Wednesday, October 28, 2020

We will not give up meaning for power

 Modernity is a deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power. (Yuval Noah Harari*)

Borrowing from shortform.com, a book summary: Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari

the Israeli historian lists three “religious narratives” (also spread by liberalism). Even to call them “religious narratives” implies a contextual basis that many ‘moderns’ would reject.

However, the first is ethical judgements that dictate what is right and what is wrong (e.g. murder is wrong).

The second  are what Harari calls, “factual statements” that use religious text, history of scientific perspective to create a fact, such as ‘God said, thou shalt not kill’…These statements are not always an objective fact, but rather offer a perspective ‘framed’ as a fact. (e.g. life starts at conception)

The third threat, according to Harari, consists of guidelines, which are statements that combine ethical judgements and factual statements to guide followers in a particulate direction (e.g. Christians should be pro-life)

Harari also notes that recent scientific studies expose flaws in liberalism’s  ‘factual’ statement through research calling in to question the two key liberal concepts: free will and individualism.

The electrochemical processes in the brain are subconscious, meaning humans have no control over the neural system, that creates thought or action. When external stimuli cause a reaction in the brain, the human body will naturally respond to the electrical and chemical interactions.  For example, you don’t choose to get angry. Anger emerges naturally due to the body’s response to external stimulation. These reactions can be either deterministic or random, but they’re never ‘free’.

As for individualism, researchers have discovered that human behavior has nothing to do with a singular unique voice that leads them toward their true goals. Rather human thought is dictated by the interactions between the two hemispheres of the brain, which create two versions of the human experience—the experiencing self and the narrating self.

Segregating the “experiencing self,’ from the narrating self, is another in the nuanced, and highly provocative thought-cognition-cultural insights that display one of the more challenging as well as widely deployed notions of contemporary clife: that the person and the global, that the spiritual and the political, that the scientific and the theological are, far from their original Aristotelian segregation, much more impactful and unified and thereby in need of new research, and new theories and new structures in order to better link our human reality with our capacity and willingness to cope.

To see human complexity not through the lens of stereotypical cultural images, myths and metaphors, including those foundational to religion of any faith, risks one of the deeply embedded energies and initiatives of history: finding blame, ascribing fault and human choice, on the one hand, while also seeing human beings as created in the image of God in need of forgiveness.

The notion of a human deity, however, even poised and painted as a conceptual, metaphysical transformative creature, however, risks another of the plausible pit-falls, exaggerated, persistent and unshakeable hubris.

If we are faced, as Harari notes in the quote introducing this piece, with a contract that requires our sacrificing meaning for power, we are clearly not prepared, educated, enculturated, or even convinced that such a contract is our predetermined fate. Is Harari, on the other hand, possibly being ironic? Is he proposing that our research into our minds, including our electrical-chemical stimuli and responses, a process that could actually endanger our pursuit of that old Viktor Frankl chestnut: ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and the eradication/removal/disavowal/trashing of the notion of human responsibility for meaning and purpose, as well as the corollary that certain forces might become (or are) existential threats?

The question of an historic lens that attempts, through a ‘bifocal’ perspective to integrate the individual human with the needs, perspectives, aspirations and dreams of the whole of humanity, poses a different set of both observations and questions. While we are deeply committed to the legitimate probing penetration into the human electro-chemical-mechanical-neurological-anatomical-circulatory-anatomical aspects of research into the human “person,” we are also deeply indebted to those scholars in human spirituality, human intellectual and imaginative “faith” perspectives and their unique, cogent and also penetrating and transformative assessments of their empirically grounded colleagues’ findings.

For example, when the law faculty of Queen’s University decides to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald as its “titular head” because of the first prime minister’s association with residential schools, and the inference that he held racist views, one is prompted to inquire, “Is this decision in the best interests of those aspiring legal-beagles, whose life and professional careers will need to address, assess and integrate the divergencies of interpretations of evidence from multiple witnesses, interpretations, scholarships and historical perspectives?” And when viewed from that perspective, the answer has to be unequivocally “No!” Another example of “cleaning up” the blindnesses and the allegedly inappropriate judgements of history, including the honouring of former leaders, in a scorched-earth approach that demands “zero tolerance” of imperfection, renders those so fully engaged in this process of hygenic sterilization of our culture as the leading battalion in a headlong and inevitably tragic pursuit of perfection.

Regardless of the empirical findings of our brain researchers, and the implications of those findings, we are and likely will be for the foreseeable future, engaged in a process that seeks to discern, to compare, to reflect and to in turn educate young minds in a social, political and ethical/spiritual context that carries and accepts the burden of our own imperfections perhaps in a manner that is less debilitating that previous generations have found it to be. Lifting the burden of perfectionism, without a blind pursuit of purity, regards the continuing pursuit of the best minds in all fields of intellectual, spiritual, ethical, metaphysical and even future studies.

The goal of lifting the burden of perfectionism from individual lives, as well as from the corporate life of the collective unconscious, is a highly ambitious aspiration that will leave some despondent in anxiety and fear of failure. It could also embolden others to commit to researching the various sociological, spiritual, ethical, legal and medical/psychiatric aspects of the human condition in a way that begins to transcend the fences that currently carry electrical (and potentially radioactive) currents of power among those engaged in the research process, and those attempting to interpret its meanings for the rest of us.

Power, as a goal of purpose, however, is not a sustainable goal for the human being. We are not mere instruments of agency, whether of our own design or for the purposes of fulfilling the requirements of another. Our existence, far from being reducible to any single act, word, expression or achievement, continues as a moment of meaning, with or without any observable, measureable, accountable and thereby ethical purpose. We have a meaning and purpose simply in and through our existence. And that meaning and purpose, while it may not be clearly identified or defined, nevertheless, constitutes a base line of both thought and action from which to consider, perceive and value each other inhabitant of the planet.

If we are to begin to assign archetypes of one god, to the seemingly superhuman and surreal discoveries made by humans, in their pursuit of the most cutting edge discoveries, even as speculation, then we are at risk of sacrificing the most generative and life-giving feature of our humanity, our incompleteness, our vulnerability, our unknowing, our fallibility and our imperfections and our mortality.

Sacrificing meaning for power is precisely a prescription for our own doom. Meaning is amorphous; meaning is evolving, meaning is flowing, and meaning is elusive…and thereby, like the “East” from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness… Extrinsic motivation has been researched and deployed for centuries, as the means by which both people and civilizations evolve, develop, mature and ‘rise’ dependent on the various notions of improvement at various periods of history. And we simply devour stories about our accomplishments, our military victories, our medical break-throughs, our scientific and technological discoveries. Even this week, there is new evidence of the potential of water on the moon, conceivably in quantities sufficient to sustain a human group or community. And while we concur and endorse such explorations, we have to hold our feet to the “fire” of the competing epistemologies, theologies, ethical and moral ambiguities, ideologies and especially turf-wars that constrict each and every human enterprise.

Our addictive commitments to our successes, married to our equally compulsive denial of our failures, as individuals, as families, and as nations and as a human global enterprise is not a gordion knot whose disentanglement is even part of the most idealistic visionary’s range. Burrowing deeper into the “weeds” and the soil under those weeds in science, while exciting, invigorating, and potentially even hopeful of new visions at the level of human interactions, will take eons to be translated, transposed and applied to the human condition, given the obvious, yet willfully denied proliferation of saboteurs, from within each and every political party, each and even religious congregation, each and every office and corporation not to mention each and every application for those revered grants for the very research Harari applauds.

I recently expressed the words of a patient of Parkinson’s disease, “I am much more that Parkinson’s!” were those words. And as an analogy, this patient speaks for each and every one of us. Regardless of whichever ‘specialist’ is assessing our person and our condition and our circumstance, even in the middle of a pandemic and potentially a life-threatening illness. We can no more identify as an agent of any specific exercise of power, even including the exercise of our own narrowly perceived intentions, ambitions, goals, objectives or ideals. We are not even reducible to a list of “values” given the range of definitions, connotations, interpretations and applications of those political “placebo’s”.

We have just witnessed the confirmation and swearing-in of Madame Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court of the United States, through a historically tragic 52-48 vote, the least bi-partisan vote for a nominee in U.S. history. Power, in its raw and unilateral, totalitarian and totally indefensible form and application, has “succeeded” in fulfilling the designed purpose of the executive and the Senators to ‘stack the court system’ with right-wing justices. Why, in god’s name, would anyone agree to let his or her name go forward for such an appointment, except under the misguided pursuit of a shared agenda of politically and legally beheading  of such laws as Roe v Wade and the Affordable Care Act, not to mention the abhorrent restrictions in voting rights, civil and gender rights, and the prevention of more a more narrow restriction of gun rights?

The obvious reason/motivation for such an appointment, starting with the political narcissism of the president’s re-election based on the sycophantic subservience of his cult, to the similar politically motivated re-election of men like McConnell, Graham, Crus, Cornyn, et al…and then the personal ambition of the nominee herself, a member of the People of Praise, a right-wing Roman Catholic sect whose dedication to the literal dominance of the husband and the subservience of the wife echoes a literal and dysfunctional application of scripture to the families of today.

The obviously debased motivations, intentions, ethics and morality of this process, top-to-bottom is evidence of the individual and the political surrender of anything supportive of the body politic, the public interest, the long-term healing of the nation to the personal ambition of those people who are the most insecure, the most neurotic, the most co-dependent and most insidiously-motivated, in the name and service of something/someone they call God, as to be an incarnated lie.

It is not mere hypocrisy that is on display; it is the outright blatant disregard for all “others” in the pursuit of power that leaves many if not most of us, gapingly appalled.

*Yuval Noah Harari is an Israeli public intellectual, historian and professor int eh Department of History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He is the author of the popular science best sellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.


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