Rethinking Psychology

How to shed mental health labels and create personal meaning

Dignity, Mystery, and Natural Psychology

Is human dignity possible in an indifferent universe?

It’s a common prejudice that a naturalistic worldview, one based on the ideas of science, empiricism, and the clear-eyed observation of the doings of our species, ruins life’s mysteriousness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. But this common prejudice in favor of a mysticism based on fear and wishful thinking continues to prevail. This chronic mysticism has not been taken to task often enough or loudly enough by previous psychologies.

The following is a typical expression of how a naturalistic worldview supposedly robs life of mystery. Sam Keen, writing about the contributions to philosophy of the theologian Gabriel Marcel, explained in Gabriel Marcel: Makers of Contemporary Theology:

“For Marcel, the results of a naturalistic way of thinking are disastrous for human dignity. As the capacity to love, to admire, and to hope dries up, the functional man loses the ability, and even the desire, to transcend his situation of alienation and captivity.

“His world loses its mysterious character, it becomes ‘purely natural,’ and all things are explained by reference to the categories of cause and effect. With the eclipse of mystery goes the atrophy of the sense of wonder. One may perhaps question and investigate a purely natural and functionalized world, but one may not stand in admiring awe with a sense of gratitude before a mechanism that will one day be completely understood.”

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This is the standard view and comes with certain unstated premises. The first premise is that man is incapable of growing up. He is apparently too childish or too cowardly to look life in the eye and would even stop loving, admiring, and hoping if he learned that the universe was indifferent to him. Learning that he didn’t matter as he had hoped to matter, he would instantly begin to sulk.

Man, in this view, is incapable of looking around him and acknowledging that he doesn’t know anything about “ultimate reality.” He is too small for such acknowledgments. He fears that he won’t be able to feel gratitude for his existence or awe in the face of the universe if suddenly he comes to suspect that the universe is indifferent to his existence. Therefore he opts for mysticism.

Built into the rationale for mysticism is the idea that man would fall apart if he acknowledged that life was just this.

Instead of frankly acknowledging that the universe is a place where creatures like ourselves come into existence and, because we have it in us, kill off 60 million of our species in an earthquake called World War II, the mystic prefers to call this a “universe of love” or “a place of great spirit.”

Instead of acknowledging that he has absolutely no clue as to what created the universe or how the universe operates, the mystic prefers to act like he understands. If he has a slight scientific bent he turns metaphors from physics into proofs of the existence of gods or hopes for the possibility of cosmic consciousness. If he has no scientific bent he simply opts for whatever occult system or language he is born into or that calls out to him. 

Not that the chronic mystic likes mystery. Far from it! What he really likes are simple answers. Here are the eight steps to nirvana. Here is the way to align your energy with the energy of the universe. Here is the way to channel the universal life force. He wants to know whether he can eat milk and meat at the same meal, what percentage of his income gods prefer as their portion, and, most important of all, what is the simplest possible answer to the question “Why did that happen?”

The simplest answer, used almost universally nowadays, one that sounds like it honors mystery but that in fact loathes it, is “Well, you know, everything happens for a reason.” That slogan soothes his nerves and lets him get on with his self-interests.

Hitler happened for a reason.

Plane crashes happen for a reason.

Cancer happens for a reason.

All is well with the universe.

The chronic mystic actually despises mystery. He wants inner slogans to deal with his frights, fears and everyday narcissism. He refuses to acknowledge that the origins of the universe and the purposes of the universe are genuine mysteries. They are not only unknown, they are unknowable. They aren’t mysteries to be solved, as one solves a crossword puzzle, the mysterious theft of one’s ring, or the question of whether water exists in other galaxies. They are unsolvable mysteries; and this he can’t tolerate.

Occult, spiritual, religious and other mystical worldviews that claim to honor mystery actually fear and despise mystery, whereas a naturalistic worldview honors mystery. It lets mystery be mysterious, not transparent, simple, or obvious. It never says, “It’s all a great mystery but really it isn’t. Here’s the answer in a DVD.” It never anthropomorphizes the universe and says, “The universe wants this” or “The universe demands that.” When it calls a mystery unsolvable, it means it.

If he could tolerate the truth that the mysteries of the universe are unsolvable the chronic mystic could get on with his life. Why should a mature adult lose his sense of dignity because he must come and go in a world that is indifferent to him? What else does dignity mean but the announcement that you will live by your principles and your purposes whatever life throws at you, even if the universe is completely indifferent to your aims, efforts, and existence?

An adult can say, “It is all a genuine mystery; now, let me decide how I will live.” Natural psychology is a psychology for grown-ups. It suggests that you will experience less emotional distress and twist yourself into fewer knots if you engage in value-based meaning-making and stand up in a dignified way for your values and your principles come what the universe may.

Man possesses no real dignity if when he says that he believes in mystery all he means is that he wants life to feel better than it feels and mean more than it seems to mean. Human dignity has always been about, and will always be about, trying to do the next right thing in the real world that we inhabit. This is hard and confusing work but it is no mystery why we undertake it. If we don’t, we fail ourselves. 

If you’d like to learn more about natural psychology, please visit http://www.naturalpsychology.net

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Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, founder of natural psychology, and widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. Learn more about natural psychology and access the groundbreaking Natural Psychology: The New Psychology of Meaning at www.naturalpsychology.net. Learn more about Dr. Maisel at www.ericmaisel.com or contact him at ericmaisel@hotmail.com.

 

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of forty books, among them Rethinking Depression.

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