Tuesday, April 10, 2012

External and Internal Intentionality

In my last post I contrasted knowing and willing.  To clarify the meaning of that post, here I will consider another contrast, i.e. between the externally directed and internally directed will. 

The externally directed will is a tool for obtaining our wants and needs.  Willing is different from wanting, in that it develops strategies -- sometime very simple, sometime quite complex -- for obtaining wanted items.  In its more complex forms, it becomes “intentionality” – which consists in a consciously determined goal and a strategy for obtaining the goal.  

As an example of such intentionality, I had an acquaintance who, upon graduating from College, set his goal as being the president of a significant organization by the time he was forty.  About six week before he turned 40, he was in fact hired as the head of such an entity.    All of his career decisions had been guided by that one goal. 

At a larger scale, we have goals such as building a bridge across a river or a bay, or landing people on the moon.  That the human mind can conceive such endeavors and then manipulate the world to accomplish these plans, is perhaps Nature’s greatest accomplishment to date.  It also represents something of a mystery – how is it that an idea can cause such transformations of the physical world?

Willing or intentionality can also be directed inward.  Here the goal is not the transformation of the physical world to make it more attuned to our wants, but to transform our selves.  This can be an alternate way of satisfying our desires – rather than transforming the world so it is more attuned to satisfying our wants, we transform our self so that we have only the desires the world can readily satisfy.  Such inner directed intentionality is common to many forms of spirituality (though in many traditions there is a point where one must turn one’s willing over to a “Higher Power”).

As a matter of speculation, the development of intentionality is probably some form of “bio-cultural” evolution.  In such evolution, there is a dynamic interaction between the Darwinian biological evolution and accompanying changes in the culture milieu of the hominids thus evolving.  I suspect, though, that the Darwinian evolution of intentionality was strictly toward externally directed intentionality – which has proven such a powerful tool of adaptation and survival.   The inner directed form was a cultural discovery.  (This is not terribly different from saying that the redirection of our sexuality from its Darwinian purpose of reproduction, to our own purpose of pleasure and enhancing relationships, is a cultural discovery.)

As mentioned above, the outer and inner direction of our intentionality are two alternative ways for people to satisfy their needs and wants.  Our culture is mostly dedicated to the outer way.  There have been cultures, however, that were nearly as dedicated to the inner way – e.g. Tibet and much of India prior to the modern era.  The two strategies are not mutually exclusive, though it would be a rare person who could have a high level of success at both. 

(Note: For my life, I have chosen the second strategy; the purpose of this blog is largely to discuss how one can integrate this alternative into a culture that has such a scant understanding of it.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Knowing and Willing

In my previous post, I wrote “Yet thinking about the explanatory value of spirits reveals that there is a significant difference between the idea of good spirits and bad spirits, and this difference is rather interesting.”  I concluded that to an extent bad spirits are used to explain bad things like disease, death, and bad human behavior.  Good spirits, on the other hand, are less explanatory; they are more often meant to inspire good behavior.

Dwelling on this idea further, I have come to see it as stemming from another, more basic distinction: the difference between knowing and willing.  Further, I think a deep understanding of the difference between knowing and willing is critical to understanding the difference between the scientific and spiritual points of view.  To put it bluntly, science is a method of knowing – certainly the most powerful and effective method of knowing available to humans.  Spirituality is largely about willing – about redirecting our natural energies away from material ends and toward spirit itself (spirit here refers to our ability to attend and intend).

There was a time when the goal of scientific knowing was at least partly the discovery (creation) of ideas that would lead to sublime contemplation.  Contemplation itself (which from the time of Pythagoras to the Nineteenth Century was the activity par excellence for humans) is the balance of knowing and willing.  To contemplate requires a disciplined, self-governed mind.   While the discoveries of modern science are still marvelous objects of contemplation, to create marvelous objects of contemplation is not why science is paid the big bucks.  (The arts and humanities, it would seem, do not see it as their job to create objects of contemplation either, though to do so may be the sole reason they get any bucks at all.)

For the person whose main goal is to live more intently and attentively, which is to say more contemplatively and spiritually, science offers little assistance.   To the extent that people seek assistance, they are most likely to find it among the ancient traditions: e.g. the Stoics, Neo-Platonists, and Desert Fathers in the West, the Yogis, Zen Buddhists, Taoists in the East.  In these traditions, disciplines dedicated their life to willing their beings into a particular kind of existence – a fullness of being that required a liberation from the imperatives of the body’s many appetites and desires.  (In contrast, the modern complex of the market economy and its servants -- the researchers, inventors, and marketers -- are fully dedicated to encouraging us to give ourselves fully and regularly to the body’s imperatives.)

For those whose goal is knowledge, the ideal is factual knowledge.  For those who seek spiritual being, the ideal is the authentic attainment of such of being.  Scientific knowledge is not particularly valuable for the latter – people were attaining the truth of being for thousands of years before the advent of modern science.  But in this endeavor, a good myth can be of considerable value.  And contemplation is still the state where the state where the two meet on equal and productive terms.