Monday, January 5, 2015

My Response to the Question: "Is Spirituality Still Important?"

Russell Brand posted a video today entitled "Is Spirituality Still Important?" This is my response to that question...

..."Spiritual" is such an ambiguous term, very much like "love". Everyone has their own idea of what it "means" and/or what it "feels like". They almost always link it to something "higher" or "better" than what they otherwise experience on a day to day basis as an ordinary human being. In the past few years I have begun to associate it more with what Robert Pirsig refers to (in his book, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals) as "Dynamic Quality" - something that one experiences in contrast to the more "static quality" of day to day existence. When people refer to "freedom" - yet another loosely defined term - I think they are also referring to various ways in which they feel "free" from the more "static" quality of ordinary experiences.

From a neurobiological perspective, what one "feels" at any given time is expressed in their bodies as various biochemicals floating around and linking up with receptors on their cells. Some chemicals may make you feel more ecstatic, others may make you feel more calm, or horny, etc. As Candace Pert explains in her book, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine and in the movie What the 'Bleep' Do We Know?", all of our emotional states are communicated through our bodies with various combinations of biochemicals.

Also as illustrated in What the 'Bleep' do we know?, a "radical shift in perspective" or a moment of "awakening" (especially one that is rather permanent; i.e. you really cannot go back to seeing things the way you did before) also has a neurobiological correlate - neurons in the brain literally re-wiring themselves and making new associations.

Of late I have come to associate "transcending the ego" with a shift in dominance between the lower mammalian part of the human brain, otherwise referred to as the "Limbic Brain" and the more recently evolved part of the human brain, the "Pre-frontal Cortex". As I learned from Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky in his Human Behavioral Biology lecture series - if properly trained to do so (in the first 25 years of life), the pre-frontal cortex can mediate the impulses of the limbic brain, impulses that tend to be more self-gratifying and self-survival focused - or to use an often bantered "spiritual" term "ego-centric".

Consequently, if "appealing to a higher power" means "appealing to your pre-frontal cortex's higher capacity for reason and emotional self-regulation/impulse control (of the limbic brain)" (through "transcending the ego" or engaging "self-discipline", etc.) then I'm all for it no matter what the "source" of that instruction, religious or secular. At the end of the day, such emotional self-regulation is critical to cooperation and especially the creative negotiation necessary to meet the often conflicting needs of individuals and groups.

However, appealing to forces that are characterized as being "outside yourself" or in any way "other than" yourself is a double-edged sword. Either a person accepts Full Responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions or they don't. I'm afraid anything that discourages that or has the potential to discourage that is just as likely to be detrimental as it is to be helpful and at least part of all of the problems we see in the world today are a result of that very "double-edged" nature of "appealing to a higher power" in the religious or "spiritual" sense.

Maybe it would be better to live with the understanding that we already exist, not only as the most highly evolved biological organisms on this planet - and, like Pirsig, I qualify this by saying we have thus far expressed the greatest capacity to interact "Dynamically" with our physical environment - but, furthermore, we have evolved some of the most complex Interactive Systems of individuals as part of our many Social Groups and our evolving Global World. That is what is truly "higher" about our existence in that it is a "higher" level of organization compared to how we might otherwise exist as individual organisms.

Just think about it... More truly individual organisms might be the Single-Celled kind, and those are recognized by most people as a "lower" level of life or Life form. Thus a "higher" level would be one that reflects a "higher level of organization" i.e. a "collective" or "colony" of individuals that routinely coordinate their activities. Humans as well as many other species have been at that "higher" level for a long time now, with humans expressing the "highest level" so far in terms of geographical coverage and socio-cultural variety and complexity.

In other words, It Should Be Perfectly Obvious that we are all Part of a Greater Whole - the greater whole of our "society" or "social organism" as well as the Greater Whole of this Planet and even the Universe. There are certain ways that we can act as individuals that can contribute or detract from the functioning of that larger whole, and therefore positively or negatively impact all the other individuals who are a part of that whole. In truth, there doesn't have to be anything "spiritual" about it. It is what it is as a matter of biological evolution. Furthermore, our current level of development or organization is a reflection of the same patterns of evolution that have been patterning for millions of years! And...from what I can tell, we have actually made a huge leap in that process of evolution since we have started to develop and more effectively utilize our new "central nervous system" - The Internet!

Yeah, Life!

So, in answer to the question "Is Spirituality Still Important?" I'm not so sure. Helping the pre-frontal cortex fully develop so it can mediate the "ego-centrism" of the limbic brain - definitely! Have various religious and/or "spiritual" practices in the past helped to make that possible? Probably so, but not without the opposite result as well, i.e. a heightening of self-centeredness in the form of self-righteousness, judgment, rejection, and even murder of "others" because of differing beliefs, etc. In other words, it is a very mixed legacy at best.

Consequently, at this point, I am perfectly okay with discarding "spirituality" and opting for a new approach that acknowledges our inherent biological and social interconnectedness instead. In truth, this evolving collective of human beings, regularly cooperating with one another throughout the course of history, has progressively afforded more and more human beings more and more opportunities to experience "Dynamic Quality". Think about it: Human beings now have more options for having a "new experience", for exploring almost every aspect of living and relating with each other and with the environment in a "Dynamic" way than they ever have before! Granted, there have been challenges and conflicts as well, and there still are, very significant ones, but OVERALL the opportunities to experience "Dynamic Quality" have expanded over time.

With respect to how it helps us mediate our behaviors in a social group, the development of our pre-frontal cortexes has been a critical part of that overall evolutionary process and I am convinced it is actually even more critical today than it has ever been. In many ways I feel we have "devolved" somewhat socially by discouraging self-discipline and self-responsibility in the last few decades. (A problem I have addressed more thoroughly in this previous post.) The other thing our rational pre-frontal cortexes have allowed for, seemingly at the behest of our self-serving limbic brains, is the development of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, these weapons threaten ALL of US and ALL of our Self-Serving Limbic Brains as well, which should be a testimony to how much we should Not be Catering to Them in the first place!

From a biological perspective, it's quite obvious to me that my routine association and cooperation with other individuals is a higher level of order or complexity and functioning than my existing as an individual alone. My opportunities to experience "Dynamic Quality" (what others might call "awakening" or "freedom" or "enlightenment" or "love") are far more abundant as part of this social system than they would be apart from it. I hope after reading this, it will be obvious to others as well and that they will also be motivated to enhance their functioning at the biological-social level through greater self-discipline and emotional self-regulation - i.e. the development of the capacities of their more highly evolved pre-frontal cortex to regulate the functioning of their less highly evolved limbic brains (heretofore referred to in "spiritual communities" as "transcending one's ego"...).

And finally, rather than aspiring to achieve some "spiritual ideal" that may be only a projection of our individual and collective early developmental experience as human biological beings, I hope more people will begin to concentrate their attention here, in this truly amazing world we live in, and help to make it a better place for all beings, including the non-human ones. This will require that we respect our particularly unique status as highly evolved biological organisms and social groups with the greatest capacities for Dynamic Creation as well as Dynamic Destruction!

As many "spiritual" types like to say: "The Power Lies Within!" - And I couldn't agree more! The power really does "lie within" the already present capacities and potential capacities of our human brains - especially our Pre-frontal Cortexes. But those will not develop on their own. They need a Human Society to help them develop. And so, once again, we are "all connected" in this venture as individual parts of the Greater Whole!