Gnosticism today

This ancient idea is something I have been thinking about for a long time. But, as I tried to write about it, its ways of infiltrating various schools of thought, and its apparent power to shape our outlooks even today, the text kept spiralling out of control. This is at least the fifth attempt after letting it all sit for a few months.

Gnosticism, an ancient idea

Ancient Greek: γνωστικός gnostikos, “having knowledge”; γνῶσις gnōsis, “knowledge”. Gnosticism is an ancient and secretive selection of teachings about reality with a specific way of looking at life and people, and probably describes the way you think (at least a little).

In a Gnostic version of creation, our flawed material world was created by accident. The pure “spark” of the divine was trapped within it, and is trying to escape. Most people are just “sacks of meat, sleepwalking through life”, while a select few have a connection to that original spark, and the potential to realise their true nature, but they must find a teacher with the keys to unlock the “secret” knowledge required.

In Gnosticism things like good and evil are not just in opposition, but equal in power. As a result, the “good” spiritual (spirit, soul, essence) and “evil” material (the flesh, the physical world) can never be reconciled; they are pitted against one another in battle – so we must choose our side carefully.

Infiltration

This view of reality resonates with people, so Gnosticism easily found its way into religion and philosophy. In a Gnostic interpretation of Christianity Judas was the hero, responsible for “freeing Christ’s spirit from his bodily prison”.

A more common example is interpreting “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” as proof of a battle between the spiritual and physical, which many consider to be a fundamental part of religion: all physical things are bad and shameful, while only spiritual endeavours are pure.

This can a captivating narrative, especially when coming from a charismatic source. It plays on insecurities, and makes big promises. It is a call to battle in a hidden war, and tells you that you have the power to do something about it, because you might have something others lack.

The other way

But, there is another, competing idea. It is a more universal, or holistic way of thinking, and interprets things like “God created the world and saw that it was good” as meaning that the physical aspect of reality is fundamentally good, and that together with the spiritual aspect they both form integral parts of reality, or of a person. When there is harmony between the two, things are good. Evil is not as powerful, but it is sneaky, and can seduce us – leading to a perversion of our gifts.

The Gnostic way of “thinking”:

  • things are divided into opposing sides (good/evil, spirit/flesh, elite/common)
  • horrific conflict is inevitable, and either side can win
  • “advancing” in life requires access to hidden knowledge
  • only the elite (“high priests”) hold the key to this knowledge
  • only the truly special among us can unlock “the secret”

The “universal” way of thinking:

  • everything forms part of a bigger picture, which is basically good
  • harmony is possible, conflict comes from our weakness
  • advancing in life requires humility and hard work
  • knowledge and truth are all around us
  • we are all equal in value; becoming more than you start out with is up to you

The universal idea can be found everywhere. In Zen Buddhism, zazen (a simple meditative practice) tells its practitioners that “they are not doing anything special,” and that feelings of progress actually mean one has taken a step backwards. In Judaism a person is not a soul trapped in a body, but a body and a soul, which is why the theology envisions an end time where people once again have bodies (either their old ones or new ones). In Christianity “salvation is for everyone” (not just chosen ones); you must simply “carry your cross”, and there are no shortcuts.

As for the yin and yang of the east, it is true that they are equal and opposed, but they are not in a conflict that will lead to a victor; they are complementary, with each containing part of the other (the small circle within each colour). Both form part of the whole, and the natural state of things is harmony.

The small distinction between a Gnostic way of thinking and a more universal perspective has massive consequences for the way we think about everything: life, work, success, spirituality, religion, and practically anything connected with the human condition (even politics).

Gnostic “thinking” today

It is hard to say if the ancient idea of Gnosticism influences how we think today, or if it is just an accurate description of how we already think. Also, the Gnostic story of conflict, secrets, power, and being special really sells.

In advertising we are consistently tempted by the “secret to happiness”, “the thing the health industry doesn’t want you to know about”, and “the X number of things successful people do everyday”. In the news we get reports that the world is on fire, and are constantly provoked to outrage at what the “other side” is doing, allowing ourselves to be convinced that people who probably agree with 90% of what we think are in fact horrible monsters.

In entertainment it is present in The Da Vinci Code (everything is a conspiracy locked in a riddle), Harry Potter (a special few in the world of the mundane, non-magical “muggles”), and, years ago, in Jonathan Livingston Seagull (the bird who sensed life was more than just eating, and went on to discover great power from his esoteric teachers).

In revolutionary academics it appears in the never-ending battle of class, sex, or race (presented by some “high priests” of education to the “select” students enlightened enough to understand it), with no hope of resolution other than tearing everything down.

All of this makes sense in Gnosticism, which sees a treacherous balance between opposing sides, and no middle ground (“if you’re not for us, you’re against us”). It focuses on differences, rather than commonalities, and sees reality as something “problematic”.

Conclusion

For those who don’t reflect on this, it can seem obvious that there are two “teams” at war, and that the trick in life is to pick the right side. Putting things into dualistic Gnostic terms may be something we do intuitively, and I admit I can feel the excitement of it, especially when I think about being one of the “chosen” ones who will someday discover his “true powers”.

But, then I think about how we see what we want to see: a Gnostic thinker sees conflict everywhere, a first year psychology student spots neurotics at every turn, and a liar suspects everyone of deceit. A universal perspective, when thought all the way through, can seem a little dull, with ego-bruising ideas like “your insecurities might be a bigger obstacle than your so-called enemies”, and the painful fact that improving yourself can be quite uncomfortable on a physical and personal level. However, if this means living in a world where things and people are basically good, and where we have ownership over our own lives, regardless of what we or others think we are capable of doing, is this not more positive and empowering?

Do you see religion and culture solely as systems of power and shaming, or (also) as a part of our history, psychology, and evolution? Do you see politics as a way of fighting against the morons on the other side, or as a way of building bridges? Do you see a nuanced position as a way for someone to hide their true opinion and manipulate (instead of just getting to the point), or an attempt at looking at a difficult concept honestly?

If you gravitate to the former in all the previous examples, you might think that most people just don’t get it; they are just zombies and slaves to the mediocre, and it is OK if some of them are sacrificed. Today we can sacrifice someone’s reputation at the altar of our cause, using on-line means to take away someone’s dignity, rob them of their humanity, and threaten their livelihood. Innocents may be caught in the middle, but such is the price we must pay…

Gnosticism is a fascinating collection of ideas with a rich history, and convincingly creates and inspires modern myths. However, in everyday life it can take us in a dark direction. It doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt when we disagree with them, and too often it looks for external blame when we feel like something is missing in our own lives. When I hear of “echo chambers”, I think about Gnosticism and its power to inspire someone to dig their heels in and defend a position, as if the conflict itself is proof of their righteousness. This provides a kind of meaning (which we humans thirst for), but where does it take us in the long run?

The universal way may take longer, and require us to remain vigilant with regard to our own hearts and minds, but it is not racked with guilt. When considering a general “truth of the world”, a simple question to ask is, which one truly sets you free?

If the world is basically good, the truth should not always feel like a heavy burden and a call to war. If the “truth” you discover just weighs you down more and more, you should wonder whether it is the real truth. Truly breaking out of the cage is hard; the ego cries out, but ultimately the person is liberated from bondage. Truly opening your eyes can be a shock, and waking up is not pleasant, but if you open your eyes only to see the walls of a new prison (of rules, guilt, shame, and pain) you are probably still dreaming – or perhaps having a Gnostic nightmare.

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The Mini Happiness Challenge

A challenge was issued to me:

“You want to be happier?
Buy less. Eat less. Talk less.
You think this will make you more miserable than you are?
Try it.”

I thought eating less would be the hardest…

The Ungrateful Host

A story by Carl Anthony (used with permission)

A man with a good job and comfortable life who lives alone feels like his life lacks meaning. So, he decides to do something radical. Every Friday after work he invites some of the homeless people he sees every day to his modest apartment for a warm dinner, and listens to whatever they have to say. This provides food, warmth, and human contact to his guests, and some social connection and purpose for him.

Things go well. The guests become real people to him, with names and incredible stories, and far less scary than they once were. There is even hope that this might, in some way, help one or two get off the street: ideas are sparked in conversation, connections are discovered between people they know, and the more they see each other as human beings, the more they renew their own faith in humanity.

From time to time things go missing from the apartment after these Friday visits, but this was to be expected, and is nothing compared to the man’s original worst fear of people lining up day and night in front of his door asking for handouts.

But then, he starts to see a pattern. People from a certain part of the city, who dress a certain way which he can now discern, appear to be stealing far more than the rest. What should he do? He is torn, because any solution he can think of on his own feels like it will be unfair to someone.

Alone in his apartment, he finds it hard to sleep.


This is where the story ends. The parallels to everyday situations and current events are obvious, but in philosophy it can be nice to use a simplified version of a situation as a laboratory to test ideas.

So, my breakdown of his options was as follows:

  1. Do nothing. Things can be replaced. People are more important.
  2. Keep an eye on those you suspect, or everyone, so no one has the chance to steal.
  3. Search suspected guests, or everyone, before they leave.
  4. Stop inviting those who seem to steal more frequently.
  5. Cancel the Friday dinners.

All good laws, rules, and policies find the best possible balance between the prevention of harm, and the limitation of freedom. The extremes of either (trying to prevent all possible harm, or trying to limit all freedom) are positively suffocating to both society and individuals.

But, all of my options fell flat with me, because after the negative actions of a minority, we end up having to decide which innocent party will suffer most in the future.

It is like our choice only revolves around choosing who gets the short end of the stick:

  • the host, who covers the losses;
  • some or all of the “good” guests, who lose their dignity when they are watched or searched; or
  • innocent members of the so-called “bad” group which seems to be taking advantage of the situation.

All of these choices could lead to bitterness over time, and even drastic action by normal people who are just fed up, including the host, who might just get sick of the whole thing despite all the good things that have already happened.

We could create a chart to measure the economic and emotional cost of all the options, but then the challenge is “measuring” factors like emotional cost. Everything is either too “coldly rational” to represent a human being’s actual experience, or too “emotional and subjective” to be useful in more than one specific scenario.

I was at a loss to find a better strategy for handling this situation, and started to feel pessimistic about the similar but more complex versions of this problem we face in everyday life. But then, as I struggled with the title of the story, the Ungrateful Host, (not the Ungrateful Guests), I wondered if I had missed something completely.

Why is the host ungrateful? The man may start off alone, but there is no good reason he should end up alone. He is ignoring the great resource of the community he has become a part of, and by seeing himself as alone he has placed himself above the rest.

Here, all parties involved could be active subjects in the conversation, but he is reducing them to objects: people to be dealt with, punished, protected, etc. In this story, the guests may have a unique insight, be able to explain things with a fresh perspective, and even provide some innovative solutions.

This is the opportunity the host missed, and though it seems a bit harsh, maybe that is why it is he who is “ungrateful”.

Taboo: intelligence differences among genders and races

I have been reading about this recently, partially because of the protests against Charles Murray. I agreed with everything people were protesting, but did not see a clear connection between that and what Murray actually said. He seemed rather tame compared to what he was being accused of.

Gender and race differences are socially acceptable when speaking about physical abilities, but not when speaking about intelligence. We can accept that our bodies evolved and were adapted to suit their environments (and see the results in sports), but we consider intelligence to be sacred and off limits.

It turns out that differences in intelligence are not that interesting. They are small, with great overlap, and likely have social causes as their major influencing factors – from family values to the success of state-funded support systems. They are taboo because every study produces some differences between groups and these differences, no matter how small, can be abused by people with an agenda to promote sexist and racist views. According to some, that’s why we shouldn’t even talk about them.

If you assume that people are unwilling or incapable of treating each other as equals, then you can assume that all differences in representation (more people of any group in a given field) are always proof of injustice. Interestingly, if you hold this view long enough and have enough influence, the “Pygmalion effect” can prove you right. Tested in the classroom, this effect showed that a strong expectation by a teacher regarding the good or bad potential performance of their young students, when maintained over a sufficient period time, led to the expected results. If this applies equally to social interactions, this means that if we “see” sexism and racism everywhere, and with enough conviction, we could actually be creating it too.

The story of James Damore’s Google memo could have been titled, “Google Engineer Thinks Changes to the Workplace Could Attract More Intelligent Women to Tech”, but instead many headlines read, “Google Engineer says Women Biologically Unfit for Tech.” How much conflict was created by the memo, and how much by the coverage? Did our desire to find sexism contribute to it? Certainly, some people saw the headline as confirmation of their sexist beliefs…

But, if you think that people are generally good and give them the benefit of the doubt with regard to their intentions, you get the mundane and probably correct: some is nature, some is nurture.  The ratio between the two is unknown, so intelligence or ability testing measures a portion of both.

What I learned about interpreting test results or measuring demographics:

  • results of testing depend on how you define “intelligence”, and what kind(s) of intelligence you are measuring
  • testing can be biased, and results can depend on who created the test
  • if you keep the test exactly the same, the results for any group can go up every generation (usually every 20-25 years), and that can’t be genetic
  • the divides between gender and race in any field of expertise, from intellectual to physical, are partly determined by nature and nurture, but also by personal preference (formed from a complex combination of life experiences)
  • entering any field or area of expertise, from intellectual to physical, may require some minimum level of ability (meaning some people will be excluded), but the most successful people in a field do not necessarily have the highest scores in those measures; overall success is strongly connected to other factors like ambition, discipline, and determination (so, the best athletes in a given sport are not necessarily the strongest or fastest, as is the case with soldiers)
  • because of the complicated nature of most professions, intelligence in any one area can only indicate the probability of high performance in another (e.g. high mathematical intelligence and being a good architect); but no one factor can predict overall success.

Perhaps we should be fighting for a healthy form of capitalism, in which employers are looking to hire the best people to create the most successful teams, and must therefore look at people individually, case-by-case, because a good candidate is a complicated combination of ability, desire, will, resilience, etc. These qualities can be cultivated over time, so personal history matters, and this must be taken into account.

I think we can also look at statistical differences between groups as a way to find deficiencies in our social networks, which can then be improved. If just considering differences between groups is considered racist or sexist, we could miss out on this opportunity.

There is also an intimidation factor that is created when we talk about something all the time. If we say ad nauseam that tech is a male-dominated sexist environment (I’m sure it is some of the time, but not all of the time), then some normal women who could do well there will be discouraged from even trying. Not everyone wants to “fight the good fight” and be a hero, some people just want to do an interesting job, pay their bills, and have a nice life.

Despite the deficiencies we see in today’s modern world, I hope we don’t take a step backwards by forgetting all the progress we have made so far. Certainly, we need to stay vigilant, especially in raising children to understand that the opportunities are there but require hard work, that there will always be personal challenges and moments that feel unfair, and that all people must be treated fairly and with dignity.

Finally, sometimes the diversity within a society’s professions shows how healthy a it is, not how sick.

A Tale of Two Giants – Harris meets Peterson

On January 2 and March 13 Jordan Peterson was a guest on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast. The particular styles of these two are very unique and charismatic, so the talk was burdened by great anticipation and expectations for something extraordinary to happen.

When their starting points seemed so incompatible, many wanted to know which of them was “right”. But, sometimes people can say differing things and both be “right”, like two people on opposite points of a map who are asked which direction leads to the mountain in the centre. I don’t mean this to be the kind of relativism that says, “Everyone is right in their own way, because everything is subjective,” because I think the mountain in the centre of their conversation is objectively there, and worth climbing. When one points east and the other points west, a look at the intended destination can at least yield some fruit.

I admit that sometimes this effort is a waste of time and energy, but you can only find out after the fact. Bridging the gap and creating some kind of unifying and complete context between views involves facts (pure information), empathy (an emotional understanding of someone’s motivation), and creativity (which occasionally “stretches” the truth too much). Finally, we must combat bias and information overload. This is a lot to ask.

In Peterson and Harris’ first conversation they struggled with “truth”. Harris insisted on an empirical, objective definition of truth before taking any further steps in a conversation on reality. Peterson insisted on measuring “how true something is” by its ultimate effect on our survival. Harris provided abstract, thought-experiment type examples to clarify (a typical philosophical tool). Peterson countered that these were “micro examples” (too far removed from reality to ascertain whether or not they truly contributed to our net survival). It was like watching two athletes trying to play two different sports at the same time.

Perhaps Peterson’s insistence on measuring a given “truth” by its impact on us and our survival was a “move” (in the game) which would have allowed him to argue in favour of preserving some mythological and religious narratives, because of their potential positive psychological benefits to us and our survival. This kind of initial position allows these narratives to be “true” for us regardless of how true they are in an empirical or factual sense – so the way we “live” these stories matters more than our scientific understanding of them.

Heidegger argues similarly, saying that a botanical analysis of a beautiful field is “less true” than what a person experiences when walking through it in real-time; we “truly” understand things by “living” them, and we are fooling ourselves if we think we can stand outside of reality and time as impartial observers. This is the basis of the conflict between an objective, scientific perspective (the Enlightenment’s ultimate authority) and a “lived” perspective (which Heidegger’s phenomenology values somewhat more, and has now been co-opted by some of postmodernism as the “only” perspective).

Another way of looking at it is through the lens of chess. Losing a queen for a pawn is objectively bad, but making this sacrifice to achieve check-mate is objectively good. On one level it is “true” that this is a bad move (empirically, if we take the move out of time, and out of the context of a “lived” game being played), while on another level this is a good move (because it led to the victory, or “survival”, of our pieces). Though this might hover too closely to utilitarianism, which would kill a few to save many, it partially illustrates the idea.

Or, take the rehabilitation of a drug addict. What is the most effective method? Give facts about the biochemical damage to the body, sociological statistics on quality of life, and psychological information about drug abuse in society and its effects on others, OR provide a compelling narrative the addict must live out by surrendering a part of himself to become an archetypal hero of his own story? It depends on the addict. Harris gives the facts, outside of emotion. Peterson gives the narrative, full of emotion. Successful recovery stories vary, like the directions of travellers, but there seems to be a common mountain they are heading towards.

For me, the “mountain” or common goal of these two men is to empower people against the darkness of that specific ignorance which comes from false ideas backed by dangerous ideologies; for us to reclaim the life that is our birthright. But, while Harris wants to suck the power out of potentially damaging narratives and destroy them before they do any more harm, Peterson wants to focus the latent potential energy in some of them to propel us to new (and sometimes forgotten) heights.

They both have followers who genuinely benefit from their respective approaches, and also followers who just want to be on the right “team”, so they can lash out at and bash others. Many who did just that obviously did not notice the civility expressed by both Sam and Jordan in their sometimes frustrating conversation; in their sincere desire to converge, and their willingness to do a potentially painful round two. Peterson was at a disadvantage, though, because he seemed to see the exchange as important, and probably hoped to have an impact on an influential intellectual. Harris, on the other hand, was able to just sit back and try to learn why people wanted so much for them to speak in the first place.