Philosophy of a Lifetime
(Prepared for delivery before the Harrisonburg
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
29 March 1992)
By James J. Geary
When Beryl Lawson called me at the end of January and asked if I would put on a program March 22, and I agreed, she then asked me for a title, I was about to leave on an extended trip out-of-state, so off the top of my head I said "The Philosophy of a Lifetime." I leave to you if it is an appropriate title.
I suppose it is rather trite to say these are troublous times we are living in. I think we all realize there is widespread doubt about the traditionally accepted verities. Many of us -feel we are in a time of political, moral, intellectual - and I might even say - spiritual crisis. In addition to the historic problems that have beset complex civilizations, our society has to deal with many new and difficult ethical questions - ethical questions that the rapidly accelerating world of science has tossed at our doors. To say the least, we are confused.
There have been other times like this in history. The period around the beginning of the Christian era was such a time. There was confusion then about the meaning of life at a time when there was much poverty and much cruelty. As a result, there arose a great profusion of cults and soothsayers. One of these, with a message of hope for those times, became more successful than the rest.
Earlier, in the ancient Greek world, there was such a time when both the old mythological religion and the newer cosmological speculations were found wanting. These uncertainties gave rise to the Sophists with their rejection of all such ontological and cosmological cogitations. Forget trying to understand being and the meaning of life, they said look to the practical side of life, live for this life.
Today there is a widespread searching for not only a meaning to life, and an understanding of death, but also for some substrate, some standards, for a viable system of ethics to deal with our modern world. There is uncertainty, insecurity, even fear, of what the future holds, we are worried about ecology, the population explosion, the remoteness and instability of governments, and the terrible potential that the human race can eliminate itself from the planet. we feel helpless? we don’t know where to turn.
Once again the anthropomorphic religions are losing their credence. Yet our scientists and philosophers seem no nearer to arriving at an ultimate understanding of being, of ultimate truth, of the meaning - if any - of life, than the Greeks were in the Per id can period.
The organization of our little UU group is, I believe, evidence of our bewilderment. Many of you are searching - searching for something, perhaps you know not what.
Tonight I will try to bring you a message of hope.
Although I’m not sure hope is the right word. It is not hope for salvation in an afterlife, not hope for another existence in this world, or in another world, or in another dimension. Rather it is a philosophy of living - living in this world.
Wen I am through some of you may say that I am following in the footsteps of the Sophists, that mine is an inward looking, selfish philosophy bereft of any spirituality. Some may say it is sophistry, or even that it is sophomoric.
But I believe it is a philosophy which has the potential to make your life calmer, to give you more of a feeling of security, to lessen fear, to give you more courage to face the future, whatever it brings. It is a philosophy that has stood me in good stead since 1 was a teenager. Yes, since I was a teenager.
I remember, when I was just 19 years old, striding across some fields and voicing out loud to myself "I bring you a new religion; I bring you a new religion."
Well, that messianic feeling, that philosophical imperative, if you will, has never really left me. But, on the other hand, it has never produced a full, coherent, published message. My views have been formulated in my own mind, and I have discussed them with individuals, but you are the first group to whom I have unveiled these thoughts. And I would not characterize these views as a religion, but more - as I said ~ as a philosophy of living. Religion implies a numinous feeling, belief in a spiritual world, perhaps even faith in a personal god. Some of you may be looking for that. But that is not my message.
Since that day nearly sixty years ago when I strode across the fields in deep thought, I have done a lot of soul searching. I have studied many of our western philosophers and some of our Christian thinkers. I have studied Oriental religions - Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism. And while I have refined some of my thinking, the basic tenets of my belief have not changed since those long ago days.
I can’t hope in this brief time to impart to you a complete understanding of what I am proposing. But perhaps it will be enough to spark, the curiosity of some of you and we can discuss it further at another time.
This philosophy of mine is supported by three legs, three beliefs; first, that we live in a determinist world; second, antithetically, that we have free wills; and thirdly - and this is probably the most original and radical thought - that human emotions are balanced; that there is a natural law of compensation in human affairs. This third leg means that there is a balance of pleasure and pain in each of us; that there is, after all, a final justice for human beings (and, for that matter, for all living things), not in a next world, not in an afterlife, but in this world, in this life. Let me discuss the three pillars of my philosophy one at a time;
First, determinism, what is it? It is a belief in cause and effect; that every effect has a cause; that all the actions of our lives, up to this moment, were inevitable. Let me explain.
If you believe, as I do, that when a great symphony orchestra performs - let us say Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony -it was all in the cards, so to speak, a long time ago, eons ago, billions of years ago. If you believe every note, every finger movement of every musician, every batting of every eye in the orchestra and in the audience, was ! inevitable as far back in time as you want to go, then you are a determinist - not a soft determinist, but a hard determinist, as I am.
I doubt if many of you are. And I won’t try to adduce arguments in favor of that view tonight. It is not my main message. Let me just say that I have believed it with all my heart since high school days.
But now you ask, what about that second leg, a free will. If I am a determinist, how can I believe in a free will. If my every move, my every thought was in the works before I was born, where is the decision making, where is the free will. That is a contradiction, you says those are two diametrically opposed ideas, you say.
And I reply yes they are. I totally agree. But human thought is replete with contradictions. I expect there are contradictions in every religion, and in every philosophy. Let us take the idea of space. Can you imagine an end to space. To our finite minds, there would always have to be more space on the other side of the end. Yet we cannot imagine there not being an end to space. So we have a contradiction, we can’t really grasp the concept of infinity. The same thing holds true with time. we can neither imagine an end of time nor time without end. If you can, then you can grasp infinity.
So to be a determinist and yet to believe in a free will is indeed an inconsistency, a contradiction, a paradox. So be it. I will try to explain.
I have assigned a name to my belief that all things are determined, and yet that we each has a free will. I call it Dynamic Dualism. And Dynamic Dualism says we live in two worlds, a conceptual world and an everyday practical world. In the conceptual world we, or least I, can imagine a materialistic universe in which everything has a previous cause, a world of cause and effect; a determinist world. So as I have said, I am a convinced determinist. I believe my every action and every thought was in the works from - well, let us say - from the beginning of time, if there was a beginning of time.
But determinism is an intellectual concept only. It is a conversation piece in philosophical discussions. It is not something you and I can live by. we don’t live in a conceptual world, we live in an everyday world, a practical world of choices, we have to make choices, we cannot avoid it. we make hundreds of choices every day. I have to act. I have to believe that I have a free will. I choose to get up in the morning. I choose to go to bed at night. I choose to eat. I make lists. I plan. I see my plans come to fruition - well, at least part of the time. I study. I write. I seek. I choose to raise my arm, to clench my fist. I demonstrate before you my free wi11.
It impossible for anyone, even the most dedicated fatalist, to do nothing, to make no choices. One cannot sit around and wait for things to happen, we have to make them happen.
So, one may say - as I say - every action of my life up to this moment has been determined by my inheritance and the environmental forces impinging on me. Yet, as we face the future, the next moment, the next hour, the next day, we have to use our wills - our free wills, we have to believe we have free wills, we cannot make a choice without assuming that we have a choice.
So we live in two worlds, a conceptual world, the world of the past; and a subjective, practical, everyday world, the world of the present/future. As I look back on my life, up to this moment, I don’t see how I could ever have made any choices other than the ones I did make. But, as I look to the future, I know that I am the captain of my soul; I have a free will. I can make choices. I have to make choices. There is no other way I can live. I have to believe I have a free will.
It is that contradiction that I call Dynamic Dualism.
But what about the third, the most important pillar of my philosophy, the idea that there is a balance to human emotions. This third leg is not dependent on a belief in the first two. It can stand on its own.
I don’t take credit for this view. I absorbed it from an uncle, who in turn was influenced by Ralph waldo Emerson’s essay, "Compensation," from which you heard some quotations tonight. For some reason Emerson doesn’t seem to have followed up on it; so I will be his apologist.
This last is the most difficult of the three pillars of my philosophy to explain. But I will try. It is difficult because most arguments, most examples, are strictly subjective.
First of all, what do I mean by a balance to human emotions, a natural law of compensation. This view, like the first one, determinism, is rather materialistic, because it is like the law of physics that says for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. By compensation I mean that pleasure is balanced by pain, and pain is balanced by pleasure; that happiness is balanced by nhappiness and unhappiness is balanced by happiness; that hope is balanced by fear and fear is balanced by hope.
Now let me ask you, if such were the case, would that not be justice for every individual; whether she lived 100 years, as my mother did; or two years, as my sister did. would not that be final justice in a world that appears completely unjust,
You may ask of me "How can you say that a poor man or woman, a deprived child, has the same balance of pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness, hope and fear, that a rich man or woman has, or a privileged child. And I will answer you that I cannot possibly quantify these emotions, even for myself. Nevertheless, that is exactly what I believe.
I take it on faith, on the basis of observation, on my own experience. I believe it because I don’t see how it could be any other way. You can’t make something out of nothing. Happiness cannot come from nothing. Pain cannot come from nothing. The one creates the other.
Let me explain, if I can, what I mean by pleasure and pain, happiness and unhappiness. I don’t mean that if you are ecstatic in the morning you will necessarily be deeply depressed in the afternoon. I don’t say that highs will always be balanced by equal lows, or vice versa. Sometimes highs and lows are so minimal that we don’t recognize them as such.
I regard boredom, ennui, as pain. It is a low grade of pain, but pain nevertheless. A long period of boredom, or mild difficulty, or annoying frustration, might be balanced by a short period of soaring good feeling - such as a mountain climber might feel on reaching the top after a long and arduous struggle up the mountain. Such a rush of good feeling is happiness. For the mountain climber it balances out the low grade pain of the long climb.
Likewise I regard a mild good feeling, the pleasure of a good book, or a soft breeze on your cheek, as happiness. Happiness doesn’t have to be soaring; it can be low key, mild, hardly noticeable as happiness. But if it goes on for some time it amounts to quite a bit of pleasure, of good feeling. And it can be balanced by a sharp rush of pain or unhappiness.
Hopeful anticipation is a pleasure; it is happiness. Disappointment is pain; it is unhappiness. One might say; "I could see the pain in his face." You could say that of someone who has lost an athletic contest, or a spelling bee. He or she is in pain; they are unhappy. And the more confident the pleasurable anticipation of winning, the greater the pain on losing. It is a question of balance; of compensation.
The pain and uncertainty of a long recuperation is balanced by the hope of recovery, the pleasure of progress, the anticipation of being wel1.
Are any of us so naive as to think the rich are happier than the rest of us. Of course we know they are not. We know in our hearts that behind the walls of their great houses there are many kinds of pain, many disappointments, many frustrations, self doubt, personal loss, fear, despair. They pay for their leisure, their comfort, their fine possessions, as Emerson says, in silence and certainty.
All right, so what is hopeful, what is helpful in this philosophy of mine. What in this view leads to calmness, a feeding of security, a lessening of fear?
I believe this faith, if you truly embrace it, will smooth out the peaks and valleys of your emotions. Your highs may not be as high but your lows will be more bearable. Your moments of joy may be compromised somewhat by the knowledge that you will pay for them. But your depressions will not be as deep, because you will know that sooner or later the reaction will set in, the balance will be achieved.
You simply learn that everything has its price - that in human emotions, just as in the practical everyday world of human intercourse, there is no free lunch.
You learn that the pursuit of happiness, a search for a sort of permanent good feeling that can be built up, like money in the bank, is a chase after a wi11-o-the-wisp. There is no such thing. The bank account is fluid. It is constantly fluctuating between good feeling and bad feeling, between surplus and deficit.
Life is an adventure. It is interesting, but it exacts its price. You cannot create something out of nothing. Emotions are relative. Pain and pleasure are opposite sides of the same coin. You can’t have the one without the other. You have to learn to accept the price.
So there you have its Dynamic Dualism and compensation; determinism and yet a free will. And a balance, in each of our lives, of pleasure and pain. Final Justice.
I don’t know if there is much there to satisfy any spiritual quest that you may have. But to me there is a positive spiritual concept in the thought that there is justice in nature.
And there is one other things Some will say there is no basis in these views for right behavior, for a system of ethics that society can live by.
I deny that. I believe there is a firmer foundation in these views for personal ethical behavior and for a socially acceptable system of ethics than there is in didactic moralizing from some ancient written word.
But the arguments in its favor are subtle, and there is not time to go into them tonight. Perhaps some other time. For now, let me just say that I have given you my philosophy, one that I have found satisfying for all these many years. It is my philosophy of living; a philosophy of a lifetime.