What does it all Mean?

Short answer is: hell if I know. If you want answers, ask Oprah.

The Big Picture

In recent posts, I have been writing about a limited slice of the larger and more understandable whole of how religion and spirituality operates in our minds and culture.

I had to since the subject is so big. I mean, religious thinking is just a subset of how we think in general, and which also precedes religion by 50,000 years or more.

So, I’ll take a step back

Received Wisdom

We take an awful lot for granted. It is very hard not to. Our minds are constructed to take short-cuts. It’s automatic and it has to be or our conscious minds would soon be overwhelmed.

And then we all consciously try to keep things simple through stock formulations such as “USA good! Rest of world, bad” or “men are idiots, women are wise.”

But even if we were deeply reflective and tried to be alert to all the all the ways we are essentially programmed to think and culturally sensitive and compassionate to boot, we would still highly conditioned to think by our culture and, as I like to say, the prerogatives of civilization.

That’s why we need comedians, good ones, that is, to try to tease this all out.

Being in the World

In philosophy, we could turn to Martin Heidegger who dedicated much of his genius in understanding how we are conditioned in the world, or reality. Heidegger demonstrated that even talking about an object requires that “we are already working…unconsciously, within a set of assumptions about what is meant merely by saying of something that it ‘is.’”

In other words, we are born into the world and, to (ab)use the software metaphor, we come equipped with all the coding and programming instructions we need that allow us to exist, operate and relay information even though we are not aware of it.

The Social Construction of Reality

Next, as we have known for a half-century now, reality is also socially constructed. In 1966, two sociologists, Berger & Luckmann showed that:

  1. People operating in social systems create mental representations or images of what other people do.
  2. These images eventually solidify as social roles that people play in relation to each other.
  3. Over time, as everyone performs these roles, they become institutionalized (the roles, that is, not the people).

Unfree Will

Neurological research has demonstrated since 1982 that our unconscious knows what we are doing before “we” do, thus calling into serious doubt the possibility of free will.  It is also well understood that we are essentially tricked by our brains into thinking we have a well-delineated self that can be in charge of things.

There are many other startling findings about how the brain and the mind works that have been suspected for a long time and more recently proven. It is an interesting question as to why these have not filtered down to the public

Connecting the Dots

But this is not easily understood, even if you put some time into it. This is because they are counter-intuitive. It’s not dissimilar to having learned that a heavy oak table is mostly empty space but thinking of it as solid anyway.

Why can’t a simple sentence or action just be that? Why does it have to be, paraphrasing Heidegger, based on a huge and unorganized mass of assumptions that only become larger as we try to explain it?

How could a selfless act, like rescuing a drowning child, be predetermined?

How can it be that I do not have free will when I obviously just decided to type this sentence?

We don’t have to understand this fully, however, to arrive at the conclusion to get humble, right quick. That is, if we do not know very much, understand less and are far less in control of ourselves than we thought, arrogance is not a very good strategy (even if it is predetermined!).

But fatalism is not an option, it is just too fatalistic.

Nothing makes any sense outside of hope. And letting go of certainty and over-control opens the way for a giant dumpster truck of hope.

There is a great intrinsic value in being humble before nature, the world and reality. Armed with the knowledge of our frailties we now have an excellent reason to reach out to others who are similarly scared, uncertain and anxious.

And that, my friend, is the first step toward building a viable community.


4 thoughts on “What does it all Mean?

  1. Speaking of received wisdom…our niece used to recite this ditty:

    Girls go to college to get more knowledge*
    Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.
    (*I think she spelled “knowldege” with an “n.”)

    Anybody who has ever spoken a second language fluently understands how much of what we think and say is dependent on the language we think and say it in.

    See French existentialsist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty regarding the social construction of reality. (One of the many philosophers who has influenced me, in spite of never having read a word of their writing myself.)

    1. Marc,

      I always thought about a second language as providing a perspective, whether chosen or not, on one’s culture and thinking. In a simple sense, it allowed for more options to be considered. And immersion in another culture made you want to consider them. I had not thought about a second language as being reflective of how our thinking is conditioned by context. I like that.

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