Adaptation and Problem Solving
Verbal Generation and Relations
Deductive Logical Analysis
Inductive Empirical Generalizing
Evaluation and Judgment
Belief and Opinion
Doubt and Questioning
The mind is a vast and complicated field. Spirit created mind as a way of understanding the phenomena of experience. Through concepts and ideas the mind is able to abstract and generalize, perceive relationships and patterns in a consciousness transcending physical sensation, imagery, and feelings. The mind differentiates and separates, then transcends space-time to correlate and unify common patterns. The mind establishes its own abstract universe in order to mirror and organize the experiences of the soul in the physical world. The mind attempts to eternalize ideas so that they can apply anywhere at any time; yet these concepts are still creations of Spirit and not beings, although their use is much more universal than physical or astral objects. By its generality, intricate organization, and subtlety of vibration, the mental plane is a very lofty and refined “heaven.” The mental realm is the universal mind where anything that can be known is known.
The human mind is very sophisticated and tricky. The primary instrument it uses to function in the human body is the brain. We must be careful not to equate the brain with the mind, the mind with consciousness, and consciousness with the soul. The brain operates the body; the mind uses the brain; the conscious self uses the mind; and the soul uses the conscious self. Thus the brain is only an instrument of the mind, which is an instrument of the soul. Recent scientific research has discovered that the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex have quite different functions. In most people the left side of the brain deals with language, mathematics, logic, analysis, and linear time, while the right side relates to sensory perception, art, music, synthesis, and spatial dimensions. (In some left-handed people they are reversed.) Unless the brain is damaged or surgically split, the two sides coordinate with each other. Thus writing, as in this book, is first understood through the functioning of the left brain. However, I will be attempting to describe the mental skills of both hemispheres, albeit in words. The sections on perceptual skill and holistic synthesis relate particularly to right-brain functions as do previous chapters on imagination and dreams and the next chapter after this on intuition. Many include intuition as part of the mind, some as the higher mind. This chapter focuses primarily on the reasoning mind.
The first task of the mind is to interpret and understand sense perceptions. Although we do not perceive everything all at once, what we do sense at each moment is perceived as a whole pattern, configuration, or gestalt, whereas language and mathematics are received as a linear sequence of terms. Even sound has various tones and harmonies, although melody and rhythm are perceived in a temporal sequence configuration. We do move our eyes rapidly, but the effort is still to understand the patterns of visual images. By observing color patterns, shapes, texture, and brightness, we perceive different objects. A moving object can be identified as an animal. Thus we learn to cognize individual things and patterns of things in our environment; and when we see, hear, or touch them again, we are able to recognize them from the memories of our previous perceptions. We “know” people by their faces, body structures, postures, gestures, walks, voices, etc.; we may even infer their presence by their clothes, although this can lead to error.
Not only are we able to identify people and things, but also we can learn much about them through close observation. We are able to perceive direction and distance rather accurately using sight, hearing, or touch. With people we can discover their moods, attitudes, and expressive style by careful examination of their facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice. These perceptual skills are very useful in direct personal relations, such as friendship, social associations, business, politics, detective investigation, health care, education, counseling, etc.
Perceptual skills are especially valuable and refined in the arts and athletics. The visual artist sees and conveys things for others to appreciate. The extremely sensitized hearing of musicians enables them to produce sounds that are moving and delightful for the listeners. Good athletes also have intense concentration and are able to perceive quickly and accurately so that they can respond appropriately. Scientists are so concerned that their perceptions be as precise as possible that they usually use technical instruments to enhance their observations.
It is difficult to write about perceptual skills, because they are nonverbal. We learn about them and develop them through practice in observation. To verbalize about it already is to move past perception to conception. Yet we must recognize that all our worldly experience is based on our perceptions and understanding of them.
The human mind transcends instinctive responses to stimuli by forming concepts of various objects and features in the environment, understanding the relations between those concepts, and then consciously choosing how to respond. The next step after perceiving is conceptualizing. Perceptions give us a whole picture, sounds, touch, smell, and taste from which we abstract or conceive that part of these perceptions are related to each other and can be cut out (analyzed) or separated from the rest of the environment as a unified object or entity. For example, the leaves, flowers, and stems that form a pattern distinct from grass, dirt, and rocks are synthesized together with the rustling sound of the leaves and the floral odor to give us the concept of a flower bush. Also we analyze and conceive the rocks, dirt, grass, and perhaps trees and other bushes as well. Even if do not know their names, we can conceive of them as separate objects by our perceptions. We may also conceive their relations, such as the similarity of grass, bushes, and trees as plant life or one particular hill as an interrelated ecosystem, etc. If we saw something moving in the air, we might conceive of it as an insect or a bird or a falling leaf. Each conception abstracts something particular out of the whole environment, and even our perceptions are only a small aspect of the whole universe.
Similar conceptions may be generalized as members of a class, such as trees, or any bug as an insect. Classes may be generalized as belonging to a higher order of universality such as plants or animals. We naturally perceive movement as a change in circumstances, but we recognize the moving objects as maintaining the identity we have conceived. Thus concepts transcend space-time. Our idea of a tree can be used to categorize all the trees we have ever seen and ever will see. Yet we are able to distinguish the difference between individuals of the same class even though they move in space-time.
Furthermore we conceive various relationships between objects and classes–differences in size, shape, position, color, movement, complexity, pattern, and thousands of other characteristics, particularly as they relate to us. We may like an especially smooth rock and, after examining its features, put it in our pocket as a good-luck piece. How many conceptions and associations might we have now with this one rock! This process of accumulating concepts regarding a single entity is especially pronounced with people we know. Every experience we have with a person adds to the concepts we have about that person and our relationship. We have even more concepts about ourselves. Yet even all these concepts are abstracted parts and relations from the whole of our experience. Although the mind is extraordinarily rich and fruitful in its complexity, it still only represents mental constructs from our personal experience, which is a tiny part of the whole universe. The concepts are not the reality, but an attempt to understand the reality by abstracting, separating, an analyzing parts of the whole to explain why they are different and then synthesizing the parts into categories and classes to understand how they are similar. Our concepts about reality help us to interact with it more intelligently.
As we conceive of meaningful objects and qualities in our outer environment, we also conceive our own inner needs, desires, and purposes. Relating these together and then responding in appropriate ways is adapting to our environment. Naturally this is necessary for survival, and for plants and most animals is instinctive. However, because we humans can convert our perceptions to mental concepts, we are able to consciously analyze the situation and choose from a wide variety of options how to act. When we do act, we can observe the results, remember them, and apply what we learned in the future.
Consciousness is intentional, which means that we pursue chosen purposes, objectives, and goals, as discussed in the chapter on motivation. Having conceived of an objective, whether specific or general, the mind begins analyzing the situation and proposing strategies and methods for achieving the aim. Obstacles and problems that come up must be overcome, removed, or circumvented. This process can be as simple and immediate as stepping over a large rock that is in the path we are walking and as complicated and extended as planning a new career when we lose a job. Everyone who is conscious must somehow adapt and solve numerous problems each day.
What are these pragmatic thinking skills? First, we need to be aware of our present situation and not be confused by what we would like it to be or by what we are afraid it might be. To the extent that our concepts of what our situation actually is are modified by the hopes and fears of our mental-emotional state, we are deluded. Such delusions create extra problems by separating our consciousness from our real situation. The more awareness we have of our actual circumstances the more appropriate and useful will be the options we are likely to think of and the more able we will be to apply them effectively. Thus self-knowledge and knowledge of the world are both very helpful.
Second, we need to be clear in our mind what our purpose or objective is. Otherwise we can be easily sidetracked to something else. Adaptation can also mean changing our objective; but if we want to freely determine our own destiny, then the more conscious our choices are the freer we become. We may have definite long-term or ultimate goals but be very flexible in the avenues and means we may use to achieve them.
Third, we must consider the whole situation and everyone involved so that we do not hurt others in the ruthless pursuit of our own ambitions. Ideally, we explore how our actions will affect everyone concerned and choose the course that is best for all, not just us alone. If we operate by this principle of cooperation, we are likely to receive support from others when we need it, because we have been supporting them when we can. Of course we are probably not yet as omniscient as God in our awareness, but we can do our best to consider the whole situation and learn from our consequent failures and limitations.
This brings us to the fourth point, which is to carefully observe our actions, changes in the situation, and the resulting effects we produce so that we can learn how to do better. We can also study other similar situations and learn vicariously. We need to discern the differences in new situations as they arise so that we do not misapply the lessons of our previous experiences. Primarily, problem solving is a practical process of trial and error, corrective modifications and improvement. Yet we can think out a problem ahead of time in order to mentally correct possible errors before they occur. This will be examined further with the inductive method.
Because we use language as our major medium of interpersonal communication, humans convert concepts into words, phrases, and sentences. Thus have we generated grammar, which structures concepts by means of word order and word forms to indicate their logical relationships. By understanding these verbal relations, we can learn much about how the mind works.
A concept of an object or thing becomes a word, a noun. Yet nouns alone are usually static, like space without time. Movement, action, or an enduring state of being are expressed principally by verbs. The basic structure of a sentence contains a noun for a subject doing or being something indicated by the verb. Various sentences are transformations and extensions of this fundamental structure, as additional words and phrases modify the basic meaning. Words name or label the concept that has been abstracted from actual experience. Concepts and words are not limited to particular events of space-time but can be applied to other similar situations also; in fact they can be applied meaningfully to any appropriate circumstance or be used to indicate a general class of events. Thus words are universal and in this way are able to connect separate experiences into a meaningful relationship.
I will primarily use the English language for my examples, but most languages have similar structures if different ways of indicating those relationships. Words refer to experience. The article “the” with a noun indicates a specific object or objects. Nouns can be singular or plural to indicate number. In many languages they are masculine, feminine, or neuter, indicating how important the sexual archetype can be to thought. Nouns can be subjects (nominative), objects (accusative), possessive or origin (genitive), and an indirect object specifying instrument, time, place, manner, etc. (dative or ablative). These cases may be indicated by word order (object following verb), prepositions (of, in, to, by, for, with, etc.), or by changing the form of the word (usually the ending). Adjectives are used to modify and describe nouns, and in many languages agree in form with the noun.
Verbs are more complicated, because they relate to time and their subject. Standard tenses are, of course, past, present, and future. Perfect tense indicates completion and has its own past, present, and future, e.g. “had run, have run, will have run.” Continuity can also be expressed in the past by “was running” (imperfect), in the present by “is running,” and in the future by “will be running.” Verbs often indicate the number and person of their subject. First person (I or we) is the speaker or writer, second person (you) is the addressed, and third person (he, she, it, or they) anyone or anything else. Verbs also express moods. Indicative is merely descriptive; imperative expresses a command (implying second person); and subjunctive represents an attitude or concern of doubt, wish, desire, etc. (e.g. should, may, or might). Imperative can also be expressed in any person with “must,” and ability with “can” or “could.” Voice can be active or passive, and in Greek even in the middle. The active voice of “I bought the book” can be transformed into the passive of “The book was bought by me” with basically the same meaning expressed more weakly with a change in emphasis. In most languages verb forms are highly inflected to indicate the various tenses, persons, numbers, moods, etc. Adverbs are used to modify and describe verbs, other adverbs, and adjectives as to when, where, or how something happened.
Phrases and dependent clauses with their own subject and predicate are used as adverbs and adjectives in complex sentences. Verbs can be converted into adjective or noun phrases as participles, such as “observing the scene.” Conjunctions are connecting words (and, or, but, etc.) that are used to make compound subjects, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and sentences.
We can see by this rough outline of the intricacies of grammar how much meaning and logical relationship can be put into a single sentence. Language is a miracle of intelligence which sets humans apart from every other creature except perhaps cetaceans. Because of the impact they have on minds, words have tremendous power and usefulness in conveying thoughts. Further analysis of these relations will be discussed in the sections on deductive and inductive logic.
Although intelligence involves both verbal and mathematical abilities, aptitude tests have shown that individuals often excel more on one or the other. Numbers are also concepts, but they are even more abstract than words, because they represent only numerical quantities and relations regardless of the objects and experiences concerned. Mathematics is an ideal mental system with its own perfection and consistency; the logical relationships are merely quantitative and ignore all other questions of quality and meaning.
The concepts of zero, one, two, three, etc. and infinity are metaphysical, because they are eternally consistent and can apply to any situation. Zero or nothing can only be conceived of from a spiritual viewpoint that is prior to creation. One implies unity and the beginning of everything. Two indicates division and progression of a process that never stops, because ultimately we give up in the realization of infinity that theoretically there is no end. The relationships between one and two as double and half can similarly be extended to all other numbers. These number relationships are eternally the same; it is impossible to imagine another universe with a different mathematics, even though we can imagine one without stars or planets and with completely different beings and creatures. Likewise geometry is an abstract system of thought that is perfectly consistent within its system of definitions, premises, axioms, postulates, theorems, etc. Our space-time universe may be curved by its patterns of energy-matter, but the ideal world of geometry is always the same.
When we apply mathematics and geometry to practical problems of this world, then we need to take into consideration the physical, emotional, and mental concerns of living beings. We have found through science and engineering that the precision of quantitative analysis and computation is extremely efficient. Thus these skills have great practical value in addition to helping us to clarify and make precise this aspect of thinking. Algebra takes abstraction a step farther by using variables (usually written as letters) to represent general mathematical relationships in formulas so that we can solve equations for any one of the variables in various circumstances. Science has discovered many of the mathematical relationships in the physical world as consistent physical laws. We have discussed the relation of energy, matter and the speed of light, how the chemical elements are numerical, and the quanta of atomic particles.
Efforts to apply mathematics to psychological and social experience (and to extend physical investigations) have developed the fields of statistics and probability theory. As discussed in the first part, this is because of freedom and the undetermined creativity of Spirit. As spiritual beings we create our own destiny, and the freer we are the harder it is to predict. Thus mathematicians have fallen back on group theory and the “law of averages.” Statistics of past events can be useful in helping us to calculate probabilities based on our estimates of the similarities and differences of a new situation, but they teach us always to have an open mind flexible to change.
Learning and using arithmetic, mathematics, algebra, geometry, and statistics can help us develop our quantitative skills so that we can more accurately measure and weigh variables of experience. Yet in addition to knowing how much, we must also find out what, where, when, how, why, and whether.
The word “logic” comes from the Greek word for “word” or “meaning.” Logic helps us to clarify the meaning of our thoughts and statements. Deductive logic starts with a general principle, premise, or definition and then analyzes its more specific implications. Aristotle analyzed various forms of syllogism to ascertain which are valid and which are fallacious. A syllogism is composed of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. The most famous example is: “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.”
Let us analyze this syllogism. If the major premise is found to be false, the entire syllogism falls apart. What are men? If we discover that men are eternal souls in mortal bodies, what then? Perhaps we need to correct the statement to say, “All men’s bodies are mortal.” Yet Christians who believe in the resurrection of the body as exemplified by Jesus may object, and scientists may say that physical atoms never die but only change their combinations. Platonic philosophers may argue that the idea of Socrates is still alive in the minds of many people and as an idea always will be. Perhaps a correct syllogism might be: “All souls are immortal. Socrates is a soul. Therefore Socrates is immortal.” We could further clarify the meaning by realizing that Socrates was the name of a soul in that lifetime. Thus the conclusion might be: “The soul that was named Socrates is immortal.”
Deductive logic is a process of thought which really does not give us any new information; it only clarifies for us what we already know by revealing the implications of our thoughts. If we know that all souls are eternal and that Socrates is a soul, then obviously we know that Socrates is eternal. Furthermore any statement that uses a copulative predicate (the verb “to be”) is merely a verbal equation and therefore tautological. In other words, the predicate is a description or definition of the subject. These statements prove nothing, although we may accept the definition as agreeing with our intuitive or inductive experience.
The dangers of deductions are very great, because in our minds we may equate things that are not really the same. For example, some Americans equate living under the Soviet system as tantamount to slavery. Applying their value system to this major premise, many conclude that killing and dying are better than living in slavery. Yet it is doubtful whether many of the people actually living in the Soviet Union would define that system as slavery. Aristotelian logic has a tendency to categorize things as being something or not being something with an excluded middle ground.
What we need to do in logical analysis is to explore whether our concepts and definitions are accurate by analyzing as many of the factors and facets and their relations as we can. In our example, the Soviet system is obviously an extremely complex abstract concept with millions of human situations and relations involved. If we are to understand it and want to make statements about it, we need to describe what it does, how it works, etc. The reader may find this word “etc.” appearing often in this book for this very reason. Words and concepts are so limited in trying to describe something that it is important for us to acknowledge that there are many more ways of looking at it also. This extensional logic attempts to expand our mind’s awareness to examine the actual reality rather than being smugly satisfied with a simplistic concept for a definition. For example, the human reality of the Soviet system is the combined experience of all the people who have lived in it, past, present, and future probabilities. To conclude that we know absolutely this system without knowing all of its details is arrogant sophistry. Thus we need to carefully analyze our definitions and general premises for accuracy, examine whether and how our more specific case applies to the basic principle, and then be very cautious about the conclusion accordingly. We need to analyze the order or level of abstraction of the concept. To do that we turn now to inductive logic.
The inductive approach examines our experience, and from those specific facts attempts to draw more general conclusions. What is a fact? Modern physics has found that the most basic combination of energy-matter in space-time is an event. Physical facts are the events that have occurred or are occurring in space-time. Because of the uncertainty principle, future events cannot be perfectly predicted and therefore cannot become facts until they happen. Facts are the awareness of actual events and are therefore true; but as mentioned in the first part, facts are limited relations in the phenomenal world, while spiritual truth is eternal and transcendental. Understanding of truth will be discussed in the section on knowledge and the chapter on intuition. Inductive reasoning is concerned with facts.
We become aware of events as facts directly through observation and indirectly by communication of someone else’s perception. Learning from others requires trust in their veracity and thus belief of their words, data, pictures, etc. Already abstraction has begun. Even the selection of certain facts in observation abstracts them from the total reality. Also errors in perception can delude us. However, daily practicality and the enormous complexity of our world requires us to trust our observations and those of others unless we have reason to doubt them.
By collecting the data of pertinent facts, we attempt to understand the patterns of cause and effect so that we can predict the probability of future events and the consequences of specified actions. Since the world is multi-dimensional, each event has many causal factors. Aristotle grouped them into four general concepts: efficient, material, formal, and final. The efficient cause is the source or originator of the movement or action. The material cause is the energy-matter combination of the chemical properties and interactions involved. The shape or form of the objects and even the meaning of the concepts involved are all factors in the formal cause. The final cause is the end or purpose of the action and thus is psychological. Through examining these various aspects of events, we attempt to correlate causes and effects by observing what actions induce what results. To ignore any of the causes leaves an incomplete understanding. For example, to neglect the final cause is to assume that the universe is mechanical and determined, but our best evidence so far indicates that spiritual dimensions imply meaningful purposes by free agents.
Our problems with inductive reasoning come when we generalize from a few specific instances that new situations will turn out the same way. When we are dealing with humans, who are free agents, this especially becomes a problem. If we forget the freedom of human dignity and assume that a person has acted in a certain way in the past and therefore will in the future, we are treating that person like an object, a machine. Naturally we can be aware of the probability of a pattern being repeated, but we always need to be open to change and improvement. Even worse is to assume that because one person in a group has done something that others in that group also will do the same, especially if there are not good reasons for believing they are similar (e.g. people with the same racial genes). Such over-generalizing is prejudicial, harmful, and dehumanizing.
Inductive analysis is especially useful in helping us to improve by learning from our experience. If we fail at something, by analyzing the cause of our failure and correcting that factor we can move toward success. Science uses the experimental method to control some variables in order to isolate those in question.
In examining our own reasoning processes we need to analyze our concepts by breaking the generalities down to the facts from which they came. For example, a person’s life is made up of all his or her experiences, and to draw a conclusion based on just a few recent events may be misleading. Higher order abstractions that are more general become very complex, as in the example of the Soviet Union. Thus historical events and trends need to be analyzed in many different ways in order to understand the various causes. Good critical thinking reveals incorrect generalizations and misinterpretations of the facts. Much neurotic and even psychotic behavior can be traced to faulty thinking processes, jumping to conclusions irrationally or for reasons that are incorrect, and other such mental short circuits. To relate effectively to the phenomenal world, we need to acknowledge and understand the realities of its events and their causal relationships.
Because of the spiritual reality of the divine principles, our world is not purely objective, mechanical, and without values. With our subjective spiritual freedom we create values and apply them in every decision. Our consciousness seeks what is best, because we are free to choose. Thus we evaluate various alternatives; the better and more significant the choices we consider, the freer and more aware we are spiritually. Karma from previous negative actions can limit the choices available to us. However, greater spiritual power can also make our choices difficult because of the responsibilities we have assumed. Regardless, everyone must make decisions.
How do we decide? Consciousness always pursues what we believe is good, which depends on the values we have accepted. In this book I am recommending that the divine principles are the best values for a spiritual and fulfilling life, but the motivations previously discussed indicate that people often choose lesser, more selfish values. Also, emotion usually influences the evaluation process. The simplest way of judging is to divide things dualistically into good and bad or right and wrong. This simplistic response may result from previous conditioning by reward and punishment, acceptance of authoritative indoctrination, an emotional predisposition on the issue, etc. We may further jump to the conclusion that a person who represents an action that we believe is evil ought also to be judged or condemned as an evil person. To go that far violates spiritual principles, because we have no right to judge another soul. We must always differentiate the person from the action so that we can continue to love the person even though we disapprove of certain actions. Such personal judgments need to be released through forgiveness.
Good judgment is a careful evaluation of the facts and values of a situation so that we can make a wise decision. I liken the simplicity of the good-and-evil approach to viewing the world in black and white, when the world is really colorful. Color vision is like looking at each action and its effects or consequences. Then we can evaluate those consequences to see if that is what we want to create. In regard to other people’s actions, we can learn from their experience by observing how they handle the effects of their actions. As we evaluate, we can analyze our values according to divine principles and examine our own motivations. This requires honesty and even detached objectivity.
Some spiritual teachings treat the mind as our enemy, which it can be if it is misused. However, my observation is that emotions can be just as much or even more of a problem. Actually when they go haywire, they usually conspire together because of their combined conditioning. When the emotions become upset, the mind usually stops functioning clearly and tends to short-circuit and jump to conclusions or simply find only those reasons that support the dominant feeling while ignoring the rest. A sophisticated mind can use complex rationalizations and subtle ratiocination to argue for what is felt. This can be a great abuse of the reasoning process by turning useful tools into polemical weapons. On the other hand, the mind can become so programmed with indoctrination that its mind-set will resist our natural and spontaneous feelings that are attempting to tell us we need to make an adjustment. Cold hard-headed thinkers who believe they know the answers may ignore the feelings of the heart and pursue cruel policies without flinching. Because of conditioning, their emotions are programmed to support their ideology, repressing natural feelings. Feelings are more flexible, adaptable and easily swayed than the mind which tends to be stubbornly resistant or clever and tricky. Good evaluation requires that we be sensitive to our feelings and objective in our thought without being dominated by either one. We need to consciously learn to let our spiritual qualities of love and understanding be in control, not our anger, fear, prejudice, dogma, etc.
Because values are freely chosen and therefore subjective, such judgments are not objective knowledge. Various people may have different values and therefore different views on the same issues. The judgments held by a person may be called beliefs or convictions; when they are expressed to someone else, they are opinions or advice. Because we all make decisions based on our evaluations, in the realm of values we all have beliefs and cannot help but develop belief systems. Some people say they want to try to live without any belief system; yet to attempt to do so is already a contradiction, because such a policy already is a belief–believing one should act without a belief system. Probably the only way to live without belief would be to imitate a vegetable. However, as we shall discuss in the next section, it is useful to challenge and question our own beliefs as well as others’. Also, distinguishing between our own freely chosen values and those that others would impose on us with their opinions and advice helps us to develop our integrity, autonomy, and responsibility. Also we need to be careful not to impose our beliefs on others unless asked or in a situation appropriate for the expression of opinions. This is why an authentic spiritual master will not tell someone what to do, because to do so robs that person of the opportunity of choosing and taking responsibility. Of course, even the person who takes someone else’s advice is exercising free choice and is ultimately responsible anyway, but their conscious learning process may be delayed.
The other aspect of belief and opinion is when certain knowledge is lacking. This is believing something to be a fact, as distinguished from believing in something. Aside from freedom and values, even in the world of facts we are not consciously omniscient. Compared to total reality, what we consciously know is infinitesimal. We must depend on sense perception, memory, reasoning inferences, and intuition, all of which are limited and faulty. Thus to act in the world we must use the incomplete knowledge and reasonable beliefs that are available to us. For example, any information that is verbally told to us or that we read can never be more than belief of someone else’s word; yet we depend on such beliefs most of the time. Often when we do not have adequate knowledge on an issue we are facing, we may form an opinion based on estimates, conjecture, and inferences from what we do know and believe, hoping that with intuition we will be correct. How we check and examine beliefs and opinions is the subject of the next section.
Since we depend so much on beliefs, which may or may not be true, it is of the utmost importance that we take the precaution of doubting and questioning beliefs and opinions in order to verify them as best we can. First, we need to evaluate the factual accuracy of the information by using sensory observation to confirm if what is stated is actually working that way, memory to recall if it has been true in the past, reasoning to analyze the logical coherence between the concepts and actual events, and intuition to see if it rings true holistically. Second, we need to clarify the values that are implicit in the belief by examining the motives, purpose, and probable effects it will have on people. The pragmatic test of truth is whether it works, and the utilitarian test of ethics is whether it is beneficial for everyone.
By doubting and questioning, the mind is pursuing more information and knowledge so that wiser decisions can be made. History and experience show that we need to be especially skeptical when an institution or individual tells us that we should not question their authority. Since as individuals we are responsible for our every action, we have the right and even the moral obligation to use our intelligence to investigate any issue that concerns us. Too often we are mentally lazy and accept a conclusion that later proves to be faulty. Our questioning can be loving and in good faith in our quest for truth as long as we are not violating someone’s privacy when it does not concern us. If we trust in the truth, then our doubts and questions will never challenge our spiritual reality but only the false concepts and dogmas that hide the truth.
A questioning mind greatly accelerates our learning process, develops our thinking abilities, and widens our awareness, especially when we listen and observe attentively and are open to new evidence, ideas, and insights, even when they are different from our expectations. In other words, we need to keep our minds open and detached from the sway of emotions when we are processing new information so that we can accept it for what it is, understand it objectively, and assimilate and integrate it with our other knowledge before we judge or reject it. So often we criticize something before we really understand what it is, because we have already “taken sides” on an issue or against someone. When new evidence is presented, we ought to re-examine even our most cherished beliefs if it relates to them. By integrating new knowledge into our value system, our beliefs become stronger and more practical, because they become more in accord with reality. Doubt also helps to keep us humble, because we realize how little we really know.
How do we know that we know? How can we tell when our thoughts and beliefs have the certainty of knowledge? One way is through intuition, but even what we believe is intuitive knowledge needs to be checked to be sure we are not fooling ourselves.
Let us look at some of the different kinds of knowledge. Knowledge of something means merely to be acquainted with the subject. Descriptive knowledge is to have knowledge about something. Scientific knowledge knows what or that something is true. Technical skill knows how to do something. Even more complete scientific and philosophical knowledge knows why something happens by understanding the causes. Ethical and spiritual knowledge knows what is best and therefore what ought to be done. Finally spiritual wisdom knows the ultimate and eternal truths and principles.
First of all, all knowledge is best tested by experience. If actual events contradict something, then it cannot be knowledge unless the apparent contradiction can be explained coherently. Our descriptions of experience can be compared to others’ to see if they agree. If we experience something that others do not, then we have personal knowledge. Technical knowledge is easily tested by accomplishing the task at hand; efficiency is a useful criterion. Scientific knowledge is supposed to be universal so that it can be applied by anyone in various situations. Thus science attempts to focus on specific variables with carefully controlled experiments to verify hypotheses and does not claim knowledge until they are proven. Yet any exception can shatter the proof. Determining the causes of events is much more tricky, especially because of their multiple factors. Physical science attempts to isolate the mechanical, physicochemical causes. In psycho-social events the factors are much more complex, as philosophies of values and freedom come into play. Statistics and probabilities cannot give certain knowledge of the future or even a complete analysis of all the causes in the past. Perhaps thorough self-analysis by individuals is the closest we can come to knowledge of psychological causes.
Many believe that ethical and spiritual questions are always issues of belief and conviction and therefore cannot enter the realm of knowledge. Yet it must be true that God exists or God does not exist. As explained in the first part, I hold that God exists. Certainly God has knowledge about spiritual principles and values. If God can know these things, and since we are divine as part of God, then we also can understand spiritual principles and values. However, knowledge of eternal truths and abstract principles is much different than the factual knowledge of specific events. Spiritual truths must hold always and everywhere and must cohere together and not contradict any other truths or facts. They can be tested by applying them to life in all its dimensions to see if they work in practice and help to explain the meaning of reality. Once true spiritual knowledge is realized, its certainty is much more powerful than any factual knowledge could possibly become, because it comes from the reality of our being, which is divine essence.
Even knowledge, whether it be technical, scientific, rational, or intuitive, can be misused and cause us problems. Just because we know one thing that is true does not mean that we understand its relation to everything else in the whole. We can be expert in one field and yet be ignorant of other pertinent areas. Thus knowledge, logic, and reasoning can trap us into thinking we comprehend a situation when in fact we understand only one aspect. Yet this knowledge may give us confidence to act, even though we are ignorant of all the ramifications of our deed. For example, we may think we understand the scientific and technical issues of a problem but disregard the ethical implications, which eventually may be scientific as well in terms of ecology. Or, we may understand philosophical theory and ethics but be ignorant in not finding a practical solution.
Thus we must learn how to synthesize and integrate what we do know, combining facts and values in such a way that we achieve a holistic harmony that is accurate, practical, and beneficial to everyone concerned. We must be especially aware of belief systems that seem logical and consistent but may be based on a false or limited premise. For example, those who believe that children require corporal punishment in order to be taught how to behave properly usually also believe in capital punishment for criminals, “just wars” to promote our way of life, and nuclear weapons to deter our enemies. All of these beliefs have logical explanations and are consistent with each other, but they are all based on fear rather than love–fear that people are innately evil and will not behave well unless they are scared by threats of punishment. Thus they are afraid that our love will not be able to solve our problems without violence. Long strings of logical arguments may make a policy seem persuasive, but a fresh viewpoint may challenge its very foundations by disagreeing with its premises.
To achieve holistic synthesis we need to integrate scientific and technological knowledge with psychological processes, social responsibilities and their implied ethical and spiritual values. Often our own feelings and those of others who respond to our actions may tell us that something is amiss and needs examining. Our mind has a great capacity for adding new information and interrelating it with what we already know. To think intelligently we need not only to analyze the parts but also to synthesize them into a whole by understanding as many interconnections and relationships as we can. Why does someone differ from our views? How is their experience different? What are their values and motives? What areas of agreement do we have? How can we learn more about the situation? What can we do to communicate more effectively? What compromises are likely? What are probable scenarios of the future? What do past experiences teach us about this situation? These and so many more questions can be asked in order to facilitate the process of holistic synthesis.
Although wisdom includes intuition and will (See the next two chapters.) as well as feeling, let us discuss it here, because it is also the greatest potential of the mind. Wisdom requires will, because it is not merely knowledge of what is best but also action. To know what is right and not do it could hardly be called wisdom. Just as true courage is wise, wisdom is impotent without courage. Thus wisdom goes beyond holistic synthesis by applying that balanced knowledge in practical ways. Intuitive wisdom can guide us to what is best by direct spiritual perception even when reason falters. Yet it is always wise to let reasoning check and help us understand how our insights relate to our other knowledge and values. Our feelings mediate between the mind and the body and must always be taken into consideration, because, positive or negative, they communicate so much about our present state of consciousness.
Through the gathered wisdom of all past experience and present awareness, the soul can integrate our thoughts, feelings, and intentions, draw upon spiritual inspiration, and commit our energies to loving action. Then from each new experience lessons can be gained for future reference. Life is trial and error, and we often learn from our mistakes more than from our successes. Yet if we are wise, we can also learn vicariously from other people’s mistakes and successes. It has been said that the wise person learns more from the fool than the reverse. Thus our primary responsibility is to learn, not to teach. If we learn well and become wise, probably others who wish to become wise will learn from us; then we can share. Yet the test of wisdom is in the decisions we make and the actions that result. By our works we will be known, by whether they are successful and beneficial. Ultimately, of course, God alone is wise, and our paltry little deeds can at best reflect a relative and partial wisdom. Nonetheless we cannot help but grow in wisdom by the accumulation of experience until we merge with God.
Copyright © 1987 by Sanderson Beck
LIFE AS A WHOLE:
II. The Individual