Being, Cultural History, Eastern Philosophy, Ideology, intelligence, philosophy, Philosophy of Freedom
Part I: Where Zombies Come From
There is an important thread of support for individual freedom in modern western culture, derived from the same historical roots as the thread of equality, namely, ancient Athenian democracy (plausibly derived from the military importance of the Athenian proletariat); a philosophical individualism from Hellenistic humanism which was partly incorporated into Christian doctrine and eventually blossomed into Luther’s idea of inward faith; and finally, the success of a fourteenth century European movement for universal access to Bible reading through vernacular literacy, eventually developing into the social norm of universal literacy. That crucial cultural legacy should not be minimized, but recognition of individual freedom has never gone uncontested, and the unique transcendence of individual freedom has never been broadly recognized.
Longstanding culture, both popular and intellectual culture, has prevented appropriate recognition of the transcendent freedom of ordinary intelligences. Ideas about gods and spirits have imposed limits on such recognition, since gods (sometimes in the form of stars and planets) were believed to impose specific fates on humans. Ancient philosophical efforts to remove gods and demons from the process of making sense of events, and to recognize ordinary intelligences as transcendent (philosophical humanism again), were isolated islands in a vast cultural stream. When, leading up to and immediately after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from Europe, monotheistic religions from middle-eastern deserts flooded the cultured territories around the Mediterranean, the Christian-Augustinian idea of original sin certainly diminished the possibilities of individual freedom. A bit of Christian theology typical of monotheism insists that creativity is a special and definitive attribute of divinity alone, so only God is capable of creativity, which rules out creativity as an individual human quality. In Christendom, though, everyone’s life was supposed to be given grand purpose by the divine plan for creation as a whole. Christian and even post-Christian freedom is freedom granted on the whim of the omnipotent sovereign authority, a tentative loan from God via His earthly vicars, and its main function has been to sanctify punishment. A person cannot reasonably be condemned without the freedom to have acted differently. There is still loose talk about freedom left over from that blame-sin-punishment culture of Christianity, but individual freedom doesn’t have strong roots in our culture and didn’t in Christendom either. When, in seventeenth century Europe, the intellectual revolution of science spread through educated classes, the transcendence which was challenged by science was the transcendence of the Christian God because that was the only conceivable transcendence in the cultural universe of Christendom. In a western cultural system still quietly dominated by religious metaphysics from middle-eastern deserts there is only so far the philosophy of subjectivity is permitted to think. God’s transcendence contradicted and categorically repudiated all other transcendence, and ended by tainting the very idea of transcendence as some kind of superstition. So, even though God’s grand purpose was gone, which used to give meaning to ordinary life, the power of individual freedom to fill that vacuum was never recognized, and could not be recognized because of a culturally induced blindness.
Modernity is Zombie-like Nearly-Nihilism
With that cultural background, it is not too surprising that the idea of profound individual freedom does not fit easily into modern ideologies. Although contemporary right-wing corporate and political groups put spectacular emphasis on every individual’s freedom to compete for the scarce goods of life, the intent of the idea is mainly to justify the privileges of a small entrenched faction and to blame the mass of the excluded for their exclusion. (That ideological/ rhetorical use of freedom is remarkably similar to the punishment-justifying rhetoric of Christendom.) Science is unable to say anything in support of freedom, and science is broadly accepted as the standard for final explanations of anything and everything. Social science and economics accordingly present things in terms of causes and effects, and free individual creativity does not count as a cause in that lexicon. In the cultural universe of science, the old gods and their plans and purposes for humanity have been discredited, great Pan is dead, but with the same principles science has convinced everybody that individuals are just pre-programmed (slightly re-programmable) machines, just like the cosmos as a whole. For science, since everything is part of eternal causal chains (with allowances for a degree of random chaos), all things are as they have to be, and there is no freedom in that system.
However, the cultural thread of personal freedom noted at the beginning is still active, partly because it makes us feel better, partly because it is indispensable rhetorically to justify institutionalized systems of economic parasitism, and because something about it rings true for most people. It is that meagre culture of personal freedom which qualifies modernity as only a nearly-nihilism instead of a flagrant all-in nihilism, an abyss of personal and collective pointlessness. The problem is that the cultural legacy of personal freedom contradicts the overall tendency of modernity, which, to be brief, is scientific reduction to cosmic unfreedom. In a collective orientation dominated by science, repudiating all transcendence, nothing can be perceived or identified other than measurable externals. So it is that this modern Nearly-Nihilism leads directly to the reduction of modern ways-of-life to corporate-sourced incentives and rewards, imposed self-definition by measured economic externals. However, that immersion in a hedonistic/ narcissistic culture of self-definition through accomplishments, competitions, and acquisitions feels disconnected from anything like profound personal freedom, ungrounded in individual creativity. There is an uneasy sense that the modern rhetoric of freedom has been detached from freedom’s authenticity, and, so detached, trivialized into a means of manipulation. The massive cultural phenomenon of the zombie apocalypse expresses the generally felt inauthenticity of contemporary ideas of freedom.
Part II: Blind-Spot Philosophy
Modernity is Nearly-Nihilism because its historical cultural matrix invested (almost) everything in the false transcendence of an externalized projection of intelligence, a disembodied father-in-the-sky God in which all creativity and freedom must reside. However, it can still be recognized that ordinary intelligences create their own transcendent freedom innocently, simply in virtue of being intelligences. There is that authentic grounding of individual freedom, and it is still possible to find it in both culture and in personal experience. In spite of the vast cultural conditioning against it, the freedom of intelligences should be recognized in any serious contemplation of contemplation, any self-consideration of intelligence-as-such, an effort that traditionally fell within the scope of philosophy.
The cultural grounding for a recognition of freedom does exists in the history of philosophy, and specifically in the category of what could be called inward-turning philosophy. Contemporary philosophy, as professionalized in western universities, has completely repudiated that philosophy. The English language tradition from British Empiricism confines itself to the logic of natural and artificial languages, possibly on an unuttered assumption that intelligence will recognize its full nature in language alienated from its grounding in particular voices, leaving an externalized edifice of rules (a scientific kind of false God). Confinement to a gaze upon language-without-voices also characterizes continental European philosophy, to which there is nothing but text. Neither has anything to offer against Nearly-Nihilism, and they combine to form part of its fabric. The old philosophy which declared that ultimate wisdom comes from looking inward rather than outward is more associated with “eastern philosophy” or “eastern mysticism” rather than with traditions developed from Ancient Greece. However, Thomas C. McEvilley, in his The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, is entirely convincing in his demonstration that the inward orientation of thought was a dominant stream in the Greek tradition as well, from Orphic roots (plausibly originating in Egypt and Mesopotamia) that were developed overtly in Pythagoras, Parmenides, Plato, and Aristotle; Hellenistic Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics; and Neoplatonists starting with Plotinus.
It was a basic understanding of the nature of philosophy from the Early Iron Age on, (The Shape, p. 560) that it concerned intelligence contemplating its own interiority. The philosophical consensus (it exists!) then was that ordinary knowledge, such as science, comes from an outward gaze onto objective, measurable phenomena, but ultimate knowledge is the same as profound self-knowledge and comes from (in Aristotle’s terms) “thought that thinks itself” (p. 560, see also p. 558). In spite of the inward-turning philosophy in the western tradition, it is only the eastern tradition which is now widely recognized. Various meditation philosophies, inward-turning philosophies, have been popular in western mass media culture since the aftermath of the World War of 1939-45. Sacred books of the east, especially Indian but also Taoist and Zen texts, were important in the worldview of the American Beat Generation of the 1950’s. Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, serves as an example, as do the popular writings of J.D. Salinger. (Salinger certainly moved the culture, and me personally, in that direction.) In the 1960’s The Beatles famously moved to India to study Transcendental Meditation, and their example inspired large numbers of others. Ever increasing masses of people study and practice Yoga. In the face of this mass culture of inward-turning philosophy, the question confronts us: If inward-turning philosophy is the source of authentic recognition of transcendent freedom, why hasn’t the popularity of those inward philosophies worked to re-orient people generally to authentic individual transcendence? The answer is that a certain correction is required in those inward-turning philosophies.
Mass acquaintance with inward-turning philosophy has not worked mainly because such philosophies are always presented in the context of some theory of Monism in which the individuality of intelligence is interpreted as illusion, hiding the reality of a great cosmic intelligence or spirit you should sense in the process of inward meditation. No sort of monism could form the basis of individual freedom which is inevitably pluralistic. In the minds of monists, the inward-searching philosophy (blind spot philosophy) is not a route to encountering individual freedom even though it is a route to the transcendence of intelligence (not so much the transcendence of freedom as of over-arching singularity, of unity transcending plurality), because in monism the individual merges with the All-One, and everything is as it must inevitably be. In The Shape of Ancient Thought, McEvilley identifies the Neoplatonism developed by Plotinus, along with the Vedantic texts of Hinduism, as “the world’s two great corpora of intense systematic thought about monism.” (page 552) Those two corpora are remarkably similar to one another, and Plotinus fits within a western tradition that began much earlier. McEvilley lists the tradition of western monism as extending “from Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Plato, to Spinoza, Hegel, and Heidegger.” (page 505) (Fichte and even Schopenhauer should be inserted between Spinoza and Hegel.) It has been impossible to separate the philosophy of inwardness from the philosophy of Monism, and yet that separation is the portal to an encounter with profound individual freedom.
Philosophical monism always fails to overcome a basic dualism of freedom vs unfreedom, and always includes that dualism in some form. The main effort in theories of monism is to find some way of describing the All-One which can embrace the fundamental existence of both intelligence (which is active, creative, and effective in making change, that is, the manifestation of freedom) and cosmic Unity or Being (which must be indivisible in any way, eternally uniform and unmoving, the manifestation of unfreedom). Both Vedanta and Neoplatonism require their ultimate foundation to be an all-embracing intelligence, because both assert that ultimately it is such a cosmic consciousness that creates the world of objective phenomena (of change or becoming), by thinking it. (Mere passive consciousness is impossible except as an aspect of a richer and active intelligence.) That cosmic intelligence, the creative principle, freely creates the thought (world) of non-intelligence or unfreedom, and encloses itself within a prison (body) of that unfreedom, and so diminishes to a form which experiences itself ordinarily as limited individual intelligence. So when, in meditation, intelligence encounters its own immediate activity, it supposedly intuits beyond the dream-like enclosure of unfreedom out to the original activity of the cosmic All-One.
It is a story with real charm, but with an entirely unnecessary construct of mythology. That All-One intelligence of the cosmos is no longer interior to the embodied intelligence doing the meditation. The cosmic intelligence sensed inwardly is yet another externalized projection of imaginary super-intelligence, the Great Parent imprinted on childhood experience and always difficult to abandon. Based on that imprinting, there is always a culturally engendered higher sovereign power looming close that everyone is trained to keep in mind, and the monist All-One is another of its avatars. The encounter of thinking with itself does not need to be interpreted as anything but the most straightforward possibility, which is the self-experience of an individual embodied intelligence. The inward-turning tradition of philosophy needs to be corrected precisely by recognizing personal interiority as an independently transcendent individual intelligence instead of equating it with the Monist Cosmic Interiority. The resulting pluralism is repugnant aesthetically to some people, which is not a convincing reason against it.
The Fate of Nearly-Nihilist Zombification
The question returns: Could the wide recognition of this correction in the tradition of inward-turning philosophy, widespread recognition of personal transcendent freedom, result in a cultural transformation away from the zombified Nearly-Nihilism of modernity? Could philosophy be the guide that gives zombies back their individual voices? Blind-Spot philosophy does not restore anything like the comfort of a super-parental type of external intelligence. In time, we must lose our parents in all their forms and avatars. We have to become the parent at the same time as retaining a grounding in innocence where we find individual freedom. There is a kind of personal interiority which is outside nature (Being), peculiar to intelligences. Blind-Spot philosophy constructs a mirror of that non-spacial interiority of intelligence. Being is not intelligence and never could be. Being is eternal and has no time, as declared by the iconic Greek monist Parmenides. Being is timeless unchanging eternity, but intelligences creates time for themselves, and actively expresses creative freedom in time. Intelligences are creative and so free, but Being just is. There is no route of transformation between Being-unfreedom and the freedom of intelligence. Neither can be reduced to the other, and so the eternal and unavoidable relation that intelligences have to Being is transcendence. So it must be recognized that the freedom of individual intelligences is transcendent with respect to pre-determined nature which is equivalent to never-changing Being.
If all the avid students of yoga encountered their individual transcendent freedom to create instead of learning a passive resignation that everything is as it must be; and if in doing so they also identified the cultural repression of that freedom, a difference would certainly be made.
The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, written by Thomas C. McEvilley, Published by Allworth Press (2001), ISBN-10: 1581152035, ISBN-13: 978-1581152036.
Copyright © 2014 Sandy MacDonald.