3.1. Observation and Science
The term observation is understood in this context as the registration of phenomena, resulting in knowledge of existence and its functioning. Registration is, ultimately, the acceptance of perception in awareness, consciousness, and, finally, memory. This process, which occurs in the brain, requires clarification on a neurophysiological level. In this context, it is important to note that what a person perceives in observations is related to the associative linking of such new perceptions to preexisting memory elements (prior knowledge or prior interpretation of existence) and to the value which the observer associates with such new perceptions and their associations. This link-up of new perceptions to previously accepted and memorized perceptions results in the feeling of “understanding”. In other words, the usefulness of an observation is related to the associative structure and valuation process in the observer’s brain. Two people can observe the same event and register different impressions, as when a farmer or when Newton see an apple fall or when people with different experiences or convictions listen to a political speech.
In our times, science is presented as the leading source of insight. The elements of the scientific method are factual observation supplemented by inductive, “logical” thought leading to a theoretical concept or hypothesis. Both the prior observation and the proposed theory must be tested by reproducible, objective experiments or predictions, which can be verified at a later time. Thereby, science attempts to be factually correct, precise, and articulate.
It is important to note that penetrating observations in the field of physics ultimately reach the limits of uncertainty, as indicated by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the random distribution of many phenomena of nature.
The value of observation and the scientific approach as sources of insight depends on the area of concern. Human concerns include not only the area of observation of nature, but also the concerns of human society, personal clarification, philosophy, and religion. In the areas of those concerns, however, observation and the scientific method are not easily usable. These are the reasons:
* Many phenomena in society and in personal life are too complex, with too many players and too many variables
* Many situations involve not easily graspable emotions or ethical and cultural values
* In practical situations, there often is
à lack of qualification (or personnel) for observation or scientific assessment
à lack of funds for the above
à lack of time under the constraints of practical life
Complex social situations hardly ever repeat themselves identically. In complex, repetitive situations, all one can do is hope to recognize patterns of relationships or probabilistic developments. Such patterns are expected to provide insight into causality and dynamics. In many endeavors, however, such as the study of history, observation and analysis can explain what happened and why it happened in the past, but they are incapable of predicting what will happen in the future, or when.
Quite often, observers must and do limit themselves to the selective observation of input information. Selective observation is the registration of certain parameters or patterns by some observers at some time. If theories or prescriptive rules are formulated from such limited observation, they cannot be expected to be generally valid at all times. Furthermore, selective observation all too easily leads to selective, subjective interpretation. Therefore, one finds oneself quickly in the realm of opinion, philosophy, or speculation, especially when the emotions and values of the observer come into play (according to Hume’s Law, which says that the interpretation of observations often is burdened or influenced by the opinion of the interpreter).
The scientific approach in a complex situation, without comprehensive input and comprehensive experimental analysis of consequences, can be absolutely wrong and dangerous, as was evident in the case of “Scientific Communism”. By the same token, personal “logical” decisions in emotional family situations can also be wrong. In most cases of everyday life, there is a lack of time or funds to collect sufficient input information to arrive at a “scientifically” correct decision. Examples of this can be found in matters of important governmental or business decisions, as well as in the case of responding to a casual telephone call about plans for the evening.
The individual human being is not fully accessible to scientific observation either. Not enough phenomena of psychology can be “scientifically” observed. The sum total of an individual’s thoughts, motivations, feelings, and aspirations – the present and potential ones – is definitely too complex and variable for comprehensive scientific observation or description. For example, can science really help a young man decide whether he will do better and be more useful to mankind if he becomes a doctor, an engineer, or an activist politician? For such questions, observation yields contradictory results, and there is no room for scientific experiments.
If the human individual is not fully observable, the individual’s life environment is, in the scientific sense of the concept, even less comprehensible. The individual, in his environment, interacts with numerous other individuals. All are part of society. Society is part of Creation. One would have to observe all this to fully observe the individual interacting with Creation.
Furthermore, there is the problem of consolidation of dimensionally unrelated considerations. For example, what if business judgment contradicts social responsibility, as in some employment or pollution cases in industry? What if three dimensions are in conflict – for example, the personal desires for freedom, security, and monetary benefit? Science has developed the concept of “utility” to solve such dimensional disparities. The concept of utility, however, is only a method of quantizing an intuitive process, which, in itself, is thoroughly unscientific. The assessed utility values change in time and between individuals.
Are observations of the world around us and the methodology of science applicable to the search for a better understanding of a possible transcendental essence of existence, God, and his will, or is that the exclusive domain of religion and theology? The fact is that all religions establish a correlation between the observable world and the divine essence or mandate. Either they teach that the world, historic developments, and personal destiny are related to divine will, or they use observation of the world to explain their teachings about divine will, God’s personality, and normative statements for the human life on Earth. The old Hindu religious scriptures of the Vedas (approx. 1500 BC) have elements connecting world observation with such statements and Judeo-Christian teachings, too. The latter resort to the Last Judgment and the expected afterlife to compensate for otherwise irresolvable contradictions in this world, extrapolating this approach to another world to come.
There are two basic problems with this approach of searching for an understanding of the transcendental essence of Creation and for a direction for one’s own life through observation:
1. Does the observation of the humanly observable aspects of “Creation” really allow the deduction of valid statements about the “Creator”?
2. Does the observation of Creation really provide unequivocal normative statements for the conduct of human life (considering Hume’s Law whereby any normative interpretation of observations is fraught with the bias of the observer)?
To the extent that there is an affirmative answer to either question, at least in some areas, science becomes important as an adjunct of religious inquiry. This will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 5, “Observation and Interpretation of Our Existence”.
A more important confrontation occurs where some denominational teaching and theology are in direct conflict with scientific observation. Historically, all areas of knowledge were combined in philosophical and religious teachings. In modern times, however, science became a separate domain of knowledge.
In all confrontations, science appears to have prevailed, then dominating all inquiry into existence and casting everything into a view of causal connections in time. However, the mystery of the origin of Creation, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Chaos Theory, and the relativity of time have provided many openings for a side-by-side existence of science and religion, though not necessarily a comfortable one. But there hardly is any side-by-side coexistence of science with narrowly fundamentalist dogma.
In summary, scientific observation is the most desirable source of insight into the factual aspects of existence. Where complex situations do not allow detailed observation, there may still be room for broad observations of general patterns or probabilistic trends. In areas of personal, social, or religious concerns, however, scientific observation is of very limited use for clarification of the “fundamental questions of existence”. There may even be a risk in over-reliance on scientific observation.
The necessary selectivity of observations in complex situations will lead to substantial subjective variances in conclusions, caused largely by the subjectivity of the selection. Usually, personal opinion and complementing speculation will then fill the gaps of observation.
The wide variance of the various intellectual theories and prescriptive models for society only demonstrate the limited help to be expected from factual observation; while, on the other hand, the progress of Western civilization proves the need for continued observation as one of several sources of insight.
Consequently, the scientific method is of limited use for complex social problems. For example, one should look at the widely varying assessment of political or economic systems by different people at different times in human history.
This leads to three conclusions:
1. The scientific intellectual approach to social problems is, at best, suitable for explanations in hindsight, but rarely for concise predictions of future events or dependable guidance in real-life situations.
2. Hume’s Law applies: The translation from observation to normative statements is difficult and, for the most part, fraught with the observer’s personal bias.
3. Good leadership cannot do without an intuitive element, which is subsequently justified by selectively chosen observations and reasons.
3.2. Religious Faith and Theology
All great cultures have turned to religious explanations for an understanding of existence and destiny. Does that mean humans are inherently religious? Two aspects may have led to the belief in gods or transcendental forces  :
1. In the evolution of the human mind, conscious recognition of causality became a key element in understanding existence. Causality was expected in all the events of nature (including lightning and earthquakes) and also in the events of history or personal destiny. In early cultures, the invisibility of causes in many such events may have led to the acceptance of powerful “spirits” or gods as causes.
2. The human mind is capable of visualizations (mental images of visual, verbal, acoustic, or other sensory characteristics) independent of actual sensory perception. That is what “thought” is all about – or the work of writers in creating fictitious characters and stories. Consequently, we can live in two worlds, the real world of perceptions and the virtual world of our thoughts or visualizations. The natural evolution of human consciousness and the recognition of visualizations in the mind (and emotions of the “heart”) led to a distinction between body and mind – in Greek thought between body, mind, and soul. This allowed for the perception and belief in the gods as beings of mind and soul, without always-perceptible bodies.
Consequently, myths of Creation and destiny arose. Primitive gods demanded sacrifices, sophisticated gods demanded acceptable behavior before they would grant favorable destiny.
In our scientific times, the quest for transcendental concepts remains when considering the origin of all existence in the Big Bang that caused our world to appear (or in the structural foundation of a multiplicity of universes). It also continues in the recognition of natural evolution as a wondrously sophisticated development (even when anchored in the natural laws that appeared together with the first subatomic particles upon granulation of the original energy and from subsequent “emerging” phenomena). But the observation of the often cruel history of mankind, harsh personal destiny, and of the waste of so many organisms and human beings everywhere and throughout all times, leaves one with substantial doubts.
For many humans, the emotions of the “heart” are more important and prevail over the explanations of the searching mind. Consequently, they find their support in existence not in scientific observation but in their belief in transcendental concepts of gods or goddesses of love and compassion or in their belief in a merciful supreme being.
Generally, people do not formulate their own basic questions of existence. People do not search for, and follow, individual interpretations of existence but follow the beliefs of their respective culture. This corresponds to common human behavior: to join, to be expected to join, or be forced to join groups with a common outlook on life, religion, or ideology. Coordinated social action is thereby facilitated in defining value scales, group objectives, and education. Religions and ideologies provide an interpretation of existence, an explanation how the world functions, hence, the objectives for human behavior and actions.
The religions and ideologies of large groups cannot go into specifics for each individual; instead, they concentrate on what they consider the main aspects of human existence, or the main concerns of people. Buddhism, which originated 2,500 years ago, relates mainly to man’s suffering and teaches a path leading to escape from existence by being unattached and by seeking enlightenment through meditation, not science. Christianity, which originated 2,000 years ago, also relates to man’s suffering as being caused too often by human fault, sin, and guilt; and teaches forgiveness, moral effort, good deeds and the hope for a better world in the afterlife in Heaven. In the modern world, Communism and, to a lesser degree, Socialism are still preoccupied with man’s suffering as being caused by exploitation; they teach social change – if not revolution – negation of the preeminence of individualism, and a utopian world after the re-education of all people.
A great blessing of the Christian religion is the provision of comfort to the souls of the suffering – in this world or in heaven – as is the teaching of compassion for those who do suffer. An even greater blessing is the providing of stimulation for pro-active change and for strength to cope with the problems of this life.
It is interesting to note that religions and ideologies are primarily (and almost exclusively) concerned with human suffering and shortcomings, and less with defining and maximizing the wide spectrum of positive opportunities in existence, the development of the human multi-faceted positive capabilities, and the fostering of initiative for responsible improvements in this world.
Religions and ideologies should be judged by the extent of their validity (truth) and of their usefulness to man in fulfilling his existence. Guidance to use opportunities, to grow, and to see positively valued objectives beyond the utilitarian should be as important (or, actually, more) as delving into problems and avoiding perceived dangers.
There is a need for a factually more correct system of thought, one that gives better guidance in our times and provides a better balance between tolerance or goodness, on one hand, and self-correcting forces against abuse or degeneration, on the other.
The following is a detailed discussion of faith, inspiration, or theology as sources of insight:
Faith shall be defined as the acceptance of personal convictions or religious inspiration about God, or other spiritual concerns of existence. Such convictions or inspiration may be one’s own, or they may be received by others. Thereby, faith reaches beyond factual scientific observation or proof and relates to the so-called “transcendental.”
The use of faith as a source of insight is fraught with three dilemmas:
1. God does not communicate with mankind unequivocally or always when asked.
One cannot simply “meet” God. There never has been direct, conscious, and reproducible communication between any human being and God. All reported contacts with God have been subjective, momentary, not reproducible, and often contradictory. Many religious opinions, which were presented as being based on divine inspiration or teaching, turned out to have devastating consequences (for example, the Aztec priests’ demand for sacrifices, the Inquisition, some Crusades, and, lately, Muslim violence). Recourse directly to God for further clarification or correction was never possible. More important, interference by God with misguided or wrong religious teachings or directions did not occur – except possibly through long-term historic developments. Even Pope Benedict XVI lamented on May 28, 2006, upon visiting the former Auschwitz concentration camp: “Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate this?”
2. There are substantial contradictions between the various religious faiths and between most religions and science.
3. The insight gained by faith is, ultimately, anchored in belief, even when called personal conviction, not in reason. But such anchoring is often very firm in the minds of the believers, even when facing objective contradictions (but mostly negating them).
New questions and problems arise all the time for individuals and societies. New insights occur during the evolution of cultures. Different cultures, often far removed from the original source of their religion, may have different concerns. If God cannot be called upon when needed, human interpretation of old traditions or ancient scriptures (exegesis) sets in. As different interpretations are possible, religions split. As prior interpretations from the historic past appear inadequate, new denominations or new religions appear – often too late to prevent damage (see not only the Muslim fundamentalism).
Who judges whether the old or the new is valid from then on? What if, in one’s own life, personal doubts set in and one is exposed to other religions or begins to build one’s own edifice of beliefs and convictions? How can one decide or find what is right?
For the faithful believer, new insight and answers can be found in one’s “heart”, in “conscience”, prayer, meditation, or a deeper investigation of scriptures and faith, preferably by the wise, God-blessed, saints, or appointed priests, who never refuse to assume this responsibility quite willingly. However, this does not resolve the dilemma indicated earlier, regarding the limitation or unavailability of unequivocal insight by faith and by direct reference to God’s will through communication with God when needed.
There is also the question to what degree the “heart” and conscience are reliable indicators of God’s will, since it is known that both the feeling of the heart and conscience are influenced by learning and cultural circumstances, if not, in addition, by personal preferences. If a person has to make a decision that will have an impact on his or her own family, as well as thousands of others, will that person be able to depend on his or her “heart” and conscience alone for the decision to be right?
Unfortunately, history is full of examples where the position of one religious person or party was not accepted by another person or church and was even rejected as wrong, bad, or dangerous (for example, the Inquisition, teachings about modern morality, or some fundamentalists’ proclamations, as, for example, the claim of some Jewish settlers for their religious right to settle in the West Bank or Muslim calls for Holy War against the “infidel” or “apostates”). There have been endless and cruel wars among various groups following different religious ideas, most notably among different Christian denominations, but also between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
There are a number of arguments in explanation of God’s restraint from communication:
* Such restraint is the basis of human freedom, self-determination, and responsibility.
* God may want diversity among humans and their thoughts, including their faiths.
* There may have been a need for a multilevel, phased development of religious thought in the course of history commensurate with evolving human mental capability and sophistication.
Here are some comments on the preceding list:
Regarding “Such restraint is the basis of human freedom, self-determination, and responsibility”:
The restraint in divine communication has been a concern of mankind at all times. How often was an indication by God asked for by individuals and societies in trouble! The ancient world already reported stories on how dependence on oracles could be misleading. On the other hand, the followers of the Judeo-Christian religions and followers of other religions believe that God did speak clearly from time to time, even though such communication did not begin until thousands of years after humans had managed to develop civilized societies. After that, the speaking of God continued haltingly. Over the past two thousand years, it did not occur at all to Christians or Jews, although God’s message is believed by Muslims to have been heard by Muhammad. Or should one believe more recently reported revelations by Mormons and other religions or sects? Which revelation are we to follow? Which are we to reject as false? How can one resolve contradictions, even partial shortcomings of otherwise acceptable revelations? If we follow one religion, do we have to accept the whole package, or can we choose what parts to accept, and what not? Based on what? Do we have the freedom, even the responsibility, to be critical? Can we, and should we, use our mind to interpret God’s will? Was our mind not given to us to be used? On the other hand, the mind is widely regarded as an inadequate source of insight, as shown in other chapters. Can personal inspiration fill in the gap? Does it? For many believers, such personal inspiration is the greatest source of insight and strength.
It should be noted that such a concept of the divine intent of human mental freedom, self-determination, and responsibility can be in conflict with the God-image of a caring father who averts disaster and helps in predicaments, specifically those resulting from lack of guidance. Religions have repeatedly attempted to provide insight into this predicament through various perspectives or theories intended to provide peace of mind to the believers. Factual observation has shown these attempts to be inadequate.
One should note, in addition, that the concept of divine intent of human freedom, self-determination, and responsibility assumes that humans are interested in assuming responsibility beyond self-interest. Can, and do, self-interest and the pursuit of the best interest for mankind coincide? Most likely, only in the sense of Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Thus, God’s restraint in communication remains an enigma, which a religious person must accept and theology cannot explain. Blessed are those who, in predicaments of lacking guidance, clearly know what correct answer to give or what right path to follow.
Regarding ”God may want diversity among humans and their thoughts, including their faiths”:
If one accepts this thought, does it imply that there is more than one truth? How can that be when religious dogma usually is quite specific as to ritual, ethical rules, and life after death? Which religion should one follow? God cannot be understood as wanting false or obnoxious beliefs. Some religions are, or were, truly despicable, as the Aztec’s with their human sacrifices. How can one decide which religions are acceptable to God and which are not? Catholics and Protestants already have trouble with each other, more so the Jews and the Muslims, and beyond. Many people find something good and something bad in a variety of religions, but cannot or do not want to compose their own religious faith. Acceptance of diversity contradicts the major religion’s claim to be the only keeper of God’s revelation and their missionary zeal. The conclusion – that everybody is supposed to construct his or her own religious faith – puts an enormous burden on everybody’s mind and sense of responsibility. Will many people and society at large really be better off if individuals seek insight from their own religious thoughts?
Regarding ’There may have been a need for a multilevel, phased development of religious thought throughout history commensurate with evolving human mental capabilities”:
Such a need, if justified in historic terms, would also exist within our own time, considering the wide cultural difference between human groups all over the globe – some still living under almost prehistoric conditions, some tending to live in the future. A multilevel religion would pose the same dilemma as the diversity of religions, and it would contradict most missionary effort. This approach could also open a full controversy between modern science as the newest level of insight gained by mankind and any historic religion, making all insight gained by religion subject to scientific review. But the weakness of science as a source of insight for the conduct of human life had been indicated before.
After all, there still may be wisdom in a multilevel structure of religion, allowing people to find comfort and guidance in accordance with their mental capabilities and emotional needs (see the essay, “Religion: What is Religion? What Should Religion Be?”, in the section, “Philosophy/Theology” on the author’s website www.schwab-writings.com).
Religious inspiration shall be defined as ideas or thoughts that one considers religiously valid and which one considers as being of divine origin or commensurate with divine intent.
Inspiration is either spontaneous or is sought in meditation or prayer or in response to prayer. The great founders of religions, religious leaders, and saints have often referred to inspiration as their source of insight. Inspiration, as discussed here, is the divine revelation of thoughts or concepts to the human mind. Many individuals, in their search for a course through existence, have experienced the gaining of clarity through what they felt as “inspiration”. Some even report that God or angels have “spoken” to them. More commonly, religious people resort to prayer in situations of great sorrow, insecurity, or joy. This occurs not only out of the need for spiritual communication of the soul with God, but also in the quest for comfort, guidance, and strength to cope with life.
There is no doubt that there have been cases where religious “inspiration” was a great blessing to mankind and to many individuals. In that sense, religious inspiration is a valid source of insight for those concerned. But was it always thus? How reliable a source of insight is religious inspiration? Already the Greeks could not fully trust their oracles. Some inspirations resulted in disaster and suffering!
Regarding religious inspiration, the view of most religions is that God whispered into the ear of only one person, the founder of that person’s religion, expecting this leader to convert the rest of the whole world from their respective religions to the new one. There is another view. As mankind ascends the mountain of knowledge and wisdom, the most gifted or most capable individuals reach new vistas of the universe and interpret them. They tell struggling mankind behind them of their discovery and encourage them to follow them toward the light. Some err, however, in their interpretation of what they see and lead mankind into horrible abysses, as the priests of the Aztecs or the Popes during the Inquisition, not to mention the innumerable other and often less significant misinterpretations.
In the freedom given to mankind, we must keep struggling up that mountain, hoping to reach ever-greater visions of the ultimate “Structure-providing Essence of Creation”, of God, of a meaningful if not correct direction for our lives – with less suffering and more opportunity fairly for all – and hoping not to err in our interpretations.
The scientific perspective on existence does not fully exclude the possibility of divine inspiration. Not only is there the para-scientific area of ESP (extrasensory perception), but there are also probabilistic (if not random) phenomena and uncertainty limits in neurophysiological processes in the brain, similar to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics, but here related to thought and thought sequences. As explained by Chaos Theory, such minor differences could have substantial consequences. This would allow divine influence on thought without violation of the laws of nature.
More often than not, however, religious inspiration must be seen as a form of intuitive thought subject to the typical neurophysiological processes and limitations of all human thought processes (see the various essays on “The Brain and Mind” on the author’s website, specifically the ones on “Mental Creativity”).
If the possibility for divine inspiration is accepted, then the lack of such inspiration in critical moments of great need must also be seen as within divine responsibility – leading to severe questions for the existing religions (see the above-quoted statements by Pope Benedict XVI).
Theology is the inquiry into the correct understanding of God and God’s intent. All theology, however, is denominationally determined. In other words, theologians begin with premises based on the teachings of the respective founders of the religious denomination that they investigate while seeking conclusions that result from such premises. If the founders of those religious denominations are dead, the theologians seek their premises in the remembered or reported teachings in scriptures. These scriptures are either canonized (that is, declared as invariable and valid) or become subject to critical review. Therefore, the truth one finds through theology is as good as the truth in the respective original teachings, the reports, the scriptures, and, finally, the exegetic conclusions of the theologians.
What one does not find in theology is a more original understanding of the term “theology”: an open, all-inclusive inquiry into any possible knowledge of or about God, possibly leading beyond existing dogma – for example, by means of experiments or statistics in “quantitative theology” (see the STEP-project on the “Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” under Dr. Dusek at Harvard and other hospitals, reported in April, 2006). Specifically, there is inadequate effort in Judeo-Christian and Muslim theology to reconcile the major scriptures of religion with the science-based observations and understanding of the world and nature as available in our time. Shouldn’t the observation of Creation tell us something about the Creator?
There is inadequate effort, as well, in many religions and among many theologians to account for changing practicality in the world and growing human sensitivity among and for many segments of the population.
The concerns of “religion” have always been in some overlap and, in modern times, in confrontation with science. Some early religions can actually be seen as proto-scientific attempts by exceptional thinkers and pragmatic leaders to explain the world through basic observation and much speculation that was believed to make sense. Today, religion is relegated to the human concern with the perceived supernatural, spiritual, transcendental essence of existence (but mostly concentrates on taboos, less on ethics or morals, and too little on providing a convincing world-view).
As indicated in above Chapter 3.1., “Observation and Science”, it is interesting to note that all religions establish a correlation between the observable world and the divine essence of existence. Either they teach that the world, historic developments, and personal destiny are all related to divine will, or they use observation of the world to explain their teachings about divine will, God’s personality, and normative statements for the human life on Earth. The Vedas have elements connecting world observation with such statements and the Judeo-Christian teachings, too.
In other words, there should be no contradictions between insights gained through religion and science. Either science over-interprets its findings and the conclusions thus derived, or religion has to adjust to new knowledge about God’s Creation.
The Primary Domains of Religion
The primary domains of religious thought and dogma are:
à Prescriptions for sacrifice, ritual, dress code, and cleanliness – sometimes for the treatment and behavior or freedom of women – the privileges of the priests
à The cause of Creation, God – or the “Structure Providing Essence of Existence”
à The order and course of the world, destiny
à The image (character) of God
à The personal reachability of God (providing comfort, help, personal guidance, peace of mind)
à Values (including cultural taboos), ethics, and, mainly, the question of Divine judgment
à Meaning or purpose of existence and direction for personal life (objectives in existence)
Prescriptions for sacrifice, ritual, dress code, and cleanliness – sometimes for the treatment and behavior or freedom of women – the privileges of the priests:
This domain of religion is fraught with the three dilemmas of faith and theology – the limited communication with God, the contradictions within the diversity of religions, and the anchoring of faith in beliefs.
One can also consider the previously quoted points – the desirability of human freedom and responsibility in this as it is in many other areas, the possible desirability of diversity, and the possible need for stepped or phased levels of sophistication.
If this is so, sacrifice, rituals, dress codes, and rules of cleanliness are, possibly, not based in divine inspiration or religious dogma, but instead become a domain of culture, hygiene, and psychology, if they do not remain the domain of the whims of the priests. Sacrifices, originally intended for the gods, became historically deflected to support payments for priests, the temple building, decoration of shrines, and charitable giving. Rituals and dress codes became folkloristic or badges of membership, whatever their implied symbolism is postulated to be. The rules of cleanliness, including ritual mutilation, must be reviewed, if not critiqued, against a background of medical considerations and the civil rights of individuals. The restrictions on equal rights for women are increasingly challenged in our time – and so are privileges for priests.
In sum, Divine mandates for sacrifice, ritual, dress code, and cleanliness may historically be understandable; but, in our time, a religious view of existence provides no insight into their global tenability (except in instances of sacrifices that take the form of public service or charitable giving). The rights of women and the privileges of priests must, obviously, be reconsidered.
The conflict between various religions regarding the story of Creation could, most likely, be settled by science. But science will never find the cause for Creation (or for the phenomenon of a “multiverse” and its structure, as presented by the newest string theory), thus leaving Creation, its occurrence and its structure, as the quintessential (and possibly only) justification for religious thought.
The order and course of the world, destiny:
The interpretation of destiny, expressed in evolution and history, is an area of overlap between science and religion. Science attempts to explain every step of natural evolution and the course of history in hindsight, but it can predict neither. Religion perceives the hand of God in evolution and human history, specifically (and in the most contradictory or unprovable way) in God’s response to human behavior, needs, and prayer.
For religion to be a source of insight into the course of evolution and history, the religiously postulated God-image and Divine actions should correspond to the past course and should somewhat indicate the future course of evolution and history. The great religions of the world, with their static view of Creation, do not refer to natural evolution, and specifically not to the Darwinian character of pre-human life in its lack of fairness or compassion and its often great cruelty with prevalence of mutual destruction. A revision of their view of the spirituality of existence and of their God-image would be necessary in order to let them provide insight into that phase of Creation (almost in the form of “evolutionary theology”).
The great religions see in the course of human history reward for the beloved of God and punishment for God’s enemies, often in ethical terms. The Judeo-Christian tradition presents the Jews as the only beloved nation of God on all of Earth, in cases of conflict prevailing over its enemies, as long as the Jewish people follow the path of Jewish Law. The explanation of the disasters suffered by the Jews and by so many “innocent” nations throughout history is lost in the intractable problem of theodicy, the understanding of God in terms of the cruelty, injustice, suffering, and waste of life in this world (and taken up by evolutionary biologists in Darwinian terms).
Interestingly, modern historians such as Arnold Toynbee explain the rise and fall of nations and civilizations in ethical terms, mixed with a degree of practicality borrowed from Darwinian considerations. The leading politicians of our day appeal to maintaining “values” as the basis for a strong future of society. This corresponds to the scientific fact that social behavior and the strength of societies is based on natural and genetically anchored “ethical” behavior in caring for clan members, reciprocity, and sacrifice for the clan.
With religions’ static view of human civilization, they do not refer to the evolution of human civilization through the centuries. Religions would have to revise their view of the spirituality of existence, as well as their God-image, before they could allow religion and theology to provide insight into the course of history and the evolution of human civilization.
Meaning and purpose of existence and direction for personal life (objectives in existence)
This domain – together with the foundation of values and ethics – is the most significant one of religion and theology. It is the one with the greatest potential for the benefit of all people on Earth if it could provide a deeper meaning and purpose of life through a spiritual view of existence – its grandiose and often beautiful appearance, its order, freedom, and, thereby, implied responsibility for all humans.
The concepts of “meaning” and “purpose” are not unequivocal; yet they are central to the religious needs of people. “Meaning” relates to “making sense”, to importance, causality, purpose, and usefulness in existence and in one’s personal life. In general, people who are without any mental or professional tasks to accomplish, are lonely, or without any useful place in society, see their life as devoid of meaning. On the other hand, people engaged in substantial mental or professional tasks, in happy family connections or performing useful functions in society, see meaning in their lives. A religious view of existence, facilitating insight into the underlying spiritual forces (God), could provide “meaning” to the life of the believer within the greater order of Creation. The definition of a direction in life, however, can be accomplished without recourse to religion – from the observation of human nature and society (see the initial “Overview” and other chapters of this essay)..
“Purpose” is a more goal-oriented concept. With their static view of Creation and civilization, the great religions have, for the most part, not provided a goal for mankind on Earth. On an individual and almost selfish level, though, all religions present the goal of reaching personal happiness at the end of life, in Heaven or in Nirvana, through purposeful actions or behavior (including the maintaining of “faith”) here on Earth. This makes the expected goal and rules for achieving it pivotal for the definition of purpose in daily life. In other words, the insight these religions provide regarding “purpose” in life is as correct or incorrect, as useful or counterproductive, as their view of death, Divine judgment, and the afterlife.
This perspective would change if religions were to view the development of mankind and civilizations in evolutionary and historical terms here on Earth, and individual contribution to such development as purpose. In the same sense, some people may see the prevention of “misguided” developments as their purpose in life (see the anti-nuclear movement).
For modern environmentalists, the conserving of nature “as is”, even returning to an earlier state, can be another, often overriding purpose, one also not covered by the great religions.
The personal reachability of God (providing comfort, help, personal guidance, and peace of mind)
A spiritual view of existence that would comprise God’s action in evolution and history necessarily leads to a “personal God”. How would God, in the course of natural evolution, have created the surprising phenomena of speech, thought, emotions, and values among mankind and would, now, not perceive them, would not be reachable by them? Thus, a religious concept of existence can, or should, provide commensurate insight into the question of a “personal, reachable, and responsive God”.
Most people call out for God when they are in trouble. All religions stall when they attempt to explain the bad and evil in this world except by postulating a spiritual anti-force, the devil, – or they leave the problems of theodicy unresolved.
No religion provides insight into the great rarity and only-probabilistic appearance of Divine response to supplication. The belief in God’s responsiveness and providing help is left to religious conviction and, more importantly, to personal experience. Such experience belongs to the most important factors in a religious person’s life. But that would make such religion a religion of the survivors and the lucky or successful ones. What Divine responsiveness can the ardently praying losers believe in? Should religions not be valid for all?
One would need a quantitative, analytical approach to theology (“quantitative theology”) in order to establish clear insight into the reachability and response of God to prayer. In a minor way, this was attempted a couple of times in the recent past through statistical polling of various population groups, taking their religious position into account (see recent Gallup polls and also the above mentioned STEP-project). The interpretation of such limited observations was inconclusive!
This leaves open the question whether a personal, individual relationship to God is just a matter of religious faith. All great religions encourage personal prayer to God, and all offer the possibility of response by God. None brings an analysis of response probability.
Values, ethics, and divine judgment:
The foundation of values and ethics in the spiritual or divine order of existence (together with establishing meaning and purpose of existence) is the most significant domain of religion and theology. Proper guidance in this domain has great potential for the benefit of all people by providing clarity and a firm foundation for their lives in realizing their freedom, but also, more importantly, in assuming their implied responsibility.
The field of normative ethics analyzes and states what is “right” or “wrong”. At stake is the definition of a balance between the pursuit of personal benefit and the conceding of benefit to others (in sharing of time, effort, and wealth), whether in brotherly/sisterly love, public service, or charitable works. A proper balance is considered “right”, the opposite is “wrong”.
Can religion be a source of insight into normative ethics? As far back as history reports, one can see that humans sought the favor of their gods through God-pleasing behavior. Hence, it was believed that the gods did prescribe, or that their priests could prescribe what was pleasing to the gods. Consequently, there is a direct correlation between the God-image of civilizations and their ethical standards (see, for example, Jesus’ concept of God as the loving and providing “father”). One can only hope or pray for the right God-image. One must be careful – but also grateful – if one has reason to believe that one has found the right God-image. The resulting conviction can either be disturbing, can be the greatest source of peace and strength in life and comfort in sorrow, or it can be a source of strength and peace of mind.
The specific problems with all religiously based rules of ethics are the “absolute” terms of their formulations – not taking any practical limitations or balance between extremes into consideration. How far does one have to go in dividing and sharing one’s property with the poor? Must nations accept an unlimited number of asylum seekers and any number of immigrants who are just seeking a better life? No guidance is provided by the great religions as to finding a balance in typical moral conflicts between own concerns (including the personal pursuit of one’s interests, caring for one’s own family, the fulfillment of personal duties, and obeying the law), benefit to society, and the interest of other individuals. Resolving this lack of guidance in conflict or in marginal situations should be a specific task for theology – but has never been so.
If normative ethics are derived from God-given rules, their pursuit must be seen as God-pleasing, their violation as offensive to God. Divine judgment in this world or in the afterlife is the presumed consequence. Since judgment is not clearly visible in this world, it is assumed to occur in the afterlife. Is that necessarily so? Could the principle of freedom and responsibility for the human phase of Creation imply limited involvement by God and full responsibility for mankind to establish ethical conditions on Earth? The clarification of this point would constitute another unfulfilled task for theology.
The image (character) of God:
All previously discussed questions can be derived from mankind’s understanding of the spiritual forces (or their absence) in the origin and ongoing evolution of existence. In religious terms, this is the search for the right image of God. Is God the tribal leader of the Jews? Is God the strict judge of all mankind (and by which laws)? Is God the all-providing and loving father?
Should one say, as Maimonides did, that one knows (the attributes of) God by observing his actions? Is this an invitation to study God through a scientific interpretation of the world, including the gruesome Darwinian pre-human phase of evolution as still visible in nature all around us and including all the gruesome events of history and daily life? Religion and theology are expected to show the way. In their present divisiveness and inflexible adherence to old concepts, they may be unable to solve the concerns of mankind.
3.4. Reason and Philosophy
With intellectual superiority being the main strength of the human species, one should expect that inquiry by reason and the resulting method of philosophical inquiry would become the main approach to an understanding of existence. Do reason and philosophy lead to insight?
Philosophy is the general term for the intellectual approach to understanding, in contrast to the mystical approach of religion based on inspirations and beliefs.
Moral philosophy comprises the analysis and normative formulation of values, assessment of “right” and “wrong”, and, in a general sense, unselfish behavior. Moral philosophy analyzes but does not create or prove ethical values, except when taking recourse to utilitarian considerations (see the philosophical maxim that “morally right is what provides the most good for the most people”).
“Philosophy” comprised the natural science through many centuries of intellectual development. Science became separated from philosophy as their respective methods of inquiry digressed. Science pursued the building of factual knowledge in the narrow strictness of objective observation and verifiable experimentation or prediction. Philosophy retained that part of inquiry that uses as its method the starting from generally accepted premises and deduction of possible conclusions through logical thought. In a variation on this procedure, the philosophical approach also serves when starting with new conceptual thoughts and then retroactively proving it through logical deduction from prior points of knowledge or accepted premises. The acceptability of premises and the selection of a logical path in thought give philosophy an often subjective, speculative character. This explains the large diversity of philosophies developed by leading thinkers (and lesser ones) throughout history.
Can science be of use in philosophy? Certainly in establishing premises. Only as the philosophical premises are scientifically viable can philosophical conclusions be considered for subsequent proof by scientific experiments. One could see this as philosophy being subordinated to science (an inversion of the historical order). On the other hand, philosophy may claim that the processes of logic and inductive thought used by science do not escape philosophical scrutiny or consideration.
Philosophy can progress faster than science, though speculatively, in areas of scientific uncertainty. Such areas are found in sociological concerns and speculations about the order of the world and its meaning, in fields touching on political ideologies, and religion. The problem lies in the fact that, in those multi-dimensionally complex fields, philosophy often tends to follow premises based on selective observations, which lead to conclusions that may have been preconceived by individual preference. The results are partial truths and may be misleading, as is visible in so many diverse philosophies. Political ideologies are typical examples of this quasi-philosophical thought behavior, as in Marxism – the perspective of class struggle based on “scientific” materialism.
It is typical for human mental behavior to take a defensive or aggressive attitude toward people with different perspectives, ideologies, or religions. Alternatives of thought are not accepted, even if their results are superior in value. The reason for such behavior may be the mind’s necessary tendency to be satisfied with selective observation  and with man’s apparently innate desire to find the one and only, ultimate truth or formula of knowledge from which all else can be derived. The reclusion to selective observation and the acceptance of an ultimate formula would give the desired guidelines for all problems of life and thus eliminate the fear of insecurity or contradiction. The loss of freedom that goes with the acceptance of such reclusion in ultimate rules is – for the most part – either overlooked or neglected.
The administrators or interpreters of such exclusive rules can establish hierarchies. The belonging to a large group of like-minded people provides security for the weak. Intellectuals, in particular, like to move in large “schools” of thought, hence the success of prevalent thought, political correctness, and ideologies among intellectuals and hence the need for mistrust against prevailing or fashionable teachings by intellectuals.
Critical analysis of any thought perspective shows its superior validity only for some questions or for some people at some times, its lesser validity elsewhere or at other times. Therefore, it is preferable to be able to think from a variety of perspectives or to be open to valid alternatives when presented by others.
Even the Christian perspective, when applied to intellectual thought, had severe limitations or shortcomings – for instance at the beginning of scientific research and in the Galileo argument and the arguments about Darwin’s theory, and, lately, in some political conflict about Socialism and birth control in the Third World. Openness toward other thought perspectives has to be retained, if for no other reason than to allow investigation of novel areas of concern or progression of thought in times when circumstances or knowledge have changed.
Acceptance of thought under several perspectives constitutes a “not-closed system of thought”; see Chapter 4 on contradictions and decision-making. In search of deeper insight into existence, one must strongly recommend the accepting of such a not-closed system approach to thought. However, a not-closed system leads to conflicting results, depending on the perspective preferred or being applied. Therefore, logical thought and philosophy are insufficient as sources of insight for clearly answering the “Basic Questions”.
While recommending openness toward the perspectives of other individuals, there is also some merit in the systematic completion of one’s own thought concepts. Too many times, life demands the taking of a clear position as the basis for action. At best, there comes an opportunity for a review from time to time. This compromise between perseverance and flexibility is difficult to find, but it is what life demands.
The premises and thoughts of philosophers are expressed in the words of the language used by the originator of such work. The correlation between language and thought is well known. Langer’s “Mind – An Essay on Human Feeling” is of special interest in this regard, presenting “words” as symbolization of more or less complex patterns of “feeling”. Since feeling has some commonality, but also considerable variety among people, the relative significance and even value of thought varies, too. The problems with the translation of philosophical essays into other languages demonstrate this point.
One can observe that thought often follows habitual patterns (for the reasons, see the author’s essays, “Creative Thought” and “Mental Creativity”). Additionally, there are variances with geography which are not only caused by difference in language but also by differences in culture (“culture” being defined as the emotional formation of the environment as expressed in behavior, morals, art, and language). In this manner, the differences in ideology, philosophy, or religion among groups of people are not only forming differences in language, they are also being formed by such differences as expressing culture-specific thoughts and feelings.
From the above follows the conclusion that the usage of narrowly defined words simplifies communications and basic inquiry. On the other hand, more vaguely defined words with ramified areas of coverage are needed for the innovative, associative probing of new and complex areas by thought – and for faster progression of thought.
Somewhat related is the observation that man’s superiority over computers stems partially from the fact that man can think in vague terms. This vagueness may refer either to the vagueness of input information or to the vagueness of the linguistic or philosophical concepts being processed.
In any practical application – whether it is in business, social conversation, education, or one’s own searching thought – one should be prepared to move between simple computer logic and multi-perspective vagueness as the situation demands.
The shortcomings of logical thought in searching for insight are especially apparent in the so-called gray-zone problems of life, when neither one of two extreme positions is acceptable and a middle ground appears optimal. Value judgments often fall into this category.
Greek philosophers postulated that virtue lies in finding the right middle ground between two vices. A typical instance is the use of resources (including money). An ideal of restraint in spending lies between wastefulness and avarice. In another example, courage lies between foolhardiness and cowardice.
Logic argumentation is often used to undermine value judgment through the method of “relativation” of value positions in the gray-zone. Many people find themselves with moral values and traditions that they have to defend against logic argument by “intellectual” liberals or against their own intellect-serving temptations. Consider the following set of related concepts covering a certain value scale: love, sex, pornography, offense – or the value scale: need for law and order, constitution, the constitution serving the people, the people defining what they want, people doing what they want, terror and crime. Other examples reach from democracy to totalitarian systems and from Christianity to the splendors of medieval popes.
The logic “relativation” process starts from the positive, accepted end of the chain of concepts, such as love or the need for law and order. Logic is then used to prove that going to the next step in the chain or gray-zone is justified, and that it still leaves one related to the value frame of the original concept.
On the other hand, logic proves that any opposition to this expansion is based merely on opinions relative to subjective emotionalism in contradiction to the originally accepted values. Thus, he who accepts love can be convinced to accept sex as well, and he who accepts constitutionality is expected to accept what the people express as their wishes. Then, in a step-by-step progression, all value limits between all steps are intellectually argued away. Finally, all scaling of values is destroyed, and permissiveness makes room for negative extremes.
Interestingly, it may be the “intellectual” who is the first to revert back to a chain of concepts leading to suppression, as in political correctness or in dictatorial countries with ideological underpinnings. Thus, the intellectual is often the worst suppressor of the freedom of the mind.
In summary, logical thought can liberate mankind from oppressive codes; but sometimes it introduces new oppressive codes.
Generally, logical thought and intellectualism do not yield insight into value problems of existence or matters of feeling. Reason and philosophy are methods used in the pursuit of insights that are fraught with shortcomings, limitations, and pitfalls. On the other hand, that is all we intellectually have (beyond beliefs and emotions) with which to analyze highly complex situations that are beyond the reach of science and are not covered by religious beliefs.
3.5. Intuitive Thought, Meditation, and Feeling
For many individuals, the understanding of complex situations or the solutions to complex problems can arrive at their minds without prior analytical or logical thought processes – by “intuition”. Meditation is expected to help in arriving at clarity of mind and intuition. For other individuals, clarity of mind in complex situations can be derived from emotions or feelings, as from conscience.
“Intuitive thought” shall be defined as the appearance in awareness of an idea or thought without prior conscious thought leading up to it. Reliance on such ideas or thoughts may lead to acting “intuitively”. In this sense, intuitive thought is believed to be different from associative thought, where one conscious thought phase leads to another, subsequent phase, as in logical thought. As shown in the essay, “Mental Creativity” on the author’s website, intuitive thought may actually be of the same neurological type as logical thought, however subconsciously. Subconscious thought can reach consciousness when important associations are found, which (when they appear in consciousness) are then called “intuitive ideas.” The following provides an analysis of intuitive idea generation.
The left side of the brain specializes in analytical and speech functions. The right side of the brain specializes in three-dimensional and holistic considerations. In the daily tasks of practical modern life, the left side dominates. Therefore – to a large extent – associative connections available from the right side go without awareness. It often takes the calming of left-side brain activity to bring right-sided associations to a relative signal level where they can arrive at awareness and consciousness. Such thoughts or problem solutions suddenly appearing in awareness are commonly referred to as “intuitive ideas”. They appear more easily under quiet conditions, for example, in contemplation or prayer. The origin of many intuitive ideas in the right side of the brain is the reason why many of these spontaneous ideas are of the holistic or structural type.
It should be noted that many intuitive solutions actually are wrong. Most intuitions are based on a form of pattern recognition or on prior experience with what works under similar circumstances.
Meditation is a controlled thought process (Webster’s: The revolving of a subject in the mind) or a mental exercise that is expected to provide mental calming (peace), strength, and clarification in the sense of a more harmonious or better understanding of existence. In its extreme form, meditation is expected to lead to enlightenment.) Enlightenment provides the psychological effect of a factually un-founded feeling of supreme and holistic insight into existence.
Meditation covers a wide spectrum of mental exercise regimens, from the sublime to the absurd. There is no doubt that the calming, mentally purifying, and focusing effect of some meditation can sometimes lead to new and holistic ideas or views of existence, such as those described for “intuition”. Therefore, it is recommendable to utilize some form of meditation to arrive at such benefits in any of the four areas mentioned above – philosophical inquiry, religious guidance and inspiration, ethical judgment by conscience, and practical decision-making in complex situations of daily life .... and even in developing a new scientific hypothesis.
The term “feeling” is used here in a colloquial sense as it relates to the emotions. This is different from the term of physical feeling as in “sensing”. Common colloquial expressions are: “I feel that this is right”, or “I feel we should do this”, especially in situations of ethical conflict. In this sense, feeling is another form of intuitive thought, specifically in situations of valuation or indications of what one considers valid in emotional terms.
The term “conscience” is referred to when intuitively arriving at a valuation in ethical dilemmas.
Intuitive thought, meditation, and feeling are found to provide insight or guidance under widely different circumstances. However, four areas are of special importance:
1. Philosophical inquiry
2. Religious guidance and inspiration
3. Ethical judgment by conscience
4. Practical decision-making in complex situations of daily life
The pursuit of insight into complex problems of philosophy can benefit specifically from contemplation or meditation in order to arrive at “intuitive” ideas. As shown in the author’s essay on “Mental Creativity”, the analytical, conscious, left-sided brain functions do not always yield adequate solutions. The meditative approach to activating right-sided brain support may be helpful.
From a scientific point of view (see the author’s essay, “Creative Thought”), all creative thought progresses combinatorially, arriving at ever more complex combinations of prior elements in memory and new perceptions. The thought progression is guided by the prior valuation of associative links. This includes a temperamental input on valuation. Therefore, the results of any form of thought are subject to the available memory content and the valuation of associations in the brain. Meditation and intuitive thought are expected to facilitate additional memory access and additions to the associative process, mainly from the right side of the brain.
In the scientific view, the mental phenomenon of obtaining religious guidance or divine inspiration can be seen as a form of intuitive thought. This subject – with its possibilities and limitations, its strengths and weaknesses, having been so important in mankind’s history – has been discussed in a prior paragraph that discussed religious faith as a source of insight. All religions have found that meditation may be helpful in arriving at intuitive insight (even though quite often it does not and may even be badly misleading).
Even in religious thought and inspiration, the above-indicated limitations on the human thought process apply to existing memory content, new perceptions, and valuation of associative linkages – as shown by the fact that all religious thought and inspirations are tied to their respective cultures. (As already indicated, the ultimate uncertainty of natural processes theoretically still leaves some room for some divine inspiration.)
Application to Ethical Judgment by Conscience
In the ethical realm, “conscience” can be seen as a special form of intuitive guidance or insight for valuing or judging ethical situations. “Conscience” has been a key concept in meta-ethics from Plato’s time to modern-day philosophy and theology. There is no indication of any structure or function in neurological terms corresponding to conscience except the genetically based ethical drives (for example, caring for offspring) projected from the hypothalamus and the value-defining effect projected from the amygdala and other brain nuclei. Thus, “conscience” is a virtual phenomenon arising out of genetically given ethical effects, pre-established valuations (including cultural learning), and holistic, intuitive thinking in complex situations of ethical concern. In such complex situations, “intuitive” conscience speaks loudest in quiet consideration.
Conscience appears specifically in conflict situations between biological drives and cultural values or when realizing alternate priorities with divergent rank in culturally given “value” scales (in our culture, love ranks higher than joy, joy ranks higher than physical pleasure or personal gain). Therefore, the effectiveness of “conscience” and judgments by conscience vary considerably with the relative strength of drives, with learning what is culturally acceptable, and with an individual’s own thoughts about values.
As drives change over the course of an individual’s life, so can ethical judgment change, too. One should also note that value scales change in the history of cultures. Honor and patriotism, in first place in the value scale before World War II, have been replaced from their primary position of importance by the values of tolerance and the offering of equal opportunity in ethnic, gender, and social matters. Thus, the decisions of past generations cannot be fairly adjudicated by our generation. Will the value scale change further in future times? In what direction? The great spiritual leaders of mankind often sensed the needs of humanity and formed society through the teaching of new value scales.
In sum, conscience, as a holistic assessment of or insight into conflict situations, incorporates basic natural concerns, culturally learned concerns, the outcome of personal thought, and habit.
Intuitive thought in decision-making is of special importance in daily life when there is neither enough time nor the inclination to pursue a detailed analysis. A very large portion of all decisions in practical life is intuitive in nature. It must be noted that most “intuitive” reactions actually are based on pattern recognition or on “associative” reactions based on prior related perceptions or visualizations, mostly from a holistic perspective. It is remarkable that the human mind is quite capable of achieving a high degree of practical success by means of intuitive decisions and ideas. Errors, however, are common, too.
Intuitive thought, meditation, and feeling are all important approaches. They provide important inputs to the human thought process, and facilitate practical life. As sources of valid insight, however, the results of intuition, meditation, and feeling cannot be fully relied on, since they are restricted largely to pattern recognition, prior knowledge, experience, and personally learned or accepted value judgments. Therefore, intuitive thoughts require justification by either analytical thought or scientific observation.
3.6. Practical Experience and Human Sensitivity
In practical life, few people have the time or the desire to spend time on research into sources of insight or on the formulation of complex thoughts. As a matter of fact, those who do spend large amounts of time with academic research and speculative thought appear to the rest of us as remote, little founded in the real world, sometimes odd, and given to off-center ideas of little practical value. On the other hand, the academic thinkers and researchers often dispose of insights gained from practical individual lives as “anecdotal”, even when they are the concepts of those individuals who we keep in high regard and consider well founded in life.
Some people are better than others at learning from practical life and handling it, as is proven by the guidance they provide and by their decision-making ability. How do they do it, and what are their attributes?
Learning what works in life – and what does not – is a form of pattern recognition from practical experience. Knowing what to do is a form of intuitive thought. The formulation of intuitive decisions and the ability to provide guidance are both related to temperament and personality.
There are some historically defined attributes of people who are recognized as being successful in practical life. There are also some historically developed methods with which to arrive at these attributes. Here are some short comments:
The teaching of knowledge and know-how are foremost in the minds of parents and educators. They relate somewhat to the foreground phenomena of life and have been well analyzed. Therefore, know-how is the result of insight. It is a precondition to gaining further insight into the areas of existence related to the given know-how.
Smartness or cleverness is related more to knowing the rules of the game and mastering those rules for benefit than to gaining deeper insight. Some smartness or cleverness is taught by practical experience, the personality-related side by emulating role models. Regarding the gaining of insight from smartness or cleverness, the same applies, as said, to know-how.
The concept of “wisdom” was used in times past as the highest attribute to individuals who knew something about life and who could find out more about existence. What is wisdom, and how can it be a source of insight into existence? The concept of “wisdom” may have changed its meaning through the centuries. For the modern Webster, it means “the power of discerning and judging correctly, prudence”. But there is also something in wisdom that relates to understanding life and destiny in the dimension of time, to knowing life in its complexity, to knowing people and their personalities, and to using judgment coupled with temperance.
Wisdom is not necessarily analytical. It can be seen as a form of holistic pattern recognition by an individual with well-balanced observation priorities and wide-reaching thought associations. Wisdom also requires the sharing of common human value scales. Thus, wisdom can potentially be of universal value. On the other hand, wisdom can be colored by cultural aspects – as we see in Oriental sages – thus, it can be culturally limited.
It has been recognized throughout history that wisdom is learned from role models, from the great masters. In fact, though, few direct disciples of great masters became famous themselves. The ever-new situations being offered to the wise require both strength of personality and leadership, either of which may be stifled by extensive subordination under a master.
In sum, a wise person understands existence. This results in wisdom leading to insight.
Practical life is less a matter of academic insight than one of pursuing strategies for moving through existence with other individuals, in society and in the natural environment, through phases of success and abundance, as well as phases of defeat and predicaments.
At the core of successful inter-human relations is human sensitivity, a deep understanding of the thoughts, emotions, needs, and behavior of others, plus empathy and solidarity with others as expressed in respect for the other and affection for the other as a brother or a sister. Such attitudes provide insights which otherwise may be overlooked by thought.
Successful leadership in society also requires a deep understanding of the thoughts, emotions, needs, and behavior of others. However, as the evil tyrants of history have shown – lately, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and more – such knowledge can be abused in the worst possible way for the suppression of large groups of people. In its milder form, successful leadership in business and politics requires a certain toughness to get things done.
In sum, practical experience and human sensitivity are the most important ingredients for gaining the necessary insight into the workings of daily life.