As a word, "transcendence" means a lot to me. It speaks of going beyond what we accept as our fate, to become the person we would hope to be, to transcend our limitations, to find our free and true self. It is about a being who evolved from an amoral universe, rising beyond its evolutionary instincts to become wise and compassionate co-inhabitants of our world.
The human spirit has a confusing duality, which we can all see and often struggle with within our own self. The human spirit can be soaringly beautiful and imbue our lives with meaning, but it can also be despairingly ugly and force us to question existence. Both sides of the human spirit and the varying shades between represent possible selves and possible worlds, not only for us but for everything around us that human actions affect.
Human society is largely arbitrary in so much as it reflects the understanding and aspirations of its peoples. For all of our genetic and environmental influences, we have a level of freedom to make consequential choices. The mass of human society that people often see as unable to change consists of free individuals like ourselves. Each of us in our lives makes decisions and the sum of these individual choices becomes our world. Most of us know that we personally can change, we have learnt to make better choices in our lives, and this should be evidence within us that personal positive change can and does happen. If we can harness the power of positive change, the world can be a better place.
Philosophy is often derided as being useless, most people claim not to know or be interested in philosophy. However, we are intelligent creatures that cannot help but have some connecting ideas behind our actions. In the many options presented to us by everyday life, what outlook generally guides us between one choice or another? It is our idea of what the good life is, our attitude towards life and what we think it is about that ultimately chooses our path, in other words, it is our philosophy that guides us. Once we accept that even if unexamined we have a philosophy, we need to bring it into the light, analyse it and think about it clearly so we can understand how we are helping to create the world as it is. If we aren't making conscious choices in life, if we aren't thinking about the wider ramifications of our actions and world view, we are just as likely to contribute to a negative possible world as a positive one.
Non-human animals may not be concerned with overarching ideas of the good life. They may simply be pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. Perhaps that is all we humans are doing as well, indeed if one looks at over-consumption and overpopulation a case could be made that this is true. However, humans I believe have the ability to transcend this instinctive state, to be rational, philosophical beings. We have the ability to not only perceive right and wrong but to act to change the world in line with our principles. Most people would like to see a fairer kinder, world, even for beings they will never know. That this evolved from an evolutionary system is almost magical and is in many ways the hope of the world. Our collective aspirations will be based on embracing this transcendent part of ourselves. However we still have that instinctive evolutionary being at our core, if we aren't conscious of that then we are probably living too much at the behest of it. Part of moving forward together is becoming part of a conscious civilisation rather than an instinctive one.
If we seek to live in a more ethical world, we need to make the search for an ethical life part of our being.
Humanity has struggled to evolve morally, and I believe part of this stems from the difficulty in finding a philosophy that unites us in the search for a better world. Part of the reason for this is because meaning has been hijacked by religions and other people seeking control, seeking to create a meaning that serves their purposes instead of the world around them. If after all, whether you are a priest, a marketing executive, a politician, a guru, if you can convince someone to follow your meaning, it is a source of personal status and power. Others cling to their own arbitrary identity or way of living out of personal narcissism, almost celebrating the personal biases that limit a deeper understanding of the world or themselves. People's attempts to own meaning, to seek conformity to their meaning in others, have hindered our progression.
I don't believe meaning is such a complex thing that anyone needs to blindly follow someone else's ideas, that people can and should understand a unique meaning for themselves that is compatible with a wider meaning. What is meaning is something we could spend a life time discussing, but a tangible basis for moving forward is clearly evident in the world. I see ecosystems and habitat destroyed for profit, people who lack decent housing and nutrition, sea creatures covered in oil, birds choked by a discarded single use plastic, and I see meaning in the world. There is so much good to do with whatever power we have in our lives, from the local to the global level. Our meaning is based on the flourishing of higher consciousness and the evolutionary systems of life. It begins with what are our responsibilities in a world of sentient creatures that feel pleasure and pain, but it extends out into sophisticated ideas that touch on the edges of our consciousness and I think can only be expressed by poetic but incomplete phrases like beauty is truth, or that humans are animals, not gods.
Faith is another concept that has been hijacked to mean blind obedience. I have faith, not in what someone else wishes me to believe, but based on what I know of myself as a member of the human species. I believe that we will be something better, that we won't continue to let people starve, and other voiceless species needlessly suffer, whilst we pursue our own desires forever. I believe there are signs that we are on a path to a better world, that we can understand that selfishness is an evolutionary relic we have the ability to harness positively or move largely beyond, that kindness, compassion, community, imagination, beauty and truth are the way forward to happier, more creative, productive and meaningful lives, not endless isolated consumption.
We need to work on how we feel about ourselves as people because it is the reflections of our relationship with ourselves that mirrors itself in the world. As we become more affluent, we can become more protective, inward-looking, selfish, depressed, isolated, defensive of what we think we have. That more possessions above the level of comfort do not lead to more happiness is well known, but we are coming to realise that they may indeed lead the other way. It is in the relationships and beautiful experiences we have in the world that we will find the greatest joy, not ending our lives alone atop the pile of waste we leave behind us.
The reigning ideology of the developed world is that external things are the meaning of existence, we are obsessed with growth rates, currency values, exports, imports, shares, stocks, bonds, cars, huge houses, new things. A certain level of affluence is sensible to strive for, but making it the meaning of our lives beyond that is to misunderstand ourselves. This global system we have created where people pursue power and wealth is a machine for the devouring of the collective human spirit, and it has also devoured so much of the natural world.
It is the relationships with the world around us, what we do for each other, that offers a better chance of happiness, yet our culture is headed in the opposite direction. We need to restructure our philosophies, the interpersonal relationships between us, how we feel and think about ourselves as members of a community. We need less judgement, but when we do inevitably compare ourselves with one another it should not be by wealth or power, but by positive things like kindness and compassion. We seem to have an evolutionary desire for the regard of others, for status, we need to channel these potentially innate parts of ourselves to pro-social ends, that we judge ourselves and others, that status is gained by what we give to the world rather than what we take from it.
Many people feel alone and emotionally isolated, especially those who don't fit into the meritocratic myths of capitalism. Many remain on the fringes of a culture that doesn't know how to fit them into its central logic of power and affluence. So many people who our society considers as "useless", have unique creative talents, abilities and perspectives that would contribute to us all. We lose so much of the potential texture and diversity of the world by leaving people on the sidelines.
Part of why we can't structure human effort productively is because we don't have a coherent collective purpose, a positive philosophical system which aligns our actions and effort. We waste the life energy of people producing endless goods to be used once and thrown away, whilst there is so much positive action that goes undone. Markets, monetary systems, like all systems have their own logic which can sometimes coincide with what is best for society and life generally, but is unlikely to be reliably aligned with it. Leaving our progression as a species in the hands of mathematical models is no better than leaving ourselves to the blind fate. Only a politically, socially and philosophically engaged community, working together to make something which transcends our individuals flaws, has any hope of governing the progression of our species.
The first step to a better world is realising that society consists of individuals, like me, like you, we choose our own thoughts, we choose our role in this world, we can make things better. We have the intellectual ability to imagine a different world and the technological ability to create it, we need to focus on fostering the power and wisdom to bring it into being.