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through Time and Existence
A modern “De Rerum Natura”
cosmic origin, evolution, and end
our mind’s wide potential and limitations
meaning, direction, coping – fulfillment?
practical advice for the young
guidance from meditations
support from the Beatitudes
joy about life, nature, art, and culture
aging and death: a homecoming?
the future: fundamental concerns and opportunities
See the book:
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0787-6 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4917-0788-3 (ebk)
Library of Congress Number: ….
1. The Origin, Evolution, and Future End of Our Universe
The great and abstract origin and mysterious nature of our existence:
The most surprising phenomena of evolution – material, natural, and mental
2. The Origin, Evolution, and Functions of the Human Mind
The greatest asset of our human existence:
considering Brain Neurophysiology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Psychology
Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
Thought, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
3. Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values
Is there meaning or purpose in life? What direction remains for us?
An Analysis and Attempt at Unifying the Perspectives of
Religion, Science, and Personal Observation
Tempered by the Experience of Practical Life and Human Sensitivity
4. Practical Advice for the Young
Practical suggestions to the young – with several complex footnotes
5. Meditations for Non-Believers – as Prayers for Believers
Thoughts to guide us day by day
6. The Biblical “Beatitudes”, Their Meaning in Our Modern Lives
Thoughts to support us
A Possible Modern Interpretation of the Biblical Beatitudes –
Continuity of Western Culture – Still Offering Beneficial Guidance?
7. Joy About Life, Nature, Art, and Culture
The emotional goal of joy in life
A collection of short stories from times of experiencing joy
8. About Old Age – Is there a homecoming for us?
Coping with old age and the approaching end:
The perception from the inside – descriptively and prescriptively
Cicero’s “De Senectute” and Plato in a modern view
9. The Future: Global Concerns and Opportunities to Concentrate On
The main challenges for our future: concerns and opportunities
What should be the most essential concerns of our world at this time?
The author of this book has experienced an often surprising increase of understanding of our human existence (and suggests this experience to the reader) through the study of physics, astronomy, biology, neurology, and some psychology, philosophy, and theology – but also through participation in the arts and in environmental programs. A balanced understanding of our human life required dedicated participation in charitable work, to share the experience of the burdened and lonely ones among us. On the other hand, fullness of life came from the joy of family life, friendship, nature, and art or culture.
The author’s work in the early aerospace industry of California gave him a view of our Earth as merely a small particle in the greatness of the universe of billions of galaxies. Such a view resulted in further insight into the smallness of our material existence and the far reach of our mental exploration – while realizing that our life lasts only for a very short time in cosmic dimensions.
Another fundamental insight resulted from the recognition that nothing in existence is stable. All parts and configurations in our universe are always in motion and in evolution – from a beginning to an ultimate dissolution.
You are invited to participate in a long-distance journey of the mind through time. The journey begins with viewing the origin of our universe billions of years ago, then leading through ongoing evolution to the present. Traveling through cosmic time implies traveling through increasing complexity as the universe evolves, then later shedding detail, and finally fading. Consideration of the origin includes the origin of life and, at least on Earth, of the human mind.
With the human mind, the universe has evolved small centers of “consciousness”, thereby observing itself and acting upon itself, by glorious activation of thought, emotions, and aesthetics!
And now, what can or should be the goals of our life here on Earth? What direction shall we take to “fulfill” our lives? What guides and supports us? How can we find and share “joy”? What awaits us in old age and death? What does the future hold for mankind? What are the risks and opportunities?
This book is based on lifelong searching, followed by many years of focused research and writing. The results were 34 essays or articles covering a wide horizon, including:
- This collection of essays, “Our Journey through Time and Existence”
- Science and evolution (including 9 articles): Covering the origin of existence in terms of cosmology, the origin of Earth and Moon, the origin and evolution of life and of the human mind with its capabilities and limits, the origin of societies or cultures – and a cosmic ending
- The human brain and mind (including 10 articles): Analyzing the functioning and the various capabilities or limitations of the human mind, some leading to suffering – all analyzed in terms of neurology and cognitive psychology
- Philosophy and Theology (including 8 articles): Beginning with the key questions of meaning, purpose, and direction in life, then extending to the controversy between religion and science, and to modern themes, such as a reinterpretation of the biblical Beatitudes, a modern form of meditation for believers or nonbelievers, and more. This is followed by a description of aging and approaching death, as already considered by Cicero and Plato
- History and Politics (including 6 articles): About the historic origin and modern decay of some societies or cultures, but specifically including an outlook on the future fundamental problems and opportunities for human society. This section also includes some historical research and biographies.
Those 34 essays, or articles, are all published on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”, which, by now, has received about 1.4 million “hits” from 193 countries around the world.
Now is the time, however, for the (aging) author to bring this effort to a conclusion and to “put his house in order”. The following questions are raised:
- What is the essence of all those writings
- What do these articles contribute to the large flow of information on the internet
- What is the message or the legacy that the author wants to leave for the world
In attempting to answer these questions, some key articles were assembled, some were condensed, some were changed; the result is an arching overview over existence and our life in this “final” summary essay, entitled “Our Journey Through Time and Existence”.
When finished reading, you may gladly return to the life you are accustomed to, in your own personal dimensions and surroundings. Hopefully, however, you will be enriched by this journey through the deeper views into an existence we are all part of – and by a deeper understanding of our own nature. This may simply entertain you; but it may also give you peace in daily turmoil and the strength to act as life and our values demand.
This essay can also be seen as a modern version of “De Rerum Natura”, written by Lucretius in about 50 BC, intended to present an overview of all science at that time, including cosmic origin, the human mind, thought, and death – though at that time without knowledge of modern physics or natural evolution. His writing was based, in turn, on the teachings of the Greek philosopher Democritos, who lived from about 460 to 370 BC, a student of Leukippos (about 500 to 450 BC, inventor of the concept of an atomic structure of this world) and of Thales of Miletus (624-546 BC), both seeing the functioning of this world without divine interference.
Documentation: The subject matter of the various chapters of these writings varies widely. Therefore, each chapter would require separate documentation or a separate bibliography. Depending upon the reader’s interest, such documentation would have to reach from a general level to rather complex professional details. Interestingly, our sons would not use either. When they have questions, they proceed directly to Google. If that does not yield enough, they proceed immediately to Wikipedia. It is amazing how much more information they obtain in a shorter time and at lower cost rather than by consulting lists of applicable books or articles.
Therefore, no bibliographies are included in these writings.
About the Author: Helmut Schwab, with MS degrees in Physics and Electronics, worked in the California aerospace industry, where he started and built two companies. Their sale allowed him to take a “businessman’s sabbatical” for a leisure trip with his family around the world, experiencing different cultures. He then worked some more time as an executive in high-tech areas of large international companies.
His personal studies and research (including 20 years of auditing courses at Princeton University) were concentrated on questions of cosmic origin, natural evolution, and the capabilities of the human mind. He has also studied the dichotomy between science and religion, specifically the question of the consequent meaning or purpose of our lives – always in sincere empathy with all the searching and suffering individuals he encountered – but also with a practical mind.
Schwab has volunteered in the community on environmental issues, concerns of the handicapped, and for low-income families in our inner cities.
He finds joy in life in observing beauty in nature, whether in grandiose scenery or minute detail, and through participation in the arts – see the collection of his short stories published as the book “The Golden Mirror” – and more on the internet at “www.schwab-stories.com”.
Helmut Schwab values the mutual support provided by an extended family. He especially cherishes the warmth of family life and joyful companionship.
The search for a higher view.
In a deep forest, at the foot of an old tree, there was a big anthill. A hundred thousand ants may possibly have lived in it. Most of them were merely workers, who silently fulfilled their tasks – the care for the eggs and small larvae which would transform into new ants – and the occasional leaving of the hill to search for food and pine needles recently fallen from trees, to put another layer onto the hill.
Thus passed life for the ants within the darkness of their hill. There was, however, a certain warmth and a certain feeling of community in there.
Ants, too, possess some minor diversity of capabilities – if not of personalities.
One of the ants wondered what the world further out, beyond the narrow area of search for food and needles, beyond the dominance of the tribe, would look like – and what sense or meaning out there life could possibly have.
Thus, our ant communicated with two other ants, however little ants can do that, to ask them to come along and climb the tree where their anthill was located – to see what the whole world would look like – to possibly understand from where they all came and what sense or meaning the whole thing would have.
On a nice day, the three ants began their ascent of the tree.
But after only 10 meters, the two companion ants turned around. They found the forest’s wide, empty, lifeless spaces quite frightful. Mainly, the large dark trees visible at different distances around them appeared threatening.
They preferred being back in the dense vastness of their anthill, with all the other ants whom they knew and with whom they could communicate in their own way – and where they had the customary work, without the need for confusing thought.
Our ant now climbed, alone and lonesome, further up the tree, in order to see just once the whole world and possibly also to understand it.
After a long climb, the dark crown of the tree was reached, with interwoven branches of several adjacent trees. What a strange world – but one without any such life as that of the ants. Was there any different life at all anywhere?
Then the climb continued beyond the dense crown of the tree to the highest branches reaching into the open sky. There was even more emptiness around the ant than anywhere before. One could look over the forest to ever more distance, as over a surface of waves.
But what did the ant see in the greatest distance? It looked like an extended wall – it was a range of mountains. This did not exist anywhere in the world of the ants. Why did it exist up here, in the distance? How did it originate? What sense did it make?
After the last part of the ant’s climb, a surface of water became visible at the foot of the mountains, immensely larger than the puddles that could form after a rain close to the anthill.
Now it became clear to the ant that the mountains had risen out of the water, then forests had covered the mountains, and last, the anthill appeared as the highest form of life in this world!
Did the immense width of this view have any meaning for the life of the ants, possibly on a much higher level? What, then, was the meaning of the lives of the ants?
A small bird – as strange as a meteorite – came flying through empty air, aiming for the ant! But it had quickly hidden itself.
After this horrifying experience, the ant chose to climb down again. Arriving below, the ant hesitated one short moment before reentering the hill, once more looking up the tree into that other, so much larger world – which, after all, was also the ant’s world – or had now become the ant’s world.
The ant reentered the anthill. There it was warm and connected with many others, all of them pursuing their meaningful tasks.
But there was no way to communicate with others about this excursion. They did not understand our ant; actually, they did not want to know or care very much about the strange larger world – in which they, however, were embedded, too. Wasn’t life in the anthill interesting enough, occasionally exciting or dangerous and, ultimately, meaningful enough?
Our ant became a bit of an outsider. It had to try hard to be like all the others, to be fully accepted.
The ants continued to concentrate on the eggs and the small larvae, which came forth to become another generation of ants, to spend the same life in the anthill as any generation would again.
Then, a violent wildfire raged through the forest. Only ashes remained of the anthill – soon blown away by the wind. All memories of that one ant and its view were lost.
The Origin, Evolution, and Future End of Our Universe
The great and abstract origin, evolution, and nature of our existence
The most surprising phenomena of evolution – material, natural, and mental
The beginning of our universe, as so well described in the scientific literature, occurred in an instant of a transcendental release of energy some 13.7 billion years ago. This can be called the fundamental, or first, surprise of existence. That original energy was a complex “field phenomenon” – the beginning of electric, magnetic, gravitational, or “Higgs” fields. What are “fields” in the nothingness of only thereby originating space? How can “fields” contain energy? By being a “field” phenomenon, the origin of existence presents itself as a totally “abstract” phenomenon – beyond explanation of being what, why then, and why there – only explained by its consequences as perceived by us.
We learned that, within a short time (a mysterious brief “inflation” included), a large variety of subatomic particles (“bosons” and “fermions”) originated, and, out of those, the world we now observe – and thus far unknown “dark” matter and energy. This granulation of the original existence is the second fundamental surprise of the origin of existence. This granulation is consistent with the “quantum” structure of energy – and of all physical existence, as well as of time – meaning that those parameters cannot vary smoothly (in an analog way), but only a step at a time – including some uncertainties in observation.
When one throws a pebble into a quiet pond, this impact of energy causes one coherent, continuous wave to expand in all directions at uniform speed. When a grenade explodes, a wave of particles flies off. The origin of our universe, however, did not result in an expanding, globelike wave of particles in all directions, but in an expanding cloud of dust. That cloud was not evenly filled with dust, but rather is like a sponge in its density distribution. This can be seen as the third surprise of originating existence.
What are subatomic particles originating from the original energy field? Modern “string theory” sees these particles as spinning pieces of waves – of pieces of that original field – each oscillating at distinctive frequencies in a number of dimensions. In other words, what we later considered “material” existence is actually nothing but a phenomenon of field segments in space – whatever field segments in empty space are. Their appearance as “material” to us merely results from the various forces related to them – mutual attraction, mainly also repulsion at short distance, and reflection of light waves.
Several of the first subatomic particles were associated with forces – as if they were the essence of those forces – molecular attraction or repulsion, electromagnetic fields, the inertia of mass, and gravity forces. The appearance of the forces acting within or between those original subatomic particles, and of the natural laws regulating those forces – including the so-called constants of nature, such as the speed of light – is the miraculous fourth surprise of the structure provided by the origin of our existence which occurred some 13.7 billion years ago.
These original “strings”, or subatomic particles, combined in various ways to form a variety of larger subatomic particles, such as electrons, protons, and neutrons. Once again, these particles combined to form a variety of even larger particles, first atoms, then molecules – and so on and on. In other words, the fifth surprise of our universe is the capability of those first energy particles to combine, to “combinatorially” form a new variety of composed particle, with totally new, “emerging” properties.
That next combinatorial step of evolution brought, on one side, the structuring of that dust cloud through the gravitational formation of billions of fantastic galaxies and sun systems so beautifully lighting our night sky. Dust rings around new suns allowed the formation of a variety of planets. Collisions allowed the formation of moons – most favorably for our Earth, stabilizing its inclination and climate, extracting crust to allow for continental drift and oceans, thereby favoring the formation of life.
Many questions remain for cosmic research: Why is cosmic space filled with matter in a foam-like density distribution – with many empty spaces? How can the structure of spiral galaxies be explained, most of them with a central bar and spiraling arms that bifurcate? How can a number of other galaxy formations be explained – or the stability of dense, global accumulations of galaxies or stars? Mainly, how can “dark matter and energy” be explained – along with many more questions?
On the other side, combinatorial formation brought the formation of complete atoms, mostly occurring within stars, thereby generating the more than 100 “elements” discovered to date – with their many emerging properties of being gases, liquids, crystals, and more.
These atoms were then able to combine once more into many large “molecules”, thereby forming substances – with such large differences as those between water, rocks, and gases.
The following very large and complex proto-biological molecules became the beginning formations of biological cells, then living organisms.
The original subatomic particles were directed or controlled by the forces that appeared with them – and by “principles”, such as the conservation of energy, among others – and constants such as the speed of light, among others. The appearance of the structure of these phenomena of original formation can be seen as the expression of the intellectual or spiritual essence of the universe.
The probabilistic effects of quantum mechanics found later on the subatomic level provide a window into some openness of evolution.
The fact that we can see and feel objects as “material” results merely from the phenomenon that traveling light photons are absorbed, deflected or reflected by atomic particles (the optical differences resulting in our “seeing” something) and that such atomic particles show repulsive forces keeping other particles at a distance (resulting in our “feeling” something) – all merely aspects of those abstract “field” effects in space.
In other words, we human beings can be understood as ultimately being nothing but uniquely formed accumulations of structured field effects – originating from ever more complex, combinatorially occurring field complexes in space and time.
From a certain level of combinatorial composition on, these complexes of, at first subatomic particles and later naturally evolving organisms, began to acquire the capability for “consciousness” – combined with value-assessing “emotions” – for being aware of themselves and of the surrounding world – and feeling joy, love, fear, loneliness, or enjoying beauty! An insect cleaning its wings or flying away when a shadow approaches – or a dog scratching where it itches – are showing some consciousness. But humans can observe the universe through telescopes and material existence through microscopes – then use the variety of sciences to gain ever more understanding – and the variety of technologies for accomplishing change. Thus, humans became expressions of the cosmic origin where “existence” (or the universe) observes itself – and acts upon itself – in whatever limited form! Thus, the appearance of consciousness with the new dimension of emotions constitutes the sixth, possibly greatest fundamental surprise of the origin of existence!
Thus began the glorious morning of spirit, emotions, and aesthetics on Earth as it may have occurred or still will occur on many other celestial bodies. This is the promise of our existence – offered to us to fulfill!
But nature does not create any compositions – neither material, natural, or mental – to last for eternity. Energy exhaustion, erosion, or mutual destruction set in. Upon our death, the material composition forming our personal “existence” simply falls apart again – our mind and all its acquired capabilities and our consciousness disappear – the large organic molecules fall apart – but the smaller molecules (mainly water) and the atoms or subatomic particles merely disperse and continue to exist – possibly to join other organisms later on – as they may have been part of others before. Is this our homecoming to nature?
But then, is the appearance of newly seeded plants, of new animals or humans after parental combination, in ever fresh youthfulness after birth, another, the seventh surprise of existence?
On the other hand, the observation allows death – the ultimate dissolution of everything, in an astronomic, geological, or natural sense – as a homecoming to the origin – to appear as the final, or eighth mystery of our existence.
Prebiotic molecules most likely formed as some atoms were fixed in close proximity on dust layers of icy comets in outer space and absorbed radiation over very long periods of time, prior to the appearance of Earth. (This surface effect facilitating molecular processes is also used in the laminar structure within the nuclei of biological cells to facilitate genetic processes.) Once Earth had formed, such advanced molecules riding on icy comets could reach the oceans on Earth (or other planets). Especially in shallow waters or in the hot spots deep under the surface of the oceans, they found ideal conditions for further astounding steps of evolution, leading to the beginning of self-replication – what became life – and the formation of cells and larger structures.
A cell can replicate by splitting. A long stem of one-dimensional algae can replicate by parallel copying. The copying of two-dimensional surfaces (as used by humans in printing and embossing) occurs in the molting of snakes or lobsters, but merely in copying their surfaces. Three-dimensional organisms cannot simply duplicate point-by-point and be pulled apart in space. It was the arrival of replicating strings of RNA and DNA in the living cells on Earth, giving subsequent expression to cells dependent on their location in the organism, that allowed reproduction of complete organisms. How was, or will, this three-dimensional replication problem be solved on other celestial bodies in the universe that harbor life?
Natural evolution brought the surprising need for the combination of the genetic material of two different cells to start the origin of a new organism – resulting in bisexuality – with all its positive and cruel consequences. How does propagation occur on other celestial bodies in the universe harboring life?
The complex expression of life within a cell occurs mainly on two levels. The more basic level is the motor and energy cycle, utilizing the mitochondrial sub-cells fed by carbohydrates absorbed from the outside. ATP molecules, together with actin and myosin molecules, can cause cell or muscle deformation for the effect of movement of the total organisms. Molecular oxidation can result in temperature control.
The more complex expression of life within a cell is based on the function of genes and the production of resulting proteins in the cells of evolving or growing organisms. This is one of the great miracles of Creation and evolution. The DNA in the human body contains 3 billion base pairs and, unwound, would be 6 feet long (3 billion people would form a chain reaching 30 times around Earth). However, this genetic chain finds itself tightly wound, in humans in 22 pieces, around tiny spindles formed within the cell for this purpose.
Genes trigger the formation of location-specific and need-specific proteins within a cell. Location is determined through prior cell formation from the embryo on – or through influence from neighboring cells. Need specific is determined through chemical givens within the cell.
The “transcription” of genes into proteins is a miraculous process. Specific molecules seek out the proper place along the total genome for required replication, slide along a specifically given length of the gene, thereby producing a complimentary copy of only that stretch of the gene, sometimes combining different gene segments. Other pieces of genetic material floating within the cell accumulate the necessary organic material and bring it to the replication site. Thereby, this “reading” of the gene can produce any quantity of specific proteins.
A newly created protein assumes a very complex shape by a process of folding into sheets and spirals, finally collapsing into a ball with a fold. This fold facilitates the specific function of this protein molecule in its growing cell.
Minute amounts of minerals, vitamins, and other substances play an important role – not all fully understood, yet.
These complex genetic functions evolved over several billions of years since the origin of life, finally permitting the appearance of complex organisms – first single cells or bacteria, later multi-cellular organisms, then plants and, finally, higher organisms.
Thus, the fields of molecular biology, genetics, and now “proteomics” form the most exiting areas of research – with important application in medicine.
The internal functioning of life within a cell shows us a strange world deep under our human world.
The living phase of our existence, “nature”, brought the various new principles of natural evolution discovered by Wallace and Darwin. Mainly they include over-multiplication, statistical variations of characteristics, and selection of the fittest – in the pervasive struggle against starvation, mating competitors, diseases, predators, or environmental variations.
The struggle of life against life may have started already on the molecular level (as in the formation of only one type of genetic material, the RNA or DNA), resulting from competition for obtaining scarce materials and position in preferred environments. This continued during the cellular and multicellular phases of existence in the oceans – and, later on, as the struggle of trees against each other to obtain light in the upper canopy of the forests. The fittest prevailed – even if they were merely vines.
Living organisms need some energy supply for the formation of complex molecules when growing and, later, for mobility. A new dimension of life opened when, some 650 million years ago and more so 500 million years ago, the increased oxygen content of our atmosphere led to a new energy cycle in advanced organisms (beyond conversion of solar energy as by chlorophyll), based on energy derived from the oxidation (burning) of organic material. This required that those organisms had to search for ever more organic material to digest, leading to mobility, sensors for guidance, and signal processing to connect the two. It also led to conflict with competitors – in search of food and mating partners – and to defense against other predators. Much fighting began and all of what we perceive as the great cruelty on Earth.
Nerve cells were a critical “invention” of nature – being especially long cells that formed along folds or on the surface of tissues (as in a fetus) – which were then able to communicate over some distance from one end to the other. The interconnection of nerve cells gave rise to memory. Accumulations of nerves, mainly around sensors, led to brain formation. This gave rise to a totally new dimension of life: in awareness, thought, memory, consciousness, and strategy formulation – mostly guided or rewarded by the summary “sensation” of “emotions”.
The evolution of higher organisms repeatedly led to the dominance of a specific category of those over all others – first the trilobites, then the dinosaurs – indicating a certain interesting instability in natural evolution. Such dominance was stopped repeatedly by immense catastrophes leading to mass extinctions, followed by a new evolution of an even higher category of dominating organisms – from algae to trilobites, to dinosaurs, to mammals. Where would evolution now be without those catastrophes? What will the future hold?
The next level of combinatorial evolution led to the formation of societies – starting from families and then on to clans, tribes, and nations – now, albeit hesitatingly, to the United Nations.
Of special importance among the “emerging” mental phenomena of mankind facilitated by human society are creativity (permitting the “invention” of new concepts of thought or useful equipment – also weaponry), ethics (permitting the efficient functioning of life in groups – with anti-ethics leading to destructive revenge), social hierarchies (providing structure to societies for coordinated action – or suppression), governance (providing guidance of societies – for better or worse), and ideologies and religions (providing assumed principles of order and behavior – and mental constraints, some of them violent). The origin and functioning of some of these phenomena are not fully understood.
The origin and not always positive role of religions and ideologies require special attention. Their remaining value, justification, correction, or possible replacement is an important theme of our time – as evidenced by religious destructiveness in many parts of the world. In sum, human mental evolution has led to the often cruel but, in sum, upward evolution of our societies.
A unique, “emerging” mental phenomenon is the emotional perception of beauty (or elegance) by us humans in nature, objects, music, or movement (also taste and fragrances) – leading to the appearance of “art” or “culture” – and joy about its perception.
How about humor?
In sum, the nature-demanded need for personal development (mental and personality “growth”, rewarded by satisfaction), for ethical behavior (“service” to others and society, rewarded by the warmth of human love), and the enjoyment of beauty (perceived in nature and art) became the three distinct guiding factors for finding fulfillment in human existence.
In our lifetime, we notice a receding expectation of and reliance on a favorable natural evolution of mankind (if not one day by genetic engineering, as in DNA manipulation). More important, we notice a receding expectation of divine interference to direct events or human minds on Earth to our benefit or to prevent catastrophes. Thus, we find ourselves lost and left with our own thought and, mainly, with our own responsibility for the conditions here on Earth!
We face problems of goal-definition, action coordination, and implementation. We would like to reduce the large extent of suffering to be found everywhere on Earth. We would like to offer greater freedom or opportunities for personal development, fairly for all – with the problems of goal-definition and affordability.
We realize that many problems of poverty and suffering are based not only on the lack of opportunity, but also on inadequate education and the lack of personality strength. We realize that many problems in the world are based on overpopulation, as traditional religions prevent practical birth control, and, mainly, by inadequate governance – which often is intellectually inadequate or corrupt – misled by dictators, selfish elites, or misdirected religious leaders.
Who will judge, and how can the human community interfere to free us of such dangers of misguided guidance and “evil” power? How will “good” guidance and power be defined, found, established, and maintained? How will priorities be established for the application of limited resources on Earth? How will resources and nature be protected?
Existence on Earth is periodically threatened by immense natural catastrophes – meteors, igneous volcanic upwellings, volcanic collapses, or plagues – each threatening much of life, and possibly all of mankind, with extinction. Some catastrophes will more likely occur sooner through misguided human action, whether global warming, ocean acidification, or weapons of mass extinction (including biological weapons) in the hands of irresponsible groups or individuals.
In the end, in the distant future, we know that our universe will ultimately run out of energy and will lose its formation –collapsing into one or many black holes – which will dissolve over very long time periods into ever-dissipating and -cooling radiation in ever more distant space.
Where are we now? A biologist may find an understanding of existence at a microscopic scale. An astronomer sees our universe in the multitude of galaxies in the depths of outer space. Let us assume that the universe expands at about the speed of light (which, however, is questioned by various theories). With this assumption and by visualizing the size of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, as being merely the size of a pinhead, the whole universe would have, by now, reached a radius of only 135 meters (less than 500 feet). If, in this image of the universe, 1,000 years would be only one second of our human time, our universe would have reached an age of only 4.5 months by now. Should one not expect that there is more to existence than that – alternative universes – before, besides, and after ours (if time and space are not restricted to, and specific for, every one of the universes)?
The universe we live in for only the short span of our lives is grandiose, cruel, wonderfully beautiful, final, and futile – which we sense as both darkness and light – on the human level with hostility and fear or with fulfilling warmth and great joy.
What shall, or must, we do here and now?
The Origin, Evolution, and Functions of the Human Mind
The greatest asset of our human existence
Considering the Brain’s Neurophysiology, Biochemistry, and Cognitive Psychology
Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualization
Thought, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
Content of this essay:
1. Origin of the Brain and Mind: A New Energy Cycle on Earth leads to Mobility, Sensors, and Signal Processing for Strategy Formation – with some Structural Variations
2. Fundamental Capabilities Leading to the Human “Mind”: Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
3. The Basic Functions: Thought Sequencing, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
4. The Abstract, or “Virtual”, Functions: Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
1. Origin of the Brain and Mind: A New Energy Cycle on Earth leads to Mobility, Sensors, and Signal Processing for Strategy Formation – with some Structural Variations
Human mental capabilities, or functions, are understood and described by a variety of linguistic concepts. These concepts are the result of the human effort to arrive at an understanding of the esoteric nature of human mental existence. The great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome distinguished three aspects of human existence: soul (psyche = breath, principle of life, anima); mind (noos or logos, which means “knowing” and also “word”); and body. The early Christian era emphasized the key concept of “soul” as the essence of human mental or “transcendental” existence (beyond the physical one). Then, during the Renaissance, and more so with the Enlightenment and following Romanticism, the concepts of reason and emotions moved to the foreground. In modern times, psychology and neurophysiology (combined with cognitive psychology) arrived at new understandings of human brain functions or mental characteristics. In our time, the concepts of “human spirit” or “human mind” are most commonly used and, decreasingly, still the concept of “soul”. When going into further detail, there are several more concepts describing the specific functions of the human spirit or mind – specifically, reason, emotions, morals, personality, character, values, and art.
The two concepts of “human spirit” and “human mind” are similar in meaning but are not fully identical. In the French language, only the concept of ésprit humain is commonly used, and in German only der menschliche Geist. But the Italian and Spanish languages both permit the common usage of spirito/espiritu or mente.
In English/American usage, the concept of spirit is commonly used to represent the totality of an individual’s thought, emotions, character, and behavior; almost like a homunculus within the brain, very close to the traditional concept of the soul (a concept still very much in use among religious and spiritualistic groups, where it is often seen as the center of human sensation, cognition, and, mainly, personality). The concept of mind is commonly used to denote the mental consequences of the functioning of the brain, but more the thought processes than the emotional aspects of mental existence.
In a contemporary scientific perspective, emphasis is placed on the connection between the structure and functioning of the brain and that of human mental existence. Therefore, and for reasons of simplicity, the following essay will use only the concept of “mind” to denote the full spectrum of human mental capabilities or brain functions – including emotions, thought, visualizations, mental creativity, ethical thought or judgment, personality, artistic or aesthetic sensitivity, spiritual/religious sensations or visions, and more.
Linear nerve pathways permit reflexive behavior (if you burn your finger, your arm twitches and retracts the hand with that finger). A significant step in evolution occurred when a nerve began to act on another nerve. Two nerves with feedback to each other allow the formation of a “flip-flop” for “on-off” behavior with memory – with alternating dominance of one nerve over the other. More complex interconnections between nerves allow for complex memory and complex responses, leading evolution to form networks of nerves and, finally, brains.
Evolution brought the development of a variety of “neurotransmitter” substances for a biochemical signal transmission at contact points between various nerves. Thereby, biochemistry became a controlling factor in brain functions. The variety of neurotransmitters, some of them specialized for different functions in the body and brain, allowed for differentiated physiological influences on body and brain functions – as by other biochemical substances produced by the body, for example, adrenalin or dopamine in connection with emotions.
Large accumulations of interconnected nerves appeared in evolution close to the output of the most important sensors – for fast response, increasingly influenced by signal recognition and memory. This, in turn, led to the formation of the complex brains of mammals. The expansion of the brain cortex, mainly in its frontal regions, led not only to greater memory but, of equal or greater importance, to an increase in interconnectivity and greater addressability of memory elements – through augmentation of the white matter of the brain consisting of such interconnections. Thus, there appeared higher capabilities for mental creativity (intelligence) and strategy formulation – commensurate with a higher degree of consciousness – as well as language skills.
Certain midbrain functions specializing in the processing of emotions must have developed very early in the evolution of animals. This allowed for the fast and economic summary assessment of situations needed for such basic reactions as “fight or flight”. More importantly, “emotions” are the foundation of ethics and our human system of values that give structure, direction, meaning, and “value” to our lives.
The cerebellum (almost a second brain) evolved to assume routine motor coordination and controls, including those of skilled athletes, drivers, and musicians. It is quite a mystery how this second brain could have been developed and could function so efficiently in parallel with the main brain. It is, however, the foundation of “multitasking”, as the ability to walk while at the same time paying attention to one’s environment – or to talk while driving.
A variety of sensors evolved, preferably in the vicinity of the existing nerve concentration (the brain), facilitating fast and skillful food search, efficient competition with other organisms, and warning of predators. This evolution continued to let organisms prevail in territorial dominance, mating, and predatory or defensive behavior.
Not only sensors, but also memory – an ever larger quantity of memory and complex memory access – became a competitive advantage for evolving organisms. This evolution has been emulated in our time by the development of computers with ever larger memory and global data or information-memory systems (for example, the success of Google and Wikipedia).
The structure of the brain and consequent mental capabilities indicate some natural structural variations among individuals. How else can right-handedness and left-handedness be defined by nature? What are the ultimate reasons for Asperger syndrome and other forms of autism? On the positive side, how can extreme talents be explained, as for music (for example, Mozart) or poetry (Shakespeare) – or the simple talent for juggling?
2. The Fundamental Capabilities Leading to the Human “Mind”: Emotions, Memory, Recognition, Visualizations
Four significant steps (or significant progress) in natural evolution occurred sometime during the last tens of millions of years in establishing the human mind and controlling human life:
- the appearance of emotions
- the capability for extensive and interconnected neural memory
- the capability for recognition, to match new perceptions with existing memory
- most importantly: the capability for “visualization”, hence increasing inventiveness
These capabilities appeared in a minor way in the brains of animals, but in humans were significantly expanded and structurally differentiated. All of these capabilities became the foundation of human evolution in the progress of civilization, the formation of behavior, including creativity and intelligence (as in the analytical and mathematical pursuit of the sciences and engineering), ethics (as in the foundation of society formation), personality expression, and art. These evolutionary steps led to vastly increased consciousness, possibly free will, and spirituality. All are described in some detail below.
These evolutionary steps opened new dimensions in existence!
Computer hardware and design can be studied in a branch of physics. But is computer software a branch of physics? The new field of “computer sciences” covers the software area. Does the creation of computer music or art belong to computer science? More to the point, is the study of the “mind” a part of neurophysiology or of biochemistry – as in the study of emotions, thought, creativity, ethical values, personality, and sensitivity for art? To some extent, the fields of psychology – and, more specifically, “cognitive” psychology – have assumed the position of sciences of the “mind”. But is psychology reduced to the study of neural signaling in the brain? Is “cognitive” the right term to cover all of what constitutes the human “mind”? Maybe there is a need for a new branch of science to study the human mind and its unique dimensions, albeit one based on what we increasingly know about the brain and its biochemistry.
Following are discussions of the specific dimensions of the human mind mentioned above:
Emotions evolved as neural functions that go beyond simple reflexes (which merely lead from sensation directly to consequent muscle movement). In primitive organisms with small brains, the need to assess danger and to very quickly avoid risk – or the need to fight – may be counted as the most basic “emotion” (if one does not count hunger, pain, and other such sensations as basic emotions).
As can easily be observed, fear and aggression do not simply lead to reflexive action, but they can exist and continue independently of muscle movement, as when muscles or behavior are restrained. In this sense, emotions are the setting of general predispositions or moods leading to behavior patterns. As we know from our own experience, these can be felt in awareness as intensely as they can in sensory perceptions.
Emotions led to the valuation of human life and behavior and to human ethical “values” (which are not to be confused with economic or commercial values). Our public debate and our concerns for society return again and again to the question of the proper ethical “values” for our culture and society.
The ethical emotions were generated and anchored by natural evolution in animal and human brains. They can be differentiated into three different categories and are described in detail in a separate chapter below:
ü caring for offspring (and “family”)
ü reciprocity in behavior with chosen partners (“friends”), occurring among “social” animals
ü self-sacrifice for the good of the pack.
While “ethics” became an important branch of philosophy, not enough has been researched about natural “counter-ethics”, as in seeking revenge or retribution (for instance, by difficult–to-quantize “punishment”) and in the feeling of offended pride or honor requiring satisfaction. These important counter-ethical behavior patterns still cause extensive damage to individuals and in society. There also are the minor ethical symptoms – often exaggerated in their importance – the requirement to say “please” or “thank you” or to express an apology.
In sum, the significance of emotions has varied through natural evolution and includes:
- The fast, summary assessment of situations at low “neural cost” (brain involvement)
- The rise of variously differentiated emotions – emotions coming in many “flavors” – such as hunger, desire, love, joy, pride, sadness, aversion, loneliness, and despair
- The “ethical” emotions as a foundation of ethical “values”, often appearing as the basis of religious doctrine which is then prescribed for individuals and society: in family life, business, politics, and other areas – and the phenomena of counter-ethics.
- Emotions and values as controlling or guiding the functions or strategies of life – making life worth living or making it miserable, thus indicating what course to pursue or what to judge as acceptable or unacceptable.
The emotions, originally a simplified neural control mechanism, were greatly developed in higher animals and humans to the new phenomena of love, joy, empathy, pride, happiness – constituting the greatest gifts in human existence -- or burdens, when implying sorrow, pain, fear, loneliness, despair, commiseration, sympathy with loved ones, hopelessness – or leading to destructiveness as in seeking greatness by imperialistic warfare or in revenge. All these emotions constitute new dimensions in the progress of evolution, but they are the ones that give direction and value to our lives – or are our burden.
A curious human emotion is humor!
Some psychologists and philosophers want all emotions to be reduced to only one basic emotion, the one of feeling good or bad, happy or unhappy. This reduces all subsequent behavior to an effort to maximize personal benefit in feeling good (having fun), similar to “utility” in business theory. In this approach, such emotions as love, pride, compassion, and humor are all lumped into one emotion – also with, for example, hate, sadness, or boredom. Such compression of the consideration of emotions may be practical for some summary discussions, but it does not do justice to the diversity of existence, and it provides poor guidance in the multiplicity of situations in real life. It even becomes dangerous to confuse the need for ethical behavior, altruism, and fairness with merely seeking personal benefit in achieving happiness.
Emotions guide not only instant behavior, but also thought sequences in meditations – with possible subsequent consequences. This occurs through the “value-proportional” formation of synaptic connections between neurons, leading to preferential associative thought sequencing (see the essays on mental creativity on the website www.schwab-writings.com) as discussed later.
There is some indication that the intensity of emotions changes in the course of time – from youth to old age! Can this intensity be maintained or modified – bad emotions restrained and good ones augmented? Can we acquire a “clean heart” (see the chapter on the “Beatitudes”).
The capability for “emotions” appears with different strength among different people. Consequently, some people appear as always calm, some as “emotional” or lighthearted. Some people suffer from instantaneous and most unfortunate switches from calmness to rage when provoked (as often occurring in otherwise good marriages or between otherwise loving parents and their children), occasionally leading to severe consequences (see the large number of “violent” criminals described as generally calm and “good neighbors”, but then considered as risks to society).
Memory can exist without neural networks, as in cellular transformation (for example, getting a tan) or a predisposition for certain external stimuli, either genetically given or acquired (imprinted).
A very important step in evolution occurred with the storage of sensory perceptions in groups of neurons (through formation of “synaptic” nerve endings forming couplings between nerves of varying strength and permanence). Neural memory must be seen as the first step in the evolution of both the brain and mental capabilities.
The advantage of neural memory became apparent once the oxygen-energy cycle for organisms had occurred some 500 million years ago, whereupon organisms beyond plants had to obtain mobility in order to search for food, leading to intense competition. The remembering of prior sensory stimuli and their consequences allowed for the acquisition of experience, which led to a higher rate of success, whether in the search for suitable food or a mate or in conflict with competing or predatory organisms.
Most sensory perceptions utilize a large number of neurons for identification and for retention of essential perception elements – but the fewer the better (how many memory elements in the brain are needed for a wild animal to recognize a certain predator?). This led to an ever-increasing demand for memory in the brain. Obviously, though, this required selectivity in acquiring memory inputs. After all, we are surrounded by, and our sensors perceive, millions of impressions all the time, most of which we neglect or do not bring to awareness or memory (one possibly following from the other).
The selectivity for memory retention must be based on the significance of the perception element, itself a form of valuation. One should expect that the coincidence of a perception with a certain positive or negative valuation led to memorizing. The mechanism could have been a signal increase (increased firing rate of the neurons carrying the perception) upon strong valuation – leading to memorization. In the human brain, valuation is contributed by the amygdala nucleus and some other brain nuclei (if not by signal amplitude). Memorization is guided by the hippocampus nucleus of the brain.
This is an example of the co-activation of the analog-signaling capability of the brain (analog firing rate of nerves corresponding to valuation) with the discrete (digital) signaling in establishing specific synaptic formations (the individual memory pattern). Thereby, the brain becomes a combined analog and digital computer!
As human memory evolved, much more than mere sensory perceptions were included. This allowed a memory of emotions (as in valuation of perceptions), memory of mental “visualizations” (elements of one’s own thought) as explained later, as well as verbal concepts (including the “inner voice” as explained later), of mathematical symbols, of space, and, quite mysteriously, of time or time increments. This allowed memory to become the base for thought and consciousness (as explained below).
Memory, at least that of higher animals and humans, is symbolic, categorical, and hierarchical, as explained in the following paragraphs.
As indicated, a fully detailed description of most perceptions would require extremely large amounts of data. Because memory is limited, it must be reduced to the memorization of the essential elements of perceptions. This leads to the amazing capability of “symbolic” memory, (consequently, also to symbolic visualization and symbolic thought, as discussed later), a fundamental, and most important, breakthrough in evolution. Without this “data compression” capability, practical amounts of memory and thought could not have developed. For example, what is a lion, since all lions differ, if only slightly, from each other in appearance and possibly also in sound and smell? Yet, all lions must be readily recognized by their prey – in differentiation from other, non-dangerous animals. Symbolic presentation is somewhat related to the recognition of Aristotelian “ideals”.
Words are symbolic presentations; they become important to individuals and cultures as expressions of their inner meaning. Is all of mathematics a handling of symbolic concepts?
All types of prey, or predators, or potential mates had to be recognized as such from memory in a “categorical” manner, as individuals belonging to the same category – allowing more efficient structuring, simplifying, and handling of memory and thought. As a matter of fact, the tendency of all human thought (and, more importantly, judgment) to be categorical may be highly efficient; but, at the same time, it may also result in severe deficiencies in judgment – for example, in unfair prejudices against individuals merely for their belonging to a certain group!
The “hierarchical” structure of memory is an amazing capability, resulting in corresponding substantial efficiencies and large steps in associative sequences of thought. For example, a family pet named “Spot” may be associated with different hierarchical levels of perception – first, as a terrier, then as a dog, a mammal, an animal, a living being, and so on – yet, retained in memory only as “Spot”. What, in memory, is a family, a nation, a “democracy”? How is a letter also recognized as part of an alphabet – or as a symbol in physics to indicate a vital part of an equation, such as e = mc2?
When a new perception is very similar to an earlier, memorized perception, it becomes “recognized” by the mind. Such recognition is extremely important for the conduct of practical life, whether in the recognition of an opportunity (for food) or a danger (from a predator).
The recognition of prior sensory stimuli and, mainly, their consequences allowed for the acquisition of experience, which led to a higher rate of success, whether in the search for suitable food or a mate or in conflict with competing or predatory organisms.
The comparison of new sensory perceptions with already existing memory required neural matching of the defining elements of the new perceptions with memorized perceptions, and consequent neural activation when such matches were found. This was accomplished when new perceptions followed the same neural pathways that had established prior memory (see the extensive research recently done on “mapping” the brain). Coincidences led to recognition. “Recognition” could have occurred through simple increase in neural activity (firing rate) of the new or the matching memorized perception, thereby causing “awareness” (foreground presence in the mind). Such coupling could also lead to warning or attracting emotions (and developed valuations, such as by the amygdala nucleus in the brain) – thereby leading to suitable behavior such as feeding, mating, fleeing, or fighting.
There is more or less skillful recognition from perception by each of the senses – with each having developed its own system of recognition. Each ear has the neural structure of the cochlea for sound pitch recognition. The brain, however, can recognize one specific voice in a noisy room and the direction from which sounds arrive.
The most complex recognition occurs with the signals arriving at the brain from the large number of nerves in the retina of the eyes. This visual recognition processing takes up a significant part of the rear lower part of the brain and offers specific features for recognition of lines or edges and also of facial features – and even accomplishes three-dimensional awareness. There is indication that the large brain of some whales is similarly specialized for recognizing acoustic signals.
The concept of visualization is used in this essay to describe the appearance in the mind of images, sounds, melodies, verbal or mathematical or other symbolic concepts, tastes, fragrances, or tactile sensations independent of sensory perception. In other words, the mind can present the images of objects or any of their characteristics. For example, we can visualize a flower or the face of another person without the flower or person being present. A writer can have or search for a verbal concept in his mind. A mathematician can handle complex equations of mathematical symbols in his mind. An advertising agent – or a preacher – can handle the symbolic significance of images or words. As every composer or musician knows, a musician can have in his mind a sound, harmony, or melody without any musical instrument actually being played. Fragrances can be “visualized”.
In a neurophysiologic sense, a visualization occurs when the group of neurons required for an element of memory is activated and remains active – even beyond the duration or independently of such initial activation from outside. Such activation may occur not only through new perceptions but also through the synaptic linkage to neurons related to other memory elements as in thought sequences. Hunger can lead to the visualization of food, fear to the visualization of enemies, the mention of a town to the visualization of a person living there, et cetera. Visualizations can be not only static, like a slideshow; they also can be dynamic, like a video show in the mind.
In the case of sequences of verbal concepts, this leads to the thought phenomenon of the “inner voice”, as if thoughts were expressed in the mind by the mind’s “talking” (see the later discussion). Sequences of acoustic harmony visualizations may result in the visualization of a melody – or the music of an entire orchestra!
The most important step in the evolution of the mind – and consequent much later evolution of human civilization and culture – occurred when the brain became capable of presenting visualizations and their associative sequencing – while, most importantly, still differentiating in consciousness, between mere visualization and actual perception.
When this differentiation between visualization and actual perception is lacking, as in some forms of schizophrenia or hallucinations, thought patterns and behavior can become unrealistic. Examples are the origin of certain religions from the visualization of divine messengers taken for real – or the acceptance of some visualized divine orders – with consequences that are not always positive. Such situations are especially dangerous when the assumed divine origin of the visualization never allows for change, not even partially! This has invariably rendered the position of religious leaders or priests as especially dangerous to society (Aztecs, Baal cult, and several still-present or modern religions)!
Here is an interesting experiment: A modern person can, in a way similar to role-playing, assume religious faith in an ancient god or goddess, for example Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In a situation of intellectual uncertainty, this person can visualize Athena, then appearing in the mind, and ask for relevant advice. In a most surprising manner, the visualized Athena may in many cases present valuable advice to the petitioner! There is the reported story of a widow who once had been happily married to a valued partner. In moments of problems in life, she was able to visualize the deceased husband and obtain valuable advice from him! Some churches utilize this phenomenon by permitting their followers to mentally contact the saints of those churches.
The capability for “visualization” appears with different strength among different people. Weakness deprives a person of intuition, inventiveness, and the ability to follow the ideas of others. Excessive visualization, however, may become disruptive to the afflicted person and the surrounding society.
3. Basic Functions: Thought Sequencing, Focusing, Creativity and Intelligence, Ethics, Personality, Art
The phenomenon of “thought” is discussed in detail in the two essays on “Mental Creativity” in the “Brain-Mind” section of the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
“Thought” is the appearance of sequences of virtual, perception-like effects in the mind. Thought permits the formulation of mental theories, strategies, or product improvements. Thereby, the capability for thought became the most significant step in the formation of human civilizations and the evolution of practical progress.
It is typical of many neurons that they fire only for a limited period of time, as if tiring after that. As the firing of one active memory unit fades within a fraction of a second, another one, possibly the one with the strongest associative synaptic linkages to the previous one, begins firing. This establishes a sequence along the line of the strongest associations – resulting in an associative-thought sequence. This selection of the strongest associative link in thought sequencing is somewhat similar to Darwinian selectivity in the progress of the fittest.
If there are many memory elements, as in the human brain, any other memory element but the one addressed, or preferably linked, must be inhibited (kept from firing). This can be done by neural cross-connections (“bus” connections in the white matter of the brain), such as those that exist in the retina of the eye or the skin, which, respectively, improve the perception of motion or of differences such as spots or edges.
The “speed” of thought sequencing is given by neural characteristics – and may vary.
The strength of the associative link between memory elements – and, consequently, the direction of the thought sequence – is provided by several factors, principally by the emotional or biological value (as when poison, danger, or joy are experienced) of the stored memory element (provided via the amygdala and other brain nuclei). Consequently, strong negative associations are followed as readily as positive ones – possibly presenting a psychological burden – and possibly leading to copycat crimes. Willful diversion to positive associations may become necessary (to keep a “clean heart”, see the essay on the “Beatitudes”).
Many thought associations merely follow habitual usage of that link (driving home after work as if on a track). Others follow the perceived value of the consequences of the train of visualizations.
Any newly occurring signal perception with high signal strength (for example, the ringing of a telephone) can interrupt the thought sequence through the neural inhibition indicated before.
All of the above result in the mysterious capability for “thought” – to move in a virtual world, to simulate, and to project new objects, various visualizations, or alternative developments to the mind – or mathematical symbols with their implied meaning – or art.
The combination of emotions and thought (based on memory and visualization) can be seen as the appearance of the fullness of “mind” among advanced animals.
Do animals think? Dogs can be observed dreaming – indicating visualization sequences – consequently indicating the capability for thought. Predators can develop hunting strategies; consequently, they are capable of thought.
The question arises: why is there always only one foreground thought at a time (forming “awareness”)? This occurs, although there are two halves of the brain, with limited connection between the halves, thus allowing only limited inhibition of memory activation sequences between the two halves. In a mentally active state, the left (analytical) half of the brain usually prevails in awareness, whereas, in a state of rest, the right half (more image- and emotion-related) prevails – all this leading to unique inventiveness while resting. As indicated before, the cerebellum is capable of independent thought-sequencing in automated behavior, such as driving a car while talking.
Thought, in association with verbal concepts, is very common among individuals dedicated to speech or writing and appears as an “inner voice”. It may actually be a secondary phenomenon, with verbal formulation merely following the preceding perceptual thought (see some cases of mental creativity, verbal aggression and defense in debate, or some newer experiments related to the subject of “free will”).
The inner voice may actually be a nuisance, whether it appears as the tempting “voice of the devil” or in not allowing the mind to rest (although this is the key ability of poets, writers, and some founders of religions).
The great importance of speech for human mental evolution results from the fact that the evolution of speech recognition and formulation led to the evolution of more complex concepts and systems of thought. We humans especially have developed a wide hierarchy of words, much beyond the capabilities of animals, substantially contributing to cultural progress. Simple words are descriptive of single actions or objects (walk, sit, chair, table). More advanced words are summary designations of complex sequences or of groups of objects -- for example, furniture, voting, inventing, molecules, Americans). The most advanced words involve the visualization or communication of complex thought patterns or interpretations of existence (politics, research, religion, relativity theory). The use of such word concepts allows for the very much faster progression and communication of thought, a deeper understanding of existence, and less need for memory.
Given the importance of language for human thought and cultural evolution, it is interesting to note that word concepts, not having any intrinsic, invariable substance, have no unique value, varying widely from language to language and over time. Not only do words vary in sounds between different languages, they also vary in the fine nuances of coverage area of meaning, leaving some words untranslatable or turning some of them into practical new words in other languages. Since different cultures are sometimes distinguished by a different spectrum of emotions, their language becomes a distinct expression of this emotionality; consequently, it is both appreciated and guarded.
Mathematical thought, possibly no different from any other symbolic thought, became highly important as modern science discovered that nature can be understood in mathematical terms, with mathematical expressions being independent of language or cultures – as a universal “language” to communicate universally (as the “language of Creation”).
A specific aspect of thought is the fact that only certain connections of visualizations are acceptable, that there is some “recognition of truth”, some ability to follow logic. This has given rise to the mental occupation of “philosophy”.
Equally important is the ability to distinguish between actual perception and mere visualization – between reality and dream, between one’s actual surroundings and a TV show – but, at the same time, being able to widely span space and time, far beyond our own existence. Pathological failure of these capabilities is both recognized and dangerous.
The mental guidance by a given task or the nuisance of an unresolved problem is memorized in the brain – most likely by means of the hypothalamus. It is postulated that this brain center, also regulating memory fixation, provides preference to thought associations related to the given task or open problem, thereby forming a thought focus (see the essays on mental creativity on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”). The focus-related preference for a thought association and following thought sequence may be accomplished through improved firing rate for those synaptic connections.
Without such thought-sequence focusing, systematic mental work would be impossible, due to the mind’s tendency to wander in aimless thought. All efficient human life and progress in time depends upon this thought-focusing capability – as schoolteachers know very well.
The capability for “focusing” appears with different strength among different people. Lack of focusing capability leads to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which reduces the capability to learn, accomplish a given task, or follow a directed conversation. Excessive selective focusing leads to mental and behavioral obsessions (for instance, excessive cleaning or some types of collecting or hobbies) and to sectarianism or dangerous fanaticism in ideologies or religions.
Can marital love and linkage be seen as a phenomenon of natural focusing?
Creativity, the ability of the mind to arrive at new concepts of thought, strategies, practical improvements, or problem-solving, often results from pattern recognition (often as a result from well designed experiments or data collections) or, more systematically, from the combinatorial linking of memory elements or thought elements to form new, often more complex concepts (as when children play with individual building blocks and arrive at ever more complex structures). Mankind’s creativity began with the skill for fire-making (more than 1.5 million years ago) and extended to the use of tools and weapons, technical and agricultural innovation (such as irrigation), building empires, development of philosophical or religious systems of thought – or the invention of Coca-Cola and the writing of this essay.
There are various forms of creativity and different steps in the progression of creativity. A distinction shall be made between practical creativity leading to new objects or concepts and artistic creativity leading to new sensations or emotional responses. One can also distinguish various levels of creativity, from the smallest, most detailed steps to new holistic, large-scale insights or improvements – which gave rise to different levels of “intelligence” or “wisdom”.
Practical creativity can go through various steps:
- Asking the right questions (the wording of the question often predetermines the final answer)
- Initiation of the right search or the design of a suitable experiment
- Pattern recognition among multiple observations or results
- Finding or defining new concepts or structures
- Building a new or expanded system of thoughts, perceptions, or constructions
Seagulls learn to break clam shells by lifting the clams to a certain height and dropping them on rocks. Apes learn to extract insects from their hiding places by using small sticks as tools. The domination of fire may have been the most important step in early ingenuity and, specifically, in human creativity . Thus, the recognition and remembrance of successful experiences for later repetition, the building of experience, may have been the beginning of creativity.
A significant factor in human life’s success or progress is the recognition of opportunities (as they occur in most lives from time to time), the mobilization of initiative for their proper utilization, and the pursuit of the next one, leading to a culture of innovation, as in the West. Recognition of opportunities occurs when their perception reaches foreground awareness. This can be trained through examples of successful observations of this kind.
In arriving at new results or new concepts, most commonly the process of mental creativity is “combinatorial”, consisting of combining already existing memory elements or by combining systems of thought with new perceptions – reminiscent of the original evolution of all existence (see the two essays on mental creativity on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”).
Consequently, a greater volume, variety, or wider addressability of available memory elements (building blocks) – the expansion of memory and, mainly, the interconnectivity of memory elements allowing us to associate them – leads to a higher level of creativity. In teamwork, additional creativity is accomplished by the contribution of members with different educational backgrounds. Equally, new entrants to an established field or the entry of an individual into a new field of inquiry can contribute to fresh creativity. Initial usage of vaguely defined objectives or words leads to more associations and, possibly, to higher creativity!
Innovation strongly depends on an “attitude” of seeking innovation and then accepting it. Such attitude is fundamentally based on self-confidence and creative curiosity. It is of great importance to develop these characteristics of self-confidence and creative curiosity in the raising and educating of children, among the young as they find their way in life, in family coherence, and among all teams in business or politics – even when innovation may initially appear as disruptive.
Human creativity during human evolution was halting at first. But creativity became increasingly appreciated, especially in Western societies, and progressed more rapidly in our time – leading to overtaking natural evolution, as in the genetic modification of plants and, lately, in finding cures for previously incurable diseases.
Basic ethical behavior – to be defined as behavior for the benefit of other individuals, even at one’s own expense – is genetically anchored by nature as a consequence of selection for the benefit of prevailing in a harsh and competitive world – or, more importantly, among social animals, for the benefit of prevailing by means of group cohesion and efficiency in coordinated group action This evolution may have occurred through avoiding behavioral maturation of animals growing up in litters or packs and not becoming antagonistically independent individuals (e.g., wolves vs. bears). Ethical behavior is maintained by the natural reward in emotions of harmony or warm “love” (the Greek “agape”).
Natural ethical behavior – genetically anchored – can be observed in three ways:
- Caring for offspring and those close of kin, more intergenerationally forward-directed and diminishing with genetic distance – leading to wonderful family coherence and, when largely extended, to social balance and support in society – but also to problems of a “Cosa Nostra” duality of split morality between members of one’s own group and outsiders. The natural ethical response to offspring, to children, is widely used or abused in marketing and fundraising.
- Reciprocity between individuals (friendship) as occurring among social animals (as in congregating, mutual grooming, sharing of food, and assistance in fighting) – with the negative consequence in revenge for failed reciprocity or for cheating – leading to high values in friendship, to networking in business, and, ideally, to Christian love (“agape”) for other human beings – but also to problems of personal and tribal revenge behavior (including punishment). Furthermore, there are the effects of honor and vengeance when requiring “satisfaction”. Special effects are the need for “please”, “thank- you”, or demanded apologies.
- Sacrifice of own benefit, security, and even life for the benefit of the pack (as when male animals fight approaching predators to let the female animals with their young gain safety) – leading to public service engagement for the benefit of society, military service, and taxation – but also to nationalistic or religious extremes with negative consequences – as to suicide bombings.
In sum, the origin, evolution, and function of societies and the accomplishments of civilizations or cultures are largely based on healthy, balanced ethical emotions and ethical behavior among members and restraint of revenge or satisfaction needs.
These natural, ethical emotions are the foundation for the judgment of morally “good” or “bad” (often supported by religions and ideologies as they evolved and made this a center of their teaching and a convenient base of their ultimate power through the assumed right for judging or rewarding). Ethical emotions are also the foundation for the emotions of “pride” or “guilt”, as related to “conscience”, for the feeling of moral self-esteem and for communal acceptance.
There are individual variations (and variations with age) in emotional intensity. There are pathological imbalances and deviations in ethical emotions and moral judgment.
All “ethical” behavior is associated with some degree of learning – beginning with the recognition, for example, of own offspring, siblings, or parents – and decreasing with genetic distance. Most learning results from selective observation, some varying in time (see, for example, great loves and those ending in divorce).
The development of more differentiated emotions and thought led to the appearance of ethical judgment beyond the genetically given, ultimately to the complex phenomena of cultural development in societies. This occurs through inclusion of an ever wider range of individuals in the spheres of caring, reciprocity, and personal sacrifice (including charitable aid to the most remote parts of the world). It also occurs in applying ethical behavior to more complex situations – ultimately leading to ethical values for family life, social coherence (civil rights), the conduct of business, politics, international relations, and more – even to the protection of wildlife and the environment.
Moral laws of acceptable social behavior, ultimately anchored in natural human needs but mostly becoming historically anchored in religious teaching or clan culture, evolved through human history. The first written records of “moral” laws are from Urukagina, King of Lagash, in Mesopotamia, also called Uru’inimgina, approximately 2380 bc, establishing laws against abuse of the poor by the once powerful priests and presenting himself as protector of the weak, widows, and orphans. not long afterward, certain writings with “moral” teachings appeared in Egypt. Then, between 700 and 500 BC, a wave of religious and moral teachings went through mankind with the appearance of Buddha, Lao-Tse, Confucius, and the composition of the Bible, including the emphasis on morals by Isaiah (about 750 - 700 BC). A new wave of moral teaching appeared with some Greek philosophers (Aristotle and the Stoic philosophy) and, mainly, with Jesus. Should one add from later times St. Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Mandela, and others?
In our time, moral laws are increasingly determined by public law based on the same general and natural human needs of all – for security, fairness, freedom, and opportunity – including punishment of violators, freeloaders, and cheaters. Punishment is an expression of natural revenge emotions (or serves a deterrent effect) or serves to isolate incurably dangerous people.
Modern public laws of behavior go far beyond the old religious moral laws – with differences in laws resulting from varying emphasis among different cultures – as for security, protection of property, equal standing of women, balancing of individual interests, protection against misleading behavior, restraint in reciprocal “vengeance”, judgment and treatment of criminals, fairness in offering opportunities, and assistance to the needy.
The evolution of ethical values goes hand in hand with the evolution of modern societies – or the deplorable lack thereof in some parts of the world.
Still, there are two directions for moral laws – either the satisfaction of emotional needs or some utilitarian considerations (such as their usefulness, their rendering of benefit). Religious laws lie somewhere in between, having originated from utility (the Ten Commandments, which do not contain any law about charity or against cheating or exploitation), but having been expanded by rather emotion-based Christian morality.
There also are two distinct attitudes concerning the acts of morality: either of each step in the behavior (process ethics) or through the justification of acts by their moral final purpose (result ethics). Great conflicts can exist between the two and damage caused – in private life and in war (as in recent large-scale bombing of cities and the abundant Muslim violence).
Finally, there is the difference between moral decision-making such that the result brings most benefit for most people (maximizing of result) versus the ethical protection of each individual (civil human rights). During wars, especially during WWII, horrible crimes were committed against large numbers of innocents in order to improve or accelerate the war’s results for all.
The preference for one or the other of the above alternative approaches to morality is mostly not a black-and-white question as in extreme cases, but one of degree in gray zones of decision-making in daily life. In other words, observation of what is going on in society leads to the conclusion that the resolution of splits in morality – emotion vs. utility, process vs. result, and benefit for the most vs. personal protection ethics – depends upon the quantitative weight and urgency of the situations. For example, each individual in our modern society is protected in his or her basic rights. Lately, however, especially after 9/11, various governments decided to authorize their air forces to possibly shoot down civilian airplanes carrying innocent people if a terrorist on board threatens to use the plane as an attack tool against a city.
An attempt is under way to allow all moral laws, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, to evolve into a “global” set of moral laws (see, for example, Hans Küng’s writings and proposals that were discussed at the United Nations). To arrive at such a global set of laws, one would need a globally accepted view of the future world, one easy to define in the coverage of basic needs but more difficult to define in terms of higher goals and ambitions (for example, must the rich support the cure of self-inflicted addictive needs of the poor? Does everybody have the right to unlimited propagation? Are local, natural resources for the benefit of local populations only? What international migration is permissible or asylum-granting mandatory? This list does not include divorce, abortion, and the human rights of various so-called “deviants” or consideration of the commonly occurring “unintended consequences”.
Ethics is also the subject of the rather verbose and involved field of moral philosophy – from Plato and Aristotle to the great teachers of various religions, thinkers of the Enlightenment (for example, regarding the question of hypothetical vs. categorical imperatives [Hume vs. Kant]), to modern thinkers – with new contradictions among them appearing all the time (for example, in the old question whether morality is, ultimately, merely selfish [Hobbes vs. Feinberg, Gauthier]). “Metaethics” attempts to provide a better definition and understanding of the terms used in the discussion of morality, and attempts to distinguish between rational and emotional aspects of moral thought. Normative ethics attempts to provide prescriptive, basic rules for moral behavior. Applied ethics is concerned with the analysis of practical, ethical behavior. Being part of the wider field of philosophy, moral philosophy attempts to use rationality (for example, in the application of the “prisoner’s dilemma” to mutual disarmament). This leads to problems when discussing the emotionality of so much of morality. While addressing some major questions, moral philosophy is not particularly suitable for deciding daily conflicts between contradictory moral demands (for example, those between family demands and those that are public or charitable and self-realization). Debates among moral philosophers are often reduced to an emotional weighing of their skillfully worded, but contradictory, intellectual arguments.
Modern thought and analysis of moral emotionality and behavior are related largely to analyzing the functioning of the human mind – consequently to the functioning of the brain and biochemistry. Therefore, there should be a new field – “neuro-moral philosophy” – with which to analyze the old questions of ethics in a new light and understanding. More realistic findings could be expected.
Differentiation between individuals of the same species is a basic tool of evolution in the subsequent prevailing of the fittest. Among humans, such individuality is significant in self-esteem and in finding purpose or direction in life. More importantly, personality influences thought, behavior, consciousness, free will, and spirituality – and practical success in life.
As was indicated before, some of the basic brain functions defining the human mind show rather wide natural variations between individuals. Some of these variations are structural (as in handedness or in serious variations as in Asperger’s syndrome, other autism, or diseases as Alzheimer’s). Some are quantitative variations, as in emotionality or the capability for visualizations or for focusing of the mind. This results in wide variations of nature-given behaviors or “personalities” between individuals.
Is the “personality” (the thoughts, values, and behavior pattern) of an individual a nature-given constant in time? Is there an evolution of personality – for individuals or for societies? One should consider the stability, variability, and also the multiplicity of expressions of individual personality (see the essay on “Personality” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” in the “Brain-Mind” section).
Personality – the behavior pattern, even the thought and value pattern of an individual – is considered stable and characteristic for a given individual. But this assumption is not comprehensively correct.
- Personality varies somewhat with age (especially during adolescence and in advanced age).
- Personality varies quickly but only temporarily in consequence of biochemical effects (drugs, alcohol, certain foods, inhaled smoke or gases)
- Personality may be changed or supported by cultural influence, but only for as long as one is immersed in or supported by that culture (such as being a member of the military, a monastery, a “congregation”, or an ideological party)
- Personality can change instantly under the influence of situations – in reaction to irritation, success, or a catastrophe
- Personality can change with one’s own thought, as in role-playing, following role models, or in consequence of one’s own determination
- Personality can change in consequence of accidents, brain tumors, and diseases
Brain physiology establishes the strength of signal projections between various midbrain nuclei and the strategy-formulating forebrain – or the lack of such signal strength, possibly in consequence of birth defect, accident (see the famous Gage case), or medical affliction.
The biochemical functioning or sensitivity of the body can be equally variable, as demonstrated by such degenerative diseases as Parkinson’s. More so, the introduction of biochemically active products into the human body can vary behavior patterns and, consequently, “personality”. For example, a cup of coffee in the morning renders a person perkier, while sedatives make one tranquil. Too much alcohol or too many addictive drugs can have a devastating impact on behavior. Medicines are available to correct some behavioral and mood problems.
Perception of the environment can result in changes of valuations of mental associations and can bring about biochemical changes in the body (for example, during phases of rage!).
Adaptation to the surrounding culture is widespread and leads to the regional or national character of populations. It also leads prescriptively to community formation, as in selective schools (in both a positive and a negative meaning), congregations, monasteries, or the military.
Learning in family settings or schools and indoctrination in religious or ideological institutions can lead to variations in the acceptability of behavior and to the stimulation or restraint of behavior. A very large amount of time and expenses is provided by families and society (and all ideologies or religions) to teach or modify personality expression!
Reaction to momentary situations demonstrates the multiplicity of potential personality expressions for each individual.
This variability indicates the possibility for induced or controlled personality change by means of setting the right circumstances for the desired personality expressions – an often overlooked but exceptionally important approach to influencing personality or personality-expression modification, whether in personal development (children), personal relations (marriage and friendship), business relations, communities, or international relations.
One’s own thought can have a substantial influence on behavior stimulation or restraint. It can lead to following role models or to role-playing – another form of the multiplicity of personality expressions.
This indicates a degree of personal responsibility for one’s own character, as given by the chosen personality expression.
Considering the large amount of resources that individuals, families, and communities expend on art – in their homes, on public spaces, on museums and theaters, in the often expensive architectural design of buildings, or in the time spent admiring art and reading fiction or poetry – one must see art as an especially important accomplishment of human evolution. For a more detailed discussion, see the essay “Aesthetics, Art, and Culture” in the section “Brain-Mind” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
There appear to be four different foundations of art as defined in our time:
- Aesthetic sensitivity
- Emotional stimulation or communication (affection)
- Attention-getting (including advocacy)
- Focusing on otherwise overlooked detail
Aesthetic sensitivity, mysterious as it may be, is sometimes related to simple physical correlations – as in musical harmonics being related to even multiples of resonating lengths – see the work of Pythagoras, who exalted his findings into religious teachings. The ideal proportions of ancient buildings offer another example. Still, the basic sensitivity for aesthetics appears to be genetically provided and a common gift of nature to mankind (and to a few animals, even some birds – mainly appearing in mate selection!). Simple decorations appear on all primitive pottery in the history of mankind. All primitive cultures developed music, both melodic and rhythmic – and, possibly, dance and rituals. The enjoyment of fragrances, tastes, tactile sensations (for example, a preference for silk over cotton) can be found in all cultures at all times.
Emotional stimulation (affection) or communication is accomplished mostly through symbolic presentation – as through the image of a great leader, the statue of a god, the picture of a hero or saint – and, in “romantic” periods, through images of beautiful scenery or of familiar settings. Stimulation can be negative – battle scenes, pictures of disasters. Music often stimulates emotions – joyful, religious, or sentimental, as well as longing – or negative, affecting by threatening noises. Fragrances can have affective effects, and not just for humans.
Use and abuse of the affective functioning of art occurs in politics, in ideological groups, in advocacy, and in commerce (marketing) through attention-getting, emotion- forming, and attention-focusing. The arousal of positive feelings of attraction by art is channeled toward the issue or product to be propagated. The most common example is the attempt to associate youthful beauty and attractiveness with the respective issue or product. On the other hand, technical aesthetics (e.g., the shape of a modern airplane), while attractive, cannot be equated with being emotionally “good” or “bad”.
Modern art increasingly uses attention-getting effects, independent of aesthetics. Such effects are too often admitted as art, even the most exotic ones, and are readily exploited in marketing or advocacy.
Focusing on detail can bring aesthetic, emotional, or intellectual responses and, thereby, become a method with which to produce “art”. This is effective, since our life is flooded with sensory inputs – far beyond what we can become “aware” of – and since modern art has opened the door to almost anything that includes any aesthetic or emotional effect – with positive or negative value. The concentration on almost any detail of, mainly, visual perception can lead to the observation of aesthetic, emotional, or attention-getting reactions. Just select a detail of observation, for example, the tiniest leaves at the end of a twig or a small patch of grass, frame them or set them on a pedestal, and the result is accepted as art – and may be interesting or even enjoyable.
4. The Abstract or “Virtual” Functions: Consciousness, Free Will, “Soul”, Spirituality
Some phenomena of the human mind appeared in evolution as “emerging” characteristics of life and thus as new dimensions in existence. On account of their virtual nature, they became concerns of philosophy – for example, consciousness and free will. Beyond that, there appeared in evolution the new phenomena of human spirituality with the consequent appearance and evolution of numerous religions, with their concept of the “soul”. In the dialogue with progressing science, the question arises whether these phenomena are real or merely “virtual” phenomena of the mind.
A meaningful discussion of this subject requires agreement on concept definitions. In this essay, consciousness shall be defined as the knowing of oneself as a person and of the surrounding world in space and time – and the resulting ability to reflect upon both within the limits of thought capability. This definition, while commonly prevalent, has not always been followed in the wide-ranging discussion of consciousness through the centuries. For many philosophers, there is often no clear distinction between momentary “awareness” – as of sensory perceptions or thought – and basic “consciousness”, as it is defined above. As in the case of so many philosophical concepts, one can easily become lost in discussions of semantics and word definitions. Science has not sharply defined the concept of consciousness either, with different scientists using different definitions.
Specifically, “awareness” is a concept different from consciousness and should be used only for the momentary foreground presence of specific mental focus – such as a worm beginning to wriggle when being poked with a stick or an animal suddenly becoming “aware” of a predator – or we becoming aware of a specific foreground phase of thought or actual perception.
The human mind can present only one focus or one thought in awareness at any one time – even though multitasking is possible by means of subconscious thought, fast awareness-switching, or use of the cerebellum part of the brain. Awareness must be analyzed in neurological terms. The neural explanation of awareness – mainly of visual perceptions – has been well presented by Christof Koch in his book The Quest for Consciousness (Roberts & Co., 2004, ISBN 0-9747077-0-8) – even though it is confusingly equated with “consciousness”.
Awareness is already given when sensory input leads to a muscular reflex, as in primitive organisms. Awareness becomes more complex when it leads to the call-up of memory and, more so, when memory elements lead to competition in consequent behavior selection or when “trains of thought” are stimulated in the human brain. At that point, awareness flows into consciousness, especially when it leads to new memory.
“Consciousness”, long discussed by philosophers and more recently by scientists , is a somewhat fuzzy concept. It is generally understood to be a holistic concept for the capability to be aware – when and if focusing on this subject – of oneself and the surrounding world in space and time. There is also the concept of the “subconscious”, the momentary or continued mental activity at low neural firing rate that does not reach awareness – as when one drives along a familiar road. When a subconscious thought reaches awareness (possibly through subconscious recognition of its importance and consequent increase in the neural firing rate), it is considered an “intuition”.
For many philosophers and for some scientists, “consciousness” is the most mysterious essence of being human. In general, and for scientists, it is very surprising that consciousness can be explained simply as a virtual effect resulting from the capability for memory recall of past sensory perceptions, visualizations, or past own thought within the concepts of time and space, thereby allowing us to gloriously transcend our individual existence. This can include all kinds of memory – visual, musical, or other.
Therefore, it is hereby posited that a certain amount of memory of past sensory perceptions, visualizations, and own thought – in their full coverage in space and time – is necessary and sufficient for a resulting amount of “consciousness”, as defined above, to occur.
As indicated earlier, memory elements in the brain are synaptically interconnected, providing for associative linkage in thought. If a primitive person saw only one chair in a hut, then the concept of “chair” would be mentally connected only to the hut, as well as possible events that occurred surrounding the chair. But when another person is a professional designer of airplane seats, then the concept of “chair” may have a much wider variety of associations, from materials used to applications and experiences with that product – thus rendering a much greater addressability of the concept chair by means of such synaptic connectivity – and rendering that person’s “consciousness” that much wider and more complex.
In sum, consciousness is as much developed as:
- the quantity and refinement of memory (also including, for example, elements of emotions, verbal concepts, and timing)
- the addressability or connectivity (complexity) of all memory
Is consciousness restricted to humans? Every dog that scratches where it itches (and stops chasing its own tail) is aware of itself. Every predator with a strategy for capturing prey is aware of its surrounding world.
A useful definition of free will should be at the beginning of any discussion of this subject but usually is lacking – because it is difficult to arrive at and agree upon. One may have to distinguish “free will” from predictability of behavior. More importantly, one may also have to ask how a person with a “free will” would decide differently from a person who lacks “free will”. Is the unrestrained expression of personal preferences equivalent to free will? Do moral and public laws establish restraints on free will? Does lack of physical or mental capability – or lack of knowledge, factual or cultural – constitute restraint on free will?
The answers come easy in extreme cases (black-and-white discussions), but are more difficult to find in “gray areas”. People do not generally jump from bridges; in this sense, they are predictable. But that does not mean they lack free will. They just do what they deem best. Addicts need drugs to satisfy their addiction. Do addictions render people totally un-free? Or do addicted individuals only do what they deem best for themselves? In general, decisions are made based on one’s natural constitution or on what one has learned, experienced, or is expected to do within one’s culture.
There can be various perspectives in the discussion of free will:
- Determinism: Neural determinism, including brain structure and signal timing effects
- Quantum mechanical effects in the brain, rendering expressions of will as phenomena of Chaos Theory
- Unpredictability occurs also on account of complex feedback phenomena in the brain
- Free will in the sense of a fully independent will, defined as being independent of the will of other individuals (for example, political or religious dominance)
- Free will as an expression of personality and selection of personal preferences. How else would a person lacking free will decide?
- Newer insight into the decision-making processes found in economic theories
Determinism, the strongest argument against free will, indicates that preconditions invariably determine outcome. Mental determinism can be seen on the physical level – on the neuro-physiological level – or on the psychological level – the learning and environmental level.
Decisions are made by brain processes. They follow synaptic connections and biochemical conditions. In sum, there is a neurological aspect of free will and determinism. The old philosophy of determinism in the physical world (for example, that by Laplace) was dissolved by the random effects of probability of quantum mechanics and by the unpredictability indicated by Chaos Theory. Study of the brain (see above) indicates a vast amount of deterministic causality of all neural effects. But the study of the brain also indicates vast areas of unpredictability, of synaptic expressions, and of signal timing – and the effect of personal preferences on neural synaptic strength formation due to personal valuations – and, consequently, on subsequent thought and decisions. This leads back to the statement that free will becomes the expression of individual personality and personal preferences – some given by nature, some acquired inadvertently, some resulting from personal deliberation.
The above consideration may render a person’s decisions predictable while also remaining the expression of a free will!
The newest experiments with decision-making in the brain indicate “subconscious” brain activity preceding conscious decisions . This is seen by some philosophers and scientists as an indication of determinism of will under the influence of neural brain functions. There may be a problem with the interpretation of this finding as determinism. After all, subconscious thought is a form of “thought” – see the two essays about mental creativity on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”. Subsequent and “aware” thought follows associative sequences in the brain, leading to verbal explanations – sometimes to “a posteriori” verbal justifications (for instance, the statements by defendants in lawsuits). It is often this subsequent verbal awareness that is remembered as the decision point; the original, subconscious thought still was the expression of that person.
Limits in decision-making result from limitations of knowledge and personality strength or weaknesses – for the latter, including the influence of culture and the environment, see the essay on personality on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”. In sum, expressions of will result from the sum of what was genetically given and what was learned. This allows for some predictability, while also leading to mitigating considerations in judging other people, specifically in criminal justice, and to approaches to the treatment of people, whether considered normal or not (“challenged”).
How would a person with a “free will” ever decide differently from a person who lacks a “free will”? Would not either person strive to express himself or herself? In other words, why should a “free” person want to be somebody different? (Many people may want to be more intelligent or more funny. Limitations of the human mind are, however, a different theme from “freedom of will”.)
Actors can play roles. Most people can assume different personality traits under different circumstances. Decisions can be changed in consequence of challenged behavior or own thought. Even “arbitrary” behavior can result from such a challenge – at least the opposite of what would have to be expected (see adolescents in opposition to their parents).
Independently free will – beyond self-expression on what one has ever learned or liked and the known constraints and expression of given personality – would require omniscience and total independence of personality factors – while still leaving, for example, the search for common benefit in a cultural setting – which, in a philosophical sense, is another restriction on “free will”.
Could preferences remain? One person may prefer one color to others, one taste to others, one fragrance to others. Does that constitute lack of free will? Would free will require absolutely no preference? That would make many decision situations irresolvable – leaving the need for action to arbitrary choice – even to requiring external decision tools such as dice when personal decisions are no longer possible.
People who cannot decide are not well suited for practical life. Nature appears to have provided for decision mechanisms in uncertainty, most likely that found in neural signal-balancing within the brain, combining sensory inputs, midbrain signals (emotions), and frontal cortex processes (thought).
It is interesting to note that even when individuals possess vast knowledge, effects that are distant in time and space are heavily discounted (for example, maintenance tasks, the need to save for a “rainy day” or for retirement, the prevention of global warming and climate change in the future).
If there is no “free will”, would we merely be like the balls in a game of pool, with no true “values”, no freedom, and, consequently, no responsibility? In sum, while “freedom of will” cannot be “proven”, and is lost in philosophical semantics, the hypothesis of “free will”, the freedom to express oneself, still provides the more viable approach to life – leaving “determinism” as an obsessive concern, if not an excuse, but also leaving the need for understanding and proper treatment for those who get into trouble and are, or feel, “guilty” – and leaving the challenge to do right in our lives.
Newer theories of decision-making in economics require differentiation in the assessment of “economic values” (utilities), often measurable, versus beliefs (as in the estimation of probabilities and risks), often given incorrect weight. Both can have emotional content.
It is an important capability of the human brain that it can arrive at decisions in the face of uncertainty – and, in most situations of practical life, does so within a relatively short time – since the resources and time for deeper analysis of situations are mostly not given.
“Soul”, defined differently by different writers, is a linguistic concept that attempts to describe some ultimate essence of a person, like a spiritual homunculus within that person (residing in the head, heart, or “gut”).
A person’s “character”, while also an expression of that person’s personality, is readily recognized to be “virtual”, merely a practical linguistic concept without any form of actual “existence”. A person’s “soul”, however, is seen as an abstract form of a person’s actual existence.
Historically, the idea of a “soul” existing independently of the body may have resulted from reflection on the status of dreaming, related to the human capability for spirituality (discussed below), religions, and beliefs in an afterlife after death. How could it be that somebody who is fully with you one moment – fully alive, but then, the next moment, dead – is seen as an immobile body, as if that person were just dreamingly absent?
Is there a “soul”? What would that be? The “essence” of a person should include that person’s personality (based largely on individual neurophysiology, biochemistry, and cultural experience), that person’s capability for perception (for example, to perceive an afterlife), and some of that person’s memory, at least enough to know who he or she is and is related to.
Why would the soul exist independent of the body or the brain? Why would the soul not be just an expression of the brain (its memory and its “personality”)? All indications point to a total interdependence within the biological body-brain “system”– as demonstrated by the effects of accidents, diseases, or aging on the brain and personality. There are no indications to ever observe the essence of a person (soul) being independent of bodily givens. In other words, the “soul” would be as variable as the conditions of the brain, changing as those do. This leaves the concept of “soul” only as a practical, linguistic expression, to describe the mental aspects of a person in a holistic way – but without any “real” content – similar to the concept of “culture”.
“Spirituality” refers to mental phenomena beyond physical perceptions or logical thought (see discussions above), expected to provide additional insight – as in visions, holistic understanding, or spiritual capabilities – as for healing. Certain spiritual experiences occur unexpectedly, others are searched for in meditation and, thereby, are personally induced.
Brain research has found that dominant, routine daily thought occurs primarily in the left side of the brain and is more detailed or quantitative. Only upon the calming of active thought does right-side activity of the brain prevail and reach awareness. This is mostly of a more geometric (visual) and holistic nature. This has led to better recognition of some situations in life and to greater creativity, even in scientific research and technical innovation (see the article on “mental creativity” on the website). But it also has led to “spiritual” experiences; see religious personalities, including Buddha and Jesus, who went to “live in the desert” to gain greater insight.
Extreme cases of meditation, sensory withdrawal, and physical imbalance through such activities as dieting can lead to “hallucinations” and virtual recognition without real content, for example, in Buddhist “enlightenment” – which has never permitted the solution of any social or practical problem.
It is known that body biochemistry influences emotions. It is equally known that emotional states can influence the body, including endocrine functions and immune responses. The correlation of meditative, “spiritual” settings with emotions can lead to the effects of medical disturbance or medical healing. “Seeing” a bad ghost can lead to loss of hair color, rashes, or digestive dysfunction; yet spiritual phenomena can also be very helpful in healing.
In most cases, moderate forms of spiritual pursuits – such as meditation and the consequent calming and regaining of a holistic view of life – can be highly beneficial.
The great importance of “spirituality” occurring in or resulting from the human mind lies in the fact that some form of “spirituality” is at the root of most or all religions – which then control human life. In the explanation of “visualization” as a mental capability in an earlier paragraph in this chapter, it was indicated how the visualizations of gods or goddesses of past religions can still lead to the impression of received communication from those visualizations.
The human mind can become captivated by “spiritual” sensations. Individuals can become captivated by ideologies or religions, closing their minds to alternatives or reality.
More dangerously, committed adherents of an ideology or religion often enter into a struggle for the expansion and supremacy of their own mental perception – similar to tribal warfare or the struggle among individuals for rank and power – some turning violent – rejecting tolerance (see the Christians in the Middle Ages, later and still now the Muslims).
The strongest foundation of ideological or religious groups lies in the forming of social groups or “congregations”.
There may be some benefit for the individual derived from belonging to a certain group. But the neurological foundation of these effects in the brain is not clear.
This may lead to the observation that the formation of religious movements and their struggle against each other corresponds to the step in natural evolution from individuals to the formation of societies and their emerging properties (see the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
In sum: The mental capability for “spirituality”, for being able to see a transcendental order beyond the practical one, may have given peace and strength to many people throughout history. On the other hand, the “spiritual” nature of such recognition – not based on practical observation, practical evaluation, and ongoing improvement – too often resulted in misguided conclusions and, therefore, to unfavorable developments for those following such guidance – not to mention the horrible consequences of religious wars and suppression.
The human mind is the greatest asset given to us by natural evolution – to improve and fulfill our lives and that of others – to pursue a more meaningful “Journey Through Time and Existence”.
History shows how specific capabilities of the human mind had different significance at different times of the evolution of human societies. Detailed observation shows how mental capabilities vary among individuals, some on account of experiences, learning, or personal effort.
This implies a degree of responsibility or challenge to develop or maintain our mental capabilities and to use them responsibly!
Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values
Is there meaning or purpose in life? What direction remains for us?
An Analysis and Attempt at Unifying the Perspectives of
Religion, Science, and Personal Observation
tempered by the Experience of Practical Life and Human Sensitivity
1. INTRODUCTION: A NEW AWARENESS OF EXISTENCE
During the late years of a long journey through life, one would like to offer a parting, supportive message to following travelers in their struggle – if not some useful advice, then at least some encouragement or comfort. How does one dare do that when a vision of life is not just a rosy one and some basic observations do not bring comfort? How can one dare present a modern, critical view of the foundation of existence, and thereby take comfort away from burdened fellow travelers supported by traditional religions? After all, not only facts, but also emotions, are significant in life. All valuations of our experience of living come from our emotions, diverse as they are, extending from materialistic satisfaction to the most noble sentiments.
Many people have a fairly clear concept of the world they live in, as well as of their personal lives. I envy them – if they have really thought about it and are sincere. However, wealth, power, and entertainment – ever more of them – cannot be everything one should want to live for, especially not when to the disadvantage of other people! Shall we retreat to the basic joys of enough food, shelter, harmony in marriage and family life, an occasional walk through nature and some pictures on the wall? Is that enough to fulfill our lives? Is the objective to get safely into heaven (of what kind?) or nirvana (a form of not-being) upon death enough to give meaning to all the years of our life on this Earth, where there is still so much that could be improved? There should be some goals to activate the young ones and to fulfill our own lives! What is the meaning or purpose of life, what direction should we actually pursue? Wake up from your routines in life and think about it!
For some of us, the concepts of the world and of life are not clear. We cannot grasp the ultimate forces behind destiny, nature, and the origin of the universe. There are too many contradictions between the various philosophical, religious, and political tenets we are expected to accept in our diverse cultures and from our own observations. Consequently, we cannot be at all sure about the meaning of our lives or the right course to pursue. As we grow older, neither our childhood faith nor our adolescent philosophy of life is as clear or solid as it used to be. As our lives progress, we experience and observe the reality of practical life and participate in a wider spectrum of human experiences. Even then – or even more so – the results of our intellectually trained thoughts or the (hopefully) matured emotions of our hearts do not easily answer our fundamental questions regarding the ultimate essence of existence, of meaning, purpose, or direction in life, of finding support and answers to urgent prayers from a divine essence of our universe – nor are our own thoughts, questions, and observations clear and unequivocal.
Our own perceptions of existence and life were formed largely by our upbringing – the books we read, the people we associate with, our environment, and the communities and countries we lived in. Are these subjective perceptions objectively tenable and sufficient? What other concepts would we have arrived at or chosen if we lived somewhere else or if we were totally on our own in this world?
Here is an interesting thought: What if we had just come into existence on this day, at this age, totally on our own? What if we had no knowledge of any family, any religion, any nationality, any prior cultural influences, any prior perceptions, commitments, or habits of thought? What if we were not settled in deep respect for Christian values and in Western urban life – or in a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or other environment?
Wouldn’t we, at first, be amazed that we exist?
Wouldn’t we ask many questions? This new attitude of looking at existence in a new light, in an attitude of new, unencumbered exploration, one can call the “Awareness of the Phenomenon of Existence”. The resulting attitude of mental freedom is the thread that runs through the entire thought process in the presentation that follows.
What thoughts would come to our mind when this new awareness of existence occurred? At first, we would be startled by suddenly existing! We would be startled by having been given a body, a mind, a personality, and the chance to be where we are, but only for a very limited period of time called “our life”. We would accept the factual knowledge that we, together with billions of other individuals, were on a rather small planet of one among billions of stars in a galaxy, at a point about 30,000 light years off its center. We would accept as fact that there are billions of other galaxies in the universe, each composed of billions of stars, all having already existed for billions of years. This sets an interesting scale for the small significance of our own limited existence – which lasts only for a few decades, a mere spark in cosmic time.
Here we are now. How do we proceed from here? As is typical of the modern human mind, we have questions about causation, origin, meaning, purpose, and, mainly, direction to pursue during our existence. After some reflection, we arrive at our main question: Is there a creative and controlling force in the universe, a “God” as we humans call such a force, or is there merely a vague and abstract “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence” that has caused our existence to occur?
And what, if anything, can one rightly know or believe about this God, if there is one, or about this “Essence of Existence”? Why did we, and the world around us, come to exist? Does existence have any purpose? Is there an order behind the evolution of existence? If so, what brings that order about, and how is that order structured? What are the objectives of any evolution, if there actually are any objectives at all?
Can we or anyone else have any meaningful contact with the force or essence behind existence, with God? In other words, is there a personally reachable and responding God? What would it mean to us if it were found that no God had given any directives to the human race, no God would judge individuals or nations by their moral actions and, mainly, that God is not reachable by, or responsive to, prayers or cries for help? What would it mean to us if there were no actively interfering spiritual forces – or no purpose in cosmic existence?
Consequently, what significance – what direction and guiding parameters (values) – can we establish for our own life during the limited span of our existence?
Religion, science, and personal observation
The concepts of “religion” or “transcendental” refer to mental phenomena beyond the physical world and are thought to be beyond scientific understanding (which always requires verification by reproducible, factual experiments and measurements, leading to “knowledge”).
Most religions attempt to explain the origin and also the functioning of our world as based on the action of Gods or a transcendental essence. From this understanding, religious leaders assume the position of providing moral, social, and, occasionally, hygienic teachings and the format for communication with the Gods in prayers or rituals – even if this is not a clear connection.
The theme of “Religion” is discussed in detail in the essay “Religion: What Is Religion? What Should Religion Be?” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” in the section on “Philosophy/Theology”. That essay covers the following aspects of religion:
- What is the origin of religions?
- What provides for the stability and what for the change or evolution of religions?
- What would be a beneficial approach to the question of religiosity?
- What benefits and problems derive from organized religion – congregations, churches?
- Would other “conscious”, extraterrestrial beings in the universe have any religions?
- What is “cosmotheology”?
What is the origin of religions? Historically, religions are a universal mental phenomenon of mankind – naturally evolving from the universal human search for causality in natural phenomena beyond understanding. The universal capability of the human brain for visualizations of the mind led to the assumption of unseen, “spiritual” causations of otherwise unexplainable phenomena – such as the movement of the sun, wind, weather, lightning, earthquakes, diseases, and unforeseen probabilistic accidents. Once another, transcendental, virtual world was seen, the phenomenon of death, the departure of a living being, led to the concept of ongoing life in another, spiritual world and to the immortality of the “soul”.
Historically, about 2,500 years ago, a wave of searching thought was going through mankind. At that time, Confucius, in ancient China, saw the problems of existence on Earth and proposed a solution in adherence to strict rules of human behavior – leading to calm and harmony. The Hindu Upanishads relate less to our problems on Earth and more to finding an understanding of God – as the ultimate Essence of Existence. Buddha, despairing at the extent of all the suffering on Earth, suggested that one close one’s mind to all emotional involvement on Earth, tried to get out of it through the experience of Nirvana. The Hebrews progressed to the recognition of an ultimate essence of existence, seeing it in an anthropomorphic God – hopefully a benevolent one. They saw the solution of appeasing God in observing rules agreeable to God – assumed to have been issued by God – increasingly detailed – including not only behavior but hygiene, clothing, and food as well – finally more than 600 of them. Another man from the Mideast, Thales of Milet, with parents from Phoenician Tyre, started with practical thought and observation – opening the world to reason, then to philosophy, and finally to the sciences. That is how the Western world progressed to where it now stands, with all its immense improvements – and remaining deepest problems.
Many religions actually are the result of the observations and thought of especially gifted people in their historical cultures. Today, their thoughts would be called “theories” of the functioning of the world – as Einstein’s Relativity Theory once was until proven valid by further observations and experiments.
Other religions resulted merely from spiritual “visions” leading to “beliefs”, which were then taken for otherworldly “real”. In Chapter 2 of this essay, the functioning of the “Human Mind” is discussed, including the capability for “visualizations”. The experiment described how the visualization of an ancient god or goddess can lead to assumed communication with this visualized presence, then possibly leading to religious consequences. Consequently, all religious visualizations are in line with the then and there existing conditions and habits or their extrapolation.
The great desire to see favorable divine forces and the fact that religions were established by already prevalent or content individuals led to the assumption of a favorably guiding God, a God one could lean on, the ideal of mankind. A “true” and generally valid religion should, however, be valid for both the winners and the losers. What can those believe of God who, in the end, have to cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” – or the thousand workers who were recently crushed in a building in Bangladesh – or parents of a child who was just diagnosed with cancer?
In other words, the good or warm “visualizations” by some founders of religions must be complemented by observation of the real life of all of us. The theories of the successful British rabbi Jonathan Sacks, focusing on Old Testament visions, are not convincing. Many of us still find peace and support in believing in the God Father of Christianity. Can all of those who perished also believe this?
In most religions, doubts are not allowed and experiments regarding the truthfulness of the religion are considered punishable blasphemy. What if a statistical experiment were made to find out how many, and which, prayers were answered by God and how many, and which, were not? What if theological conclusions were drawn from the fact that modern Western countries flourished more than those in their most fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist phases?
From the mental belief in transcendental forces (gods) resulted the universally found practical attempt to favorably influence such spiritual forces, leading to various forms of sacrifices and to rituals.
Sooner or later, all religions connected presumed divine favors with proper human behavior and misfortune with the lack thereof. This evolved into the search for divinely acceptable moral laws by way of meditation, mental intuition, or visualized divine revelations – as often proclaimed by religious leaders and priests – often returning to basic ethical behavior.
In times past, the struggle for survival and basic needs was predominant. Throughout most of history, people were tied to their occupations – farming, fishing, the trades, and so on. In our time, there is some surplus in resources; mainly, there are more choices in life regarding occupation and priorities in values. There is more pressure on demonstrating personal value and accomplishment in real terms. Furthermore, the sciences and general education have brought more knowledge about the world we live in and its evolution in time: the origin of the universe, natural evolution, and the historic development of mankind. This, in turn, led to new questions concerning existence and the essence of life – often leading to conflict with established religions.
The sequence of new religions through history was mostly opposed by common beliefs and the power structures of priests of the established religions, then too often accomplished by way of conquest. New religions often brought mental progress, even liberation (as also Islam once did). Further mental progress, however, then also let those once new religions appear suppressive. Only occasionally did mental liberalization in a culture permit peaceful progress, as in the time of ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and in our modern time (except in the Muslim world).
Our modern time, more than any other, emphasizes the human search for a meaning in life – a search for purpose and direction. Traditional religions were expected to provide explanations concerning meaning or purpose and guidance for our lives and actions. But traditional religions are often unable to convincingly fulfill this need for the modern, scientifically trained mind – leading either to a rejection of rationality and retreat into dangerous religious fundamentalism (some of it violent, see Islam) or to aimlessness. Some answers to these questions are presented in the following sections of this chapter.
In this world, each organism is threatened by accidents and is attacked by diseases, parasites, predators (including humans), or natural catastrophes. All too often, the innocent and very young meet terrible calamities. The great catastrophes – plagues, wars, violent invasions, the Holocaust, bombings, ethnic cleansing, terrorists, and such natural disasters as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions – have killed or injured innumerable individuals and destroyed civilizations. There is no end to cruelty in this world. The very urgent outcries of too many innocent victims have remained unheard or unanswered. The sad conclusion, then, is that one cannot see a benevolent, all-guiding, readily helping, and evil-preventing God actively ruling this world. 
This is a most serious loss of support – which then calls that much more for mankind’s own responsibility for the conditions here on Earth and for benevolent action!
Further sincere problems arose to the modern mind by observing that only very selective observation has allowed maintenance of the belief that sacrifice and “acceptable” behavior (or “following the law”) lead to divine favors and their neglect to divine punishment or misfortune in this world (even though attempts to teach and prove this correlation continue in our own time). Observation shows that, too often, “bad” individuals fare well and that too many innocent or “good” individuals suffer in this world – just read the newspaper or watch TV for a few days.
A valid religion cannot be merely the religion of survivors and lucky people. It should also be valid for those who perish and suffer in spite of their good deeds and in spite of their most urgent prayers for help – or when calamities happen to their children, close relatives, or friends.
Religions have found a solution to this dilemma in the concept of a judgment of the “souls” (or of the “resurrected” body) after death and a compensating afterlife – for the “good” in paradise or in Nirvana, for the “bad” in hell.
Most religions still maintain the above concepts – maintaining sacrifices and ritual for the presumed pleasure of the gods, combined with morally acceptable behavior intended to obtain divine favors or avoid punishment in this world – combined with a belief in a last judgment and a compensating afterlife. Some of the reported mental “visions” may permit selective belief in this.
Concerning the questions of meaning, purpose, and direction in life, the different religions, as they evolved, came to similar conclusions – finding the only answer in a single-perspective view – in the effort to get out of this world and into the next one (or Nirvana) as safely as possible, through collection of merit in this world – with merit generally described in moral or charitable terms and in terms of providing sustenance (if not wealth) for monasteries or churches and their hierarchies.
The worst form of gaining merit presently appears in the Muslim world – through suicidal self-sacrifice in “jihad”, to reach heaven instantly, even at the cost of killing and wounding many others, most of them innocents. The wounded ones then often have to live the rest of their lives in suffering and misery!
Seen historically, some remnants of older human goals and directions have remained among the governing and warrior classes – in values described, for example, by fidelity, honor, courage, and conquest. Then came the Renaissance, bringing with it an emphasis on learning, mental exploration, and the arts as significant fields of human expression and experience and, thereby, fulfillment or purpose in life. This development was accelerated by the rise of the middle class, specifically during the industrial revolution and in democracies.
While not presented by any of the great teachers of mankind, our modern world actually accepted a triple perspective on the meaning and purpose of life and the direction to pursue:
- personal development in mental growth and exploration
- moral goodness or service to others
- pursuit of the arts
Lately, environmental protection has been added as a perspective.
Faced with the practical problems of our rising societies, all religions have accepted the need for mankind to somehow look after law and order and to provide some public balancing of economic fortune by means of tithing, taxation, or charity – where divine action did not occur!
In some cultures, this allows the ruling Imams, Mullahs, or kings and nobility to see this task of ruling mankind as their God-instituted mandate or privilege, as an extension of God’s power and action in this world.
Democracy, however, has not accepted this mindset.
Many aspects of the old religions have disappeared in our time – with varying rates of decline among different populations – sometimes resulting in the liberation of people, sometimes leaving others in mental or moral insecurity, even in deep loneliness and without support by their God.
The transition in historical times from the polytheism of primitive cultures to monotheism was not an easy one. The quiet springs in nature no longer harbored nymphs, the wild oceans were no longer ruled by Poseidon, and the sun was no longer a God-driven heavenly chariot in the sky. How was it possible that all those deities, that were so evident before, were now, all of a sudden, said never to have existed? Had all those people of times past prayed in vain, addressing their prayers to spiritual emptiness, to figments of their imagination?
The diverse Christian cults of saints and the adoration of Mary, with numerous chapels and places of pilgrimage where absolution could be obtained, were substitutes serving all those naive, sincere, and often suffering people and did them good. More importantly, the new hope for admission to a wonderful “paradise” and the vision of a loving God-Father, combined with the newly appearing social structure of the people in supportive congregations (the main support of all ideologies and religions), facilitated the transition from the pagan world to the new religion.
As said before, the loss or absence of religion, while greatly liberating for some, may be heavily felt by those who are suffering and lonely – specifically when social bonds are not an avenue for help or for own corrective action.
Were religions only spiritually enhanced observations (visualizations) by the human mind to explain the functioning of life on Earth – subject to clarification as mental knowledge set in? If ethics resulted as a social benefit from natural evolution, does that also apply to moral laws?
The search for “God” is generally based on an “outgoing” search for a transcendental personality as described by earlier religions and too close to a human understanding of a “creator” or “ruler” of the world. This may be a basically wrong approach.
One should not try to find what one almost knows or wants to know to exist. As in a “listening” approach, one should only ask what understanding one can possibly gain by observation (where observation is possible) about the transcendental (pre-physical) origin, and possible control of what we perceive as the structure and functioning of our existence (leaving open that there might be other universes).
After all, “existence” has a special way of appearing (and vanishing) and has a more or less clearly observable structure – material and spiritual (as in our minds, emotional values, and even appreciation of aesthetics), which might be different in different universes. Relativity theory and, mainly, quantum mechanics with probabilistic effects offer special problems to an understanding of any underlying “essence” (for lack of a better word) from which the structure of existence in any universe arises.
What is left of evolving religions? Even in our “scientific” time, the question of the origin of the universe remains the most fundamental enigma, leading to transcendental, if not religious, explanations in our mind, beyond the sciences.
The nascent universe, called “Creation” in the religious view, was found to have basically intellectually structured characteristics – energy (as oscillating fields in the vacuum), a specific set of particles, forces, natural laws, basic principles and constants of nature, additionally the phenomena of quantum mechanics. All these phenomena were made understandable to the human mind by physics and mathematics. Their origin can or must be found in a transcendental, “Origin- and Structure-Providing Essence” or spirituality – an ultimate Essence of Existence – to which one can either not give a name or can call “God” (or merely “X”). But the astronomical recognition of the vastness of the universe and the expectation of parallel or other universes does not allow an anthropomorphic view of such ultimate creative essence, rather a most transcendental one.
Yet, the assumption of a transcendental origin of the universe does not imply ongoing involvement of this originating Essence in the following natural evolution or human history (the question of the “living God”) or a personally helping responsiveness of this Essence to human prayer (the “personal God”) or a final “judgment” of “souls” after their death.
And what are religious or divine “revelations”? The brain’s capability for visualizing speech – appearing as the common phenomenon of the “inner voice” (see the discussion of “visualizations” above) – can, in the believer’s mind, lead to the perception of verbal, divine religious guidance. Depending on where one stands denominationally, such verbal or visual personal “visualizations” or revelations are either accepted as being of divine origin or are totally rejected as such (see the voices and visions experienced by early Christians, by Mohammed in perceiving the Qur’an, by Joseph Smith in perceiving the Book of Mormon, by Reverend Moon as founder of the Unification Church, by certain preachers of various religious sects of our day, or as reported by numerous individuals all the time from their daily lives, whether sane, insane, or criminal).
In any event, psychology recognizes the various phenomena of split personality and of hallucination in schizophrenia which can, at least temporarily, lead to the loss of distinction between visualizations and reality. This leads in the believer’s mind to assuming the visualization of speaking angels as actual appearances. Their “divine” messages must be followed and cannot thereafter be modified – thereby freezing religious evolution.
An additional warning: While one always sees an exception to one’s own religion from criticism, it is easily piled on other religions, and vice versa. Unrealistic religious expectations, however, lead to a misdirected life and can bring great suffering to both the believers and the world.
Religions with voluminous holy texts too easily allow selective following of some few verses, possibly leading in divergent extremist directions (see some Christians in the Middle Ages and, more so, Muslims implementing the killing of those leaving their religion, the so defined “apostates”, or of perceived religious enemies in some “jihad” in our days).
Selective reading or interpretation of holy texts is used for some adaptation of old religions to the themes of modern times, some dangerous and inhibiting (birth control), some benevolent (charities) – thereby changing the veracity and value of such religions.
On the other hand, one should not overlook that benevolent religions can bring comfort and strength to weak, suffering, lonely, or hopeless people, where nothing else can – sometimes for their support and benefit. Unfortunately, such faith can sometimes, also, prevent the believers from activating their own remaining strength to pursue a more beneficial course in resolving their problems.
Religious people fear that the abolition or loss of religiosity would lead to loss of morality, to excessive selfishness, greed, licentious behavior, and aimlessness in life – and use this argument for the support of their religions. This may not be true or justified. Basic ethical emotions are genetically anchored by nature and are a necessity for the continuation of life, especially for social life (such as caring for offspring, reciprocity in friendship or networks, sacrifice for the group, and respect for others). Basic human nature and strictly practical considerations will not only continue to support basic “moral” laws, but their expansion will be visible in all the strictly secular civic and criminal laws of modern nations.
Closing and Summary Comments:
Religions tend to promote a very human image of God. Does observation of the universe allow any conclusions regarding the nature of the Creating Spirit, God? Does the fact that causality is at the root of the functioning of the universe indicate that “time” and reliable physical causality are part of the creating spirit? Does the fact that we sense human love and compassion allow the expectation of love and compassion in the Creating Spirit? Does all the horrible cruelty and senseless destructiveness in nature and history indicate such a cruel and insensitive character of “God”?
The abstract nature of the Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence, far above the human mind, does not allow such conclusions as taken from the human world on Earth.
A less “anthropomorphic” (human-like) understanding of the ultimate “Structure Providing Essence of Existence” than believed by most religious people cannot be equated with simplistic “atheism” – which negates all spirituality at the root of existence. It can not even be called “agnosticism” – which claims that no truth about a transcendental background of existence can be found. At best, it can be seen as a variant between fundamentalist, historical religiosity and a moderate form of “agnosticism” in not daring to be able to reach the height or depth of that most transcendental Essence which brought forth Existence and its Structure.
Were not all religions still “agnostic” regarding an in-depth understanding of their gods? The more primitive gods of prehistoric times were mostly seen as super-humans. Protagoras of Athens (490 to 420 BC) was possibly the first “agnostic” by challenging what one could know about the gods. The Indian Nasadiya Sukta (possibly a later addition to the Rigveda) deals with thoughts of agnosticism. The “Great Spirit” of the American Indians and the Jahweh or Jehova of the Old Testament or of the Qur’an is not described in any detail as a “person” either. Jehova is reported as having led the Jewish people through the wilderness and occasionally helped them – even showed emotions at times (and went for a walk in his garden, Eden “in the freshness of the evening”) – but is not known as having done anything specific anywhere else to any other people on Earth or at any other time. What controlled or guided the successes of the Assyrians, Romans, or Mongols against the Jews or Muslims in those days? The vague religious indication that every detail of destiny for all people on Earth is controlled by God is in clear contradiction with the immense cruelty, vast destructiveness, and, often, senselessness of events in nature and throughout history.
Our prayers can still be in greatest admiration of that “Structure Providing Essence of Existence” – but for us humans on Earth there remains the responsibility to act for ourselves – searching, helping, and improving our lot.
This is where we stand with the concept of the “Structure Providing Essence of Existence”. All we can conclude derives from the observation of the universe we live in and from the observation of our human course through time – driven by our goals and hopes.
Could there be progress in religious beliefs? Organized religions can easily become closed systems of thought, incapable of further evolution or of keeping pace with the evolution of human knowledge, thought, and cultures. It can happen that this incapability for evolution of religious thought holds up the evolution of the underlying culture and society. Examples are the stagnation of societies dominated by religious hierarchies (who are mostly inflexible) or are limited by inadequate constitutions (as are some modern democracies).
The evolution of religion appears to occur, as does the evolution of species in nature, subject to random events of history and the appearance of variations of thought (in the minds of the reformers) and in accordance with borderline conditions and opportunities. Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha were individuals embedded in their time and culture, as were Luther and Gandhi – all brought innovations commensurate with opportunities – Buddha gained India, then lost it all but won all of China; Jesus had seen the imminence of the end of the world and preached primarily to the Jews, then was accepted all over the world except among the Jewish people. Luther, fundamentalist in his own way, gained only northern Europe, but impacted the rest of the world over centuries.
The above-mentioned essay on “Religion” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com” indicates that the wide variety of cultures, with their different states of evolution and the wide variety of human individuals on Earth, needed, and possibly still needs, a certain variety of religions in their phases f evolution:
o The old cults of symbolic sacrifices and giving thanks to the forces of nature and destiny in a simple way – for those who still simply live close to nature and for the simple of mind
o Strict faith in moral laws and a divine judgment – for our urban societies as they become wealth-, power-, and basic pleasure-oriented
o Faith in humanly addressable, merciful forces of destiny, in forgiveness, love, and the Christian concept of a merciful “God-Father” – for the many sensitive individuals who struggle in life, who sincerely search, and who must often suffer so very much in this world, also in compassion – and also for the gratefully joyous ones to direct their thanks
o The view of a totally abstract Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence of the grandiose, dynamic universe with its finely tuned forces and natural laws
- for the thinking, sensing, and acting living beings in our modern world – with their search for meaning, purpose, and direction – with emphasis on not relying on an all-interfering god, but on personal responsibility and initiative
- for the mental fulfillment of one’s own life – and in contribution to the improvement of the surrounding world – through personal, exploring development, through caring and compassionate (Christian) service to others, the community, and our environment – and with joy in observing the beauty of Creation and the arts – but also with acceptance of the unavoidable
2. About Meaning, Purpose, and Direction in Existence
Since Copernicus’ discovery, highlighted by Galileo’s unfortunate process, we know that our Earth is not at the center of Creation. Additional discoveries in modern times – of a universe filled with billions of galaxies – cause us to expect that there was, is, and will be other intelligent life in this universe – a universe which, after all, has been in existence for almost 14 billion years.
There is reason to believe that the appearance of intelligent life on other heavenly bodies must also have resulted from a process of evolution, since all heavenly bodies were very hot when originally formed and, subsequently, have been cooling. Other intelligent life must have been progressing from some primitive forms of beginning life to their higher forms, as they have been on Earth. One must assume that these other civilizations in the universe occurred or will be occurring at various times, most of them at different times from the appearance of human civilization on Earth. This implies that the appearance of the animate phase of existence and the appearance of more gifted, or “intelligent”, living beings did not happen first on Earth.
Why, then, did 2.5 billion years lapse between the appearance of single-cell life on Earth and its evolution, during the Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian periods, into sophisticated and diversified organisms? Why did it take 600 million additional years of Darwinian struggle for humans to appear on Earth, if those innovations had already occurred to the “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence” of the universe”, to God, at an earlier time?
Furthermore, we now know that all inanimate and all naturally “living” existence in the universe will come to a certain end, if not by another extinction, then at a calculable time in the future – as their respective stars overheat or cool off and, possibly, fall into giant black holes or later disappear as infinitely dissipating and ever-colder radiation.
In conclusion, the pervasive, inanimate phase of celestial bodies of existence may have been, and still is, nothing but fireworks for the pleasure of one viewer, the Formative and Spiritual Essence of Existence – God. Equally, the Darwinian phase of life, possibly occurring differently on different celestial bodies, may be nothing but a transient, kaleidoscopic pleasure for its Creator, with no other meaning or purpose in itself.
How “cold” or boring-to-observe would an astronomical universe be without life!
The “human” phase of natural evolution (whatever that could mean on other celestial bodies) demonstrates, among those organisms, the existence of a degree of perception of existence and mental freedom in formulating a response – either on an individual level or by leaders, by teams of leaders, or through team spirit – possibly supported and guided by the capability for consciousness, goal formulation, or “values” – implying a degree of responsibility for the result of such behavior.
These conscious beings, within their limitations, become co-viewers and co-actors in the existence of the universe, adding their own purpose to the evolution of existence.
Looking at the political and economic conditions that exist on Earth, it is indeed pathetic that we humans, possibly still in an early phase of development, continue to struggle here on Earth with the consequences of our weaknesses and shortcomings.
There may be no meaning or purpose in the existence of our universe (beyond the pleasure of the Creating Essence, God); but there is specific purpose and direction to pursue in our own lives – to reach our natural potential and to assume responsibility for forming our own environment in accordance with our values – in reaching out in curiosity and in mental or cultural growth, in assisting or serving our fellow beings or society, and in perceiving artistic joy – thereby “fulfilling” our human existence.
The purpose of personal existence is a mandate to utilize the given opportunities, to fulfill personal existence, and to contribute to the world’s development in this, our own phase of history – with all our nature-given capabilities and human values, and in accordance with the opportunities available to us.
One must mention the limits of opportunities, because Creation is moving on a large scale, with unevenness in detail. While Creation grows and develops in general, large sections of Creation have always been given to oblivion, without continuity, indicating no other meaning than to once have existed. Large segments of our Earth have been destroyed by natural disasters; human communities and families have been wiped out by plagues. All kinds of living beings have been run over by vehicles; children die in accidents. Many, if not most, human individuals have lived in constrained circumstances and have not found fulfillment in the full use of their gifts. But are we to judge the “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence”, God? We can only search for peace of heart by giving ourselves to existence as it is, by accepting and using responsibility and initiative in struggling to the best of our capabilities within the time and within the opportunities given to us in existence.
Human advance implies struggle. Considering the diversity in nature, however, there is room for both the weak and the strong. Each individual must choose a personal path among possible approaches to existence, extending from the tender and humble to the powerful and pioneering, each one developing the initiative to use his or her given capabilities to the fullest.
Should we now work twenty hours every day to implement the results of our thoughts and transform the world in accordance with our values? Earlier phases of our civilization, especially in the previous century, were filled with such ideals. Now, we are more critical. We want to conserve the environment and historic places. We see too much development as negative. At the same time, though, we all want to have a car and a computer and fly to distant places on vacation. We want to help Third World countries reach our level of well-being – all the while protecting the global environment. We do want more development, but of the “right” kind.
The meaning and purpose of human existence should not be quantitatively defined, but qualitatively. It should be value-related.
Many people, if not most in the world, still struggle for bare survival. They must necessarily satisfy their basic needs – and enjoy the elevating love of their families.
In our successful societies, most people merely want a more comfortable life, preferably with some reserves (or wealth); they want to have some significance (or power) in society, and they want to be entertained.
Few people on Earth have the time, resources, or (admirable) determination to strive for mental growth, to dedicate some of their resources and time to public service or charity, to partake joyously in the art and cultural aspects of their society, and to care for nature.
This is the resulting, ranking matrix of human goals and values:
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Nature, Life, Art,
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society, Action Potential
Family and Clan
While most philosophies and religions teach the pursuit of only one value – be it ethical perfection or withdrawal – the fact is that all individuals are embedded in a combination of the three distinct value directions on three different levels, constantly requiring balancing compromises.
Reduced satisfaction thresholds on a lower level allow earlier elevation to a higher level.
Personal strength, effort, focus, and some success are needed to reach the next level, to gain security, dignity, freedom, and reserves in wealth or power for responsible action.
It is disappointing, however, to see success defined only on the middle level in terms of ever more wealth or power as the only goal of gifted individuals and whole segments of the human society – all used for nothing but entertainment or basic pleasures! Ultimate fulfillment comes from reaching the highest level – of mental growth, caring service, and culture.
Additional comments regarding conflicts between different directions in life:
The fact that there are not one but three different directions for our life – personal development, dedication to others and the community, and art or culture – necessarily leads to conflicts between those preferences when time and resources are limited. Christ indicated only extreme solutions – preference for celibacy and for selling all one’s belongings for the benefit of the poor. Historically, there were only two famous thoughts supposed to lead out of this predicament, Aristotle’s and Kant’s, both of which are unsatisfactory.
Aristotle sees virtue as being found in the right balance between two undesirable extremes, one usually being weak deficiency, the other foolish excess. However, Aristotle cannot indicate what the “right” balance is. This balance may be different from case to case. Nor does Aristotle provide guidance in situations of conflict between different values.
Kant, in his Categorical Imperative, indicates that one should act in such a way that “the guideline of one’s action could be used as a directive for general legislation”. However, all people are different. The situations of their lives are different; and their cultures may be different. Therefore, one’s own Kantian maxim may not apply to others. If the guidelines were formulated universally for all people on Earth, they could become so vague as to be useless for decision-making in the practical situations of life. Kant does not provide guidance in trying to find the universally right guidelines, especially not in situations of conflict.
These writings present thoughts about “direction” in life, but not a collection and discussion of all the crimes to avoid – some simple to define, as murder, violence, and stealing – others more abstract, as cheating and not communicating the truth – and, mainly, the gray zone of exploitation of others. Exploitation of others became the main theme of historic social upheaval in society – from the formation of democracies to such liberators as Garibaldi or Bolivar, to egalitarians such as Marx and Engels, and to the struggle between the political parties in our time or the question of fair taxation. The granting of financial advances, often at a high interest rate, to individuals who cannot afford the repayment and then possession of their property or financial enslavement must be considered a special (and historical) crime of our and many other cultures.
More thought should be given to this problem!
Ethical standards of inter-human behavior are a central part of our values. They provide the foundation of our human essence and, hence, our role in the universe. Originally, they were derived from the genetic fixation of ethical behavior in social animals and humans as caused by natural evolution (evolved as an evolutionary advantage through the resulting social coherence and group efficiency) – and subsequently expanded through our value-guided minds and emotions, some subsequently formulated through “religious” inspirations of gifted individuals.
Ethical standards suffer from conflict with practical needs. Nobody will divide his or her property down to the lowest denominator of all the poor people he or she may encounter. There are moments when lying – even killing – is necessary for survival or to help others. Job obligations in an organization do not allow for the pursuit of personal ethical preferences, as in hiring and firing or in fighting off competition.
Fundamentally, there are the conflicts in ethics between “process” and “goal” justification, and those between trying to reach the greatest good for the most people or to respect all individual “human rights” at all times.
Lack of guidance in the dilemmas of having to limit ethical behavior is the most disturbing problem in attempting to clarify one’s convictions and to find a clear path through life. Celibacy and poverty for all is not the answer – and a philosophy of ethics often fails. Conscience is not an adequate guide – nor is reason, philosophy, theology, or practical experience.
What is the conclusion? Compromise of ethical behavior with other demands of life is necessary. Time and resources are needed for personal growth in knowledge, skills, and character development, for one’s family and friends, for the arts, a walk through nature, sitting on the porch as an old man and enjoying one’s blessings, pursuing one’s hobbies – all within limits. But which?
In any event, in searching for a compromise, one had better stay more on the demanding side of one’s ethical standards.
3. In Sum:
For many people, life is a serious struggle, one with limited hope. But as we lift our heads, we can deeply appreciate our human capability to perceive the grandiose universe or the beauty of a flower – or merely the beauty of a drifting cloud – and to actively participate in the small area, and for the limited time, of our personal existence.
This vision of the ultimate origin and evolving existence provides us with the inspiration to assume responsibility, to rise and responsibly fulfill our life as best we can. This vision can also provide us with peace, and it can comfort us in accepting the limitations of our life and our ultimate return to where we came from.
As all nature strives to live, grow, and evolve, we must struggle with prudent determination to overcome adversity in first, building an economic foundation for our life – and, despite setbacks, to further develop our individual human potential in character and thought – through learning, exploring, and maturing, while always, actively, striving for excellence in our endeavors.
We shall not abuse our skills for selfish aims only – or to the detriment of others.
Only in social coherence can we develop our greatest potential, in contributing and receiving light and harmony – in the love of our family, in caring assistance to the needy, in dedicated service to our community, and in responsible stewardship for our environment. We must attempt to compassionately reduce the many forms of suffering and overcome the darkness of the world – while also striving to improve true opportunities in the lives fairly for all. We shall not abuse the social forces of society for personal power alone or to the detriment of others.
We possess, and gratefully cherish, the gift of aesthetic appreciation in nature and the arts. We shall not abuse the intriguing influence of human sensitivity to art for selfish benefit alone or to the detriment of ethical values.
We are grateful for harmony in our world, and we need community with our fellow travelers through existence in supportive congregations and cultures – for encouragement, comfort in suffering, constraint of damaging behavior, and coordinated contribution to a beneficial evolution of society. We shall not abuse such congregations for material benefit, vocal dominance, or hierarchical power.
This essay may use a rather factual or pragmatic approach in answering the questions about God, meaning, purpose, direction, and human faith. For most people, however, faith is an expression of the “heart” or “soul”. Our scientific age is inclined to be critical toward matters of the heart or soul, relegating them to psychology. This may be too one-sided. Friendship, love, compassion, caring, dedication to the community, and joy about all beauty in the world may be the most significant aspects of human existence. Suffering, loneliness, and deep compassion are felt in the “heart” or “soul”, as one says – in the “emotional” essence of our lives.
The image people have of their God influences their behavior. Therefore, the question of having faith in the right God may, in many instances, be more important than having faith in any God or having a scientific understanding of existence. Cruelty and destruction in the name of religion – whether by the Aztecs, the Inquisition, the religiously intolerant among the Northern Irish, and now so often by Muslims, sometimes orthodox Israelis or any other religious fundamentalists of our time – are worse than religious apathy. On the other side, in many cultures of the world, the highest ethical behavior or almost “saintly” personal accomplishments have repeatedly been stimulated by underlying religious concepts.
The Christian faith – if not seen and preached as merely a shortcut on the way to heaven – has become the search for the foundation of all positive emotional forces or values in “God the Father”, thereby overlooking all the natural catastrophes affecting mankind and the pervasive cruelty in all of nature! For many suffering people, however, a benevolent vision of the ultimate, transcendental essence of existence – God – and a corresponding place for humans in evolution can be the source for strength of “heart”, for warmth of “soul”, for consolation in trouble, and, hopefully still, for personal initiative in life.
Our time has experienced great, often intractable, conflicts of ideologies, cultures, and interests, the searching for answers in a competition between science and religion, between knowledge and values. My conclusions at the end of this essay are not Promethean – referring to the one who brought mankind the practical help of fire as a symbol of light in confrontation with the gods the world believed in at the time. Nor are they Biblical, where the tree of knowledge in Paradise was savored in confrontation with God. Nor, finally, are they Faustian, where finding the last essence of existence required a pact with the Devil.
More than anything else, the conclusions presented in this essay seek a complementing balance between reason and the heart. They express the longing for mental growth toward deeper understanding and wider horizons; but they also call for renewed dedication to our fellow beings, society, and the environment; finally, they call for a fundamentally positive spirit in appreciating all that is joyful, good, and beautiful in this world.
These conclusions call for emphasizing positive opportunities more than problems.
This results in a call for personal initiative and effort based on our values, practical judgment, and human responsibility. We are called to reduce suffering, increase opportunity fairly for all, and bring some joy and light to whatever small area over which we have any influence – while being good stewards of nature.
Our happiness may result from factual accomplishments, the warmth of human harmony, and the joy resulting from art and beauty. But the “value” of our lives results from our own growth and how we bring more clarity, light, and warmth into this world – wherever we can – while at the same time accepting the positive in our own lives with gratitude and, possibly, with joy.
What do I personally decide to stand for?
What is my position in the midst of contradictions and uncertainty?
Following are some thoughts:
* The observation of the origin of the universe and, then, its regulated, complex functioning indicates an underlying, absolutely abstract “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence”, whatever it is called, God, Allah, or “X”.
This force, which we commonly call “God”, is searched by the human mind in meditation and prayer. My soul often longs for guidance by and peace in God – in a benevolent God.
The greatest enigma of a spiritual view of existence, however, lies in the actual observation of pervasive and non-understandable cruelty in nature and human history – of destructions, extinctions, plagues, wars, natural disasters, and innumerable daily predicaments of families and innocent individuals – where the cries of the afflicted are neither heard nor allow any liberating, curing, or beneficial hope.
Therefore, I actually cannot observe and do not expect God to respond to human prayers – as desperate as they may be – nor to interfere with the course of the world!
I see “God” as remaining beyond human reach and understanding – as an abstract “Spiritual and Formative Essence of Existence”.
* I hold a dynamic view of evolving Creation in the universe – including the fact that all is temporary and that the whole universe will ultimately come to an end or dissolution.
In this view, there is no room for a permanent preservation of “souls”, whether in bliss or penitence.
There is comfort in seeing that everything is temporary in this world – and that in death one can find a homecoming in peace to nature. In this view, we find peace for our souls and the strength to act in our lives, following our values wherever we can.
* I cannot see any ultimate meaning or purpose in this existence but to temporarily be – for nothing but the pleasure of the Creating Essence.
For our own lives, however, I see meaning, purpose, and a direction in fulfilling the time given to us to exist – in contributing ourselves and the effort of our lives to this world.
* Human existence is subject to the principles of the earlier phases of Creation, to the laws of physics and random events, and to the competitive struggle of species and individuals.
Human existence is different from any earlier part of Creation on Earth. It is based on a degree of mental freedom to explore, understand, and make decisions in the course of life.
* Along with this freedom and these capabilities goes the corresponding responsibility for what we accomplish, to develop initiative in pursuing the development of our lives and our world in accordance with our human values.
* The meaning and purpose of human life lies in grasping and fulfilling the unique opportunities granted to the human mind as described by its human values.
* “Human values” refer to three different dimensions – mental or personality growth for the fulfillment of one’s personal potential; dedicated, caring love and service to others, society, and nature as we inherited it; and, as a mysterious gift of nature, cultural or artistic enjoyment of life.
* Human values are ranked – there is the necessary fulfillment of the basic needs and desires of life; there is the vast majority of pursuits to secure, improve, and enjoy a comfortable, influential, and respected life; and there is striving for the higher aspirations of the human mind and soul (see the matrix shown above).
* The greatest problem in the pursuit of ethical standards lies in the need for compromise with the pursuit of other directions of human values: self-fulfillment and the enjoyment of life. I hold that any compromise should be in favor of sympathy with the one who beckons for help in calamities. At the same time, though, one should assume that few others do their part in helping, and that one should see the brother or sister or son or daughter in the needy one. One should also see the beneficial restraint of egoism in a discipline of charity.
* The greatest limitation in the pursuit of personal goals and values lies not only in bad luck, but in the weakness of one’s own personality. As we struggle with our own shortcomings, we must have tolerance for those of others.
* Exceptional people have set examples of personality improvement in the course of their lives. Role models help us in our lives. Are we called to be role models for others, at least occasionally and in a minor way, when challenges arise?
* In the conduct of life, I believe in “everybody carrying his or her own weight”.
Nobody, however, can handle all the challenges of life alone. As we are entitled to accept help, so must we lend a helping hand to others in coping with their lives.
* Congregations of like-minded individuals help participating members in maintaining a course through life and in providing comfort and strength.
* I was most grateful for moments of perceiving the benevolent potential of destiny in my own life – in family harmony, in sufficient health, in exploring the vastness of the universe, nature, and the multitude of cultures on Earth – for perceiving the beauty of Creation, and for the harmony of human contacts, which were the greatest gifts to my life.
* In sum, I seek the meaning and direction for my life and seek the strength and sensitivity to beneficially pursue my course through life in the contemplation of existence and, in great reverence, of its transcendental “Formative Essence” by the observing mind, by our emotions, by practical experience, and by human sensitivity – to grow, to humanely contribute, and to enjoy this experience of once existing in this world.
Practical Advice for the Young
Practical and simple suggestions – with several complex footnotes
Human direction in life was presented in Chapter 3 of this essay as being dominated by not one but three different motivations:
- by “self-related” motivations, such as satisfaction of needs (then also, search for wealth), and natural self-expression in personal growth of mind, personality, and skills –
- by “altruistic” dedication to family, also pursuit of personal rank in society (power), and ethical-idealistic dedication to helping others or to community service – and, additionally,
- by search for “joy” about the perception of nature, the arts (also entertainment) and culture.
Furthermore, one can distinguish three levels of motivation:
o nature-given basic or lower motivations,
o average or “typical” motivations, and
o higher-ranking motivations.
This complexity of motivations, resulting from natural evolution and human character, is best described by a matrix:
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society, Action Potential
Family and Clan
This Chapter 4, however, attempts to offer practical, simple advice for the conduct of life as one would present to one’s own children or grandchildren as they grow up. This theme is discussed on two levels – in basic, practical terms in the main text as well as separately, in more philosophical and complex terms, in various footnotes and the Appendix to this chapter.
Chapter 5 of this essay will present philosophical guidance for nonbelievers.
Chapter 6 of this essay will give supportive direction in life in moral and Christian/religious terms.
As is typical of the human mind, one finds throughout historical literature the attempt to arrive at the ultimate, single formulation for defining the best direction in life. This may include, for example, “set high goals, strive with dedication, never give up”, “treat (or love) others as you want to be treated (or loved) by them”, or “make each day a day of service”, or “if you think you can win, you can – and if you think you cannot win, you are also right, and have already lost the battle”.
More often, one finds a set of three thoughts of advice – for example, “whatever you do, do it passionately – do not be afraid of failing, learn and try again (or get up and keep going) – treat others as you want to be treated” – or “develop noble values, set yourself high goals, work very hard to get there”.
In a more sophisticated analysis, one would first define the categories of human goals in “work, hobby, personal life, and social life”, and select goals accordingly.
The above-indicated matrix of human directions results in three basic goals: “Growth, Service, and Culture”.
In a more comprehensive set, the ancient view of all humans being composed of mind, soul, and body plus their need for altruistic effort, results in four pieces of advice: “take care of your mind (learn and explore), soul (keep yourself psychologically and emotionally sound), and body (also in mental health), and be beneficially connected with others”.
The more one attempts to condense such advice into only one rule (or only very few rules), the more abstract and less practical such a rule becomes for daily life.
As in a fractal image – starting with a simple, large pattern, with this central pattern then leading to ever-smaller detail as one progresses to the margins of the image – one can start with the most general advice and then progress to more detailed and situation-related advice.
The following paragraphs present a collection of practical thoughts derived from a long life of observing people on many different levels of society and with different success or luck in life.
2. Practical considerations:
What brings contentment, success, fulfillment, and joy in life?
* Luck is needed not only in the received genetic configuration, but also in where one is born and how one receives the earliest formative influences. This observation results in an obligation for those who nurture and educate children or who guide subordinates to provide opportunities for them – and to provide advice commensurate with opportunities – or how to find opportunities.
* Early formation should include values, a sense of fair play, helping others, and balanced self-confidence (a healthy dose of self-confidence between insecurity and arrogance, thereby freshness in reaching out), curiosity, also creativity appearing as brightness, capability to focus, diligent perseverance, perception and judgment of opportunities and dangers, a healthy amount of restraint, and some flexibility in avoiding excessive risk and regrouping and reorienting after setbacks.
* As one’s own personality is allowed to develop, the striving for excellence, the effort beyond the call of duty, is the most essential attitude, in whatever field of engagement, based on its importance for success in life or its appearance of challenge to the beholder. Beware of special problems of your teenage phase of development. Many youngsters experience lack of focusing, fatigue, or lack of mathematical, verbal, or practical skills – leading to substandard performance. Seek advice how to overcome this phase and try every day again to catch up with your goals – while necessarily realizing your nature-given limitations in humility. But every individual with limitations in one area has special gifts to build on with greater effort in other areas!
* The conservation of health is important for a good life, in whatever dimensions – for success, fulfillment, contentment, or joy. Beware of temptations leading you into trouble! Avoid tobacco, drugs, and excessive amounts of coffee or alcohol! Pursue balanced exercise. Take care of your psychological health! Keep a “clean heart” (see Chapter 6)! Make room for joy (see Chapter 7)!
* The selection of the right set of friends becomes increasingly important, as children, then becoming teenagers, have a natural tendency to congregate with others of their age and to conform to that group’s expectations or standards, becoming detached from their parents. At worst, such groups are violent street gangs. More beneficial are athletic groups striving for excellence in their respective specialty and, therefore, for clean living. Be very careful in selecting your set of friends. To be embedded in a multifaceted network of friends renders your life warmer and more colorful and protects you from loneliness, which can be such a severe burden to so many people. Furthermore, consider the fact that the group of friends you spend considerable time with colors your own thinking and personality! This is the burden of street gangs and the benefit of attending better schools or working in better companies. Consequently, your group of friends should correspond to the path you want to take in life – value-based, performance-oriented, multifaceted, including a philosophical and joyful view of life.
* The most important selection in interpersonal association is that of a qualified spouse for life – leading to the challenges to overcome marital tensions, diversions, or disillusioning mediocrity – to always return to combining harmony and a mutual effort on a common, upward path through life – to achieve long-held ideals and, mainly, joy. The spouse should be attractive (resulting in first “love”), but should have her mind based on strong values, readiness to compromise in daily life, and be suited for practical life, including the usual setbacks of destiny.
* Youngsters! Be prudent in your relation with your parents or, later, with your children. Family harmony can be a very important part of happiness in life!
* A career can be developed like the growth of a tree, with, first, a strong tall trunk to reach upwards, then a branching canopy to reach the fullness of life. This begins with the recognition of some opportunity for the course of life and then steering that course persistently – while later developing diversified interests in a wider field of opportunities or worthwhile goals.
* Recognize your strengths and weaknesses of your personality and build your life on such recognition. Some strength can be enhanced, some weaknesses overcome, but a limitation of success or serious failure can result from lacking such recognition.
* Select your occupation, or course through life, in accordance with the recognition of your strength and weaknesses and in awareness of the opportunities or needs of the world – as if you were an executive attempting to market yourself as a product to the world.
* Most importantly, a reasonably reliable source of income has to be developed, one that quite consistently or probably provides a degree of security and dignity for oneself, one’s family, and the start in life of one’s children – and, hopefully, one that provides the means for some public service and charity – and savings for emergencies or old age! The arts, sports, and some other professions, where there are many players but only very few who reach good benefit (and even that only for a few years of their life), are seldom suitable as a source of income and more suited to merely become hobbies!
* Business associates should be selected to primarily be trustworthy in a basic cooperation of fair play – and should also be stimulating, dynamic, and performance-oriented.
* Skill in team management applies not only to a professional position gained in life, but also to informal configurations everywhere in life, also to family – all configurations requiring facilitation of common goal recognition –and their timely correction. Goals may be dictated – or, better yet, extricated through questioning and listening to others – or developed as one presents one’s own thoughts to others – requiring the learning to talk and to listen. Goals must be pursued forcefully and be flexibly adapted as situations change. Team management must occur more through motivation than threatened penalties.
* When working within an organization, one should connect up the ladder beyond the immediate supervisor (to be visible and protected) and down, beyond immediate subordinates (to be informed, known by the team, and actively engaged) – and sideways to colleagues (for company coherence).
* As one progresses – from school to college, then to an occupation – it becomes increasingly important to broaden one’s view to include the needs and problems of others around us. Our world can function benevolently only if we all contribute to society – and, most directly, help others – to reduce suffering or offer increasing opportunity – at best by resolving the causes for such suffering or inadequacy.
* It is a blessing if the observation of the beauty of nature and the arts can be included in life – along with some philosophical thought – but both are not suitable to become sources of income.
* It is a special blessing if a transcendental foundation for one’s personal existence can be found – to support, stimulate, and positively guide one on the path through life – as a blessing to oneself and to one’s surrounding. (This was the motivation for writing the book “Our Journey Through Time and Existence”, specifically the Chapters 1, 3, 5 and 6!)
* Retirement – not too early and not too late – can lead not only to traveling but also to diversity in continued learning, helping others, volunteering in not-for-profit or charitable organizations, public service, gardening, exploring nature, the arts – and to wisdom, then to be carefully communicated to later generations – where wisdom is defined primarily as the higher view, on an upper level of the fractal view of existence, with an uncluttered view of the most important goals, in a multidimensional view, including moral as well as practical aspects of life.
Where are the only three or four key thoughts of advice to the next generation?
As indicated at the beginning, philosophy, any other mental pursuit, and also this search can be presented in a fractal image, with a simple, basic structure at the highest level, which requires ever more detailed explanation when taking any steps forward. It is rather easy to question the respectively higher level by asking questions belonging to the next lower level – a typical debating technique.
On the highest structural level of advice, one can say to the young person:
· develop your mind and personality
· develop your “soul”, keep yourself psychologically and emotionally sound
· watch your bodily and mental health
· stay well connected with good friends or associates – or by helping others
By merely adding some more detail, this becomes:
o develop your mind through diligent learning and exploring and your personality through character training (following role models)
o develop your “soul”, keep yourself psychologically and emotionally sound, by knowing nature-given emotional needs and your potential strengths or weaknesses, and by pursuing your path through life accordingly. Mainly, focus your mind on what is ethically good (“keep a clean heart”)!
o watch your bodily and mental health through clear abstention from dangerous substances, prefer good nutrition, and always exercise adequately.
o stay well connected: Happiness can come primarily from harmony within your own family. A good life or success can also result from your set of friends – and with whom you do business – or by performing charitable work or public service.
Beyond that, read the much longer writing presented above or pursue
“Growth, Service, Culture”
Appendix: More detailed thoughts about the conduct of life:
The Introduction to this chapter indicates a matrix of three directions in life on three levels. The Conclusion above offers four (or three) basic thoughts of advice. Chapter 2 of this essay provides a detailed discussion of the nature-given capability of our human mind for ethics. Chapter 3 provides some reference to centuries of philosophical effort to provide better decision-making in situations of conflict or refers to the limits in decision-making in daily life. In sum, a view of seeing conflicts in life only between Christian values and Darwinian benefit is simplistic, since nature has evolved ethical (proto-Christian) behavior for the Darwinian benefit of groups and has rewarded such behavior by important emotions – which essentially count in the assessment of “happiness” or “joy” of any kind.
Following is a quote from Chapter 3 of this essay on meaning and direction in life:
“The fact that there are not one but three different directions for our life – personal development, dedication to others and the community, and joy about art or culture – on three levels – necessarily leads to conflicts between those preferences when time and resources are limited”.
Regarding the conflict between the three different directions indicated in the matrix (with possible trade-offs), one can note a variation in value of these directions proportional to accomplishments. The need for satisfaction of basic natural needs ranks highest when it is a matter of survival, but drops steeply as those first needs are met (along a curve that varies widely from individual to individual – where some crave good food all the time, even when they are already overweight). Then, for some individuals, seeking recognition and power may rank highest – up to a point. In the end, however, for the noble ones, mental growth and the provision of service may rank highest.
Regarding the quantitative emphasis on various directions in life, Christ indicated only extreme solutions – preference for celibacy and for selling all one’s belongings for the benefit of the poor. Historically, there were only two famous thoughts supposed to lead out of this predicament, Aristotle’s and Kant’s, both of which are unsatisfactory.
Aristotle sees virtue as being found in the right balance between two undesirable extremes, one usually being weak deficiency, the other foolish excess. However, Aristotle cannot indicate what the “right” balance is. This balance may be different from case to case. Nor does Aristotle provide guidance in situations of conflict between different values.
Kant, in his Categorical Imperative, indicates that one should act in such a way that “the guideline of one’s action could be used as a directive for general legislation”. However, all people and cultures are different. The situations of their lives are different; their cultures may be different. Therefore, your own Kantian maxim may not apply to others. If the guidelines were formulated universally for all people on Earth, they could become so vague as to be useless for decision-making in the practical situations of daily life. Kant does not provide guidance in trying to find the universally right guidelines, especially not in situations of conflict and within a limited amount of time
The above discussion of direction in life refers to positive goals and pursuit of positive motivations. Collections of the greatest sayings usually come from great personalities who were successful. It would be interesting to establish a collection of sayings from modest people or people who had to find “happiness” in lowly conditions (example: “when you walk more slowly, you see more of the beautiful small flowers along your path”). What advice can one give to people who suffer from failure? (Example: “When you give in to doing what you must do, even if it hurts, you may discover reserves to see or, better, to do good things, even if minor, but possibly counting much to somebody else”).
A starkly different discussion would analyze causes for misdirected lives: causes for crime (see the Ten Commandments), for revenge-seeking(!), or violence – some resulting from often occurring but unfortunate, psychologically caused rage (a major reason of violent crime), some from drug addictions, and some from other psychological weaknesses, the worst from political or religious activism, even wars. Then there is white-collar crime, which is so prevalent in our time.
This essay presents thoughts about “direction” in life, but not a collection and discussion of all the crimes to avoid – some simple to define, such as murder, violence, and stealing – others more abstract, as cheating and not communicating the truth – and, mainly, the gray zone of exploitation of others (behavior leading to the disadvantage of others while reaping benefit for you). The latter became the main theme of historical ethnic tensions and social upheaval in society – from the formation of democracies in ancient times to more modern liberators such as Garibaldi and Bolivar, to egalitarians such as Marx and Engels, to the struggle between the political parties in our time, or the question of social balance and fair taxation.
Ethical standards of inter-human behavior are a central part of our values. They provide the foundation of our human essence, hence our role in the universe, some subsequently formulated by gifted individuals or through “religious” inspirations. Originally, they were derived from the genetic fixation of ethical behavior in social animals and humans as caused by natural evolution (evolved as an evolutionary advantage through the resulting social coherence and group efficiency) – and subsequently expanded through our value-guided minds and emotions.
Ethical standards suffer from conflict with practical needs. Nobody will divide his or her property down to the lowest denominator of all the poor people he or she may encounter. There are moments when lying – even killing – is necessary for survival or to help others. Job obligations in an organization do not allow for the pursuit of personal ethical preferences, as in hiring and firing or in fighting off competition.
Fundamentally, there are different types of ethical judgment, discussed in much detail in ethical philosophy (and in Chapter 2 above). There is, in ethics, the conflict between “process” ethics and “goal” justification. Process ethics demands that each step of a process be ethical. Goal-oriented ethics allows ethical violation of some steps in the process in order to achieve a higher ethical goal – for example, the bombing of cities with the killing of large numbers of innocents in order to shorten a war.
Does the endpoint define the value of the process and of the life lived – whether it is a reached goal or an endpoint that happened by surprise? This is a very important point in the conduct of life, as well as important in the advice given to the young.
A quantitative aspect enters into this consideration, too. Neither philosophy nor religion give an answer to this predicament and leave it to personal judgment. Touching stories can be told. Moses did not reach the Holy Land, the other sinner on the cross was admitted to Paradise when repenting during the last hour of his life. A prisoner of war, who was allowed to return only after 11 years, lived only for that happy moment of return to his family and country. The end of the career of a famous cardinal was smashed by the late discovery of a sin he committed in his younger years. May our end be as good as some of the reported near-death experiences!
Furthermore, there is the conflict in ethics between trying to reach the greatest good for the most people and respecting all individual “human rights” at all times.
Lack of guidance in the dilemma of having to limit ethical behavior in practical life is the most disturbing problem – when there is the urgent need to clarify one’s convictions and to find a clear path through life. Celibacy and poverty for all is not the answer – and a philosophy of perfect ethics often fails. Conscience is not an adequate guide – nor is reason, philosophy, theology, or practical experience.
What is the conclusion? Compromise of ethical behavior with other demands of life is necessary – time and resources are needed for personal growth in knowledge, skills, and character development, for one’s family and friends, for the arts, a walk through nature, sitting on the porch as an old man and enjoying one’s blessings, pursuing one’s hobbies – all within limits. But which?
In any event, in searching for a compromise, one had better stay more on the demanding side of one’s ethical and personal standards.
Is that the final advice to the young?
Meditations for Nonbelievers
as Prayers for Believers
Thoughts to guide us day by day
Many of us experience special moments in our busy lives, possibly during a critical phase of our life, when we seek a higher view of existence, one beyond all daily, complex involvement. We seek clarity, a foundation or direction for our life, possibly through an understanding of the meaning of our existence. Many of us seek comfort, support, and help from “God”.
At times, we also want to show gratitude and joy in harmony with this ultimate foundation.
But, in our modern and mostly secular thought, how can this be?
The basic approach:
Meditations are proposed to support and structure a search for what is or should be essential in our existence.
Meditation should assist us in the search for an understanding of the transcendental phenomenon and essence of all existence – for the origin of our universe, its structure and its evolution – for whatever is the “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence” – in greatest admiration and reverence.
But can we find support for our lives, and possibly comfort, from there?
The meditations shall also support and structure the search for a direction of our lives here on Earth – to derive not only meaning and direction, but also some strength. May we grasp the opportunity for personal development, beneficial action, and joy offered to us in our short existence.
A view of the width and depth of the universe and its evolving structure may provide us support. A view of all the suffering in this world may drive us to action. A view of all that is positive and beautiful in this world may refresh us.
The important prayers of the great religions were formulated a long time ago by spiritually searching, leading individuals or priests of their cultures. They correspond to the respective best and deepest understanding of the perceived spiritual existence and structure of our world. In their time, they served to elevate the people beyond the common level of daily life to a higher essence of existence and to provide direction for their lives, as they perceived them at that time. This resulted in belief and faith in “God” – in “Allah” or any “God”. Derived from that belief, the formulation of basic laws for our lives occurred – some still applicable to our lives, some not.
Modern thought has deprived many of us of the concept of a personalized “God”. Observation of the actual and often cruel course of the world has deprived us of the hope to ever reach “God” with our cries for help or with our prayers.
What remains in modern thought is the acceptance of ethical ideals and moral standards, as well as, increasingly, the acceptance of intellectual, scientific clarity. This “intellectuality” began with ancient Greek thought and was continued by the Scholastic thinkers and those of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. It has been expanded by our modern “scientific” world.
Central to the interpretation of living nature is Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory of evolution – which did not see a guiding transcendental Christian love, but merely that “the fittest shall prevail”. This brought new emphasis to the problem of theodicy – the question of how a belief in “God” can be justified in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world. Now, one recognized the pervasive cruelty of previously romanticized nature. Now, one saw that each organism is vitally threatened by accidents, climate change, viral, bacterial or fungal diseases, parasites, and predatory or merely “harvesting” organisms – and may, equally, threaten other organisms.
In pilgrimage churches, one can find memorials (votive tablets) from individuals who, through their faith, believed that they were helped by God or a saint in a situation of great need. But one finds no memorials for the innumerable individuals whose prayers or desperate cries for help did not find any higher response or reaction.
Still, in those special moments of our lives we seek to transcend in our thoughts the daily, low complexity of life. In a higher view of existence we still seek support, possibly direction, for our lives. That is the way those among us who are nonbelievers begin meditations – as believers begin prayers – to consider what could or should be our own path through life.
Ultimately, both believers and nonbelievers follow very similar methods. The results of meditations or prayers, however, are quite different between the great religions and cultures of the world – between Jews, Christians, and Muslims – even more so when compared to Buddhists or Hindus. What can modern thought contribute to meditations? How should one begin a modern meditation?
Overemphasis of one philosophical direction often leads to a strong reaction of the other, or opposite, philosophical direction. In our time, with its central importance of the sciences, we observe reactivation of religious fundamentalism in many places – in all religions – but often in a dangerous way. The resurgence of theological dogmatism formulated long ago may provide a sense of security to some individuals, but it often does not match the needs, thoughts, or expressions of our now “global” modern world; indeed, it may become dangerous to itself and to others. One can observe how Muslim fundamentalism has brought so much more damage than good to the Muslim world than it originally had wanted to bring. The same holds for Christian or Jewish fundamentalism in the course of history, some even today.
What do we teach our children? Which course in life do we ourselves pursue? We want our children to acquire an adequate economic foundation (as we ourselves need), to learn modern skills and become able to prevail in life. Obviously, though, we mostly emphasize our human culture, one based largely on cooperation. We value trustworthiness and tolerance. We admire charitable generosity. Thereby, we wish to provide and retain for us and for our children a solid foundation of the “values” of our culture. This is what our meditation should support.
In the past, cultures and religions have long relied on rituals and prayers for their continuity – the rituals served to maintain coherence, the prayers to provide everyone with a connection to the foundation of existence and to provide direction. What were those prayers or what should they have been?
Every prayer of significant religions begins with the focus on “God”, followed by a declaration of submission and of wanting to follow the wishes of the thus perceived supremely ruling “God”. Subsequently, specific concepts for the direction of human society and the conduct of personal life may follow. At the end, quite practical formulations of needs and prayer for assistance may be formulated.
What can a modern individual do who, from time to time, seeks a foundation for life, some direction or definition of priorities, or sometimes simply comfort and assistance?
The human mind has the unique capability for meditation.
This implies the creation of a certain distance from the many interconnections of daily life, an immersion in, and focus on, a unique theme of existence, one that is supposed to bring support and direction to the meditating individual, possibly also to bring about a form of mental peace – which means that meditation is closely akin to prayer and is the “nonreligious” form of the same mental process.
Neuroscience indicates that the left side of the brain dominates our daily activities in logic and in quantitative thought. Only when the left side of the brain is brought to calmness does the right side of the brain, with more visual and, most importantly, more holistic thought, reach foreground awareness. Important inventiveness in both science and philosophy has resulted from “calm meditation”.
Big business decisions should be made only after a night’s rest.
On the other hand, free-flowing thought wanders aimlessly. The provision of a certain “focus” yields more, or better, results, if any at all. For example, Loyola utilized this approach in his Spiritual Exercises. Most great thinkers had a focus for their mental search.
The format that follows in this essay on meditation provides a series of focus ideas by offering a sequence of individual focus-thoughts, which can also be read as “sayings”, some followed by explanations and suggestions.
Each of the following 15 individual focus-thoughts, or sayings, may be considered for a separate meditation – one per week for a four-month cycle or, as indicated below, one for every other day of a monthly cycle.
More important to the reader could or should be one’s subsequent own formulation of focus thoughts for meditation! Try it!
Monthly Meditation cycle:
1st day: To the degree that we want to be mentally liberated from the complex involvements of daily life on Earth, to elevate ourselves from Earth as in astronautic exploration, our view should be lifted and directed toward the stars of the universe, the grandiose width of light-filled cosmic space – and, ultimately, to the question of the universe’s origin – to search the view of a “Transcendental Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence”. For believers, this is the quest for God.
We must maintain admiration and, possibly, reverence when considering this absolutely abstract phenomenon of origin – be it the origin of our universe or of any preceding one – the origin of existence and its sophisticated structure. No anthropomorphism in human terms is adequate any longer. The vastness of the universe – and, possibly, of other and different universes and their course through time – transcends all anthropomorphism.
The structure of our universe can be understood as having been established by some “underlying” essence of existence (for lack of a more suitable word), by this ultimate “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence”.
The structure of our universe actually is based on a set of subatomic energy particles, which are then guided in their path by emerging forces, principles, and constants, and which are driven to combine in always new and higher configurations. Only the quantum theory, with its probabilistic phenomena on the atomic and photon level, opens a door to the unforeseen and the concept of other views to see our world.
How marvelous and grandiose is this world – and how small are we within it.
How marvelous is the all-transcending intellectuality of the structure of this world.
How endless are the measurements of its time. How are we kept within it – in peace?
3rd day: Returning to our life on Earth: How should we, with our individual lives and our human society here on Earth, fit into this cosmic structure and evolution. What should we, or could we, contribute to it?
When considering that everything in the universe evolves on its own course through time in existence, possibly toward higher complexity, we cannot spend our lives and our behavior centered only on ourselves, pleasure, or, at worst, on destruction.
Natural evolution provided us with gifts of thought, as well as emotions that transcend all prior forms of life. The gift of thought must be utilized responsibly; it must fulfill the expectations of the better emotions, in order to let us and human society be a constructive part of the further evolving universe – for “the pleasure of the Creator”, as monks of times past once formulated. This is the meaning for believers of the words “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven” – and should equally bring meaning into the lives of the nonbelievers.
Our human “freedom of will” and our varying degrees of personal freedom bring the responsibility to contribute positively to the evolution of our lives and human society.
What should our priorities in a responsible personal life be?
5th day: Our close human interconnections here on Earth may be threatening to some individuals, but also may provide warmth and joy. In particular, this human interconnection brings the obligation for beneficial behavior.
7th day: Your principal goal: Provide a little clarity in thought or some lightful emotions and some warmth of the heart to your immediate environment – even some joy!
Clarity can bring mental progress and understanding to confusing situations. It can also bring clarity to personal confusion, from which we all suffer from time to time. To bring some light may also consist in focusing on the bright, tolerant, and enjoyable aspects of this world – and, consequently, brighten up our moods.
To bring some warmth is urgently necessary in this often dry, hostile, sometimes depressing world. An old man in Switzerland, my friend Aldo Gervasoni, had only one goal in his remaining life: to bring to at least one person every day one such moment of light or warmth. Once, this consisted only in pointing out a beautiful and rare butterfly sitting on a flower to a passing stranger. That always grouchy man responded with a radiant expression of joy.
What can we do? Actually, one can quite often provide just a little help to another person or to someone in a difficult situation or in loneliness.
9th day: What counts is reduction of the many forms of suffering in this world and the providing of some more opportunities for freedom and development fairly for all.
The suffering of so many people is a call for everybody to provide charitable assistance.
The suffering and constraints of life for so many people is, mainly, a call for self-help! Too often, the key problem lies in an accustomed, or cultural, lethargy or lack of discipline!
Mainly, the suffering and constraints of life for so many people are caused by inadequate or bad administration or bad governance! The number of countries is large that are ruled by poorly qualified governments, by tyrants who are interested only in preserving their own power or that of their support group – or who are governed by corrupt elites out to enrich themselves. Even the form of democracy in our progressive countries – with the influence of lobbyists, donors of money, or the media of all kinds, and negative fighting between competing political directions or individuals – requires improvement.
In connection with this problem of administration and governance, all of mankind and each individual can find a future-defining task – which should be urgently tackled for the reduction of suffering and to relieve limitations on personal development for so many people.
How can we in our own lives contribute toward a better world?
11th day: Our lives should be dedicated to the three different, basic goals or opportunities:
· Growth – personal development
· Service – to others, the community
· Art, Aesthetics – in culture or nature
Growth: Each organism of nature is driven to fully develop its potential. For us humans, this means growth in diverse learning, intellectual exploration, the acquisition of new capabilities or skills, and the formation of our personalities.
Service: Ethical, unselfish behavior begins (even among animals) with the dedicated raising of our children and assistance to immediate relatives. As “social” beings living in groups, our connection with other members of our group for the prospering of our community also counts. This includes Christian love, ethical behavior, and trustworthiness, also in our professional work and in politics. The “values” of our culture are thereby implemented.
Art or Aesthetics: The perception of “beauty” is a special gift of existence to humans (and possibly to a few animals). We find beauty and attractiveness, even elegance, in good art and in nature – mostly visually but especially, too, in the sounds, rhythms, harmonies, and melodies of beautiful music – as well as, possibly, in wonderful, mood-related fragrances and perfumes – and, for some people, even in the area of taste and touch. Art affects emotions. Art should not degenerate into mere augmentation of exaggerated or strange effects. Nor should it merely serve or be abused for commercial or political promotion.
More specifically, what can we do in our own lives to further the pursuit of these three different goals – Growth, Service, and Art/Aesthetics?
13th day: Nothing surpasses the warmth and fulfillment resulting from the love of the heart and from empathy
15th day: Ethical behavior primarily permits the formation of efficient groups in life, in order to persevere in life through mutual trust and help – and to accomplish larger tasks, which an individual alone cannot master. Ethical behavior in service to the community results in coherence and is rewarded by the emotions of security, fulfillment, and recognition.
Ethics basically demands unselfish trustworthiness – in both daily life and in business and politics.
Common life in groups leads to the phenomenon of naturally evolving social structures, which may strengthen and protect, but may also suppress and exploit the individual.
Thereby, the ruthless exploitation of others, or cheating by business people, politicians, and tyrants of their respective nations, appear as criminal on the otherwise possibly positive path of mankind.
The inversion of positive ethics into “negative ethics” occurs in the sensing of offense, the pursuit of honor or satisfaction, and, worst of all, in the seeking of retaliatory revenge – occasionally reduced by payments or apologies.
How can we contribute toward more ethical behavior in our own environment and society?
17th day: Too many people need help in great suffering – when they lack food, adequate housing or medical care, or have too little human connection in their loneliness. Too many people seek greater opportunities, as well as some freedom for their life’s development, in order not to lose their fulfillment of life, since they, too, can live only one life, while aging quickly. Can we positively influence their and our destiny? What can we do?
Charitable help to others, but mainly also self-help and, primarily, improved administration and governance (as well as the increasing influence of the whole world) are the approaches to a solution that were previously mentioned. They should be given greater attention by each individual and by the general public at all levels.
19th day: We, too, may have to endure conditions or phases of life in suffering and loneliness. Who will help us? Good friends or networks may do that; but, more often, we ourselves must cope with such problems. While doing so, we should try, however, to care for others who are suffering or lonely. This direction toward others can free us from ourselves and our suffering.
21st day: Our misdeeds bring us guilt. We wish that others would not hold our guilt too much against us and that they would even understand us. On the other hand, we must attempt to lessen the burden of our fellow humans caused by their guilt. Special concerns exist regarding the behaviors of pride, honor, revenge, and retribution. Misdeeds should be resolved through beneficial laws and compensation, mainly through reeducation, less through punishment, sometimes by necessary confinement – and by Christian love.
23rd day: How shall one confront temptation? It does not help to blame temptation (as occurring inevitably along the path of life) as an excuse for misdeeds. Our own responsibility remains – to form the proper thought reflexes and proper emphasis on the right course when faced with temptation – to maintain a “clean heart”.
Science has shown that thought sequences follow a habitual path or, at least, the one most emphasized – even negative ones. Therefore, it is important to always redirect our thoughts toward the good and the correct. At the same time, one should not expose others to temptation.
We must work on possessing and maintaining a “clean heart” in our thoughts and reflexes.
25th day: What are the priorities of behavior?
The Qur’an begins almost each Sura with the words: “Allah, the merciful and beneficent”. Should we not primarily attempt to be merciful and beneficent?
Christian teaching, evolved out of Jewish and older history, elevates our thoughts (in the key Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5, Verses 5 and 7 - 9) to consider:
· The meek (modern: the humble ones)
· The merciful (modern: the ones generously providing help to others)
· Those with a clean heart (modern: those whose mind is clean)
· The peacemakers (modern: those who maintain and create peace)
These teachings, formulated 1,600 or 2,000 years ago, were intended to form the thought of Asia, Europe, the whole world, but they succeeded in only a limited way. Repeatedly, however, they contributed guiding values for our culture and can guide us to achieve exceptional behavior.
What should it mean to me to be “humble” (to respect those of a lower “station in life”), to be generous in providing help, to form a “clean mind” in emphasis on the right and good, and to act for mutual understanding, balance and “peace”?
Each one of these themes requires a separate meditation to guide us!
27th day: Another task for humanity is to handle nature responsibly.
Global warming already poses very serious problems. The increase of humanity leads to the consequent need for an ever-larger surface to utilize, for more energy, water, and other resources, including food from the oceans. Some of these resources are taken from other creatures. This makes it all the more important to protect and retain all the features of nature. Given the instability in nature, it is equally important to confront not only human instability but also natural instability – from the level of bacteria to the world of plants, insects, and other animals. Earth, as we have inherited it, is given to us humans as our only home in the universe!
How can we contribute more in our own way to the protection of and care for nature?
29th day, end of month: Conclusion: In the end, our meditation should once more attempt to be raised to the intellectuality or spirituality of the universe, to its origin, functioning, and evolution – to the view of a transcendental and abstract “Structure Providing and Spiritual Essence of Existence” – all in greatest admiration and reverence.
May we grasp the opportunities and the responsibility for personal development offered to us in this existence on Earth.
A view into the width and depth of the universe and its evolving structure may provide us support.
A view of all the suffering in this world may drive us to action.
A view of all the positive and beautiful in this world may refresh us.
Now, compose and write down guidance for your own meditation, as needed or helpful for your own life!
Striving in life is always supported when you are part of a congenial group – a congregation, as religions call them. Could you form a supportive congregation – a group of at least three harmonizing and mutually supportive individuals as your friends?
The Biblical “Beatitudes”:
Their Meaning in Our Modern Lives
Thoughts to support us
A Possible Modern Interpretation of the Biblical Beatitudes
Continuity of Western Culture – Still Offering Beneficial Guidance
Western culture after the Greeks and Romans was strongly impacted by two currents of thought and values – Christian ethics and, after some interruption, increasing intellectual clarity. The latter reached from the ancient Greek thinkers to the Muslim universities of southern Spain, through the Scholastic, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods, into our modern, “scientific” world, including Darwin – postulating that, in nature, not Christian love, but the “fittest shall prevail”. Finally, socialism awakened as an echo of early Christian teaching. Now, the political struggle of divided democratic governments has assumed the role of defining laws and regulations for social support, taxation, warfare, marriage, and many other aspects of our lives – vaguely guided by ideals of fairness, freedom, benefit, and balance of interests – distorted by financial contributions to political campaigns.
Overemphasis on one philosophy has often led to a strong reaction by another philosophy. In our time of emphasizing science, we see a resurgence of religious fundamentalism in many parts of the world. This may be explained by a closing-of-the-ranks of those who feel seriously threatened in their security by the loss of the foundation of their faith and culture or gain merit by fighting for their faith – and also explained by the defense of hierarchies clinging to their power.
The resurgence of old theological dogmatism often does not fit well with the needs and thoughts of the modern world, and it may even be counterproductive. We readily point out that Muslim fundamentalism may have done more harm to the Muslim world than any good it basically wanted to contribute.
The same, however, must be said about many forms of Christian fundamentalism throughout history, and about other religions as well.
What do we teach our children? What path in life do we ourselves pursue? We want our children to establish a sound economic base to their lives – we need one ourselves – by being fit to “prevail”. Obviously, though, in our human culture (which is based largely on cooperation), we prefer peace, cherish trustworthiness, and admire charitable generosity.
Do the original Christian teachings of old, the words of Jesus, still fit into the modern world – or do they merely need to be reinterpreted?
A core area of Christian teaching are the so-called Beatitudes, which are part of the “Sermon on the Mount”, a collection of verbally transmitted sayings attributed to Jesus. In their most quoted form, these were written about 50 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were quoted by “Matthew” (see his Chapter 5 in the Christian Bible’s New Testament), but are also recorded in a different selection by Luke (Chapter 6, Verse 20 and following), even though both apparently quoted from the same earlier source, named “Q”. Luke mentions only four Beatitudes; Matthew recites eight.
Were these sayings, especially those mentioned only by Matthew, really the words of Jesus? Were the thoughts of the Beatitudes already contained in the words and thoughts found in earlier Biblical writing or in the thoughts of other cultures the Jews had been in contact with? This may be important to the researcher.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus, presents primarily the relationship between the Beatitudes and other (some earlier) biblical writings, theological thought, and the Catholic church. For most of us, however, these writings express the earliest Christian thought. They actually reach the ultimate form of all historic ethical concepts leading up to Jesus – from nature-formed ethical behavior among social animals to Urukagina’s first ethical writings 4,500 years ago, and from there onward through the development of human cultures. Finally formulated by the young and inspired Jesus, these Beatitudes postulate, in their own time, an enhanced attitude toward society and fellow humans.
The Beatitudes offer more demanding rules of thought and behavior, thereby promising a better world for all.
Four of the Beatitudes in Matthew (the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th), as do all those quoted by Luke, refer to given situations in the lives of some individuals, thus appealing to our empathy or even sympathy.
Thereby, they demand a basically humble, human attitude in contrast to the prevalent, heroic role models in the time of Christ – and the too often commercial ones in our time.
· the poor
· the mourners
· the hungry
· the unjustly persecuted ones
In Jesus’ time, heroes too often were mighty emperors or warriors, the powerful ones on the world stage, on the battlefield, or in the Coliseum. Jesus completely inverts this value scale by postulating a more “human” culture – or, as we would say today, a world of greater human caring, one that leads to our “social values” and an ethical, idealistic structure of society.
The other four Beatitudes, indicated only by Matthew (the 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th in his writings), differ by referring not to what has possibly happened to some of us and where we then find ourselves, but to what we should proactively do; that is, to our own behavior.
- the meek
- the merciful
- the pure of heart
- the peacemakers
How can these old words and ideals be interpreted in our modern, wealth-and-success-oriented time? What do they mean to us? How can they guide us?
Blessed are the meek:
The contrast to the opposite illuminates this text:
- Beware of hubris.
- Undesirable are the arrogant!
- Beware of your self-assurance – in public, at the workplace, in the family!
- Do not become overbearing – speak humbly!
- Listen to the modest – with respect.
Every parent or teacher of many children and every team manager knows that sometimes the humble one among their group members may have the best ideas. Modern education and management theory promotes motivational “empowerment” and cooperation of all members of a team – as if the Beatitudes had become part of our modern culture in a practical way. The projection of convincing self-confidence for recognition of leadership capability became the Aristotelian middle ground between self-deprecating shyness and arrogance.
More team and family harmony – possibly even peace on Earth – results from respecting the humble ones among us.
Blessed are the merciful:
Our Western, developed world attempts to excel in social programs – expensive as they may be. More so, the wealthy among us are expected to do their special share for the reduction of suffering or for the common good – through payment of higher taxes, their own donations or foundations, and other forms of charity.
How much of our wealth should we give?
Historical standards ranged from 10 to 20 percent – of income, not of possessions – irrespective of the size of our income and not at a progressive rate. Even the Talmud is largely silent on this point, only once indicating a range of 10 to 20 percent, of income only; it does not mention the donation of possessions. Higher donations, it indicates, could reduce the security of one’s own family.
The tax laws of various Western countries, however, are largely progressive. Those of some individual countries actually do include taxes on property. Can taxes be counted as charitable donations – at least parts of them? Should the distribution of all charitable giving be left to the rich, who provide most of it, or to the democratically elected governments – both methods showing serious shortcomings?
No established religion or philosophy is ready to suggest to all people in practical life or with families that they perpetually, mercifully share their property in ongoing division with the poor encountered on life’s road (and, through the internet, the whole world can be met daily on “our road”), until nothing is left to them – at best promising sainthood to those who do. A few cave-dwelling hermits followed this path – until monasteries formed around them which then became rich.
When, years ago, the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, was found to be of ever increasing personal financial net worth as his company grew, public voices became ever louder challenging him to do some good with his wealth. He fully complied! So did Warren Buffett. Others did not, claiming that they had too many children to take care of. So do I?
Giving in specific cases should be related to the urgency and severity of need or suffering of those we immediately encounter. It should be offered swiftly, gladly, and with a warm heart!
Especially helpful and most necessary is assistance in resolving the cause of the suffering – whether poverty or loneliness! There may be causative accidents or diseases. Too many times, however, the suffering person bears much of the responsibility for the resulting suffering – through lifestyle or lack of discipline. Too often the culture surrounding that suffering person and the prevailing governance must be blamed. Laudable approaches to resolve these problems can be seen in many projects. In other cases such efforts appear useless unless one would conclude to interfere with the suffering person’s liberty (some people prefer living as homeless rather than in a forced environment) or to violently interfere with rogue governance – then facing unexpected consequences – some worse than the initial conditions (Afghanistan, North Korea, more).
In our time, public money is increasingly needed for the caring of the old and for medical services. What and where are the limits of public responsibility? Who would have to pay?
Quite often, the required charitable support is not a matter of donating money, but one of donating time! So many of our fellow humans suffer seriously from loneliness or isolation, the old as well as the young!
Think of how many young people need more support – emotionally or, in purely practical terms, in learning and progressing. How many charitable organizations of all kinds could use more volunteer helpers. Among those organizations, it is not only a matter of charitable help for humans, but also a matter of care for animals and also of environmental protection – for the natural Creation entrusted to us humans.
How much time should one donate? The same 10 percent as demanded for money – in other words, four hours per week? Or should there also be a progression – whoever has sufficient time available should donate more – and whoever has no time, being overburdened by family and work, is excused or may even use assistance in time from others?
The donation of money or time is a burden one should happily assume. In many cases, one finds that donating to others can be a gift in reverse – that one actually receives as much in joy and fulfillment as one had in mind to pass on. In that manner, being “merciful” improves this world in its own way.
To be “merciful” should not only apply to individuals, but also between neighboring communities, regions, even nations – from the rich city to a poor neighboring one – as between the rich capital and poor towns hit by industrial decline – or between nations of widely different wealth – as practiced by international charitable organizations or by “foreign aid”. On the other hand, resolving the causes of regional poverty may be more important than temporary help – with the need for acceptance of remedial action by those expecting help.
Would birth control bring practical help against poverty?
Jesus’ teaching mainly of mercy can, and should be, perpetually effective in the modern world.
Blessed are the pure of heart:
Our Western culture is criticized mainly for the amount of violence and smut it propagates in its media and public life (the latter is also found in other cultures, albeit more often behind the closed doors of the rich and financed by corruption).
Our own daily lives fill our “hearts” with the desire for more income, for profit, or simply for a gourmet meal with good beer or wine, also for gaining rank and recognition, or just for good entertainment of whatever kind. Too often, not much else is left in our “hearts”.
Should that be all in our lives – should that be all during the few years that we are allowed to live in this wonderful world – to perceive its wonders and the people living with us – to perceive the wonders and beauty of nature?
Must one focus on the evil in our world? There is a difference, though, between properly analyzing and constructively facing the evil aspects of life or, in a more questionable way, to constantly delve into the negative in one’s thoughts. A monk was once asked how he could cope with the temptation of the world. “Do not look at it”, he said.
A neuroscientist or cognitive psychologist – the scientist who can say something about the functioning of our brains and minds – will confirm that the mind’s thoughts and images will progress in sequences according to the strongest, freshest, or most valued associative linkages in the brain, whether positively or negatively valued ones!
Values are provided by “emotions”. We (both humans and advanced animals) sense a ranking of “values”. Unselfish sacrifice for offspring or the community, public service, and empathy (or Christian love, the ancient Greek agape, not eros) all rank higher than physical pleasures.
Seeing crime on TV can, and does, subsequently provoke association with crime every time we see similar circumstances in our own lives – which sometimes leads to copycat crimes. A problem we face can become so absorbing in our mind that we are drawn into it as into a hole without escape. Horrible things can happen then. What would the monk say? Set your mind and heart free again! Select higher goals for your life to aim for! Fill your heart with those!
Wall Street’s excessive greed has become the prevalent value set for people working in that environment – until that kind of greed was, and still must be, exposed as “bad”. Even a factual analysis of capitalism shows its inherent risk of large oscillations (bubbles), with catastrophic results for many innocent ones – and its inherent evolution to large divergence in wealth with subsequent revolutions.
Ethical values are naturally inherent in human (and some animal) emotions – providing for the prevailing of ethical societies in the long run. Consequently, laws and regulations had to be imposed on Wall Street and our unbridled greed, though always opposed by hectic lobbying – and more regulations are needed.
Our surrounding “culture” forms us. Our circle of friends or the books we read form a micro-culture we live in – supporting our own world of ideas and values in our minds. We are thus being formed by what we have selected as our micro-culture.
Think about what you want your life to be, where you want to see significance in your life, what you want to look back on when the final hour approaches. What would you like to have done, what would you like to be remembered for? How will you want to have helped reduce suffering, led to clarity, or provided understanding, compassion, warmth and true joy?
To make any progress on a path of “values” in life, you must, above all, keep your mind focused – to pursue the thoughts along the lines you prefer. This implies that you cannot give mental prevalence to the loudest and most recent impression.
“Do not look at it”, the monk said.
Block the undesirable from your mind.
Fill your mind with the desirable!
Keep a clean heart!
Blessed are the peacemakers:
Most of us do not decide about war and peace in the world. In our personal surroundings, however, we can influence conflict, disharmony, peace, and cooperation.
When talking about the ideas of others, all too often we prefer to find the weaknesses in their arguments rather than expand on their points of merit. At worst, we would rather see no result at all than accept the ideas of others.
Good management is not to remain with the problems at hand but to put first emphasis on the pursuit of opportunities – which then may allow the enduring of some of the problems. A discussion of the ideas of others should emphasize their strong points and, then, expand on or supplement those – all presented in a pleading tone rather than in an imposing one – to retain harmony or peace and lead to progress.
Office politics is a breeding ground for conflict – so is national politics a breeding ground for conflict in society. International rivalry is a breeding ground for world conflict. Conflict arises especially between people in close relationships in life or as neighbors on the world stage, who view themselves as separated from the others and thus try to prevail.
Simply by putting ourselves in the position of others, as if walking in their shoes, can we begin to “understand”. Understanding can result in dialogue, and possibly from dialogue can come compromises or solutions.
Most tragic are the situations where only conflict or war is seen as the resolution of great threats. The beginning of World War I was most unnecessary and tragic. The necessary dismissal of underperforming employees is often caused by inadequate management. But it takes both sides to reach peace and progress. Persuasion has limits.
Let forgiving and reconciliation be part of peacemaking!
In the end, the peacemakers are the benevolent forces in society – the finders of common solutions to problems, of constructive approaches toward a better future. It is they who move toward a better world for all, with less suffering and more opportunities fairly for all.
Blessed are those that can find a common path in peace!
Joy in Life, Nature, Art, and Culture
The emotional goal of joy in life
Human direction in life was discussed in Chapter 3 of this essay as dominated by not one but three different motivations – first, by “self-related” motivations, such as satisfaction of basic needs, then also, search for wealth, and natural self-fulfillment in personal growth of mind, personality, and skills; – second, by “altruistic” dedication to family, also by pursuit of personal rank in society (power), by ethical-idealistic dedication to helping others, or by community service; – third, by search for “Joy” in life, personal contacts, perceptions of nature, art, or culture:
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society, Action Potential
Family and Clan
Chapter 4 offered practical advice for the conduct of life, as one could present to one’s own children or grandchildren as they grow up. Chapter 5 presented philosophical guidance for nonbelievers in form of a meditation. Chapter 6 of this essay presented direction in life in moral and Christian/religious terms by referring to the Biblical Beatitudes.
Now, in this Chapter 7, the attempt is made to clarify what is meant by the general human goal to reach or to sense joy. Joy is not an intellectual phenomenon but rather an emotional one – of emotionally valuing situations rather than finding truth.
Literature indicates that subjects of emotional valuation can be expressed most effectively by telling stories, by speaking in parables (or analogies).
The Greek philosopher Theophrastos (371 to 287 BC, successor of Aristotle in Athens), used this style of writing to effectively describe the 30 different “characters” which he distinguished among the people of Athens in his time.
Jesus, who always emphasized the “spirit” of the law over the “letter” of the law, spoke often in parables to express more clearly what he wanted to communicate.
This chapter about “Joy” does not lend itself to philosophical or logical analysis either. A number of friends of the author were consulted about their experience with moments of joy in life, in special human encounters, or when enjoying nature, the arts, and culture. Invariably, the discussion reverted to their telling of short stories – parables or analogies. This was even more necessary when talking about humor, which can be a special experience of joy.
The following text merely presents a selection of such short stories, sorted in a certain order – from the most childish to the most profoundly felt ones.
Childhood stories from various contributors:
“From my childhood, I specifically remember playing happily in a sandbox, together with other very young children.
We had a very small shovel and an equally small bucket. When we had filled a bucket with wet sand and turned it over, we had built a beautiful small tower. What a joy!!”
“I remember Sunday lunches of fried chicken, when the whole family was sitting around the table, all talking happily to each other, and I sitting there gnawing on the tasty bone of a chicken leg.”
“I remember the visit to a farm when I was only four years old. The farmer allowed me to sit on his old tractor and, as this big machine was very slowly rolling along on an open field, I could steer and control it myself. It was a joy to sit up there.”
“When I was 4 or 5 years old, we lived in a very large house with a very large stone covered terrace. It was there that I got my first bike – and within days of hard trying, as I remember, I could ride it – without support! That gave me a feeling of great accomplishment and gained freedom – of great joy!
This was repeated when I graduated from high school with good grades and was admitted to a very good university – and, then again, when I finished my advanced medical studies, became a “MD”, and was admitted as partner in a well respected practice.
What moments of great joy can be gained in life, again and again!”
“When I was seven years old, we lived on a large property of gently sloping grassland with many very old trees along its sides. Every year in fall, a farmer came to cut the grass. Then we could see many small earth mounds from moles living under the grass. The farmer wanted those mounds leveled. Since we had an old VW-Beetle car, my father allowed me and my brothers to drive around in order to flatten those mounds – around and around on that large meadow – as the brothers were cheering! That was great fun!
Since I was still so small, I had to slide way down the seat to reach the pedals. But then, I had to look forward from under the rim of the steering wheel to see where I was going.
That freely driving around on the large property was the first great joy I remember!”
“The teacher I had in grade school, Mr. Behr, brought true happiness to his students. As we arrived in the morning, he took a violin out of an old case that was lined with blue velvet and played some wonderful music. Then, he had several of us tell him what we had done the day before and what we wanted to learn next, while he listened attentively.
Later during the school year, whenever one of us had a birthday, Mr. Behr would bring a small cake and candle and would play a special tune just for that happy child. No question: we all adored Mr. Behr and did everything we could to please him. The strange world away from home became beautiful. Learning became a delight. We began to move out into our own lives.
Thank you, Mr. Behr, for opening a joyful path to our lives!”
“At the end of World War II, I found myself as an abandoned adolescent refugee in a Swiss internment camp, high up in the wintry Alps, though protected and cared for. Thank you, Switzerland! One day, a letter came from the Jewish friend of my father in Ascona, Ticino, to present myself for an interview, which could possibly lead to school attendance there. My only mode of transportation, since being without funds, was an old bicycle.
The passes across the Alps were still under gray clouds and covered by snow. But, as I reached the valley of the Ticino River, with the road leading down to the lakes, I came for the first time to Italian climate and culture. All of nature was beautifully verdant. Many houses were not gray, but painted in many joyful colors. The church steeples looked different and the bells sounded different. A great feeling of joy overcame me!
(The interview went well. Shortly thereafter I was admitted to school again – and could live for a while in Ascona. I still feel deep gratitude to several good people who had helped me!)”
“As a student in college, a young man still visited with his parents at his home town from time to time. It became a habit, that on one day he would go out only with his mother – for lunch, a walk through a park, or a little excursion to a nearby historic place. They shared their thoughts, but then also their observations as they walked along, even gave each other small gifts for memory. This reconnected them as in early childhood.
On other days, he would go out only with his father. They would rent horses at a nearby stable and ride over the fields and through the woods, with wonderful views to the distant mountains. Then, they would go to a historic bar for some typical drinks and gastronomic delicacies. The father had a time of great joy with those outings. But that young man learned to enjoy the relaxed conversation which allowed him to share the so much greater “wisdom” of his father whom he had never experienced that way when he was younger.
What better could remain of family joy, by now in memory, after all those years?”
Later in Life
A story from an older lady: “Many years ago, in our young marriage, already blessed with several small children, we decided to travel from time to time. When we were far from home, in a different climate and a different culture, free of all daily duties, as on a Pacific beach on a sunny day – then I experienced great joy!”
From another lady: “After difficult years in a small home in Northern Europe – with my macular degeneration slowly taking away my eyesight – the opportunity appeared to spend six months with our son in Vancouver, Canada. My husband and I were afraid to have to crowd into our host family’s setting. But our son was able to rent an apartment for us nearby in a modern high-rise building – on the 12th floor, with a balcony and a view reaching all the way to the Pacific Ocean!
I remember the moment of our arrival – and all the time thereafter – as having been of the greatest joy to us!”
“As I successfully attended college, my older brother returned from extended military service. I really had not known him very well before he departed. Now he returned – but, quite noticeably, suffered from post-traumatic-stress-disorder. He could not concentrate for any length of time on any academic studies or other occupation, which he was supposed to undertake. Therefore, I decided to invite him to live with me for a while.
When he arrived, I picked him up at the railroad station. Since we both did not have money for a big dinner, we bought some bread, ham and cheese and sat down on a park bench as the evening approached.
To the surprise of both of us, we began a good conversation, as we never had before. To our even greater surprise, the conversation carried us on to our lives’ concerns, goals in life, and our world-view – in great harmony, as we found. It was as if we were allowed to once look over the fence that normally enclosed our mental lives and to perceive the width of our human existence.
This was a moment of great joy to both of us!
(It took my brother about three years to fully recover. But then, he was able to live a very successful and happy life – with his wonderful family).
“Shortly after I had met the young girl who later became my wife, we once went to the movies. I forgot what film we saw. But I remember distinctly how I suddenly had a vision of seeing her as being a few years older, more mature, with a small child at her side, both looking joyfully at me! In that moment I knew she would be a wonderful companion in life – which she actually became! The moments of joy came back many more times – by now through 50 years!”
“You ask for the story of a joyful moment from my daily life? As we traveled, I once went shopping in a European town. At the entrance of a large store, an elderly man played a concertina. Wanting to share my own good fortune and mood with him, I placed a nice Euro coin in the cup in front of him. Noticing the amount of the donation, the musician’s face became so humanly joyful that I had to put another coin in that cup. The musician had come from difficult circumstance in distant Romania.
At the end, all my money was gone – but I still remember that human being full of joy – including myself!”
“I can tell a similar story from San Francisco, where I encountered an elderly saxophone player at a street corner playing classical music. He played so wonderfully, with so much human sentiment, that I was deeply touched and filled with joy – he could go home having had a successful day after my donations – and I having had a joyful day!”
“Happiness is not only a matter of big earnings – it is also a matter of your attitude.
I encountered the owner of a small cleaning business where I seldom saw any customers. One day I asked him how he was doing. “I am content” was the answer, as he smiled at me.
That was the lesson for me! How many times did I remember that man and joyfully thought “I am content”!”
Family and Friends:
“I had to work hard during my years in business – for many, many stressful hours every day! Additionally, there were even more stressful business trips. I missed out on being with our still small children, boisterously playing at home in the evenings, after all their homework for school was done.
When I was able to return home early from a business trip, when they were still up and running around or loudly playing their different musical instruments, I went directly to their play area – sat down on a low cushion – and sometimes fell joyfully asleep in all the noise right there!”
“About a hundred years ago, a young woman, daughter of a wealthy family in Switzerland, had been cheated out of her inheritance by her brothers. She left town and became the nanny of the children of another wealthy family far away.
As those children had grown up, her generous employers fulfilled her dream and bought her a house to start a home to care for children who had been in trouble. Soon she was famous for the very sensitive way she found to successfully help each one of those who were sent to her. During World War II she was asked to greatly expand her operation to care for about a hundred Jewish refugee children sent to Switzerland by their parents who were threatened by annihilation. Unbelievable as it may sound, she created an environment of learning and joy for those children! May the joy she gave have reflected back into her own heart!”
“Not all women can readily have children as they wish. A young woman had lost several during pregnancy. When a daughter was finally born, however, she felt the greatest of joy!”
“Another young couple, after many years of disappointment, finally decided to adopt a baby from a distant country. Since they were already somewhat progressed in age, the adoption agencies hesitated. At the last moment, the baby they thought they could receive was given to a younger couple.
Then came another call from that distant country, that a baby would be available. They did not hesitate a day to go there and try their luck. The baby was actually given to them! They actually received airplane seats for the return flight that same day!
Only as they returned to their home the next morning did they believe their luck. All their worries fell away and they embraced in greatest joy with the baby in their arms.”
“Another moment of great relief and joy in a human encounter?
A woman had lost her husband many years ago. Then she met a ‘gentleman friend’. They had a number of dates, but, finally, both came to the conclusion that their friendship should end.
They met for one last time and had a wonderful dinner with good conversation.
As they left the restaurant, each to walk their own way home, he suddenly took her in his arms – and held her for a while, warm and close, even giving her a tender kiss.
Overcome by sudden emotion, she also gave him a very tender kiss.
Suddenly, she felt as if all the burden of the recent years had fallen from her shoulders.
She cried – and he began to cry, too.
She still remembers this moment as one of greatest joy in her life.”
“Can separation be joyful? For a manager in a large organization, the time for retirement had arrived after many years of dedicated work. That dedication had been necessary firstly for the success of the company, but very much also for the success in life of his subordinates. He was always there to give each one good advice and try to open suitable new opportunities for them.
He did not think that his personal effort had been noticed very much in that business environment; thus he just wanted to depart quietly when the time came.
Much to his surprise, a great celebration took place with a series of speeches by former employees thanking him for all he had personally done for them, for having been such a human being in the midst of the business world – and there were gifts with everyone’s signature.
(The company, in recognition of his accomplishments, improved the terms of retirement.)
Thus, that departing still resonates with joy for him (mixed with sadness)!”
“As we grew older, in retirement, we had a beautiful summer home out in the countryside – complete with a small garden in which to enjoy our meals.
During vacation time, the children sometimes all came to visit with us, bringing along some friends. When including some of our own friends, we occasionally had quite a large and happy group there.
We purchased ample quantities of delicious local food, some local wine, but mainly tried to relax – to fully appreciate the joy of those common evenings in our garden!”
“When I was only 12 years old, I began to enjoy being on a boat on the nearby lake and had actually learned to sail. That fall, my father offered me a small, old “dinghy” sailboat, which was in a state of disrepair and was sitting abandoned in the yard of a boat repair shop at the lake. If I would repair it through the winter, I would have my own sailboat in the spring!
What a challenge for a twelve-year-old boy!
The boat was promptly repaired on time (with the help of some yard workers)!
How can one express the joy of being out on the lake on a quiet evening after school (or during the day, instead of going to school)! What an awakening experience to sense the joy of nature – the ripples of a light wind on the water, the reflections of trees along the shore or of steadily migrating clouds on the clear water’s surface, the arrival of waterfowl, sailing down at first, then gliding into the water – finally the discovery of the night sky with its myriad stars!
Nature can be such a deep source of harmonious joy for us!”
“Skiing in winter? Do you know the joy of the first full snow arriving in winter? You cannot wait to get up the slopes. Now starts the swinging down in wide curves through the blowing powder!
Too soon you arrive breathlessly at the bottom – hurry back to the ski lift with its typical clanking noise – and be gently lifted up and up again! You briefly perceive the wide scenic view up and down the mountain range!
Another brief minute of joy follows in almost musically swinging down!”
“We spent summers on the Mediterranean coast. In the morning, when the family still slept, I enjoyed getting up before sunrise to sit on a rock at the water’s edge.
The water is always totally calm at that time of the day, with a perfectly reflecting surface.
Slowly the dark sky in the east turns gray, then dark orange, then lighter orange.
On some days, my wife follows me and sits silently on the rock next to me. Doesn’t the sky turn more beautiful at that moment?
A small fishing boat with two dark figures in it leaves the port somewhere in the distance to my left and takes a straight course toward the islands to my right, leaving at first a sharp cone of spreading then fading waves, along with the typical tuck-tuck noise of its motor – then the sound fades.
The sky turns to a more intensely bright color.
Then, like a dagger of light, the fringe of the sun comes over the horizon. You quickly have to avert your eyes from such brightness. The day has begun!
Joy has filled our hearts!”
“Friends of ours had traveled to Peru, to hike in the Andes. They reported how they returned one evening from the mountains to the vast highlands, the Altopiano.
As the sun set, the sky turned deep red.
The sky appeared immensely wide over those highland planes!
Could the sky have any deeper color?
Unbelievable how at this altitude the sky kept glowing – on and on – in an ever deeper and ever more intensely fiery red!
As it faded into the dark, they still stood there for a long time – filled with joy!”
“Ask me about a perfectly beautiful scenery! The answer may be different for each one of us. Having been confined for so many years of business life to work in an office, I always think of the immense width of scenery in northern Alaska – endless mountain ranges sloping away from your sight toward the horizon, a broad river leisurely meandering in the valley between them – possibly some wide ocean water in the distance.
But with your question also comes the memory of my youth – of walking through sunlit forests – with clear gray tree trunks majestically rising to the wide green crowns of the trees – walking toward an overlook – looking over gently rolling hills – occasionally seeing the church steeple of a small historic village in the distance – swallows circling swiftly through the air!”
“The beauty of nature can appear in minute detail. The famous Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 to 1528) once produced a painting of merely a little patch of grass – with its elegantly curving leaves in different shades of green. That painting still hangs in a museum and delights people – who otherwise carelessly walk by lots of grass along the road.
On most bushes in your garden, or in a park, the tips of the branches end with a very small cluster of two or three newly formed leaves. Look at their aesthetically elegant shape. Enlarge them in your mind to twenty times their size. Put them on a pedestal. They will appear as wonderful works of art. Present them to an art gallery or museum. They will give joy to all the visitors!”
“An old lady, once an artist, living alone and suffering from the beginning of dementia, only wanted to enjoy undisturbed rest.
Then she had an idea!
She had her bed moved close to the window where, from such a position, she could look up to the sky as she rested on her pillow.
She told us that her life became wonderful again. She could see the clouds sail by.
As she said, from morning to evening, ever new clouds, in ever new forms and in different lighting, came by, sometimes changing shape during the short time they were visible from her window. Then they sailed on.
Where would they go? She remembered journeys she had undertaken in her younger years.
Joy remained in her heart!”
“Of course we also had art classes in high school – very boring for us youngsters.
What happened one day, though? I was about 15 years old, just “confirmed” in the historic church of a small village. I had gone for a walk and was sitting on a small hill less than a mile from the village, with a perfect view over the fields toward that church. I wished I could hold onto this picture forever.
What a coincidence: I had a pen and some paper in my pocket!
Unbelievable! The sketch succeeded! The view could be nicely recognized – and I had a wonderful souvenir! That was joy!
This first chance success encouraged me to sketch more and more as I traveled. I must have close to a hundred sketches in my desk drawers by now.
More importantly, I suddenly had an eye for graphic art – first for drawings and engravings.
Then followed an experiment with coloring those drawings – and that opened my eyes to the art of painting! What a joy to stand in front of a great artist’s painting – in a museum or in a private home! Good art may be primarily an aesthetic joy, but outstanding art also has content – and communicates emotions – as music can do so deeply!
I once discovered a very small piece of painted wall decoration from Pompeii – showing some columns of an old temple, a gentle tree growing out of those ruins, a toga-clad person looking out from there. Who was that artist 2,000 years ago sensing this beauty and communicating with me now?
Later, experiments with sculpturing followed – well guided by an experienced teacher who started me with doing clay figures.
Finally, we had to expand an old house we lived in – and I dared to do some of the architectural design myself. A well-meaning professional architect directed me toward the “American Vignola”, a modern reprint of that Renaissance architect’s teaching of perfect design. (After all, Thomas Jefferson was an amateur architect, too.) The result was an enjoyable addition to our house – some people actually like to look at it.
I find joy in remembering times of artistic expression which I was allowed to experience.
Having learned that courage to experiment with different forms of art can result in great joy. I tried some poetry (my sister is much better at it, and we stimulated each other in friendly competition), then composing simple tunes of music … I even tried gourmet cooking!
“Dare to be great”, as I saw written somewhere as a graffiti!”
“Several times, when going to museums, I was moved to joy by outstanding art.
In my younger years, I was impressed mainly by some Renaissance artists with almost Romantic sensitivity, by the engraver Albrecht Dürer and the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. Later, I was deeply touched by Romantic art, for instance, the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Still later, I discovered the Hudson River School of landscape paintings and still consider them the most sensitive period of American art – giving me great joy!
Finally, as I was able to travel more extensively, I discovered Greek temples – the Parthenon in Athens, the temples at Paestum and at Agrigento in Italy – so perfectly harmonious.
Then, I discovered modern architecture – not only of great buildings, but also of fantastic bridges – thank you, Professor Billington of Princeton! Here, art approaches the beauty of perfectly designed technical objects – as modern airplanes, or even some cars!
Our home became more and more a collection of beautiful objects that we found by chance – some very simple, such as a drinking glass I use only occasionally for red wine – some antique and some very modern furniture, such as a wooden table designed by Nakashima of New Hope, Pennsylvania, consisting of a single slab of black walnut with a natural, ‘live’ edge.
What a joy to be touched by outstanding art!
Sometimes I find myself as having lived another week or month at our home without noticing the beauty of some of the objects! I admonish myself to keep my eyes open, my mind prepared for what is offered to us – at home and outside.”
No form of art can touch the heart as music does!
Was music invented by mankind – in all of its cultures on Earth at all times – as an expression of emotions, as stimulant for emotions – in relaxation, warfare, rituals, as well as courtship? May it not be overly abused in business for marketing or to agitate in propaganda!
“In my early teens, I found myself in a boarding school high in the Alps of Switzerland. For the first time, I was separated from my family and all my former friends. It was at that age that I began to experience desolate loneliness, which later became a theme of my life.
There were all kinds of youngsters in our school, also some bullies and some wild ones. Only one in our class, named von Zastrow, appeared to be rather quiet. He was always friendly, but he did not participate in any group activities. His only interest was in playing the piano.
In the evening, after finishing my homework, I would go to bed early, so as to be in the dark by myself, in loneliness and sadness. The window of my room opened onto the schoolyard. On the other side of the yard was a classroom building that contained a music room. That was where Zastrow went quite often to practice the piano in the evening. I must confess that I had refused to learn the piano while still at home and had rather cut classes at that time so that I could go sailing on a small boat on the lake. Now at boarding school, Zastrow’s music – the endless finger exercises, études, or the wild music of a strange composer – disturbed me.
The deep darkness and loneliness of a particular night in winter was especially hard on me. My thoughts were interrupted by the beginning of Zastrow’s music. As always, it started wild. But this time, in the second movement of the piece, the adagio harmonies felt somewhat warmer to me, though still quite dark. Then, all of a sudden, a wonderful melody with tender and joyfully clear sounds wove into the course of the sonata – as if talking to me.
Immediately I felt wide-awake. Moments later, the melody returned – a bit clearer, lighter, more forthright than before. My heart began to feel joy. As that melody returned again and again, I had found a new light in life. Life could be beautiful, and worth living.
After the music ended, I fell asleep and enjoyed a wonderful night of internal harmony. The next day I talked to Zastrow. He told me that he had played Beethoven’s “Waldstein Sonata,” the piece he liked most. We talked for a while, and I found that he was just a youngster like me, but with greater sensitivity. Music was his way of coping with life—and now it had become a source of joy in life for me.
Thank you, Zastrow, for showing me a path to joy, out of the darkness within me.”
“Many messages and some videos are being sent around on the internet, from friend to friend. Some are stupid, some are supposed to be funny – but one touched me:
In that video, showing a market square somewhere in northern Spain, in front of the historic city hall, an elderly musician in a dark coat, with a large stringed instrument (a contrabass) and a paper cup on the floor in front of him, sits on a simple chair and plays an insignificant tune. Children toss coins into the cup and a circle of observers forms.
Next, another musician exits city hall and joins the already seated musician – then more and more musicians and, finally, a small choir of singers. A large crowd gathers around.
At that moment, the tune of the music changes into Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”!
The crowd joins the song and the children dance – happiness and momentary great joy fill that little plaza!”
“Another presentation of the “Ode to Joy” is annually performed in Osaka, Japan, in a large arena – where everybody participates, either as musician or as part of the choir!
The conductor had to wipe a tear from his eyes as the soaring music filled all their hearts!”
At the End?
“Must the end of our lives be filled with sadness?
How about the “near-death experience”?
There are numerous reports by people who were close to death and then recovered – about the greatness of their last vision – the great light, the great peace, even joy.
My great-grandmother had been very close to her two sisters. They preceded her and she only hoped to see them again in heaven. Upon her moment of dying, she suddenly opened her eyes once more and joyfully exclaimed the names of her two sisters! Then she was gone.
The famous inventor and designer of the iPhone and iPad at Apple, Steve Jobs, upon dying exclaimed “Oh, Wow!” – three times – then he had died.”
I myself had the near-death experience – the great light in endless space – and being part of a multitude! Then, upon recovering, I was deeply sad not to be in that peace and harmony any longer – there having felt so fully at home!
One can only wish everybody a completion of life in a homecoming of the greatest peace and joy!”
Now, please start recording what you remember as the most joyful moments of your own life – and also collect some short stories of “joy” from your friends. Reading those stories from time to time can return great joy to your own heart – which you can share with others.
More importantly, you may want to give your life a direction toward joy!
And don’t forget those who live in sadness, suffering, failure, or loneliness around you!
Please bring them a little bit of light, a little bit of warmth – like the hope and joy from the rising sun!
About Old Age and Death – Is there a homecoming for us?
The approaching end
The approaching end:
The perception from the inside – descriptively and prescriptively
Cicero’s “De Senectute” and Plato in a modern view
Life can be thought of as a trajectory. After the rise in childhood (possibly to age 15), a phase of further building of life’s substance follows (possibly from age 15 to 30). Then comes the long plateau of the middle of life (possibly from age 30 to 60), followed by a gentle decline (possibly from age 60 to 75). This decline becomes more noticeable (usually after age 75) and leads to the end of life (for most, before age 90). Specifically, the time after age 80 can be described as “old age”. Some people, however, demonstrate that neither their actual intellectual interests nor the life dimension (or parameter) of “wisdom” show such decline, but may, rather, show some continuity, and even further progress late in life, as one struggles against physical decline.
How do people feel while they immutably progress – as on a conveyor belt – finding themselves advancing within each age phase and from phase to phase? Specifically, how does the phase of late “old age”, after 80, look from the inside out? Autobiographies usually are written before people turn very old; consequently, they do not describe the actual “inside experience” of old age. But many of us (if not most), as well as those close to us, go, or will go, through that special phase of life’s completion. What do they experience in their minds? What do or will we? What can or should we do better? What can we learn from each other? What is the experience of life in this phase?
For the most part, a review of the literature regarding old age yields descriptions of old people as either becoming very frail (some cantankerous), or, for some “carrying on”, even expanding, specific intellectual interests in an exceptional way (see Plutarch, Theophrastos, President Carter, some modern artists and scientists). Hemingway shot himself when he had no further inspirations for writing – and some famous painters became depressive when their style was no longer in demand, as they could not adapt to a new one. From this, one can deduct the recommendation: carry on with earlier interests, and even start a new one in old age (languages and literature, music or another of the arts, some scientific research, and so on). Literature, however, does not yield many writings about the experience of “old age” as seen from the inside.
Outstanding among historic writers about old age is Cicero (having lived from 106 to 43 BC). Cicero established himself as a leading politician during the late “Republican” phase of Rome’s political structure, prior to the arrival of Caesar’s dominance as a dictatorial emperor. Today, we would use the term “democratic phase”, followed by the reign of a dictator or tyrant.
During Caesar’s reign, Cicero, for reasons of safety, withdrew from public life and lived in solitude, concentrating on the study of Greek, mainly Stoic philosophy. When Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, Cicero returned enthusiastically to public life, using this opportunity to publish some of his most important writings, including the short scripture commonly called De Senectute (About Old Age). Cicero was only 62 years of age at that time, but he used the literary scheme of presenting his thoughts as the words of a former famous personality – in this case, that of Marcus Porcius Cato, called Cato Maior (who lived from 234 to 149 BC), depicted by Cicero as then being 84 years of age.
Cicero did not live much longer, actually not reaching old age himself. Being the most forceful “democratic” opponent of the rising next generation of tyrannical dictators, Antony and Octavian (later called Augustus), Cicero was quickly eliminated simply by being murdered (in 43 BC) by Antony’s agents – as were many other freedom-seeking activist Romans in those days, many of whom were murdered by Augustus.
Cicero had already read the earlier dialogue between Cephalos and Sokrates (or Socrates), written by Plato (428 - 347 BC) on only a couple of pages at the beginning of the “1st Book” in his Politeia (“The Republic”). This specific dialogue was written in 360 BC, when Plato was 68. In this dialogue, the more than 80-year-old Cephalos was presented as seeing the pleasures of the body replaced by the intellectual pleasure of conversing with a philosopher. Socrates, in turn, was presented as seeing in Cephalos a traveler through life a few miles ahead of the others, and asked him for a report.
Cephalos answered that, among all old people, there is too much concentration on, and talk of, what they have lost in their physical ability and pleasures. He and his friends, who stayed away from that tendency, view old age, rather, as a liberation from passions.
In the dialogue, Socrates suspects that Cephalos’ wealth makes him feel more at ease than others. Cephalos agrees, but points out that those who build wealth usually also retain the desire to acquire ever more of it, still talking about nothing else late in life. Only those who inherit wealth know how to enjoy it in their old age.
The two then discuss the fear of death, which Cephalos relates to the fear of a Last Judgment – about what wrongs one has done to others in, perhaps, deceiving or defrauding them.
Cicero, in his De Senectute, follows Plato by also concentrating on the three categories of problems – losing one’s physical abilities, losing one’s pleasures, and nearing death. Cicero, however, analyzes the problems of old age as being one subdivided into four subphases or categories. He proceeds by “proving” how the problems in each phase or category can be fully solved by following Stoic philosophy. According to Cicero, these are the phases of old age:
A. The onset of old age (at about age 60), leading to a loss of position and recognition in society or meaningful occupation, resulting, in turn, in burdensome idleness
B. Increasing physical restrictions resulting from an aging body
C. Loss of the basic pleasures of life
D. The impending approach of the end of life
A postscript: It is interesting to note that the rapid expansion and success of the Christian faith in the ancient world came largely from promising a way around the Last Judgment, leading directly into heaven. Equally, Islam, as recently seen so clearly, recruits suicide fighters by promises of instant and direct access to Paradise for martyrs in their jihad against the perceived enemies of Islam – and promises such access also to their numerous innocent victims.
Was the belief in Paradise always a blessing for mankind, or did it lead to neglect of the potential of life and also to less responsibility for the conditions of life on Earth? Did it actually lead to more suffering?
The Onset of Old Age, Possible Idleness
The value of the early phase of old age (upon retirement) depends significantly on economic conditions and, mainly, on sometimes difficult choices involving what to dedicate this new phase of life to. Thus, it may become quite constrained and disappointing; or, alternatively, it may become the best phase of one’s life!
Society has largely retained the habit of phasing people out of their position or occupation into retirement when they reach an age above 60. Lately, with longer retention of health and thus increased life expectancy, the retirement age has shifted toward age 65, and is now even proposed to shift for economic reasons toward age 70.
Cicero belonged to the upper class of the by then fully developed Roman civilization (not to the always hard-working lower classes). In comparison with our time, one should consider the middle or upper class of North America, Europe, and a few other parts of the world, including the new super-rich in Asia and South America – or in the oil countries.
Cicero begins with a generally negative concept of old age, as being a time of carrying a burden. To cope with this, he puts emphasis on “character”. People with a relaxed attitude and a sophisticated mind bear old age more easily than do ill-tempered, uneducated people. As Plato’s Cephalos, Cicero points out that sufficient wealth, if combined with wisdom and virtues, helps one to be content in old age. To postpone the beginning of old age, he proposes continued engagement or activities (and, specifically, learning, just as he himself had begun the study of the Greek language and Greek philosophy in his old age).
As they did in Cicero’s time, as well as our own, there exists a wide variety of personal responses to retirement. While some people long merely for the “freedom” offered by retirement, others fear a meaningless life lacking the recognition resulting from their former position; still others attempt to hang onto their occupations as long as they can, even well beyond age 70. Most hope for some pleasant or fulfilling involvement in their old age. As in Roman times, there still are possibilities in political consulting, in public service on a local level in community administration or on commissions, in agriculture, now called “gardening”, and in the arts.
In our time, however, the variety of possible activities in old age, compared to those in Cicero’s time, seems to have widened considerably – through the development of our culture and the rising level of sophistication of all people – all being globally interconnected with everybody else through travel, communication, and, now, the internet. Leisure activities for a large segment of the people may center on fishing, golfing, bridge, or a social club. Many spend time in gyms or on other exercises. Some spend their time pursuing investments by way of the internet. Additionally, there is mind-stimulating traveling and a multitude of opportunities for Continuing Education!
Specifically, the old (the “Senators”) should contribute their wisdom to long-term and strategic planning – for instance, on industrial, community, or political “boards”. Typical for our time, there are many possible activities as volunteers for charity. There is also more room or need for activism for a great variety of causes.
Old individuals should also teach, and thus transfer their knowledge to the younger generations!
In any event, continued mental engagement and diligence are recommended for both well-being and health (such as maintaining memory through mental exercises) and for the common good.
As seen from the inside, many retired people hesitate to become involved in new fields. Actually, it is rather easy to be nominated to the board of almost any nonprofit organization: by merely donating $10,000 to its cause. Upper-level managers, however, cannot see themselves merely as helpers on relatively low commissions. In most fields, financial experts see themselves as superior to practical doers or as overqualified. Some just relax (a bit too much, e.g., reading newspapers, watching TV), and show no energy or initiative to get involved.
Cicero and most advisors to old people today neglect the fact that the old just don’t have as much energy left as is demanded of them. Many need not only a nap in the afternoon, but feel more tired much of the time. The “view from the inside” indicates an interest in seeing others run around outside – “If they would just leave me alone on the bench, to look at the garden or leave me inside at my desk or on my comfortable chair”. Voluntarily slowing down, as well as the desire to concentrate on life at home, is increasingly the preference of most people as they grow older.
Thus, the richest phase, or one of the richest and personally most rewarding phases, of a person’s life could be the early part of retirement. It offers the combination of freedom and remaining energy with a still-widening horizon in travel, studies and possible civic or artistic engagements – if the initiative is taken to get involved! Later, however, sliding into old age must be countered by one’s own initiative or by supporting stimulation from outside to maintain fullness of life.
Physical Handicaps and Restrictions
Increasing health problems in our bodies have both physical and psychological effects.
In physical terms, most early medical problems of our time (compared to Cicero’s) can be countered by the unbelievable progress being made in medical knowledge and modern technology – as well as by palliative care. Thus, in that phase, our concentration should not be on self-pity alone, but on finding the right medical specialist and the right hospital with the applicable experience or innovative insight to effectively help. Initiative is required.
Focusing the mind away from constant attention to medical issues and onto more desirable topics helps improve the quality of life for oneself and for one’s environment.
Psychologically, however, any suddenly occurring physical problems (and many do appear suddenly!), not to mention slowly developing ones, can appear threatening and can occupy an ever-increasing share of a person’s attention – at worst leading to suffering, fear, and anxiety. This can be explained by the functioning of the brain and human thought. The mind pays attention to foreground experiences – unless “focusing” on themes beyond these experiences (see the comments on thought-sequencing in Chapter 2, “Human Mind”). Thus, if there is no overriding perception or no willful focusing on more elevating matters, the mind will automatically return to even minor aches and pains – and this will dominate conversations with other people who, similarly, continue to report endlessly their small, but to them important ills. (There is one retirement home for the aged near Princeton, New Jersey, however, where friends dining together prohibit any mention of medical subjects at their table!)
People can be equally obsessed by other themes, such as money (investments), power, food, sex, or, at worst, crime (see, for instance, the occurrence of copycat crimes) – or, alternatively, on reaching sainthood through abstinence and prayer – or endless meditation or chant. Personally selected focus, though, does allow the willful return to more enjoyable or more elevated thought sequences and discussions!
This is implied in the Bible’s “Beatitudes,” which demand a “clean heart”! A clean heart may be searched through religious reading and chanting, or by Loyola’s “exercises”– or through Buddhist meditations. At best, however, it is recognized through personal effort in positive focusing and a positive lifestyle within one’s own culture!
Additionally, as one ages, the view from the inside out, is modified by arising or prevailing “moods”, by emotions or the lack thereof.
Human emotions are not merely neurologically founded; to a large extent, they are biochemically founded. Everybody knows the effect of adrenaline – or of a cup of coffee or of alcohol or of dopamine – or especially when harmfully related to drug consumption. Actually, numerous biochemical substances produced by various glands in the human body can influence mood. Improved food composition, medications and, very important, exercises are the countermeasures – along with stimulating conversation (see the comments by Plato above).
Especially helpful for mood improvement are humor and laughter!
What remains may be a tiring or dulling effect of all the medications one is expected to consume in old age, which reduce life’s fullness and joy.
One should not forget those who do encounter truly serious, sometimes painful, and possibly life-threatening physical problems, or chronic fatigue – and should include them in one’s empathy!
Thus, the inside experience of this phase of life is that of suddenly being restrained in one’s preferred activities – as becoming distant from younger people. This restriction is all the more troubling for those who once preferred a sport or other physical activity. There are dark thoughts about “what is left for me in life”; but this can, and must be, countered as much as possible by taking the initiative in obtaining modern medical treatment or palliative care, in exercises, and, mainly, focusing on the positive aspects of life, on congenial company and humor.
Since moods are not constant, one should take care of oneself and retain enough energy for the remaining, very positive periods of time, in order to fully live when these periods do occur!
The Loss of Life’s Pleasures
The importance attached to the loss of life’s pleasure depends on one’s personal psychological conditions. Shifting our mental focus to the higher remaining pleasures still lets us enjoy and even fulfill our life.
Plato and Cicero count the loss of pleasures as one of the setbacks of old age. They counter this condition, however, with the benefit to be derived from the loss of low passions (those on the lowest level of motivations) and emphasize the remaining higher joys of the human mind – as in conversation with sophisticated friends or, mainly, in studying and applying philosophy.
As one ages, though, one does feel the separation from joyful youth – as belonging at another table in the tent of life, where people eat small portions and merely play cards – and don’t dance exuberantly on the table any longer. I know some older people who always want to sit at the table with the young, to still participate in their joy – while, possibly, actually disturbing the careless world of the latter.
In Chapter 3 of these writings, “Meaning of Existence, Personal Direction, Values”, a matrix is presented in which the various motivations and priorities in life are ranked:
At the most basic level is the satisfaction of the most naturally given needs: survival and satisfaction of physical needs (food, shelter, sex), the great value of companionship with family and the clan, and, already, some aesthetic embellishment of the environment.
At the middle level lies the seeking of wealth, power, and entertainment.
And at the highest level we find the search for mental growth, dedication and service to others and the community, and participation in the arts (culture):
Caring Service & Charity
Building a Better Society
Enjoyment of Culture,
Security and Dignity
Positive Significance in Society
Family and Clan
In fact, the rise to any of the higher motivations compensates for the possible loss sustained at the lower levels, especially for those who can concentrate on the highest level: Growth, Service, and Culture (Art).
Again, it is a matter of intentionally cultivating a “clean heart” by making the effort to focus, again and again, on the higher aspects of our existence.
Sometimes, one is not called to perform grandiose actions, but merely to “emanate” a positive spirit in life and in empathy to our domestic or business environment. I remember my grandmothers not by anything they may have said, but by their emanation of goodness, participating love and joyfulness to the world around them.
The internet opens the world for participation anytime and anywhere. Intellectually abstract participation in life has become prevalent in our age of internet communication. Endless hours are spent on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia searches and communication – at Skype cost and speed.
Yes, at old age the view of life from the inside out is one of receding pleasures – but still one of lower pleasures receding first, leaving the higher ones to pursue – if not, emptiness will result.
As said before, one should not forget the very many people who are burdened by serious problems of health, especially also by loneliness, and who lack the means to attract desirable help.
Old Age, the Approaching End of Life
In the last phase of life, in genuine old age (usually after age 85), the conduct of life becomes more serious. Personal weakness and withdrawal set in, along with, possibly, serious health conditions and suffering. Caregivers often counter by applying excessive control in their attempts to keep the old person vitalized from morning to evening, failing to allow the quiet and rest desired by the further- aging person. Obviously, though, too much quiet and rest is not good. The middle ground, with its adjustment to sliding conditions, is difficult to find. Some degree of warmth and happiness must remain in life.
Finally, death is a sad departure, but it can also appear to the departing one as liberation – for some, in the greatest vision-like near-death experience.
Here are some comments about the end of life in a view from the inside out:
Initially, it is merely a sudden regret. Later, it becomes increasingly a frequently appearing sadness and a form of suffering, when one or the other of our friends, colleagues, or relatives passes away – some slowly, others suddenly. The risk to one’s own life is increasingly evident. One sees the time coming when oneself, or – more threatening – one’s companion in life will pass away! Will one remain in great loneliness? More important, will one have to leave one’s much loved companion in such a situation of loneliness? How sad that would be!
Not only does the social circle become smaller in old age, one also develops an attitude of greater isolation, which, socially speaking, leads to fewer invitations, as well as to less participation in organized activities, such as clubs.
One feels living on a stretching touch-screen, where an invisible hand lets everything around us recede – slowly at first but then further and further away, until everything appears far away and becomes increasingly unreachable. Long-distance travel may be the first to go. An excursion to a nearby town or to friends a few miles away is no longer desirable. Sitting comfortably at home is preferred. Yet, that is felt as isolation.
The spirit always feels and stays younger than the aging body, as if the same young “soul” were living in a slowly crumbling house. The body becomes a burden – sometimes even feeling physically heavy – and, with arthritis increasing in the knees or other joints, unpleasant to move at all. This lets the body also become a psychological burden.
How can any joy or optimism remain? Surprisingly, joy and laughter can remain quite well – not physically but psychologically restrained, or, more accurately, biochemically restrained – where the happiness or laughter-causing hormone (such as dopamine) often appears to be missing in the body (actually, in the brain). Not only present joy, but also optimism for the future, is impeded by similar biochemical causality.
In theaters, there are certain curtains that permit or inhibit vision to the other side, depending on lighting conditions. Similarly, in the life of the very old, it often appears as though a curtain has appeared – the view of the world appearing beyond such a virtual curtain becoming more opaque and even turning darker at certain times or with age.
At other times, it can appear as if one were viewing oneself and life from a distance, as seen from the audience, as acting somewhere on a distant stage.
Thus, it appears as though the pursuit of life itself feels like a “sliding down” – mostly slowly but occasionally in steps, sometimes recovering from a step, only to continue the slide thereafter. Insecurity sets in with every step one takes, with, for instance, the problems to be confronted the next day.
A typical sensation of old age – but one not always felt as a burden – is the feeling of being tired – though this doesn’t happen all the time. There are still some brilliantly clear moments, some hours, days, or weeks.
There are moments of specific, very intensive perception of beauty in this world, often in some detail: sunshine on the garden, a flower, a happy young child, the presence of one’s companion in life!
It is important not to let difficult moments grind down one’s own resilience and, most importantly, the resilience of one’s companion. Outside care-giving help must be found and engaged in order to unburden one’s companion, in order to let him or her remain fully positive during the bright moments or periods of time when being together, which do occur again and again!
It is a positive experience, that the moment one starts on an intellectually or emotionally challenging task – some interesting reading or, more so, some interesting writing, work of art, or conversation – all feeling of tiredness, a headache for instance, disappears for the time being. This leaves fullness of life, joy of companionship, the possibility of transferring experience to the young, time for formulating one’s legacy – and thus appreciation for being alive.
However, as aging progresses and the feeling of being tired intensifies, there is no further vision for the next five years – or even for the next year. One feels “ready to go”.
Circumstances change when a surviving, lonely person decides to seek shelter by moving in with a child, with his or her family. Sometimes questions of dominance arise, as they did in early marriage. The old person cannot dominate nor disturb the young family. At the same time, the young family should not over-control and critique the old person, thereby reducing his or her dignity. The right distance must be found. The old person’s “giving up” only increases his or her isolation. Historically speaking, large farmhouses contained separate living quarters for the old (in our time, a small apartment nearby would do), where they were also supplied with their needs and supported – thus the warm harmony of an ideal multigenerational family could be maintained.
The feeling of isolation and departure among the old becomes especially intense when an accident, a sudden deterioration in health, or a diagnosis from a physician indicates that death is approaching. One can then feel like becoming surrounded by a shell or veil, leaving one in a life by oneself – separate from all others – not belonging any longer to their community. This can happen to the young as they are met by a negative fate or, more regularly, by the old. Tormenting thoughts occur: Will death be painful? How will it be? Where will I be thereafter?
What is left and what becomes ever more important is caring for those who will be left behind. Have they been provided for? Where, and how, will they live? Can they cope? How will the inheritance be distributed – all the many objects and meaningful souvenirs collected over a lifetime or once inherited from earlier generations? Can a family archive be formed?
More troubling questions: What actually is the mental legacy I leave behind? Should I write it down? What did I stand for in life? What did I accomplish? What would I like to be remembered for? What are my departing, warm wishes for my children and grandchildren?
Plato and Cicero considered life after death as the soul’s judgment followed by an eternal life. Alternatively, the then more modern Cicero also considered the possibility of a complete end upon death. Cicero found peace in each view. A Christian finds peace, too, in divine forgiving and eternal life after death. The modern person may see in death an end – as for everything in nature – at best, a true homecoming to nature – and may find great peace in that vision, too.
My own “near-death experience” and vision toward the beyond was most serious and grandiose – beyond description – and also, most positive – beyond description! It was so peaceful and harmonious, the feeling of having found an eternal home! I was very sad when the doctors succeeded in bringing me back to life in this world.
The last words of Steve Jobs as he died were, three times: “Oh! --- Wow!” … then he passed away.
The reaction to and experience with old age, as well as one’s own behavior in old age, results largely from the culture or environment one lives in – and one’s remaining financial means and remaining social connections, at best sufficiently provided for by earlier savings or benefits – and, hopefully, how one is harbored in a loving family!
To some extent, one can influence the cultural factor – whether living in the “West” or moving to an Indian guru, or elsewhere. Our culture now finds itself between old religious concepts, on one side, and discoveries made possible by the sciences on the other side. Thus we see the origin of this universe as being beyond all comprehension – immensely grandiose and intellectually structured, augmented by the probability concepts of quantum theory. We also recognize, however, that all will come to an end in the distant future!
Cicero compared approaching death to a mariner finally sighting land.
We see ourselves observing and participating in this world and in evolving nature for a few decades only. We must recognize that we have the full responsibility for our actions and our participation in society – within the limits of our personal freedom. We must grasp the initiative. We are responsible not only for our actions (and what we leave undone), but also for what we “emanate”, what we contribute to our environment, by being just the way we are or should be!
We must accept our aging as that of only one organism in all of transient nature – and still fulfill as best we can every positive hour remaining for us in this world – while admiring the grandiose structure and beauty of nature on Earth – and warmly cherishing the ties of our heart – mainly to those close to us – our family, also our friends, and specifically also to the suffering ones – and to nation and society at large – even to nature.
The Future: Global Concerns and Opportunities to Concentrate On
The main challenges for our future: concerns and opportunities
What should be the most essential concerns of our world at this time?
3.1. A Brief List of Human-Caused Concerns
3.2. Detailed Discussions of Human-Caused Concerns:
3.2.1. Terrorist Attacks with “dirty” bombs, spreading dangerous materials
3.2.2. Poverty, Global Economy/Employment, Social Balance, Prosperity
3.2.3. Governance; Political or Religious Governance
3.2.4. Global Structure; Dominance by Some or Cooperation, Veto Rights
3.2.5. Unchecked Population Growth
3.2.6. Scarcity of Resources, Including Usable Water
3.2.7. Migrations, Immigration
3.2.8. Drugs and Drug Trafficking
3.2.9. Education, for Usable Knowledge and Values
3.2.10. Imbalance of the Capitalist System:
Bubbles/Depressions, Social Imbalance
3.3. Some Other Concerns
The attention of the political leaders of our world is absorbed by an endless sequence of daily emergencies. They must direct all their energies toward the immediate need for ever-changing, fast responses. Little time or energy remains to discuss and possibly define the basic direction that our human society pursues or, actually, should pursue – where our essential problems and our essential opportunities are – and then to act upon it.
Political leaders concentrate most of their effort on reelection and maintaining their power.
Any effort to arrive at global coordination fails with the veto power of merely a single member of the UN Security Council.
A special problem with the human concerns is the fact that many who cause damage don’t have to pay for it and many who benefit don’t have to pay either (the so-called “externalities”, in the language of professional economists). In general, government regulations are needed to control those “externalities”. How should that work internationally, globally?
There is a need for better global coordination in setting strategic priorities, in defining and prioritizing essential risks and opportunities, and then for taking appropriate action.
What actually are the essential global concerns or opportunities?
Which ones should one concentrate on?
2. Nature-Caused Concerns:
“Global Warming”, as increasingly confirmed in the severity of its consequences, must be seen as the most essential global concern at this time – especially as caused not only by natural cyclic warming causes, but aggravated by environmental damage caused by business interests and population growth. The consequences of further global warming would be not only damage to nature, but much higher cost or unavailability of food and, consequently, hunger, suffering, and larger migrations, combined with significant social turmoil.
The generation of gases or particles leading to global warming by various countries is similar to the problem of overfishing. Each fisherman claims that he is merely taking a very small percentage of the total. What he does not take, another fisherman will. Saving fish for the next generation is difficult as long as each fisherman must provide for his own family and the education of his children now.
The only solution, stronger international cohesion or governance, appears unlikely.
But we must act – now!!
Ocean acidification, mostly caused by man-made pollution, threatens to destroy ocean plankton and coral reefs, thereby destroying the lowest level of the food chain. Destructive consequences must be expected on all higher levels of the food chain. This would deprive humanity of an important food source and lead to widespread poverty along the shores of all oceans among the populations living from fishing and seafood.
As in the case of global warming, the only solution, stronger international cohesion or governance, appears unlikely. But we must act – now!!
Ozone layer depletion in the atmosphere became a somewhat lesser environmental concern as some international countermeasures became effective. Others, however, were circumvented by corruption and surreptitious international business schemes, leading to a still dangerous continuation and increase of the resulting damage.
Again, the only solution, stronger international cohesion or governance, appears unlikely.
A deadly pandemic should be seen as yet another serious, and not unlikely, concern for mankind. The frequency of new diseases appearing, the speed of global disease transmission, and the time needed to develop countermeasures were demonstrated by HIV/AIDS and, more recently, by the H1N1 (Swine) Flu, as well as the newly discovered importance of the NDM-1 gene – or newly discovered, laboratory-produced variations of a deadly flu – or new “synthetic” bacteria.
Effective countermeasures usually begin as the developed countries are threatened. Will they always work in the future?
A very large asteroid cannot be excluded at some future time – of the size, which some scientists see as the cause for the extinction of most life on Earth 65 million years ago.
Several asteroids capable of potentially causing large damage were reported upon their fly-by in Earth’s vicinity during the last few years as observations became more accurate.
Actually, a somewhat larger asteroid is expected several times near Earth within the next 30 to 50 years and a bigger one (but possibly still divertible) in 2182. Examples from the past: the Arizona Crater and the Noerdlinger Ries Crater, Germany, where the ejecta reached 70 km distance.
NASA is proceeding slowly with technology for early dangerous asteroid discovery and diversion. Will solutions be available soon enough as such a danger approaches?
A supernova explosion closer than 100 light years, would have negative effects on Earth. A supernova closer than 33 light years could terminate much of life on Earth.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, has two main spiral branches, one being called the “Perseus”, with a side branch called the “Local Branch”. Earth, participating in the rotation of our solar system around the center of our galaxy, is presently thought to be in the Local Branch, and will need millions of years to traverse it. This is one region of frequent supernova occurrences.
Even before entering this region, supernova occurred every 240 million years in a vicinity of 33 light years to Earth. Such events bring intensive gamma-ray radiation and have a destructive effect on the ozone layer. The resulting high level of ultraviolet light reaching the surface of Earth could first destroy the coral reefs and plankton in the oceans, the lowest level of our food chain – with catastrophic effects for the higher levels.
The next supernova event close to Earth is not precisely predictable, and nothing can be done to protect us against its effects – but such an event will certainly occur at some time in the future.
A volcanic upwelling from deep within Earth, when occurring with such extreme volume and intensity as the one that caused the formation of the Daccan Traps in India during the same time period as the general extinctions of 65 million years ago – and in northern Siberia 200 million years earlier (and at four other times since the origin of higher forms of life 600 million years ago), always resulting in extensive extinctions of life on Earth. (See the excellent book Evolutionary Catastrophes by Vincent Courtillot.)
A gigantic volcanic collapse, such as the one that occurred upon the formation of Lake Toba in northern Sumatra, at Krakatau, and on Bali, or the gigantic caldera in the Yellowstone area (an area that has lately shown slow buckling again), or the volcanic explosion and implosion at Thera (at Santorini in the Greek islands) in early historic times – all threatening the survival of many people in their respective geographic area or even of all mankind. Just imagine a similar collapse of a volcano in northern California, Oregon, or Washington State – or of one of the European volcanoes (near Naples or on Sicily) – or of Mt. Fuji!
An unstable island may slide back into the ocean, such as the island of La Palma in the Canaries. A sliding back into the ocean of a large part of that island would trigger a gigantic tsunami that would ravage the American East Coast with such extreme violence that the city of New York and quite a few other cities could be destroyed.
Preoccupation with the above natural concerns would be that much more valid, as their appearance could be accurately predicted a short time before their occurrence and some complex and costly countermeasures devised – or as limited survival appeared possible but only in certain specific areas of Earth. The competition to be among the survivors would heat up – where to have property on Earth, where to be a citizen, and how to be protected against others attempting to stream in? All are horrible visions!
3. Human Concerns and Opportunities:
3.1. List of Human Concerns:
1. Extremist or Terrorist Attacks with “dirty” bombs spreading dangerous materials
2. Pervasive Poverty in too many places on Earth
3. Governance, serious problems with political or religious guidance or governance
4. Global Structure, Dominance by some or general cooperation, the UN Veto Rights
5. Unchecked Population Growth, overpopulation of parts or of all of Earth
6. Increasing Scarcity of Resources, including usable water
7. Migration, Immigration
8. Drugs and Drug Trafficking
9. Education, for Usable Knowledge and Values
10. Imbalance of the Capitalist System: Bubbles, Depressions, Social Imbalance
11. Aging of Some Populations, mainly in Europe, Russia, and China
12. Leading the Underdeveloped Countries into the Future
13. Information Control
14. Formation of a new international “World Culture”, possibly an opportunity
15. Morals, Ethical Values; are “health/happiness/family/faith” enough?
16. Commercialization of everything
17. Unhealthy Lifestyles, smoking, obesity, drug usage
18. Other concerns; genetic modification, subminiature structures, more
· Global Modernization leading to Less Suffering, More Freedom, Less Corruption
· Restraint of ever-growing consumption – yet, viable economies
· Cheap and clean energy – resolving many resource problems: water and others
· Reaching of another historic period of mental progress and well-being
3.2. Detailed Discussion of the Main Human Concerns.
3.2.1. A terrorist attack with a “dirty” bomb: atomic, biologic, with nano-materials or -robots.
A dirty bomb would spread dangerous material in an area of high population density or of commercial or political importance (or upstream or upwind of those). The material could be highly radioactive, plague-causing bacteria, invasive nano-materials (of atomic particle size), or invasive miniature robots.
The most dangerous situations in our time may possibly result from a combination of religious Muslim extremism (also of immigrants and converts within Western countries) and a country with rogue governance that uses terrorist violence (presently Iran, Pakistan if under Taliban rule, some unstable North African countries, North Korea, soon Afghanistan, and others) – or, to a lesser degree, from drug-trafficking organizations combined with corruption and violence – or from historic tribal search for independence (for example, the Kurds, Syrian groups, and various Arab tribes), leading to regional warfare and igniting a larger conflict. This is an unpleasantly large list!
Religion- or ideology-based intolerance, combined with imperialism and a preference for violence, has already existed in both historical and recent times – from the Spanish conquest of the Americas, to the Nazis, to China’s conquest of Tibet, and the establishment of Israel by way of not-compensated violent expulsions, then settlements and roads in Palestine. Historical tribal search for independence using warfare can be seen in the Basque’s or Kurd’s violent struggle for freedom and its suppression – now also in parts of the “Arab Spring”, Syria, and in other conflicts.
Preventing extremists from dangerous violence – even if these extremists amount only to small minorities – has proven to be an almost impossible task for military forces – for instance, the war in Afghanistan (see the excellent book Managing the World Towards Peace by Angelica Kohlmann Kuepper). The struggle by the police against “Anarchists” prior to the First World War was already futile; the Anarchists disappeared only when the Communists absorbed them.
Historically, the first potent terrorists were the Assassins of Persia and Syria, established as a Shia Ismaeli sect by Hassan-i-Sabbah. Religiously radicalized young men were secretly sent out to commit spectacular suicide-murders of political enemies, believing to thereby gain instant access to Paradise. They committed their first spectacular assassination in 1192 and many more thereafter. Only as the invading Mongols conquered the sect’s headquarters, the fortress Alamut, in 1256, and killed the then leading Imam, did the killings stop (except for lesser contract killings by remaining followers – until the Inquisition stopped that). First, Osama bin Laden, then the still very active Haqqanis (and lesser Taliban leaders), and recently Gubuddin Hekmatyar copied exactly this approach from bases in North Waziristan or northern Afghanistan! More attention should be paid to this phenomenon!
The only viable approach against Muslim violence would require a change of thought, preaching, and behavior by all Muslim religious leaders, including all the owners of radical Islamist Madrasa schools (many financed by Saudi Arabia!). They are the key leaders who would have to provide strong counter-violent guidance in the Muslim world. Our global community and each Islamic country should strongly and clearly challenge Muslim religious leaders to provide nonviolent guidance! Any Muslim leader preaching violence should be demanded to personally accompany violent missions, especially to personally go along with suicidal ones – or be punished in accordance with the damage caused.
A special situation of persistent “terrorism” is presented by the above-mentioned Haqqani clan, the father Mawlawi Salaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin Haqqani, copied by lesser Taliban leaders. They prosper through highly profitable drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. This business requires dominance of the poppy culture in Afghanistan and the commercial path of the drugs out of Afghanistan to markets, presently via Pakistan. Therefore, the Haqqanis established their headquarters in the unruly tribal areas of North Waziristan in Pakistan (whether they actually live there or not). They use the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the cover of radical religious motivations merely for their own business and political dominance in the areas of interest to them: imitating the Assassins. Would a conquest of Waziristan and the killing of the Haqqanis be a simulation of the Mongol-accomplished end of the Assassins? The Mongols would not have hesitated!
The recent increase in abductions for ransom in Pakistan (now about 450 per year), preferably of rich businessmen and foreign aid workers, is another example, and it is also based in North Waziristan!
UN pressure on various nations to stop violence has proven inadequate. A better global mechanism for the preservation of peace and the prevention of violence for whatever reason, religious or political (with the suffering of so many innocents), must be found.
An interesting theological approach within the Muslim world would point out that Muhammad was a modern innovator in his own time, and many Qur’an verses are quoted and abused totally out of context with their intent when pronounced by Muhammad. Muhammad, as a first action in taking control of Medina, stopped all clan infighting and violence. Then he limited the number of wives the rich could hoard, leaving the less wealthy without women, to a maximum of four. Then he gave women equal rights to divorce and to inherit wealth (which had not been possible in Europe prior to the 19th century either). The demand for veils may have referred to merely covering the rich jewelry wealthy women wore arrogantly all around their heads when walking around town – or for his own wives to protect themselves from being recognized while he was still personally persecuted by some adversaries in his early days at Medina. His demand to kill apostates referred to combatants in the war against Mecca, corresponding in our own time to capital punishment for deserters from Western armies.
3.2.2. Pervasive Poverty in too many places on Earth:
When traveling around the world, a prevalent impression is the pervasive poverty and fruitless search for gainful employment by large portions of mankind – while, often in the same geographic areas or nations, small elites enjoy comfortable lives. Some inner cities or slum districts in the wealthy Developed World look exactly like that, too. During recessions, Western developed countries look the same (see, lately, Greece).
Social imbalance must definitely be considered when the now famous (or the now infamous) “1 percent” of the population has everything and the “99 percent” suffer. There are too many countries where there actually is some national income, but where only the rulers and the elite get rich, while the majority lives in abject poverty (example: North Korea, Nigeria with its oil wealth, Zimbabwe with its diamonds, and now, increasingly, Afghanistan). The early history of feudal Europe looked similar.
Hunger, lack of water, inadequate medical care, and education are all aggravated, if not caused, by bad governance, corruption, and the lack of law and order.
Further analysis shows that the problem of unemployment is related to at least three factors: lack of economic growth, inadequate basic qualification of the population in global competition, and deficit in culture (as inadequate education, occasionally lethargy, mostly hopelessness in spite of great effort, and out-of-control or irresponsible propagation – as supported by misguided, irresponsible religious and political leadership). In some areas, these problems are exacerbated by excessive immigration from surrounding areas hit by their own problems, natural or man-made. Too often, poor governance is found at the bottom of most of those problems.
Is there actually enough work for all people on Earth? How can large numbers of jobs be found or created and maintained? Even if jobs are found initially, our economic system is geared to increase productivity by means of automation or rationalization, thereby eliminating jobs in order to achieve higher profits or stock value for the few (see such private equity companies as Bain Capital).
By now, there is worldwide competition for employment opportunities! Employment opportunities can be distorted internationally by currency manipulations, as by China. Global commerce and communication, as well as the low cost of transportation, put everybody in competition with everybody else. Since efficiency counts – often being a matter of culture and, most importantly, also of law and order – too many countries are unable to compete with China and other Asian cultures. How can the recent “Arab Spring”, or other revolutions, suddenly bring well-paid jobs to their people in global competition and not actually cause the economy to be disturbed further? But China faces almost insurmountable problems itself, (aging population, inadequate health care for all, lack of natural resources, environmental deterioration, an increasingly unbalanced social structure, corruption, and more). These problems threaten internal social harmony and political harmony with the world!
Economic growth cannot continue forever. Will human society learn to live with only limited economic growth in the future?
Politicians may have to find and agree on suitable approaches for socially responsible economic growth – with benefits for all the deserving ones (which count among the deserving, and which do not?) and protection of the innocently needy. Is there adequate and secure Social Security and affordable medical care – as is being emotionally discussed within the United States and in other countries with their presently overextended financial conditions?
Global trade and charitable organizations (NGOs) are expected to help. The excellent Gates Foundation, supported by Warren Buffet, can do only so much (their chosen area is the elimination of killer diseases, which would bring further population expansion if not combined with birth control). Other foundations have done good things in the past (see, for example, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations). But in other cases, the liberal help provided by charitable organizations through the supply of food and consumer products has contributed to economic weakness in the receiving countries – by ruining local agriculture and local manufacturing.
China’s international investments in underdeveloped countries are guided by business interests and are leading to the exploitation of limited natural resources in those countries. Since qualified, dependable local help often cannot be found in developing countries, China sends with the investment also their own more efficient (and politically controllable) Chinese labor forces and supervisors, while paying off local political elites, thereby reducing job opportunities and potential well-being for the local populations – and exhausting the wealth reserves of those countries.
Is there enough basic qualification among all poor populations for global competition to attract business investments? It is “politically incorrect” to assume ethnic differences in qualification, only differences in education. One could assume, however, that there are ethnic differences (as among individuals in general) which would provide different, selectively optimal suitability for some ethnic groups for different gainful occupations.
Where can one search for solutions to local or national unemployment? In historical times, the nascent United States used steep import duties (up to 45 percent) to start a local manufacturing economy in competition with Great Britain. More recently, after World War II, Spain tried this approach. China still relies on substantial preferential benefits for the local economy (including artificial exchange rates) to drive the growth of its own economy.
In general terms, each economic unit must export as much as it wants to import – whether nations, families, or individuals. For individuals, the most common “export” is labor. There are more options, though. There could be the export of ideas (bringing patent royalties), of innovation leading to top jobs being retained even if manufacturing is outsourced, of art, of resources (when living on an oil patch – or being the owner of a business or the feudal lord of an estate), or touristic exploitation of scenery – and more.
For too many people on Earth, none of these options apply – whether for some Indios in remote parts of the Andes, for some Africans in remote areas of that continent, for too many good people living in corrupt countries, or for some socially maladjusted families in large cities. Can good governance and better education help in either case? What else is needed, or possible? What shall we do with the poverty that remains?
Furthermore, the economic rising of entire layers of a population is never fully balanced: Some always get richer more quickly. Many then hold everyone else in bondage. Social excessive instability should be inhibited or resolved – by progressive taxation and other regulations or by social programs. Even in today’s “democratic” United States, large industries and the super rich use lobbyists to prevent fair taxation on income and inheritance and to limit competition. The U.S. form of democracy must urgently be repaired, too!
Economic developments have the additional problem of being inherently unbalanced, resulting in oscillations and “bubbles” with subsequent crashes; see the later discussion. Is there a vision of a healthy world without excessive oscillations?
The recent social and ideological upheavals in the Arab world (and, in the future, in other parts of the world) will add significantly to the problem of poverty in those countries!
A special problem arose in economic theory on account of the great indebtedness of many suffering and also of many developed countries (including the United States and most of Europe). Should preference be given to financial soundness and budgetary discipline or should, at first, more be spent to decrease unemployment? It is disappointing to see how many prizes and awards were given to economists, how the field of “economy” was considered a sound intellectual discipline – and how, at this time, the economists cannot agree on the proper course to be taken in various suffering countries!
Progress and agreement in economic theory (not ideology) is most desirable and necessary!
3.2.3. Governance: Political and Religious Governance, “Rogue” Governments
Bad governance is definitely the key problem of poverty in many parts of the world. In underdeveloped countries, corruption and the absence of law and order hinder business development and prevent investments. In too many cases, money earned by the needy is channeled back into the pockets of the elite. Heads of state and their support groups plunder the revenue from natural resources and the work of others. In some countries, drug-trading groups willfully destroy governance. Even in the developed countries of the West, the failure of governance can lead to catastrophic problems with underfunded Social Security and social health care for all citizens in an aging population (also in China), especially when national financial conditions go through a crisis.
“Rogue governments”, evil dictators or dangerous religious leaders (as presently exist in North Korea, Iran and, historically, in various countries, also the West) and their support groups present a special problem as a threat and burden to humanity. The definition of rogue is unclear; but, generally, it indicates governments that have become a danger or burden to their own people, to their neighbors, and to the world. This burden is often combined with violence, as in the cases of North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Syria, and, as seen by the neighbors of such countries as Israel and, possibly, also Pakistan (which is increasingly coming under Taliban influence). Does Iran actually have a rogue government? Not in the opinion of most Iranians – and possibly not in the opinion of most Muslims, especially not in the opinion of the Shia!
So far, the world community has found no way to control the risk to regional or world peace or merely to their own populations presented by dangerous governments. Ultimately, the UN fails in the Security Council. The United States always protects Israel. Since China and Russia (with their internal suppression of minorities) are members of the UN Security Council, intervention by the UN with rogue governments is systematically blocked by their veto.
Then there are the violent splinter groups that seek recognition or independence or autonomy – from Northern Ireland to the Basque provinces of Spain, the Tamil in Sri Lanka, and the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran – more so, the Tibetans or Uigur of China, the Chechnians in Russia, and others. Should they not receive support in their search for freedom? But at what cost to international stability? Were the Confederate States at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War justified in seeking independence?
Unfortunately, religious governance was found to be as often inadequate as political governance – and democracy most problematic or open to abuse, too.
There is a typical pattern for the appearance and continuity of dangerous dictatorial governments. Many result from a generally unstable situation in a population (similar to the occurring of the formation of astronomical structures out of unstable clouds of dust in the universe). One individual may, by circumstance, charisma, or skill, attract a core following. This core group sees its own benefit in further supporting that central individual in order to attract more followers. Once in power, this core group ruthlessly eliminates its adversaries – while the chosen central figure, possibly of insignificant background, learns to play the role of dictator. A secret police and similar terror keeps the population under control. Occasionally, segments of the population (often the military or some tribe of the dictator) obtain special favors in order to maintain their special support of the dictator and core group. Personality cult, sometimes with religious undertones, and skillful propaganda cements this situation – as does fear by the central group to be held accountable for their misdeeds should their system collapse. The rise of Cromwell, Calvin, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Gaddafi of Libya, North Korea’s leaders, Mobutu in Zimbabwe, and Assad in Syria may be compared to this description. Often, the death or elimination of the central individual may be the only solution to getting rid of a rogue government.
Danger arises for the whole world when such rogue governments obtain great power – or worst, nuclear capability (North Korea, a future Taliban-Pakistan, Iran). Interestingly, the highly skilled middle-class in those countries – scientists and engineers – keep diligently working for rogue governments (see, for instance, Nazi Germany, North Korea, or Iran – either out of political fear or from instilled nationalism – or simply for their own benefit).
Religious governance by certain religious hierarchies can be equally dangerous and can become a global concern. This was the case with the Catholic Church during the time of the Inquisition and continues with the church’s teachings against all practical forms of birth control and all abortions. The efforts of those religious hierarchies should, instead, be applied to reduce drug usage and drug trade, which is so prevalent, especially in the Catholic countries of South America. The effort of the church should also be applied to the improvement of governance and against prevalent corruption.
Especially dangerous in our time is the religion of Islam, which has provided the justification for terrorism – where so many of the innocent suffer. Reform of Islam is urgently needed but is inhibited by its own teaching of being above any reform; but such reform could be open to the above-mentioned theological reform (see also the essay “Islam: The Muslim World and the West” on the website www.schwab-writings.com).
Governance in the leading Western nations is not adequate, either. The United States suffers from the increasing amount of money available to lobbyists – and from the unwillingness of almost ideologically opposed political parties to arrive at solutions for the benefit of the population at large – rather using the “filibuster” option to block all votes!
Ultimately, the constitutions of those countries should be reviewed and improved!
What can be done that politicians are not primarily interested in their reelection – and the money to conduct expensive reelection campaigns – but in the best for their country or the world?
Even in our time, the danger of “demagogues” capable of whipping up the emotions of crowds, so feared already by ancient Athenians (Cleon) and also by the writers of the American constitution, still remains (see McCarthy and more modern politicians).
3.2.4. Global Structure, Global Dominance by Some or Cooperation by All, the UN Veto Rights:
The weakness of the United Nations is evident. The question of a more desirable future “global” structure of humanity should be considered, one derived from an overview of a longer evolutionary timescale and on a wider historical-sociological horizon, and with varying different degrees of realistic manageability.
The evolutionary voyage of mankind through historical time appears to approach a new level of organization in our time: In their ever-progressing “natural” evolution, large parts of nature actually remained at or close to their original level. Bacteria, fungi, simple plants, and some insects still form by far the major part of the Earth’s biomass. Merely a select few organisms have been able to evolve into higher forms of complexity and organization – with “emerging” new characteristics – commensurate with larger brains. Not only do organisms gain in complexity, but also the structure of human society, which continues to grow toward greater coherence, from family units to clans, tribes, nations, and, now, the United Nations.
Following the example of “uniting” the inhabitants of various Alpine valleys into the Suisse Federation in 1291 and, much later, the unification of 13 small British colonies into the United States of America in 1776, the European nations proceeded step by step with some increasing unification within the “European Union” (1946 to 1967), still being further developed.
Besides these voluntary unifications, history shows a number of forced unifications accomplished by the empire-building ambitions of great leaders or nations. Examples were the historical Mongols, Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman Empire, Great Britain, Russia, and now China (with its vast “colonies” formed by the subjugated Tibetans, Uigurs, and other people), and, in a minor way, some modern, composite nations resulting from colonial borders of former African and Asian colonies, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the instability and continued internal unrest of larger political units has led to breakups (Rome, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, recently the Soviet Union). China cannot totally suppress the Tibetans and Uigur. Spain still struggles with the Basques and Catalans.
At this time, it appears impossible that the nations of the world will accept the directive or corrective power of a superior, united-world government, such as the United Nations..
In our time, the exhaustion of certain globally distributed resources – such as water, clean air, or food from the oceans, as well as, mainly, faster and cheaper communication (via the internet) and the lower costs of fast transportation – has led to global interconnectivity of all nations on Earth. Consequently, not only have global opportunities appeared for business, but global problems as well. This is most clearly demonstrated by the threat of global warming, the global appearance of infectious diseases and, more intensely so, by the recent interconnected, economic recession in all parts of the world – and by the international trade in drugs – all requiring global action.
Global interconnection is further demonstrated by the fads and fashions of modern life – in music and dress, but also in moral standards, especially among the young.
The need arises for another evolutionary step of society – toward a global coherence under beneficial coordination or some guidance and, if necessary, with the restraining power of central governance. Actually, all governments on Earth should be subject to an approval process – which would be revocable upon an unfavorable local development – if a global judiciary existed!
Such an organizational step requires a certain commonly shared vision – as the Ten Commandments were in their time. This could include mutual security against violence or unfair extortion, mutual assistance in the reduction of suffering and against unfair exploitation, the protection of personal and communal property, and the increase of opportunities or freedom fairly for all – still leaving open many other questions, as migration and preferential treatment of local groups or interests, and more.
Occasional international, intergovernmental coordination meetings may lead to a common vision in certain areas or, at best, to the definition of regulations. These however, are not enough – especially if not followed up with responsible action by all, as in the cases of nuclear proliferation, air pollution, or whale hunting – including the problem of ongoing monitoring/detection and the general enforcement of existing regulations.
For example, the UN passed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was either not signed or neglected by several nations, such as Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran.
In the case of air pollution, there are free riders – sitting on the sideline, possibly profiting from the present status, and waiting for other nations to do their part. Some examples are the oil producers (Saudi Arabia and Venezuela) which do not chip in to cover the cost of pollution reduction in poor countries – or the expansion of rural slash-and-burn agricultural production in Indonesia, Brazil, and Paraguay – producing enormous amounts of air-polluting smoke.
Will transnational governance ever be accepted by all? No subgroup of mankind wants to give up its culture, resources, or territory and be told by others what to do or not to do; nor to lose its competitive advantage. No politician ever wants to give up any power. All resources in all nations are always allocated by short-term national political considerations – in contrast to possible general guidance by a long-distance vision for mankind.
Is there still an obligation to mitigate social imbalance between nations through wealth transfer when there is no right for interference to influence the causes of poverty in any one of them?
An additional question arises among nations: what obligation should be assumed when actually facing large-scale corruption, as is so prevalent among poor nations or which is due to organized crime (or the drug trade) in the government of a needy nation?
In the case of social caring within a group of people or a nation, the question arises, what to do with the lazy, the undisciplined, or the willfully abusing ones.
Do all minorities within existing nations have the right to self-determination – at least autonomy if not independence? Could there be a world governance to which they could appeal – and which could interfere with the suppressing nations? How about the Basques, Kurds (now in three countries), subdivisions of Asian and African nations, and more?
3.2.5. Unchecked population growth:
Humans are the most devastating species of nature, considering every other species as prey and changing natural balances at will and to their own advantage. When we humans find another species becoming too devastating in nature, we merely eliminate it, by hunting or poisoning. A few members of that species may be kept in natural parks or zoos. We humans, however, consider our own lives as sacred. Carried to the extreme, we consider the lives of human embryos shortly after conception as already sacred. In the most extreme position, contraception is itself forbidden. With this religious position, there is no end to human population growth in sight. The increasing demand for food, water, and energy leads firstly to deforestation, then to increasing climate change, and, ultimately, to unbearable conditions first for all other organisms on Earth, then for us humans, too.
What can the world do about unlimited human propagation – mostly among the poorest and least educated? What to do about the diminishing propagation of the intelligent and educated (see the attempts in Singapore to induce those groups to have more children)? What should be done about the propagation of genetically and inheritably diseased or inheritably handicapped people? Physical handicap is not related to human value. Is the producing of any number of children an unlimited privilege for all? Do we want the government to interfere with our intimate life and family-building? Is unlimited family-building a basic human right? How about the Chinese one-child policy?
As a matter of fact, some see the basic mechanism of all natural evolution – unsustainable propagation, struggle, and subsequent survival or success of the fittest – as an irresolvable natural problem for mankind in general – one implying permanent poverty in the fringe areas of humanity forever.
The question of population increase, poverty, and destruction of nature arises specifically in rapidly growing, poor countries – several of them in Africa (or Asia, India, and other places on Earth). The problem of undesired population increase also exists in the poorest sections of cities in the developed world.
Charitable help for the underdeveloped world, mainly in the form of medical assistance and food supply, invariably leads to population growth. – through longer life for the older people and less mortality among the children or middle-aged ones.
Education often leads to lower population growth, through increasing knowledge of birth control and often secret availability of contraceptives – through the little discussed effects of secret contraception and abortions. This should be brought into the open and made available in a humane and healthy way to all.
Should all charitable help for the poor areas of the world or for the poor segments of the population in the developed world be always tied to the offer of birth control – and safe abortions?
Christian fundamentalists, as well as some Muslim religious leaders and certain political parties, attempt to interdict all reasonable family planning. Some others see this as a totally irrational and irresponsible (if not criminal) weakness of religious teaching and politics!
Population contraction, on the other hand, brings the severe problem of caring for the consequently, proportionally increasing group of the oldest, as is now happening in China.
3.2.6. Increasing scarcity of resources:
Limits on energy and water availability, careless exploitation of the world’s resources, and consequences for the environment (for air, water, and food resources – if not also protection of nature) are all essential global concerns, urgently requiring analysis and action.
3.2.7. Migration, Immigration:
Immigration from one underdeveloped area into another (recent examples: from Sudan to Darfur, from Somalia to Kenya, or to South Africa) – as caused by tribal territorial or religious conflict or increasingly by climate variation – raises very serious problems, since the receiving areas are not equipped to handle the influx of numerous poor people. Additionally, there is the migration out of turmoil and warfare-plagued areas, now out of Syria, at other times out of other areas. As a stopgap, large camps are set up by international charity organizations, to be supported indefinitely.
No better approach has been found! There are no areas on Earth left open for additional populations!
Immigration (especially illegal immigration) to more developed parts of the world raises other complex questions. Obviously, fairness is demanded by and within the countries which the migrants reach (granting of at least temporary asylum – which turns out to become permanent, especially for the children born and raised in the new countries). Immigration ultimately demands assimilation – or leads to cultural conflict.
Some immigrants reject assimilation for religious reasons (the Muslims?).
With ever higher border fences, the benefit for migration goes primarily to those who can still jump over (or be smuggled around) those fences (or shipped at great danger and cost to distant shores), neglecting possibly needier ones – and neglecting all the immigration-causing and often severe problems faced by those left behind.
If the fences were lowered or eliminated, a hundred million people from South America, and several hundred million people each from China, India, and Africa would quickly arrive in the United States and Europe, some in Canada and Australia, outnumbering the natives (as the whites did with Native American Indians).
Not only would the poor come, but also the young and college-trained ones who cannot find jobs in their own countries. But the already jobless or underemployed young ones and their parents in the respective native, local populations of the developed countries would not accept such immigration without resistance. Even recently arrived Hispanic groups in the United States have turned against unlimited immigration from their own countries of origin.
Financial support or contributions, not to the immigrants but for the alleviation of poverty in the immigration-causing countries, would bring much greater benefit. But what if such financial support disappears in some corrupt pockets?
An illegal immigrant, once allowed to become a legal citizen, may bring in a spouse and parents. The parents, after some time, may be allowed to bring in their other children and their spouses, and so on. It was calculated that the planned acceptance of 10 million illegal immigrants to the United States will lead to actually 40 million immigrants, mainly from South America but also from China, India, and other parts of the world – where too many people are still anxious to improve their chances in life by moving to a society of law and order.
The U.S. population, only 50 years ago almost totally of European origin, is now close to only 50 percent of European origin. What could happen to Canada, Australia, and all of Europe with similar developments? The fact is, those countries become increasingly immigration-averse – allowing only the rich and well educated to come in – then enjoying a large influx of Chinese and Indians – until other segments of their population complain.
What is fair, and what is practical? What can, or will, be done?
3.2.8. Drugs and Drug Trafficking:
The pervasive consumption of drugs has brought significant secondary problems: the drug trade with its consequent violence, corruption, and loss of law and order (with the establishment of their own command structure in the invaded areas), as can be observed in an increasing number of countries. This should be seen as an “essential global concern” for the world, now and, unfortunately, indefinitely into the future – for as long as drug consumption continues!
Should one not first reduce drug usage? What shall one do about the addicted, disorganized, undisciplined, or lethargic drug users or largely unconcerned people or governments around them – while respecting democratic personal freedom?
How can one counter the enormous temptation presented by large law and order corrupting amounts of drug money, corrupting the defenses against drug production and trafficking?
The three principal drug-producing areas must all be considered – South America, Afghanistan, and the “Golden Triangle” in upper Myanmar and Laos, close to China.
Here are some practical proposals to fight drug usage within a country:
Consider the similarity to the drift of the Boston bombers into fundamentalism: many young people feel the need to be at home in groups or cultures. These can be ideological/religious groups or street gangs – or also drug-using groups of “friends” (or sexually oriented groups, being one reason for the fast rise of homosexuality). These young people find significance in life by entering and excelling in that world.
The answer: specialized and skilled social services and the building of positive youth groups. One should reward or pay gang leaders for leading to positive gang content! Consider that drugs are a business with their own business model: whoever brings a new customer is rewarded financially by free drugs or rank in the dealer organization – thereby being freed from the need to constantly steal and lie to finance their own addiction. The answer: To initiate another person’s drug usage must be criminalized – leading to severe punishment and financial liability – also more teaching in schools as to how the slippery slope works and how to get out of it – and generous rewards for dealers who turn themselves in.
Research: The introduction of modified, possibly synthetic drugs which lead to vomiting may lead to natural self-rejection of drugs (this could also work for tobacco).
The strong stimulation of dopamine replacement in the brain may free from addiction.
In sum: research, innovation and forceful initiative, even some investment, is needed in the war on drugs for the benefit of our young citizen.
3.2.9. Education, for Usable Knowledge and Values:
In a free society, there is freedom to pursue the education one wants and can afford.
Too often, people search for education in fields with limited opportunities – seduced by the fact that in those areas a few get very rich and famous – while the majority cannot earn enough for a decent living – as is so prevalent in the arts (in acting, dance, and music), also in some other fields of the Liberal Arts and in sports.
Are all countries doing enough to provide and improve education of their populations for global competition? Specifically, not enough is done for education to qualify the population simply for competitive work performance and for the rise to better-paid employment.
In education, the ethical “values” of nations should not be overlooked – public service, charitable work, and volunteering – with the utilization of financial resources and time.
In many countries, as well as large parts of the “developed” countries, education should not only relate to gaining knowledge, it should also imply useful performance values, such as job dedication and work performance (for instance, to always be at work on time, to be dedicated to job performance, to learn on the job for promotion, mainly also to be inventive). Such work performance is unfortunately occasionally lacking among the permanently unemployed.
3.2.10. Imbalance of the Capitalist System: Bubbles, Depressions, Social Imbalance
The Capitalist System is inherently unstable, resulting in oscillations with bubbles and crashes. This inherent instability also leads to possibly unlimited social imbalance.
In phases of a positive trend, this economic instability of the capitalist system leads to investment bubbles (several in the 19th century, the one in 1929, then in the “dot.com bubble”, and in the most recent mortgage bubble).
The explanation? Successful periods have the tendency to lead to excessive risk-taking by investors and also to underperformance of the “spoiled” younger generation (which for too long drifted toward the fast money on Wall Street or to “self-expression” in joyful art, music, and dance).
Bubbles can occur in any business area, as in the recent dot.com bubble in high-tech investments or the recent bubble in real-estate mortgages. The collapse of a bubble leads to sometimes severe depressions (see 1929 and 2008, lately after the mortgage bubble), hurting not only the wealthy (who may have enough reserves and “golden parachutes”), but largely and mostly those who are least at fault and have few reserves, the low-income segment of the population.
The onset of a recession brings everybody back to reality and to the need to work and to provide true value – even to excel in practical, useful performance – in order to obtain a share of shrinking opportunities. Painful cutbacks must take place – some of which are exaggerated in their own way. Recessions clean out the weak areas of industry – often with cruel consequences for older employees and investors – and correction of the “weak” distractions of the young generation (see 1968 and the subsequent recession).
Those who caused such catastrophes are seldom punished.
Regulations are expected to counter such excessive economic oscillations in the future.
Equally damaging is the development of excessive divergence or social imbalance of wealth as inherent in the capitalist democratic economy. Historic Athens already had this problem and had to call in the philosopher Solon to help establish a new constitution to rebalance the social structure – in order to retain true democracy, their highest political goal after times of tyrants. In the Middle Ages, Europe developed the discrepancy between the nobility living high in castles and the peons below. Louis XIV of France led to the bubble of ever more grandiose chateaux residences, copied all over Europe, until social revolutions set in.
In the United States, swift industrialization and great projects of railroads, canals, oil usage, and appearance of major banks led to great social imbalance after 1900 (e.g., the rise of Vanderbilt, Huntington, Rockefeller, Morgan, Mellon, O. H. Kahn, Oppenheimer, and Belmont). This led to the introduction of rebalancing progressive income and inheritance taxes (transfer payments) – now skillfully circumvented through taxation loopholes by the upper “1 percent”.
Additionally, social security, or social insurance (first introduced by Bismarck during the industrial revolution in Prussia in 1889), then Medicare and Medicaid were added in the United States. Now, the USA is in a new crisis of social imbalance (as are China, Russia, India, and several other countries).
On the opposite side of the social divide, a special problem in some parts of the world and in some areas of inner cities in developed countries is a culture of low work performance and lack of financial responsibility. This problem arises already among some of the young of school age (gangs) and among adults within certain groups, which, thereby, form mini-cultures of low performance. Alcohol and drug addiction add to the problem. When criminal behavior sets in, future employment is further limited. Hopelessness about future economic gain contributes to this problem.
But one should not overlook the hardworking and struggling ones in the low-income group, where one medical emergency may lead to job absence and, consequently, to job loss – where one car repair bill could mean going without food or heating – where an unpaid rent bill could threaten eviction – where only one family member in jail means endless burdensome and demoralizing jail visits and the need to support that individual when released from jail and unemployable.
Socioeconomic, psychological polarization occurs when social status is derived from financial success, even when it is merely inherited or is stolen (money creates heroes). Too many of the best young people go to Wall Street instead of going into engineering, medical professions, agriculture, the sciences, or social services in order to improve the world. It is partially for this reason that lately the United States has not developed as it should have.
There is political, cultural, economic, even religious inertia that must be overcome in order to resolve social problems.
Does democratic freedom necessarily allow the development of such social imbalance? Is it in the interest of the people and democracy (our values) to retain balance? Do the modern developed countries, and also modern Russia, China, India, and Brazil, urgently need a new Solon now?
What remains is the fact that some of human happiness results from the increment in wealth or benefits over time, not from their static level. But unlimited increase of wealth is impossible. Do oscillations/imbalances necessarily result therefrom? How could they be managed?
3.3. Other Essential Concerns
3.3.1. Aging of some populations, mainly in Europe, Russia, and China:
Presently, unbalanced age distribution of their population presents a special concern for the young in too many underdeveloped countries, where families often have many children. Those will look for jobs and will bring the desire for consumption as they grow up, but on limited land and with limited job opportunities in business and industry.
More important, and in an opposite way, a high-percentage increase of old people must be expected in the developed countries of the West. These people must be taken care ultimately by a proportionally smaller young population, as is now occurring in Russia, China, and several European countries.
All social safety nets for retirement income and medical care are at risk! All national budgets are threatened by the cost of caring for the old, with their ever-increasing life expectancy.
This problem may be further augmented by progress in the medical sciences and pharmaceuticals – where progress leads not only to longer life expectancy but to higher cost in newly developed, advanced treatments.
3.3.2. Leading the underdeveloped countries into the future:
How can one lead the underdeveloped countries into the future? Often, their social structures appear frozen (Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Korea, much of Africa, Saudi Arabia); see Robert Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy. Many are not interested in the American model; see Max Weber’s ideas (1904) about the Protestant work ethic.) Their governance is unsuitable.
True democracy is generally recommended.
The start of true democracy in countries without such a history has always proven difficult – but external interference is rejected. The building of a sound middle class is preferable!
3.3.3. Information control
How much control of information flow and the internet should there be, and by whom? Will there be dangers for the world from the ever-increasing, difficult-to-control flow of communication, information, and technological controls, e.g., via the internet (see such an indication recently by a German politician, by a Chinese college teaching “hacking”, and another one issuing a thesis investigating the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid – and see the recent events in the Arab world)?
Not only benevolent groups or activists but also violent “terrorists” use the internet to propagate their objectives and to direct violent action! Should instigation of violence or blatantly offensive information be restrained, by whom and to what extent?
Historically, first the Communists in Russia, then the Nazis, and now various rogue governments have succeeded in presenting only selective political information (“propaganda”), to keep their masses in a trance and under their control.
The recent struggle of the Chinese government to suppress the freedom of Google in China indicates the importance for the stability of society that is seen in free communication.
Free communication can instigate unrest and revolution (see the recent Arab uprisings), even the destruction of law and order.
The counterargument presents the astounding progress resulting from modern worldwide communication – possibly preventing destructive behavior by some governments and facilitating life’s improvement for all.
Therefore, the future development of information flows and communication should be seen as a global concern. Vision and guidance will be needed.
Directed and controlled communication for proselytizing and control was already being used in historical times in establishing the Christian faith and church in Europe 2,000 years ago – more so in the following religious wars, as well as in expanding the world of Islam (see the recent attempt to build minaret towers on the many mosques in Switzerland).
Propaganda became an almost scientific art in modern totalitarian political movements, such as those of the Nazis (Goebbels) and the Communists (Lenin and Stalin, Mao, and more).
All the more do the Western democracies cherish freedom of speech and of the media.
On the other hand, from the times of democracy in ancient Athens (see Cleon), it became known that groups of people, tribes, and entire nations are sensitive to the persuasive power of “demagogues” – which can lead to dangerous consequences. The restraint of dangerous demagogues is and always will be a major, essential concern for mankind – including the developed countries of the West! Demagoguery is an inherent problem of Western democracy, especially when demagogues are generously supported by vast amounts of unregulated money via lobbyists and nontransparent support groups.
Should information propagation for instigation of violence, intolerance, or illegal acts be totally free?
What if the instigation to violence is meant to fight for freedom and justice?
3.3.4. Formation of a new international “World Structure” and “World Culture”
Some Essential Global Concerns arise from the international social imbalance between rich and poor nations. Some fair balance should be reached in the availability of food, health care, and education, as well as for energy, water, clean air, and other resources.
The internet brings all people on Earth closer together – leading to the formation of a “World Culture”, beginning with the ideas and aspirations of the young – seeking freedom and opportunities for self-development beyond the historic norms of their culture (for example, women in the Muslim world). If these goals are not at least somewhat approached, social unrest will increasingly occur, at a high cost to all.
3.3.5. Morals, Ethical Values – “Health-Happiness-Family-Faith” are not enough
As indicated earlier, there is a difference in word usage between morals and ethics, even though both words have the same meaning in the languages of their origin, being more closely related to “what is customary”. In our time, “morals” more often refer to sexual behavior. “Ethics” refer to acceptable interhuman behavior in society, politics, and business (see the specific essays on the website www.schwab-writings.com).
“Ethics” (ethical behavior) actually developed early in the course of natural evolution of life on Earth, to facilitate bringing up the young and to form effectively functioning groups of individuals as among animals living in groups or “packs” (e.g., wolves) – to accomplish larger tasks than an individual alone could accomplish – territorial defense against other groups or hunting of large animals. (The dedicated behavior of certain insects like bees and ants cannot be compared to the emotion-based ethics of mammals – though providing similar benefits – but not based on personal decisions or restraint of longing for more opportunities in freedom.)
In human history, important group success occurred when large-scale irrigation was facilitated, as in “Old Europe” 8,000 years ago along the Danube, in Mesopotamia and in ancient Peru. Groups with such internal efficiency as provided by certain forms of ethical behavior had a better chance for survival and expansion. (It should be noted, however, that the personality and behavior of an individual depend on both naturally given ethical behavior and the formative influence of a surrounding culture.)
Such ethical behavior was neurologically supported, not so much by thought as by evolving emotions – friendship, caring love (agape), empathy, sympathy, and feelings of satisfaction in self-sacrifice. Also in our time, the coherence and functioning of modern societies depend largely upon the ethics prevalent in those communities!
Ethics, though of natural evolutionary origin, too often became tied to religions – by seeing and projecting ethical standards as the “will of God” – which, consequently, too often came under the control of priests and their hierarchies. (It is surprising that often religions and their priests took further unchallenged control of hygienic laws and dress codes, also in the name of God.)
Throughout history, some horrible atrocities have been committed under the guidance of religions – whether by the Aztecs in ceremonial slaughtering of thousands, or during the endless wars between the Christian Byzantine empire and the Muslim world, or by the Christian church in the time of the Inquisition in many countries, and today by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and some individuals in the name of Islam.
The religious prohibition of birth control and all abortions can be seen in a very negative light.
Equally dubious were, and still are, the codes of honor and pride in many civilizations. Actually, there are two different meanings to each of those words. “Honor” can mean the laudable preservation of one’s own standards and ethical behavior. It can also imply that, when your behavior or values are questioned, you feel offended and you must ask for “satisfaction”, possibly by way of a duel. “Pride” can imply laudable, loyal dedication to one’s family or country. Pride can also become offended, which then requires revenge. Both are possibly by-products of the natural striving for rank in society – and can lead to cruelty and killing – see the duels among men in former times and now the many horrible honor-killings of women in Islamic societies. There is some indication that pride and shame even exist among higher animals.
In our time, religious and ethical fundamentalists or extremists on all sides have presented a substantial challenge and danger to the security and balanced functioning of governance.
As the acceptance of religions diminishes in our intellectual time, the acceptance of ethics depends on leading individuals serving as role models (the “Obama effect”) and the formation of common opinions – cultures – as expressed in a nation’s constitution and in modern, now strictly secular, legal systems!
In contrast to religions and faith, the so-called “scientific” thought of communism developed by Marx and Engels, once viewed with great hope, actually brought enormous suffering to Russia, China, and other societies, where it first conquered society and then degenerated into mass killings and general suppression.
At this time, Europe and North America seem to have found a benevolent direction in ethics – one between extremes – basically formed by Christian values and expanded by democracy and science-based, secular thought and expressed in benevolent secular laws.
How will we form a balance between the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and Darwin’s theory of evolution?
In international relations, there are occasional risks of over-aggressiveness – see George W. Bush’s starting of the Iraq war. Sometimes, however, there is the risk of idealistic weakness – leading to dangers in lacking self-defense.
Where ethics are no longer defined and controlled by religion, the natural valuation of ethics results in the formulation of civic laws corresponding to, and enforcing, basic ethics.
Should there be an equivalent in international relations – a stronger United Nations?
As said before, the natural evolution that brought forth positive ethics also brought some negative variants of ethics – as in the emotion of seeking revenge – which can lead to counter-revenge – and continuing on in a destructive chain. When an individual in a pair (friendship) or group connected by “ethical” cooperation feels offended by another individual or group, too often the need for retribution (revenge) is felt (as in “an eye for an eye”). In more advanced cultures, the violent retribution is replaced by compensation.
Where “law and order” reign, legal punishment is demanded – interestingly, also an “apology” – a symbolic form of positive retribution.
Actually, modern knowledge and analysis indicate that punishment is an emotional reaction of very limited value, except for abhorrence. More useful is reeducation of the failing individual – but necessarily combined with a change to a different, surrounding “culture”! In pathological situations, confinement is necessary for the protection of society.
In politics, there is an increasing need to find a way back to “values” after accomplishing, first, the elimination of corruption and bad governments, the rule of drug lords, the cruelties of wars, and restraint in excessive indulgence in the still wealthy part of society. In doing this, though, too often the poor are neglected or overlooked.
The prevalence of violence and sex in the Western media must be restrained.
Historically, there always were concerns of weakening ethics in society, from ancient times to our time. After liberating developments, there was always a return to fundamental religiosity with the intent to save ethical behavior or law and order in society (this being one reason for the tenacity of some right-wing political groups in the West and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Muslim world). Times of general wealth were always leading to less morality and lower ethics. The return to difficult times often cured that. Bringing up children in luxury leads to weaker performance in life than restraint and early obligations or striving for practical excellence in the upbringing of children.
3.3.6. Commercialization of everything, the commercialization of all cultures
The practical ease of our life is derived from the progress of the sciences and technology and the political functioning of our societies. The “value” we attribute to our life, however, is assessed by emotions, including those of ethics and art.
We notice an increasing amount of financial profit being derived from some participation in ethical or artistic ventures. This is an invitation to further bend our emotions toward such exploitation or corruption. Even some “churches”, as Scientology and the Unification Church, have been able to amass enormous fortunes. Lately, institutions of higher education and hospitals increasingly have become money-making ventures – a deplorable development!
We should stop and think what could be done to keep our values truly based on our ethical and artistic foundation – for the benefit of our remaining “human” considerations and for keeping our ethical and artistic ventures culturally effective – free of solely commercial considerations!
3.3.7. Unhealthy lifestyles – Drug Usage, Smoking, and Obesity
Several of our modern “unhealthy” lifestyles are based on addictions. Addictions can be understood in neurophysiological ways. Their treatment requires not only medical but also psychological initiatives which must be supported by the immediate environment of those who are addicted. In a country of personal freedom, there are narrow limits to interference. Addictions may increase as our wealth and general freedom in the world improve.
Unfortunately, strong commercial interests want the unhealthy lifestyles to continue, even expand – including drug production and trade. The tobacco industry is now concentrating on the developing countries, and some food or drink producers or merchants on the less educated.
We should stop and think what could be done to keep ourselves and our children healthy.
3.3.8. Other Concerns: Genetic Modification, Subminiature Nano-Structures, more
The unknown potential of these areas present attractive business possibilities, driving their progress but also creating unknown risks. Better healing, greater food supplies, and ease of life may be promised. But what will one be able to do against resistant synthetic bacteria or programmed robots the size of large molecules entering our bodies?
Finally, there is always the “law of unintended consequences”, which will bring all of us surprises in the future – bad ones and good ones – as did at one time the steam engine and now the internet.
This section should be the most important one in discussing the future of mankind.
In spite of all those horrible historic deviations – wars, suppressions, misguided religions, cruelty, deprived freedom, and exploitations – the path of mankind through history has led to positive progress, after all.
Emphasis on opportunities can often compensate for the suffering from problems. It is, however, always easier to analyze and to be more specific about the present and the past than to predict the future. Invariably, one takes refuge in pointing out opportunities of the past and look for repeatable situations in the future. The art of life, however, requires the ability to spot new opportunities and the initiative to grab them. Therefore, a political and cultural structure is needed capable of such alertness and adaptation. Old structures or overly rigid structures, possibly anchored in fundamentalist worldviews, are a dangerous impediment!
Following are some thoughts that might be helpful.
3.4.1. Global connection leads to more freedom and less corruption:
The most important “opportunity” arises from the fact that global communication flow and modernization lead to a “modern” world. Openness of information (the internet) and the consequently more available view of successful nations or cultures lead to the desire of all people around the world, mainly the young and digitally connected generation, for more freedom, opportunities for idealistic development, and less corruption. This could lead to better governance, fair laws, administered by a non-corrupt and, mainly, freely and safely accessible judiciary and police – if actually implemented.
3.4.2. Greater well-being from less demand:
Can global well-being occur without an ever-increasing per capita consumption? Answers to this riddle, to be solved by academia in the field of Economics, should lead to the next Nobel Prize!
Much of our middle- and upper-class expenditures go for items that did not even exist 150 years ago and which still are not needed by groups dedicated to modest living (e.g., the Amish and the Mennonites): cars, vacation travel, some appliances, all electronic devices.
The interest of business in commerce and industry could be very much opposed to such development.
3.4.3. Replacement of scarce resources:
Specific material scarcities threaten our future – but the finding of substitutes or alternatives to technical problem-solving may solve these problems. Even the scarcity of water can be solved by desalination – with the future availability of cheap, clean energy (for example, nuclear fusion energy).
3.4.4. Another historical period of general progress:
Material and mental progress, combined with balanced well-being, is attainable. There have been several past periods of mental and economic progress in the Western world (and in China). These periods occurred preferably when there was no religious or political restraint against such progress, yet, excess developments were restrained. A precondition was the appreciation of innovation and progress, providing encouragement, recognition, and practical rewards for both – combined with a remaining sense for values in social balance – or a structure of society allowing for such balance (example: the trades and their organizations in medieval cities).
The first known of these periods in the West occurred in ancient Greece after Thales of Miletus offered a new explanation of earthquakes based not on divine action but on natural causes. Free and creative thought became an indication of both mental and artistic excellence, leading to fame and wealth. This golden period reached beyond the conquest of Athens by Rome and, afterwards, continued, though somewhat reduced, in the Roman culture (e.g., aqueducts and roads of the period of “Augustan Peace”) – until the imperial governance crumbled, the barbarian invasions set in, and a new political and religious-clerical order arose.
The Renaissance in Italy brought wealth and well-being to diverse Italian city-states – and to those cities in Europe located along trade routes – based on new thought in all endeavors (including banking, discoveries by Galileo and Columbus, and the Reformation) and the beginning of a new worldview, rewarding exploration and international trade.
Based on the earlier “Enlightenment”, the relatively peaceful time in Europe between 1815 and 1914 (excluding some regional wars and the 1842/48 revolutions in France, Germany, and Italy) – most importantly, with limited religious or ideological suppression of mental freedom or progress, but with continued general law and order – produced a period of rapid economic growth, learning, understanding of our existence, and health improvement in the history of Europe and the world. In future times, the period 1815 - 1914 may be seen as more important than the earlier period of “Enlightenment”.
This favorable period lasted until the all-too-avoidable World War I – by actual criminal misjudgment and emotions by European leaders on all sides!
Should that not lead to an essential concern regarding the need for, and opportunities resulting from, better global guidance, for the benefit of our global stability, for our security, mental freedom and progress, for all mankind when given the opportunity to live within a system of law and order (if the laws are good ones and the order isn’t corrupt or suppressive)?
The period following World War II can be seen as another area of beneficial growth for mankind, this time bringing the novel dimension of global coherence in low-cost transportation and electronic communication!
Therefore, a most essential opportunity for humanity can be found in establishing and continuing new beneficial periods of social and cultural development.
Lately, the Muslim world did not have such periods of mental and practical progress (as existed when the Arab universities in Spain attained significance due to their tolerance). Thus, the Muslim world presently appears as the main hindrance, or adversary, in developing a new period of benevolent mental and material progress for mankind.
Switzerland, synthesizing four cultures and languages, and north European countries appear as role models! The world must wish that the United States and China could solve their internal problems and develop toward becoming role models for a better world to come (and that neither asteroids nor violence from North Korea or Iran will hurt mankind).
Let the politicians of the world concentrate on this vision!
5. Setting Priorities and Taking Action:
A possible approach to forming global guidance and governance could be the formation of a global “Guidance Committee” adjunct to the United Nations, consisting of recognized world leaders – for example, as were, in their better times, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Jimmy Carter of the United States, Helmut Schmidt of Germany, the Dalai Lama, and, possibly, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell (why is there no Pope or Muslim leader on this list?). Their task could be to prioritize the treatment of risks and opportunities according to their imminence or to their significance – to define broad goals and specific targets – and to propose action programs for each – distinguishing between the realistically doable and the nice but unrealistic dream.
How will the committee be formed to avoid the failings of the Security Council, where each major power wants to have a representative who can block decisions? Should the members of such a committee be appointed by the head of the United Nations?
Would such a committee be able to look after, and care for, such independence-seeking splinter groups as the Basques, Tamils, Tibetans, Uigurs, Ossetians, Berbers, and more? Could the possible split of some countries be considered (Bolivia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and several others)? Mainly, how will we approach our vision? What will the incentives for cooperation be if many problems actually are zero-sum games between nations? Many national social balance problems are finally solved in the way as are personal inheritance problems where family harmony is ultimately valued higher than disruption, leading to a certain degree of give-and-take.
Consensus on problem definition and mainly on problem priorities may be the precondition for finding solutions to problems and for taking action.
This essay seeks mainly to define problems – specifically since priorities are viewed quite differently among different regions and different groups of people in the world.
Possibilities for action to reach solutions may primarily depend upon governance, reduction of corruption, introduction of law and order, education, and more – in many parts of the world presenting a multiplicity of problems.
Does the world really become more secure when many previously weak countries become stronger and, consequently, the United States and Europe become relatively weaker?
Who should, and will, pay for problem solutions? See the arguments by developing countries regarding climate stabilization at international meetings meant to provide solutions. Will there be support for solutions? Primarily, however, will ways be found to cover their cost from the average citizen? Very few people anywhere have money to spare – most people have unmet needs!
One must notice that humans and human societies are not always effective in assessing risk (for example, the mistakes of judgment made leading to World War I) or opportunity (see the surprising and unanticipated economic benefits resulting from equally unanticipated electronic innovations) – especially if such risks or opportunities are of a novel nature or are distant in space or time.
“Economics”, an academic field well suited for such complex considerations, has developed a number of concepts to treat these concerns: the “cost/benefit” consideration or “net present value”, or “discount rate” in time assessments – since costs usually occur sooner and benefits later – and the concept of “trade-offs”, the evaluation of various alternatives relative to each other. Children have very steep discount rates for the future; politicians have them specifically up to the next election. Only older people think of long-term benefits for their offspring. Usually, people are more concerned with those kinds of events that have occurred most recently.
There may occasionally be some obsessed people with extreme concerns for specifically their own “cause” – who, at worst, form activist “vocal minorities” with political impact.
Equally, there is a discount rate in geographic space: what happens to your neighbor is less important than what happens to you; what happens on the other side of the world is even less important.
In sum, in spite of all the Essential Concerns of human society, the future of mankind on Earth may very well bring further progress toward a better world, with further mental progress and greater well-being – as demonstrated by history – hopefully with less suffering!
5. Concluding comments and the Basic Vision
What would be the basic concept for our future world if all goes well? New political units, especially those formed recently and in freedom, occasionally have the desire to formulate their basic commitment in a few words as a vision of their future society. Could there be a basic motto to guide us? What could be the motto for a desired future world?
Starting with the motto of the French revolution of 1789, “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, the motto of the United States of America became “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”. The validity of each term can be discussed – “life” is questioned in the case of self-defense or wars deemed to be or presented as being defensive – “liberty” must be limited within moral and neighborly constraints – and “happiness”, a very individual matter, is the least defined term of all. Still, this vision of a future America was established and is still pursued today!
The motto of the British Empire became “Law, Order, and Good Government” – much appreciated by most middle-class citizens, but also used to suppress disruptive, revolutionary activities.
In China, the priorities for the Secretaries of the Communist Party conducting the actual administration of the country are (as explained to me by one such Secretary) “Social Stability, Improvement of Basic Services, and Economic Development” – the first one forming the foundation of suppression of unplanned developments and mental freedom.
Should a future world order use a motto such as “Reduce Suffering, Improve Opportunities Fairly for All”?!
Could one speak of a motto of “Rights with Obligations, and Aesthetics”?
Or “Sustainability, Fairness, and Respect”?
Beyond the securing of an improved level of well-being for all, progress should occur in the building of a culture of mental growth and personality improvement, service to fellow men or society, combined with stewardship of nature, and the joyful appreciation of the arts and all the beauty in this world.
Could there be a motto such as “Growth, Service, and Culture”?!
The fascinating journey through our existence – from sunrise to sunset, with an outlook to the future – has come to an end.
As indicated in the Introduction, this essay addressed the questions: What is the essence of all the writings on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”? What is their contribution to the vast amount of information available on the internet? And, mainly, what remains as the author’s vision of a life on Earth and constitutes his legacy?
This has resulted in an overview of experiencing and observing personal human existence in this world for the short time of one’s life – augmented by comments about meaning and direction in life – and expectations for the future.
Therefore, some key essays of the author’s website were assembled, some were condensed, and the result was combined in this essay – presenting an arching overview – composed of the following chapters providing the following “messages”:
1. The origin: The beginning of existence was an abstract “energy field” phenomenon (whatever that means) in thereby originating space – the beginning of the universe, of life, and of the human mind – leading to the fantastic evolutionary morning of thought, emotions, and aesthetics on Earth, offering us the possibility for great fulfillment of our lives.
The message? Our existence and life are based on the original energy of our universe expressed in field phenomena in empty space – whatever fields in thereby originating space are – providing us with an almost transcendental participation in the origin – gaining significance by particle and force formations – and the combinatorial formation of ever larger units in ongoing evolution – to the point of arriving at life, then our consciousness and potential to act – for the limited period of our life and existence – since we will find a “homecoming”, as all existence will ultimately end or be dissipated.
2. The human mind: Our mind offers a variety of capabilities on various levels and at various strengths – from memory, focusing, recognition, and emotions to visualizations, creativity, ethics, personality, art, consciousness, and a degree of free will.
The message? It is interesting and important to understand the structure, functioning, and individual strengths of our mind and its limitations in order to understand ourselves and our fellow humans in our thoughts and actions. We are challenged to better develop and utilize this potential.
3. Meaning, purpose, direction of life: This chapter discusses the essential philosophical and theological questions of our human life.
The message? We may not be able to communicate with or ever find support from the ultimate transcendental “Structure Providing Essence of Existence”, God. What remains, however, is our own responsibility to gradually improve the conditions here on Earth, to develop our potential as best we can, mainly to care for our fellow humans, society, and nature – while enjoying the beauty of art and nature.
4. Practical Advice for the Young: To reach contentment, success, or fulfillment – a basic essay with complex footnotes.
The message? Different advice may have to be given to individuals of different personality and background. In any event, each individual will have to strive to develop a capable mind, a favorable personality, and as healthy a body as possible – combined with favorable interhuman connections – to grow for fulfillment, serve family and community, and enjoy the good and the beautiful of this world.
5. A meditation: More thoughts to support us on our path through life: a proposed “Meditation”.
The message? There may not be any prayers in the thoughts of the unbelievers – but there can very well be meditations to support us on our path through life.
6. The Beatitudes: The “Beatitudes”, a core teaching of the New Testament (Matthew, Chapter 5), still offer thoughts to guide us on our path through life in the modern world.
The message? The Beatitudes, presented some 2,000 years ago, can very well find a modern interpretation in benevolently guiding us through our lives.
7. Joy about Life, Nature, Art, and Culture: The emotional goal of life
The message? A selection of short stories opens the eyes to the multitude of possible joyful experiences in the course of life – from childhood to old age. May we not only experience joy, but also communicate it to those who are suffering, have failed, or are lonely!
8. Old Age: Can we influence the quality of our life in old age? At least, we should understand how aging is experienced. At the end of life, is there a homecoming for us?
The message? The many of us who are allowed to live long enough should think about how we will conduct old age, as Cicero and Plato wrote about it. Philosophy and a positive attitude (with initiative) can help us through the early phases. Calm and supportive understanding can help in the later phase – until an unbelievably peaceful “near death experience” can guide us into a homecoming to nature.
9. The future: What are the essential challenges for the future of mankind – requiring action now?
The message? There have been, and still will be, a variety of great natural catastrophes threatening life on Earth (see list). But too many risks to our lives are derived from our own and our societies shortcomings, not addressed while we are concentrating only on the current problems of the day – see the detailed discussion with some suggestions. The United Nations has disappointed. Could there be a committee of especially suitable and proven leaders of mankind to address the risks and also to point out the great opportunities for mankind in the future – to provide some guidance? Action is urgently needed!
The nine preceding chapters of this essay on personal existence present an overview of the scientific and philosophical thought of our time. It thereby represents a modern edition of “De Rerum Natura” written by the Roman philosopher Lucretius (full name, Titus Lucretius Carus, having lived from 99 BC to 55 or 50 BC). He wrote his observations in the form of a Homerian poem, as an overview of the scientific worldview of his time (including the human mind, thought, and death) – which, in turn, was based on the ancient Greek philosophy of Democritos (460 to 370 BC) – after a scientific view of natural cause and effect had been initiated by Thales of Miletus of Phoenician parents (624 to 546 BC). Thales presented his thoughts in connection with an earthquake, which he explained as resulting not from divine interference but from natural causes.
This progress in thought and knowledge in the ancient world was interrupted by the progressing Christian faith and the appearance of a church structure in society at the end of the Western Roman Empire.
Actually, no world religion ever actively sponsored progress of thought and knowledge through scientific research that might, or did, lead to a weakening of a fundamentalist view of omnipotent divine guidance of world events (even in each detail) – or that could lead to a weakening of the power of religious hierarchies. Even the statement in the Qur’an to study nature, in order to better understand God, was contradicted by other Muslim statements that no part of the Qur’an could ever be changed.
Only as the reward derived from scientific progress in medicine, technology, and industry became overwhelming (long after the Renaissance) did a rational (or scientific) worldview increasingly dominate first Western and then global thought. Insecure people took refuge in religious fundamentalism – which should be respected when it supports the weak or suffering, but not when it suppresses the freedom of mental progress.
What could be a final message from the departing mind to family, friends, and all of humanity on that small planet Earth floating in space for a limited amount of remaining time?
The greatest dangers on a general level (besides other natural ones, as listed) are climate change, overpopulation, poor governance (also by misguiding religious hierarchies) in too many parts of the word, and the lack of a convincing economic-political theory.
On a personal level, the dangers result from exploitation of others, violence against the innocents, and lack of discipline in personal life – including drug addiction and mental radicalization.
The opportunities can be found in periods of peace and mental progress for society – requiring more tolerance, education, and the dedicated pursuit of “growth, service, and joy of nature and the arts” in an orderly life.
“Take care of natural survivability and social harmony on spaceship Earth. You together have only this one!”
My personal summary comments:
- Human life (and all of nature) can be seen as burdened with much suffering and hopelessness in a most cruel world. But our life can temporarily be joyfully lifted by the perception of goodness and beauty – and by the warmth of companionship.
Open your eyes and open your hearts!
- There must be deep admiration for that ultimately transcendental “essence” from which the greatness of this and possibly other universes and their structure resulted. But there may be no transcendental support to protect us against adversity or to lean on, as traditionally believed.
- What remains is the responsibility for all of us to contribute as best we can to a better world.
- The practical problems of our world must be the greatest focus of our world leaders, our democratic governments, and all of us – demanding action:
o Climate or weather risks for large areas on Earth and their populations
o Economic optimization and stabilization in spite of ideological/political turmoil as in questions of fiscal soundness of nations while improving job opportunities
o Improvement of our democratic system for sound functioning between ideological opponents, financial interests and the weakness of politicians
o General and unbalanced population growth!
- As individuals, we must primarily strive to honestly establish an economic base for us, our family, and our community – for a basically healthy, adequately free and dignified life.
- All individual living beings strive to develop their potential – and so must we, to fulfill our life.
- The striving for mere wealth, power, and entertainment is inadequate and may be destructive – especially when combined with the exploitation of others.
- We can strive for the light of mental growth in exploration and personality improvement.
- The love and caring for others, for our family and community, and the service to our society or to the natural environment provide our happiest fulfillment.
- The joy of aesthetics and beauty in nature and the arts is a special gift of Creation to us.
Farewell to Earth
And a final report from Earth
As my soul was timelessly floating with all those others in transcendental space – but perceiving cosmic existence in the distance – I wondered what was going on out there, in that real world. Was that endless forming and disappearing of all those round objects, whether suns or planets, in their endless circular orbits, in groups as galaxies or as solar systems within those, was that all that was going on out there forever and ever – until, after some time, all would be gone again, faded, dissolved?
The Ultimate Essence of our being there in transcendental space, the Great Light, must have sensed my feelings. Then a messenger appeared and asked me whether I wanted to have a closer look at such material existence in distant cosmic space.
I hesitantly said “yes – please”.
“There is only one problem”, the messenger said. “You must take material form and participate in the natural laws of the place you select to visit.”
“How can I select a place if I don’t know anything about that phenomenon of material existence? What should I choose?”
“We could send you to the place of an interesting experiment that we are running there – on an insignificant and very small planet in an insignificant galaxy. Some time ago, we let some material building blocks appear there and some rules of their functioning, allowing them to combine in larger structures – then left that place alone for a long time. It was amazing what appeared. Unfortunately, some unusual effects of those initial rules of functioning brought some moments of evolutionary standstill, when one type of organic structure controlled everything else and prevented further progress. Then, we had to interfere – by temporarily extinguishing practically everything, letting some new combinations take over and continue the evolutionary progress of our experiment – which then became more complex and beautiful.”
“I am ready to go”, I said.
“Go soon, before the next collapse may occur – because those latest new structures obtained too much power – and are close to extinguishing themselves.”
“How will I go there?”
“You will appear there just as one of those complex building blocks – looking like the others – with legs and arms and a head, to store memories and to make decisions for action – and with eyes to see. You will be capable of touching and moving – but, mainly, you will be able to understand and to function. There will be a variety of new emotions for you – to feel both positive and negative values.
You will wear out in less than a mere 100 years and be called back at that time – if you did not commit unacceptable acts. Then you will have to give a report about what you observed.”
By now, I have been here on that little remote planet which the inhabitants call “Earth” for more than 80 years. I am almost worn out and ready to go back. But being here is still a very exciting experience – many beautiful views can still be perceived – most importantly, I am very “emotionally attached” to the close members of those “building block structures” around me, the most sophisticated ones being called “humans”, some others “animals”. Deep sorrow would befall me, and possibly some of them, if I had to leave now – and if not at least a few of them could follow me into my original transcendental space.
Wait a minute! I was told that I would have to give a report! What is the summary of observations of those more than 80 years here on Earth? What is the essence of my report – not to say recommendations – to offer when I will be called to report?
What are my farewell greetings to those I will have to leave behind on Earth?
What struck me most were two observations: the pervasive destructiveness and cruelty reigning on Earth, and the wonderfully positive rejuvenating capability of every new generation – mainly combined with a joyful and warm emotional interconnection between those organisms there.
How could that be? What could be done to let the positive prevail over the negative?
The negative on Earth apparently resulted from five design rules of the experiment there, which should be considered for change in a next phase of this experiment or for another experiment somewhere else:
- Each organism on Earth needs energy for its development. The simple organisms receive that from their sun. The others, however, must actually attack and devour other organisms for their own survival and growth. On a micro-level, this includes the destructive attacks of microbes, viruses, and fungi – or the attacks of parasites and predators! All of this together brings enormous cruelty and destructiveness.
Could a different energy cycle be found – leading to peace among all?
- Accidents, sudden events, can bring great suffering – from tsunamis to merely a wrong step resulting in a fall. Actually, it is the fast time scale of such events which lets those organisms on Earth get into trouble – not allowing for quick adjustment or escape.
Can the timescale on Earth be slowed down and the reaction speed of humans increased in order to avoid accidents – possibly by electronic nerves and brains?
- All organisms tend to over-multiply, thereby increasing competition and let the fittest prosper, while the others suffer.
Multiplication should be restricted to available space and supply – and be allowed more for the best performers under the given conditions. Additionally, a restraint of the often violent desire to multiply, especially among males, would be beneficial.
- Humans have all the desire to belong to groups – whether genetically connected, political, religious, athletic, artistic, or other. Then they are ruled by “leaders” or the members of “elite” supporting subgroups – suppressing the others – to exploit them – causing much cruel fighting and suffering among the losers.
How could each individual find its own place in the building of great societies, in harmony and peace – being content and, yet, committed to do its best where it stands?
- Much suffering on Earth results from improper formation of the body or mind. Especially sad are unbalanced emotional conditions or mental diseases – also depressions, loneliness, rage, or, at worst, criminality – often in personal, political, or religious obsessions. Only lower animals, such as insects, can do without that.
Is there no beneficial level in between, possibly solvable through more disciplined genetic processes?
The positive on Earth is the result of specific emotions one can find out there:
- The proximity and connected living with other members of one’s species (or pets) provides a feeling of emotional “warmth” and joyful happiness, providing for the happy upbringing of the young, family life, and cohesion of larger groups.
A stronger development of this emotion of “empathy” among all humans could further increase happiness on Earth.
- The right balance between group coordination and remaining freedom, personal creativity and initiative, is at the foundation of the successful evolution on Earth.
The restraint of political and religious suppression combined with law-and-order in society stimulates cultural and intellectual evolution – leading to favorable periods of history on Earth.
- The sensing and appreciation of joy and beauty, as in art and nature, is a most wonderful part of being on Earth – hopefully maintained and expanded in the future.
- Humor can be a wonderful complement to the concerns of daily life and a resolution of many frictions and problems.
- This combination of sensing the warmth of human contacts and perceiving joy and the beauty of nature and art in the world makes it very difficult to want to leave Earth! A complex and profound happiness – in the midst of all the suffering – could possibly be found only there. The reduction of suffering and the increased availability for favorable development could render the experiment “Earth” still more positive – providing more joy!
This report must be submitted in greatest humility and reverence for that transcendental and ultimate structure providing and spiritual “Essence of Existence”!
Now comes my time to leave.
All you humans there keep contributing positively to the experiment “evolution”!
Don’t tire of improving the conditions on Earth for all!
Bring a little warmth and the light of joy to each other!
Could I be allowed to bring at least my dear personal companion in life and our children – possibly also my parents and siblings – along with me to transcendental peace?
What is that feeling of warm proximity surrounding me, as if I had brought something along from Earth?
Did I import a little bit of joy from Earth to transcendental space?
Was that the unforeseen success of the experiment Earth?
Now, I can barely see again the far distant, luminous material universe – and hope not to see another sudden spark where the small Earth was – and then some fading end of that glorious and gruesome experiment.
 This was already recognized by the earliest thinkers and is represented in various sagas, for example, the one about Prometheus bringing fire to mankind.
 This is possibly given by the hippocampus nuclei in the brain which provide for short-term (and long-term) memory and may lead, through signal enhancement and by means of cross-connections within the brain (see the white matter under the gray cortex, or the claustrum, as suggested by Francis Crick) to temporary signal suppression from other brain areas. See the essays on “mental creativity” on the website “www.schwab-writings.com”.
 Different definitions of “consciousness” or “awareness” or the confusion between these two terms can lead to different conclusions and, sometimes, to great confusion or to rather unique philosophies. See, for example, Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, ISBN 0-395-32932-9. This confusion also rendered rather ineffective the later work by Francis Crick (co-inventor of the DNA helix, later in La Jolla, California), supported by Christof Koch, Caltech, concentrating on the investigation of “consciousness” (see Koch’s Quest for Consciousness, Roberts & Co., 2004, ISBN 0-9747077-0-8).
 The experiments by Benjamin Libet were first published in 1985, and more extensively in 1999 in the book, The Volatile Brain, PDC, ISBN 0-907845-11-8; and in 2004 in Mind Time, Harvard Univ. Press, ISBN 0-674-01846-x (presently not yet available). Libet himself does not question “free will”.
 On October 19, 2004, the German publication Gehirn und Geist published a “manifest” signed by eleven leading international scientists in the field of brain research, including Christof Koch (who had worked with Crick in California), Gerhard Roth, and Wolf Singer. They postulate the anchoring of mind and consciousness in the neural system of the body and their evolution commensurate with it.
 Religions have struggled with this problem from early historic times on. Several (including the Hindu, also the Christian religion) found the not-convincing answer in assuming a split divinity, split between the creative or good divinity and the destructive or evil force (the devil) – with no supreme and pure force or essence, which would wipe away the evil force.
 There are some fundamental aspects to clarify first: What should one expect a good life to be – simply a life in happiness and joy – or to say at the end of life that one had a “good” life, whatever that means – or that one conducted a valuable and “good” life in the pursuit of one’s personal, ethical, and religious goals?
“Happiness” requires further analysis – and is as useful, or useless, as the term “utility” as used in economic terms. More specific and common terms to be used are contentment, success, fulfillment, and, possibly, some joy. “Contentment” may indicate the by nature emotion-rewarded satisfaction of the most basic needs in food, procreation, shelter, and family connection. Happiness from contentment can be more easily obtained by humble people restraining their expectations accordingly. “Success” is commonly measured in practical terms, possibly in considering obtained wealth or rank (or recognition). Many occupations are not embedded in structured organizations (e.g., mothers raising variously gifted children, librarians, medical doctors). The question of recognition, however, is still meaningful to them – as from their families, customers, or patients. Pushing for progress is not meaningful to them, but excellence in their performance could be their form of success. “Fulfillment” is a more complex term indicating multidimensional richness of life in many dimensions, from mental growth and exploration to interpersonal love, accomplishments in public service, and, possibly, the arts. “Joy”, an emotional term, also includes the intense perception of inter-human love, of having been able to have contributed something positive to this world, but also includes the perceiving of beauty in the world, and also of humor.
 A more complex question is that of whether one should lead a strenuous life of work and saving in order to finally reach a high goal of security and happiness at the end of life, as compared to living on an ongoing level of somewhat elevated satisfaction and happiness without leaving any reserves for later years – similar to the question of process ethics versus goal-justified ethics, as discussed in Chapter 2 and in the Appendix to this chapter – much discussed by philosophers and variously pursued by individuals depending on their character and circumstances. A similar comparison to ethical philosophy can occur when comparing the pursuit of personal, individual happiness with the pursuit of happiness for the whole family or community.
Should different advice be given to individuals of different age? Young people, more than those of any other age, should exert themselves to learn, grow, and lay a foundation for later life, like a tree beginning to grow.
There could be differences in objectives between different occupations or career objectives in life – for a farmer, librarian, teacher, medical professional, businessperson, politician, or artist – or a stay-at-home parent raising children – or a handicapped person excluded from a career.
Not all people want to be, or are suited to be, fighters. Modest people are often the most valuable members of our society. Many humans on Earth have only very limited opportunity to pursue grandiose goals – being limited by their own gifts of nature, by the limitations of the schooling they were allowed to obtain, or the situation of the community where they grew up – merely observe the inhabitants of different sections of any large city. How wonderful it is if a town has a public library with a quiet, well-educated, helpful librarian. Great help was given to me by a modest grade-school teacher, a man I still admire! But politicians should hopefully have higher goals for their community. Artists try to excel and gain recognition.
Additionally, in spite of all modern attitudes, there are differences in advice between that presented to men and to women. Many women still would like to have children and plenty of time to dedicate to their upbringing, especially during their early years – while their husbands possibly must work 60 or more hours at their jobs. What if one of them becomes unemployed and the bills exceed income?
 Values, or virtues, were formed by natural evolution as the foundation of ethical behavior in the formation of effectively functioning packs or social groups of animals; see Chapter 2 of this essay. Historically, thinkers, religious leaders, or prophets expanded this natural foundation and often assumed religiously dominated guidance. Most philosophers through the centuries devoted thought to the subject of values and direction in life. Modern societies, however, developed systems of civil and criminal law to define and enforce adherence to a society’s values.
Remnants of older value scales still exist in codes of honor (even in simply calling somebody “honorable”). Some of these older codes are anchored in naturally evolved ethical behavior (also of animals) and are concepts and behaviors of loyalty, as well as the seeking of satisfaction – or revenge! How could all those Christian nations of Europe start World War I in 1914?
 Self-confidence and reaching out are more typical of our modern, innovation-oriented societies, enjoying not only progress but also fullness of life. But not all youthful personalities are suited for “struggle” in life. Some gain happiness from a modest position, in restraint and calmness – as did some holy men, hermits, and monks of various historical religions – or from contributing to the world in modesty.
 Health has a physical dimension, supported by proper nutrition (by abstention from damaging addictions or excesses and by habits of healthy nutrition in type and quantity) and, quite importantly, supported by exercise. Health also has a mental or psychological dimension. This aspect of health can also be actively supported, if not by psychology, at least by mental habits, as described in Chapter 3 or in Chapter 6, in the section on keeping a “clean heart”. The concern for health is an Aristotelian virtue – with unfavorable valuation at the two extremes of detrimental neglect of health and of obsession with health, which could burden oneself and one’s environment – with a zone of optimization in the middle.
 As you grow, the dominance of your parents diminishes in your mind. Beware of your own degree of wisdom, though. Your parents love you and have a wider view of the world. You may need your own space for thought and action; but you must retain your parents as your friends and supporters! Avoid family disruption, for which, ultimately, you pay the price. Rather, go calmly your own way and keep the doors open to return in harmony. All of this advice for young people counts in reverse in their relation with their own children later on.