“That’s not at all what Einstein does. Einstein does the contrary. He takes the theories very seriously. He believes the theory. He says, look, classical mechanics is so successful that when it says that velocity is relative, we should take it seriously, and we should believe it. And the Maxwell equations are so successful that we should believe the Maxwell equations. He has so much trust in the theory itself, in the qualitative content of the theory, that qualitative content that Kuhn says changes all the time, that we learned not to take too seriously, and so much faith in this, confidence in that, that he’s ready to do what? To force coherence between these two, the two theories, by challenging something completely different, which is something that is in our head, which is how we think about time. He’s changing something in common sense, something about the elementary structure in terms of which we think of the world, on the basis of the trust of the past results in physics. This is exactly the opposite of what is done today in physics.” (http://www.edge.org/conversation/a-philosophy-of-physics)
It does not take a lot to take the words “physics” out of this quote (and the whole article) and substitute any reference to physics and science with your preferred knowledge mode. I have seen this in poetry, and I have seen this in organized religion. By this I meant what the author points out physicists are doing, where they are quick to say that “all of our past knowledge about the world is wrong. Let’s randomly pick some new idea.”
We want the new app, the new idea, the new connection, the new network, the new friend, the new lover, the new god, or new goddess, new Heavens and new Hells.
But what if the old ways were right? What if the old insights, which were built upon solid experience, were accurate? I have not for a second believed in this thing called “modern man.” We are paleolithic creatures. We still are. The interpersonal issues of the late paleolithic period man are still with us. The issues we consider most basic to our culture, issues of art, issues of food, hunting and foraging, agriculture, issues of shelter and cities and polis. Issues of death and religion and after-life. Issues of love and issues of betrayal. Of wars and peaceful coexistence. Issues of climate change and geography.
None of these things have changed. It is always part of our hubris, and from what I gather every generation’s hubris, that we think we are the pinnacle, the apex, the superior at whatever it is.
Of course technology has progressed. Of course the complexity of our political life has increased. Of course we have placed our booted footprint on the moon and on the lowest abyssal depths of the sea. Of course we have vaccines, and we have cell phones. We have outcries in human rights even as we continue to behave corporately as idiotic brutes. But what I am trying to say is that these things, at best, mask our fundamental “stone ageyness.”
Because as you go along in life it is the richness of your relationships, real relationships, that matter. It is the depth of feeling about your own life that matters. It is in questions about life, love and death that we stake our claim to humanity. The quality of life, the quality of love and the particular timbre of our dying that makes our music, that compasses our dancing.
The way out is in. Deeper into the maze. Amazed at how our ancestors lived deeply, and honoring their insights as serious songs of life, which not only deserve to be sung, but deserve to be sung throatily, ferociously.
Let us bring them in to our circle dance.
Which brings me to my more focused concerns. Today’s (29 May) reading of the Rule (Chapter 7, On Humility) talks about doing our own will. There are many levels of reaction I have to this reading. The most visceral one is defiance. I do not take kindly to someone telling me what to do or not to do. I do not take orders very well at all. Obedience is not really one of my most trusty tools. It is more like one of my more rusty tools. Plus, I have seen how giving someone else the right to define what is and what is not ok for me to do leads to an imbalance of power which hardly ever ends up well. I am sure this is nothing new to any organization, especially for those which are hierarchical. Can we have a non-hierarchical organization? Is it possible? Can they be called “organized” without rules and some sort of control structure?
But the question raised by Benedict is one of self-will, which in monastic literature has never ever (not that I have found it) been a good thing. It is always seen with suspicion. This is a harsh reality. We are very very good at self-deception, and if there is one thing that monastics are about (of all stripes and creeds) is about dismantling self-deception. Be it in the revolutionary actions of mendicant orders pointing out the hypocrisy of a “Christian” society in the way it treats its poor, or be it in the revolutionary actions of contemplatives who leave society for something better, thus pointing out the insufficiency of society as a means to attain what is truly good and lasting.
If I cannot rely on my self-will to direct me towards what is good, what must I do? Where would be the source fo certainties. Science? But the article I point to above is entitle “Science is not about certainty.” So obviously that is not where I can go. Having said that I want to point out to something which is not dwelt upon in the article, but which I find priceless: “Since theories change, the empirical content is the solid part of what science is.” Carlo Rovelli in the interview is making a point of saying that actually the point of science is not to generate new theories, or even to rely solely on data (which does not tell a story). But the point I want to make is that the stories we tell (theories) about our experiences (data) is what moves us. I do not move us, in the sense of moving forward or even backward. I mean shifts us, I guess, into a whole new realm of understanding. It is not that the previous data was wrong, or even right. It is not about a better theory to fit the “facts”, or a worse theory. I think the point is that we need to take seriously the previous stories and bring them into conversation with where we are at right now.
For example, there has been much research on free will and volition. I frequently link to these things here on the blog. I am interested in how we decide and how we act. So now I have all these new pieces of information about decision-making and actions. I need to bring that in conversation with the insight of the monastics. They say, univocally it seems, that we lie to ourselves all the time. That even when we think we are doing good, we are probably doing a double lie. And then I bring in some of the information from psychology, and I let them talk.
It is not the case of some petty tyrant trying to tell me what to do with his arbitrary rules. It turns out that we do tend to distort reality to protect a self-image. This distortion is part and parcel of being human. But what also happens is that some humans have been able to intuit ways around this blindness. Some other humans have been able to codify these insights into a more or less formal set of protocols and exercises to bypass this self-blindness.
So, the critical thing here is that I can say a full “yes” to both Benedict and psychology. There is no compromise required because they are in profound agreement. The trick is to now stand at this point and see what stories this confluence generates – in what ways, to quote the interview again, does this: “[Anaximander] understands something about reality, essentially by changing something in the conceptual structure that we have in grasping reality. In doing so, he is not doing a theory; he understands something which in some precise sense is forever. It’s some uncovered truth, which to a large extent is a negative truth. He frees ourselves from prejudice, a prejudice that was ingrained in the conceptual structure we had for thinking about space.”
And that is, I think, the point of being human, to work to free us from prejudice.