by Andrew Bard Schmookler
Our contemporary secular worldview, though filled with knowledge and insights, is inadequately developed. It fails to provide the means for comprehending some important realities that religious perspectives — from which the secular culture has departed — were able, in their way, to provide.
It is not surprising that the secular worldview would have some such deficiencies.
- For one thing, it is of relatively recent origin: religious traditions had millennia to develop their systems to provide people the means to understand and cope with the various realities that human life and history compel people to deal with.
- For another, the religious traditions operated with an epistemology that enabled people to “make stuff up,” drawing on a mythological imagination, whereas the predominant epistemology of the secular worldview – to arrive at truth through applying reason to evidence – is far more constraining.
Which just means that there’s more work to be done by us who give our allegiance to that approach to the truth: we need to develop our secular worldview further so that it provides us with more of the understandings that are required to deal with the realities of the human world.
In previous entries in this series, I have attempted to do some of that work.
- In “The Discernible Reality of ‘a Force of Evil‘” I tried to demonstrate the reality of something that can reasonably be called “a Force of Evil” in the human world.
- And in “The Ugliness We See in Human History Is Not Human Nature Writ Large,” I tried to show that the emergence of such a force would be an inevitable consequence of any creature’s taking the step of extricating itself from its biologically evolved niche by inventing its own way of life—i.e. the step onto the path of civilization.
- And, in that same entry, I tried there also to show that something we might reasonably call “a Battle between Good and Evil” would inevitably be at the heart of the drama of any such civilization-creating creature (on any planet, anywhere in the cosmos). Including in the human drama in the millennia since our ancestors took that Fateful Step.
This present piece will attempt to establish the reality and importance of two more of those dimensions of the human world that are not adequately recognized in the contemporary secular worldview.
Namely, the reality and importance of
- the “Dimension of Value,” and
- the “Spiritual Dimension.”
As will become clear, these two dimensions have much in common:
They are both emergent realities—dimensions of reality that did not exist at all, until the evolutionary process brought them into being.
Both became real through the emergence of creatures that evolved to have certain experiential capabilities and tendencies.
And with both, it seems pretty clear that such experiential capabilities are selected for because of the survival-enhancing benefits they confer.
From which it can be inferred that if people deprive those dimensions of their proper life-serving power — because their worldview fails to recognize their reality and importance — there will be a real cost to be paid.
One reason that parts of our contemporary secular culture short-changes those two (real and important) is that there’s a confusion embedded in the secular worldview that confines “reality” to “what’s objective.” It is a current of thought in which if something isn’t “out there,” it isn’t real.
But our experience is real. And properly recognizing what that experience signifies is an essential part of the task of developing our secular worldview so that it better helps the life-serving forces fight more effectively against the destructive forces at work in our world, fortified by people’s moral and spiritual passions. (And a greater understanding of the nature of the challenge that we must meet if human civilization is to survive for the long haul.)
The Reality of Value
Perhaps the confusion in our contemporary secular culture about the connection between “objectivity” and “reality” is due to how powerfully successful science – with its objectivity, its investigation of the world from the outside – has proved to be in illuminating so much about reality.
Perhaps that prestige of objective science is what has led a lot of people to think that whatever can’t be found “outside” isn’t really real.
But that fundamentally leaves out some of the most important aspects of our reality — crucial dimensions that are real because we experience them.
It’s worth revisiting the argument presented previously — in “How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise to a ‘Battle Between Good and Evil” — to establish the reality of value. It bears repeating not just because of its importance in addressing the sorts of moral relativism that is a widespread current in contemporary thinking. But especially in this present context of how important dimensions of reality come into being through the realm of experience – when our experiential realm has been shaped by an evolutionary process that consistently chooses what serves survival over what does not.
In some currents in our secular culture, Value is regarded as “merely subjective.” Reduced to “just a matter of opinion.” You can’t find Value in the cosmos, viewed objectively – so goes the argument — and so it cannot be real.
That way of thinking about Value significantly weakens the ability of the secular culture to muster the power of moral passion. Which is a high cost to pay for a way of thinking that is built upon a logical error: for that reduction in the status of Value shows confusion about both what Value can mean, and what it must mean.
In a lifeless universe, nothing can have Value, because there’s nothing and no one for whom anything is “better” or “worse” than anything else. If there’s nothing to whom anything matters, then it doesn’t matter – it can’t matter — even if whole worlds are destroyed.
But as soon as there are sentient beings who experience some things as better and some as worse, Value comes into existence. Once there are creatures for whom some experiences are welcome and some experienced negatively, some more fulfilling and some harder to bear, it begins to matter what happens.
That experiential foundation of Value quite naturally will emerge as an effective strategy for Life’s unfolding. Once there are living things of sufficient complexity, there will be creatures that will divide their experiences into those they are motivated to seek out, and those to avoid. And such an evaluative framework will naturally evolve as the fruit of a selective process that sifts through what has proven life-serving or life-destroying in creatures’ ancestral past.
Value, as sentient creatures like humans experience it, correlates with what has objectively tended to be the path to survival, which therefore tends to be subjectively experienced as Good.
Which means that creatures like humans (but not only humans) have an inborn system of values. And this inborn system of values – however we imagine it to be – is a real part of our creaturely nature. It is grounded in the experiential realm (as value must be). And it serves the vital purpose of motivating us to do what has served the task of survival.
Which means that this inborn system of values is, in some comprehensive way, structured according to life-serving criteria. Value is an important means by which Life defeats death.
It’s true that we’ve undergone a major transformation in the circumstances of our lives since the period when our human ancestors did the great majority of their evolving, most recently as hunter-gatherers. The hunting gathering stage aligned rather well with our inborn system of values because — even though we had become cultural animals — the circumstances of hunter-gatherers was still fundamentally continuous with our origins as primate bands out of which we evolved.
It wasn’t culture, but civilization that marked the major point of discontinuity in the history of our species’ societies—with transformations in size, structure, means of subsistence. These transformations of the circumstances of human life had implications for the strategies required for human survival.
But, while some things changed, our inborn system of values would likely have remained the same. Despite the changes wrought in our lives by civilization, and the different strategies needed for survival that transformation required, it seems reasonable to suppose that the basic nature of the Human Good – as founded in the experiential realm of us sentient creatures — would have remained the same: human thriving and experiential fulfillment.
And some basic ingredients for our thriving and fulfillment seem pretty certain to have been there all along, and remain at the heart of us still.
If what was fulfilling when we were evolving as hunter-gatherers included a human world where there was peace and not conflict, love and not hate, kindness and not cruelty, intrapsychic harmony and not a psyche at war with itself, etc., it would seem likely that the same basic ingredients would make our lives experientially better and not worse in the changed circumstances of civilization.
Human thriving and fulfillment define the domain of Value, and that domain deserves all the respect we can muster. Value is not only real, it is one of the most important parts of our reality.
The recent history of America – in which Liberal America has lost much ground to “a coherent force that consistently works to make things worse” (my definition of Evil), and in which democracy has lost much ground to fascism – shows how dangerous it is to weaken the power of the moral passions with a worldview that diminishes the status we afford to Value. That illogical belief system (“merely subjective”) weakens the Force of the Good when confronted with something that acts like “a Force of Evil.”
The Reality of the Spiritual Dimension
Similarly with another experiential reality: transformative spiritual experience.
It is a significant fact that a non-negligible portion of humanity has experiences of a special kind, experiences they describe as breaking through to a dimension of reality that’s deeper, bigger, more illuminated. And as making contact with a realm felt to be sacred.
From such experiences, people can return feeling “spiritually transformed.” And bearing what they regard as “spiritual truths.” Such experiences are exceptionally impactful, often changing the course of a person’s life.
That is a factual reality in the human world. And, as with Value, this reality necessarily exists in the experiential realm (where “the sacred” is experienced as Value to the nth degree).
It is not a question of what is “objectively” real. For nothing could be sacred in a lifeless universe where there was nothing capable of experiencing that special level of value. What could it mean to say something is “sacred” if it was sacred to nobody?
Conversely, as with Value and Pain, the fact that people have such special experiences is sufficient to prove that the spiritual dimension is real. (What could be more real that something that can blow a person off one life-path and onto another?)
And the fact that people experience this breakthrough level of experience as having a special level of importance is sufficient to confirm that it is important.
One more thing to be said about the capacity for these real and important experience: this capacity is also life-serving, as we can infer from these facts:
- The capacity for such an experience – one that feels like a breakthrough, and perhaps even “revelatory” — seems to be widespread in the human genome. A significant fraction of the population reports having such experiences. (And it’s possible that many more have the potential for that special dimension of experience, but have never realized that potential.)
- Such a capacity would not be a widespread part of the human genome unless it had been actively selected for. (It does not seem plausible that something of this kind would be just some accidental by-product of some other adaptive characteristic. I.e. not one of Stephen Jay Gould’s “spandrels.”)
- That capacity would not have been actively selected for if it had not proved to have survival value. (I.e. had it not proved to be the case that those populations among our ancestors that contained people with the capacity for deep spiritual experience were more likely to pass their DNA into the future than those who lacked that capacity.)
And it seems that it has been life-serving not just for the individuals who have such experiences, but also for the societies in which such experiences happen. Which points to another evident fact: that cultures around the world, and throughout the history of civilization, have given special status to some rendering of such experiences: societies have utilized such experiences in creating their cultural worldview, in defining their values, and in guiding how they navigate their way through the world.
But it would seem that this life-serving (evolutionarily-selected) function of experience at the spiritual level must have long preceded civilization, for the ten or so millennia of human civilization seem far too short for this capacity to have become so well-established in humankind’s genetic heritage. This capacity must have been valuable over the longer stretches of time when our ancestors lived in hunting-and-gathering bands.
And indeed, evidence supporting that idea is found in the spiritual functions of the Shamans among the aborigine groups of Siberia, and of the wizards of the tribes in the Amazon jungle: people making contact with a realm regarded as sacred, delivering messages that help their society find its way.
If we looked at a big sampling of the “messages” that people have received through such spiritual experiences – at least so I would wager – we would find that their predominant collective impact is much more in the direction of Wholeness than Brokenness. I’m imagining that there are moments of spiritual epiphany – experiences of value to the nth degree — that served as the points of origin of such ideas in sacred texts as
- “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” in the recorded teachings of Jesus;
- “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” in the Ten Commandments;
- “Let anger by non-anger be overcome,” in the Buddhist tradition.
All suitable ingredients in a recipe for a world of enhanced human thriving.
This capacity for a special kind of experience might be unique to humans. (Though not necessarily, though if others of earth’s species have such experiences, it would be hard for us to know.)
If it were true that this new dimension of experience has emerged only in our species, one can imagine how that might make evolutionary sense. We are the species that has specialized in cultural adaptations. That means that our path is less governed by the ordering force of inborn instinct, which kept the lives of non-cultural (or less cultural) species within a tighter range of possibilities. (Possibilities all of which kept those species within a biologically-evolved niche.) With cultural animals confronting a wider range of potential paths, one can imagine, there would arise a need to replace the weaker influence of instinct with some other good source of guidance—such as what the spiritual dimension of experience seems to provide.
Whether or not the experiential realm of other species contains anything akin to the breakthrough level that’s part of the human repertoire, one thing seems clear enough: that – somehow — our species gained access to a special kind of experience that is both life-serving and profoundly impactful.
That combination would certainly declare this “spiritual dimension” to be something of great importance: for achieving a marriage of goodness and power is one way of describing the big challenge that we face as the civilization-creating creatures. (For, as argued previously in this series, the breakout to civilization inevitably unleashes a powerful Force of Evil.”)
A Reasonable Challenge
At this point, the very reasonable challenge might be made: What about all the brokenness we can point to that has arisen out of such “spiritual” experiences? (Like, at an extreme level, the example of a crazy person who claims, “God told me to kill them.”) And what about all the brokenness that has been connected, too, with how societies have dealt with their “sacred texts”? (Like all the wars waged in the name of what some group regards as “God’s truth”.)
That challenge is worth taking seriously. But the following two points enable me to maintain the belief in the overall life-serving nature of “the spiritual dimension.”
First, even the purest elixir will get contaminated if poured into a dirty vessel. And if there’s a single point to be gleaned from this series, is that the world of civilization has been — and would inevitably be from the outset — profoundly broken. So it is no surprise that even messages from a life-serving “realm of the sacred” would get interpreted in broken ways by their human recipients, living in civilized societies powerfully shaped by a Force of Brokenness.
(Those previously-cited Fascists who raised a toast to Death were initially fashioned, like everyone else, by a process that continually selected for Life over Death. And it is not surprising, in view of how that Force of Brokenness works in the human world, that the cross that symbolizes the man who taught “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love thine enemies” would be hoisted up later by the Roman Emperor Constantine to lead his army into battle.)
And second, there remains the point argued here above that this capacity for transformational spiritual experience has been ingrained into the human genome, which seems a clear indication that this capacity has played a life-serving — survival aiding — role.
Moreover, even despite all the brokenness in the human world, I would wager that if we were to study a substantial sampling of individuals reporting what they’ve received from that deeper-feeling level of reality, we would find that the great majority of those messages directed people in constructive, life-serving directions. (Leading more people, for example, in the direction of loving than hating their neighbors.)
Messages We Need to Heed
It seems that this spiritual dimension of experience is a means for human beings to get good guidance delivered with such impact that it commands our attention.
An example more recent than those ancient epiphanies is the story of “the Blue Marble.”
By a kind of synchrony, connected with the great acceleration of humankind’s technological powers, at the very time that the danger was becoming visible that humankind might destroy its home (the Earth), our civilization also started putting human beings into outer space. Which placed those humans into an unprecedented vantage point from which to see the planet on which our species emerged.
It happened, in the context of that synchrony, that for some of the astronauts, seeing our home planet as this delicate-looking, borderless globe, floating in the vastness of space, led to powerfully transformative spiritual experiences: They found it revelatory to see how precious and fragile our planet is.
As for the “spiritual truth” that came with that experience, the “message” taken was that it is imperative for humankind to be better stewards of our “only home.” (And for a couple of those astronauts, that truth came with an impact that changed the course of their lives.
As with many other spiritually transformative experiences, the message the individual received was transmitted to the wider cultural system. One important means of that transmission was through the famous “Blue Marble” photo, showing what the astronauts were the first humans to see. Made into a poster, that picture of Earth soon was everywhere. Many people were moved by this image to feel that there’s something sacred about the Earth, and we must take care of her.
However it is that we should regard this notion of “messages from the spiritual realm” — and I admit to some confusion about that — it does seem clear that this spiritually transformative vision of the “Blue Marble” entered human consciousness at a time when it was urgently needed.
Some Things Are More Mysterious Than Others
The “reality of the spiritual dimension” seems clearly a fact. But, though factual, it also seems something of a mystery.
For many philosophers, the fact of “consciousness” is itself a mystery. (It’s called, in some quarters, the “hard problem.”) How can creatures made out of mere material stuff have consciousness? Or, as I would articulate how I understand how those philosophers see that mystery, “How can mere meat have subjective experience?”
Sometimes I can see that there is a real mystery here. But sometimes I don’t see a problem there at all, don’t see any supposedly unbridgeable gap that makes the reality of our having “consciousness” – which I understand to mean the capacity to experience our existence – so much harder to comprehend than everything else about our reality (all of which seems, ultimately, filled with mystery).
Whether or not there is some seemingly unbridgeable gap — on that some very intelligent people wrestle with — it does seem clear that somehow a bridge did get built. We know that because of two things we know, or have good reason to believe: first, because we actually do have subjective experience; and second, if we accept the scientific understanding of how such sentient creatures as ourselves came to be, we know that over eons of an evolutionary process the material stuff of this planet was gradually assembled into self-replicating creatures like ourselves who do have consciousness.
Hence, mystery or not: the fact that mere “stuff” can become conscious seems to have been demonstrated.
Leaving aside that possible mystery of “consciousness” itself, I must confess that – of the two dimensions of experiential reality discussed here that have been emergent in the evolutionary process that has created us — I find humankind’s experience of “the spiritual dimension” more mysterious than our experience of “the dimension of Value.”
“Value” is based on sentient creatures’ experiencing things in terms of “better” and “worse,” which feels intuitively not so hard to understand. With experience of the “spiritual dimension,” by contrast, it seems harder to conceive of what’s going on: i.e. what’s happening when sentient creatures – humans at least – experience some truths as more emphatically true than others, experience some things as “sacred” rather than mundane, and/or experience themselves as receiving messages from some revelatory source (rather than through the usual means of knowing).
It seems that the “moral” dimension and the “spiritual” dimension may be related: I’ve suggested that the experience of “Value” is the foundation of the “moral dimension,” and that “the sacred” is “Value [experienced] to the nth degree.”
But that “breakthrough” quality — to a different level of experiential consciousness – that the “spiritual dimension” brings to some human experience I find mysterious in a more profound way. Just what happens when someone breaks through into that deeper, more real, more compelling level at which important truths can be gained, and life-changing impacts can be absorbed? Is it some kind of heightened mental voltage? Is there more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my philosophy?
The Spiritual Experiences That Have Dictated My Own Path
In my own life, there have been several such experiences of that “spiritual dimension” that led me to what I experienced as important truths, and that changed the course of my life.
**One, in 1970, was when I seemed to “receive” the basic insight into the evolution of civilization that I presented here in “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large.” It moved me to make a solemn promise (I knew not to what) to do my utmost to develop what I’d seen and to convey it to my fellow human beings. It eventually bore fruit in the publication in 1984 of my first book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.
The germ of the vision came in a moment of some sort of breakthrough into some “spiritual dimension.” It was a moment unique in my 76 years of life: I felt that it was not “me thinking” but rather that it was me being shown something.
After that “revelatory” moment, I spent many years doing the R & D to develop and test that vision (the resulting book having a 33-page bibliography). What I saw in that single breakthrough moment does seem — to me, after decades now of examination — to hold water. It still seems important and true.
But that “revelatory” aspect represented a huge mystery– when it happened, and still.
For several years after that experience, I felt committed to honoring fully the revelatory aspect, keeping it central to what I’d learned in that moment. Not just the idea that was delivered, but Something whose reality the experience seared into my soul. Gradually, over a handful of years, that receded. It faded not only because the experience was ever-further in the past but also because my worldview provides me with no answer to the question, “If it was what I experienced it as being — if something really was “revealed” to me” — (rather its being just some misleading neurological event), what was doing the ‘revealing’?”
**There is nothing that’s comparably inexplicable to me about the second life-changing spiritual experience. This one occurred in 1983, and led to my writing the book, published in 1988: Out of Weakness: Healing the Wounds that Drive Us to War. (That’s the one that explored how humans get broken, and made into agents of brokenness, by the impact of the destructive social-evolutionary process I first glimpsed in 1970.)
That spiritual experience, too, blew me off of one path and onto another — at least to the extent that I felt compelled to buy my way out of a contract (with Harper Collins), which obliged me to write a different book (titled In Over Our Heads, which was to be about how our civilization confronts us with challenges that our biological evolution did not well equip us to meet), in order to develop instead the spiritual insights that this life-changing experience had delivered.
Those spiritual insights concerned how fear and love represent a fundamental dichotomy of human paths, or postures. It involved for me, personally, an opening of the heart.
But although the experience was essentially personal — about my own heart, and my fears — it also immediately dovetailed completely with the vision of The Parable of the Tribes: it brought with it a fuller and more sympathetic understanding of the plight of humankind since the dawn of civilization, of the human beings who have had to cope with the inevitable and ugly reign of power in the world that our species inadvertently plunged into when we took the unprecedented step into inventing our own way of life.
It moved me away from anger and into greater compassion for how broken people would operate in broken ways that reinforced the brokenness of strife in the human world. (An early form of the idea that Brokenness begets Brokenness begets Brokenness.)
And most personally for me, its transformative impact on me — the sudden opening of the heart — I see as having played an essential role in making possible the fulfilling marriage I’m in now. (See “The Sacred Space of Lovers.”) Life-changing.
**Then came a moment, in 2004, when again I had an experience at the spiritual level that is a mystery. I saw something—saw it with a kind of “seeing” I’d never experienced before, and that I can neither describe not explain. What I saw I immediately called “Evil” — reflexively, without thought — and the impact gave me gooseflesh. In a moment, I “saw” something very disturbing: that something “Evil” was rising in power in America, threatening to dismantle all that is best in our nation.
Again, the course of my life was changed. I had been working on a project I absolutely loved, which was to become a book titled Mapping the Sacred. After a lifetime of focusing on what’s problematic in the human world, I had welcomed being drawn to explore, as it were, “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” (See “Our Pathways Into the Experience of Deep Meaning.”)
But, having seen this dangerous Force of Evil threatening what I hold sacred, I felt obligated to abandon that project, and instead to investigate and combat “the Evil, the Lie, and the Ugly.”
That moment of a kind of seeing I find inexplicable clearly touched something in the dimension of spiritual experience. And that experience was impactful in that it launched me into an investigation of “Evil” that is still continuing.
The way I painted the picture of Evil in the third piece of this series, “The Discernible Reality of a ‘Force of Evil) was not the form — the angle of vision — of how I first saw Evil.
That “brokenness moving through time” picture of Evil that I’ve presented in this series previously, came after I’d discovered clues to it in something that existed as a “coherent force” visible in the present moment: what made that Force visible was an “actor” in the world and that consistently works to make things worse in the human world. And I realized how that consistency demonstrates that behind that “actor” is a “coherent force” for which “Evil” is actually an appropriate name.
I came to call such an “actor” a Pure Case.
Most of the time, it behooves us to perceive the “actors” in the world — individuals, nations, political parties — as mixtures of the constructive and the destructive, the whole and the broken. But once in a while, it seems that a Force of Destructiveness takes over an actor to such an extent that it is reasonable to see them not as mixtures of Good and Evil, but as nearly wholly governed by Evil.
It was such a Pure Case rising in America that opened my eyes to the reality and importance of “The Concept of Evil” (essay published in 2005) for the task of protecting the human world from Evil’s taking over (and perhaps driving human civilization into catastrophe).
It has been such a Pure Case that has turned American politics in our time into an outright battle between Democracy and Fascism.
In the next piece in this series, I’ll show how that “Pure Case” made “Evil” manifest to me, and share some of what I came to understand about how the American crisis of these times can be illuminated in these terms, and how important that illumination can be to empowering the Forces of Democracy to defeating the Forces of Fascism that now seem seriously to threaten the government that Lincoln described as “of the people, for the people, and by the people.”
The Three-Part Checklist of Experiences of the Spiritual Dimension
To sum up: throughout our species history, it seems that humans have been having spiritually transformative experiences that
1) have been impactful on the paths taken by individuals and societies;
2) have borne with them important “spiritual” insights that have truth value; and
3) have been life-serving.
(“Life-serving,” meaning that, in one way or another, the spiritual truths that people have received at such moments have tended to enhance life both in terms of increasing the chances of survival for individuals and societies and species, and in terms of increasing people’s experience of fulfillment.)
My own spiritual experiences seem to me to fit into that framework.
1) They were so impactful on me, if not the wider world, that they pretty well dictated the course of my life’s work.
2) They delivered messages that have seemed to hold water, even after being intensively investigated. Messages saying that
- the ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large (the book, The Parable of the Tribes);
- trauma from the “war of all against all” (that is the inevitable result of a creature’s stepping onto the path of civilization) has made people broken in ways that drive them onto a destructive course dictated by fear, (the book Out of Weakness); and
- there is a discernible Force of Evil in the America of our times working to replace a polity based on “the consent of the governed” with a fascist tyranny ( hundreds of essays, as well as my 2015 book, WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World—and How We Can Defeat It).
Although each of those messages got elaborated and substantiated in ways consistent with the secular ways of thinking appropriate for social-scientific theory-building, each had its original source — its driving force — in a life-changing spiritual experience.
3) And, as with the overall pattern of human spiritual experiences – from the Golden Rule to the Blue Marble – those messages (from the “spiritual realm”) seem life-serving (to me, and as I am attempting to show in this series). At least potentially life-serving– in this case at the macro scale in the sense that how we understand these forces (or fail to understand them) will influence whether humankind meets what I’ve called “the Central Challenge facing any civilization-creating creature” — i.e. to order its civilization well enough — and soon enough — to avoid the human story’s ending in self-destruction.
These are the four previous entries in this series:
- The Fate of Human Civilization
- The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large
- The Discernible Reality of a ‘Force of Evil’
- How Civilization Inevitably Gives Rise to a “Battle between Good and Evil”