My early youth was characterized by the average American middle-class experience of the 1950’s and early 60’s. When I was four or five years old my interest in outer space and dinosaurs blossomed into an interest in science. Experiencing difficulties with the structured discipline of school, I put far more time and effort into my personal pursuits outside the classroom than in. My religious upbringing in the Episcopalian church was similarly typical, but I never had any interest in religion. It was later, probably around third or fourth grade, that I had consciously come to the position of rejecting the notion of a universe created and managed by a god. To my way of thinking, the explanatory power of science was sufficient. As to those questions it could not answer, it was my article of faith that understanding would come eventually, whereas within the traditional religious scheme, all of the most interesting questions were resolved by being declared mysteries, after which nothing was or would ever be explained.
Given my passion for science, science fiction was a natural leap. For a time it became a consuming passion up until my early high school years. Those who enjoy the genre can be divided roughly into two groups. There are the escapists who, just like those attracted to romance or adventure novels, delight in being transported away from the humdrum of day-to-day life to different times and places. Then there are the speculators. These are readers who view a novel’s plot as a scenario; how would I react in such a situation, how would society be better or worse if this or that were to happen, and so forth. I started with a curiosity about the future manifested as an escapist thrill, later taking a greater interest in those works that took a more serious look at the world as it is or could be, fueling an already developing interest in history, politics. and the larger realm of ideas. Coupled to the simple curiosity of knowing more about the world was another factor; an underlying dissatisfaction with what I perceived to be unnecessary degrees of chaos and destructiveness that seemed to characterize human affairs. It always seemed to me that life did not have to be the way it was. We could choose to live more reasonable, peaceful, and productive lives to explore the depths of the Earth’s oceans and those of space. So, I was always looking for an alternative to what was.
The Search for Something Better
One such opportunity seemed to present itself when in 1967 I read a prophesy made by Jeanne Dixon, a widely known psychic of the time famous for the supposed prediction of President John Kennedy’s
assassination in 1963, reprinted in the Sunday edition of the local paper. All of my interests, fueled by a full dose of young male adolescent immaturity, all seemed to converge and conspire leading me to seriously contemplate not only how to survive a nuclear war, but more importantly how the ultimate horror might become a ‘reset’ button for civilization, from which something better might arise. Even at the time I was cognizant enough of history to recognize that wars, revolutions, and natural disasters for all their terrible costs have played a fundamental role in the advancement of civilization as in the case of the bubonic plague, the scourge of western Europe, leading within several decades, to its revitalization and the Renaissance. As it was a time of ‘lowered tensions’ and relative optimism in the relationship between the West and the Soviet Union, such ideas seemed even to us then somewhat out of touch. What motivated our continued engagement was the recognition that the relationship between the two sides was by its nature unstable and could turn to open hostilities at some point in the future. The long-term value of this preoccupation was that it opened the door to the obvious question: if the society needs to be rebuilt, to avoid the mistakes of the past, what kind of political and economic system could be constructed to replace it?
For all of the thought and planning I never considered the war to be inevitable. What I envisioned was humanity standing at a fork in a road with one path diverting towards a negative outcome, likely war, and a more positive road where we would avoid war and in the effort create a better future for ourselves. As it would turn out I underestimated humanity’s ability to muddle through, which is to say, avoiding the worst while at the same time not gaining anything truly positive in the process. Still, I profited from the exercise coming to erect a measure of structure for my inquires based on the question “where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going” allowing me to follow any path of investigation where ever it might lead.
As with many us who came of age during the mid-60’s to early 1970’s, it was difficult not to become caught up in the excitement and idealism of the moment. As a personal response to my growing dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam, my attentions turned away from global Armageddon to protesting the war and becoming involved in far-left politics, which seemed to offer a better alternative to that of nuclear devastation. With a successful communist revolution the root of many of society’s ills could be addressed by the installment of a more equitable and less destructive social system. Within a couple of years however, I came to the realization that the revolutionary approach as well the ideology itself all to be a dead end.
In the Wilderness
The years between 1973 and March, 2007 I can only describe as my ‘wilderness years’. Besides the need to earn a living I lacked a personal sense of direction. I did however return to school part-time, first to study history, then philosophy eventually graduating with a double-BA in 1980. During much of this time I never wavered from my basic atheistic convictions, still when reading articles reflecting my own view point, I was puzzled when I found myself feeling uncomfortable. At issue was the question; is all of the perceived order of the world the outcome of just atoms and probability? These feelings were not of the kind felt by those who have the desire to find God, instead it reflected a sense something crucial was missing in the atheistic perspective, I just didn’t know what ‘that something’ was. In the course of my academic studies I became acquainted with a broad spectrum of outlooks – both religious and secular – dramatically expanding my intellectual horizons leading me to combine what I had learned from Asian religious-philosophical tradition with the western philosophical-scientific outlook. While offering me an enhanced understanding of the world and our place in it, still for me the picture remained incomplete.
The Road to Understanding
My first real breakthrough occurred in late December, 1990. Even after finishing school I continued to apply myself to the question of humanity’s place in the world when an idea came to me how our early ancestors became human. There have been numerous hypothesis presented such as a change of diet from plant matter to meat, climate change, tool use, bi-pedalism and so forth. As secondary or tertiary factors each played important roles, but as primary single driving mechanism, none made any sense. After all many modern day primates eat meat, use tools, and walk on two legs for brief intervals, and where even exposed to the same climatic challenges along with our early ancestors, yet it is we who house them in zoos and not the other way around. It occurred to me the primary driver was not one factor, but the interplay of four factors, which drove our linage along its unique path. In brief, the first factor was a genetic mutation and or epigenetic alteration where the behavior of our earliest ancestors became less constrained by their genetic inheritance allowing for a wider range of expression. The second factor was greater brain plasticity where new experience could be more readily be imprinted and retained. The third factor was with individuals having the potential to express a wider range of behaviors everyone had to adapt to a more dynamic social context further stimulating brain development. The fourth factor is found in the coupling of the first three factors to a generalized body structure leading our ancestors to adhere to a unique evolutionary strategy of modifying the environment to meet their needs. As a combined positive feedback mechanism, our ancestors became continuously exposed to an increasing variety of opportunities to exploit new resources setting the stage for tool development, which in turn, contributed to an increasingly complex social context thus presenting even more opportunities. Altogether there was established a powerful evolutionary dynamic that has propelled us to the point we are now and will continue to drive us in the future. Having gained this new perspective answers to crucial questions were now revealed to me, such as what technology and our relationship to it, our relationship to the natural world, to one another, and why we behave the way we do.
The second breakthrough occurred a short time later, though it would be eleven years before I would come to fully understand its implications. Included in my earliest surviving notes in June, 1996 I wrote;
“Unlike a newly born fawn the life of the human infant is not preordained in a cycle of physical or ecological determinism. For us the physio-social-mental context has replaced the mechanisms of built-in guidance. This has redefined our outward probing as a search for self-definition and meaning giving our behavior moral content thereby making it fundamentally spiritual.”
Moment of Awakening
As important as the connection was, I failed to appreciate its full significance until March of 2007. However, when the connection was finally made it provided me the answer to my earlier question about meaning, something that had been lacking in my earlier atheistic worldview. Meaning exists because we exist. We, not something else are meaning’s source because unlike anything else we lack a built in sense of place and purpose. We have to find it for ourselves.
Why it took the time it did I can only say it was just part of the process. Years before I had come to recognize that the atheistic position was as untenable as the theistic one, motivating me to shift my religious identification to non-theism. Non-theism represents a rejection of the question of whether God in any expression exists or not simply because an answer is impossible, rendering the question meaningless. Yet, there remained for me the impediment of continuing to think of spirituality in terms of religious faith. It was when I was able to see past thousands of years of tradition insisting that spirituality was the exclusive domain of religion that I was able to witness the question in its essential form, and in so doing I was no longer encumbered and now able to recognize how spirituality defines us. It was in that moment of realization Transitionalism came to be.
In the development of Transitionalism. the second breakthrough was more important than the first. But of even greater significance still was the lesson that ideas, as with all other things, are two-sided, being they can hold us down and trap us as well as set us free. It is only when we stand apart from our ideas, hold them off at arm’s length, deriving value, but refusing to become too attached that we can come to see ourselves, each other, and the world more clearly bringing light to the spiritual path we are all on.