Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Caretakers of the Cosmos by Gary Lachman

Another Lachman was on deck
At the end of my review of Gary Lachman’s Beyond the Robot, I joked that I now had a conundrum to resolve: whether to read another Lachman book next or one by Wilson. As it turned out, I had Lachman’s The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World (2013) on my Kindle, so it got the nod. Upon plunging in, I realized that I’d read it before, rather hurriedly, probably right after completing A Secret History of Consciousness. I hadn’t reviewed it, and my enthusiasm spurred by an appreciation of Beyond the Robot, I dove back in. I glad that I did.

As he demonstrated in Beyond the Robot and The Secret History of Consciousness, Lachman is a master of exposition, gathering and summarizing the thinking of scientists, philosophers, artists, and occultists with an exemplary thoroughness and economy. He conveys the message of those with whom he disagrees as well as he does for those he promotes. But in addition to the admirable exposition of thinking and history that I’ve quickly come to expect from Lachman, this is not the primary value of his book. For in addition to its exposition of a variety of thinkers and thinking about our place in the cosmos, Lachman has also written a manifesto. To sum up his manifesto in a sentence, I suggest the banner: “It’s our cosmos now, and we ought to do right by it.”

Early in the book, Lachman identifies examples of thinkers whom he believes don't do right by our (human) place in the cosmos. He singles out the French biologist Jacques Monod and the British philosopher John Gray for a more thorough consideration. And later in the book he identifiesSteven Pinker, James Lovelock, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, and John Searle as those who undervalue, if not deprecate, the role of human agency.   (These are just the names that I recognized, Lachman discusses others, too.) Each of these thinkers in some manner deprecates human agency (conscious decision-making entailing meaningful choice) by emphasizing chance or causal determinism or genetics or entropy or our physical insignificance. But as Lachman points out, if we human are so puny, insignificant, and determined, why do they spend so much time and effort trying to convince us of this? Is it worth the effort? Can you rationally persuade such determined creatures? (I will say that it can be damned hard.). What Lachman is pointing at is a performative contradiction: you contend for a proposition that your actions in making the case negate. Lachman later in the books makes the same point about extreme cultural relativism: how can one argue for all cultural values being equally valid without positing a value that entails negating cultural values that say “our way the only way”? We living, breathing human beings—not chance, genes, or some scientific principle—must make value judgments and choices that affect our world. We humans, as individuals and as a society, are the most complex entities in the known universe. I agree with Lachman: I think we’re pretty damned special. (And also often quite a wreck of a species.)

In distinction from those who hold a pinched view of the role of humans in the cosmos (a term that Lachman unpacks early in the book), Lachman details many examples of those who defend humanity’s unique position. From the myth0-poetic realm, Lachman provides examples both familiar and occult. Among the better-known accounts of humanity’s crucial role in the cosmos comes from the Jewish tradition of Kabbala.  In short, creation is purposely flawed, and humans are dispatched by God to work to set it aright by tikkun, a healing function. This line of thought, this metaphor for the imperfection manifest in the world in which we humans find ourselves, is similar that that found in the Hermetic tradition dating back to the early period of Western culture. In this tradition, Man (used traditionally as including both sexes) is part material and part spiritual and must work diligently to resolve the rift that creation has allowed to occur. Healing this rift gives humankind a divine mission. But what of those who poo-poo such accounts as the stuff of children and want good, sound science and logic? Lachman attends to these as well.

Philosopher-scientists like Henri Bergson, William James, and Alfred North Whitehead, to name three of the more well known among those mentioned, all see the cosmos and the human role as alive with consciousness and possibility in distinction from their more staid peers. Whitehead, it seems, is of particular importance because of his ideas about ‘prehension’ (a measure of experience applying even to inanimate objects) and the contrast between ‘presentational immediacy’ and ‘causal efficacy.' But perhaps of even greater value is Lachman’s reclamation of “philosophical anthropology” in the work of three now largely neglected 20th-century philosophers, Max Scheler (1874–1928), Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), and Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948). Each of these philosophers worked in a different philosophical tradition, but each them grounded the dignity of humanity in its agency (i.e., consciousness) in addition to its biological origins. What all of these thinkers have in common is their appreciation of the importance of consciousness for apprehending the human condition and project.

Two scholars merit attention because of the importance that Lachman attaches to their work. The first is Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s identification of the hierarchy of needs, ranging up from those associated with the physical survival of the organism through those of sociability and esteem, finally up to the level of self-actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy grounds an account of human life on a narrative of an upward arc that endows life with significance and rewards. Maslow’s view contrasts with those others mentioned at the beginning of Lachman’s book (and this review) who tend to ignore or downplay the role of human striving. In writing about Maslow, Lachman also addresses one critique of Maslow: that Maslow’s emphasis on “self-actualization” comes at the expense of concern for society. On one hand, the criticism can be quickly dismissed to the extent that it assumes that self-actualization comes at the expense for regard for others; quite the contrary. Those self-actualized have a greater capacity for helping others. But a stickier problem presents itself: not everyone reaches the panicle of self-actualization. Why not? Many are called; few are chosen. To some, this is an affront to their conviction that all men [sic] are created equal and that inequality arises solely as a result of social and political failure. Lachman slights this perspective. A more nuanced approach is appropriate. Both Plato and Marx are right. Social and political injustices outside of their immediate control play a role in people’s lives. And gifts of genetic endowment and their early environment allow some individuals to climb higher on the ladder of self-actualization and to attain even spiritual heights that most people, even the wealthiest, just don’t aspire to. Lachman reports how Maslow struggled with this issue (which I’d not been aware of before), and Lachman does so as well. The conflict is a real one, especially in a time of rampant demagoguery (you know of whom I speak). The resentment, anxiety, and fear that fuels the lurch toward easy, populist policies is irrelevant—and often detrimental—to traveling the steep road of deepening and expanding consciousness. (Such policies and candidates also are almost always short-sighted if not utterly foolish.) The problem of inequality is one that goes back to Plato (and probably well before), and that does not admit to a fool-proof solution. (For recognizing and exploring the complicated relationship between social-political injustice and individual frailty (sin), I find no better guide that Reinhold Niebuhr.)

The other guide that receives (and deserves) particular attention from Lachman is Iain McGilchrist, the literature professor turned psychiatrist, and author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World. In McGilchrist’s work Lachman has a scientist who explores the cultural attitudes that allow us to fall into what Colin Wilson described as “the fallacy of insignificance.” McGilchrist’s scientific background allows him to identify and explain the structural and functional differences in the brain that endow humans with two very different modes of perceiving the world and that can easily come into conflict. Indeed, the humanist side of McGilchrist demonstrates how the history of Western civilization can be seen as a contest between these two perspectives that, when balanced, can provide explosions of artistic inventiveness and human consciousness, but when out of balance, cause suffering and dislocation. Alas, all too much of the 20th century, on into the 21st, has been marked by an imbalance that encourages the fallacy of insignificance and promotes intellectual defeatism and widespread anxiety. Thus, while McGilchrist doesn’t speak directly to the cosmic significance of the human project as do other thinkers discussed by Lachman in this book, McGilchrist’s grounding in science gives his work a unique value when looking at the most immediate realm of current life.

Finally, while realizing I’m leaving out a great deal of the figures and topics that Lachman addresses in this combination of exploration and manifesto, I want to note Lachman’s reference to the work of Owen Barfield. Lachman is no new-comer to Barfield, as I mentioned in my review of A Secret History of Consciousness, Lachman gave Barfield a lot of attention in that earlier work. In this book, Barfield’s ideas about “participation” receive attention. Barfield believes that humans have undergone—are undergoing—an “evolution of consciousness.” Early humans, arising out of the natural world, went from a sense of “direct participation” in the greater environment to the perspective of a detached observer. Now, Barfield suggests that humanity is in a position to obtain “final participation,” which reunites human consciousness with the phenomenal world. This can all seem so abstract, but in using language or in attempting to appreciate history, we find that if we cultivate our awareness of an environment and allow it to sink in, the greater the sense of the situation that we’re contemplating and participating in. John Lukacs's essay, “Putting Man Before Descartes,” uses ideas expounded by his friend Owen Barfield, and he draws upon both history and 20th-century physics, arguing that knowledge can never be “objective” or its converse, “subjective,” but it  is always “personal” and “participant.” Lukacs writes:

Knowledge, which is neither objective nor subjective, is always personal. Not individual: personal. The concept of the individual has been one of the essential misconceptions of political liberalism. Every human being is unique, but he does not exist alone. He is dependent on others (a human baby for much longer than the offspring of other animals); his existence is inseparable from his relations with other human beings.

But there is more to that. Our knowledge is not only personal; it is also participant. There is—yet there cannot be—a separation of the knower from the known. We must see further than this. It is not enough to recognize the impossibility (perhaps even the absurdity) of the ideal of their antiseptic, objective separation. What concerns—or should concern—us is something more than the inseparability; it is the involvement of the knower with the known. That this is so when it comes to the reading, researching, writing, and thinking of history should be rather obvious. Detachment from one’s passions and memories is often commendable. But detachment, too, is something different from separation; it involves the ability (issuing from one’s willingness) to achieve a stance of a longer or higher perspective. The choice for such a stance does not necessarily mean a reduction of one’s personal interest, of participation—perhaps even the contrary.

Indeed, Lukacs goes on:
And now a last step: We must recognize, contrary to all accepted ideas, that we and our earth are at the center of our universe. We did not create the universe, but the universe is our invention, and it is, as are all human and mental inventions, time-bound, relative, and potentially fallible.
Because of this recognition of the human limitations of theories, indeed, of knowledge, this assertion of our centrality—in other words, of a new, rather than renewed, anthropocentric and geocentric view of the universe—is not arrogant or stupid. To the contrary: it is anxious and modest. . . .

The known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness. The universe is such as it is because in the center of it there exist conscious and participant human beings who can see it, explore it, study it. (For those readers who believe in God: the world and this earth were created by Him for the existence and consciousness of human beings.) This insistence on the centrality and uniqueness of human beings is a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.

(Some good news: Lukacs has a new book scheduled for release next month, We Are at the Center of the Universe, which, judging by its title and the publisher’s website, will further develop his thoughts on this topic.)

Thus, through the musings of another great thinker, Barfield’s insights gain new credence and application.

In the end, as a formal matter, I take the position of agnostic on the issue of the ultimate or cosmic significance of my life and that of my fellow humans,  past, present, and future. Such an ultimate conclusion, like some of the greatest issues confronting human existence, may be unknowable, at least to a limited, fallible, and spiritually myopic person such as me. However, drawing on Pascal and William James, I shan’t let this stop me. From Pascal, I’ll take the idea of a wager; not on the existence or non-existence of God or of heaven and hell, but on a more immediate issue: the value of a significant versus an insignificant life. Is a life informed by a sense of significance, whether emanating from the love of family and friends and community—even without cosmic significance—better than a life without significance and meaning? I can’t have read and attempted to digest so much of Gary Lachman or Colin Wilson—to name just two immediate culprits—not to answer with a resounding, affirmative “Yes!” And from William James, I take the will to believe. James, in the midst of a disabling ennui, chose to believe in free will and in his ability to make choices and improve—and he did. Thus, we can opt to say “Yes” to life, to meaning and significance even without an assurance of an ultimate guaranty. We can endow life—even the quotidian affairs of daily life—with meaning and significance that will give us the ability to carry on, and perhaps find even more meaning and significance emerge in our lives. The emergence of meaning and significance is the story of humankind (which Lachman addresses and I’ve shortchanged here). Humans have become more significant, more free, and more vital over the course of human civilization. Progress? In some measure, certainly; guaranteed? Not in the least. But in the end, I think Lukacs is right: we humans—frail, sinful, ignorant (chose your term) are at the center of the world, even the Universe, and we should get to it. 

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