taken by individuals and societies;
2) have borne with them important “spiritual” insights that have truth value; and
3) have been life-serving.
(“Life-serving,” meaning that, in one way or another, the spiritual truths that people have received at such moments have tended to enhance life both in terms of increasing the chances of survival for individuals and societies, and in terms of increasing people’s experience of fulfillment.)
My own spiritual experiences seem to me to fit into that framework.
1) They were so impactful on me that they pretty well dictated the course of my life’s work.
2) They delivered messages that have seemed to hold water, even after being intensively investigated. Messages such as
- that the ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large (the book, The Parable of the Tribes XXX);
- that trauma from the “war of all against all” (that is the inevitable result of a creature’s stepping onto the path of civilization) has made people broken in ways that drive them onto a destructive course dictated by fear, (the book Out of Weakness XXX); and
- that there is a discernible Force of Evil at work that is working in the America of our times to replace a polity based on “the consent of the governed” with a fascist tyranny (hundreds of essays, as well as my 2015 book, WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It. XXX
Although each of those messages got elaborated and substantiated in ways consistent with secular, social-scientific theory-building, each had its original source in a life-changing spiritual experience.
3) And, as with the overall pattern of human spiritual experiences – from the Golden Rule to the Blue Marble – those messages that spiritual experience brought seem to me life-serving. Life-serving this case at the largest scale: How we understand these things – or don’t understand them — will influence whether humankind meets what I’ve CALLED XXX “the Central Challenge facing any civilization-creating creature?
To give but one example, concerning the first of those messages:
One of the truths that follow from I received in 1970 (about the implications of the breakthrough into civilization, articulated here in XXX) is that we are better creatures than we have thought ourselves to be. I claim to be able to pretty well prove that. (Not clear how much better, but better for sure.)
If we human beings had a better image of ourselves as a species, we would be much more capable of creating a better human world.
In a world in which, when people say “that’s human nature,” it is almost always accompanied by their pointing to something bad, we can imagine how low our expectations of ourselves are. And we live down to them, burdened down by the weight of self-condemnatory notions like “original sin” and “human depravity.”
But if we saw that we were capable of better than the often ugly spectacle we often see in the human world, we would be more likely to work to express the good that’s inside– “good” defined in terms of what’s life-serving, and that becomes instilled in our nature by an evolutionary process that favors creatures to want what has been life-serving for them to want.
People who believe they have more goodness in them will be more likely to look for it, act on it, and build a better world with it.
(And that beneficial effect doesn’t even include the life-serving benefits of having a clearer understanding of the nature of the forces that need to be overcome for human civilization to survive and thrive for the long haul.)
These are the four previous entries in this series:
The Fate of Human Civilization, published July 18, 2022.
“The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large,” published August 15, 2022.
The Discernible Reality of a ‘Force of Evil’, published September 12, 2022.
How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise to a “Battle between Good and Evil,” published October 10, 2022.