The Road Ahead

Before moving on I want to briefly summarize the argument that has been put forth in the first three blog posts. I will then discuss what the next portion of this blog will focus on.

The key aspects of the argument are as follows:

  • There has been a secularization and decline in traditional frameworks for morality and meaning in the West throughout the past few centuries.
  • This can be partially attributed to the role technology and science has had in explaining the world around us. No longer are we convinced that a storm or hurricane was caused by a higher power or ‘the gods’ seeking retribution for our actions. We now turn to scientific explanations to explain the natural word.
  • The decline of these traditional frameworks for meaning in the West, such as religion, has had a twofold impact:
    • On the level of the individual it has resulted in a sort of existential angst. We have lost a comprehensive framework that provided us truth and purpose. To quote Charles Taylor again, “People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” Consequently, it is up for us to make sense of the world. This can either be daunting or liberating.
    • On the community level, we have lost the moral underpinning, the ‘glue’ that has held society together for so long. Furthermore, there has been a shift in the 20th and 21st century from community to individual values. This has allowed us to exercise freedom and self-expression, but this can often get taken too far when it leads into narcissism and the disregard for the wellbeing of others.
  • What has resulted from this is the rise of moral relativism and post modernism. An attack on any sort of objective values or truth that can be derived through rational methods such as science or reasoning. This is evident in ‘identity politics’, polarization and degree of confirmation bias we now see in our society.[1]

Within the next ten articles or so I want to discuss practical philosophical approaches to the meaning crisis , a term used by John Vervaeke to describe the issues we face as a modern society.

I will focus on three approaches that have personally resonated with me. By no means will this be a comprehensive or systematic framework. Nonetheless, I will demonstrate what evidence we have from modern science to validate these ideas. These philosophies/ideas include:

  1. Stoicism
  2. Buddhism and Mindfulness
  3. Nietzsche’s idea of Amor Fati and the Eternal Reoccurrence

Again my focus going forward is to search for what practical wisdom can be taken from these three philosophical approaches. In addition, I want to point out how philosophy is not a discipline that focuses on abstract thinking or concepts that have no relevance to our day to day lives. Philosophy can be seen as a tool we can use to navigate through life. Philosophy is a way of life.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s article!

AA


[1] I recognize that this is a complex issue, and warrants a more thorough analysis. I will consider coming back to this topic and providing my critique of post modernism and relativism in later blog posts.

Walking the Tightrope

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tightrope_walking.jpg

Before moving onto solutions to address the issues of modernity posed in my previous post, I want to further reflect on the impact that the decline of traditional frameworks for meaning and morality has had in our society. The secularization of the West has freed us from the necessity to conform to dominant belief systems. It has liberated us from dogmatic thinking.

We are now free to pursue our own interests, create our own meaning and purpose in our lives. This emancipation, the opportunity to openly pursue self-expression and strive towards authenticity is one of the greatest achievements of modernity. To quote existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Unlike previous eras, such as the medieval period, your lot in life is no longer predetermined. That is, you are not born in a rigid class system destined to be a king, aristocrat or peasant. You can strive to be true to your authentic self.

Yet this newfound freedom can be deeply unsettling for some. It is far easier to live a life of mindless conformity or follow a road map that has been already set out for you. Few of us concern our selves with exercising this new found liberty. We quickly resort to our old ways of conforming to the masses. In the mid 20th century, before the advent of computers or social media, writer Aldous Huxley concisely summarized this modern sentiment “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty.”  

Why have we so easily dismissed this great opportunity to exercise our freedom, to search for truth and to be connected to something transcendent – something greater than ourselves. The answer is simple. Our society excels in providing us with two things, distraction and pleasure. We can indulge on almost anything through the tap of a button on our smart phones. Likewise, we spend many hours each week scrolling though our social media pages comparing ourselves to others rather than focusing on improving ourselves. In essence, all these technologies and platforms are like a springboard for our egos.

For those who are up for the task of living authentically, and living with purpose, the path forward is one that requires walking the tight rope between self-expression and narcissism. It requires finding the middle way between community and individual values.

In the Malaise of Modernity Charles Taylor reflects upon this idea further. He claims that the “the worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” Meaning and purpose is found at the middle of these extremes.

The implications of these ideas and way forward I think is two-fold:

  1.  We can pursue self-expression and self-interest, but we must not allow this to turn into a selfish egotism. Furthermore, we can pursue our goals only insofar that these are true to ourselves. We must resist the temptation to boast and brag.
  2. We have to find the right balance between the needs of the individual and community. We can not abandon our efforts to better the lives of others or our communities. In fact, most of our problems we face now from climate change, terrorism and large-scale migrations all require us to cooperate with the global community to find viable solutions.

The solution is a balancing act between two extremes. Going forward – walk the tightrope.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s article, feel free to comment, provide feedback or discuss these issues.

AA

Awakening from Nietzsche’s Shadow

Hello everyone,

I want to continue with the theme in my last post and trace the origins of what John Vervaeke calls the meaning crisis. I hope bring an awareness and discussion about these issues, so please feel free to provide your comments below.

In 1882 German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche published the Gay Science where he wrote one of the most misunderstood phrases in all of philosophy – “God is dead.” Students of philosophy will know that Nietzsche, as a self-proclaimed atheist, was not referencing the literal but rather metaphorical death of God. 

Writing in an era of rapid scientific growth and technological change, Nietzsche was referring to the idea that religion no longer held a monopoly on knowledge, morality and meaning. In ancient times, cultures deferred to a higher power to explain natural phenomenon’s such as plagues, famines or natural disasters. However, modern science has provided explanations to these many of the questions that have puzzled humanity throughout history. Religion was not displaced, but it changed.  Furthermore, it became a less prominent force in Western society.

I want to refrain from commenting on my personal views towards traditional religion. Everyone is free to hold their own beliefs, think critically and respectfully debate these complex issues. Rather, I want to focus on and discuss the societal repercussions of the secularization of the West.

The secularization and decline of the cultural and social significance of religion in our culture is evident. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his book A Secular Age, Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?” That is, what was the norm has now become the exception.

Nietzsche contemplated  whether the decline of religion would lead us to a state of nihilism or meaninglessness. The framework or operating system and basic beliefs that underpinned Western society was called into question. To quote Nietzsche in the Will to Power, “I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism… For some time now our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe.”

In many respects, I do not think we have succeeded in filling the void and gap that the decline of religion in our lives has left us with. As mentioned in my previous article, I believe this is evident in the societal and cultural issues we face today. Increasing polarization and division, a mental health crisis and a culture of narcissism are all symptoms of what Professor Vervaeke calls the ‘meaning crisis.’

Many of these problems stem from a lack of meaning and purpose in our lives. Purpose is a fundamental feature of a fulfilling life, and its absence in our lives is the cause of many psychological ailments.  As Steve Taylor from Psychology Today notes, “The need for purpose is one the defining characteristics of human beings. Human beings crave purpose, and suffer serious psychological difficulties when we don’t have it. Purpose is a fundamental component of a fulfilling life.”

While science is responsible for many great achievements, from ground-breaking technology to modern medicine, I do not think it can provide us with a framework for values or meaning. It falls short in replacing the role that both philosophy and religion have played in the past.

However, in recent years, we are seeing a response from society in the forms of a resurgence of ancient philosophies and practices such as Buddhism, mindfulness, mysticism, Stoicism and various other forms of meditation. For instance, some studies have reported that meditation is the fastest growing health trend in the U.S.  This implies that many are turning away from the so-called hedonic treadmill, and materialist life that is sold to us by our modern culture.

We are eager for meaning, and hungry to feel connected to something transcendent, a cause greater than ourselves.  This can come in various forms through philosophy, religion, a social cause, your work etc. Many religious and spiritual traditions share many commonalities, and there is no ‘one way forward for everyone.’ However, purpose is essential, not only as a guide in life but as a way for contentment and happiness.  

In the next couple of posts, I want to explore some of these traditions which have particularly resonated with me – Stoicism and Buddhism.

AA