Friday, May 19, 2006

The Meaning of Words

Last evening one of our friends at our weekly meeting used a phrase that kept me awake much of the night: "...a profound spiritual commitment."

I don't know what it means.

The words themselves are based on Latin, mostly religious in use. It's a catchy phrase, full of intuitive import, and to me totally baffling. I find myself disturbed that I have no idea what to make of it.

In many instances the unexamined question isn't worth asking. I think this one is, and after wracking my empty head last night and coming up ashamed I plead for assistance from you.

What is a profound spiritual commitment?


eyesallaround said...

Dag lost for words? The end must be near... The earth is shaking at its core...

IMHO, I think it's a way of avoiding commitment, but still attempting to fill the darkness we all have without faith in the eternal, personal Creator.

truepeers said...

The question could be approached in many ways. One way of looking at it that I often take is this:

400 years ago, when the ENglish were setting out to begin colonizing the new world, there were about three million speakers of English worldwide. Today there are several hundred times that number. How did one small country do so well (much better than its neighbors) in spreading its culture - esp. language and law - around the world and becoming an industrial and scientific power? There are many explanations, and there were no doubt many necessary conditions for this historical development. But if we inquire into the conditions sufficient to bring this about, i think we have to start with some sense of the spiritual mission of the English and anglophone British that blew strongly until recently.

This is because the primary motor of history is humans' ethical nature; it is not, in the first place, economics or greed, or the will to power, or sociobiological factors. Religion, and by extension spirituality, is fundamentally an ethical phenomenon. Today, we often think of the spiritual in individual terms; but this is just because the individual has become abstracted from the communal, ethical, scene, thanks to historical developments like the Christian idea of personhood. Individual prayer, for example, is not something primary to human consciousness or society, but rather it has evolved out of a communal sacred-ritual context, just as atheism, for example, is also historically derivative of communal faith and cannot be conceptualized as one of the primary possibilities of human consciousness.

Language and consciousness could only have come into being in am act or event of shared, communal faith; there are no other convincing hypotheses for the origin of language. SO many want to see language, on a Darwinian model, evolving gradually and unconsciously among the first humans, but if you look into it, you will find there is little basis for such beliefs.

Of course, not all the English/anglophone British had a profound spiritual committment but many of the pioneers and colonists did. They believed in their book and the right of every man to read it and live it as he saw fit. In other words, they lived as if they were in the right, as if people on the periphery were as important as the high priests at the centre - indeed that the real centre was in the peripheral, world-conquering individuals, as if the future would prove what was for them yet a leap of faith: that they were predestined by history to appear its destined winners, precisely because they were in command of truths that were not yet widely recognized but would be down the road.

One explanation for the worldly historical success of Calvinism is that the Calvinists were so desperate in their wish to be predestined for salvation, that they went to extremes in life to discover evidence that they were indeed among the chosen. But to live like that you really have to have a deep commitment to your faith and its beliefs.
Today, when we set out to fight the left, we too should also act in ways that will leave a historical record that will show we didn't just win because we were stronger, or angrier, or whatever, but because we really did see more of the truth and right in our time than those we fought.

To pursue your destiny, in face of all the others who see things differently, and to pursue it without getting overly distracted by all the worldly pleasures and frustrations is to have a profound spiritual commitment.

dag said...

Of course I like that line of reasoning. On what legitimate moral authority does it rest if other than communal feeling? If that were the only legitmacy, then the numbers of Muslims would provide them with a strong hand in leading the future. And numbers of people adhering never qualifies as true belief. Where is the authority? If it's the result of practice, if we can look at x and see it provides better than y, it's still not real because it's interpretable from, ofr example, Islam, as not being mannerly or manly or Muslim. We in the Modern West have objective good compared to Islam -- and atheism, but what do we offer the subjective being? Everyone can lay claim to authority from somewhere to proove his system is better. Where is the legitimate authority a priori? If we can't have that, how can we make a profound commitment to authorty and morals that might be wrong? We would be prudent to make a contingent commitment. That keeps me awake at night.

If our destiny is manifest and legitimate after the fact by virtue of our result, then what of the continuum being pointed somewhere else tomorrow? How do we commit to that in any meaningful sense?

Contingency, to betray my Romantic leanings, is not profound. Commitment is only rational if it's valid. How do we sort out the rational right and apply the Romantic commitment to the spirtual?

The distillation of the best of Man in the form of tradition is fine, but what's the authority other than tradition itself? How do we move beyond the tautological to cope with the future? How do we do so with out being contingent? Where's the authority for new acts and commitments?

And if we act on our best reason rationally, what on earth makes that spritual rather than prudential? That wouldn't likely qualify as ethical, let alone moral or spiritual.

Where is our moral authority to claim our moral imperative? What makes us absolute or even kind of sure in our belief that we must act for ourselves in the face of our enemies. What absoulte do we use to ward off the relativist blows? How can we convince ourselves that we are so right that we are compelled to act on our rightness against those who are equally commited just as profoundly that they are?

If we look to the essential man for our cues, we won't find Modern Man standing there. I think we're alone and facing a future uncertain that requires us to develop our moral metaphors anew. I think our moral metaphors have to be as universal as our intellectual and social metaphers, time, money, math, as examples. Thsoe all work rightly. I can't find the strength to commit myself to any of them in a spiritual sense. My grasp of the spiritual leaves me empty-handed. I look to the past and see we've arrived from the land of Phlogistan. It's disappeared. Now what?

If we rally ourselves to fight for even our own lives we have to have something in them more than time out of habit and fear. What is so important that we are willing to live for it?

truepeers said...

Well Dag, that's a lot of questions and I won't get to them all now, but I'm sure we can continue this in days to come, because I think you are asking all the right questions.

I appeal to no absolute authority. Unlike, say, a devoted Muslim, I do not believe in any uniquely correct code of conduct. I can only relate the universal and contingent according to a minimal vision of the universal - and the more precise (i.e. minimized by Ockham's razon, yet not omitting any essential elements) this vision is, the more useful it is to understanding the human fundamentals in each different context. But what is common to all humanity in all times is relatively little, though it is something of an authority to respect; it is an ethical kernel that entails certain imperatives to promote both freedom and some degree of equality among people.

As you know, I understand this minimal or original humanity in terms of an anthropological hypothesis of human origins, of what makes us different from animals, of how language emerges and works. This entails an understanding of hte purpose of culture - of how it comes into being to defer our conflicts and keep us from tearing each other apart. The hypothesis makes room for faith, recognizes its necessity, but the terms of this faith can only be defined within a specific historical tradition: what we all share is too minimal to serve as a universal model for historical human conduct. So we must choose our models and our faith according to how we see specific traditions and their latest iterations best promoting the fundamental but contradictory imperatives of freedom and equality.

And we choose ultimately by a combination of reason adn faith in response to what we have learned from history, our only laboratory for testing our understandings of the human. We respond to the ever-renewed demands history makes on us, the necessity it imposes on us to expand the freedom in our social systems, without which the systems would decay into destructive rivalries and needless violence.

Ideas are tested by history, which is another way of saying they are tested in a marketplace. If we want others to share our faith we have to speak and act in ways they find convincing. At times we have to pursue our truth by stepping outside the market, by being lonely romantic explorers, by going in search of what we and others don't yet fully know we need. At other times, we remain in or return to the market to try and promote what we have discovered. Again, it will be history and the market that will test the truth of what we think we know.

Human truth is full of aporia, as you know. But just because we can never have the full and absolute truth is no reason to embrace relativism or nihilism. The truth we need is simply the truth that expands our human understanding and freedom relative to the limited truth we held before. And such considerations are open to objective testing. For example, an ethical and economic system that can feed all of humanity is objectively better than one that would require most of us to die for it to be implemented. That's not to say the system that can today feed all is the final word; but there is no good reason why anyone should embrace a religion or faith that cannot feed us all - I'm thinking of Caliphate dreaming - or provide the freedom that is necessary to minimize the violence we would bestow on each other if we were struggling for position in a less free system.

The more rational our system, the more faith it demands of us, since reason discounts established systems of faith and demands we find means to renew our belief in the rationalized system's open-endedness - in the mystery that must be ever renewed and without which we would become the machine men that we fear - in its ability to keep on expanding freedom and renewing the mystery of how we may transcend our conflicts with new representations of the sacred that, for a time, resist discounting because they are not yet fully reducible to worldly calculation.

When you contrast the prudential and the spiritual, it's not clear what kind of prudential reason you are discounting - the kind of discounting a well-established insurance market does, or the reason that tells us we must take a leap of faith because this is the most prudent course, because doing nothing would mean certain failure.

We don't act from moral certainty. Moral certainty doesn't act; rather, it becomes a ritualistic fetish. No, we act from faith in the necessity of freedom, knowing we may take wrong turns, but also knowing that we will be in the right if we can find the signs and freedom in which the greatest number of people can join and engage in mutually-beneficial exchange and reciprocity until reason unravels the mystery behind one market, and the effectiveness of the signs we trade diminishes, as rivalry and conflict heat up, and we need to discover new ways to leap ahead of ourselves by making the game more complex, with more possibilities, more freedoms.

Let me know if this makes sense, and we can continue...

Anonymous said...

Wow are you guys long winded or what. reminds me of Job's friends.

Simple answer: get yourself saved and start reading the Bible, it will all come to you, It's ALL in there if you just take the time to look for it with an open mind.

truepeers said...

You may be right, Anon., but nothing you've said so far will convince a non-believer to pick up the book. It is in the task of conversion that long-windedness (with patience and humility) is usually necessary. The problem of faith is solved when you have found it and truly believe all questions solved, but not before.

truepeers said...

Dag, i think you should take a gander at the latest column from the creator of Generative Anthroplogy: link

eyesallaround said...

Anon, LOL! How funny. I think these 2 are out of our league in understanding philosophy. God speaks to different people in different ways. Thank God for people like Dag and True Peers who can reach the intellectuals who study philosophy, God knows they need it. The one statement that really jumped out at me was

"Ideas are tested by history, which is another way of saying they are tested in a marketplace. If we want others to share our faith we have to speak and act in ways they find convincing."

In other words, don't be a hypocrite. That's a huge stumbling block for a lot of people, myself included (historically). I've since learned that I'm not as perfect as I once thought I was:>) So, it's an ongoing process. My current project is tongue control, watching what I say about people who do stupid things.... THAT's not easy.