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    Dixon's Avatar
    Dixon
     

    Article: The Gospel According to Dixon #2: Enlightenment

    Enlightenment
    by Dixon Wragg
    February 2011

    The word “enlightenment” is generally meant in one of two senses: intellectual or spiritual. For many, the twain shall never meet; these two senses of enlightenment are seen as mutually exclusive, perhaps even antithetical. But I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Let’s look at the common meanings of the word.


    On the simplest level, intellectual enlightenment refers to having some specific information. We might say to some expert “Please enlighten me about your realm of study.” Less simply, it could mean broad and deep intelligence, and perhaps even intelligence on a level that most would call “wisdom”, a level that transcends mere information processing.

    In the spiritual sense, there’s little agreement about what constitutes enlightenment. Because, unlike rational beliefs, spiritual beliefs are typically not testable by recourse to a shared objective reality, they proliferate and vary as promiscuously as imagination itself. The one thing they nearly all share is an insistence that enlightenment consists in embracing “our” belief, not the other guys’.

    But in fact, there are a few other themes that recur often in spiritual traditions, especially esoteric mystical teachings—themes that also manifest in the realm of intellectual enlightenment. Consider:

    The Golden Rule: Most religions I’ve studied tell us to treat others as we’d want to be treated. This principle is not specifically a religious principle; it’s absolutely essential for proper reasoning. Critical Thinking theorists talk about it in terms of “Fairmindedness” and “Intellectual Empathy”, which forbid treating others as objects to be defeated, seduced, or fooled. For instance, to manipulate others with arguments we know to be fallacious, or to judge their arguments by stricter criteria than we do our own, or to fail to bring to the table the same open-mindedness and empathy that we demand of them is to fail as a critical thinker. This is a moral aspect of rationality.

    Truth: The Bible echoes many traditions when it says “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”1 Unfortunately, when we
    invoke the idea of truth, we often really mean “Let’s all accept this dogma.” As a rationalist, I believe that there’s something called truth; it consists of accurate descriptions of reality. Assuming that maximizing such accuracy will conduce to a better, happier world, and recognizing that we can never apprehend every bit of truth and that we may be wrong about what we think we know, I seek to broaden and sharpen my grasp of it. Truth is the Holy Grail which rationalists seek with a religious passion that transcends concerns of ego, comfort, and social acceptability.

    Transcending the Ego
    : So much of what passes for reasoning involves ego games—trying to elevate ourselves above our “opponents”, to drub them into submission, to dominate, to demonstrate that we’re always right, to “win” an argument. Such egocentric thinking is a major impediment to the quest for truth. We maximize our reasonableness only insofar as we can drop the ego and see our “opponents” as teachers and our arguments as dialogues in which we collaborate in truth-seeking, rather than struggles for supremacy. To the enlightened thinker, it’s not about who’s right so much as what’s true.

    Humility: Humility is prescribed in many (most?) spiritual systems. An essential trait in Critical Thinking is Intellectual Humility, which involves a healthy acknowledgment of the limits of our knowledge, our appropriate level of uncertainty, and our fallibility.

    Non-attachment: Buddhism, Stoicism2, and other systems see attachment as a major cause of suffering. Rationalists understand it as an impediment to enlightenment. Being attached to some belief that meets our needs, or to “winning” arguments, is a recipe for illusion, not truth. Letting go of such attachments annihilates most of the fears that block clear thinking. Being unattached to any particular outcome of an argument allows us to see all the evidence and issues more clearly.

    Surrender: Spiritual traditions often emphasize a kind of surrender or openness to something larger than oneself. Unfortunately, such traditions usually demand that openness be constrained by their dogma. Rationalists strive for a more complete openness, unblocked by arbitrary dogma. It’s not gullibility, as it’s guided by reasonable standards by which we can discern truth from illusion. It’s a kind of surrender, not to some god or authority figure, but to the dictates of reason--a willingness to accept that we don’t get to choose our beliefs, but must go wherever the evidence leads.

    Rigorous Practice: There’s a bewildering welter of spiritual practices, some of them astoundingly complex, rigorous and demanding. Reason involves rigorous practice that is designed to get us to truth by correcting for our common human fallacies. In extreme form, such practice takes the exquisitely detailed, precise form of scientific study. In our daily lives, rationalists apply rules of logic in the context of broader principles and traits known collectively as Critical Thinking. Doing this consistently, even when it’s extremely uncomfortable or scary, is the most rigorous practice I know of.

    Resisting Temptation: Spiritual seekers are enjoined to resist all sorts of temptations—sex, materialism, physical comfort, heretical thinking, forbidden foods, etc. Critical thinkers must resist things that are even more tempting—egocentric thinking, simplistic answers, false certainty, wishful thinking, social pressure, and so much more.

    Standing Apart from the Crowd: Some spiritual practices involving monks, nuns, sadhus, and other renunciates require radical separation from everyday life. Most traditions demand that their adherents keep the faith even if that sets them apart uncomfortably from those around them. In extreme cases, martyrdom can result. Rigorous critical thinking commonly leads to conclusions that differ markedly, sometimes antithetically, from prevailing norms. This can be alienating, even dangerous. For instance, I’ve sometimes made myself unpopular by challenging patriots on USAmerican hegemony, or New Agers on dubious beliefs like astrology. Rational thinkers may at times be secretive about their heresies to protect themselves, but they don’t have the luxury of sinking maggot-like into the welcoming fecal warmth of the prevailing dogma. They must acknowledge truth, at least to themselves, even in the face of social disapprobation. This involves the essential traits referred to by the Critical Thinking community as Intellectual Courage and Intellectual Autonomy.

    Simplicity: A number of traditions, religious and secular, value simplicity. Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify”3 (to which I respond, “Simplify”). In the realm of reason, this value is important. The logical rule known as Occam’s Razor, which basically says that the simplest explanation that fits all the facts is most likely to be true, is enormously useful in trimming away illusion to reveal truth. Also, mathematicians and scientists strive for “elegance”—i.e., simplicity, which they deem beautiful—in their proofs and theories. Theories which account for observations by recourse to the fewest possible forces, principles, or causes are superior. This valuing of simplicity, extrapolated to its extreme, could ultimately tend toward a kind of monism, which sees the universe as one thing manifesting pluralistically, which is fundamental to many mystical traditions as well as to my own metaphysic.

    May we all be enlightened.

    NOTES:

    1. Holy Bible (King James Version) John 8:32

    2. Many years ago I was amused to learn that two of the greatest Stoics were Marcus Aurelius, an emperor, and Epictetus, a slave. I figured it must be easy to be stoic when you’re an emperor and have to suffer through luxury and comfort, so I wrote this double dactyl:

    EPICTETUS’ ENVY

    Palaces, calluses
    Marcus Aurelius,
    uncomplicatedly
    stoic monarch--
    reared amidst luxury,
    he was unruffled by
    poverty’s arrow, since
    it missed the Marc.

    3. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Jeffrey S. Cramer, editor, Yale University Press, 2004




    About Dixon: I'm a hopeful monster, committed to laughter, love, and the Golden Rule. I see reason, applied with empathy, as the most important key to making a better world. I'm a lazy slob and a weirdo. I love cats, kids, quilts, fossils, tornadoes, comic books, unusual music, and too much else to mention. I’m a former conservative Christian, then New Ager, now a rationalist, skeptic and atheist. Lately I’m a Contributing Editor at the Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form (That’s right!), and have been getting my humor published in the Washington Post and Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m job-hunting too, mostly in the Human Services realm. Passions: Too many -- Reading, writing, critical thinking, public speaking, human rights and justice, sex and sensuality, most arts and sciences, nature. Oh, and ladies, I’m single ;^D
    Last edited by Dixon; 11-20-2016 at 07:04 PM.
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  2. Gratitude expressed by 2 members:

  3. TopTop #2
    Shepherd's Avatar
    Shepherd
     
    Ah, "enlightenment," you say, my friend Dixon. As you know, I support it being balanced by "endarkenment," as the first graphic above reveals. Where would we be without night, sleep, dreams, and chocolate, especially at this Valentine's time of year? Darkness can be mysterious, romantic, benevolent, and pregnant with wisdom. Following is what that great farmer/poet Wendell Berry writes about the dark.
    In praise of sweet darkness,
    Shepherd

    To go in the dark with a light
    is to know the light.

    To know the dark, go dark.
    Go without sight…
    and know that the dark, too,
    blooms and signs,
    and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
    By Wendell Berry
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  4. Gratitude expressed by 5 members:

  5. TopTop #3
    Hotspring 44's Avatar
    Hotspring 44
     

    Re: The Gospel According to Dixon: Enlightenment

    I think; "Light" and "Darkness" are an inverse function of the same thing.

    Quote Posted in reply to the post by Shepherd: View Post
    Ah, "enlightenment," you say, my friend Dixon. As you know, I support it being balanced by "endarkenment," as the first graphic above reveals. Where would we be without night, sleep, dreams, and chocolate, especially at this Valentine's time of year? Darkness can be mysterious, romantic, benevolent, and pregnant with wisdom. Following is what that great farmer/poet Wendell Berry writes about the dark.
    In praise of sweet darkness,
    Shepherd

    To go in the dark with a light
    is to know the light.

    To know the dark, go dark.
    Go without sight…
    and know that the dark, too,
    blooms and signs,
    and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
    By Wendell Berry
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  6. Gratitude expressed by 2 members:

  7. TopTop #4
    Dixon's Avatar
    Dixon
     

    Re: The Gospel According to Dixon: Enlightenment

    Always nice to hear from you, Darkman (that's my nickname for Shepherd, folks), and of course I agree with you on the necessity of darkness. Since you shared a poem on the subject, here's one I wrote some years ago:

    THICK DARKNESS

    Thick darkness fails to satisfy,
    but satisfaction is a fraud.
    Nothing satisfies like Nothing;
    just ask the blind Zen master,
    then jump quick to avoid the stick.
    Bright light blares
    its air of superiority,
    but it goes nowhere
    without its Siamese twin,
    thick darkness, cold and keening,
    shadowing everything.
    You might as well get used to it.
    Cuddle up to it; it’s therapeutic.
    Approach it as you would a friendly viper,
    or the dark at the end of the tunnel,
    or the blank at the end of the page.




    Quote Posted in reply to the post by Shepherd: View Post
    Ah, "enlightenment," you say, my friend Dixon. As you know, I support it being balanced by "endarkenment," as the first graphic above reveals. Where would we be without night, sleep, dreams, and chocolate, especially at this Valentine's time of year? Darkness can be mysterious, romantic, benevolent, and pregnant with wisdom. Following is what that great farmer/poet Wendell Berry writes about the dark.
    In praise of sweet darkness,
    Shepherd

    To go in the dark with a light
    is to know the light.

    To know the dark, go dark.
    Go without sight…
    and know that the dark, too,
    blooms and signs,
    and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
    By Wendell Berry
    Last edited by Dixon; 11-25-2015 at 01:45 PM. Reason: spelling correction
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  8. Gratitude expressed by 2 members:

  9. TopTop #5
    Dixon's Avatar
    Dixon
     

    Re: The Gospel According to Dixon: Enlightenment

    Quote Posted in reply to the post by Hotspring 44: View Post
    I think; "Light" and "Darkness" are an inverse function of the same thing.
    I'm totally with you on that, Hotspring 44. It's the yin/yang nature of the universe, a polaristic rather than dualistic understanding of things, which sees the unity in the plurality. One of these months I'll write a column on that, because I think it's important.
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  10. TopTop #6
    "Mad" Miles
     

    Re: Article: The Gospel According to Dixon: Enlightenment

    Nothing is important.
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  11. Gratitude expressed by:

  12. TopTop #7
    Dixon's Avatar
    Dixon
     

    Re: Article: The Gospel According to Dixon: Enlightenment

    Quote Posted in reply to the post by "Mad" Miles: View Post
    Nothing is important.
    And I've got plenty of nothing.
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