Humanists believe that if we know the truth we will be free. In affirming this they imagine they are wiser than thinkers of earlier times. In fact they are in the grip of a forgotten religion.
The modern faith in truth is a relic of an ancient creed. Socrates founded European thought on the faith that truth makes us free. He never doubted that knowledge and the good life go together. He passed on this faith to Plato, and so to Christianity. The result is modern Humanism.
Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfilment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.
We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.
The faith of Socrates in the examined life may well have been a trace of an archaic religion: he ‘habitually heard and obeyed an inner voice which knew more than he did … he called it, quite simply, “the voice of God”’. Socrates was guided by a daimon, an inner oracle, whose counsels he followed without question, even when they led him to his death. In admitting that he was guided by an inner voice, he showed the lingering power of shamanic practices, in which humans have immemorially sought communion with spirits.
If Socratic philosophy originates in shamanism, European rationalism was born in a mystical experience. Modern humanism differs from Socratic philosophy chiefly in failing to recognise its irrational origins – and in the hubris of its ambitions.
The bequest of Socrates was to tether the pursuit of truth to a mystical idea of the good. Yet neither Socrates nor any other ancient thinker imagined that truth could make mankind free. They took for granted that freedom would always remain the privilege of a few; there was no hope for the species. By contrast, among contemporary humanists, the Greek faith that truth makes us free has been fused with one of Christianity’s most dubious legacies – the belief that the hope of freedom belongs to everyone.
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth – and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
An example is the theory of memes. Memes are clusters of ideas and beliefs, which are supposed to compete with one another in much the same way that genes do. In the life of the mind, as in biological evolution, there is a kind of natural selection of memes, whereby the fittest memes survive. Unfortunately, memes are not genes. There is no mechanism of selection in the history of ideas akin to that of the natural selection of genetic mutations in evolution.
In any case, only someone miraculously innocent op history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth. Certainly ideas compete with none another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side. When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of the heretics? If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?
Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage. Deception is common among primates and birds. As Heinrich observes, ravens pretend to hide a cache of food, while secreting it somewhere else. Evolutionary psychologists have shown that deceit is pervasive in animal communication. Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes the promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise. In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage. The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.
If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs – inferior memes – will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken. Truth has no systemic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced’. As Trivers points out, evolution favours useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution’.
In the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury – or else a disability:
tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth. Only if the mind
Tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life-cage and seeks further.
Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin. History is not made in the struggle for self-preservation, as Hobbes imagines or wished to believe. In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.
These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness. These are not just inferences from history. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.
Tertullian, a theologian who lived in Carthage sometime around AD 200, wrote of Christianity: Certum est, quia impossible (it is certain because it is impossible). Humanists are less clear-minded, but their faith is just as irrational. They do not deny that history is a catalogue of unreason, but their remedy is simple: humankind must – and will – be reasonable. Without this absurd, Tertullian-like faith, the Enlightenment is a gospel of despair.
John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals.
Unfortunately, catastrophes or scandalous disclosures always have to happen before humanity realises that it is only its own mistakes that have led it into misfortune. These are all the more difficult to rectify, because in the main they have been made by the authorities, who will not commit suicide themselves, but in order to save their own skins, they would rather that all Life should perish before they acknowledge their errors.
I think it would have been very much better, had Newton contemplated how the apple got up there in the first place.
Everything flows, floats and moves. There is no state of equilibrium – there is no state of rest.
So many problems, however infinitely varied they first appear, turn out to be matters of money. I can’t tell you how much this offends me. The value of money is a scam perpetrated by those who have it over those who don’t; It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes gone global. If chimps used money and we didn’t, we wouldn’t admire it. We’d find it irrational and primitive. Delusional. And why gold? Chimps barter with meat. The value of meat is self-evident.
The world runs on the fuel of this endless, fathomless misery. People know it, but they don’t mind that they don’t see. Make them look and they mind, but you’re the one they hate, because you’re the one that made them look.
Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
I have recently been reading a most enjoyable novel called The Dream Illuminati by Wayne Saalman (Falcon Press, Santa Monica, 1988). Mr. Saalman has found an epic theme – dreams of flight, and the achievement of flight.
Historically, dreams of flying appeared in the collective unconscious before the reality of flight existed in technology, and it seems plausible that if we understood our dreams better we would use our technology more wisely. Our machines manifest our dreams in matter crafted to coherence, and a psychoanalysis of our culture could easily derive from an examination of how we use science to materialize our fantasies and nightmares.
Mr. Saalman’s science-fantasy made me wonder: Why have we always dreamed of flying, and why have we built flying machines? This question seems “eminently” worth pondering in a world where 200,000,000 people pass through Kennedy International Airport every year, flying the Atlantic in one direction or the other.
To understand the profound, it often appears helpful to begin with clues that seem trivial. I suggest that we contemplate what our children look at every Saturday morning on TV. One of the most popular jokes in animated cartoons shows the protagonist walking off a cliff, without noticing what he has done. Sublimely ignorant, he continues to walk-on air-until he notices that he has been doing the “impossible,” and then he falls. I doubt very much that there will be any reader of Magical Blend who has not seen that routine at least onec; most of us have seen it a few hundred times.
It might seem pretentious to see a Jungian archetype adumbrated in crude form in this Hollywood cliché, but follow me for a moment.
When Hollywood wishes to offer us the overtly mythic, it presents Superman, who can “leap over tall buildings in a single bound,” and a more recent hero named Luke Skywalker. Continue reading
There have always been two predominant and rival views of man and his position or predicament. Tough and tender-minded come to mind, as do cyclic and linear, hawk and dove. Blake saw our ambivalence in terms of biblical vision and Greek reflection. Reflection, relying on material things, ends in the dead inertia of the rock as the only real, the mind as the unreal. Vision is creative imagination using the eyes as windows to see with actively and not through passively.
Vision sees life as an “eternal existence in one divine man.” Reflection sees life as a series of cycles in nature. Northrop Frye says we vacillate our life away between the two notions, never fully conscious of either. Reflection is Blake’s Diabolos, the nihilistic impulse of self-doubt reminding us of our helpless frailty and increasing our dependence on the current priesthoods. If the fire-walker listened to this side of his nature, he would never walk fire. As Blake said, “If the sun and moon should doubt, they would immediately go out.”
The victory of the cyclic theory becomes the view of a fallen, deadlocked world, a mechanical horror. In Eastern terms this world is a cosmic error to be overcome, from which to escape back into an undifferentiated continuum. In Western terms the universe is a monstrous necessity, grinding itself out in a great entropic road to folly and nothingness. Frye points out that we are incapable of accepting this view as objective fact. The moral and emotional implications of it become mental cancers breeding cynical indifference, short-range vision, selfish pursuit of expediency, and “all the other diseases of selfhood.”
Reflection inverts the “eternal mental life of God and Man, the Wheel of Life,” into a dead cycle. Wonder, joy, imagination, ecstasy, even love, are smugly diagnosed by these cyclic destroyers, who test the blood count, analyze the temperature, the oxygen content, the background of the subjects, and learnedly dismiss as aberrations the highest capacities life has yet produced. All free actions are held in ridicule, only reactions are left. The belly and groin are made supreme, the only point of realness, and the strings by which the vulture-priests think to make the Naked Ape dance to their grindings. But the ape is not controlled thereby, he merely goes mad and dies or destroys.
Saturation with images of violence creates violence, and saturation with ideologies of reflective thinking creates suicidal despair. We need an image, a mythos, representing a way upward and outward where creative longing can be released and not denied. But reflective thinking seizes the insight given by vision and turns it into a dogma that makes for reliably ineffective, lifeless supporters of the world, in that world and hopelessly of it.
The cyclic religious view loves to speak of “God’s plan” for mankind. We are a theatrical group, they say, our roles preordained according to some shadowy script. As free actors we do not follow the prescribed actions, as interpreted by the ruling hierarchy of those who know. Or there is “God’s great symphony” spread out for all to play, if we would just follow the notes properly and watch the beat of that great-baton-up-yonder, a pulse which synchronizes strangely with the heartbeat of the current powers that feast on fools.
Science has only a small shift to turn this preordaining god into an inflexible and other-to-us Nature, with all the universe laid out on a grand economy of laws. To discover these laws is the Promethean goal, the religious duty in new vestments. And cultures are crushed, the young gods are condemned to years of a madness-producing attempt at metanoia called education, and whole civilizations are whipped into line to serve the new god.
We are not involved with a preset script on a preset stage. We are a magnificent and terrible improvisation in which we must be spontaneous playwrights, actors, critics, and audiences. There is no orchestral score up there with every note assigned and waiting. We are, at best, an aleatoric performance. Cacophony and discord are inevitable, yet infinite combinations await us. We err and are bound to err in this open system, yet we are never bound to our errors, as an infinite ability to correct these errors is built in.
We long for an ultimate and our longing is itself the ultimate. Our need is the universal, that with which we satisfy is the particular and never sacrosanct. There is no absolute “out there” of logic, reason, love, goodness, or perfection. Nature is amoral, indifferent, operating by profusion. Needing these things we can only become them by boldly beholding them as our rightful due. Life creates myth and then strives to fill it by imitation.
Susanne Langer warned that our losses to science should not be taken lightly. And what we have lost is our psyche, our very soul. Mass psychosis, sickness of soul, is the price we are paying for letting a product become our absolute, letting a tool become master. The young rebel lashes out blindly at this living death to which he is condemned and which he must support, for which he must fight. The tragedy is that by the time he senses a deadly trap he has become, by the very process of reality formation, that against which he instinctively rebels. The only logical tools with which he can fight create the very situation he hates. As don Juan said, “When you find the path you are on has no heart, and try to leave that path, it is ready to kill you.” Very few men, he observed, can stop to deliberate at that point, and leave the path.
Any path we choose is arbitrary, but in our choice we shape the world as it is for us. Cohen felt that whatever reality is, we will never know it. I have claimed that reality is what we do know, that the world as it is for us is one we represent to ourselves for our own response. So it is with nature, God, “ultimate matter,” and so on. We can never get at these as such. Everything we say about them, our sciences, dogmas and creeds, are only representations we seem fated to make and to which we are fated to respond. God, as surely as “Nature,” is a concept shot through and through with the mind of man.
And yet, who for a minute believes that nature is only a projection of man’s mind? Nature is something of which I am a part, and which I must represent to myself. But it is also something which I am not. My thinking and that nature thought about create an event, but they are not identical. Man is not God or nature because he projects gods and natures for his life. Projection is not the whole mechanism even though it shapes the ground on which we stand. There is always more than this.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.