By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Humans constantly seek new knowledge both as organized impressions of the world around us or inside of us, and as skills, mental adaptations for survival. We began as a distinct primate species with a deep thirst for knowledge about a hundred thousand years ago. Ten thousand years ago the accumulation of knowledge led to the domestication of animals, plants and the emergence of human culture. Some of the things our ancestors learned expanded the breadth of their capabilities: cultivation of the soil, caring for plants and animals, shaping stone and wood in tool making, predicting the cycles of nature and the weather, defending the tribe from dangerous animals and hostile humans. Some of these skills were acquired in depth by those who specialized as farmers, herders, craftsmen or warriors. Some persons reached for higher knowledge. Those were the early philosophers, scientists, or religious innovators. They brought new things to life: written language, mathematics, music, painting on cave walls, and the concept of God. They augmented the height of knowledge, compared to breadth and depth, inventing new concepts (expressed in language or experienced as raw thoughts) which enable us to solve new problems of greater difficulty and universality.
Higher order thoughts have more power to enrich us (materially, mentally, and spiritually), bringing us as social beings to greater harmony and perfection, and to advance our abilities to survive in an unpredictable and often dangerous world. Such lofty thoughts were: the use of fire, the wheel, metals, computation, poetry, music, drama, justice, relativity, and religious prophecies that guide our paths to virtue. (Can you imagine the vision and courage of that first individual who, in spite of animal fear, approached fire and handled it?)
Starting with lower order thoughts, our children in each generation go through a replay of our mental evolution after they are born, as they went through the evolution of the body while in the womb (from one-celled organism at conception, to a colony of cells, simple differentiation of tissues into a worm-like creature, then amphibian, early mammal, to a completely human form with tiny but perfect hands and feet–and an oversized brain). After birth the baby behaves pretty much like any new-born mammal, sleeping, sucking milk, exploring its environment with eyes and limbs, and crying to communicate its needs. After six months, though, the human baby distances itself from a chimpanzee baby mentally. It smiles, laughs, begins to make sounds like the beginnings of speech and uses its hands to manipulate objects.
The replay of evolution continues with the baby walking upright from a crawl, then talking in simple words and sentences, dancing to music, and scrawling paintings on the walls of the house much like the early cave dwellers, but not much appreciated by the parents. Elementary education begins with writing, reading, and arithmetic, followed in secondary education by algebra, history and essay writing. Thus the child acquires breadth of knowledge, and if formal education ends with high school or earlier, the young person specializes in vocational skills and learns to do a job working with wood, pipes or machinery, gaining depth of knowledge in the use of materials.
A big gap in knowledge emerges between the blue collar worker and the white collar worker with a higher education. College enlarges breadth of thought with courses in the humanities; then specialized courses in a professional field, such as engineering, business, medicine and law increase both the depth and height of mental faculties. One professional worker can easily identify another professional as distinguished from a worker in ways of action and speech.
For most people, the rise in mental faculties ends with college graduation. Specialization, focusing in a narrow field of endeavor, continues with graduate school, but breadth usually stops expanding, and so does the heightening of thought. Professional workers need to compete in a narrow arena with highly focused skills and have no time to expand their minds or raise their level of knowledge. After thirty or forty years at work, they take their retirement and are too weary to pursue further intellectual adventures. Of course, some people pull away from this pattern of mental leveling, such as Buckminster Fuller, Grandma Moses, Winston Churchill, or Picasso.
What makes such people different from the rest of normally educated and intelligent masses? Can I specify more precisely what I mean by the height of thought? In the first place, height implies creativity. A higher thought introduces something new to the world—new and useful to society in solving important problems and satisfying major needs. This higher thought must be communicated, published; otherwise, its usefulness does not go far enough to qualify as important.
Second, a higher thought is often complex: it possesses more elements and the connections among the elements are more numerous and subtler. The brain has a similar complexity with its neurons and synapses. Complexity, however, is not enough. Many academics and other professionals, churning out papers to make an impression, produce Rube Goldberg structures of thought, structures without important meaning or function. True breakthroughs in thinking, as in evolution, occur when complexity is functional—it achieves an important adaptation. Moreover, if complexity is not needed for the adaptation, the innovative mind provides a simple solution: consider Einstein’s E=mc2 for the relationship between energy and mass with the simple constant of light speed. Complex thoughts have costs: more frequent breakdowns and mal-adaptations, more use of resources, more errors in replicating them, costs similar to those of the brains which produce such thoughts. Therefore, the survival value of complex thoughts to the individual or the community must exceed their costs.
Third, higher order thoughts provide more universal solutions to problems. Consider the plumber who stops a leak in the water pipes of your house. The plumber has used good skills acquired during some years of apprenticeship and gives you a valuable service for which your plumber is well paid. But the engineer who designed the water distribution system with knowledge of hydraulics is useful to more people and is better paid. Now the physicist who discovered the laws of hydraulics may have been a university professor at a low salary, although his work was far more valuable to the world. The scientist’s thoughts were of a higher order providing universal solutions to the problems of fluid motion.
Fourth, my definition of the height of thought includes mental adaptations in feeling, emotion and sentiment other than in logic and intellect. If you have learned to calm yourself by taking a few deep breaths, that’s worth a lot to you. A teacher who imparts the methods of yoga to classes of students to lower their stress levels and improve their health contributes even more to society. The Indian guru Patanjali reached a great height in human thought with the invention of yoga, because his postures and meditations improved human existence throughout the world for thousands of years.
The idea in yoga is that body, mind, and spirit (feelings) are interwoven in human nature. We cannot detach intellect from spirit without loss of effectiveness. Even in abstract mathematics and physics we speak of elegant solutions to problems. But art is worthwhile for its own sake. Our lives are immersed in music, colors and forms. We could not exist at a high state of consciousness without the fundamental advances made in musical instruments and techniques, in painting and architecture. Also religious concepts, such as that of God, Heaven, Salvation, and Hope, were invented to deliver us from fear and emotional turbulence, and as far as they do that, they are invaluable higher thoughts.
In times of great stress from tragedy, from disaster, from grave illness or death, the Lord’s prayer “Our Father Who Art in Heaven” or King David’s Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd” quiets the soul, then one can endure and carry on.
As we carry on with our work and reach up to scale problems others before us have not solved, we are apt to run into walls which appear to be insurmountable. Our inner fortitude pushes us on to strive for success. A fifth characteristic of high order thought emerges then, that of difficulty. Difficulty is often due to complexity, but it can also be there because the solution is very counter-intuitive, going against common sense and what we have been accustomed to thinking all our lives. Clearly, most of us are stopped by difficulties in achieving mental breakthroughs. Only a few individuals in each generation have the mental equipment and inner strength to produce truly innovative and universal thinking. And these geniuses also need luck.
Yes, luck–the sixth characteristic of breakthrough thinking. The genius needs to be the right person at the right time in the evolution of thought. This individual needs the luck to live long enough, not to die at childbirth or battle, or from a disease or accident. Genius is like a rare flower which blooms when the right soil of a social and intellectual garden is supplied. A child growing to higher thoughts is surrounded by parents, teachers and associates who encourage and inspire and a social fabric that supports and sustains the search for high-level performance. We admire Mozart’s works, but we would not have these if his father Leopold, also a composer, had not nurtured Wolfgang’s talent at a very young age.
You may say now, “I am no Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso.” I say, you don’t know how great you can be in your line of work until you try to be great. Again, you say, “And how do I arrange for good luck in life, especially for the right parents?” Now we come to the practical implications of everything I have discussed so far.
If you and I want to advance our thinking to higher levels, we need to behave differently from most people. Most people spend their precious lives in trivial pursuits: shopping for more products and services than they need, working long hours to make money for such commercial goods, gossiping, watching idiotic shows, eating to excess at home and in restaurants, day-dreaming, wasting time in fruitless sexual pursuits and other hollow ambitions. People read what is easiest to digest for simple entertainment, such as novels, magazine articles, the newspapers, The Readers Digest. They do little thinking of their own, forming their opinions and sentiments from what they read, hear and see around them. Our first step in raising our thinking then should be to abandon all indulgence in the mass media. Then as true philosophers, we come to grasp for fewer materials possessions and other commercial products, perhaps like Diogenes settling down to a life in a tub.
Thus relieved of the necessity making a lot of money and the time-robbing influence of the mass media, we can focus on the important things in life, such as finding peace, tranquility and the truth about everything which interests us deeply. In breaking out from normality, we must be ready to tackle mental and emotional tasks of increasing difficulty. When faced with difficulty in what they read, think, make or experience, most people quickly give up, unless their job depends on their persistence. But after securing their jobs or income, most people descend into lethargy, doing their familiar and habitual rituals. But not us!
For us, taking on greater challenges in thought each day is our daily ritual. When we have mastered a skill and it has become easy, we move on to some other task which is more difficult. Mental tasks are like lifting weights at the gymnasium. As you try to lift a bigger weight each time you exercise, you increase your muscle fitness and capacity. Of course, you don’t want to overstrain yourself and suffer damage to your body. How far can we take this effort? Eventually we reach a limit in muscle power increase due to our physical limitations. Is this the case in mental capacity too? Yes, if the mind is purely physical in its constitution. No, if the mind extends beyond the individual body to Universal Intelligence. In any case, we will not know how high we can jump unless we set the pole up a notch again and again.
Next, we make sure we don’t specialize in our knowledge too much. Overspecialization will rob our knowledge of height. Oh, sure, to compete successfully in any field, to publish in prestigious journals and win Nobel prizes, you need to specialize in a very narrow area of endeavor and write arcane papers. So, forget about getting fame and fortune. Bury competition, not the competition. Onward, let us go to becoming searchers after important truths, not social achievements. We just need to specialize enough to get to the frontier of knowledge in our area of interest; and we need to be acquainted well enough with other fields of thought to take advantage of cross-fertilizations between disciplines. With not too much depth, with not too much breadth, let us strive for the heights of knowledge.
As we scale the heights of thought, eventually ordinary language or even specialized terminology become incapable of helping with our mental processes. Concepts form in our heads, but we cannot express them in words to be found in Webster’s Dictionary. At this point we may invent new terms, probably from Greek or Latin roots, to formulate our concepts, as innovative philosophers and scientists have done in the past. Yet, some concepts cannot be expressed in terms of any language and cannot be communicated to others except by demonstration and silence. And these concepts may be the most potent of all.
Such concepts are obviously driving the ability of a specialist who has left his book knowledge behind in college and is practicing a profession after years of experience acquired from serving people. The surgeon may be totally inarticulate in explaining his procedures to others, but continues to perform miracles with his hands in the operating room. The master mechanic listens to the bad vibrations coming out of your car engine and somehow determines what part is at fault. Silently the mechanic looks at your car and at you for a moment, and then says, “I can fix that.” As Laotse put it, “Those who speak, don’t know; those who know, don’t speak.”
Certain concepts and sentiments which we know but cannot put into words can be expressed somehow with various art forms: music, dance, paintings and sculptures. In the arts too, you and I want to create and appreciate what is best and highest. Surely people enjoy a variety of styles and fashions in the arts; but some artistic expression is coarse, base, and common. And then we have the finest arts in any epoch or any land that raise our level of consciousness and make us better persons. Should we not seek what is highest in sentiments as we do in logical concepts, such sentiments as are stimulated and inspired by fine art in all its forms?
You say, “I listen to my music for enjoyment; I like to relax with popular songs or country music.” You may think there is nothing wrong with relaxing to pop, even country music; but if we want to elevate our souls to higher awareness, at least for a period of time more effort is required from us than simple listening as we adjust to more complex patterns of expression from the artist. As we continue to expose our minds to the finer arts we expand our sensitivity, our awareness of life, our emotional richness, and our creativity. (We get the opposite effects from vulgar entertainments.)
Our potential for emotional richness is part of our human heritage. We differ from animals in feeling as much as in intellect. Our feeling brain has evolved too after our separation from the chimpanzees and is closely in communication with our thinking brain. What is elegant, beautiful, and simple often guides the steps of research scientists and mathematicians, people we think of as intellectual workers. Physicists are accustomed to search for new ideas that show symmetry, completeness, and harmony–although such aesthetic concepts are not conditions for truth in science.
The search for universal truths in every field is the goal of higher thought and of philosophy, even though the end result may be some truths we perceive as repulsive, even grotesque. Higher thinking is like mountain climbing. We begin our hiking on low hills, and as we get our legs, we move to mountains ever higher as high as our capacity and training will permit, and beyond. Such a capacity is the best part of our human spirit, the aptitude to tackle challenges more difficult and perhaps more dangerous than we have seen before, giving meaning and purpose to our brief span of existence.