THE CORE HUMAN DISCOVERY
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June 8, 2007
THE CORE HUMAN DISCOVERY
There is a deeper world view underlying the traditional world religions.
The moral order does not automatically self-perpetuate itself. If you doubt this, I invite you to reread the bloody history of the 20th century during which otherwise morally intelligent populations in Europe and Asia succumbed to three mass bloody movements that ran on quasi-religious, but profoundly warped ideologies (Nazi, Stalinist and Maoist totalitarianism). During this terrible period, thousands of religious leaders were imprisoned and millions of ordinary people murdered, while other intelligent and well meaning people stood by stupefied. We were reminded by Dostoevsky, speaking though a character in the Brother’s Karamazov, that “without God, everything is permitted”. [I believe this is Sartre’s paraphrase of a longer dialog.]
More accurately, the point might be put this way: Without a well supported moral order, things quickly go to hell.
As the 21st century dawns, we still rely on the intergenerational transmission belt to maintain the moral order. That belt is broken in many places in urban America, and the “broken belt” problem is growing among our comfortable intelligentsia among whom all religions tend to be disparaged as retrograde fundamentalism or as mindlessly anti-scientific, or both.
The means by which we preserve and transmit our species’ collective moral memory constitutes the social capital of the moral order. That social capital is made up of a core underlying belief system and a cadre of adults who are committed to its perpetuation in the culture.
All parents are at least minimally responsible to prepare their children for the challenges of the world. As part of that preparation, the parent generation needs to impart a robust moral code to those who follow. That crucial intergenerational moral transfer is not taking place in the post-modern family setting because of the decline of religious observance among our most educated populations. These are the people who otherwise would be our cultural, political and commercial leaders. I am not making an apology for any particular religion or pattern of observance. I am issuing an invitation for the intelligent, but spiritually disconnected among us to look deeper.
There is a deeper metaphysical model that underlies the great religious traditions. I call it the Core Human Discovery. It is not my goal to simplify this world view in order to make it directly accessible to children. That task has already been accomplished in large part by the orthodox religions, many of which have incorporated its main elements or have appropriated a moral schema that was built on its broad morphological features, without always understanding that they are standing on deep inter-religious common ground.
When I say the orthodox religions are built on the Core Human Discovery and that its common morphological features are visible, say, in Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism, I mean “common morphology” in the following sense: Fish, dolphins and sea lions are different species that share a common morphology, a shared engineering solution to the problem of moving smoothly and efficiently while submerged in water. That streamlined, tear-shaped form and those tails and fins are close to the optimum transportation solution for each species, given its travel medium. Buddhists, Jews and Christians may not swim in the same sea, but they all swim somewhere in the larger ocean of humanity; and they all share a common spiritual-ethical morphology that includes similar models of exemplary moral behavior and several common moral prohibitions. In each tradition, we find the same injunctions against murder, theft and mendacity, and that these moral precepts are anchored on deeper terrain than the shifting sands of fashion. They are part of a “norm set” that is close to the optimum group survival solution for all who swim among other humans.
A WORD ABOUT CIVILIZATION
Civilization is the critically necessary social technology by which the human species has managed to achieve planetary dominance (recalling that in the beginning we were weak and lived in constant fear of other predators); and civilization represents the sole social technology capable of sustaining our species over long spans of time. Civilization crucially depends on the widespread acceptance of and general adherence to a set of norms. This norm set constitutes the normative architecture of civilization.
To flourish, our children need to inherit a robust, liberty friendly creative civilization. Our legacy to them must include the inculcation of the essential values and operating principles upon which such a civilization depends, and to instill in them a willingness to fight for its preservation. This latter point takes us beyond mere utility; we need to access the deeper motivations.
THE UTILITARIAN PREMISE AND ITS LIMITS
Part of any child’s preparation for adulthood is the transmission, teaching or encouragement of the suite of faculties, skills and knowledge needed to function successfully in a then exchange milieu that constitutes modern life. But the child needs that which the civilization also requires: A moral anchor.
All the purely utilitarian arguments in favor of moral behavior can go only so far. This is not to disparage the wisdom of the utilitarian concerns, but it does suggest a caution for those who try to relay on utility alone. I am reminded of the British men and women who shed “blood, sweat and tears” against the Nazi onslaught. Clearly they were motivated by something more than the “greatest good for the greatest number”. That ethos, brainchild of the British utilitarian moral philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), rings hollow when heroic resistance is called for.
I’ll return to this point soon, noting that a traditional anchor can prevent drift but it cannot drive a boat through troubled waters.
Any civilization worthy of the name requires modalities of social control aimed at restraining predators and otherwise supporting an expectation of rational predictability in all dealings. For this system to work at all (let alone well), the modalities of social control need to be linked to a normative architecture that is crafted to enable, support and protect the interactions of peaceful civil exchange.
For the modalities of social control to enjoy wide support within a civilization, the moral precepts and principles upon which they are based must be generally understood to have an objective authority, i.e., they need to be understood as more than mere tribal constructs, but as derived from the very fundamental normative underpinnings of the human enterprise itself. Ideally the moral structure of a civilization will be understood to represent the application of a few, well understood principles.
AN ANCHOR THAT MOVES THE BOAT –
THE SEARCH FOR RELEVANT TRANSCENDENCE
The successful intergenerational transmission of our species normative architecture over more than two or three generations requires an anchor outside social convention, secure from the whims and currents of fashion. But – and this is where my seagoing metaphor breaks down – the anchor (as it operates in each mind) must not only rectify, reassure and reveal the moral realm, it must motivate us to act. For reasons that should be evident as this discussion progresses, I believe we are necessarily talking about a transcendental anchor, located in effect beyond our immediate reach, but tethered to our deepest longings and motivations. To date, only the major world religions have provided that transcendent moral anchor on a sufficiently large scale to be effective.
The decline of religious affiliation and adherence among the Western intelligentsia is a troublesome development for this very reason.
The post-modern condition has given rise to outbreaks of spiritual hedonism. These are part of the “crystals and aroma” New Age ethos that flourishes because it feeds the need for spiritual reassurance and comfort while it starves the equally strong need for connection to a robust and occasionally demanding moral order. We enjoy transcendence but we need morally relevant transcendence.
Relevant transcendence, in the sense used here, means an accessible non-mundane, non-transitory reality such that the transcendent connection exists and is potentially available to every thinking, potentially moral agent, and has at least these three properties:
- Imminence (in the sense that ethical knowledge is always a “mental click” away);
- Relevance to the imperatives and demands of the moral life in the “real world”.
So, moral relevance is the key. To be relevant, any transcendent moral anchor must have authority. Its credibility must be internal as well as external.
Our species’ religions have succeeded in helping sustain civilization the last few millennia because they have provided a linkage (however imperfect) between one’s own internal evaluative/value-assigning faculty and that to which transcendence points: the ultimate common source of all value.
Relevant transcendence must continue to provide our primary value-supporting connection, one that opens up our access to a universal repository of value.
By necessary implication, this calls for or implies a relationship with ultimate personality. Whether ultimate personality is seen concretely, virtually, or symbolically, the ultimate relationship that is implied by moral transcendence leads us to a common center of caring. The capacity for caring is so central to personhood that, frankly, it is impossible to imagine caring as a disconnected, disembodied, impersonal force. I believe that this holds true even for Buddhism in the sense that there are really no impersonal values. We may from time to time be propelled by inertia, discipline, or external authority into obedience to a moral precept, but the underlying values that give that precept life are driven by caring. Put another way, the transcendent moral anchor is and must remain the primary authority for our “post-mortal caring”. Think about it carefully: The question, “Why should I care about the world or any part of it after I’m gone?” can be answered with real authority only via access to the experience of moral transcendence.
THE CORE HUMAN DISCOVERY IN OUTLINE
(1) Transcendence is a common human experience, more often than not accompanied by a life altering moral insight.
(2) There is a common moral realm, whether seen as universal conscience, natural moral law, or a core set of universal moral precepts derived from transcendent moral values.
(3) Exemplary moral individuals arise (as a gift to us) who personify or incarnate (1) and (2), and whose lives generate, validate and give force to our ongoing moral traditions.
(4) The moral Truths of the Core Human Discovery are Truths with a capital “T’; they transcend and stand over the mundane truths (with a lower case “t’) of day-to-day reality (including the theories and experimental outcomes of science).
Our species’ mainline orthodox religions have operated effectively in deploying the Core Human Discovery on four levels:
(1) Top down literalism, something akin to the simple, but effective strategies of a good dog trainer;
(2) Sophisticated allusion using metaphor and allegory;
(3) Teaching by moral example;
(4) Employing liturgy, ritual and the disciplines of meditation and prayer to facilitate individual reconnections with the Core Human Discovery
I believe that these four strategies have worked over the centuries because the Core Human Discovery is actually true, both on the deep psychological level and on the (now discredited) metaphysical level. It is a simple, pragmatic reality that religions in general have been (and may remain) the single most effective means for the intergenerational transmission of the moral knowledge that we humans need to sustain our working civilizations. A possible competing model, one not-inconsistent with universal religion, might be termed transcendent humanism. But the major competing model is materialistic scientism. This model denies the possibility of transcendence altogether and by extension it denies the Core Human Discovery.
EMERGENT PURPOSE = SOFT TELEOLOGY
Assume for the sake of this discussion that the eventual development of civilization is “programmed” into the sub-architecture that governs development paths in this universe. This is not a great stretch for science because most practicing scientists are willing to seriously entertain - even adopt as a working model - the general idea that this universe was so constructed that the eventual emergence of life was virtually assured. A plurality of working scientists would also concede that the emergence of intelligence within a robust ecology of living creatures is almost inevitable, given sufficient time for natural selection to operate, because of the competitive advantage reason confers.
The logic that leads us to expect the emergence of intelligence whenever local conditions in the universe permit also leads us to expect to foresee the self-organization of intelligent beings into social modalities that foster group survival. These modalities are forms of “civilization.”
The Core Human Discovery continues to integrate all these insights, including the many reported experiences of transcendence as discovery (as opposed to illusion). Through the Core Human Discovery we humans have found and continue to find purpose in this universe instead of meaningless accident.
The Core Human Discovery therefore is teleological (because it tells us how the world is imbued with purpose and direction) but I hasten to add the recent implications drawn of chaos theory and quantum physics: The course of the world is not fully pre-deterministic. This is why I used the term virtually assured above.
Purpose and value make their appearance in the physical universe gradually but almost inevitably because they are inherent design features of the robust, fecund life-forms that emerge opportunistically through “natural” selection, but become dominant through “self assertion”.
Our starting point is the growing realization that the eventual development of civilization is virtually programmed into the sub-architecture of the natural world; that the rules, regularities and conditions that tend to govern development paths in this universe, combined with random chance and the passage of time, virtually assure civilization’s eventual appearance. Once that happens, creative intelligence (as it operates in the service of the life forms that gave it a platform) is amplified greatly within the interactive context of a civilization.
Think of civilization’s educational institutions, the communities of thinkers, the creative teams, the inventors at the head (or at the service) of supportive organizations, the dramatic creative synergies in Silicone Valley, and the creative surge in the arts in Renaissance Florence. Human intelligence becomes a creative force on its own when supported by civilization; it becomes a force that works much faster than the gradual evolutionary processes that, by giving an ecological venue for early humans, provided us with that “first chance”. Consider that it took mammals several million years through the slow mechanisms of natural selection to achieve the rudimentary technology of flight but that it took human civilization only a few thousand years to get human from treetops the to the lunar surface using creative intelligence.
We can also allow ourselves to realize (as should by now be obvious) that several key norms are necessary for the emergence and continuity of civilizations because the social arrangements of civilization need to support peaceful exchange relationships among semi-autonomous intelligent actors. We can even expect that, over time, these norms would have become “soft-wired” via natural selection into the sub-architecture of volitional consciousness itself. Therefore we should not have been surprised by the recent findings that, within proto-intelligent animals capable of at least minimal social cooperation, there are early signs of the emergence of social norms. [Certain proto-ethical behaviors among the great apes have been detected. Whether and to what extent these are inherited weak tendencies combined with learned behaviors, or something more, is a pending issue.]
Life does benefit from intelligence and intelligence benefits from civilization; and the social technology of civilization actually requires a robust moral (or normative) architecture. So here is the takeaway point: Not all individuals are perfect; not all moral systems work perfectly; and not all civilizations are equally well constructed; but, over time, things gradually improve. This is because both the so called “blind” evolutionary processes (I note that natural selection operates as if it were a proto-intelligence at work) and actual thinking beings (working both individually and collectively) tend to learn from their mistakes: The better planners and adapters in this universe enjoy a survival advantage. Therefore, there is a very long term tendency toward improvement. It is more clearly visible at a remove. It operates because intelligence and creative innovation, and yes, a moral context for these attributes, collectively confer a marginal survival advantage. Of course, success is never guaranteed.
STRICT MATERIALISM AND ITS LIMITATIONS
Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins are members of the anti- religious, anti-transcendence intelligentsia. [See Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett (Penguin) and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins (Houghton Mifflin) and the review by Michael Novak referenced below.]
These and the other God-hostile intellectuals must necessarily work overtime to avoid the teleological implications of the general pro-life, pro-intelligence, pro-creative adaptation tendencies that nature has exhibited over the last several billion years. I suspect that teleology must be strongly denied by these authors because to admit that a pervasive purpose is at work in the universe implies that there is a meta-being somewhere in the mix with the capacity for purpose and a will to exercise it in favor of living creative moral beings.
The ultimate metaphysical ground upon which scientism rests is the doctrine of strict materialism, the strikingly arrogant claim that the primary subject of the physical sciences, the realm of matter and energy, represents all that is and ever was real. This view empowers the arch-materialists’ claims that purpose is nothing more than a human invention; that God cannot exist because there is no experimentally verifiable evidence for a deity having “caused” any event; and that everything is “explained” by purely physical/material processes. In other words, the scientific study of mere “stuff” - matter and energy in all its forms - provides our species with all the guidance it will ever need. Scientism claims to hold the sole explanation of Life, the Universe, and Everything.
The Core Human Discovery is durable for a reason. An embedded “soft” teleology is clearly at work in the universe. As we begin the 21st century, this is as the heart of the Core Human Discovery:
The tendency/soft teleology that has become increasingly evident in this universe is civilization-friendly. This simple fact strongly implies the central presence of deity – or an equivalent self-organizing tendency, as the core animating, organizing principle of development.
Why speak of a Caring Deity instead of some impersonal “force”?
(1) Because consciousness and conscience cannot be separated in the real world;
(2) Because conscience cannot be divorced from caring;
(3) Because the tendencies for the emergence of consciousness and conscience are encoded in the warp and woof of the universe;
(4) Because the Ur-source of consciousness and conscience cannot be adequately apprehended or described as a purely impersonal mechanism.
I propose that esthetics, empathy, ethics and the experience of transcendence are all deeply linked to each other in that they are aspects of a common faculty (or bundle of faculties) enjoyed by healthy conscious intelligence. They are part of a suite of special cognitive abilities that include our capacity to recognize other thinking, feeling beings as real persons, and to grasp in a meaningful way what is actually going on his or her “head and heart”.
The striking inability of Dr. Dennett to “explain” consciousness (“Consciousness Explained” Little, Brown & Co. 1991) except within the impoverished context of arch-materialism should have been a clue to the bankruptcy of scientism as the grand explanation of all significance.
Recently, I was struck by the revelation that the last century’s most famous atheist, Sigmund Freud (1836-1939), hated music. [This and other insights are captured in “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life by Armand M. Nicholi Jr. (Free Press, 2002, 2003).] I wonder whether Dr. Dennett and the other materialist atheists might accept the description of Bach’s “B Minor Mass” or Beethoven’s “Eroica”, or Johnny Cash’s “Walk The Line”, or Dave Brubeck”s “Elementals’, or Duke Ellington’s “Take The A train” as fluctuations of air pressure that produce characteristic electrical activity in the brain? In a special sense, the exercise of rigorous materialism by those who profess the faux religion of scientism has a disturbing resemblance to the mindset of the autistic.
I am personally persuaded that the saints, bodhisattvas, seers, mavens and mystics who have been able to record their intimate and awesome experience of the Presence of an ultimate, caring Being (sometimes reported as a “beingness” or simply as an encounter with the numinous – a truly life-changing experience when not denied) were telling the Truth. And I am personally persuaded that they were employing the same suite of cognitive abilities that all healthy humans can potentially access. Through this suite of abilities we humans are gifted to be able to recognize, know and love each other and to enjoy and be moved by art, music and humor. In this sense what we sometimes call faith is nothing less than self-confidence in the veracity of our apperception of the numinous. The sense that a “great veil has been stripped away” to reveal that which is a wonder to behold” is so common in human history and has so often been coupled with great moral insight that to deny its reality and significance seems to me to hint of pathology. In this sense, the intense work of an intellectual, like Dr. Dennett who purports to “explain” (read “explain away’) consciousness, resembles the remarkable feats of memory and mathematical calculations of an autistic savant who cannot stand to be touched.Of course Daniel Dennett is by all accounts a normal, civilized fellow. I suspect therefore that the strict materialism upon which most of his work is based is more of a rhetorical construct than an operating life principle. Then there is the possibility that he is living in genteel denial. Like the other great doubters (I think of the billiard playing David Hume – 1711-1776), the comfortable, prosperous, well protected atheists of our era have taken the blessings of civilization for granted and seem to think that drawing room civility is an exportable product in its own right.
I want you to think of Dennett and Hume occupying an elegantly decorated, large elevator, equipped with the comforts of a study room at Oxford.Then consider the two “elevator thought experiments” first posed by Albert Einstein. Someone is isolated from the rest of the world and is set up in a pressurized elevator. In (a), the elevator is being towed in space at a steady acceleration of one gravity. In (b), the elevator is being allowed to fall from a great height. The observer in each is not able to tell the difference between: being situated safely on the earth (a) or being safely adrift near some earth satellite in orbit (b). Note that Einstein stops the story here to make his famous point about inertial frames of reference, but each observer faces a possible disastrous reckoning. In Hume’s and Dennett’s case, that reckoning is to be visited on a future generation. Each atheistic “parent” who cannot communicate the elements of the Core Human Discovery has to rely on the power of imitation without the power of renewal. This kind of cultural transmission belt is subject to decay over time just as in the whispered message in a parlor game where a sentence is quietly told ear-to-ear around the table, only to end up garbled at the end.
I recommend Michael Novak’s review of “Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris; Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett; The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins”. I believe his review, Lonely Atheists of the Global Village, is still available on line at >>>> http://www.aei.org/publications/filter.all,pubID.25770/pub_detail.asp .
Mr. Novak is the George Frederick Jewett scholar of religion, philosophy, and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute.
“Why does atheism persuade so few? Our authors never ask. I particularly wanted to like the book by Richard Dawkins. I had heard that his is a well-furnished and well-rounded mind, and that he writes with the music and wit of an elegant literary stylist. His fans present him as the very model of a reasonable man. Dawkins, too, expressly presents himself and other atheists as “Brights,” distinguished by their “healthy” and “vigorous” minds. Poor believers — he openly complains — are by contrast with him trapped in delusion, unquestioning, mentally dead. He makes not a gesture of seeking to learn from them. …. Throughout the West, it appears that neither scientist nor pop star takes time to consider contemporary religious experience in the light of some of its most sophisticated and heroic practitioners. For instance, never before our own time have so many millions of persons of Biblical faith been thrown into concentration camps, tortured, and murdered, as they have been under recent self-described atheist regimes. It would have been wonderful if any of our three authors had measured their vision of religion against the hard-won Biblical faith of the originally atheist scientist Anatoly Sharansky, who served nine years in the Soviet Gulag simply for vindicating the rights of Soviet citizens who were Jews. Sharansky has written the record of his suffering in a brilliant autobiography, Fear No Evil. I think I have never read of a braver moral man, determined to live as a free man, courageously showing nothing but moral contempt for the morals of KGB officials, under whose total power he had to live.”