About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, March 19, 2007
Enlightenment is easy, or is it?
But to other people Enlightenment is the achievement of a state of being, the attainment of spiritual knowledge and insight. Of course, one could reasonably (in the Enlightenment-a-la-Voltaire sense) argue that “spiritual knowledge” is a contradiction in terms. Since there is no spirit (as a separate sort of thing from matter/energy), there cannot be spiritual knowledge. It would be like seeking insight into the nature of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Then again, one need not be so literal about words either. Even some atheists claim to be spiritual, or to have spiritual experiences (I don't, though I have that same sense of awe about the universe that led people like Carl Sagan to talk about secular spirituality). All right, then, if we understand Enlightenment (in the broad, inter-cultural, sense) to mean the attainment of a special – presumably true – insight into the nature of the world and of the human condition, how do we go about achieving it?
There are basically two routes. On the one hand, one can embrace a religious-mystical tradition (Eastern or Western matters little) and find insight into an idiosyncratic mix of reading “sacred” texts, reciting “sacred” words and performing “sacred” rituals. For example, the Buddhist monks I have seen on Mount Koya, or in Kyoto, are a very nice bunch who spends its time mumbling words in front of an altar, rapidly opening and closing books, and chanting while burning incense. Not so different from the Catholic rituals I grew up with, and equally removed – as far as I can see – from any Enlightenment whatsoever. The first route also passes through an isolationist attitude about the world: one “meditates” (again, not in the Western sense of thinking about something) by focusing one's awareness inward, the stereotypical approach to the quest is to live in isolated places where harsh climate, little food and much solitude (not to mention no sex) are supposed to give you understanding about your place in the universe (again, it matters little if you are a Buddhist apprentice or a Christian monk).
The second route also requires a combination of two paths, but they couldn't be more different from those of the religious-mystical approach. In the way of studying, one learns about philosophy and science, seeking to build knowledge and understanding on the shoulders of countless giants that preceded us, while attempting to square our limited but ever expanding comprehension of the world with what the world itself tells us – through observation, experimentation, and dialogue with other people who have observed and experimented. The second, complementary path to Enlightenment-a-la-Voltaire is also in many ways the opposite of the religious-mystical approach: it involves not withdrawing from, but engaging with the world and especially our fellow human beings. To understand human nature and empathize with the human condition one needs to experience humanity in all its glory and ugliness, seeing first hand what spectacular feats of achievement and compassion we are capable of, as well as what depths of atrocity and destruction we can just as easily unleash at a moment's notice.
The contrast between the mystical and the philosophical (both intended here in the broadest sense) approaches to Enlightenment couldn't be starker. They say it requires discipline to meditate (or pray), to follow arbitrary rules of conduct, and to study the sacred texts. I say it's a piece of cake, compared to the immense challenge of learning what Socrates, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein have discovered about the universe and our place in it; or compared to keeping up with what is going on in the world while remaining engaged in society, with the goal of making things better for us and for our children; or compared with maintaining true relationships with real people, every day of our lives, with all the challenges and rewards that this entails. As I said, the contrast is striking, what's odd is how many people choose the easy path.