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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How we view Nature and control

Click to enlarge.
My wife and I were talking last night about one way someone could think about the different faiths, religions, traditions, and philosophies. Most of these, in some way, address (1) how we view the world, and (2) how we should act in light of that. In more specific terms, one could consider how a spirituality looks at Nature, and how it looks at the issue of control.

In the first case, you have a spectrum that ranges from acceptance of Nature as one all-inclusive interdependent whole. Nothing 'transcends' or is outside of Nature. If the system includes deities, those would be immanent rather than transcendent. In other words, they would exist in and throughout Nature rather than outside it. On the other end of that spectrum is rejection of Nature as a lesser kind of thing, with a superior 'transcendent' reality outside or above Nature. By this view, Nature is something to be overcome.

On the other axis you have another spectrum that deals with how we are best off approaching the world in order to achieve happiness. On one end of that spectrum you have the outlook that we must learn about the important matters of our world so that we can better manipulate them and get them to do as we need. This end focuses on externals and external conditions, and the power to control them. On the other end of that spectrum, the focus is on self control. By this view, we must understand our world and ourselves so that we may condition ourselves to be in harmony with it, thereby being happy as a result.

So, looking at the graphic pictured here, you can see that in the upper left quadrant would be systems that say all of Nature is one interconnected whole, deities (if any) are immanent, and we are made happy by aligning ourselves with Nature. This would include Stoicism, Taoism, and much of conservative (earlier) Buddhism.

In the lower left quadrant, you have those that say all of Nature is one interconnected whole, deities (if any) are immanent, and we are made happy by learning to manipulate and control Nature. This would include many practitioners of Wicca, much of Paganism (particularly those with an emphasis on casting spells or conducting other rituals to bring about desired results), and much of New Age.

In the upper right, you have those that say Nature is to be rejected for a higher truth, deities (if any) are transcendent, and we are made happy by aligning ourselves with that transcendent truth. This would include some later Buddhism, but also those parts of Christianity that emphasize self discipline and acceptance of God's will.

In the lower right would be those that say Nature is to be rejected for a higher truth, deities (if any) are transcendent, and we are made happy by learning to manipulate and control higher powers. The words "manipulate" and "control" can have negative connotations those in this quadrant would likely reject, but the gist is that, by performing certain actions or having a certain disposition, one can get the higher powers to do things desired by the practitioner. This includes much of Christianity that prays for interventions and specific outcomes, as well as 'prosperity doctrine' within Christianity. It also includes some of the other Abrahamic religions, in part. Some of New Age also falls into this quadrant.

Most spiritual traditions will mix and match a little of each of these aspects, which is why it is better to view these as gradient spectra, with the traditions occupying a space that may overlap the central lines. But, generally speaking, this can be an illuminating way to look at these issues.

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  1. A thought on your "Nature" spectrum: it seems like the "acceptance" side focuses more on the tangible aspects of reality, while the right side focuses more on the intangible aspects.

    Is that right, or am I reading that incorrectly?

  2. Hi C Luke Mula. Thanks for reading ad for the question :)

    When you use the word 'reality' that's a good way of putting it, because it boils down to what all is included in reality. When you say 'intangible aspects' that's another good way of putting it because that which is intangible is not necessarily super-natural.

    In Stoicism, for example, there is a distinction between that which 'exists' and that which 'subsists'. In my own modern interpretation of that concept, I would say that physical bodies, forces, and the space they occupy *exist* while many things like emergent properties, patterns, waves, and the products of the interactions of those things create a lot of things which *subsist* (things like, democracy, minds, and so on).

    So, I think both sides accept there are intangible things. It's also the case that many people may believe in paranormal things like spirits, esp, and so on, but view them as completely Natural. However, the spectrum isn't about whether we believe a, b, or c exists or doesn't. It's about whether we think reality includes Nature in one realm, with a transcendent separate or external reality beyond it - or - whether we view all of reality as one interrelated, interdependent, and interactive whole.

    That latter position is what constitutes 'acceptance' of Nature, as opposed to looking at Nature as something to be overcome or transcended.

    Does that answer your question?

    Thanks again :)

  3. Hmm... I would say yes and no.

    I didn't mean to imply that the left end didn't believe in the intangible and that the right did, but that the left focused on the tangible while the right focused on the intangible. And to clarify, what constitutes the ttangible and the intangible varies according to context.

    To put it another way, though, since I see now that "focused" wasn't a very clear way of saying it:

    The left end of the spectrum views all of reality as ultimately tangible in one way or another. Ideas and patterns are grounded in things that we can ultimately sense, whether with our bare senses or with tools and instruments. Under normal circumstances, for example, the effects of individual subatomic particles are completely intangible. With particle accelerators, though, we can tangibly test them. The left end of the spectrum seems to view all of reality as ultimately tangible in this sense, including ghosts and deities. That's why I said that they focus on the tangible.

    The right end, though, sees reality as having at least one whole section of it that is ultimately intangible, that can never be tied to tangible things or tested and explained. And typically they see this intangible part of reality as being ultimate; that, when you get down to it, everything tangible has its basis in the intangible. That's why I said that they focus on the intangible.

    Does that make sense? I'm still working these ideas out in my head, so I may be completely wrong.

    Oh, and you're welcome for the reading and questioning.

    - Luke

  4. I'm going to actually go further by saying that "tangible" and "intangible" are about types of stimuli in a given context. The left side says that all stimuli are ultimately tangible, given the right tools and context. The right side says that some stimuli are not tangible in any context with any tools. That's why the ride side of the spectrum seems to have a split or dualistic view of reality while the left side seems to have a holistic or monistic view.

    - Luke

  5. It seems to make sense on the right side, but the left side as you've described it is a bit of a straw man. I don't know of any serious naturalist that thinks they can know that all things are tangible. Rather, the naturalist position is that all the things we seem to have an ability to know about are tangible, and to hold beliefs in things we cannot know tangibly are not justified due to that very fact. As to whether or not such things exist, I think most people would know that, for that same reason, we cannot say they don't for certain.

    Instead, when one has a view of Nature as being one interdependent whole with nothing transcending it, one is simply concerning themselves with reality as far as we can know it. Anything else is simply left 'unknown'. So, the worldview aspect as represented here would be more a matter of what we "choose to concern ourselves" with in our own approach to life, rather than claims about what ultimately might be or might not be outside of what we know.

    In short, the Nature-acceptance side says, "this is what we know and what seems to be and what we build our approach upon: that all of reality is Nature, one interconnected whole". As to whether or not they might be *wrong* in their beliefs, there could be a range from very humble to very dogmatic and that range of persons exists on *all* parts of this chart.

  6. Oh wow I see where I was wrong now. Thanks for pointing out the straw man.

    The reason I keep going at this is because I feel like this variable is more basic than the acceptance or rejection of nature, and I feel like it has to do with how each end regards tangible and intangible stimuli (saying "reality" is where I was wrong; it's really about what we can apprehend).

    So here goes one more attempt, and if these concepts still don't fit, I'll drop them:

    The left end of the spectrum holds that all stimuli that we can apprehend are only able to be experienced through our five senses or through some extension of our senses, and are therefore tangible stimuli. If we can't tangibly test something to discover the natural laws that govern it (deities, the paranormal, etc), then science and technology just aren't advanced enough... yet. This belief often, but not necessarily, leads to an acceptance of Nature as something to work with and within.

    The right end holds that some stimuli that we can apprehend are not able to be experienced through our five senses or some extension of them, and are therefore intangible. Because everything governed by natural laws is apprehended tangibly, some of these intangible stimuli are not governed by natural laws and can never be tangibly tested. This belief often, but not necessarily, leads to a rejection of Nature as something to be overcome.

    Is that better, or can you see any gaps in my thoughts about this? I don't want at all to force this issue if it really doesn't work.

  7. Hi Luke :)

    I think it makes sense to consider things along those lines at some point. I'm not sure if my simple chart is up to that task hehe. Rather, in this case I was simply looking at it as "here's what I believe in an focus on" and for some people that's Nature and for others it's something they view as being beyond Nature.

    That's about as complex a load I think the one-line axis on my chart can handle conceptually. However, it's astute to notice there will be many reasons *why* a person will believe this or that, and how that might lead to their focus being one way or another. These would certainly get into notions about the senses, proof and measurement, extra-senses, faith, and so on. I think I can imagine a lot of combinations of these rationales existing on both sides of that line. Perhaps a more ornate chart lies waiting to be created that will outline these particulars even more specifically :)

    Peace and best wishes!