That’s where we exist, between the spiritual and the material. That’s how we define ourselves, as creatures made of material stuff but with something else, as animated matter capable of self-reflection, of wondering about who we are. Let me say, from the start, that by spiritual I don’t mean something supernatural and intangible. I mean something very natural, yet intangible. At least for now. For if we look at the brain as the seat of consciousness—and there isn’t anywhere else to look—we know quite clearly that it is the brain, the countless neurons in their electric-hormonal dance, that engenders the sense of self, of who we are. We just don’t know yet how that happens.
Unfortunately, we are lost in the unnecessary polarization of matter and spirit, and often go to one extreme or the other and make a mess out of it.
As my two co-bloggers Stuart Kaufmann and Adam Frank have noted this week (see here and here), we now live in an age of dangerous materialism, of want before substance, of me before other, of now before legacy.
I recall the wise lines from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Robert Pirsig nailed it down 36 years ago:
The cause of our current social crises is a genetic defect within the nature of reason itself. And until this genetic defect is cleared, the crises will continue. Our current modes of rationality are not moving society forward into a better world. They are taking it further and further from that better world. Since the Renaissance these modes have worked. As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that for huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is—emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be at for a long time to come.
The point is blatantly clear: we have reached a kind of material saturation. For that to happen, we have sacrificed our spiritual component. The material hinges on the reptilian: I want, I get. I can’t get, I kill to get. (Either metaphorically or actually.) What I want is more important than what you want. Want, want, want. Is that the best we can do?
Surely, we have made great progress giving unprecedented comfort to millions of people, a point Adam also made yesterday. But in the frenzy of our own success, we lost sight of what makes us human; not our needs only but our capacity to give, to share, to build together. When survival was at stake (and in the places where it still is), the sense of community, of “united we win” is prevalent. (Even in the worse cases, we "band" together to survive.) On the other hand, when survival is assured, we decay into our reptilian, self-centered needs and forget the community, forget the other.
The difference between our reality and that when Pirsig was writing is that a new kind of awareness is dawning, where the sense of community moves from the local to the global. For this reason I remain an optimist and see a way out. Everywhere across the planet more people are beginning to realize that the material excesses of our culture must come to a halt, that there is a pressing need to change our ways. It’s not simply because materialism is superficial and empty. It’s because it can be deadly, to us and to life around us. Many of us look at our planet today in ways that we didn’t 20 years ago. Avatar, the blockbuster movie, couldn’t have been made two decades ago. Certainly, it wouldn’t have been such a resounding success then. Sure, there are always the naysayers, and there will always be naysayers, people that prefer to make scientific arguments into political debate, as is the case with much talk related to global warming. However, the time is approaching where a new kind of spirituality (or is it very old?) drives us to a more balanced state, where the spiritual and the material keep each other in check. Too much of either and we backtrack to times we want to forget. The Dark Ages and the murderous totalitarian regimes of the past century come to mind.
The great historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin, one of my intellectual heroes, loved to quote Kant’s aphorism: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” He went on to write, in his essay The Pursuit of the Ideal: “To force people into neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity. We can only do what we can: but that we must do, against difficulties.”
These words have power. They say that we must fight against conformism, against dogma, against the slavery brought by forces that attempt to control us, be they spiritual, ideological or financial. To be free is to be able to choose to what we will commit. The dogmatism of religion and of extreme political regimes has failed us. We now think we are free to be, or better, to buy: to be free is to be able to choose what to buy. This freedom is an illusion. As we launch ourselves farther out into the material extreme we lose sense of who we are and of what truly matters in life: to have a sense of community, to cherish it, and to have the freedom to keep asking questions and learning about the world and about ourselves. Matter without spirit is blind, spirit without matter is lame.