Personal power = psychological insights x philosophical insights
During a recent trip to Greece when it was, and still is, suffering financial convulsions, I had an interesting conversation with an erudite architect that had just officially retired but continues to work. Fluent in three languages besides his own he was speaking in English about the nature of the human being. Believing in the theory of evolution he contended that the high point of evolution was reached when a scattering of human beings in recorded history produced great achievements in literature, art and science. According to him these luminaries were like shooting stars that had had little effect on raising the universal consciousness of mankind. His analysis of the current state of humans led him to the pessimistic conclusion that humanity is devolving, that is, going backwards from creative consciousness to the sensual consciousness of the animals without the protection of a finely honed instinct. Consequently, humans are becoming more dangerous to each other than animals in the wild are to each other.
Given his history and experiences in that part of the world, I could follow his line of reasoning. Professionally and financially successful, yet, his thoughts ventured beyond his own self-interest. He raised the larger questions about the nature, destiny and meaning of human existence. From his observations he saw a discouraging picture of religions fighting each other, politicians grappling for power and money behind the façade of caring for the people, and the general population in his and neighboring countries scrambling to satisfy their basic needs. Many people would agree with him that his perceptions shaped an accurate picture of the unsavory side of human nature. But, it is also accurate to say that his pessimism about the future was a result of being aware that humans were failing to live up to their creative potential. So the obvious question is, why are they not actualizing their potential?
An answer to this question that will need explaining claims that bad things happen to individuals and society when we short circuit our philosophical consciousness, that is, we turn off our intuition and critical reflection that keep us in touch with our fundamental questions and personal discoveries about the purpose of living.
Some reasonable and unreasonable assumptions about the ways that we understand ourselves
Let’s look at some of the assumptions underlying the ways that we understand ourselves. Then, let’s judge which assumptions seem reasonable and which ones seem deficient.
1. Critical common sense tells us that we are aware of ourselves and the world in my ways. We can think of the same object from many angles. As human beings we can think of ourselves as bodies and describe ourselves in physical, chemical and biological terms. We can think of ourselves in social, historical, economic, and religious terms. When we try to understand ourselves scientifically, either from the viewpoints of the natural sciences or social sciences, we have to think of ourselves as objects affected by external forces. Many people claim that only a scientific understanding of ourselves gives us a true idea of what we are. Scientists pride themselves on obtaining objective knowledge of the world by the use of the experimental method. But, objective knowledge presupposes that scientists are using the ideas of cause and effect and pure logic uncontaminated by their subjective ideas to explain the objects that they observe.
It seems unreasonable to assume that all humans are merely objects that can be fully understood by using only the scientific method. It seems reasonable to assume that there are many other valid ways in addition to science that give us a comprehensive understanding of ourselves.
2. Critical common sense also tells us that we are aware of our subjective emotions, thoughts, hopes, desires, and questions about the meaning of life. We can view all these “internal” experiences from the viewpoint of scientific consciousness as Freud did. But, in order to scientifically explain our subjective experiences, we have to have an objective cause. For Freud, biological energy, that is the same for all humans, is the ultimate objective explanation for our subjective experiences.
Instead of biological energy we could substitute social forces, economic pressures and neurological activities of the brain to explain our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The conclusion is the same, namely, there is no subjective, unique, interior, metaphysical reality that in any way accounts for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
It seems unreasonable to assume that the thoughts and feelings of which we are immediately aware are merely distortions of reality that need to be corrected by scientific investigation. It seems reasonable to assume that each person consists of a unique, interior and metaphysical reality that can enrich the emotional and cognitive processes of our psychological lives.
3. Critical common sense tells us that we are multi-dimensional beings of body, psyche and spirit. Our subjective experiences reveal to us the activity of reflection, that is, the fact that we can think about our thinking; the activity of intuition, that is, the fact that we are directly aware of our unique existence and the first principles of thinking and of moral living; and, we are aware of our freedom to actualize our ideals such as, love and beauty. Philosophical consciousness is the name for this spiritual dimension, and dialogue is the heart of philosophical consciousness. In dialoguing with ourselves and others we get in touch with our ideals, and we discover the practical ways to create our lives according to our ideals.
It seems reasonable to assume that humans through intuition and critical rational reflection can discover the purpose of their lives and the means to achieve that purpose.
4. Critical common sense tells us that when we ignore and disconnect our philosophical consciousness from our other dimensions bad things happen to us. For example, the emotional pain that we experience can often be traced to our irrational beliefs that spread through all the dimensions of our lives as a result of not practicing philosophical reflection. Soon we find ourselves in a state of confusion and disorder. Reflection is our way out of our mental morass. By stepping back to identify our illogical ways of thinking and to pay attention to our ideals we will discover the path to mental order and emotional well being that comes from pursuing the realization of our ideals.
It seems reasonable to assume that humans organize their personalities and plan their lives through the exercise of their intuition and critical rational reflection.
A reasonable hypothesis about flourishing as a person
If we accept our critical common sense intuitions that we are directly in touch with our ideals of love, justice, excellence, truth, and courage to name a few; that we are aware of ourselves as physical bodies with an interior life; and, that the internal light of reason can discover cause-effect explanations for events in the physical world, then, we can construct a robust hypothesis about becoming a flourishing and powerful person. The hypothesis to be confirmed with evidence would state: to become a complete and flourishing person means to grow subjectively by rationally clarifying our intuited ideals, by understanding our physical nature through rational, scientific reflection, and by creatively making our world according to our ideals.
Obviously, this hypothesis would not pass muster to satisfy the requirements of doing a scientific experiment. But, it would be a hypothesis that people could test for themselves after learning how to do rational reflection, how to think creatively and how to use the findings of scientific research to realize human ideals.
The main idea in the above hypothesis states that to become a complete, successful person means to grow subjectively. Testing this hypothesis from a strictly scientific point of view presents a huge problem. There is no way to set up an experiment to get objective evidence that can be universally applied to each person to confirm or falsify the hypothesis. But, we can creatively use the findings of psychological experiments to fit our unique and common experiences of growing subjectively. Evidence based techniques and medications cannot be used mindlessly and mechanically to produce subjective growth. Critical common sense tells us that we make ourselves and our world through what we think, how we think and what we do.
The pragmatic method of confirming our hypothesis
The pragmatic test is the only way to validate whether paying attention to our ideals, engaging in personal reflection and creatively using scientific resources to make our worlds according to our ideals account for subject growth. The pragmatic test means that we confirm the logical expectations of our beliefs with actual consequences after we put our well thought out beliefs into practice. For example, if we believe that an essential characteristic of love is interpersonal unity of mind and heart, and if we believe that empathic listening to each other will help us approach the realization of love, then we will practice listening to the thoughts and feelings of each other to get the results that will either confirm or falsify our beliefs.
Nobody likes to feel or be treated as an object
Everyone likes to feel powerful. In moments of pain ranging from disappointment to a physical and/or emotional crisis such as, a failed romantic relationship, not getting that promotion, a falling out with one’s family, coming down with a serious illness or losing a loved one in death, we feel vulnerable. Like an object being tossed around by a hurricane we try to cling to something that will give us some sense of control over our lives. In these painful experiences filled with confusion, anxiety and anger we thrash about in our minds to discover a source of power to protect us from emotional and, sometimes, physical collapse. The thought of getting outside support to lean on in order to steady ourselves is usually our first strategic move. But in time we realize that we have to discover our own personal power, otherwise, we will feel the weakness that comes form being overly dependent on others.
History and literature tell the stories of individuals that courageously and wisely turned impending tragedy into triumph. Their lives were illustrious examples of the power of the human spirit. Their love conquered hate, their courage chased away fear, their tenacious freedom defused dependency, and the light of their wisdom dispelled the darkness of ignorance. Their autobiographies take us on their interior journey guided by the compass of their intuition directing them toward the light of their ideals and by their critical reflection discovering the prudent ways to move them toward the realization their ideals. The lives of outstanding people in all cultures and in all times such as, Gandhi, Mandela, Lincoln, and so many other known and unknown heroes are evidence of the power of the human spirit to conquer the obstacles of hate, arrogance and ignorance that get in the way of psychological and social development.
The lesson to be learned from the lives of flourishing people points to the power and practicality of philosophical reflection that nourishes our positive psychological dispositions. The vision and the hope of moving toward the realization of their ideals psychologically energized them to think creatively. Their personal philosophical reflections did not make them shrink from the world, instead, their insights motivated them to become more engaged in solving human problems. Their vision of love and justice welded their emotions and behaviors into a steel psychological backbone that inspired others.
Today, in the age of scientific and technological consciousness many people have dismissed philosophical intuition and reflection as flights of fancy. From early childhood the philosophical activities of critical rational reflection regarding the purpose of life and of discovering one’s personal values have been systematically rooted out by our educational system. Philosophical dialogue, the oxygen of subjective growth and power, has been cut off in favor of information collecting and processing, uncritical use of the scientific method and a pervasive desire fueled by an image- driven culture to look good rather than be good. But the evidence shows that there is an indispensable connection between the philosophical activity of thinking about what our intuited ideals mean to us and flourishing psychologically.
From early childhood humans are blessed with the gifts of wonder, creative imagination, curiosity, and a feeling of being connected to something more than what their senses tell them. All these are the ingredients that set off the mind’s natural activity of raising questions regarding one’s purpose in life and that spark the mind’s natural activity of rational reflection to answer one’s own questions. When children are shown how to nurture these gifts they will flourish emotionally, cognitively and socially. They will grow to become powerful and productive adults.