The Peril of Abstract Thought

By our unique use of language, humans are the only creatures with the ability to share abstract ideas. Though a distinct advantage regarding survival, by that ability we can also lose touch with reality. A hungry animal, on the other hand, or one that needs shelter, can imagine a number of places to graze or find cover. Without that ability, the animal might starve or freeze from exposure. Clearly, animals are like us in their ability to think. The difference is that their thoughts are limited to things they have experienced or are experiencing, and therefore that are real.

Unlike animals, we humans can think about things that are not real, at least not real in terms of managing for our species’ wellbeing. But, why would we want to consider things that are unrelated to the needs of our species, the true source of our being? In giving us the ability to share abstract ideas, Nature played a dirty little trick on us, one that if unrecognized could prove fatal. This was not by intent, anymore than Nature created cancer by intent. It simply happened. With the ability to abstract reality, humans can think about and plan far into our future, even to the end of our lives. But when doing so, we are not attending to reality. No matter how much we believe we have our future in hand, we in fact do not know what our circumstances will be decades from now. Any image of the future that supersedes the normal rhythms and seasons of life, are fabrications of our imaginations and, as such, are not real.

Homo sapiens have inhabited this planet for upwards of two hundred thousand years. For most of that time, our ability to abstract reality has served us well, so well that our distant predecessors inhabited virtually every livable place on this planet. They knew about humans origins from the stories they passed from generation to generation. Unbeknownst to them, the stories were not true. But it didn’t matter. They thrived anyhow.

What purpose is served by sharing stories that are not true? None, really. Until the ability to abstract reality evolved, all species flourished without their members’ ever finding cause to share lies about the nature of reality. The ability to abstract reality evolved, not because our survival requires that we deceive one another, but to enhance human survival through the use of speech as a tool to share feelings, discuss the location of resources, decide on how to arm ourselves to manage a territorial dispute, and to agree on what crops to plant or which supplies to store for the coming season. The problem is, along with that tool came issues that previously did not exist, such as: Where did we come from? We don’t have to know this to participate in life’s journey, so it doesn’t matter. But a person obsessed with that concern could literally drive themselves crazy unless genetically programmed to take comfort in a senseless story. It is for the sake of our sanity, therefore, that our ability to find comfort in illusions evolved concurrently with our ability to abstract reality. It is evident that, through religions and scientific endeavors we remain possessed, even to this day, over the pointless issue of where we came from.

In our natural state, telling lies about our origins—albeit unintentional ones, but lies, nevertheless—presented no problem. No matter how elaborate our stories became, we remained dependents of one another and of the land that sustained us. We found comfort in the relational intimacy inherent to the requirements for our survival. We also shared lies regarding our ultimate destination. But even that wasn’t a problem. We remained dependent on our relationships and the land—a dependency that kept us grounded in the reality by which our species flourishes, regardless of the untruths we shared about our origins and our destiny.

Though it took around two hundred thousand years of abstract thinking for it to come to pass, inevitably certain individuals wanted to make real the futures they had imagined. To do so they, as a group of men, began the practice of negotiating for exclusive rights to specific women, land, and animals. They then created a system of laws and punishment to authorize their claims. By imposing social and material contracts, which I associate with our metaphorical expulsion from Eden, our rational minds usurped our intuitive minds’ authority regarding our relationships with one another and the land. Trying to realize imagined futures by force of law has resulted in a way of life that is, in essence, a cerebral fantasy—based on reason and thus without soul. It can also be a nightmare, depending upon where we find ourselves on the “ladder of privilege.” By our expulsion, our sense of wellbeing is now far more dependent on the value of our bank account than on the wellbeing of those around us. With our security in separate monetary identities, we are spiritually stranded. This results in an existence virtually without relational intimacy, when what we really want more than anything is to love and to be loved.

Through no fault of their own, the men who first authorized legal arrangements made the mistake of confusing their imagined futures with reality. Having noted why the ability to take comfort in illusions evolved along with our ability to abstract reality, we should not be too surprised that this mistake happened. The difference is that the untruths indigenous people told were limited only to finding comfort regarding their origins and destiny, while, as a result of contracting, our lives are “grounded” in the illusion that our imagined futures represent reality. Once legal arrangements were established, they represented the only path to the future that the men could imagine. From then on they felt authorized to kill, en masse if necessary, to defend them. Their very survival, as they saw it, depended upon defending their mistakes.

In my view, that is how our unique ability to abstract reality caused us to cease trusting our lives to each other and to the land that sustained us. Through a transition both dramatic and profound, humanity came to trust, and even to worship institutions believing that, by force of law, we could control our destiny.

Having been cast from Eden, instead of living in the moment in a domain defined by the people, animals and land with which we are intimate, our world is a universe of mostly faceless people in which time and space is limited only by our imaginations. In Eden, through intimacy we knew comfort and were real forces in each other’s lives. Since Eden, there is only talk of love. Regarding significance, we have no power. Power resides in the hand of mindless forces, manifested by either kings, gods (kings who live in heaven) governments, or money. We presume power, of course, but only by benefit of our imaginations that comes of placing our trust in, and thereby subjugating ourselves to, a mindless force. We thus exist essentially without intimacy, while simultaneously destroying the habitat we need to survive, a way of life which represents nothing less than a state of madness.

If we are now possessed by illusions of reality, instead of the reality by which our species flourishes, how are we going to recover our “survival sanity?” First of all, we can’t do it by effort or intent. The illusions that comfort us regarding future concerns are created subconsciously. Such beliefs include religious, ideological, nationalistic, and notions such as the idea that our future wellbeing resides in the promise of science and technology. But such illusions, by which we are offered steady comfort to manage the pain of existing without relational intimacy, are of value only if the individual is unaware that he or she is illusioned. This explains why all illusions are produced subconsciously: A consciously-created illusion would be of no value because we would know it was untrue. Since illusions are created and nurtured subconsciously, they can be penetrated only by experience, good or bad. Seeing through an illusion, therefore, is a process over which we have little control: It must simply happen to us.

From a purely rational point of view, it is becoming increasingly evident that our way of life is not working. But, other than allow us glimpses of clarity, which we experience as moments of apprehension, our subconscious minds will not allow our conscious mind to really consider the issue. It does this by conjuring up a cover story that has us believing by one means or another, that we will eventually see ourselves through to some imagined vision of a glorious future, regardless of how dire our situation might become — the 7th Calvary will appear from over the hill in the final reel. Why do subconsciously-nurtured illusions blind us to the real nature of our circumstances? Remember, illusions exist to offer us comfort regarding issues over which we have no control, like our final destination, for instance. There is no comfort in the observation that our way of life is not working, particularly when we have no alternative in mind. It would mean the end of mankind!

If, however, our way of life is in fact not working, then our circumstances will become increasingly painful, despite utopian visions of the future propounded by politicians, theologians, technocrats, and ideologues in the hope that the masses will keep the faith. As a result of ever-increasing social and material deprivation, there may come a time when humans come to generally recognize that we cannot, by the force of law, use Nature to our own ends, which is the illusion upon which our present way of life is based. Were that to happen, then it would be our experiences, in this case painful ones that enabled us to penetrate the illusion of future control.

On the other hand, seeing through our illusions could happen in a pleasant way. If, for whatever reason, we someday find ourselves directly dependent on one another such that our wellbeing and that of our “brothers and sisters” becomes one, then we will experience the boundless love of relational intimacy that our forbearers knew during the two hundred thousand years or so before we expelled ourselves from Eden. If the comfort we find in that experience enables us to realize that we should have been trusting our lives to the human spirit all along, then we will thus be liberated from the illusion of future control.

Before our subconscious minds can allow us to even consider the possibility that our way of life is not working, however, we must first have a way of life in mind that we believe will work. That possibility is what my book Eden—Regaining our Spiritual Freedom, strives to offer.

To contemplate the possibility of returning to reality, we must also consider the issue of blame. The brain has a propensity to worship whatever holds the greatest power over it. Thus a dog worships its master, even when being ill treated. Likewise, as dependents of monetary and legal systems, we hold them sacrosanct, rather than our relationships, as we did in Eden. Our subconscious mind is thus proficient at hiding us from the reality that our way of life is not working by having us blame one another, instead of our institutions, for our problems. This is evident when we blame our self or our spouse for disappointments in marriage, or leaders for failures of governments. Such blame has resulted in the concepts of good and evil by which we take pleasure in passing judgment on, or even demonizing, one another to explain our suffering. But according to the authors of Genesis, the concepts of good and evil did not exist in Eden. They also told us that, by the knowledge of good and evil, we would do ourselves in. In view of developing circumstances, I am impressed. Their writings indicate that people existed who had this whole thing figured out, way back then. Unfortunately, through our abject dependency on institutions, and thus our absolute need to worship them, we are blind to the implications of Genesis’ warnings.

If good and evil indeed did not exist until our expulsion from Eden, it implies that our problems do not result from how Nature made us—i.e., that we are not sinful by nature. As long as we use the illusion of blame, of self or others, to hide from the reality that our way of life is not working, then we are never going to comprehend the trick that Nature played on us. Only by recognizing that trick, will we have reason to cease being participants in its consequence—a dysfunctional way of life devoid of relational intimacy.

Some might ask: But what about the wonderful technical accomplishments made possible only by our institutional subjugation? I am guessing that the people of ancient Egypt, at the height of their empire, were equally as impressed with their accomplishments—magnificent statues, pyramids, and temples. But, except for tourism (amazing how we worship past failures), those temples stand abandoned, torn at by the winds of sands and time. If the authors of Genesis were right, then so, too, will be the amazing structures and technological accomplishments in which we now take such pride. The issue is: Will our kind still exist when our cities are melting back into the ground? The answer is yes, but only if, by some happenstance good or bad, we are fortunate enough to see through the illusion of future control. We will then realize how we have been torn, by that illusion, from our emotional homes, only to find ourselves stranded in an ever more bewildering wilderness of mindless reason. Only by this epiphany will we know how to survive by returning to our spiritual homes. If that happens, the abandoned junk, the remnants of our cities, will at least have served a purpose. It will remain for millennia as a reminder of the consequences of outlawing the human spirit in order to honor the barefaced lie that, by the power of mere laws, we might achieve dominion over the forces that created us.

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