Hunger for Wonders

“The lack of a balance of intellect and vision in our lives leads to the pursuit of doubtful cults of the supra-rational.”  
– Theodore Roszak

Humans require a balance of “intellect and vision”. We need to remain deeply grounded in reality with the help of reason and logic (intellect). And we need a belief system to direct us (vision).

“Intellect” is pretty easy to define (which is itself highly consequential, as we shall see). “Vision” is more difficult to define.  The word “vision”, as Roszak uses it, really is just a symbol to represent something. But we all know what it is even if we have never heard it described clearly.  And don’t be fooled by the clowns managing your office when they put the word “vision” on powerpoint presentations. What they mean by the word is probably something like “having goals”.

The following things are characterized by the presence of “vision”: gaining physical or mental energy when living in accordance with your belief system, being willing to camp out in front of the movie theater to watch Lord of the Rings on its opening day, and/or doing anything where it feels like things fit together like magic.  It is a “religious” experience that even the most hardcore atheist seeks and enjoys. One example of the successful balance of intellect and vision would be the zealous entrepreneur that has a religious-like focus on his/her belief system and is so grounded in reality that they can find ways to make the belief system tangible.

Unlike vision, intellect is easy to account for, easy to identify in value, and relatively easy to teach.  Psychoanalysis does a really good job at helping people identify where there is a lack of intellect, as it were.  For example, one might have delusions of grandeur or suffer from bouts of magical thinking.

But we don’t have a good way of accounting for vision or talking about it, which is perhaps why we mostly ignore it.  Just as ignoring “intellect” and going off into fantasyland is a costly mistake, ignoring “vision” is also a mistake.

And it’s unnecessary.  One of the most practical, crucial, and least embarrassing ways of satisfying our need for visionary experience is to discover and respect our own belief system.  Not develop or create a belief system, but discover it.  Everyone can do this. It is common sense that everyone pretty much ignores. The reason for this is cultural.  Without thinking about it, most of us have adopted a worldview where “intellect” is what matters, and our need for visionary experience can be ignored or accounted for in offhand ways.

So most people find themselves with an unmet need. A need for visionary experience.  This need has created a market for many things that probably shouldn’t exist. Some of them are absurd but harmless.  Some of them are dangerous and pose an existential threat to humanity.

Doubtful Cults of the Supra-Rational

“…Scientific superstitions, the loose use of scientific ideas to appease an essentially religious appetite.” 
“Beyond such formal, religious affiliations, the hunger for wonders expresses itself in countless forms of pop psychiatry and lumpen occultism which thinly disguise the same impetuous quest for personal salvation. ” 

Because “intellect and vision” are out of balance in the population, there is a market for things that pretend to satisfy this need.  In his essay, Roszak attributes the rise of commercial evangelical christianity in the United States to this imbalance. But it’s arguably not just the spiritual industry that exists for this reason. It’s also things like people putting 4 tablespoons of grassfed butter into “micotoxin-free coffee” because you’re told it will make you feel like superman. People spend fortunes on products, webinars, and masterclasses promising “maximum human performance”.  But I doubt it is the desire for productivity that gets people to sign up. Something else is missing.

Some of the people that ridicule the victims of televangelists engage in equally questionable spiritual activities.  Cosmic bellydancing would be an example.   Advertisement of products coming from this mammoth industry exhibit two major patterns. One is the indiscriminate use of spiritual-sounding terms like “guidance”, “healing”, “manifest”, “inner peace”, “energies”, “modalities”, “awareness”, “light”, and “mindfulness”. Another is the even more indiscriminate use of scientific terminology like “pineal gland”, “non-local consciousness”, “DNA activation”, “discontinuity”, “observer effect”, and “immeasurable potential”.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that these things do no good for people. Even the teachings of dangerous cults can do a lot of good for some.  But because many of these products are so questionable and their foundations so unsound, we can safely conclude that the condition within people that gets them to give their money and time is not healthy.  And while it’s very easy to laugh at these things, no one should disparage the individuals that engage in them, because they are driven by an immutable need in every single human on the planet.

This instinct has been starved and so it seeks the next best thing it can find.  But that is no justification for charlatanry. If you are dying of thirst, drinking your own urine can save your life.  But that doesn’t mean that you should drink your urine if you don’t have to (though some people swear by drinking your own urine before going to cosmic bellydancing class).

Things like thousand dollar courses in “DNA activation” are funny.  But the condition inside of a person that would let them think this might be the best answer for them really isn’t funny at all.  That is because once these things fail to really meet the underlying need, the emptiness within the person leads to something much scarier.

The Charlatan to the Totalitarian

“I realize that the eclipse of God in our time has never been the exclusive anguish of an intellectual and artistic few. As a nameless moral anxiety, a quiet desperation, it has been festering in the deep consciousness of people everywhere, and at last it has erupted into the totalitarian mass movements of the 20th century.” 
“Self-enslavement to easy absolutes and mad political messiahs: that is the poison tree that flourishes peculiarly in the Waste Land. ” 

What happens when the need for visionary experience grows more demanding? Roszak suggests that “totalitarian mass movements” is the outcome.  That would make sense. People can’t find a real “god” which comes from within, so they look outside of themselves and find charlatanry.  When the charlatanry fails in meeting this need, a totalitarian leader comes in to fill the hole that’s been growing in people’s heart and minds.  Unlike the “god” you get from charlatanry that offers false promises, totalitarian leaders offer something real that mimics the divine: an all powerful leader who controls everything.  A god that demands total loyalty or smites you and actually delivers on that promise. You know these gods do when they radically transform the environment and kidnap/torture/murder dissenters.  In North Korea, they view their leaders as a kind of god. Same in China today, to some extent. For much of human history, political and religious power were unified: Pharoas, Emperors, god-kings, holy roman empire, etc.  So no one sought salvation from within. But today, we have that option. Everyone has that option including atheists and secularists. But our mindset seems to prevent this possibility.

We can avoid such disaster by respecting the basic human need for the balance of intellect and vision.  We can start by genuinely respecting our need for visionary experience and seeking this in healthy ways.  Deep introspection is a very good place to start. Another is to follow your belief system even if you don’t have a statistical analysis to prove to others why you should.

Of course when you begin to ponder this need for visionary experience in more direct and sound ways (giving the cosmic bellydancing a rest), our conditioning fights back. A little voice inside our head might say something like “But this isn’t real. It isn’t part of ‘science’” or “If this is the same need that gets people to speak in tongues at an evangelists rally, shouldn’t we just grow up?”

In response to this, it pays to remember that, first of all, you can’t escape your own nature.  Humans have evolved over thousands of years to be the way we are. The Cambrian explosion of pseudo-spiritual woo woo is proof that we can’t escape our own nature.

But the second issue is, why should you try to escape this need? We’ve evolved to have it for good reason.  Nihilism isn’t exactly advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. Our need for visionary experience brings meaning to life. Why fight something that feels good and is useful?  Why not respect a core part of what it means to be human?

Most importantly, in the 21st century, we can easily have the perspective to choose how to best meet our need for visionary experience so that it is appropriately balanced with “intellect”. If we simply deny this need, we will find ourselves turning to things that are dubious and dangerous.