from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

Impediments To Self-Understanding And Attaining Abstract Knowledge

Disincentives from outside ourselves to examine our emotional world (and our mental world in general) may be large. We saw this was the case for past groups of people. We can easily do what those around us are doing, regardless of whether it is the most beneficial and appropriate policy. We can look around us and see most things readily noticeable, and yet miss many important observations, miss many things others will discover later.

The undesirable in a future age can be the perversely desirable in the current one. In this way, the status quo can be viewed as normal and elevated above any sort of revolutionary change. What we know about aspects of the world and universe is just a fraction of what others will know about it hundreds of years from now. Context of knowledge has a major effect on the type and scope of our thinking and actions. This can be an impediment to seeing other possibilities—or it can be a great motivator for us.

Throughout the centuries of human history that were comparatively unproductive from an innovation and technology standpoint, most people probably thought that there was nothing else to really learn (or at least nothing to learn of great importance). Most were not concerned about changing the future. Keeping everything under control and in the tribal order was of greater concern; as noted, little independent thought was encouraged. How one could help the group and what the plans were for the day, week, or season, were sizable concerns as well. The tendency to get mired in everyday tasks without reflecting on them becomes strongest when the common mentality believes that most original thinking has been done—either that all important answers have been found, or that none are possible.

In fact, the harder survival is, the more tenaciously people cling to whatever immediate values they possess. Particular habits and cultural norms may seem to demarcate all the opportunities of life. The harder survival is, the more people rely on these norms for protection from the unknown and the undiscovered. Of course, this soon becomes a cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies, because as humans our choices determine our fates. And when these choices are shortsighted, they make the possibility for change seem harder (or even frightening).

Native people in third-world countries, for example, live much like people hundreds or even thousands of years ago. They endure their conditions. But contrary to the cliché, what they do not know is indeed hurting them. In addition to entrenched psychological attitudes about the merits of uncreative routines, more sinister factors contribute to their given state of affairs. Terribly flawed political systems promote pathetic situations. They also cause stark contrasts in societal conditions among countries. Such systems are usually aided by the doctrine of cultural relativism, which shows more concern for particular customs and traditions than human health and personal growth.

Many periods in human history have showed a preference for contentment. This is why some individuals are inspiring historical figures; they seemed not to fit exactly into their era’s general outlook; they transcended day-to-day happenings and reflected on life and reality. Sometimes even entire societies embraced change and challenge during certain periods. These were times when humans rose above the everyday and started to ask unique questions about their existence.

One salient period was in Ionia and Greece about 2,500 years ago (following initial intellectual progress in Egypt and Babylon). A more rational view of the world arose in thinkers of natural philosophy and science such as Thales, Xenophanes, and Anaxamander. They shared a new outlook on nature as intelligible. Physical inquiry into phenomena that had gone basically unquestioned for countless centuries became encouraged.42

Such novel exploration happened at this time for various reasons. In part, a political climate permitted rational criticism and debate for various people. Economies had also developed that allowed some (a minority however) the luxury to engage in thinking for its own sake.

To these philosophers, the supernatural was an unsatisfactory explanation for many things. The relatively permissive social context fostered curiosity and a desire for knowledge of physical processes. Unfortunately, two important practices taken from this small group of early scientists—the application of mathematics to understand natural phenomena, and the undertaking of empirical research—were not rediscovered until many hundreds of years later, during the Renaissance.56

In his description of the mentality of some of the ancient Greeks, historian William Heidel stated, “The Hippocratic Law puts the matter succinctly: ‘Science and opinion are two distinct things; the former leads to knowledge, the latter to ignorance.’”(Hippocrates, Lex IV.642L.) Heidel continued:

It was a common saying of the ancients, and it is worth repeating, that philosophy, like science, originated in the desire to rid the world of confusion. They rest ultimately on the assumption of a certain fundamental unity in things, perhaps, in strictness, a moral postulate, which as it comes progressively more clearly to consciousness ramifies in many directions and constitutes the frame that supports the entire structure of man’s making.38(p.17)

Aristotle was another great example of those who appreciated this type of thinking. He went against many of the teachings of prominent philosophers before him, such as Plato and Socrates. In an age much different from our own, he was still tremendously dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, as we saw with his ideas about logic, many of his observations about human beings and the nature of reality are invaluable. They have certainly contributed to the progress of our species; for instance, they helped to pull Western civilization out of the Dark Ages (via such thinkers as Thomas Aquinas).

Ideas are timeless——especially philosophical ones. As long as they are consistent with the facts of reality and life-sustaining, their period of formulation matters little. Of course, they matter a great deal to those who are able to benefit from them. Aristotle made note of the trait of inquisitiveness that generates new ideas:

It is through wonder that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and of the sun, about the stars and about the origin of the universe.2(I.ii.9)

Aristotle probably could not have achieved so much had he lived a thousand years earlier. Since knowledge is contextual, one needs a certain base to from which to start. To reach levels much beyond that base would be too great a cognitive leap for even a mind of genius. But usually great thinkers are able to give us glimpses of the next stage in our ideological evolution.

These observations pertain not only to scientific and technological discovery but also to philosophical and psychological discovery. Though the latter two seem to rely on a base that is constant in any age, they still require certain contextual components for fostering enlightenment. With the fields of philosophy and psychology, we face a different set of difficulties. They can be even more of a challenge to overcome than in overtly scientific areas.

For instance, the law of gravity formulated by Isaac Newton was discovered through directly perceivable means. He noticed the pervasive characteristic in nature that objects are drawn to each other, for instance smaller objects to enormous ones such as the Earth (an apple from a tree to the ground). He then proceeded to outline the properties of gravity stemming from the masses of entities and the distances between them.

Yet the discovery of emotions and mental processes, for instance, involves looking inward. What makes discovery of mind and related ideas sometimes more difficult is, of course, the ideational and emotional world of that same mind under study. Certain emotions and conceptual connections may prevent taking new perspectives. They can prevent the application of logic and thus can deter us from grasping what will be quite obvious to people in the future.

Psychological and philosophical discoveries are surely not beyond our logical capability. Since we are presented with the task of discovering things about the discoverer, we need to be as objective as possible. At times, parts of our subconscious may divert us from inspection of particular ideas. We may arrive unwittingly at conclusions that may be inaccurate in the light of total objectivity.

Unfortunately, many philosophers (and their various spokespersons) have maintained that objectivity does not exist. Of course, such a notion is self-refuting. We might recall the discussion of constructivism here. Any sort of claim, no matter how fantastic, must necessarily take place in objective reality. Objective reality (existence) is an axiomatic concept.

Subjectivity is a term that specifies a particular relationship to the objective. Typically, “subjective” is taken to mean an experience from a particular person’s isolated perspective. Such an experience is distinguished from the wider context in which it is taking place—that is, the objective context.

If a person attempts to dispute the idea of objectivity, he or she must do so from an objective standpoint. Otherwise, the attempted disputation would only be subjective—hence, it would have no meaning in terms of objective knowledge. Because subjectivity is purportedly a place where there are no absolutes, the denial of objectivity (like the notion of determinism) can be used to promote less than healthy ideas and behavior.

In any era, a particular base or foundation of objective knowledge exists (i.e., knowledge is contextual). With this base, we can make more identifications about ourselves and about the world. These identifications, if they are logical, should be consistent with the major framework of knowledge. In other words, they should be objective. If inconsistencies arise, then our interpretations (either past or present) need to be refined.

Ultimately, knowledge keeps building on itself. For the individual and for society, knowledge is hierarchical.70 Claims to new knowledge must be scrutinized according to the Law of Non-Contradiction. As mentioned, our psychology can play a larger role than we sometimes realize in how we recognize and apply this law.

At times, forces in our psyche may tend to block clear thinking and a striving for enlightenment. Nevertheless, the striving for enlightenment—even if only from an emotional perspective—is evidenced throughout the world. It normally forms the essence of every major philosophy and religion. In the next section the ideas of personal enlightenment found in some of the world’s major religions will be inspected. By understanding what they essentially present to people, we can better decide which path or paths to take on our enlightened journey.

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