In the last chapter of my book Making Sense of Us I made a case for our committing ourselves, both as individual beings, and as a species collectively, to an optimal process of being, rather than to a pre-determined goal. The relevant section, if you are not familiar with it, is summarized in a curtailed extract form in the post "Revisiting Chapter Ten."
Readers who are familiar with the complete book will know that Chapter Ten proposes that the question posed in the first chapter of the book was unanswerable, in essence because it was the wrong question for us to be asking. That question was posed as "What's it all about?" Just to bring other readers on board, I should add that the title of Chapter Ten was "A Better question––and an Answer." The question I suggested that we are all asking of ourselves, most frequently without being aware of it, is "What are we about?" I hope it will be obvious that this is also simply another way of asking the question "What am I about?"––or rather, that both questions are complementary to one another. An adequate answer to either one implies our answer to the other also.
I have been struggling for some time to find an adequate way to talk about why I think my suggested answer to both complementary questions is so important. There are two potential ways of going about this, and that was where I got stuck, because I didn't want to alienate those who might "instinctively" reject my argument. I got closer to a resolution some time ago, when reading the earlier sections of Alfred North Whitehead's book Adventures of Ideas. Whitehead suggested that there are two fundamentally different ways of contriving an answer to both the question posed in my first chapter, and the different one suggested in the last. I cannot adequately summarize his argument briefly, but he suggested simply as example that the answers to those questions asserted by Buddhism on the one hand, and the varieties of Christianity on the other were inadequate, because neither confronted honestly the dilemma that all human beings face. In essence he was saying that both kinds of answer were fundamentally missing the point. He then went on to suggest, not an answer, but the form that an adequate answer would require.
Here is Whitehead's summary statement (I am quoting from page 33 of his book, in its currently still available Free Press paperback edition):
"I hazard the prophecy that that religion will conquer which can render clear to popular understanding some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact."
Now, I think there is a profound insight in this statement, unfortunately compromised in the form that Whitehead imposed on it by his fundamentally theistic stance to ultimate meaning.
However, the profound insight shines through, unattenuated, if we endeavour a non-theistic paraphrase, thus: (It should be clear that the first person singular subject of the sentence is no longer a reference to Whitehead, but to me . . .)
"I hazard the suggestion that that vision of human meaning will prevail which can render clear to popular understanding some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact."
Let me try to summarize that in more modern language:
I believe that a vision of human meaning that recognizes our own joint responsibility for creating it will prevail, because it will mean that we have come to terms with our own potential to contribute to that realization.
Well, that's probably enough to be getting on with for the moment! The essence of what I'm saying can perhaps be better understood by referring to chapter ten itself. The major message is that our own individual purposes and joint meaning transcend the span of any individual physical existence. It is not so much that we are afraid of death, as suggested by Ernest Becker, but that we are afraid of meaninglessness. We are not meaningless. We are part of the evolution of the universe. How about that?!! And what are its implications for how we act, both individually and collectively?
write a comment