Real-World Spirituality and the Poverty of Professional Philosophy.

Christmas 2016 came and went. Did you think much about spirituality, traditional organized religion, and/or God?

According to Wikipedia,

Millennials (also known as the Millennial Generation or Generation Y, abbreviated to Gen Y) are the demographic cohort between Generation X and Generation Z. There are no precise dates for when the generation starts and ends. Demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and use the mid-1990s to the early 2000s as final birth years for the Millennial Generation.

As this recent (May 2015) New York Times article, “Human Contact in the Digital Age,” correctly points out, many Millennials are seriously involved in a search for some sort of spirituality without traditional organized religion (aka without church) plus or minus God (aka +/- God).

For convenience, we will call this spirituality without church +/- God, real-world spirituality.

Most people alive today are Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials, or Gen Z-ers.

By the Wikipedia definition, two of us are prime-time Millennials, one of us is a prime time Baby Boomer, and, like so many others of our contemporaries in the four post-World War II generations, we three do indeed care deeply about the issues, questions, and problems of real-world spirituality discussed in that NY Times article.

But we are also people who are pursuing real, serious philosophy as a full-time, lifetime calling.

And as such, we have been trying to work out a way for contemporary philosophers to think about real-world spirituality, after we collectively came to the sad conclusion that, by and large, contemporary professional academic philosophers don’t care at all about real-world spirituality, in that they arrogantly ignore it in their professional research and almost never publicly even speak about it, except to sneer at it.

They Scholastically fuss about abstract theology, proofs for the existence of God, moral theology, the problem of evil, theism vs. atheism—yes.

But they arrogantly ignore or sneer at the day-in, day-out spiritual issues that so many people really and truly care about.

It’s yet another clear and distinct indicator of the poverty of contemporary professional academic philosophy.

So we’re going to have to dare to think and speak for ourselves about real-world spirituality.

It is evident in our daily interpersonal dealings – moral, practical, romantic, or work-related – that all people at least potentially, if not always self-consciously, really and truly care about human dignity.

Caring for human dignity, or simply humanity, is not only an other-regarding attitude, but a deeply personal and inward attitude.

That is, we experience ourselves as having dignity, a quality irreducible to any process of number-crunching, calculation, or instrumentalization.

To instrumentalize humanity is to turn creatures with human dignity into mere means to some other end; or, to use them as mere things.

Thus, we are not simply calculating and calculable objects of the world; we are beings who care.

In the modern European philosophical tradition, we find similar notions at work in, e.g., Kant (“respect for humanity as an end-in-itself”), Marx (“species-being”), and Heidegger (“care”).

Above all, however, the world’s great religions have all implicitly or explicitly understood this notion.

Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish clearly between the doctrines of religion, on the one hand, and the institutions of religion on the other.

For centuries, the institutions, both because of their sociopolitical omnipresence and because of their monopolies on moral dialogue, were able to exert doctrinal dominance without having to justify their doctrines rationally or even to make these doctrines clear, distinct, and coherent.

Moreover, with the rise of the “demand-for-justification” Enlightenment attitude of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the advent of the “question-all-inherited-authority” post-Enlightenment free-thinking of the 19th and 20th centuries, not only did both religious institutions and religious doctrines for the first time become the sorts of things it made any sense at all to evaluate, but also the sharp distinction between doctrines and institutions of religions was for the first time made evident.

We think that Enlightenment thinking has had two fundamental ideological effects on people.

First, the Enlightenment replaced the religious picture of our place in the world, and of ourselves, with one in which all of reality is composed of physical bits that together compose bigger physical stuff that interacts with other physical stuff via relations of cause and effect.

Everything, including you and me, is the same deep down: it is all just physical bits.

This picture of our place in the world and of the world itself is known as natural mechanism, the position that the natural world is just a giant and complex physical machine that gets from one moment to the next by past states of the machine causing present states of the machine causing future states of the machine.

To understand causes is to understand everything about how we got from earlier to now, and how we will get from now to later. To understand the tiniest physical bits is to understand everything about the ultimate nature of reality and our place in it.

18th century polymath Pierre LaPlace, a well-known steward of “the scientific conception of the world,” gives us a remarkably clear and distinct picture of natural mechanism:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes (LaPlace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities).

We will call the Enlightenment thesis that natural mechanism is self-evidently true, scientism.

Second, the Enlightenment convinced us that we are all inherently inclined to act first and foremost in our own interests and, often, against the interests of others, either by nature (as in Hobbes) or in our degraded current social condition (as in Rousseau).

Hence we all need to be protected from each other by a social contract that creates a sovereign state authority possessing the power to coerce us in order to obey its commands, whether those commands are moral, that is, consistent with human dignity, or immoral, inconsistent with human dignity.

We will call the Enlightenment thesis that we are essentially self-interested and mutually antagonistic, and therefore need the social contract in order to create a sovereign, coercive state authority in order to pacify us, authoritarianism.

Clearly, scientism and authoritarianism are fully complementary theses: scientism tells us (e.g., by means of social Darwinism, “selfish gene” theory, or neurobiology) that human beings are, essentially, egoistic and warlike; and authoritarianism tells us that because people are essentially egoistic and warlike natural machines, then we can achieve individual or collective satisfaction only if governments have the right to impose commands and laws on us, backed up by force or threats of force, whether or not those commands are morally acceptable.

In other words, the great Leviathan-machine of state authority is urgently required precisely in order to pacify and regulate all the otherwise fractious and unregulated smaller machines, us.

Looked at this way, scientistic authoritarianism is the fundamental existential problem to which so many Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials, and Gen Z-ers, are desperately trying to find the solution by means of real-world spirituality–a search for meaning in what so often seems to be a meaningless, cold, and lost world.

In order to solve this existential problem, we believe, real-world spiritual seekers of the post-World War II era need to do two things in order to counteract the two fundamental ideological effects of the Enlightenment.

First, we need to stop blindly feeling and thinking that nature is inherently deterministic and mechanical.

Instead, we must open our minds to the possibility that nature, whether in non-living complex systems or in sentient life and sapient humanity, is shot through with purposive activity.

Second, and correspondingly, we need to stop blindly feeling and thinking that human nature is fundamentally egoistic and warlike, and that in order to create a better world for ourselves, the only possible solution is to become better-oiled robots of authoritarian states, relentlessly making and spending money, relentlessly acquiring material goods, endlessly amusing ourselves, like a sickness unto death.

When the Boomer generation became disaffected with Soviet-style communism, the “New Left” sprang up—it contained an ideology, a history, an orthodoxy, and an “experiment in living” that reflective young people could either buy into or could define themselves against.

But the post-Boomer generations, it seems, do not have a New Left.

The short-lived Occupy Wall Street movement, by collectivizing people while also fighting against a social order that has allowed the law to classify corporations as people, came close to releasing, at least in Millennials, their latent active altruism and latent passions for mutual aid and resisting human oppression.

But it also tragically confused these with the simple rejection of global corporate capitalism, aka “Wall Street,” while leaving most people’s self-alienating blind faith in scientistic authoritarianism untouched.

What we, as real, serious philosophers, can and should contribute here is the conceptual clarity and sharp focus that non-philosophers so badly need, by looking for ways to convey the revolt against scientistic authoritarianism and the liberation of our better selves, in terms that all contemporary real-world spiritual seekers can immediately grasp and take to heart.

One important clue towards this conceptual clarity and focus, we believe, can be found in a synthesis of what these two very different people, Chris Stedman, the leader of Yale’s Humanist Community, , and Chuck D., the leader of Public Enemy and founding member of Prophets of Rage, are already pursuing separately: humanism and constructive rage.

By “humanism” and “constructive rage,” then, we mean:

first, “rage against the machine,” clearly understood as rage against scientism,

second, rage against authoritarianism,

third, rage against human oppression, and

fourth and finally, rage for humanity, the idealistic passion for collective altruism and mutual aid.

Can we provide a more concrete illustration of what we mean by all this?


Instead of endlessly obsessing about the Punch-and-Judy show that masqueraded as the 2016 US Presidential election, terminating in the appalling result of President-Elect Trump, all post-World War II real-world spiritual seekers could be gathering together to talk about humanism, constructive rage, and how to bring about Utopia Now.

Why not do it?

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