My last post was in part a rumination on my procrastination in following up on the implications of the last chapter of my book. (See also "Chapter Ten Revisited.") My emotional log jamb, however, as can perhaps be discerned in that last post, eventually yielded, not only to the persuasiveness of the argument in Alfred North Whitehead's book referenced in that post, but also to an even more significant fundamental consideration developed in his earlier The Function of Reason (1929). The critical nudge that enabled me to make the eventual breakthrough can be attributed to a friend who had drawn my attention to a YouTube presentation of Iain McGilchrist talking about his widely acclaimed recent book, (The Master and His Emissary, Yale university Press, 2009.) in which he had proposed a critical return to a consideration of the relative roles of the right and left brain activity in the human mind.
In reading McGilchrist I became increasingly aware of his own unknowingly reductive stance in attributing to the left brain an almost conscious motivation to resist the more context-aware sensibility of the right brain functioning. How could such thinking emerge in such an insightful and meticulously documented account of the various research findings?
The short answer I rather obviously found in McGilchrist's inattentiveness to the implications of the "selfishness" metaphor first promulgated by Richard Dawkins, but that in itself clearly does not suffice. The more significant question is: how can we (all of us) so easily be thrown off-course by references to motive in general? Why, indeed, do we so easily succumb to the attractions of attributing motive so arbitrarily? I found my answer in Whitehead's earlier propositions about the role of symbolism in the evolution of mind.
My last post suggested, as did the last chapter of my book, that feeling meaningful primarily consists both in being effective and in feeling affirmed. That is, in having a feeling of continuous effective identity. (Both insights I owe to Whitehead.) Because the existential situation of human beings is such as to make us acutely aware of our apparent effective insignificance in relation to everything else, in particular with regard to the overwhelming vastness of the universe itself, both in space and time, it is hard to feel that any single one of us could be meaningful in such a context, or even that we might be meaningful collectively. It is here that Whitehead's proposition of the possibility of contributing to "some eternal greatness incarnate in the passage of temporal fact" unveils the larger meaningful potential of any individual or even group existence. It isn't simply that our group life is larger and longer than any individual life, but rather that that group life over unforeseeable time is a continuing and constantly-being-created cumulative outcome of behaviour in our own individual lives. In other words we, together, and in relation to everything else, are able to play a consciously determining part in the evolution of the universe itself. It would be hard to find anything more meaningful than that!
I am very aware that such a statement, useful as it may be in bending our attention to see each other as allies rather than enemies, nevertheless scarcely touches the problem of why, as a species, we remain collectively ignorant of the possibility of an "eternal greatness", and thus of our ability to contribute to it.
Whitehead's The Function of Reason suggests the answer. The very symbolic ability that so distinguishes us from other life forms, also constitutes for us the means of avoiding both the opportunity it offers, and the responsibility for achieving, or failing to achieve, its realization.
How is this brought about?
It is brought about by the way symbolism itself works.
Since the entirety of my book was devoted to an investigation of how that working affects everything human beings choose to do, I trust I may be forgiven for not repeating its arguments in detail.
What I can do, however, is connect those arguments more closely to the concerns that Whitehead discusses in both Adventures of Ideas and The Function of Reason. In some repects, what I have to say can also be considered to be a commentary on the substance of Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos. In that regard, readers may find it useful to review the discussion of Nagel's book at:
or in the various review sources listed on Google.
What Whitehead does, however, is significantly sidestep the issues that Nagel and his critics were to place front and centre. Whitehead's arguments––and, indeed, mine––do not treat of teleology in the manner chosen by Nagel and his critics. I am no more concerned with the idea of a pre-established "first cause" teleology than was Whitehead. I am more concerned (as should we all, I believe!) with the emergence of mind in the process of evolution. The emergence of mind specifically does not need to have been predetermined. It is perfectly valid to consider our own minds, and, indeed, our collective mind, as more likely to be an outcome of the very process of evolution, whose logic was the primary focus of Whitehead's concerns way back in 1929.
Now, that's all simply a gloss, of course. Here's the nub: our very ability to symbolize has not only permitted us rigorously to investigate the physical workings of the universe; it has also fostered our conjectures about "ultimate" meaning. Although such conjectures have occasioned internecine and bloody conflict between human beings, there can be no absolute evidential basis for evaluating the truth or falsity of conflicting religious dogmas. There is, however, ample evidence that the very claims of absolute truth are themselves the source of our failure to come to terms with one another. (The dynamics involved are identified and discussed in MSOU.)
If our primary concerns are indeed to feel effective, it is understandable that we should make use of our symbolic abilities to create the very circumstances that would enable us to realize that feeling to its fullest. And so much the better, of course, if we were to find others who were able to confirm us in our convictions, and thus affirm us as effective actors in our lives.
It is always dangerous, of course, to make such all-embracing propositions. The almost infinite variability of human sensibilities would seem to authorize only a far more circumspect generalization. It is nevertheless widely evident that we humans do group ourselves with one another in accordance with our predilections, and that there must be a logic in such associative activity that can be discerned and understood in larger terms than those fostered by our exposure to the almost infinite variety of idiosyncratic manifestations of motive.
All human beings are symbolizers, but it's important to remember that we are also animals. To enjoy effectiveness, then, it's clearly possible for us to experience it in different forms in those two domains. We can enjoy the effectiveness of our own physicality in many different ways, just as those dolphins do, enjoying their coordinated leaps, or as the seagulls playing in the turbulence of gusting winds. Adult human beings tend not to skip along as we did when children, but most of us enjoy physical games of some sort, and, in the absence of any specific skill on our own part, we also enjoy witnessing the evidence of others doing so. I don't know if other animals can enjoy the pleasure of others of their species in that way, but I'm pretty sure our human experience is such that we can also enjoy vicariously the athleticism and physical skill of others, to the point that we can experience it as a compensatory satisfaction for our own ineptitude, or as a shared, projected, experience of physical effectiveness. This latter possibility can be traced (again, as argued in MSOU) to our symbolically enabled ability to understand what it feels like to be someone else.
It is insofar as we are symbolizers, then, that we can vicariously experience the effectiveness of others as compensation for the dissatisfaction we may feel about our own abilities. We can also rather obviously find satisfactions occasioned by the process of symbolizing itself, regardless of the arenas in which that symbolizing activity is exercised, and possibly independently of the outcomes of that activity. The tendency to excess of verbiage in virtually every area of academic enterprise is arguably ample evidence of feelings of spurious effectiveness. Many are those who can talk up a storm without actually saying something meaningful! (And not only academics, of course!)
What I am saying in short, then, is that our symbolizing abilities provide us with ample opportunities for distracting both ourselves and others from the possible ultimate horror of meaninglessness. I am still only skating over the surface of all the surrogate opportunities available to us, of course. One rather obvious one is to claim "ownership" of what are widely accepted as being symbols of effectiveness: money, possessions, reputation, power over others, political or social rank, awards. Anything that qualifies for admiration by others can be used as an indicator of apparent meaningfulness. The very lack of those appurtenancies to the less fortunate in any society may well be considered as evidence of that group's lack of significant meaning in those societies where those appurtenancies are valued. Zygmunt Bauman's identification of those factors that signal the humiliation or social unworthiness of people is very relevant here.
In summary, let me put the situation even more bluntly: faced with the possibility of meaninglessness, individual human beings have the option of searching for surrogate satisfactions wherever the ascendant values of the society in which they live attach meaningful value to them. It is almost a given that awareness of our own contribution to such processes is vestigial and intermittent.
It's virtually impossible to compile an inventory of every viable manner of compensating for one's anxiety about meaninglessness, of course, but, in concentrating on the possibilities, it's also likely that one will be distracted from considering the importance of those of our day-to-day activities that we engage in almost without awareness of their relevance to some larger significance. Many of those activities are simply what we do without any special kind of attentiveness, because they are part of our daily habit of attending to what is necessary for simply living. We keep ourselves clean; we prepare our food; we look after our surroundings; we do some form of "work"; we eat when we are hungry; we sleep when we are tired. But we also play with our children, listen to the radio, watch or listen to the news, do the washing up, go shopping, check up on a neighbour who is ill, read a book, go to a concert, remember a birthday, write to an old friend. In fact, then, in our day-to-day activities we scarcely give thought to the metaphysical concern as to what is meaningful and what is not.
Such habitual disregard is understandable. Inevitably, however, it has costs. I think they take two apparently fundamentally different forms. However, both result from our attempts to reject the probability that we are indeed ourselves powerless in relation to the forces that determine the shape of existence.
If we believe that any larger purposefulness that exists exists independently of us, we thus necessarily disqualify ourselves from having any power in relation to it. As a result, we almost arbitrarily attribute such power on the one hand either to an hypothesized "prime mover" or force, or, on the other, either to specific others whose interests are in opposition to ours, or to processes in relation to which, although we have contributed to them, we feel helplessly subject. What advantages do these very different alternatives offer us? The first alternative carries with it the possibility of our associating ourselves with the hypothesized force, and thus allows us to feel that we are participants in its power, even if we don't understand it, since we are fulfilling its will. The second gives us a whole selection of purposes that challenge us to act against the hypothesized enemy or force, and thus achieve a meaningful purpose. Our effectiveness is continually gainsaid, but its promise is also as constantly refurbished. We can at least war against enemies, and those enemies can also be held to account for the processes that we judge to be responsible for virtually everything that renders us ineffective. As the example of McGilchrist shows, we can even personalize the enemy as a select bit of ourselves!
I'm sure you will have discerned the difficulty I had in formulating those sentences! The bottom line, I suppose, is to question in what respects we as human beings have any purpose beyond the immediate demands made on us by the circumstances of our lives. As you will know both (hopefully) from my book, or from my prior posts, I do believe there is an eternal greatness to which we can contribute. But not, as I have also argued in the book, "willy nilly." It is transparently obvious that we could indeed be the engineers our own extinction. To recognize that possibility we would need to be willing to face our own responsibility for our survival or for our passing.
After struggling so long with the drafting of this post, I think perhaps the previous post, and my post referring to Chapter Ten of Making Sense of Us, may provide better points of entry into these complex issues than the present one. There is a tendency for many of us to feel, I think, that preoccupations with metaphysical issues are a recipe for disaster. As was remarked to me many year ago by some of my students, it's possible to be too "self" conscious. Indeed it is, but an off-centered perspective on such a consciousness contains the means of its own transcendence. (As I know many of my students discovered on their own account.) The current absence of a group self-consciouness in humankind––that is, an awareness of humankind as a group "self"––does not.
Off-centered consciousness of ourselves is extensively discussed in my book.