The Laozi (Lao Tzu), the Buddha, and other sages of East and West appear to have transcended the human condition, but the vast majority of humans seem to be more or less conditioned by language, thought, and our animal ancestry.
Our Animal Ancestry
To understand the human condition (how human existence has been conditioned) it is not sufficient to examine human history as Hannah Arendt (1958) has done so masterfully; we also have to look at human prehistory, including our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo (also called pygmy chimpanzee). Since humans are very similar to these two species of chimpanzees, it has been concluded, “we are just a third species of chimpanzees” (Jared Diamond, quoted by Hands 2016, p. 532). We resemble chimpanzees genetically, physiologically, and above all in our behavior. We have, however, larger brains that engender the capacity for language, reasoning and insight, in short, the "cognitive revolution" (Harari 2014, Part One).This has led some people such as the Laozi, the Buddha, and other sages in East and West to enlightenment, and it has led others to practice torture and other forms of extreme cruelty that are worse than the worst behavior of chimpanzees. Our larger brains have also led to the development of science and technology, which have garnered important insights and applications but have also produced most of the worst global problems such as overpopulation, climate change, pollution of earth, sea, and air, destruction of natural habitats and rapid species extinction, modern warfare, the thread of nuclear war and meltdown of nuclear reactors, cybercrime, and extreme inequalities of wealth and power in the capitalist system. Thus, Harari concluded: "Unfortunately, the Sapiens regime on earth has so far produced little that we can be proud of" (Harari 2014, p. 415).
According to the primatologist de Waal (2005), chimpanzees practice reciprocal and genuine altruism, help and console each other, mediate and forgive each other, but they also tend to be egocentric, power hungry, hierarchical, competitive, territorial, xenophobic, and practice at times deadly warfare and infanticide, whereas bonobos tend to be more playful, egalitarian, and do not engage in deadly warfare and infanticide; bonobos appear relatively peaceful, highly sexual and sensual. Although humans can exhibit the typical bonobo traits, it seems that we have more in common with chimpanzees. Thus, we have the propensity for selfish and unselfish behavior. De Waal concluded that like chimpanzees "we are born with a gamut of tendencies from the basest to the noblest" (de Waal 2005, p. 237). This gamut of tendencies becomes exaggerated positively or more often negatively through language, ideas and logic, science and technology, as I shall point out below.
Being power-hungry, territorial, and xenophobic, when two communities of chimpanzees encounter another one, they make war and kill. Similarly, human tribes tend to engage in warfare and killing. And the same happens in modern nations in even more cruel and devastating ways. Furthermore, the tribal mentality can be seen in many kinds of groups: ethnic, idealogical, religious, political, etc. Chua (2018) referred to "political tribes" such as, for example, the Republicans and Democrats in the United States. Have we evolved? De Waal (2005, p.141) concluded that, "humans share intergroup behavior with both chimps and bonobos. When relations between human societies are bad, they are worse than between chimps, but when they are good, they are better than between bonobos. Our warfare exceeds the chimpanzee's "animal" violence in alarming ways [because we can use science and technology]. But at the same time the payoffs from [good] neighborly relations are richer than in bonobos [because they may involve more than sex].”
Contrary to chimpanzees, we have not only exploited and killed other members of our species, but to a great extent we have also ruined our environment, which has led to an ecological crisis. The power hungry hierarchical orientation of our inner ape has become magnified through the thought of superiority over nature. In the West this thought has been reinforced by the religious doctrine expounded in Genesis 1 of the Bible where we are told (by God) to subdue the earth and to have dominion over everything. White (1967) sees the roots of our ecological crisis in this hubris. Continuing on this path might eventually lead to the demise of humanity. But better education and self-inquiry may still bring out more of our highest potential, cooperation, love, compassion, understanding, wisdom, and reverence for the mystery of existence (see below).
Formation of Large Groups
Whereas chimpanzees live in small troops (up to several dozen individuals), humans formed very large groups: tribes, nations, and empires. Therefore, if a chimpanzee troop attacks another one, only relatively few individuals may be injured or killed. In contrast, if a human tribe or nation attacks another one, thousands or millions of individuals may be injured or killed. The magnitude of bloodshed in humans also increased through science and technology (see below). Language and ideas that form cultures played an important role in the formation of large groups in humans.
Words and Language
Words and language played a crucial role in human evolution. Words and other symbols such as sounds or drawings can be helpful for our orientation in the world. For example, the word ‘Toronto’ indicates a location in space. If I say, ‘I go slowly to rainy Toronto,’ I inform people around me: ‘I’ indicates that it is me and not John, and ‘go’ indicates an action. Thus a noun (Toronto), a pronoun (I), a verb (go), an adverb (slowly), an adjective (rainy) and a preposition (to) convey information. Other word classes such as conjunctions (and, but, because, etc), determiners (a, the, many, etc) and exclamations add further information.
Although useful, words and language fragment the world. Words are distinct, but their referents are not. For example, the word ‘tree’ is distinct, but what it refers to is connected with its surroundings. Similarly the words ‘I’ and ‘you’ are distinct, but what they refer to are not separate entities but integrated parts of the world. If this is not understood, then words and language can give us a fragmented and misleading view of the world and ourselves. Unfortunately, this fragmented and misleading view appears to be very common and can have disastrous consequences. Thus, not sufficiently understanding the interconnectedness in the biosphere has led to ecological disasters. Not understanding that humans are integrated with the environment and the whole universe, has led to alienation and loneliness. Therefore, we have to keep in mind: “Reality is far from words and it is very different from what a naïve person thinks it is” ((Falconar 2000, p. 7). “Whatever we say it is, IT IS NOT” (ibid, p. 6). “Words are the main obstacle on the spiritual path, which can be seen in pure intellectuals…Their whole life is of words, so they become alienated from reality” (Falconar 2000, p. 40). Aldous Huxley (1978) has also drawn attention to these issues. He wrote, “the enlightened person …lives in language and then goes beyond it” (ibid, p. 173), goes beyond name and form (form refers to ideas, to thought).
The human situation becomes most troublesome when we use words that refer to ideas. For example, ideas such as capitalism, communism, and fascism have had devastating consequences. Since chimpanzees do not seem to have ideas, they are not plagued by such devastating consequences. Ideas in human society have enormously magnified the instinctual propensity for aggressive competition and war that we inherited from chimpanzees (more correctly, the lineage that gave rise to chimpanzees and humans). For example, think of the ideas that led to the holocaust, to Stalin’s communism, to the Cultural Revolution in China, etc. In addition, science and technology have provided means to engage in the cruelest aggression that immensely surpasses the aggression and cruelty of chimpanzees.
Harari (2015) pointed out how stories based on ideas shaped human history when these stories were shared by a large number of people. In this endeavour, "the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another" (Harari 2015, p. 153). According to Harari, this ability has been one of the most important human acquisitions because only in this way ideas could have a major impact on humanity.
I do not want to imply that all ideas are harmful. We can think of noble ideas such as truth, goodness, and beauty. Social activists are often inspired by noble ideas. But often they are so much possessed by these ideas (that are expressed through words and language) that they ignore or forget the wider context. This may have catastrophic consequences. For example, deposing a brutal dictator may seem like a great idea, but if subsequently the society is not capable of collaborative and peaceful functioning it may end up in the worst chaos as we have seen in Libya and other countries.
Furthermore, noble ideas lead to opposite ideas, and this may again engender conflict, aggression, and war (see below). There is, however, another way. Instead of seeing opposites as antagonistic, we can see them as complementing one another. Then one can embrace both and thus conflict, violence, and war can be avoided. Unfortunately, this has not happened often in our culture because we have been indoctrinated and conditioned to think in terms of either/or and not in terms of both/and (see below).
In addition to complementarity and both/and thinking, one can achieve a synthesis of opposites (opposite ideas) that reveals an underlying unity. This unity transcends opposites as a thesis and its antithesis are transcended by their synthesis. The unity has also been seen as the coincidence of opposites. It “is held to lie beyond the reach of discursive thought, and to be revealed to intuitive insight alone” (Arber 1967, p. 77). Thus, ideas and the conflict of ideas that may lead to violence and war are transcended. “Goethe [the German poet and scientist] saw coincidence of contraries everywhere… A pregnant instance is his assertion that truth and error are from one source, and that the destruction of error may often involve the destruction of truth” (ibid, p. 76). In Zen reference can be found to “the identity of black and white, or evil and good” (ibid, p. 75). This may be meant to jolt us beyond thought and the thinking mind. And it can indicate a unity because, like in Yin and Yang, in the real world there seems to be at least some black in the white and vice versa. Similarly, there appears to be some good in evil and vice versa, and thus again the apparent antagonism becomes bridged. In Siddharta, Hermann Hesse wrote: “Never is a man or a deed wholly Samsara or wholly Nirvana; never is a man wholly a saint or a sinner” (Hesse 1951, p. 115). The unity of good and evil may also mean going beyond good and evil, which implies going beyond the ideas of good and evil (see also Nietzsche 2002). In this sense, the unity of opposites must be sought at a deeper or higher level than the opposites.
Ideas and especially the identification with ideas are propagated through words and language, which bestows enormous importance and influence on words and language. Yet, "Existence is beyond the power of words...From wonder into wonder existence opens" (Lao Tzu, Witten Bynner's translation). Paradoxically, this insight is expressed through words, but these words do not refer to an abstract idea but point to an insight that is rooted in the experience or beingness (not the idea) of oneness (nonduality).
The Tao is ungraspable
How can her mind be at one with it?
Because she doesn’t cling to ideas.
(Chapter 21 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing
there is a field
I will meet you there.
Ideas can also be entrenched and transmitted through the structure of our language when an identity is implied between the subject and a noun or adjective where in fact no identity exists. Examples are: ‘She is a Muslim, and ‘He is evil.’ In either case, this is not what she or he is. Their is-ness, their being, their reality is far beyond what can be expressed through words. She being a Muslim, or he being evil is at best only one aspect of their reality. Therefore, if we want to say that she is a Muslim or that he is evil, we would have to add ‘etc,’ as Korzybski pointed out so convincingly. And therefore, whatever we say a person or a thing is, it is not, since they are so much more than can be expressed by one statement (Korzybski explained this through his Structural Differential). If we are not aware of this (the etc), we are led to false claims about the reality of things and persons, which may have devastating consequences. For example, if we say, ‘He is evil,’ he may be mistreated, punished, and in some countries even tortured or executed.
If we say or at least imply that ‘he is evil, etc,’ it clarifies that besides being evil, he may also be good, intelligent, etc., and consequently we get a very different impression of him and will treat him differently, more according to what he actually is. But even adding the ‘etc’ cannot completely portray the infinity of his being. To fathom this infinity, we will have to revere him in silence. Thus, for an understanding of reality and truth we have to transcend language. Not being sufficiently capable or not seeing the need for this transcendence appears to be part of the human condition.
Harari (2015) ends his thought-provoking book Homo Deus with three questions. The first question is: "Are organisms really just algorithms [as most biologists believe], and is life really just data processing [as assumed by the new data religion that is also called dataism]? Had Harari understood Korzybski's Structural Differential, he could have answered this question himself because the Structural Different shows that whatever you say something is, it is not. Hence, it follows that organisms are not just algorithms and life is not just data processing. Organisms and life remain unnamable and unspeakable. Algorithms and data processing may be an aspect of the mystery of organisms and life. And indeed in modern science they have become a very important aspect. However, a crucial difference remains between the whole and an aspect of the whole. Not recognizing this difference may have devastating and tragic consequences: life will lose its sacredness and artificial intelligence (AI) and information will be considered more important than consciousness. We risk being increasingly manipulated by AI, we risk being eventually enslaved by super intelligent robots, and as Stephen Hawking and others have warned this may lead to the demise of humankind.
Logic is also embedded in our language structure. Different kinds of logic can be used. The most commonly used logic is still Aristotelian logic, which is a logic of identity and either/or. This kind of logic that is often used subconsciously because it is deeply embedded in our culture can lead to profound distortions of our perception of reality and thus may have devastating consequences. Identity exists only in abstractions, in language, including mathematics, but not in the real world of constant flux as Heraclitus and other sages have so clearly understood long ago: I cannot step in the same river twice because I and the river have changed, neither I nor the river have remained identical. Even saying “I am I,’ appears deeply misleading because I am not only I, I am also the universe, one with the universe, as many sages and mystics have understood and as even holistic science has recognized (see, for example, Hollick 2006).
Many people are looking for or are asserting an identity. They feel a strong urge to identify with something such as an ethnicity, philosophy, ideology, religion, nationality, etc. But such identifications remain relative or limited and caught in oppositions: my ethnicity, philosophy, ideology, religion, or nationality versus yours. Such oppositions, reinforced by either/or logic, may lead to conflict, violence, and war, unless their relativity is recognized, unless we realize that we are not this or that. As Korzybski has so clearly demonstrated through his Structural Differential, whatever you say you are, you are not because what you can express through language implies at best a relative or partial identification. Mistaking a relative identification with an absolute one may have devastating consequences such as violence and war. We need to recognize that we are infinitely more than what we can say we are. We partake in the unnamable mystery, which unites us. With this realization, the human condition that is based on ideas and identification with these ideas can be transcended because the mystery is not conditional.
Through identification we see only the traits in which we differ, not what we have in common, which is much more than the differences between us. I think that if Korzybski's insights including his Structural Differential would be widely taught in schools and universities we would live in a much better world, a world with less conflict, violence, and war, a world with more tolerance, compassion, and happiness because we could see the relativity of ideas that divide us and because we could appreciate the unnamable mystery in which we are united. We would no longer mistake a map of images, words, and ideas with the territory of reality.
"La condition humaine" (The human condition) by René Magritte (1935)
In this painting Magritte shows that an image of reality is not reality. When we portray reality through an image or language we may at best capture some aspects of reality but not reality as it is. Images and linguistic representations can be seen as maps. Mistaking maps for what they represent leads to misunderstandings that may have grave or catastrophic consequences. Therefore, Korzysbski emphasized so much that a map is not the territory. Nonetheless, so many people continue confusing the map with the territory. This confusion characterizes the human condition to a great extent.
Besides identification, thinking in terms of either/or also appears deeply embedded in our culture since Aristotle devised his logic. This logic, although it may be appropriate in certain cases, tends to be unrealistic and highly divisive (see Sattler: Healing Thinking and Being, Chapters 1 and 2). An investigation of the world shows that situations often are not black or white, true or false, good or bad, etc, but more or less in between these extremes, which means that we find much grey, partial correctness, partial falsehood, and people being good and bad to various degrees. But according to either/or logic, it must be always either this or that. Very often this means that if one claims to be right, the other must be wrong. As Hoggan (2016) put it: “I’m right and You’re an Idiot.” This logic also reinforces the “us versus them” thinking. We can often see this kind of thinking in tribes, ethnic, religious, ideological, and political affiliations, nations, etc. (see Chua 2018). Obviously such thinking is not conducive to profound understanding and a peaceful society. But it is part of the human condition. It can be overcome through different kinds of logic such as Buddhist and Jain logic that do not have the defects of either/or logic, including “us versus them thinking” (see below).
Our language and our behavior appear intimately interconnected. For this reason Korzybski referred to language-behavior. Especially the use of identification such as 'He is an anarchist' and subject-predicate expressions that insist that a person or thing is this or that, right or wrong, good or bad, etc. can have strong behavioral reactions that may lead to aggression and violence. We can, however, avoid or reduce such reactions by choosing a different language that incorporates extensional devices such as the ‘etc’ proposed by Korzybski (see Healthy Language-Behavior and Spirituality).
Summary on Words, Language, Ideas, and Logic
Words and language, although useful for our orientation in the world, tend to fragment reality into entities such as ‘I,’ ‘you,’ a ‘tree,’ and so on. If, like most people, we are not aware of this fragmentation and believe that these entities actually exist independently of our use of words and language, we are led to false claims about reality because we fail to recognize the underlying unity of everything. We fail to see the interconnectedness and unity of ecosystems and planet Earth and thus we have created an ecological crisis (see, for example, Capra 1996).
When words, phrases, and sentences refer to ideas and we identity with these ideas, this identification may reinforce our propensity for all the negative chimpanzee traits I listed above such as aggressive competition and violence. Aided by science and technology the identification with such ideas has led to the holocaust and many other cruelties that by far surpass chimpanzee cruelty because chimpanzees lack identification with ideas, science and technology.
We may, of course, also have noble ideas such as goodness and justice. Although praiseworthy, these ideas tend to create opposite ideas, which then may lead again to conflict, violence, and war. Therefore, ideas, regardless of whether good or bad, seem to perpetuate the human condition in one form or another. To transcend the human condition we need the experience or beingness (not just the idea) of oneness (nonduality). We have to go beyond name and form (form meaning idea and thought).
The subject-predicate structure of our language, when it identifies the subject with a noun or adjective, also leads to false claims about reality, which may have catastrophic consequences. To counteract this, Korzybski devised his Structural Differential and extensional devices such as adding ‘etc’ to statements such as ‘She is a Muslim,’ or ‘He is bad.’
Aristotelian logic that is still widely used implies identity and either/or that reinforce the idea that a person or thing must be either this or that, which implies identification with this or that. It seems, however, obvious that a person or thing transcends identification with just this or that. Long ago, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras knew that “each thing contains in itself parts of other things or heterogeneous elements, and is what it is, only on account of the preponderance of certain homogeneous parts which constitute its character” (Wikipedia). The Daoist tradition emphasized the Yin-Yang symbol in which Yin includes Yang and vice versa. Recognizing this and acting accordingly can help us to transcend the imprisonment in an illusory identity and the either/or condition.
In short, we can say that the human condition arises from the propensities of our inner ape that are magnified by identification with thought and its expression through language. Needless to say, the human condition and human history are much more complex than can be pointed out in a very short essay or even a whole book. I have indicated some of these complexities in this book on Wholeness, Fragmentation, and the Unnamable: Holism, Materialism, and Mysticism – A Mandala (2016) and its second appendix on Lessons from the 20th Century for the 21st Century (for a complementary account see, for example, Moromisato 2004, Wilber 2000b, Harari 2014).
Freud recognized two opposing forces or instincts in the human psyche: Eros and Thanatos, love and embrace on the one hand, and destruction and death on the other. As these two forces or instincts are antagonistic to one another, according to Freud, human misery could be reduced to a battle and disharmony of these two forces or instincts. Although cruelty is widespread and may be intentional, I am not sure whether there is a separate death instinct. It seems to me that destruction and death is mostly a byproduct of an excessive power drive that is not balanced by compassion and understanding (see also Wilber 2000c, pp. 340-341) So I tend to see human misery more as an imbalance and struggle between the egocentric power drive and compassion of our inner ape that is enormously magnified by thought.
Thought, Emotion, and the Body
Thought comprises language, ideas, and logic. In an interview with Oprah, Eckhart Tolle noted, “the human condition is being lost in thought,” that is, as we identify with it, we get lost in it and remain unaware of the mysterious source out of which thought arises. Since emotions can be understood as a combination body sensations with thought, thought affects also our emotions, and again we may get lost in them if we are not aware that we are infinitely more than just our thoughts and emotions. In our universal existence, we may be likened to the ocean and thoughts and emotions of our egoic self to waves on the surface of the all-encompassing ocean. So often we tend to forget that we are like the ocean (the universal Self) and not just like the waves (the individual egoic self). Identifying with the waves (the ego) and thinking that this is all we are creates the misery of the human condition (see, for example, Foster 2012). Since waves vanish, identifying with them (the ego) creates the fear of extinction, the fear of death. This fear may be at the root of much aggression, violence and war. People often attack or go to war because they fear that the other may attack them.
Even the body and body sensations may be influenced by thought. For example, the experience of physical pain may be related to thought, to how we think about it. Having negative thoughts about physical pain and resisting it, makes it worse, while having positive and accepting thoughts about it, can alleviate it to a considerable extent. Our attitude appears to be crucial. Christopher Day (2007) published a book entitled “(my) Dying is Fun,” in which he describes how his positive attitude about his extreme physical handicaps allowed him to have fun. For example, he described how getting dressed would be very difficult. Sometimes when he had almost succeeded, his pants would fall down again, and he had to invent a contraption to lift them up again. Instead of getting frustrated, he had fun finding solutions to his many challenges. Similarly, some babies who were born with missing and/or deformed limbs because their mother had taken thalidomide grew up happily because they developed a positive attitude and thus learned ingenious solutions to adapt to their situation. For example, some of them would learn to use their feet for what a normal person would do with their arms. Thus, again mental attitude, thought, would be crucial in the experience of physical challenges (see also Vidyamala Burch: Living well with pain and illness).
In her journey through extreme physical pain, Vidyamala Burch distinguished four phases: denial, bargaining, acceptance, and flourishing that came out or the acceptance. Denial and bargaining are very much influenced by the thinking mind, but the deepest acceptance goes beyond the wishes of the ego and leads to the universal Self, which transcends the human condition (see also Brach 2004, Foster 2012, and Radical Acceptance Guided Meditation).
We can, of course, also be in the body without the thinking mind. Then the body may become the door to spacious awareness that transcends the individual self (see below).
The human condition may entail much conflict: conflict between selfless behavior and selfish behavior such as aggressive competition; conflict between more or less contradictory ideas and between different ways of reasoning; conflict between thought and emotions, the thinking mind and the heart. These conflicts can be resolved through deep insight and spiritual transformation. Using the ocean analogy that I described above, we can see that conflicts can be compared with waves of the ocean; we are not just the waves (the conflicts), we are like the ocean (or like the sky). The waves (the conflicts) have no separate existence; hence identifying with them, appears delusory and thus creates suffering. But transcending the identification with impermanent transitory waves (conflicts) allows us to shift into freedom. Kelly (2015) and other sages devised exercises that may facilitate this shift that requires profound spiritual transformation from the egoic self to the universal Self (see also below).
The Amplification of Primitive Traits
As pointed out already, traits and behavior found in chimpanzees have become enormously amplified in humans. For example, as in chimpanzees, humans can play power games between individuals and small groups, but in addition humans get involved in power struggles between large groups such as tribes, nations, and empires. And the outcome of these struggles may be devastating at a scale unknown in chimpanzees. Instead of killing just another chimpanzee or another small group of chimpanzees, humans have the capacity to exterminate thousands and even millions because they have been able to cooperate in large numbers. Harari (2015, p. 153) concluded that "the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another." Language, ideas, science and technology have played an important role in this connection.
Amplification occurs not only with regard to the desire of power, domination, and the ability to kill but also with regard to altruism and compassion toward fellow humans. Religions such as Christianity have preached love, but unfortunately good intentions have often been corrupted and undermined by power struggles.
Three Stages of Human Evolution
In the evolution of the human brain and reflective consciousness, Hands (2016) distinguished three overlapping phases: primeval thinking, philosophical thinking, and scientific thinking.
Primeval thinking “is characterized by creativity, invention, imagination, and beliefs” (Hands 2016, p. 584). It included already the fallacy of misplaced identity such as for, example, the identification of a phenomenon with a spirit. It led to stories, myths and religions and various superstitions, some of which continue up to the present time. Also new superstitions have arisen, one of them that science is infallible and that eventually it will solve all problems of humankind (see, for example, Harari 2016, p. 271).
The arts arose also during this early period of humanity and in later periods reached their highest expressions in creations such as, for example, Beethoven's ninth symphony and many other creations in music, poetry, and the visual arts. However, arts, like religions, may also degenerate, arts into ugliness and religions into dogmatism and fanaticism that may become destructive. The most recent religions or dogmas are techno-humanism (that wants to technically improve humans) and data religion or dataism according to which everything is a matter of data processing or information (Harari 2017, Chapters 10 and 11). Coupled with manipulative technology, dataism may lead to an info apocalypse ("infocalypse") in which news and fake-news may become blurred and interchangeable. "That future, according to Ovadya, will arrive with a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — “reality apathy,” “automated laser phishing,” and "human puppets"… as Ovadya observes, anyone could make it “appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did” (Warzel 2018).
Philosophical thinking “was characterized by a desire to seek explanations that did not invoke imagined spirits or anthropomorphic gods or God…[It] most probably emerged first on the Indian sub-continent while the other centers were China and the Greek colony of Ionia. Philosophers used insight, often resulting from disciplined meditation, and reasoning, based on prior assumptions or interpretations of evidence” (Hands 2016, p. 540-541). Among the first Western philosophers were Anaximander and Heraclitus whose philosophies are somewhat reminiscent of insights of the Laozi and Buddha who did not succumb to the fallacy of identity.
Although "philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom," since Plato it has been mainly love of ideas communicated through language, and thus the nonduality of body, mind, and spirit has often eluded us. Living mainly in one's head to the detriment of the heart and the belly (hara) creates an unhealthy imbalance that may have many harmful and even catastrophic consequences. According to Chinese medicine, health means balance and imbalance means sickness. Hence, degrees of imbalance in our culture indicate degrees of sickness.
Plato’s influence on humanity has been enormous. According to Whitehead (1929), “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” And I would add that by now Plato’s influence has been worldwide. According to a common interpretation of Platonism, the material world, including our body, is unreal or only a shadow of ideas (eternal forms or essences) that constitute ultimate reality. By giving such prominence to ideas much misery has been created, many wars have been fought in the name of and idea, an ideology, or a religion that has been dominated by an idea or ideas. One could emphasize that many of Plato’s ideas are noble such as the ideas of the good, beauty, and truth. But as pointed out in the second chapter of the Laozi (Tao Te Ching), when we postulate the idea of the good, the idea of the bad, evil, arises; when we talk about beauty, ugliness arises; and when we extoll truth, falsehood arises. As I pointed out above, ideas create their opposites, and if opposites are not understood as a unity that transcends them, they may engender conflict, violence and war, the human condition, which has at least one of its roots in the dominance of the thinking mind (ideas, thought) over the unity of body, mind and spirit. I think that most people are unaware of how much we are stuck in ideas and how much we are dominated by them because in our culture we have been deeply conditioned by a common interpretation of Platonism that enormously overemphasizes the importance of ideas and the thinking mind. In this way, our propensity for playful, egalitarian sexuality that we share to some extent with bonobos was counteracted and could not sufficiently manifest except perhaps in some pockets of our society and in some societies remote from the platonic influence such as in the South Pacific that exhibited a natural uninhibited sexuality before they were indoctrinated by Christian missionaries.
Aristotle, Plato's chief disciple, also has had an enormous influence on the history of humanity and the human condition. Thomas Aquinas, who considered Aristotle the philosopher, elaborated a highly influential church doctrine in line with the rationalist Aristotelian philosophy. The earliest universities that were founded by the Church also followed this orientation, and up to the present time universities retain this rationalist bias (see, for example, Pinker 2018). Mystical insight is excluded from universities, except in very rare circumstances such as Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado that was founded by Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist. Education at Naropa University comprises three components: academic study, contemplation, and community service.
As a result of the enormous influence of Aristotelian rationalism, Christian religion - and other religions, especially in the West - have tended to be more concerned with doctrine than religious experience that goes beyond ideas to embrace the unnamable mystery of existence. But Aristotle's influence goes far beyond religion. His either/or logic and hierarchical thinking still remain our predominant ways of thinking in most mainstream sciences and in society (see below). The Daoist wisdom of Yin-Yang thinking has not yet been widely recognized, although it predated Aristotle. The modern form of the Yin-Yang symbol was devised in the middle ages.
Let me add that I do not want to blame Aristotle and Plato for everything that went wrong in human history. I consider Aristotle and Plato important philosophers who have contributed much more than what seems reflected in common interpretations of Platonism and Aristotelianism. For example, Plato was also critical of his Theory of Forms (Ideas), and Aristotle, besides his either/or logic, also pointed out the “more or less,” which has been elaborated and formalized in modern fuzzy logic. But considering the human being as a rational animal, Aristotle - like Plato - overemphasized reason to the detriment of the heart, the gut, and the unnamable mystery that transcends the human condition (see Beyond Thinking, Writing and Speaking – The Unnamable).
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.
(Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell)
One can only speculate how different European and world history would have been, if instead of Plato and Aristotle Heraclitus or Anaximander would have had the predominant influence. I think it would have been very different and to the better in any ways.
Scientific Thinking - During the Renaissance and the so-called period of the Enlightenment – more appropriately called the age of reason – the emphasis of reason and observation (including the observation of experiments) led to the foundation of modern science, especially mechanistic/materialistic science that still dominates modern society (see Chapter 5 on Organicism and Mechanism). To a great extent, materialistic/mechanistic science and technology have become a sacred cow and Aristotelian logic still has a profound grip on the majority of people, although more realistic and more inclusive alternative kinds of logic such as both/and logic and fuzzy logic are available. Digital technology is based on binary (either/or) logic and this technology will more and more dehumanize life and lead to the development of increasingly intelligent robots that eventually may dominate us and – as Stephen Hawking and others have warned – may lead to the demise of humankind – all this as the result of the dominance of reason and Aristotelian logic at the expense of Buddhist and Jain logic that appear more realistic and much more inclusive because in addition to the "either/or" they include also "both/and" and "neither/nor," the indescribable, the unnamable, the mystery beyond reason that transcends the human condition (see Healing Thinking through Both/And Logic, Yin-Yang, Buddhist Logic and Jain Logic).
As a reaction to the one-sidedness of the age of reason we had romanticism that emphasized feeling and emotion, thus highlighting that we are more than just reason. But romanticism could not curtail the dominance of reason and materialistic mechanistic science. Although 20th century holistic science such as quantum physics, holistic biology and holistic medicine have shown the limitations of Aristotelian logic and mechanistic science, up to the present time mainstream science and medicine remain predominantly materialistic and mechanistic and mainstream thinking still follows to a great extent binary either/or logic. The consequences of this kind of thinking that to a great extent is perpetuated in schools, universities, and society are well known: exaggerated competition, intolerance, conflict, violence, and war between individuals, groups, organizations, and nations.
Besides a profound challenge of mainstream thinking through more holistic approaches, the 20th century has also brought about a renewed appreciation of the wisdom of the Laozi, the Buddha, and other sages in the East and West. Thus we could learn many lessons from the 20th century. Some people have learned them, but mainstream society still seems to be dominated by the mechanistic/materialistic worldview and Aristotelian logic. Korzybski founded a Non-Aristotelian General Semantics that recognizes the unnamable mystery of reality that transcends the human condition dominated by ideas expressed through language. Non-Aristotelian does not mean Anti-Aristotelian. Non-Aristotelian General Semantics includes Aristotelian thinking but goes far beyond it (for a summary see Korzybski 2010, pp. 182-183 and Falconar 2000, pp. 6-7). Teaching this semantics and other great insights of the 20th century in schools and universities seems crucial, but to what extent will it happen?
To avoid misunderstandings, I want to emphasize that I am not against mechanistic materialistic mainstream science if it is balanced by holistic science and the recognition of the unnamable mystery (see Science: its Power and Limitations). Unfortunately, so far mechanistic materialistic science and technology and the belief that we are higher than animals and nature (humanism) dominate the world. "We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction" (Harari 2014, p. 416)
Mayor Driving Forces in Human Evolution
Probably the most fundamental driving force in human evolution has been what Harari (2016) called the "cognitive revolution," which led to the development of myths, religions, philosophies, ideologies, science and technology, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and our digital information age. (Note: What is called the cognitive revolution in psychology is an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s.) As I pointed out above, the latest religion is the "Data Religion" or "Dataism" (Harari 2017, Chapter 11). According to this religion or dogma "giraffes, tomatoes and human beings are just different methods for processing data. But you should know that this is current scientific dogma, and it is changing our world beyond recognition" (ibid, p. 429). Dataism, biotechnology and artificial intelligence (AI) may be referred to as techno-religion or techno-dogma. This dogma in conjunction with rampant capitalism may eventually lead to the demise of humankind. Contrary to this negative outlook, according to Wilber (2017) The Religion of Tomorrow will raise us to the highest levels of consciousness. But because of capitalist conditioning and other regressive forces that often pull us down this religion probably will be restricted to a small minority of the population (Poonja 2001), unless neuroscientists will be able to develop a technology that will facilitate spiritual enlightenment for the majority of people who are still trapped in the materialistic worldview so that technology would be used to transcend technology (see, for example, Goleman and Davidson 2017).
Instinctual propensities such as desire and greed also have been major driving forces in human evolution. Especially the desire of power and domination led to the agricultural revolution, the domestication of animals, slavery, empires, capitalism and consumerism. Dataism "threatens to do to Homo sapiens what Homo sapiens has done to all other animals" (ibid, p. 460).
In short, thought and instinctual propensities have been major driving forces in human evolution. Thought and instinctual propensities may reinforce or oppose one another. For example, the instinctual propensity for power and domination reinforces the imperial quest, whereas it opposes egalitarianism.
Deep insight such as the insight of the Laozi and the Buddha transcend thought and instinctual propensities because such insight is not only cerebral (rational) and instinctual.
Transcendence of the Human Condition
Like chimpanzees, humans have the propensity for egocentricity, hierarchism, competition (for power), xenophobia, aggression, violence, and war. However, like chimpanzees, we also have the propensity for cooperation, altruism, empathy, and compassion. Bonobos tend to be playful, egalitarian, and peaceful. We can cultivate these virtues of chimpanzees and bonobos. But as I pointed out, several philosophical ideas that in the West stem mainly from Plato and Aristotle have greatly counteracted a more peaceful life. People have fought over ideas, including religious ideas, and even went to war for their ideas. People have fought for their identities, and using – consciously or subconsciously – either/or logic have endlessly and often acrimoniously fought about whether something is either this or that, true or false, good or bad, etc. Thus, to a great extent, the human condition has been and continues to be a struggle based on identification with ideas that manifests and intensifies the propensity for competition, aggression, violence and war that we inherited from chimpanzees (more correctly, from the ancestral line that gave rise to chimpanzees and humans). Eckhart Tolle said that the human condition is being lost in thought. One can add, being lost also in emotions and body sensations when they are influenced by thought. Thought creates a filter through which we experience ourselves and the world. As a result we become entrapped in a rather limited space and lose our freedom (Blackstone 2008, pp. 13 and 84).
It appears obvious how we can transcend the human condition. Through education we have to create more awareness that ideas are not ultimate realities but only abstractions from reality. Then we can make use of these abstractions, but we will no longer be enslaved in them. We will be liberated. Instead of being lost in thought, we can be aware that thought arises out of what Thich Nhat Hanh called the deeper self that is connected to the whole universe and what others have called the source, no-thingness or emptiness (in the Buddhist sense), no-mind (in Zen), or spaciousness (see, for example, Kelly 2015). Some people have already attained this awareness, or have had at least glimpses of it, but for most of us it remains a great challenge because we tend to be more or less contracted in the small self, the superficial self, the ego, the false self. "Attachment to the false view of the self [the small self] means belief in the presence of unchanging entities which exist on their own [they don't because everything is interconnected]. To break through this false view is to be liberated from every sort of fear, pain, and anxiety" (Thich Nhat Hanh 1999). And this changes our behavior.
Western society and most other societies that have become infected by the West, appear highly cerebral, which means being stuck in the thinking mind, the ego. Institutions of higher learning have reinforced this stuckness since the founding of the first universities in the Middle Ages under the influence of the Church that propagated Aristotle’s rational bias. Of course, we have a mind that can be useful in many ways. But we also have a body and the body has profound wisdom, if it is not manipulated by the thinking mind (see, for example, Tolle 2004, Chapter 6) . Hence, one challenge for the transcendence of the human condition is a rediscovery of the body and the realization that by going deeply into the body we can transcend the body as we experience our profound connection to the whole universe. Kelly (2015) and others have devised exercises that allow us to glimpse our universal connection and to cultivate it. Ancient sages such as the Laozi and the Buddha taught this wisdom long ago. Contrary to Aristotle, we are not just a rational animal and we need not be exclusively caught in either/or logic that may also affect our emotions. Buddhist logic includes either/or, but added both/and and neither/nor, which transcends logic altogether. Jain logic envisages seven perspectives for each statement. Thus, in a way something is true, false, indescribable, etc. (see above). Such logic goes far beyond the strictures of either/or logic, but includes it as a limited perspective. Modern fuzzy logic also goes beyond the either/or.
However, ultimately we need to transcend reason and logic altogether because of their inherent limitations. Most intellectuals probably resist such transcendence because they derive their (limited) security from reason and logic. Using not only either/or logic but also Buddhist and Jain logic, logic itself could help them to transcend logic. And Korzybski's Structural Differential could help them to transcend the limitations of language and thought. Therefore, for intellectuals Buddhist and Jain logic as well as Kouzybski's Structural Differential may be the easiest door to the indescribable, the unspeakable, the mysterious that may be revealed in silence. In silence we can go beyond thought and language, beyond all the opposition of ideas, emotions and body sensations (when enmeshed with ideas) that have divided us for millennia and led to immeasurable conflict, violence, and bloodshed.
"In peace and silence you grow" (Sri Nisargadatta).
Having and cultivating good thoughts, although praiseworthy, is not yet transcendence of the human condition because good thoughts like bad thoughts arise and vanish, they change in our world of impermanence. Furthermore, good thoughts are opposed to bad thoughts and thus conflict and violence that has plagued humankind for millennia continues. Therefore, to transcend the human condition we have to go beyond all thought, good and bad, all emotions and body sensations as they are influenced and conditioned by thought. Laozi (Lao Tzu) understood that very well when he wrote in the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching: “When people see [think] some things as good, other things become bad… Therefore the Master acts without doing anything and teaches without saying anything” (translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988). Such action and teaching goes beyond thought and hence beyond the human condition, beyond the ego, because it is in harmony with the universe.
The arts may create awareness of the human condition and may also play a role in its transcendence.
Transcendence in a Nutshell
We are not our thoughts, emotions, and body sensations (feelings). We are like the infinity of the sky in which thoughts, emotions, and feelings arise and vanish like transient clouds. If we are attached to and identified with these transient clouds (thoughts, emotions, and feelings), we become caught in the human condition, which means being conditioned by thoughts that may also influence emotions and feelings. However, if we remain anchored in infinity, in which thoughts, emotions, and feelings arise and vanish, we gain freedom (see Kelly (2015) Shift into Freedom).
In other words, transcendence happens when instead of exclusively identifying with something, we identify with no-thing, no-thingness, boundlessness and recognize things and events as abstractions from this boundlessness.
The Future of Humanity
So far transcendence of the human condition has been limited to few people. Unless transcendence of the human condition would be widely taught in schools and universities, this seems unlikely to change. However, if research in neuroscience will produce technologies that would facilitate transcendence of the human condition, this would make transcendence of the human condition possible for a greater segment of society, provided that people would use such technologies. The Dalai Lama and other spiritual teachers have expressed interest in the development of such technologies (see, for example, Goleman and Davidson 2017). In his book The Science of Enlightenment, Shinzen Young (2016, Chapter 11) called it "My Happiest Thought."
However, science and technology also progress in another direction. The development of artificial intelligence (AI) will produce computers and robots that will replace workers in many professions. This will lead to a "useless class" (Harari 2017, pp. 370 - 382) and an upper class whose members will still retain their profession. But as computers and robots will become super intelligent, even the upper class might disappear and we all may become enslaved by computers and robots as we have domesticated and enslaved animals. Therefore, as I pointed out above, Hawking and other scientists have warned that "AI could spell end of the human race."
As the Laozi (Lao Tzu), the Buddha, and other sages in the East and West have demonstrated, humans have the potential to be free from conditioning. But the vast majority of humans seem to be more or less conditioned, which may lead to unhappiness, conflict, violence, and war. I see three major roots of the conditioning: our animal ancestry, and an overemphasis and identification with words (language) and ideas (reason coupled with either/or logic). Like chimpanzees, we have the instinctual propensities to be egocentric, power hungry, hierarchical, competitive, territorial, xenophobic, and to engage in violence and deadly warfare. These propensities can become expressed and exaggerated through identification with thought and language, which also influence emotions. Identification leads to an imprisonment in ideas and ways of thinking. In the West, identification with ideas and their verbal representation stems to a great extent from a common interpretation of Plato's philosophy and Aristotle's identity and either/or logic that have had an enormous influence on humanity up to the present time. Aristotle characterized the human being as a rational animal. Plato, according to a common interpretation, took ideas as ultimate reality. Henceforth, we have become enslaved in ideas and the battle between more or less contradictory ideas: one or the other, according to Aristotelian either/or logic. This logic and the common interpretation of Platonism have infected almost the whole world, and similar ideas may also have arisen independently elsewhere. Wars have been fought in the name of ideas and science and technology have made possible the utmost cruelty that immensely surpasses the cruelty known in chimpanzees.
Besides the traits mentioned above, chimpanzees are also capable of cooperation, reciprocal and genuine altruism, empathy, and compassion. In other words, they may act selflessly, but they oscillate between selfless and selfish behaviors. Humans may also oscillate between such types of behavior. But in contrast to chimpanzees, human behavior does not only oscillate, it also appears conflicted in several respects. Thus, we may experience conflicts between selfish and selfless behavior. We may experience conflicts between more or less contradictory ideas and conflict between different ways of reasoning. And finally we may experience conflicts between ideas and emotions, the thinking mind and the heart. All of these conflicts, which are part of the human condition, may be transcended through deep insight and spiritual transformation. Thus, we may understand that ideas expressed through words and language represent only maps of reality; and maps are not reality, maps are not the territory of reality, as Korzybski has so convincingly demonstrated through his Structural Differential. Reality remains unnamable or unspeakable as Korzybski put it. And as Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Philosophicus, "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." The Laozi, the Buddha and other sages in the East and West came to the same conclusion. Reason and language, including mathematics, that were so much extolled by Plato and Aristotle, although useful, can capture at best some aspects of reality, not reality itself. Therefore, "whatever you might say something “is”, it is not” (Korzybski 1958, p. 409; see also Falconar 2000, Kodish and Kodish 2011). Furthermore, as pointed out in the Heart Sutra, everything is empty (boundless), which means that it has no intrinsic separate existence. Yet so often we separate and identify with one thing, one body sensation, one emotion, or one idea, and thus lose the connection to the unnamable whole that is beyond all fragmentation that is so characteristic of the human condition. Since identification is rooted in thought, Eckhart Tolle concluded: “The human condition is being lost in thought.” Which means being unaware of the deeper self that is connected to the whole universe. Since thought influences emotions, being lost in thought also means being lost in emotions such as desire and fear.
It has been pointed out that the desire of power and domination as it manifests in aggression, violence and war may be related to fear (see, for example, Forest 2016: The Root of War is Fear). Mooji said that desire and fear rule the world. Therefore, “one of the greatest gifts we can offer people is to embody non-attachment and non-fear…to see the interconnectedness and impermanence of all things” (Thich Nhat Hanh 2014). Hence, the importance to deal with desire and to transcend fear and other deep-seated emotions such as anger, pride, jealousy, and denial. Besides psychotherapy, various types of meditation such as, for example, mindfulness meditation can be helpful in overcoming these widespread afflictions (see Mindfulness Meditation at the end of Chapter 2 and other types of meditations at the end of the other chapters of this book on Wholeness, Fragmentation, and the Unnamable). In The Book of Secrets, Osho (2010) described and commented on 112 meditation techniques. Tolle (2004) and Kelly (2015) also offered exercises that allow us to glimpse the infinite spaciousness and freedom that lies beyond thought. Mooji gave us one exercise that provides all the help we need, which is an invitation to freedom. Unfortunately, so far these resources are used only by a very small minority of the population. Thus transcendence of the human condition appears restricted to only few people. But this might change in the future if scientists, especially neuroscientists, will be able to "develop a technology of enlightenment - a science-based intervention powerful enough to make enlightenment readily available to the majority of humanity" (Shinzen Young 2016, p. 2006). If this dream could be realized, the majority of humans could transcend the human condition and this would lead to a profound transformation of society. However, so far the use of technology (electronic algorithms) points in another direction: the development of biological engineering, cyborgs (a combination of humans and inorganic parts), and super intelligent computers and robots (artificial intelligence) that eventually may enslave us and thus lead to "The End of Homo Sapiens" (Harari 2016, Chapter 20), a Data Religion or Dataism (Harari 2017, Chapter 11) in which life (if we still want to call it life) will be reduced to data-processing (see Harari: Will the Future be Human?)
Thus the desire of power and domination, which is part of the human condition, may eventually lead to our demise. Desire means desiring something and desiring something else not to be (in Buddhist terms: grasping (attachment) and aversion). Even apart from biological necessities such as food and water, many might argue that it is impossible to live without desire. But one may be enslaved in it or playful with it. Rajneesh (1984: 329-333) pointed out that the problem is not desire as an energy but desire of objects. Since no object can completely fulfill our desire but rather stifle it as it changes, it seems wiser to focus on the energy of desire instead on its object. This energy connects us to universal energy and thus objectless desire may be the doorway to infinity beyond space and time and the thinking mind, beyond ideas and the names attached to them.
In short, the human condition can be transcended through the recognition that we need not be locked into identification with body sensations, emotions and thoughts, into desire of objects, name (words), and form (ideas). We may also dwell in infinity and eternity as children of the universe, realizing that "each moment is the universe" (Katagiri Roshi 2007).
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Latest update on August 27, 2018.