Kenny posted his latest essay -- actually, an ongoing dialog on the nature of consciousness -- with the apology: "Somewhat intellectual and abstract, even by my standards--sorry!"
No need to apologize. Of all the topics on which one can get intellectual and abstract, this is the one worth doing it for. The questions that Kenny discusses with Keli Y are exactly the questions I have been struggling with for most of the last year. I have a dozen or more unfinished essays, all taking different stabs at the same questions:
What exactly is my sense of identity, my "I", in relation to my thoughts?
Is that sense of "I" just another kind of thought, or something radically different and irreducible?
Could consciousness be the product of a physical brain, or is it an overpoweringly self-evident sign of something that transcends physical nature?
What is necessary for life to be meaningful? Is a transcendent (i.e. "spiritual") reality necessary for meaning to exist? How does my day-to-day experience of a meaningful, good life relate to ultimate meaning and purpose?
Anyone familiar with the SKS, which defined most of my spiritual life for the last twenty (!) years, would recognize that these are all the perennial koans of a genuine spiritual path, at least as Augie Turak and many other teachers define it. This should all be old hat. So why should I be so fired up about them now?
A long process of humiliation. I started out on the spiritual path young, confident, and cocky. I knew that I would find the Truth, if the Truth were to be found. I have now had twenty years of learning all kinds of things, but not experiencing transcendent reality. Not even close. I have the humility to admit I don't know much, which goes a long way to permitting genuine questioning free of wishful thinking.
A new sense of mortality. In a few days I will turn 40. I am done waiting to see how my life will turn out. It has now officially turned out -- this is who I am. I can no longer pin my purpose on the hope of some future revelation. I've got to work with what I've got. This is it!
New influences. I hate to say it, but I think I spent most of those last twenty years only reading the things that confirmed my own worldview. Now that I've spent time reading all the people who disagree with me -- the materialists, the atheists, the rationalists -- I'm finding myself failing to win the argument. I am not without hope in my spiritual life. But, as Ursula le Guin put it: "There is a certain bleakness that comes from finding hope where one expected to find certainty."
So, in a nutshell: I started out agreeing almost entirely with Kenny's position on all these questions . . . And over the last year or so I have been dragged kicking and screaming to a position closer to Keli Y's. It might take me a while to explain why.
I turn 44 tomorrow, and I don't feel fully baked yet. I have seen people--Augie, Marty, and my father, to name a few--undergo real transformations at our age or older. (Transformations of circumstance, but also of being, to use Augie-language.)
I've been reading the book Keli sent me, with interviews with a bunch of rationalist materialists, and in my own head, I win the argument hands-down. I'm ready to take them all on in a battle of words. My own humility / humiliation comes from the fact that the system of values that I can defend so well, at least to myself, leads to certain lifestyle choices that I do not and cannot make. So I am the very definition of a hypocrite.
I remember at your New Year's Eve party you were making the argument with Doug that one's actions define what one really believes. So, according to that theory, if your behavior doesn't accurately reflect your beliefs, it would suggest you don't really believe it.
It's things like this that make me come to the conclusion that "belief" is not necessarily a static thing with clear boundaries. Our explictly defined beliefs are often at odds with the psychological convictions that rule our behavior. As Loretta Lynn says: "Everbody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."
The SKS tradition is to try to collapse those differences -- to either change your explicit beliefs to square with the way you actually live, or to change your behavior to live up to your beliefs. But it may also be appropriate to just dwell in the ambiguity. When an experimenter gets what appears to be contradictory results, he doesn't necessarily keep one set of data and throw out the other. He might have to just live with the contradiction until he finds a model that can hold them both.
I'm going to come back to that idea, because I think it's especially important when it comes to moral questions. Rational thought can tell us things about what the right thing to do is, and our moral intuitions can tell us what the right thing to do is, but anytime someone relies on just one to the exclusion of the other, weird and unsatisfactory outcomes result.