I’ve come to believe that without a spiritual outlook, a metaphysical matrix like that complex structure we see in the California spiderweb above, we more easily succumb to ennui, rage, shimmering sadness, mild depression and/or that disheartening fatigue infecting many who endure long-COVID-19.
Although I generally follow the recommendations of rigorous scientific research (fully vaccinated!), some of us fall too easily for “scientism.”
Essentially, scientism views science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth, and often manages to turn a set of techniques and material concepts into a value-free sort of holy writ.
“Bad science” has wrought terrible harm among human societies just as “bad organized religion” has fostered “evil” among the multitudes (e.g., the Spanish Inquisition).
Scientism led to the pseudo-science of the American Eugenics movement (racist scientism in the early 20th century) and the moral dubiousness of the World War II Manhattan Project (scientists naively believed governments would refrain from dropping A-bombs and creating more powerful nuclear weapons).
In the 21st century, we are beginning to understand the false dichotomy opposing science and religion, yet it still beguiles us in mutated formats.
Our loud wrangling over this supposed chasm diverts the hungry spirit’s focus away from direct perception of reality (realities inner and outer: spiritual and social).
Acute social observers describe how Americans dwell in a hyper-connected, yet alienated culture, wholly distracted by the multiple agonies of insidious AI, monstrous algorithms, woke madness, corruption, political chaos and resurgent racism — with everything intensified by fears that the plague will return.
Half of American adults are zonked on Xanax or booze or run wildly crazed from over-exercising — or just feel low most of the time. PTSD, ADD, ADHD and political hatred are on the rise, as well as rampant obesity among adults and children.
We flounder as the attention merchants, social media sites and cable news nuts blow up our minds, dragging us down various seductive rabbit holes looming right and left.
These forces combine catalytically to shred the individual’s capacity for one-pointed focus — so-called ekagrata — a Sanskrit term roughly meaning “close and undisturbed focus on one object.”
This spiritual practice from Hinduism and Buddhism can be as simple as an intent concentration on placing one foot after another along a safe path amid chaparral, or singular focus on a math problem.
Reading a book or long-form journalism articles requires ekagrata, especially with the three-dimensional paper text and while scribbling notes. We’re confronting political turmoil exacerbated by social injustice, attacks on women’s rights and little acceptance of a shared historical narrative.
These distractions also lead to a loss of that ability to focus intently on a very specific task or object, that ekagrata mentioned. We need this kind of focus in good science and in sincere “spiritual” practice.
Taoists counsel us to “simplify and simplify” to escape from the “world of ten thousand things” so we can think clearly. How many of us managed to find time for simple handwriting and snail-mailing Christmas or New Year’s cards to family and friends this past year? Yet, many of us wrote them in the 1990s.
Social media and rogue apps make us even more alone together and ripe for seduction by the follies of scientism or absurdities of false religion.
Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier writes about the awful impact on us of our posturing and dishonest social media re-presentations. Jia Tolentino has written eloquently about the perils of “optimization” for women in the “Age of Instagram Face” (4.1.1.).
Absent some sort of basic, shared, honest grounding in spiritual values, the human species will continue the destructive dance into dark canyons of disunity, strife and inner decay.
For example, how many of us would now strongly back Martin Luther King Jr.’s identifying those evil “giant triplets” humanity must overcome — “racism, extreme materialism and militarism”?
Ask yourself where you stand on the moral dilemma of the United States supplying cluster munitions for Ukraine? In our Mis-Anthropocene Age, we’ve entered the Anti-Ekagrata Era idolizing the multi-tasker and extreme materialist while vilifying Siddhartha and his simple spiritual outlook.
Those new chasms widening between various groups’ bedrock values prove America’s increasing social and political disintegration.
Just like the raucous reception “outsider” crows find when flying into another murder’s flock, some of us leap on any intruders who dare come into our domain to express opinions we find “radical” or simply stupid.
Outrage seethes within, sectarian violence looms just around the corner, serial killers roam our cities.
One aspect of the American decline shines outward like a decadent yellow beacon across this fractured cultural and political landscape: large segments of postmodern America feel little loyalty to the ideal of a vital common good.
The shocking lack of social unity means individuals may shed their spiritual outlook and more easily fall prey to scientism and unsubstantiated Internet tales (e.g., Q-Anon fantasies). They begin to lose that dense matrix of moral values sustaining value-based behaviors.
J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project projected the two American A-bombs would fall on German cities (Oppenheimer’s preference), but after their surrender in May 1945, Oppenheimer became queasy about annihilating Japanese cities (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
President Harry Truman decided it was the best option and ordered his generals to drop it. How much did scientism play a role in this decision?
As I write about various belief systems in the world’s major religions, and the rise of value-free scientism, I focus on spiritual practices and specific holy locations. While hiking, I can seek out sacred topography, such as the Hurricane Deck or the physical setting of our local Vedanta Temple.
Readers don’t need to believe such pregnant landscapes are indubitably holy, only that certain other social groups believe they are sacred and redolent with power. Boulder fields on the Hurricane Deck, sacred oaks on Mount Iwihinmu (Mount Pinos) and the quaking leaves at Dodona’s Temple of Zeus Naios in Greece all resonate with these earth-bound spirit-beings.
Walking the Stations of the Cross (Via Dolorosa) in Jerusalem, as I did in July 1980, attending a Taoist shrine in Kuala Lumpur (1999) or meditating with the Buddhist monks in the Mount Baldy Zen Center’s shabby Zendo — these are examples of earth-bound sites where we can experience a spiritual outlook and become fortified by the actual location, as well as the fervor of the other pilgrims and aspirants.
Even amid the scary 21st century’s growing anthropogenic calamities one can find a direct personal experience with … the Ineffable? Divinity? The Cosmos? Gaia? Hutas?
Whatever term or language you prefer, or perhaps simply say The Force? or Infinity?
Standing beside a babbling brook in Fir Canyon, hiking to the Crystal Pool on the Mono Trail, wandering across an ornate desert, camping on the Carrizo Plain — or perhaps singing in church or synagogue or mosque may stir these unifying emotions.
The deep socio-economic divide expanding across America today reinforces the catastrophic lack of a unified spiritual outlook and both derives from and props up growing scientism— we no longer share a dense matrix of shared moral values.
We must teach the young about our social compact that protects the free exercise of religious practices AND the free exercise of scientific inquiry and research.
We will not be capable of helping to heal the Earth until we revive our spiritual outlooks and strengthen our spiritual inner selves. Adding more and more powerful weapons doesn’t seem very intelligent, even to great scientists like Oppenheimer or Albert Einstein.
Terrified at the impact of a test detonation from his Manhattan Project’s scientific research, physicist Oppenheimer famously quoted Vishnu from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, saying, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Certainly, this brilliant scientist had forgotten what Max Weber stated more than 100 years ago in Germany (Oppenheimer read and spoke German): Science is a powerful technique and a process, it cannot create values. The great sociologist Weber writing in Munich in 1919, paraphrased Leo Tolstoy:
“Science is meaningless because it has no answers to
the only questions that matter to us:
‘What should we do? How shall we live?” [quoted in Brown, p. 60]
When true science slips into scientism, great scientists like Oppenheimer and Edward Teller then make what are, in fact, irresponsible political decisions under the guise of technical expertise, what some would term “scientism.”
Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr warned Oppenheimer about this danger, and later gave little assistance to the Manhattan Project.
Without bedrock moral and social values, how can we control our increasingly mighty creations such as bio-weapons, ChatGPT (runaway AI), hedge fund managers scamming their undeserved billions, foreign entities bribing our politicians, or a Vladimir Putin choosing to nuke a Ukrainian city?
Minus a deep spiritual outlook, and after science has toppled religious and theological accounts of order and meaning, we’ve learned to our horror that “science” cannot replace what it destroys. Maintaining a spiritual outlook requires serious individual work.
How can we reweave a shared values-web to support the common good and withstand the blandishments of value-free scientism?
Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget” (2010); J. Tolentino, “The Age of Instagram Face” in The New Yorker.
Martin Luther King’s three giant triplets: click here. The “Bhagavad Gita” is a Hindu scripture and source for the “I Am Become Death” quote; we hear this in Christopher Nolan’s new film, “Oppenheimer.” Wendy Brown, “Nihilistic Times — Thinking with Max Weber” (Harvard 2023).