Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One and Many

Note to Readers: The article below continues on the essay, "Freedom and its Discontents"

I ended my last post on a bitter note, questioning the value of a truly free and democratic society when there's so much inherent hardship. Cultural traditions and close-knit communities break apart, uncertainty about the immediate and long term future hangs on everyone's mind in a free state of affairs. To most who have only known a controlled and predictable social environment, the onset of freedom is total chaos. In many newly democratized countries of today, there are still those of especially older generations who share nostalgia for that restrictive existence. Obviously, there has been no turning back to the old ways in those countries, so the benefits of freedom must convincingly outweigh its faults. What drives entire societies to lose so much for a new system of insecurity?

To begin with, almost all major changes of things derive from some sort of discontent. The thought that there must be "another way" from what you've been taught seems to be innate to every person. It's part of how we learn, being taught one way to solve a problem yet always bearing in mind that it is only one way. We are far too aware of multiple numbers in the realm of objects, such as basket of fruit, pounds of meat and billions of stars. Math is a cultural achievement as much as it is an intellectual one, whereas some cultures do not even use mathematics while others worship it. Many primitive tribes, including those in the Amazon region, have a word for zero, one, and many-- there are no distinctions made for whether many means 2, 20, or 2000. The shear amount of diversity that comprises our world programs us to accept multitudes in everything. Because of this reality, anything that is unique, meaning there is only one in all the world is accorded tremendous importance: one God, one Universe, one Planet, one Genius unlike any other and finally, one Truth. This unique Truth is often related to the idea of the "one best way".

But therein lies the irony: although we can describe those things as the only one of its kind, we can not prove it in any objective way. Although we think we live in one universe, many cosmologists believe that there an infinite number of universes existing at the same time or following each other in big-bang cycles. There is no way to prove one or the other. Likewise in determining which specie is extinct, one can never reject the possibility that specie exists beyond anyone's observation. No one paradigm can explain every phenomenon in nature, although some can get frustratingly close.

Much of what describes our confidence in identifying that something is the "only one" is faith. I define faith in this instance as the belief in something to be true that is not provable by any scientific method. Faith is an extremely powerful motivator in people, in that people will do things that are beyond any objective explanation. Unity is a concept that directly follows from a person's belief in 'the one and only". Throughout human history, every culture has sought to achieve unity in its various forms, whether socially or spiritually. We tend to gravitate towards the most singular unit: the atom, the one 'reality', the one perfect state. Utopias are nothing new, nor are the invocations of a culture's glorious epoch long ago. For most of the world's people, achieving a state of nirvana, a oneness with all creation, is an ultimate goal. What explains this quest for unity?

The need to control.

Control over the things that affect one's life is an inate desire, possibly tied to self-preservation. We human beings, like other animals, must interact with nature in order to survive. Non-sentient species must ensure an abundant food supply by whatever means, as well as protection from the elements. Our human brains can accomplish these tasks to an exceptional degree of sophistication and permit us to consciously alter our own environment. The most primal human activity is to resist the inertia of natural phenomena by conceiving ways in the form of tools to do it. Early humans created weapons to kill animals, built comfortable shelters in caves or in huts, and in time learned to cultivate food in one place. No other animal can put many natural forces on hold and and ensure its survival to such a degree that it can develop a whole new set of concerns beyond self-preservation.

Now, for those natural forces we humans cannot control, such as the weather, earthquakes or volcanoes, fear is our natural response. The sense of mastery over the environment translates into comfort and confidence, in other words, harmony. Fear is its opposite, and feelings of insecurity or inability to control are what we experience when we are scared. Fear can be a good thing, though, because it causes us to imagine ways to solve problems creatively. Technology is a manifestation of our problem-solving impulse, or our way of physically affecting an outcome through our knowledge of the physical world. The more technology we create the fewer problems from uncontrollable forces remain. What humans can't address physically we do so conceptually in our heads. This conceptual realm found in our minds is often called metaphysical, spiritual, or supersticious. History is full of examples in which a supersticious explanation is replaced by science. Traditions of praying to nature Gods lose their 'usefulness' once technologies like dams, irrigation, greenhouses and domestication lessen nature's effect.

Much of early religion is a way of conceiving a system that explains how natural forces predictably happen and the ways in which you can solve it by ritual. Want it to rain? Do a rain dance and the Gods will let it rain. Don't want a terrible flood? It might cost you to sacrifice something dear. What's interesting about early religions and ancient scriptures is how fear determines a believer's relation with a deity. Part of what makes a deity is the inability for mortal humans to affect its behavior. All the mortal can hope for is mercy or compassion from the deity, otherwise his powerlessness instills fear.

Although fear is our default response to the uncontrollable, being on the god's good side is often preferrable. Achieving unity in the metaphysical realm is one way and it requires a person to accept the reality of not being able to control everything. Often giving up all capacity to control the environment is the ideal, which was what ascetics in many eastern religions basically do. Withdrawing oneself from the outside world to focus one's mental energies to come into contact with the god's energy in the form of peace, a person's physical needs are dissolved.

Another means of obtaining the god's favor is by good deeds. This assumes that the god has human qualities and therefore rewards the goods in the same way that mortals do. If a father likes his child to obey him, then a god likes his to be similarly obeyed as well. If a natural catastrophe destroys a community of people because a god was not pleased by one or a few of the members of the community, then it is logical to organize a group's behavior by enforcing rules. Doing so ensures the God will be please and favor the group over others. Likewise, the group's special relationship with the god suggest that its way of life and its rules are unique and special, promising the long sought harmony and freedom from fear. Stability has been achieved through a oneness with nature facilitated by a social code of conduct.

What I have described above is how and why traditional social groups and cultures achieve harmony and peace. The spiritual reality in which these groups live is essential in explaining their way of life, their familial and social structures and their response to events beyond their control. Their understanding of forces usually requires personifying them, eg. giving them human qualities. Critics of these kind of cultures often point out that their personification of the supernatural permits the creation of absurd social rules by using religion as a pretext, a religion that denies the scientific reality of uncontrollable forces. Opponents of religious belief argue that religions are created to empower an elite group of people over others by inscribing myths and stories of gods which determines who the world of humans should be organized. The secularists, or those who doubt the relevance of religion, know that science can explain all things, nothing is imagined, and no arbitrary power relationships between people are condoned. Thus, there is no possibility for secularists to endorse social rules based on religion, so life in such a culture must be free of any kind of strict organization or meaningless ritual, right?

Ironically, secular cultures are prone to enforce as strict a social code as any traditionalist culture, desiring a unity with forces beyond its control by conceiving in their minds a system of why things happen the way they have. They do not imagine gods and associate stories by way of personification since they do the reverse: they appopriate godly qualities to mundane people and processes like for example the scientific method, the march of history or Karl Marx.

Studying the secular response to influencing the uncontrollable forces will be the subject of a future post. It is by refuting the fallacies of secular attempts in achieving a unified social order that the universal longing for freedom can be demonstrated as the "one best way".

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