The Number Forty
Forty days of flood, forty days in the wilderness, forty names of God…. In our tradition, 40 is a Big Deal. As a historian, I think our Western tradition is a big deal too. It has created the global cultural matrix wherein all other traditions now mix.
I reference Western historical icons of culture in the name of this column, Arc of the Cognizant. Naturally then, this fortieth column in my series has made me focus intently on just what I am trying to do in writing these words.
Mind, rule, and teaching people to appreciate History
If I am pushed to it, I will say I write to express ideas, and occasionally facts, about our minds, human consciousness, and our state of being governed and/or governing ourselves. I question what “self” means.
I am a political animal, just as Aristotle asserted that humans are. I care that we rule ourselves, not let others do it for us. Do I think I am instructing my readers when I express these ideas? Yes, I do. I feel that communicating what I learn from others and from experience, is an educative act. I suppose I am saying I want to have an influence on how people might live their lives.
“Let not England forget her precedence in teaching nations how to live.”
This line from the poet John Milton is drenched with Anglophilia and, perhaps, egomaniac national pride. Milton offends some people by this line. But those people are simply wrong to make a decision about someone whose mind they cannot know without some deep historical research. I won’t defend it. Why would I? It is an historical artifact. It is an authentic expression of one man’s consciousness in England of the 17th Century. Milton was a literary genius and a political activist in a revolutionary era; he did much that is admirable.
I am not bothered by long-ago English chauvinism. I don’t judge Milton by 21st Century standards of sensitivity to other people’s national and cultural identity. People sensitive to the feelings, culture, and prejudices of other people today have the full advantage of being at this end of history and looking back on all other periods. To feel superior to the past is ignorant, wrong-headed, and self-hurting. You do not judge other people you know now who are from deeply alien cultures unless you first try to “walk in their shoes.” You must extend the same courtesy of empathy and inner vision to people then, in the past.
My mission, and I accept it
To sum up what I have argued above, one major preoccupation of The Arc is to teach readers how to read and understand history. I do it for love of history but also for love of making a difference in readers’ understanding of their present.
A second major preoccupation in The Arc is the relationship of the Western scientific way of knowing (epistemology), with the ways of non-Western pre-modern cultures and Western esoteric paths of knowledge.
I attempt to walk a line and bridge an abyss that separates our materialist sciences from the magical and spiritual traditions of our past and of other cultures.
A scorecard for Science and Materialism
The materialist science of the West has given us the world’s domineering economies (think G8 and Harper’s obsessions), militaries (think Superpower and star wars), and institutions (e.g. UN and its agencies; World Court, Nobel prizes; etc.) Materialist science has made life healthier, longer, less painful, more liberated from hard physical work, more free with choices for individual satisfaction, even happiness; it would be foolish to deny that, even though it is not true for a majority of the human species living outside the West’s charmed circle of affluent prosperity and democracy.
Our sciences and our political culture of rights and liberties have exalted individuals’ opportunity for a significantly better life. Our great-grandparents began it and we expanded it.
But there is a harvest for this good fortune. The Arc, as regular readers know, hammers the point that despite the great good that materialist science and Western democracy has brought to many humans in fortunate nations, it has still not kept us from the doomy prospects of our planet. Deteriorating ecology and climate, extinguished and dying species, deadly wars with atrocious weapons, and heinous epidemics and famines, haunt our world.
Seven billion and more humans are apparently headed for some very nasty times if the projections of scientists are correct. So I ask if human evolution in consciousness might avert this future, and I look for evidence that consciousness has changed over time.
A summation of conclusions from past editions of The Arc
Human consciousness is generated inside a brain that evolved into its present physical form over a quarter-million years ago. While culture, religion, science, morals, ethics, and ideas might be said to have changed radically many times in history, it would take a wiser person than I to assert that the changes are progressive. I am not convinced we have “evolved consciousness.” Many writers in several fields do seem convinced that consciousness has been going in a positive direction. I declare the jury still out on that question.
Having said that, I do believe in human ability to synthesize and apply the best of traditions from all cultures in all times and places of which we have knowledge. Astrology, alchemy, geomancy — a whole host of pre-modern traditions — are not simply “scientifically false”. They contain deep truths for humans’ being. Religion too has nurtured our spiritual hungers in ways Materialism cannot supply.*
I am profoundly gratified by the discoveries of neuroscience regarding neuro- plasticity (alterability) of our “grey matter.” Our neurons (one billion in a brain), our synapses (one trillion connections), our brain bio-chemicals which scientists have identified and can create in laboratories, can be transformed.
How? By the attitudes and thoughts we choose, we cause alterations that change the physical structuring of our brains, and alter brain chemistry — and transform Mind, which I loosely call consciousness.
Although there is a lot of New Age fluff out there — about “creating reality with your thoughts and attitudes” and “the world of matter is under control of the mind” – still there is a truthful hard core to the idea that humans might transform the external world, if first we “set our minds in order” in a pattern that is harmonious with the order that exists independently of humans.
Cosmos and Politics
Humans are part of an order – “cosmos” is a Greek word meaning “elegant order” — and we do not know it.
My life-long passion for politics and history predates my interest in questions of consciousness and meaning in human life. In this column, I have been trying to persuade readers to see that politics are not superficial and irrelevant to the Big Questions. Politics is about human power. Power is not irrelevant to what happens next on this planet. What our power-full men and women do (mostly men, it has to be said – not a small point, given how men are so unlike women) in the next few decades will determine, as throughout history, what forces will push and pull the majority of humans in the material world.
Those potent individuals have the same freedom, not more, not less, as any one person to transform the internal self by focusing on their minds. You and I labour on our self-changes because we have to adjust to a reality we have little power over. As Goethe said, we try to make the world conform to our ideas, but with age we gain wisdom, adjusting our ideas to the world we must inhabit.
“You tell me it’s the institutions, well — you better free your mind instead.” –John Lennon, “Revolution.”
Why The Powerful would bother to work transforming their minds, is not clear to me. I think they enjoy power.
For me there is a sharp point to a New Testament story, told only in the gospel of Luke; when Jesus and Satan hold conversation after Jesus’ baptism, Satan says to Jesus that authority over the earth – over its powers and its materials – has been given into Satan’s hand.
One can see here a human propensity to see no hope that in this mortal plane there will ever be political powers who are good men. Men exercising dominion over other people’s lives are by definition men of small spiritual dimension, men of ego without the burden of compassion.
The constant call for love and empathy that our greatest spiritual teachers have issued throughout history seems not to transform the men who strive and achieve power. Can we, the majority with so-little power, change them by the force of the transformations we make in the interior of each one of us? It is worth the effort — even if we cannot be sure of success.
At the very least we will be the better for it. We benefit from transformation of our consciousness though the Powers of the world refuse to change.
You can change you. You cannot change another. If others change because you are evidently and manifestly changed, that is the greatest achievement you can claim in a lifetime.
This is Arc’s wisdom.
*See James LeFanu in Prospect magazine, July 21, 2010. Science is not answering questions as well as it used to. An excerpt:
“Has science perhaps been looking in the wrong place for solutions to questions that somehow lie outside its domain—what it might be that could conjure that diversity of form of the living world from the monotonous sequence of genes, or the richness of the mind from the electrochemistry of the brain? There are two possible reasons why this might be so. The first, obvious on reflection, is that “life” is immeasurably more complex than matter: its fundamental unit—the cell—has the capacity to create every thing that has ever lived and is billions of times smaller than the smallest piece of machinery ever constructed by man. A fly is billions upon billions upon billions of times more complex than a pebble of comparable size, and possesses properties that have no parallel in the inanimate world: the capacity to transform the nutrients on which it feeds into its own tissues, to repair and reproduce itself.
“And so too the laws of biology, where the genetic instructions strung out along the double helix determine the living world must similarly be commensurately billions upon billions of times more complex than the laws of physics and chemistry that determine the properties of matter. So while it is extraordinary that cosmologists can infer the physical events in the wake of the big bang, this is trivial compared to explaining the phenomena of life. To understand the former is no indication of being able to explain the latter. The further reason why the recent findings of genetics and neuroscience should have proved so perplexing is the assumption that the phenomena of life and the mind are ultimately explicable in the materialist terms of respectively the workings of the genes and the brain that give rise to them. This is a reasonable supposition, for the whole scientific enterprise for the past 150 years is itself predicated on there being nothing in principle that cannot ultimately be explained in materialist terms.
“But it remains an assumption, and the distinctive feature of both the form and “organisation” of life (as opposed to its materiality) and the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of the mind is that they are unequivocally non-material in that they cannot be quantified, weighed or measured. And thus, strictly speaking, they fall outside the domain of the methods of science to investigate and explain. This then is the paradox of the best and worst of times. Science, the dominant way of knowing of our age now finds itself caught between the rock of the supreme intellectual achievement of delineating the history of the universe and the (very) hard place of the apparent inscrutability to its investigations of the phenomena of life and the mind. …
“…Big Science is intrinsically conservative in its outlook, committed to “more of the same,” the results of which are then interpreted to fit in with the prevailing understanding of how things are. Its leading players who dominate the grant-giving bodies will hardly allocate funds to those who might challenge the certainties on which their reputations rest. And when the geeks have taken over and the free thinkers vanquished—that really will be the end of science.”
For the implications of Le Fanu’s argument, read Gregg Braden, Deep Truths.
Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of the Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.