We live in a world that has advanced enormously in all sorts of ways, yet still we allow ourselves to get caught in ways of thinking that are harmful. They hurt us and they hurt others. This is true in all fields of life but none more so than our basic world-view. Part of the problem is the continuing struggle for supremacy between science, religion and philosophy, which presents us with a rich array of possibilities but also leaves us confused.
Some might say this is nothing more than the richness of diversity, something we should celebrate rather than condemn. I disagree. The diversity itself is fine, but amongst this diversity are many widely held beliefs that are not challenged or subjected to proper scrutiny. For example, we cling to ideas about divinity (God or gods) and power, thus distancing ourselves from the sacred and indirectly legitimising forms of oppression. We assume our race is the be-all and end-all of existence, treating other forms of life with contempt, thus degrading our environment. We recklessly discredit other people’s beliefs and practices, thus limiting opportunities for collaboration and shared problem-solving. And so on.
We are due for a new Enlightenment. This time, I suggest, we should work not only from reason (though that’s an excellent starting point) but also from a renewed sense of connection with all that is. The propositions I offer in this article are mere discussion starters, but they are chosen to address most of the big questions that people ask. It is hoped that collectively they form a reasonably comprehensive and coherent world-view.
Here are my propositions.
The ultimate reality
The ultimate reality is this: that there is most likely some source to which we are beholden for our existence. The idea that the world is a mere succession of accidents is statistically beyond belief. The idea that a point could become a universe by itself is likewise beyond belief.
The ultimate mystery
The nature of our source is a mystery and will forever remain so. We are too infinitesimally small and limited to be able to comprehend such a thing: we can only apprehend bits of it.
Faced with the challenge of elucidating this mystery, human beings have become inventive. All gods are at least partly a human invention.
One thing we can say with confidence about the source is that it is creative: our existence is testament to that. Other ideas are mere supposition though they may be widely held.
We have little basis for saying the source is one thing or another, and we merely assume it somehow mirrors the universe itself. This leads to dilemmas, for example the idea of a single thing that can span all space and time and all the immense diversity of our universe.
We assume our source is enduring and transcends all known limits of space or time (or any other dimension) simply because creation in its multiple forms goes on. In other words we have a relationship with the source which is ongoing.
We are free to choose for ourselves our own concept of the source. Atheists choose nothingness or nullity; others choose nature or whatever they believe is the ultimate goodness. Many choose a combination, such as goodness endowed with power or ability to move things.
Over-emphasis on some aspects of the source can lead to error. For example, over-emphasis on the idea of the source (God) as supreme power has led to believers committing massive abuses. It has also crowded out other more intimate ways of relating to God.
The source is interpreted by some as a person of sorts and by others as mere abstraction. Inconveniently it may be both. It may be God and Brahma and other variants besides, including some not yet imagined.
My personal preference is to acknowledge the source as being beyond all value (for value is reductive) but to relate to the source through what I call Providence, or that indefinable something which keeps me going. This I regard as the benevolent face of the source.
The universal order
The way the universe is put together can, like the source, be interpreted in different ways: the laws of nature and fundamental forces, the Tao, the Wheel of Time and so on. All shed light on the matter but none is a complete explanation.
We are a vast conglomerate of opposites with all shades of possibility in between. These opportunities are the raw material for ongoing creation and other kinds of change. (It may be this complex of opposites that makes our planet so apparently special).
There is stability, for everything is finely balanced, but with this stability there is also constant and unending change.
Unity and diversity, harmony and contrast, stability and change, order and contrast, balance and imbalance – these are some of the fundamentals of the universal order that appear over and over again in all sorts of forms. All are necessary and none of them predominates.
A divine plan?
The world seems to be planned, with outcomes at least partly predictable. This suggests a source with both intelligence and intent. However, the idea of a micro-managing God is anathema to 21st century minds.
One hypothesis is that the source was initially all potential but then evolved into actuality with the big bang, with a universal mind that is still growing. Such a mind could be distributed, like that of the octopus. But this puts unacceptable limits on the source.
Rather than focus on the possibility of a universe manager – an unresolvable issue - we should try harder to understand the mechanics of change and its effects going into the future.
Given that the source is first and foremost our creator, and through ongoing creation our sustainer, the relationship between fixity (or stability) and change is of fundamental importance. Change, no matter how great, is always subject to the overall stability.
The plan, if such it is, is carefully calibrated to give agency to the creatures of creation (such as ourselves) as much as any central agency whom we might call “God.”
Ordinarily a plan implies a goal. No clear goal is evident here. As creation multiplies, we might suppose a new unity might be a goal, but from our present vantage point such a thing seems impossible.
The mechanics of change
The mechanics of change are as complex as the universe itself. It is sometimes predictable, sometimes not, sometimes a confirmation of something pre-existing, sometimes a reversal, sometimes karmic, sometimes not.
As much as change is predictable it is also subject to chance. Certainty is forever held at bay by uncertainty.
Change moves from creation to flourishing, then decay and death. These are to a degree cyclical, for creation leads ultimately to death and death leads to new creation.
Creation is not merely novelty but the cosmic impulse which makes life progressively more bearable. Creation is the engine of our advance to civilisation.
Creation arises out of the truth that constitutes the universal order. It happens through acts of will by humans and other entities, energising and bringing to life the potential in that order.
Evil and suffering can trigger change including creation, but they are not directly agents of creation.
Why we exist
Science can tell us how we came to exist, but why we exist we do not and cannot know.
One explanation is that we exist as the inevitable outputs of a source that is boundlessly creative, but this is not something that has much if any meaning for us.
Not knowing why we exist we simply have to accept that we do and make the best of it. This is the same as not knowing where we come from. We have no choice but to find our own meaning. Thus the so-called meaning of life is what we invent for ourselves.
We humans are gifted but we are also just one part of the whole.
We humans are gifted in certain individual traits such as abstract reasoning and the capacity to lead a spiritual and moral life; we are also gifted in the way our traits combine, for example intelligence and reasoning together with physical strength, agility and endurance.
Despite our gifts, elevating ourselves individually and as a race is hubris and hard to justify, especially if we consider our shortcomings and the possibility of other life-forms like artificial intelligence overtaking us. We are too self-centred.
The ultimate test of value is whether something is indispensable. We humans are not. As a species and individually we make contributions, but the world could continue without us.
We reflect in ourselves qualities of the universe as a whole, being complete yet unfinished, internally harmonious yet conflicted, balanced yet uneven, and so on.
Given what we are and are not, we should be appreciative and respectful of all, including ourselves, while also acknowledging our limits and limitations.
Freedom and free will
Human beings have many characteristics, one of the most salient being our freedom to make our own choices. This is so, despite the many constraints we are under.
Freedom in all its meanings is the greatest gift we have. It is perhaps the thing that above all else makes life worth living.
As we are all free, so we are all equal. If our freedom is compromised, it is an assault on our worth as human beings.
The best thing we can do for another person is help that person achieve greater freedom.
How to live
Even if it is true that we are beholden for our existence to a source we dimly recognise, this does not in itself mean we have to live in a certain way. How we live is our own choice.
We live by assigning value to things then setting goals and standards for ourselves based on what we value. We identify things as good and aspire to incorporate them in our goals.
Initially we learn from experience. For example, experience tells us that being kind to other people is ultimately to our benefit as well as theirs. Religion and philosophy codify this for us and help us see further. Jesus for example taught how extreme sacrifice could bring us into new life, and Kant with his categorical imperative taught the importance of seeing the universal significance of our actions.
We all want not only to live but to live well, that is, to have a good life. But good to some means simply being happy, while to others it means something more.
Happiness can be skin-deep like pleasure. However, it can also be a product of wellbeing which is something larger, a combination of virtue, self-fulfilment and deep connection with others.
Religion and philosophy alike point broadly in the same direction, towards the life of virtue, self-fulfilment and connection with others. The good life is being good and doing good.
The meaning of "good"
When we choose whether or not to be good we make a decision which has two parts. One is love of goodness for its own sake and the other is recognition that goodness lies largely in our relations with others. This reflects the two great commandments of Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40).
Good or goodness is a word with different (though entirely compatible) meanings. It can mean the creation and flourishing of life or conditions which lead to these two outcomes. Virtue is one of these conditions.
Virtue has many components but they fit mostly into two categories, which I class broadly as love and truth. These two are interdependent: love grows out of truth –the truth that things are compatible - while truth as the ultimate reliability can exist only through love.
Evil and suffering
Evil and suffering come within the general ambit of good and bad, which are amongst the many values we have devised to help us make our way in this world.
Value can be both subjective (something we devise) and objective (something that really does exist independently of our thought).
The world is full of things we perceive as good or bad or somewhere in between. It is possible to view them dispassionately without these labels, but to do this denies the reality of feelings we experience and is therefore not very helpful.
We hate whatever is bad but have to accept that it is a necessary precursor for things that are good; for it is the way of life that opposites not only co-exist but also flow into each other, like yin and yang.
Death and afterlife
The universe seems planned but in such a way that outcomes are not knowable. We cannot even say categorically that certain outcomes are inevitable, if not predetermined. We may try to influence these outcomes, but ultimately we have to accept that they are uncertain, like so much else in this world.
Science tells us death is final, and while the idea of an afterlife has some appeal it seems to be no more than a fantasy. Ideas like salvation and reincarnation are attractive in that they either confirm or correct what has gone on before, but they are merely optional beliefs.
We continue to live through the influence of our actions and ideas on other people, which is incalculable. This surely is enough. Why should we ask for more?
History and civilisation
Our world-view must take account of the birth and development of humankind, the current master race, including the advance of civilisation, the ideal society based on the highest levels of truth and goodwill. But this is not necessarily an end-state in the story of the universe.
History is a story of ever-increasing proliferation and complexity. This complexity makes it hard if not impossible to see the truths wrapped in simplicity.
Through our ever-growing proliferation the one has become the many, and the many forever seek unity; the United Nations is an example. However, self-centredness keeps us apart. Unity seems to be an ever-receding goal.
As our origins are shrouded in mystery, so are our futures.
Humankind has reached a point where it can destroy itself and do much harm to the rest of the planet. This does not mean that it necessarily will: it is mere conjecture, though certainly a caution against further reckless behaviour.
A more optimistic view is that our ever-growing capacities will one day enable us to become a super race in which our consciousness becomes one with other forms of life; but this too is just conjecture.
The many mysteries in which we are wrapped should not affect the way we live except to make us humble and cautious about rigidities. Whatever the future may hold, to live as best we can we have to focus on the here and now.
These propositions represent a world-view that tries to improve on others by being more modern, inclusive, and grounded in the realities of everyday life.
Through these propositions I argue that there are three things that would make this a better world. At the heart of these things is freedom. We all want freedom but, being self-centred and short-sighted, we do so on our own terms. We are forever shutting out. We shut out ideas that are not our own, denying them air; we shut out other people and other forms of life, denying them opportunities to flourish; and we shut out connection with our best inner selves, denying ourselves the opportunity to grow.
I contend that it would be a better world if we could free ourselves from established dogmas and think more clearly about how the world works. Here I refer in particular to the supernatural and the role of the so-called “eternal verities” – truth, love and so on. Whether or not we believe in a god (and this is a personal choice) we all have a gold standard of sorts which guides us through life. We are free to choose this standard for ourselves but all too easily get spooked by the complexities, leaving others to do the hard thinking on our behalf.
Secondly, it would be a better world if we could free ourselves from established ways of thinking about ourselves, both individually and as a race. This begins with the way we regard other people: I’m better than you, people from the West are superior, and so on. From there we progress to the homocentric: human beings are better or more important than animals or plants or rivers. These value judgements are subjective and ultimately indefensible. Once we understand we are all one and appreciate the necessary contribution each makes to the whole, we can begin a civilised conversation about how we can best interact. We can perhaps help rather than hinder each other in the quest for survival and enjoyment of life; we can be more giving.
Lastly, it would be a better world if we could free our creative energies and commit to achieving a more collaborative approach to change. In all sorts of areas this would mean putting aside our customary negativity, focusing more on the merits of other people’s ideas and trying to join them up through practical action. This is the essence of what I call creativism, that is, seeking out truth and using our goodwill to build on it and make something new and better. Much good work is done already, but there is room for improvement.