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Head-Trapped – Descartes, Dawkins, Hobbes, Marx, Mill, Darwin, And The Fable Of Western Civilisation – Media Lens

Head-Trapped – Descartes, Dawkins, Hobbes, Marx, Mill, Darwin, And The Fable Of Western Civilisation – Media Lens

2023-05-28 09:22:50

Descartes famously declared: ‘Cogito ergo sum’, or, ‘I believe due to this fact I’m.’

However a thought has no consciousness; it’s a mere packet of knowledge. ‘It’s sizzling in right here’, is sort of a telegram, a notice. The telegram doesn’t itself have consciousness, just isn’t acutely aware. As a substitute, the thought passes into consciousness. It begins to come up, is dimly felt, is clearly seen, after which disappears. It’s ‘seen’ by consciousness.

I do know that ‘I’m’ as a result of I’m conscious of ideas, feelings, exterior objects, not as a result of I believe. Meditators examine ideas to clouds that cross throughout the sky of consciousness – they’re two separate phenomena. There’s an observer and that which is noticed, the thought. I’m the observer, not the noticed.

For this reason the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was so unsuitable when he wrote:

‘We’re survival machines – robotic autos blindly programmed to protect the egocentric molecules often known as genes.’ (Richard Dawkins, ‘The Egocentric Gene’, preface to 1976 version, Oxford College Press, 1989, p.v)

We’re not ‘blindly programmed’ in any respect. We’re conscious of the ideas, passions and instinctual programming that drive us. Human-made robotic autos do not have that background consciousness. To remember that we’re pushed by computerized programming adjustments every thing. It means we have now gone off the rails of computerized programming.

Thomas Hobbes made a associated mistake when he wrote:

‘There isn’t a such factor as perpetual tranquility of thoughts, whereas we stay right here; as a result of life itself is however movement, and might by no means be with out need, nor with out worry, not more than with out sense.’ (Hobbes, ‘Leviathan’, Oxford College Press, 1998, p.41)

That is essentially unsuitable, however Hobbes had a degree concerning the impossibility of achieving ‘tranquility of thoughts’. The thoughts just isn’t an unbiased entity; it’s merely the gathering of ideas, and each thought is certainly ‘movement’, a stress. Even the thought, ‘Such an exquisite sundown!’ is a stress. The concept is a tiny build-up of thought-steam that we’re subtly relieved to launch.

However like the remainder of the Western tradition round him (and us), Hobbes was unaware that the inherently untranquil thoughts could be transcended. Hobbes’ ‘need’ and ‘worry’ do come up in dependence on ideas – however that’s the movement of thoughts, not the ‘movement’ of ‘life itself’. Thus, a thought could come up:

‘This man is infuriating!’ 

If I determine with the anger, if I believe it’s me – ‘I’m offended’ – I’m very prone to pursue, and act on, the offended thought and feeling. In spite of everything, I’m simply me being me. However as a result of I’m really the observer of my ideas and emotions – as a result of I’m separate – I can suppose: ‘There’s anger in me.’ On this formulation, the anger and ‘me’ are two issues, separate: I’m the watcher, not the anger. This disidentification creates a niche, an area, which interrupts the in any other case computerized spiral of offended thought fueling offended emotion and additional thought. Merely observing the emotion is precisely like urgent the clutch pedal on a automobile. To reiterate, that is one thing a robotic can’t do.

Watching ideas and feelings can result in full disidentification. We will come to look at a fearful, jealous or offended thought as if it belonged to another person. We will see it as an attention-grabbing, highly effective power phenomenon, that passes into consciousness. Disconnected from the emotional power transmitted via identification, it rapidly fades away.

Finally, all ideas thus depleted of power disappear, leaving solely the clear sky of consciousness. And that is certainly a state of full tranquility and stillness, with out worry and with out need. Hobbes was unsuitable.

Marx On Estranged Being

The realisation that we could be liberated from identification with thought has deeper implications.

Karl Marx argued that fashionable women and men are educated to subordinate being to having by prioritising materials needs over inventive wants. Marx wrote:

‘The much less you eat, drink and browse books; the much less you go to the theatre, the dance corridor, the general public home; the much less you suppose, love, theorise, sing, paint, fence, and many others, the extra you save – the better turns into your treasure which neither moths nor mud will devour – your capital.

‘The much less you might be, the extra you have; the much less you specific your personal life, the better is your alienated life – the better is the shop of your estranged being. The whole lot which the political economist takes from you in life and in humanity, he replaces for you in cash and in wealth…’

Marx understood that, to stay as free, inventive beings, we must be self-directed. However, in fact, as employees in capitalist society, most of us are directed by company managers. Staff usually do not resolve what to supply, how, at what price, and to whom it’s offered. We pursue objectives and ends dictated by the homeowners of the technique of manufacturing.

Marx was proper that it’s deeply dehumanising to perform with out self-direction or self-expression. And but, with Friedrich Engels, he wrote:

‘The Communists disdain to hide their views and goals. They freely declare that their ends could be attained solely by the forcible overthrow of all current social situations. Let the ruling lessons tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians don’t have anything to lose however their chains. They’ve a world to win.’ (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ‘The Communist Manifesto’, Month-to-month Evaluation Press, 1964, p.116)

Marx, then, rejected the concept that being – considering, loving, theorising, singing, portray – needs to be subordinated to materials ‘treasure’, useless ‘capital’; simply as he rejected the concept that self-directed work – love of creativity within the second for the enjoyment of creativity – needs to be subordinated to capitalist objectives.

However Marx and Engels did argue that employees ought to subordinate current considerations to the ‘ends’ of ‘Communistic revolution’. Certainly, in fact, the entire level of revolutionary actions is that residents needs to be fiercely goal-oriented. As Marxist scholar Norman Finkelstein said lately:

‘The dream of the Marxist custom was to attempt to create a homogenous inhabitants which might be dedicated to the identical purpose.’ (‘Norman Finkelstein on how the Left cancels itself’, interview with Aaron Maté, The Grayzone)

Marx, then, argued that the extra we subordinate our inventive must useless capital and its objectives, the much less we’re. However that is additionally true once we subordinate our inventive must revolutionary objectives sooner or later. Why? As a result of the longer term is non-existential, it doesn’t exist; it’s as useless as capital.

Clearly, the previous doesn’t exist; it’s a assortment of mere reminiscences, impressions within the thoughts. However the future additionally doesn’t exist; it’s a assortment of concepts about what ought to or would possibly occur. To subordinate the current second to a purpose sooner or later, to thought, is to root our being within the non-existential. It makes no distinction whether or not the purpose is capitalistic or revolutionary – in each instances, we’re subordinating the alive to the unalive. This has profound, principally unrecognised penalties, as we are going to see, beneath, in our dialogue of the disasters that befell John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin.

It’s ironic certainly that each the capitalist and the revolutionary understand the current primarily as a useful resource, as a method to the tip of revenue or revolution. How, ‘when time is cash’, can capitalists, or the individuals working for them, prioritise the current and ‘scent the roses’? As Canadian lawyer, Joel Bakan, has noted, it’s really unlawful for company managers to subordinate profit-maximisation to something, together with charity and the duty of saving the planet.

However equally, how can revolutionaries be concerned in that four-letter phrase ‘enjoyable’ when there’s a lot injustice, so many class wars to win? From the attitude of each Greater Causes, to calm down and revel in life within the second, is despicable, absurd, really a betrayal. The concept that the world is essentially insufficient as it’s merely can’t be reconciled with enjoyable deeply within the current second.

However mystics have seen a deep downside with this. After we subordinate life now to the useless realm of goal-oriented concepts and beliefs, we’re burying our expertise of actual life within the current second beneath ideas about actual life.

The Indian mystic Osho suggested a thought experiment to check the deadening impression of thought:

‘Simply meditate on this: you might be dealing with a rose flower, an exquisite rose flower. It’s there – the perfume is launched into your nostrils, you might be delighted with it. Now convey the previous in. Consider one thing up to now: any person insulted you yesterday or yesteryear, or consider a childhood incident, your mom was beating you. Carry it into reminiscence and all of a sudden the thoughts is clouded. Now you’ll not really feel the presence of the flower a lot. It’s nonetheless there, the identical flower, however you might be no extra right here; you might be distracted, you might have grow to be foggy, clouded. A display of reminiscence has come between you and the rose flower.

‘Or consider the longer term – some plan, some fantasy, one thing that you simply wish to do tomorrow – and the flower fades, bows out additional and additional. The extra deep in thought you go, the farther the flower recedes…’ (My emphasis)

Actuality fades, the flower recedes. In a really actual sense, we grow to be useless to the world round us. Even worse, we grow to be useless to ourselves, to our personal emotions. Descartes would have been nearer to the reality, if he had mentioned: I believe due to this fact I’m not.

John Stuart Mill And Charles Darwin – ‘A Grief… Void, Darkish, And Drear

Take into account John Stuart Mill, probably the most influential English-speaking thinker of the 19th century.

From an early age, Mill devoted his life to the purpose of creating the world a greater place. Alas, aged simply 20, he fell right into a deep melancholy so extreme that he contemplated suicide. The issue was that he had grow to be deeply goal-oriented:

‘I had what would possibly actually be referred to as an object in life; to be a reformer of the world. My conception of my very own happiness was solely recognized with this object.’ (Mill, ‘Autobiography of John Stuart Mill’, Columbia College Press, 1960, p.93)

Inevitably, the dream collapsed:

‘However the time got here once I woke up from this as from a dream.’ (p.94)

Mill requested himself:

‘Suppose that every one your objects in life had been realized; that every one the adjustments in establishments and opinions which you’re looking ahead to, might be utterly effected at this very immediate: would this be an excellent pleasure and happiness to you?’

‘And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my coronary heart sank inside me: the entire basis on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been discovered within the continuous pursuit of this finish. The top had ceased to attraction, and the way may there ever once more be any curiosity within the means? I appeared to don’t have anything left to stay for.’ (p.94)

With admirable candour, Mill described how 4 traces in Coleridge’s poem, ‘Dejection’, ‘precisely’ described ‘my case’:

‘A grief with no pang, void, darkish, and drear,

‘A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,

‘Which finds no pure outlet or aid,

‘In phrase, or sigh, or tear.’ (p.94)

Even the prospect of a ‘simply society’, an earthly paradise, couldn’t make Mill completely satisfied as a result of it was rooted in useless concepts, beliefs, mere thought. He was head-trapped in a dream of the longer term to such an extent that he was essentially disconnected from the love and delight which are present in all of us within the alive current, the one time and place they are often felt.

A ‘ethical’ ‘success’ delivers no extra fulfilment to a coronary heart blocked by overthinking than every other sort of exterior ‘success’. The top, really the ego, in fact feels a sort of skinny, short-lived pleasure at reaching its objectives. However the pleasure lasts an immediate and is adopted by a fall into the vacancy predicted by Diogenes and skilled by Alexander the Nice: so that you conquer the entire world, so that you create a simply society, so that you ‘conquer’ the very best mountain, so that you promote one million books: So what?! What subsequent? Nothing – we stay alienated, deadened, misplaced in thought.

Lastly, Mill discovered a treatment for his torment:

‘I had now learnt by expertise that the passive susceptibilities [feeling] wanted to be cultivated in addition to the energetic capacities [intellect], and required to be nourished and enriched in addition to guided… The cultivation of the sentiments turned one of many cardinal factors in my moral and philosophical creed.’ (Mill, my emphasis, p.101)

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Mill found he was finest in a position to domesticate feeling via poetry:

‘What made Wordsworth’s poems a medication for my frame of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward magnificence, however states of feeling, and of thought colored by feeling, beneath the joy of magnificence. They gave the impression to be the very tradition of the sentiments, which I used to be in quest of. In them I appeared to attract from a supply of inward pleasure, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure…’ (Mill, my emphasis, p.104).

In related vein, the naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

‘My thoughts has modified over the last twenty or thirty years… Now for a few years I can’t endure to learn a line of poetry… I’ve additionally virtually misplaced any style for footage or music… I retain some style for tremendous surroundings, but it surely doesn’t trigger me the beautiful delight which it previously did…

‘My thoughts appears to have grow to be a sort of machine for grinding common legal guidelines out of enormous collections of information, however why this could have brought about the atrophy of that a part of the mind alone, on which the upper tastes rely, I can’t conceive.’ (Charles Darwin, ‘The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882’, Norton, 1993, pp.138-139)

A machine, misplaced in thought, disconnected from the actual world and human feeling. Like Mill, Darwin’s expertise of life had been deeply deadened by overthinking – the rose of actual life ‘fades, bows out additional and additional’. Like Mill, Darwin suffered from quite a few breakdowns, anxieties and depressions, in addition to psychosomatic and different diseases. Biographer John Bowlby wrote:

‘Darwin had a robust tendency to reply to adversity with each acute and power anxiousness and generally additionally with melancholy. Word, for instance, the revealing phrase inserted into the detailed account of his somatic signs: “hysterical crying”.’ (John Bowlby, ‘Charles Darwin – a biography’, Hutchinson, 1990, p.11)

Darwin used mental work as a sort of anti-meditation to repress his tortured emotions. Bowlby commented:

‘work was consistently utilized by Darwin as a method of diverting his consideration from his bodily discomforts and in addition, as he steadily insists, from ideas about no matter was inflicting him anxiousness or melancholy. Time and time once more in his letters he refers back to the anaesthetic results of labor. When not but forty he writes to his spouse: “I used to be speculating yesterday how lucky it was I had loads of employment… for being employed alone makes me neglect myself.”’ (Bowlby, p.11)

This means the facility of thought to dam feeling, to ‘neglect myself’ – but it surely was a brief repair that solely deepened Darwin’s despair.

Precisely echoing Mill, Darwin got here to know the horrible worth he had paid for his head-trapped life:

‘If I needed to stay my life once more, I might have made a rule to learn some poetry and take heed to some music not less than as soon as each week… The lack of these tastes is a lack of happiness, and should probably be injurious to the mind, and extra in all probability to the ethical character, by enfeebling the emotional a part of our nature.’ (Darwin, op.cit., pp.138-139)

Unbeknownst to them, Mill and Darwin had been each pointing in the direction of sorts of meditation as a treatment. 

After we direct consciousness away from useless ideas of future and previous to alive sense perceptions and feelings, considering lessens and the current, the rose, begins to return alive for us. That is no trivial matter. With apply, for the primary time since early childhood, we are able to detect the pure state of consciousness unclouded by overthinking. That is skilled as a refined bliss, love and peace in our hearts and decrease stomach. If this sounds unique, or fanciful, it has been skilled as clearly the case by numerous practitioners of Vipassana and Zazen meditation, Qigong, Taichi, and so forth, who’ve slipped out of the top and into the physique.

This loving bliss is the character of consciousness liberated from psychological exercise; it’s not brought about however unveiled by meditation. That is ‘the dominion of heaven that lies inside’, our ‘Buddha nature’, and it’s blocked by storms of past- or future-oriented thought.

However that is the purpose: this loving bliss is the one precise supply of affection and happiness; it’s the solely actual antidote to a society dehumanised and deadened by overthinking. Even when profoundly honest and dedicated Western intellectuals are considering about and preaching love, compassion and justice, they’re really dehumanised, head-trapped, as a result of they’re themselves disconnected by clouds of thought from the one actual supply of affection and delight.

Particularly, within the age of iPhones, tablets, of relentlessly badgering social media of all types, we’re all paying the worth of overthinking in the way in which of Mill and Darwin. Human society has in all probability by no means been so deadened, alienated and numb.


One of many nice questions of the twentieth century requested how a ‘civilised’ nation like Germany – a society that had produced giants of human tradition like Beethoven, Goethe and Marx – may additionally produce the barbarism of Nazi tyranny. Gandhi indicated the reply. When requested what he considered ‘Western civilisation’, he replied:

‘I believe it will be an excellent concept.’

‘Western civilisation’ is a risk, not a actuality. Western societies speak endlessly about love, however we have now virtually no concept the way to entry it. We’re a society that has buried love, compassion, innocence, pleasure, bliss, and the straightforward delight of being alive, beneath goal-oriented clouds of considered Greater Causes of revenue and revolution which have disconnected us from our hearts.

How else to elucidate ‘developed’ societies that wage cruel useful resource wars on international locations like Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria as a ‘regular’ state of affairs, with virtually zero dialogue about what is de facto occurring? How else to elucidate societies that proceed to reply to blindingly apparent indications of gathering local weather collapse with near-complete indifference, thus sacrificing the lives of our personal youngsters – and even our personal lives – to the following quarter’s gross sales goal? Our head-trapped society, regardless of how proudly ‘progressive’ and ‘tolerant’, is essentially loveless and joyless.

‘I believe due to this fact I’m’? No, I’m conscious due to this fact I’m. I’m deeply blissful, loving, at peace – one thing greater than a blindly programmed, alienated robotic – once I direct consideration away from ideas into emotions and sense perceptions. I don’t have to do something to entry this love and bliss; I’ve been doing an excessive amount of! Simply watching, ideas subside, and an internal secret is revealed.

Does this imply we should always merely tolerate and ignore the cruelties and injustices of the world? Hopefully my very own thirty years of political activism make my very own emotions clear. We have to do every thing we are able to to avert these horrors, however our actions should be rooted in being; in an genuine expertise of, quite than mere concepts about, love and bliss. We have to take time away from overthinking to root our activism within the sanity and aliveness of the current second. In any other case, we’re as prone to be part of the head-trapped downside as the answer.

David Edwards is co-editor of

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