A PROPOSAL TO REFORM OUR MEANING SYSTEM
The Gulf between Rationality and Morality
The major problem of meaning in the world today is the gulf between rationality and morality. A great chasm between reason, in the form of scientific explanations, and morality, in the form of religious beliefs and legal/humanistic values. In an adequate meaning system both reason and morality need to be mutually supportive otherwise anomie and social disintegration will follow which may be “cured” by reaction in the form of short-term, highly-destructive religious or secular political fanaticism. Over the past hundred years fanatical Russian, German and Japanese regimes armed with the latest scientific technology came close to taking over the world and at one point the Cold War between inflexible Nationalistic American Plutocracy and inflexible Nationalistic Russian Communism almost led to the annihilation of mankind.
Absolute v Relativistic Values
Values evolve as conscious symbolic expressions of emotional and rational preferences which guide social action and contribute to the elaboration of meaning systems and cultures. They evolve within social institutions ranging from the basic family to more specialised economic, political, religious, educational and ideological institutions.
Religious values are usually absolutist and frequently sanctioned by transcendental supernatural authority or simply “tradition” requiring no other justification. Secular humanistic values usually rest upon historically established norms justified by utilitarianism in a social-Darwinist setting. Neither of these justifications can be demonstrated to be fully rational or fully irrational.
Absolutist religious values vary in both space, with different religions, and in time, through innovative prophetic revelation within the same religion. Utilitarianism is logically a relativistic concept depending on historical prioritisation of economic, political, social, psychological and biological usefulness in adapting to the natural environment. Utilitarian values are fundamentally just as absolutist and irrational as religious values but are more responsive to historical changes. There are biological, social and cultural parameters which cannot be treated as purely relativistic without complete destruction. Unfortunately the irrational hatred of traditional values that characterises the century-old intolerant ideology of Modernism has led to naïve unquestioning trust in various forms of materialistic social darwinism, especially International Capitalism and National Socialism.
Political Reductionism and Spin
Reductionism where wholes are reduced to their component parts for greater manipulation and control has proved highly successful in materialistic science but is essentially only part of the story. The application of reductionism to political science has produced the mystical belief in the Mandate of the People as an absolute value. Just as the whole is more than the sum of its parts in all of Nature, the total votes of a community of individuals, which Rousseau called The General Will, is the result of processes which include communication by those wishing to implement certain policies by appealing to the sentiments of the electorate. The most important factor of all in obtaining The Will of the People as an absolute authority is the monopoly of the means of communication. Whichever social group controls the publishing of tracts, educational texts, especially history books, newspapers, etc. or who controls radio and television stations will be the true Will of the People just as those holy men who controlled the writing of sacred texts in the past were the true Will of God. As Humpty Dumpty informed Alice “The only question is, which is to be Master”.
Individualistic v Collectivistic Religious Values
Religious belief systems may either concentrate on rules that concern individual behaviour or those concerning the behaviour of the religious community as a whole. Judaism began with a contract between their War Lord and his people who thus were a “chosen people”. Since Monotheism meant there were no other powerful Gods, the fate of the Jewish people depended entirely on their obedience to Jehovah’s commandments. The conversionist Christians cut off from their original link with Judaism and living in Rome and other parts of the Roman Empire not only developed a strong belief in the afterlife, like the Egyptians, but to them “the people” meant anyone who accepted Christ as the incarnation of the Jewish God, regardless of race. Initially, before Church and State merged, unlike the Jews the destiny of Christian believers as a political unit was often less important than what happened to the individual believer after death.
Immanent and Transcendental Religions
Religious or quasi-religious beliefs which focus on the believers’ relationship with their natural and human environment place empathy above obedience to divine commands. Calm spiritual leaders in immanent religions lead by example whereas the passionate prophets and saints of transcendental religions warn against the consequences of disobedience and condemn those who have done so. In the case of Islam and Judaism, the people as a whole would be punished whereas in Christianity, particularly in the Protestant varieties, it is the individual who is threatened with dire consequences.
Attitudes to the World
Values are also effected by the attitude individuals take towards the world. Before the Scientific Revolution, Jews, Christians and Moslems understood the world to be God’s mysterious creation designed for human enjoyment full of good and evil beings and forces. Interpretation of natural events as portents was a large part of the role of priestly professionals. However following the rediscovery of Greek materialistic philosophy, the world or Nature began to be seen as fundamentally understandable and later as ultimately controllable. During the Enlightenment mechanistic scientists regarded Nature as a soulless material impediment to human ambitions or a useful resource to be studied, exploited and controlled. In the early Nineteenth Century Romantic artists and writers rebelled at this “disenchantment” of Nature and either lost themselves in the worship of Nature or became inflamed with excitement and hurled themselves into heroic interaction with Nature.
Sentimental Retreatism and Environmentalism
There has been rapid growth in the various environmental ideologies which started in the 1960s and which criticised the world-wide destruction of the fertility of the soil which is following the utilitarian humanistic ideology of economic development. Unfortunately these are largely reactionary groups who have not produced any alternative meaning systems other than to adopt traditional secular communitarianism or retreatist religion. They are prone to panic and withdrawal from intellectual debate. The writings of Gregory Bateson, a pioneer of the ecology movement, are much more subtle. In his essays and “Mind and Nature”, he shows with considerable emphasis the lack of logical rigour and both semantic and epistemological confusions that lie unquestioned at the heart of the scientific paradigms which dominate all our institutions of learning.
The End of Science as a Credible Belief System
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.
It did not last, the devil howling “Ho!
Let Einstein be!” restored the status quo.
A century ago Hilaire Belloc added the extra two lines to Alexander Pope’s satirical couplet. The scientific world view was blown apart a century ago. The simplistic stochastic, materialistic view of the universe cannot survive such discoveries as the expanding universe, which, adopting scientific causation, can be ‘wound back’ to an original ‘Big Bang’ (which happened nowhere, without any cause and was impossible anyway) the contradictory nature of light as both particle and wave, the absence of any absolute frame, and the inexplicable evidence of the apparent influence of observation on the behaviour of elementary particles. Current reductionist theories of evolution cannot be rigorously tested against time variables, do not properly take account of organism induced changes of their natural environment nor do they include multi-level evolution such as sexual selection, and behavioural, social or cultural evolutionary feedback loops.
Our control over Nature has increased but our overall theoretical understanding of objective material reality is in such an unbelievable state that it resembles the Hellenistic ‘epicycle’ model of Ptolemy designed to show the movements of the heavenly bodies. This was accurate enough to be an indispensable navigational aid but obviously, like modern scientific cosmology, although useful to the military industrial elite, theoretical nonsense.
Scientists can still provide guidelines for the manipulation of materials regardless of the parlous state of their overall explanatory system. In the same way most religions function well to regulate human behaviour regardless of the veracity of their historical accounts of various supernatural beings and their intervention in mundane affairs. Both activities are “carried on regardless” until a more meaningful overall synthesis is imposed or agreed upon.
Darwin’s theory of evolution driven by blind chance and activated through violence-based survival or “natural selection”, was the final coup de gras for a Bible based belief system already weakened by the Renaissance rediscovery of sceptical Greek philosophy and Newton’s clockwork model of the Heliocentric solar system. Most educated people could accept that many of the events recorded in the Bible were not literally true but the stuffing was really knocked out of them when faced with carefully argued proofs that mankind and the rest of the natural world were not created by an intelligent purposeful being but evolved by accident. What then was the meaning of life?
The Ideology of Health and Efficiency replaces Good and Evil
In the past century sterile and loveless secular economic “progress” ideologies have arisen based on various forms of social darwinism but they have led either to political madness or to the destruction of the fertility of the soil or both. Christianity has either become over formalised and embarrassed by its roots which were among the superstitious slaves in the cities of the Roman Empire or, like Radical Islam, its followers have reverted back to cult-like groups with credulous beliefs in guaranteed personal immortality, miracles and scriptural accounts of creation. Rational humanists have to deny what their hearts are telling them and evangelical believers have to deny what their brains are telling them.
Can there be any synthesis between meaning based on animal feelings, such as love, reverence and awe, and meaning based on a mechanistic interpretation of the workings of matter, biology and zoology? Psychotherapy, with its base on the nervous system and individual behaviour, has for a century been struggling to fill the gap but is too closely associated with the needs of industrial society to provide therapy to individual over-stressed workers in dysfunctional nuclear families to provide such a synthesis. Particularly noteworthy is the inability of most individual psychological theories other than Jung and Viktor Frankel to justify belief in the validity of such basic elements of human meaning as the Soul and spiritually-defined Good versus Evil, as opposed to Consciousness and legally-defined Right versus Wrong. Psychologists with integrity have to admit that psychological explanations of such phenomena as the legally authorised behaviour of most German people and their Nazi leaders during WW2, based on ‘scientific’ eugenics, as simply being the consequences of “insanity”, are more dangerous than stupid. Similarly, human beings like the Buddha or the Christ who carried out acts of amazing altruism which have been major influences on human values, would also have to be regarded by modern psychologists as basically insane, excluded from respectable institutions, and given compulsory therapy.
The Attack on Meaning
Scientists are philosophically more naïve than theologians and philosophers and rarely if ever question the lack of evidence for the independent existence of the world we experience and understand from the observer who is somehow “outside the universe”. It is a useful assumption of course. Since the time of Bacon and Descartes rather than bothering with such apparently pointless speculation they have got on with the job of providing the emerging new industrial society with explanations of “How?” rather than “Why?” They left such metaphysical matters to the theologians and moral philosophers. But not for ever.
The dying throes of Christendom as a governing system with teeth, when bankers were replacing popes, were hastened by Galileo “putting the boot in”. Believing he had the support of the new secular rulers of Venice and Florence, he wrote and published a scientific satire in Italian, not in the scholars’ customary language of Latin. This unfairly portrayed the Catholic intellectuals of the Vatican as moronic disbelievers in the heliocentric system. Since that time scientists have taken every opportunity to make negative intrusions into the ontological realm until finally the point was reached when Nietzsche announced the “Death of God”. The Whig historian Gibbon had already pointed out that in Roman times “The people believed all religions were equally true, the philosophers believed all religions were equally false and the administrators believed all religions were equally useful.”
THE NEED FOR ANOTHER REFORMATION
Back to Basics
Anyone attempting to bring body and soul together again without retreating into mindless religious fundamentalism or heartless materialistic ‘survivalism’, is forced to realise that it cannot be achieved without creating an entirely fresh meaning system. The chaotic state of both scientific and religious paradigms must be traced back not just to the warning by Thomas Aquinas that disaster would follow the separation of the natural sciences from metaphysics, but to the very origins of Western thought, the basis of both Christianity and Industrial Civilisation. We must first confront and deal with the epistemological gulf between Plato and Aristotle.
The New Metaphysics
In 1907 the philosopher Henri Bergson, who was well acquainted with mechanistic, materialistic theories and evolution in particular, published “Creative Evolution”. This highly original view of evolution and time inspired a few thinkers to question fundamental assumptions based on Aristotelian substance philosophy.
Alfred North Whitehead
Thirty years later Whitehead, the great mathematical philosopher influenced by Plato and by the scientist, mathematician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, took a radically new approach to Aristotelian substance theory stimulated both by Locke’s critique of temporal causation and Bishop Berkeley’s argument against the independent existence of “Nature”. He produced “Process and Reality” and some independent essays included in “Science and The Modern World” and “Adventures in Ideas”. Known as Process Theory or Process-relational Cosmology, his theory of the organism is an extremely subtle explanation of the complex creative process by which “events” of any kind are continuously creating what we “experience” as reality. To avoid the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” we must assume that events alone, not objects, are truly real. This clear-sighted view avoids the bifurcation of reality by philosophers like Descartes and Kant into subjective and objective components which has been producing many nonsensical scientific attempts at explanation concerning both the macrocosm and the microcosm. Whitehead’s cosmology has inspired the formation of both scientific and religious study groups but mainstream scientists and philosophers remain completely indifferent.
Teilhard de Chardin
At about the same time a Jesuit palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, who had been greatly affected by his reading of Bergson, took the radical step of attempting a synthesis of faith and reason whilst remaining an obedient member of the priesthood. In “The Phenomenon of Man” written in 1941 he produced a non-materialistic, non-reductionist cosmology. He accepted most aspects of evolutionary theory up to the appearance of man but he pointed out that rapid evolution of the human brain had ceased and evolution was now social and cultural and was being consciously directed towards convergence through what he calls “involution”. This is the increasing complexity of subjective awareness which can be assumed be associated with the evolving complexity of the objective world. What Teilhard calls the convergent “Omega Point” is the time of the Parousia, when Christ is fully manifested. This evolutionary Christian Cosmology was condemned by the Roman Church as heretical for excluding both the fall into original sin and the biblical account of creation. He was forbidden to publish The Phenomenon of Man but, like samizdats in communist states, it was circulated in mimeograph form amongst interested clergy and was finally published in 1955. Interest in Teilhard’s writings in general is still strong but mainly in Catholic theological circles. Recently Pope Benedict showed his qualified approval.
There are many aspects of a value system based on the life and words of Jesus which would not require adherents to believe in written accounts of events and miracles they now realise to be untrue. It is increasingly clear that the authors had political and religious motives at the time of writing which are no longer relevant. Careful and detached examination of the Gospels shows major differences not only in the accounts of what happened but in their interpretation.
Perhaps the best place to begin a more rational approach to “decoding” Jesus is with the Three Temptations in the Wilderness. There is a possibility that the accounts in Matthew and Luke were written to counter criticisms, prevalent at the time of writing, that Jesus was a miracle-working wizard like Simon Magus. This episode is clearly designed to shift attention away from the importance of the need to perform miraculous deeds to convince people that Jesus is God’s representative on Earth or even God himself in human form. The Gospels mainly emphasise the importance of the exemplary life and words of Jesus. Stripped of the miraculous, which is often a wicked form of manipulation of credulous fools, Jesus remains the most important spiritual leader of the civilisation which now dominates the world scientifically but is failing significantly to provide spiritual or even ethical leadership? The written accounts of the lives of Buddha, Confucius and Mohammed depend much less on demonstrations of miraculous powers for their spiritual validation. Believing in the importance of Jesus’ exemplary life and ethical parables, Thomas Jefferson produced his own version of the Gospels which omitted all the miracles
Common Ground between Faith and Reason
How much common ground is there between religious and humanistic values and the analytical assumptions and practices of materialistic science? Vital social norms are based on values like love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, loyalty, respect for life, sensual feelings of involvement in the world, appreciation of beauty, music, dancing and other arts and so on.
Scientific truth is essentially a form of philosophical materialism and has its origins in Greek speculative thought, particularly the objectification of the world together with Atomism and Reductionism, and is unconsciously based on the paradox of “believing” the symbolically expressed statement, “matter is more real than symbolically expressed statements”. Reductionism involves the irrational claim that the parts are more real than the whole. Obviously for practical purposes matter can be reduced to its elements for analysis and recombination by human beings.
What should be no more than useful working assumptions e.g. reductionism, materialism and atomism, and zoological/genetic evolution driven by pure chance, are now articles of faith which are fundamentally irrational. Moreover the world view of science is essentially one of impotent voyeurism. Such irrational totalitarian belief in materialism with almost no overriding ethical constraints, in association with social-darwinism as a political ideology is currently destroying both peace of mind and the natural environment at a rapidly increasing rate. It is also leading to the cancerous growth of reactionary religious and political fundamentalism.
Scientists justify the lack of human values in their materialistic cosmology by arguing from utilitarian results. There is also cause to blame the cowardly failure of philosophers and theologically trained individuals to openly challenge the shallow and bigoted public statements about values made by the rapidly rising numbers of religious fundamentalists claiming a higher authority than reason. The gnostic elements in the beliefs of fundamentalists mean they can accept the ecological damage done to the world through the unquestioned domination of materialism without concern since, whatever happens to the evil natural world, their souls are guaranteed eternal life.
There can be no reconciliation between reason and faith if both are based on psychological conformity and short term desirable social rewards for their adherents. If they are true champions of reason then scientists do not have to be frightened of philosophical speculation just because their philosophical foundations have been shown to be seriously flawed. Justification by short-term results is head-in-the-sand madness. Confused and puzzled but kindly traditional believers are doing their best to avoid the fate of becoming either pure ritualists with no passion, or raving fanatics believing that their intellectually limited cult leaders are in more intimate contact with God than more modest believers. As the poet W.B. Yates put in just after the Great War, “The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
The Vital need for a New Synthesis of Values
There is an urgent need not only for a systematic set of propositions concerning goodness or virtue based not only on the best understanding of current theology but also on the best understanding of scientific explanations of objective reality. Such a synthesis was attempted in the medieval period by Thomas Aquinas and the Scholastics. We must include not only the “hard sciences”, even in their current state of theoretical confusion, but also the less exact sciences of biology, depth psychology, neuro-science, ethology, sociology, and anthropology which we must assume to rest upon the foundation of the physical sciences. I am convinced that we desperately need to make a new synthesis of scientific theories and religious beliefs into an overall cosmological set of propositions. So much so that for lack of any other I created my own cosmological synthesis in 1972.
Blind faith in Economic Development and Blind Faith in Holy Writings
Our blind faith in Economic Development as the absolute goal of life is leading us to a point if no return in our accelerating destruction of the ability of the natural environment to support the massive increase in the world population and constant psychological and social pressure to consume and waste limited resources. We must reconnect human knowledge with human wisdom by paying close attention to speculative philosophies which investigate the overall nature of being and reality.
Materialist philosophers often dismiss religion as a distraction from suffering, a lie to camouflage political oppression or as the result of sexual repression, but these theories are rarely proper arguments but moral propaganda by individuals who hate religion for various irrational reasons. The whole structure of Modern Science, which is stuck in the Seventeenth Century and whose roots are in Ancient Greece, needs careful re-examination, a complete overhaul of the type begun by Bergson, Pierce, Whitehead and Bateson.
Christianity and other Bible-based religions that crystallised in their present form during the later stages of both halves of the Roman Empire also need a complete overhaul and their roots re-examined. The last time in history when materialistic technology and values were at least partly subordinated to spiritual authority and exemplary conduct by the rulers was the British Christian Empire before it was weakened by the Great War, the reactionary ideology of Modernism and the rise of the materialistic societies of America and Russia. There has been no sign of such a reasonably benign great power for a hundred years now.
Reassessing Jesus’ Mission
The recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have stimulated many Christian and Jewish theologians to reassess the momentous events of the First Century. The oldest extant account of the Crucifixion and what preceded it is Mark’s Gospel and the collection of sayings known as “Q”. The author was in Rome writing around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Mark provided the narrative foundation for the other later Gospel writers, each of whom made modifications to suit the changing political, religious and social environments at the time of writing. The Pharisees are demonised in one account, another treats the Sanhedrin as the villains and Pilate is portrayed as tolerant gentleman. The narrative is also adapted to prophetic requirements that Jesus be born in David’s city of Bethlehem. To attract military followers of Mithras he is said to be born in a manger surrounded by cattle and for those of the important Sol Invictus cult it had to be on December 25th. Virgin birth is added which would appeal to the many believers in the Greco-Roman religious complex, after all Julius Caesar claimed to be descended from the goddess Venus and not long before the time of Jesus’ birth was legally transformed into a god himself by the Roman Senate.
Miraculous Resurrection or Compassionate Self Sacrifice?
Mark’s Gospel ends with the shocking discovery of the empty tomb. Extra text was added later to introduce the Resurrection story which had obvious popular appeal to the numerous supporters of the Isis and Osiris cult in the Roman Empire. Perhaps this was the cause of the split between orthodox Jewish followers such as the Ebionites and the other followers of Jesus scattered throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The miraculous Resurrection rather than the compassionate self-sacrifice of the Passover Lamb became the key event in Christianity. The destruction of Jerusalem and consequent death and dispersal of the Ebionites ended any chance of what may have turned out to be the much needed revitalisation of the corrupt priestly Jewish religion being undertaken by such leaders as John, Jesus and his brother James.
It is clear that Jesus himself planned the timing of his crucifixion which ensured he was on the cross for a fairly short time. This has led to conjecture by Hugh Schonfield, a foremost Jewish scholar of the period, that some form of reappearance was planned by Jesus but the centurion’s spear may have injured him beyond recovery. The bleak ending of Mark’s narrative is the empty tomb, just as the bleak ending of Jewish national revitalisation was the complete destruction of their temple and their city a mere generation later.
Jesus, Asaph and Buddha
Schonfield is able to disentangle links in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other fragmentary sources between a Messiah/King and a Prophet similar to Jesus and John the Baptist. Reference to the earlier archetypes of Zadok and Nathan is still made at the British Coronation ceremonies. Shonfield finds in the Scrolls an episode which took place a century and a half earlier involving a great teacher Asaph. Apparently Asaph escaped into Northern India from the destruction and massacres in Jerusalem being carried out by their Hellenistic pagan Greek rulers. Asaph was often conflated with Buddha, and Schonfield obviously thinks that the real story of Jesus is rather different from that of the Jesus who became the miracle-working god of personal immortality seekers in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires.
Islam and Israel
Such new and better informed interpretations of the mission of Jesus might enable reconciliation between Christians and Jews after hundreds of years of accusations that the Jews murdered Christ and hundreds of years of armed confrontation between Muslims and Christian governments. The Jews and Muslims do not believe Jesus was divine. Any idea that God who is transcendent can be directly perceived by the senses is anathema to both. Since the followers of these bible-based religions regard Jesus as a holy man it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a time might come when leading theologians of all three religions might hammer out a joint interpretation of their scriptures so that they may engage fully with their common enemy, the soul-destroying materialistic consumerism that is polluting both the earth and our spiritual well-being.
Buddhism is a set of doctrines reached after a lifetime of seeking and suffering by the Buddha, the compassionate one who understands that the world we experience with our senses is largely illusory and much less important than detached understanding. Buddhists would appreciate the interpretation of Jesus as a great teacher whose transcendental act of compassion was to set himself up to be crucified like a common criminal. His teaching that the things of this world were not be treasured above love, not only for one’s friends and neighbours but one’s enemies, is in harmony with Buddhism. Buddhism does not contradict the bible-based religions as it is not basically about the historical destiny of any race, nation, nor personal immortality.
Hinduism, Confucianism and Daoism
The amazing flexibility and endurance of this ancient Hindu complex of beliefs and practices will no doubt continue regardless of the more carefully focussed struggle over the soul of man which I believe is about to break out. Confucianism, like Ecclesiastes and Proverbs and other wisdom literature, is a list of virtuous practices designed for living in a civilised but basically agricultural society and therefore has limited relevance to industrial and post-industrial civilisations. Daoism, or The Way, on the other hand is a flexible more “situationist“ way of living not limited to any specific form of society.
Religious Values and Religiosity
With the removal of supernatural sanctions and miraculous divine interventions which require us to close our minds to what we know to be true or false, values can be established to once again to give purpose and meaning to human life. Good can only triumph if we can distinguish it from Evil. I am not proposing a totalitarian imposition from above of this new synthesis of values concerning good and evil and the good life in general. What Max Weber called “the religiosity of the masses” will always apply. Human beings love imaginative stories. The masses of India adore their religious narratives and even the Buddhist masses believe in all sorts of demons and angels and miracles in spite of Buddha’s teachings about the illusions or Maya. The wonderful story of Monkey and the bringing of the scriptures to China attests to that. The miraculous omnipresent Father Christmas coming down chimneys with gifts is believed in by millions of children. Like the Tooth Fairy such belief is often prolonged by reinforcement in the form of material rewards. This is also true of the use of selective interpretation of natural and historical events by priests to sustain their meaning system. Probably only a small elite of deep thinking individuals can maintain the sceptical detachment needed to separate the wheat from the chaff in order to establish and maintain a value system which both encourages goodness and imaginative playfulness as well as providing level-headed assessments of the meaning of material, biological, psychological, social and cultural events.
Intellectual elites provide the rationalisations for rulers, whether the majority understands what they are talking about or not. A small number of jargon-mongering financial “wizards” currently dominate the world’s financial system which controls our industrial civilization and now an elite of spell-binding advertising magicians are building up hysterical consumerism. The destruction they are wreaking by manipulating belief in imaginary credit and imaginary needs is at least as dangerous as that which could be caused by an elite of religious jargon-mongers manipulating belief in imaginary immortality.