October 28, 2017
Dream: I approach a group of professors at a university and request the creation of a seminar or discussion group to address a question. The question, as well as I am able to extract it from the dream and put words on it, was this: how does evolutionary theory explain the creation and persistence of dysfunctional patterns of defense in individual organisms and in communities? I have in mind something similar to the psychological defenses delineated in ego psychology, but understood as being aspects of social as well as individual reality. I feel that this question has ramifications for issues pertaining to individual adjustment, but that it also has wider ramifications for humanity and for the earth as a whole.
My thought is that you cannot understand defensive patterns – dysfunctional or not – except as conscious and intelligent goal-directed behaviors. Current evolutionary theory is firmly grounded in a reductionist understanding of reality. This is because modern science, as a whole, is grounded in the ontological presupposition of materialism. This presupposition affirms that being, in its essence, is mechanical, unconscious, and devoid of any purpose or telos. When the term “physical reality” is used, this is what is meant.
Given this understanding of “physical” reality, the question naturally arises: how do we move from a purely “physical reality” to the mental world that is necessarily presupposed by psycho-dynamic theory. I am reminded of the story about the out-of-staters who are driving through Maine and stop at a filling station to ask directions to a town they are trying to find. The service station employee simply shakes his head and says “you can’t get there from here.” That’s the point that I want discussed by these university types. There really is no plausible way of explaining the emergence of a truly mental world out of a purely physical one. In order to get there from here we have to begin with a Being of all beings that has three attributes: consciousness, intelligence, and the capacity for goal-directed behavior. To make this point was the not-so-hidden agenda of my dream.
The college professors treat me with a degree of disdain. I do not have the same academic credentials that they do. Why should they take my request to start a discussion group, or a seminar, at all seriously? I say that I have been referred to them by a colleague of theirs who does demand respect. This colleague is associated in my mind with Paul Ephross – my research professor in social work school. They respect him so they cannot totally disregard my request.
In part, this dream is speaking to my sense of inadequacy with regard to addressing this fundamental philosophical issue. I feel that I am too old and too marginalized to be taken seriously and that perhaps I lack the academic background as well as the innate abilities to argue my convictions convincingly. That is why I need the endorsement of a more credentialed academic.
My underlying concerns are not just philosophical, but practical and political as well. How can we understand the dysfunctional defenses of individual people and of human communities outside an ontology that accurately reflects reality? And how can we correct our dysfunctional defenses, both individually and collectively, if we do not understand them? If our collective dysfunctional defenses have initiated the sixth great extinction, and our own species is threatened with annihilation, then these seem like important questions.
Going beyond the dream, let me try to briefly spin out the connection that I see between two competing ontologies and the defensive patterns that they tend to engender. One ontology sees human beings – as conscious, intelligent goal seeking entities – as continuous with the rest of creation. If the Being of all beings is itself conscious intelligent and goal seeking, then we are kin to, and capable of an internal – that is to say empathic – understanding of, all created things. This empathic understanding inclines us to care for all our fellow creatures as we would care for our brothers and sisters.
Another ontology sees human beings as the only truly conscious, intelligent and goal seeking entities in an essentially dead, mindless, purposeless and unconscious universe. In this case we must deal with the rest of creation not as though it were kin, but as an assortment of unconscious entities – an “it” rather than a “thou,” as Buber would have it.
The first ontology leads to a respect for a natural order that is our home, and to an ecological perspective. As seen from this perspective, defending ourselves from meaninglessness and annihilation is a matter of establishing cooperative and mutually beneficial relationships with the rest of creation.
The second ontology leads to a disbelief that, in any fundamental sense, there is such a thing as a “natural order,” and to a trans-humanist perspective. The only order that exists is random and meaningless, and the only order that counts is the humanly created one. Human beings need not cooperate with a natural order. It’s not even that they must dominate it. They plan simply to replace it.
From the trans-humanist perspective, we are challenged to defend ourselves from brute forces that possess neither purpose nor consciousness. Ultimately this leads to the desire to defend ourselves from death itself, which is seen as a random violation of our unique consciousness, rather than an integral and meaningful part of a larger creation. Factory farms, the dangerous innovations of Monsanto, and the relative indifference to the fact that we have initiated the sixth great extinction are some of the phenomena that emerge naturally from the reductionist ontology.
Ontology is not politically neutral.