How to Live Well After the Digital Revolution

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gc logo 8.14.11Here’s an essay I published on this site a few years ago when it first started.  It used to have it’s own separate page, but now that I’m redesigning the site it will be a linked post instead.  It could use some updated, but it still helps summarize what this blog used to be about, and where it will go in the future.  Enjoy! – Bill

PS – Thanks for your patience as I update Good Circuits to better reflect my own writing and thinking and to better invite you to join in the exploration of where technology and the humanities meet to make us better people!

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Our Modern Problem

People, even the religious, feel alarmingly anxious—especially in the modern age. Medication, drug addiction, overeating, and empty entertainment all seem have all risen to help placate and to distract us from feelings of despair. As a result, we feel even more disconnected from each other and from ourselves. This anxiety and depressions stems from our separation from the divine—the makeup of our true human nature and of reality—so a vicious cycle perpetuates the problem; the harder we work to distract ourselves from what ails us, the worst our situation becomes. This tragedy hallmarks the modern age.

A New Solution

We must become closer to our true selves—to what’s divine. This idea, in part, is influenced by Zen Buddhism, but variations of the true, inner self as divine are central to many forms of Eastern religion and philosophy which urge us to shed distractions and delusions that keep us from an introspective spiritual quest. These schools of thought also cherish the divine, or ultimate, unified spiritual force as it manifests in all reality; the central tenet of Taoism, for example, is that this force comprises all matter and that to know this force in a personal way is to be enlightened.

In the West, we learn these spiritual concepts in a rational way (i.e. Schopenhauer’s Will or Leibniz’s Monads or the explanations provided by the Transcendentalists). Still, few Western thinkers try to reconcile the empirical rationality championed by Descartes or even Kant with the more intuitive musings made tradition in the East. Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions trend toward the rational as well. While each religion harbors mystical sects, they all trend toward knowing God or Allah in an academic or contemplative way; scholars of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an all lead their communities toward a better understanding of reality, morality, and toward greater spiritual actualization.

However, Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila successfully merges Oriental and Occidental philosophies in his Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ). In short, his fiction urges us to pursue self-knowledge and excellence as a way to find enlightenment and happiness. Quality is much like the Platonic idea of “The Good,” but it exists within the actual observer. Unlike Plato, there is no room for separation between subject and object in Pirsig’s metaphysics, so there is no dualism within his concepts of morality either. So, the MOQ successfully combines the rationality of the West with the intuition of the East to form a new set of values for humans to adhere.

The protagonist in these stories draws from diverse sources (e.g. Native American traditions, Western and Eastern philosophers, renowned mathematicians and scientists, personal observations) to form theories that strengthen the connections between who we are, what we do, and how to understand the surprising way that evolution and free will cause the universe to grow and change toward the greater good, or toward Quality as he describes it. Without building the complex hierarchies or taxonomies that ethicists and theologians rely on in the West that form fundamental divisions between self and reality, thereby driving a wedge between man and God, and by avoiding the paradoxical and mysterious expressions of faith embraced by many Eastern spiritual schools that, unfortunately, invalidate the many ways to know reality, divinity, and the self through human intellect, Pirsig completes a revolutionary “map” that leads us away from the despair caused by the lack of complete personal actualization that plagues the modern age.

How to know you’re doing it right (Ethics)

Essentially, Prisig breaks the value judgments we typically assign to the plethora of positive human activities. Creating art, attending church on Sunday, running a business, discussing politics, meditation, maintaining physical fitness, stargazing, and even welding joints from a metal can all lead to enlightenment. They are all equally good, just in different ways.

We know this because these actions make us happy. Simply put, happiness is the measure of our relationship to the divine, or, as I call this phenomenon, Union. This is the true measure of ethics as Aristotle defines it:

[Regarding happiness and the function of man] “if this is the case, and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of soul in accordance with virtue, and if there are more than one virtue, in accordance with the best and most complete . . .” (Nichomachean Ethics)

While he applies categories and rules to morality, his idea of human functionality, or personal actualization, coincides with Pirsig’s pursuit of Quality. Basically, we need not fret over commandments, social morays, credos, or codes of law. All are merely “road signs” on the same highway. Instead, through introspection and through dialog, we should work together to produce a reality of higher and higher quality and to achieve and share ever-increasing happiness and good will. Humans are equipped with an innate sense of what is wrong and right (conscience), and, while we often experience difficulty making the right moral decisions, we learn, through trial and error, to navigate our lives toward the pursuit of happiness. Our choices and actions are what make us happy and good.

How to pursue Union

Prisig, unfortunately, does not adequately explore the many modes of enlightened activity of which we humans are capable. This oversight may cause confusion in the reader; how are we to know how to act? Humanists, in general, shun the rules and mandates constructed by many religions, and, consequently, do not usually establish guidelines for human behavior. In contrast, religions generally allow little deviation away from doctrine, so followers may miss out on all that life has to offer. The idea of Union furthers the good points off all traditions, and it validates much of the varieties of human spiritual experience while categorizing them in some of the following ways.

  • Meditation: The ways by which we know divinity through intuition and introspection. Examples include prayer, sitting and walking meditation, all religious services, mysticism.
  • Contemplation: The ways by which we know divinity through rationality and the intellect. Examples include academic study and inquiry, intellectual discourse, empirical understanding of physical reality.
  • Creation: The ways by which we know divinity through self-expression and craftsmanship. Examples include art in all its forms, physical expression of beauty and emotion, engineering and design, architecture and civic planning.
  • Relation: The ways by which we know divinity through one another. Examples include quality time spent with family, friends, and colleagues, experiencing the arts, volunteerism and philanthropy, social constructs and programs, positive and revelatory communication.

This list is merely a survey of the many ways to become enlightened and to know divinity. To find true happiness, we must pursue all four types of Union. If we lack one mode, we often feel its absence from our lives: we complain that “something’s missing.” Intuition helps us to identify the weak points of our relationship with the divine; we learn to pursue happiness by listening to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. Our bodies, mind, and souls provide feedback as we grow in Union.

Why is this true?

Ponder an alternate metaphysical reality: What if the divine comprised of forces we consider malevolent? What if we derived the greatest pleasure and happiness by destroying rather than by creating? By ignoring our inner lives and by conquering external reality? By warring with one another and by dominating one another to ensure the supremacy of a singular group? Darwinism may urge us to extend this dominance and conformity throughout reality. Isn’t the universe bound to come apart anyway? Consider how human actions usually bring about extinction of species, the exhaustion of resources, and the destruction of previously established Quality.

Here’s the catch: the law of maximum entropy disallows this. Many scientist prove that the universe self-orders in a way to best adhere to the second law of thermodynamics. As theoretical physicist Brian Green explains in An Elegant Universe, the universe is structured in such as way that it will burn off greater and greater amounts of energy to expand indefinitely. It’s true that bodies of matter form and break down to release the energy. The universe is not prone toward self-destruction, however. This is because existing forms of matter—especially gaseous suns, rapidly spinning galaxies, and, of course, intelligent life—burn more energy while in existence than in nonexistence. Matter cannot be created or destroyed, but it does use energy as previous forms of matter break down: This energy never lies dormant: as it’s released, it forms newer and grander systems that grow and change and become increasingly complex. The more complex a system is, the more energy it needs to sustain itself. Therefore, the laws of entropy require the universe to evolve and to grow.

This theory coincides nicely with the theories of Static and Dynamic Quality expounded in Pirsig’s Lila. He explains that energy, Tao, or Quality (to force synonymy) manifests in forms like Green says. These forms are known as Static Quality and can be physical or abstract constructs such as a a building, a cell, or an ideology. These forms are invaluable, as they make up the composition of reality. They are not permanent though. The driving force of growth and change is known as Dynamic Quality, and it ensures that Static objects break up and evolve as they become obsolete. Often, the arts, revolutions, or even cosmic forces—anything with high-energy output—force dynamic change. Without Dynamic Quality, the universe would not exist as we know it.

For example, without Static Quality, we would not have a constitution to uphold; without Dynamic Quality, we would never have made civil rights amendments.

A Conclusion

So, these like ideas explain fundamental existence in two different ways. While the physical and moral workings of reality may seem to be set arbitrarily, the architect of the rules and laws that govern all creation ingrained them in our very nature. We derive pleasure from partaking in Quality and fulfillment from pursuing Union. When we become selfish or distracted, when we submit to the temptations of weakness and idleness, when we recklessly seek shallow, fleeting pleasures, we do wrong. Needless destruction of Static Quality is sinful, ignoring the promise of Dynamic Quality is also sinful.

The views propounded by Union may seem elementary. They are. Most of our most cherished endeavors and institutions conform to this thesis. However, as Paul Tillich once said, “sin is separation.” Often, our ken is too limited even when we work with best intentions. Philosophy and religion always encourage us to “listen” to the divine. In an age where social and technological advancement occurs too fast to track, our relationships with each other, with ourselves, and with our gods are outpaced. We, prodigal sons and daughters, all too often suffer in desperate isolation, instead of valuing the infinite interconnectedness that can make us truly happy. Our ignorance of the true workings of life, love, and morality may soon lead to our downfall if we fail to realize kensho, Nirvana, and the promises of Eden.

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