One of the main problems in the world now, especially the industrialized West, is our reliance on isolated intellectualism. Our intellects are trapped in a world that appears chaotic, dangerous, and unpredictable. The world moves only from past to future, with no way to predict for certain what will come next. We can imagine horrible consequences of global warming, genetically altered food, Islamic extremism, and economic collapse. The world appears on the brink of something disastrous.
Some people grab that with relish. You know the type – they forecast ‘collapse, downfall, ‘endarkenment’ and other calamitous futures. Sometimes they imagine themselves to be like Cassandra, seeing clearly the future that others miss. More often it’s simply a kind of voyeuristic rush – it’s exciting to imagine disaster. Think of all the disaster movies that have hit the big screen since Irwin Allen’s “Poseidon Adventure” proved such a hit in 1972.
Others find ideological or religious faith – their “ism” tells them the truth of the world, and they divide the world up into those who are right (share their belief) and those who are wrong, often believing the wrong folk to be inferior humans. In other words, ideologues are like religious extremists – they need to think they have the truth, and they are psychologically driven to see others as wrong or inferior.
I think all of these taken to an extreme reflect a trapped or imbalanced mind. Isolating the mind from intuition, emotion, and spirit leads to a cold, harsh view of reality. Idealists can quickly become disillusioned cynics if they don’t temper their ideals with pragmatism, and a recognition that the intellect, logic and reason cannot explain all of human experience.
If the intellect meshes with emotion – with intuition, faith, and spirit – there can be a very satisfying balance. Consider the following propositions:
1. Our world had a beginning. Due to the nature of space-time, it is inconceivable that we could be in the present if there were an infinite past. The laws of physics, however, indicate that you cannot create something from nothing, meaning our universe could not have been created. (One caveat – in quantum mechanics its possible to ‘borrow’ energy from the universe to create something apparently from nothing. However, in quantum physics the universe is permeated with ‘probable energy.’ So it’s not really something from nothing.)
2. The laws of physics governing this particular universe were created at the time our universe was. If according to the laws of physics our world could not have been created, but if it must have had a creation point (not convinced – here’s an article from this month’s Discover on this), then the laws of physics were also created. To be sure, there is likely a larger set of “laws” of the universe that we cannot comprehend that go beyond our space/time physics. Yet clearly something about reality outside our universe (that is, outside our realm of space-time, created about 15 billion years ago) that does not have to conform to what we consider the “laws of nature.”
3. Spiritualism is not supernatural, but a different theory about the laws of nature. This is in line with especially Buddhist thought (though I am not a Buddhist). The argument here is that the usual claims by religion that something “outside the world” – a God or series of Gods – created and maintains our reality are misguided. Rather, our reality may have its origins (and perhaps is maintained) by something that does not conform the the known laws of our physical universe, but reflects a deeper reality.
I submit that this proposition is very strongly supported by quantum mechanics. While the mechanistic building block view of reality put forth in Newtonian physics has already been destroyed, the philosophical implications of this move are still under hefty debate. Yet quantum mechanics, full of paradoxes and weirdness, suggests that the true laws of nature are far more complex and strange than the Newtonian notions we entertain.
Some who want to hold on to a very clear and straightforward mechanistic view of the world insist that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some level because the paradoxes often lead to clear contradiction. They claim that the law of contradiction indicates that the claims of quantum physics can’t be true – two contradictory things cannot both be right. However, it could be that we see the claims as contradictory because we do not understand reality. The contradictions may be linguistic constructions.
4. The key to liberating ones’ intellect is not to fear the spiritual/intuitive side of life, even if the nature of reality, as we now understand it, prevents us from ever being sure if a belief is right. Freedom requires an embrace of uncertainty, and a recognition that there isn’t an answer card to tell us exactly what this life is about. That means rejecting dogmatism and accepting that there are multiple perspectives about the world, and we learn more by exploring each, rather than grabbing and holding on to one, and trying to prove the others wrong.
Ironically, by rejecting intuition, emotion, sentiment and spirituality, we cage the intellect into a cold mechanistic world devoid of meaning. That breeds cynicism and undermines empathy. By freeing the intellect we give up on the hope to have “the right answer” and replace it with gaining insight and understanding. After all, if uncertainty is unavoidable, then we can freely and with a spirit of joy make our best calls about life, recognizing its OK to be wrong!