COLUMN: Arc of the Cognizant; anthology of excerpts
A retrospective selection
Believing as I do that history is of profound importance, I seek to discern the purposes and themes I have explored with constancy over the years of publishing this column. I hope by doing this to present a coherent statement of the issues and interests that have stirred current events in culture, politics, economics, ideology, science, and religion over the course of five years of writing this column.
Please accompany me, readers, as I present selected paragraphs from past Arcs.
From # Three: realities of the mind
“The title of my column, “Arc of the Cognizant,” is my double-entendre attempt to suggest appropriate preoccupations: the traditions and religions of our deeply-layered Western culture – referencing the mysterious biblical Ark of the Covenant and the moving trajectory (arc) of our minds and consciousness (cognizant).
‘ “The stories we tell ourselves” are the ground of our minds, and our behaviours are generated from the identity we think we have. A human being, in the modern Western age, was in danger of being reduced to biological materials with appetites, free will to consume goods and services in the free market, a sense of ego but not of soul, and no ability to think its way through one of the oldest human questions ― why do I have life?”
From # Five: humanity in crisis
“Weird, ugly, brutal, psychopathic behaviours are being reported more and more. It is a separate question whether or not they are actually happening more often.
“The outrageous behaviour is happening at this particular time, a time when signs of desperate problems for humanity, for planetary environment, and other species’ lives, are widely known. The emotions that such problems generate must be felt in higher degrees; therefore, humans are acting badly, bizarrely, violently, more often, in more extreme ways, than used to be ‘normal.’
“We feel the madness of our world, and we manifest it into activity of a peculiarity and perversity that was once rather rare.”
[I interject here to say I am pleased I wrote this long before Donald T. and the hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes and other climate issues at present that are top of mind for many.]
From # Eight
“In Ontario, (my visit of August of 2012) I spent much time with people who do not ‘live in my reality.’ This present moment in history, politics, environment, economy, climate, and so forth, does not occupy the front and centre of their awareness or consciousness. They pursue careers, raise children, invest money, discuss Olympic sports, read novels, plan for vacations, retirements, or new accomplishments, in a state of mind not dissimilar from my parents’ or grandparents.” [–]
“At this point, it is apparent that travel has certainly exerted force to widen my mind. Loving Nelson and my life here as I do, still I will not allow myself to drown my mind in my personal story of what is real; I will constantly remind my internal Witness that I am not the only person telling himself he/she ‘understands what is going on’. I will enjoy these differences and accept that everyone believes they possess understanding.”
From # Twelve: matter and spirit
“Most modern Westerners do not try very hard to explain their spiritual and religious interiors to one another, for the commonplace wisdom of our culture is that Science has solutions; if they do not know everything just yet, the scientists will eventually find the answers to questions of life and what is after it.
“Against this modern consensus runs a common denominator through all previous cultures. It is still present among us too, that thread of wisdom. Traditional insight asserts the human is not just material, not just physical, not only the mortal body.
” ‘There is more under heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.’ Shakespeare could have addressed his line to materialist scientists, I think.”
From # Seventeen: history’s value to governors
“History, I have come to believe, is a study that will cultivate wisdom. No one learns how to be a statesman or stateswoman by study of what historical leaders did ― not by that study alone. But one must study some biographies, read histories, to get a feel for human beings’ actual behaviours in the past, not as behaviours observed by psychologists in controlled experiment. History is a grand experiment of humans living ― but not a controlled experiment. Knowing fact is not possessing wisdom. Rulers need both [–].
“So, does knowing history, and learning a quality, wisdom, from that study, lead to better government? No. Some truths about humans are not found in historical records. “Experience” and “experiment” are related in language but not in the human condition. Humans are generally drowned in matter, not afloat over it. Humans do not invest power in the wise; we bestow it on the egotistic. Government is a materialist phenomenon; living in materiality, we need government over matter. Wise humans would not let stupid, unconscious leaders rule ― would they? Maybe we would.
“By definition, rulers are motivated to control others. Such people will make poor choices more often than good ones. They lack judgment. Judgment does not proceed from fact. Acting at the right time demands non-rational intuition, judicious timing. Knowing when not to choose, but to wait, needs wisdom. And, if you rule others, you should love them.”
From # Twenty-six: the scourge of social engineers and Master Plans
“At this later stage in my life, I have most come to fear engineers of society with master plans.
“Utopian designs to reshape humans for a better society have been the basis of historic leaders’ programs, sometimes derived from brilliant writers’ blueprints for good government. Plato may have begun this trend with his treatise The Republic; Christian sectarians like the Cathars, the Anabaptists, and the Mormons, continued the tendency.
“Marx set the stage for utopian government with this famous line: “Philosophers have so far only interpreted the world; the point is, to change it.” Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are models of dreamers and experimenters in building the better social order. All of them were utopians of the political Left.
“Of course, Hitler and Mussolini were social-racial engineers, with their political roots in the Right. But Nazism and Fascism were not right-wing in the sense of conservative; the conservative utopia is one where aristocrats, ‘noble’ humans, rule a subject population, as in Sparta or republican Rome in ancient days, or in the idealized land of King Arthur. As J.R.R. Tolkien understood, that sort of conservatism is not prone to “utopianism.”
“Pragmatists like Gandhi or Mandela, Churchill or Pierre Trudeau, have left a better record of their leadership by knowing what not to attempt to change in the human condition. Each of them accomplished something major and of lasting import, but none tried to impose a root-and-branch blueprint for reconstructing their society and nation.”
From # Thirty-nine: politics and social justice
“Socialism is apparently quite dead. Government will not, and cannot, plan the economy for human good; where that was tried (USSR) the result was catastrophe for the people and the environment. Chinese socialism has invited capitalism to grow the economy under non-democratic rule, and capitalism is only too happy to oblige. The Chinese Communist Party invited its people to ‘enrich yourselves!’ India, Brazil, Arab princedoms and many other nations want capitalism to enrich them.
“It seems not impossible to me for us to backtrack to a time, pre-1980 or so, when government in a democracy actually did regulate capitalism, sufficiently to deliver a decent standard of living to all citizens. A time when mentally-ill people could be housed rather than live on the streets. A time when the old were guaranteed a decent life after working all their lives. A time when our infrastructures ― healthcare, education, roads, rails, bridges, and urban transit, for example ― were financed by governments who taxed corporate wealth adequately to sustain these necessary public goods.”
From # Forty-two: Change comes from within
“There are those who say that a spiritual solution to our situation is available. “Love is the answer.” Or, “Be the change you want to see.” If only humans would act, well, less like what humans have acted like over the span of recorded history, i.e. selfishly, badly.
“Why have our saintly teachers, prophets, seers, gurus, messiahs ― not altered us?
“It is obvious that there have been times in the past pregnant with change so deep that historians agree those eras deserve to be called “revolutionary.” Popular opinion then seemed primed for the world to be turned upside down, but it did not come to pass.
“I lived in the 1960’s as a young man; ‘When it was very heaven to be young’ is how I might describe that time. But the poetry I paraphrase is from Wordsworth, writing about the French revolutionary age. In 1793, it seemed possible to apply human Reason to reshape human society and politics, and so to perfect our progress. It didn’t happen, and a contemporary poet, William Blake, who also began as a proponent of events in France, became quite articulate in his criticism of Reason, which he personified as a foolish titan called ‘Urizen’ (your-reason.) Blake wrote the fine verse about “dark, satanic mills” ― England’s factories and I think James Cameron’s film “Avatar” is a close parallel to Blake’s cry against capitalism. Romanticism is not wrong; industrialism ruins Nature.
“The messianic age of Jesus, St. Paul, and Bar Kochba, did not result in secular salvation for humanity; Rome’s Empire endured with all its cruelty, brutality and injustice and the Church did not transform humans into loving beings. Those eras ― the Sixties, the 1790’s, the early Christian era ― are times when humanity seemed to have a collective consciousness of revolution, but erred.”
From # Fifty-five: God and ‘meaning‘
“I am convinced by my long and fairly deep reading in history, that humans have a natural quality called spirit equal to all the drives, appetites, and mental peculiarities that materialist science posits in our psychology. Consciousness is not a “disease of matter” as one scientist has said; rather, it is our best feature. Mind, not brain, connects humanity to immateriality.
“Humans have proven throughout history that we seek more than material life. We seek meaning. And we have found it in religion, ideas, emotion, and a host of phenomena that materialist science can’t quantify, to the evident rage of militant atheists such as Sir Richard Dawkins who has “disproved” God. Why do some atheists have such a hole in their understanding?
“Your actions matter as much as you are convinced they matter. It is your life, and your death. Life in despair, believing humanity is doomed to catastrophic decline, is not a life I’d choose. I give meaning to my life in defiance of materialism.
“What “matters” besides matter? Love and other key human qualities: so say all traditions of philosophy, religion, and spirituality.
“Materialist science informs my intelligence that we have damaged our planet; some say science will solve the challenges. If I believe science will save us, that hope is no more rational than a faith that our spiritual transformation will save us. Hope and faith aren’t material.
“My editor, Adrian Barnes, told me he has faith in humanity. On a good day so do I. I seem more inclined to pessimism ― at least when I am writing, I am.”
From # Fifty-eight: against WWI commemorations in 2014
“And that is why we must not celebrate the beginning of WWI either. That was a war for the ruling classes of the West to keep their hegemony, for the British and French empires, and America, to maintain their grasp on the global economy. America emerged more powerful than ever in 1918, and Britain and France added more territories to their empires. Canada bled for no good cause in that war.
“But the families of dead soldiers demand a “meaningful death” for the “sacrifice” of their sons, and so a majority of Canadians have accepted the mythology of WWI as a war to defend our “freedoms.” That is pure propaganda, and a distortion of history amounting to a pack of lies.
“Not one Canadian constitutional freedom was ever won by fighting Germany. All our freedoms ― to vote, to have a free media, free choice of religion, freedom of assembly and the right to organize unions etc. etc. ― were won by Canadians against the ruling elites since the 18th century.
“Repeat after me: Canada did not win its legal freedoms by fighting Germany, ever. We were not about to lose our freedom if we did not fight. Our wars in the 20th C. were not ‘liberation’ wars.”
From # Sixty-one: planetary crisis and the pursuit of happiness
“Here at the end of History, where we know the past but not the future, there is a distinct feeling in the air of crisis for the whole planet.
“Climate change and extreme weathers are the most visible face for the vague malaise that infects publics in most countries. Some of us are sure that capitalism must be transformed if we are to salvage humanity from its path toward war, economic collapse, social failure and environmental disasters. Others think science and democracy can still pull our fates out of the fire with no loss of the fantastic affluence of Western, middle-class people. India and China have just created such middle classes; they are not ready to jettison capitalist progress just yet.
“The reason we have built nation-states, historically, is that they seemed to deliver on the promise of the American Declaration of Independence: Government — by the people, and for the people, and of the people ― has given us better “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” Add to those three ideas the words of the French Revolution concerning The Rights of Man, including the right of owning property, and freedom of religious community and belief, and one has the basic sketch of reasons why the West thinks the State is a Good Thing. Capitalism arose with modern government and nation-states, so why would we want to give up that economy?
Material affluence goes with our democratic state institutions, and that is why India and China think they have finally mastered the game the West began around the time of Columbus.”
From # Sixty-nine: When we are like gods, who will choose the fate of humans?
I can easily foresee miraculous advances in our sciences such that a new, improved human brain and body is possible. Science fiction authors have had great fun with this idea.*
Suppose we can improve memory, and intelligence, and suppress fear and anxiety, and increase feelings of general benevolence toward other humans, all with chemicals and surgical changes to our brains? Probably, genetic modification and nanotechnology will be part of the solution to the problem of defective humanity.
The procedures are vastly expensive, consuming mammoth resources in order to make possible the hospitals and research laboratories, plus payment for the doctors, chemists, technicians, and so on, who staff the institutions where the work is done. Who will receive the benefits?
Who gets the benefits now of the very best in medical care and technological breakthroughs? The top few per cent of society, of course. Why would the future be any different?
[Again I interject: I wrote this well before Yuval Harari came out with his book Homo Deus, dealing with the theme of humans in control of their own evolution.]
From # Seventy-nine: Nation and State, Scots and Quebecois
Canadians, and Americans to a lesser extent, do not respond well to the metaphysical and intellectual phrases tossed around when Nation is discussed by Europeans. We are not a Nation in that sense because we came into being by immigration. We do not have the ethnic roots nor the unitary history of a nation like the French, Spanish or Germans, to give us a national identity.
We are now quite proud of that. We are a nation of immigrants…
In the end, what one wants from the State one lives in is a very individual motive. The ‘Yes’ side did not appeal to enough individuals with a collective vision of a better life for each person, if Scotland were independent. Quebec, with its wide provincial power in a federal system, has created a province unlike any other in Canada, with better programs such as childcare and low university tuition, and I envy people there for that. Would my life be much better there? No; that is why I stay in BC.
From # Eighty-one: a better future world
“Naomi Klein, and my favourite author on the subject of future society, Charles Eisenstein, are sure that the next world, the next economy, the next politics, will solve the ills of capitalist society.
“I read many perspectives on how things will, indeed must, alter in our systems, and thereby transform the world. “The more beautiful world our hearts tell us is possible,” is how Eisenstein sums up his imagined new world order. His erudition is immense, his grasp of physics, ecology, biology, economics. and politics, seems extensive and profound. He is wise enough not to offer a blueprint for the new order, as Marxian socialists have often attempted to do…
“Eisenstein is uplifting in his optimism and his spirituality. He believes in us. He has sketched what he calls “the sacred economy, the economy of The Gift.” He will not draw a blueprint. So he finds himself often at the point of not telling us how we get from here, with all our crises, to there, when the more beautiful world unfolds. He tries to inspire hope. Fear holds us to what we know.”
From # Ninety: your reality and mine
“In my last column, I took aim squarely at people who believe they “create their reality” by their enlightened thoughts and positive attitudes. Particularly, I excoriated those who adhere to the teaching of Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, that your good fortune and material prosperity are the natural consequence of the “law of attraction” that says positive vibes attract positive reward to you. Their reality is not mine. Byrne’s law is delusional, and her disciples are unpleasant company; in the mind they inhabit, they’re “entitled” to blessings ― because they use the law of attraction to bring good things: unsuccessful people are ignorant of the Law [–]”
“Our religious foundation for Western civilization, Christianity, contains crucial teaching from Jesus of Nazareth about “the kingdom of God, of heaven.” Jesus was not teaching that we can only live in that realm by dying and being admitted to paradise through divine judgment ― which is what the Church came to teach as orthodoxy.
“He taught, most authentically, that by living in a particular way, within a moral order that is alternative to the ones of Caesar’s Imperial Roman despotism, or Judea’s theocratic Temple religion, a mortal can live in the kingdom while walking the earth. I am persuaded of this interpretation of Jesus’ message [–]”
From # Ninety-seven: brain, mind, spirit
“Most of our brain parts are not unique to us. Other mammals have well-developed grey matter too; the dolphin is a stellar example. But it is still astounding to state the facts of numbers for our brain: in a three-and-a-half pound organ, there are 100 billion neurons, and 100 trillion connections. Mind boggling, oui?
“We have, since our biological origin as a species, created new environments (cities foremost among them) for ourselves to inhabit by applying our own inventions. But the brain that lives inside the invented habitats of our creativity is the same old brain. And the brain is the residence for the mind. Some call mind the “ghost in the machine.”
“Mind is not brain, I most certainly believe. Consciousness is still a mystery to our scientists in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology, but new tools to probe consciousness, biochemical energies, and the neuronal-physical “grey matter” in our skulls, go on being developed all the time. So far as we know now, a mind cannot exist independently of a brain to give it a home. The concept of minds-without-bodies is a foundational idea of human religious practices, generating our belief in deities, spirits, and other intangible intelligences around us.”
From # Ninety-nine: war
“It is immensely curious to me that the three myth-cycles I cited above ― Semitic, Hellenic, and Teutonic ― accept war as a given of the cosmos. War just is. War is just there in the beginning of all things.
“God casts Satan down, Zeus thrashes the Titans, Odin and the Vanir go to war, and there is no other explanation than simple humanlike feelings of jealousy, rage, and revenge, in the motives of beings who are supposedly far above us. God is jealous and says so to Moses; Zeus and Odin, the supreme gods of their pantheons, do not accept rivals nor peers, and war is the result. I would have liked our ancestors who created these mythic tales to have delved deep and come up with a reason war afflicts us, a cause more cosmic than simple envy and anger. But the myths we have offer no such profundity [–]
“War is something we can talk about, write about, think about, make art about, but not, ultimately, something we control. Endless words are generated by the topic. Our news media cannot stop reporting it. Our entertainments cannot stop bringing it to us in books, films, games, songs, poems, pictures and so on. A certain kind of people make careers, reputation, and wealth, from war; religions all have something to say about war in their scriptures and prayers. Academics analyze it in weighty tomes, and songwriters can inspire us with lyrics about it. Politicians and self-styled “leaders” condemn war when other people cause it, and praise it when they themselves choose to make it.”
Human history and consciousness, government and religion, have been my preoccupations. My fascination with the way consciousness inside mind relates to material outside of oneself, has led me into many hypotheses about what is real. My interest in how Canada is ruled and how Canadians are responsible for the state of affairs in our social order, has inspired me to several conjectures about our future. War troubles me constantly.
It is my intention not to be quite so engaged in the political news of the world, in future, for I find I have no tolerance for the sense of futility politics is generating within me.
To take the place of politics, I hope I may turn my attention to history as much as I ever have, and to mysteries of science and religion even more than I have been doing.