Wednesday, May 11, 2016
Plato, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein
I hope my readers will forgive me for once more touching on a question I've addressed a number of times in this blog and elsewhere because I think it's a question of the first importance, and that question is "are we able, through insights in modern thought to shed new light on the fate of the human soul, and whether there is an eternal consciousness?"
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and up until this time science has become increasingly divorced from basic philosophy, religion, and the question of mankind's existence on earth in a spiritual sense. The reasons for the separation of science from cosmology have been very persuasive. The search for scientific truth has been conducted through the scientific method in which only an hypothesis verifiable by controlled experiment is considered valid. This is of course because that method has born results and such tremendously powerful results in the last several centuries. The great power derived from applied science has led many of us to abandon religion and all spiritual engagement and to accord the scientific method itself the almost godlike status of being the only system capable of achieving knowledge that is of any value.
There is an extremely persuasive argument to be made for this and in the nuclear age, as we have had to come to grips with the enormity of scientific power, we have perhaps overlooked a strong counter-current of thought that has made itself manifest. Whether it is commonly acknowledged or not, in that same space of time great holes have been opened in the bedrock of scientific certainty. One of these holes was blown open by Einstein and his contemporaries, who in spite of the fact that some of their work unleashed the awesome power of atomic energy, actually undermined the very concept of scientific certainty.
We must remember that up until that time the Atom was, in theory, the basic building block of the universe and as such represented the foundation of objectivity that lies at the heart of the scientific method. In other words, it was supposed to prove that our perception of the universe was real and verifiable. Einstein and others in post nineteenth century physics put two great cracks in the edifice of that certainty. One, they showed the atom was not the fundamental building block of reality but was itself divisible. Secondly, although it is necessary to have objectivity for the scientific method to be valid, they proved that it is impossible to have such objectivity. That has been the great effect of the theory of general relativity on modern thought - that there is no way to achieve a viewpoint that is truly objective in scientific observation because there is no stable reference point from which to conduct such observation. Heisenberg's uncertainty principal was also very damaging to scientific certainty, even more so than Einstein's.
These realizations have shaken the foundation of scientific thought as it has been carefully constructed over the last two thousand years.
These conclusions were also predicted by Socrates and Plato, who in 500 B.C. asserted it was not possible to know anything truly worth knowing through science. To put it another way they thought science was simply incapable of answering the questions that we most want to have answered as human beings. This is not to say they thought science was valueless or that it was without power. They knew both the value, and to some great degree at least, the enormous potential power of science. They just though it couldn't answer the questions that really matter to us because it can only answer questions regarding the material world, and they believed the physical world was an illusion. As absurd as this ides seems at first glance, this is exactly what early twentieth century physicists like Einstein and Heisenberg inadvertently demonstrated. The modern study of particle physics has, counter to its own original aims, unearthed more and more evidence that the physical universe is ephemeral.
This is where science can now be seen to fail as the basis for a meaningful understanding of the vast complexities of human life. It is limited to what can be proven by experiment in the physical world, and even that level of certainty can now be shown to be dubious. The only real conclusion offered by the most advanced science now is that particles fade in and out of existence - that there is no actual there there.
It is also clear that if a person really used science as the primary foundation of their understanding they could not function in the world. Science has no bearing on 99% of what we do in any given day: or perhaps it would be better to say that science has nothing to do with 99% of what goes on in our lives. We are in the final analysis a being of dreams, of speculations, of loves, and hates, of hunches, of fears, of intuitions. Our subconscious mind, the activities of which we are barely aware, is more powerful than the conscious mind we are aware of. The subconscious is doing something, all the time, and we mostly we don't know what that something is. Taken in aggregate then we would have to say that science can really tell us very little about the living experience.
An overemphasis on science can, and in many cases has, cut us off from these more fundamental aspects of ourselves. It has even to some degree trivialized the healthy aspiration to be a whole, healthy and integrated human being - to be all that is is we are capable of being. The result is too often broken human beings, we are sadly, many of us in the modern world, a kind of husk of a full human being. It does so by degrading our subconscious intuition, and a million other aspects of what it means to be fully human. So though science gives us power over the earth it also diminishes us, and what of genuine good we might be able to achieve with that power. If we over-emphasize its place in our lives, as we surely have now done, we will ultimately be able to have power over nothing, because we will lose in the process what is truly good for humanity, which is to grow spiritually, creatively, and intellectually.
Already computers are supplanting our place on earth because computers are better at the things we have limited ourselves to strive for. This is an insane competition that we cannot win, and could not even if we prevailed, because the world we will have created in the process will not be worthy of human life.
In our pursuit of science and technology we have now suppressed our essential humanity to the point we know longer really know ourselves; we have become strangers to ourselves, and here Freud's contribution comes into the picture by showing us that the suppressed mind and spirit result in human beings that are fractured and unable to find any meaningful path in life. We are a complex organism that must be fully integrated to reach our full potential. This idea also lay at the heart of Plato's belief that science can ultimately not answer any question worth asking. If we cannot even know ourselves, Socrates and Plato reasoned, how on earth can earthly power save us?
Of course this essay itself represents a kind of heresy, for in it lies the sin of synthesis, that is of using synthesis to reach conclusions rather than reduction-ism. Practically ever aspect of modern thought teaches us to limit ourselves to reduction-ism for that is the basis of science and science, we will remember, is the only valid way to reach conclusions. That is the modern view and it is incorrect. All it serves to do is prevent us from changing anything and therefore our culture is becoming a colossal mess carved of stone. It has become absolutely resistant to meaningful change even when it is common knowledge we are headed directly towards our own destruction Synthesis is forbidden because it is radical - radical in that it is capable of reaching conclusions that might change things when the existing powers are not now and have almost never been interested in changing anything - even if it can be demonstrated that their current path will bring them and everyone else to destruction.
We are taught to limit ourselves to reduction-ism, and through this we are becoming people who know more and more about less and less. To learn through synthesizing conclusions from more than one discipline threatens the whole edifice on which society operates, and here is where Darwin comes in; if we believe in science we must believe in the validity of Darwin for no theories in history have more subjected to proof more than natural selection. And further, if we believe in Darwin then we must admit that we ourselves and not just the other creatures on earth are subject to natural selection - and the laws of natural selection on earth are brutal. So mankind is endlessly conflicted by the dilemma of whether to follow a higher ethic as apprehended through truth, and love, and hope, or to follow the lower Darwinian order to increase our chances of earthly comfort and survival. Yet we are in denial about this and refuse to believe that our actions are not inherently more noble that the other creatures on this planet. We will not openly confront that dilemma because our psyches are by and large too fragile to view ourselves within such a ruthless pecking order.
If we just look at the behavior goes on in every schoolyard we would have to recognize the reality of our existence within the order of natural selection, yet most people are in denial because the implications of that fact are simply too disturbing to confront honestly in ourselves and in our communities.
Plato said that human existence is defined by duality and paradox, that the world is ephemeral and we are drawn to a higher, immutable realm, exemplified by the forces of truth and love and justice. These things can be shown to be more immutable, more enduring, than the physical world and therefore to be more real. We must confront the dilemma of whether to chose the higher plain, represented by immutable forces such as truth, or the lower plain represented by the bloody equations of natural selection. Plato and Socrates saw the earth as a halfway point between these extremes, and our choice of which path to follow as the most important decision we will ever make, with profound consequences concerning the trajectory of our spirit in the afterlife. Subsequent advances in modern thinking seem to re-enforce that view.
Copyright 2016 Brent Hightower
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