I attended a concert the other night by Russil Paul, international star of Yogic spirituality and musical mantras. The evening was hosted at the University of Azuay by the School of Divine Values (La Escuela Valores Divinos) and was accompanied by musicians and singers from the school. I attended with my wife and some friends in the hope of hearing some rare avitar (like sitar) music in Cuenca, Ecuador.
I know, I know. Paul Anlee attending an evening of Sacred Music? One complete with chanting and dancing to rhythmically repetitive, almost hypnotic music? I was a little surprised myself, but I’m working on keeping an open mind.
Shakti Ananda Yoga is the Path of Maha Shakti. The Divine Mother dwells in everything and everyone. She is the manifested Christic white light and is the Shakti energy which powers all; including Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma; the Trimurti of the Supreme One.
For many people, this passage may seem absurd, even comical. I think it’s always an interesting exercise to examine the statements your own religious texts make through the eyes of a non-believer. Change “God” or “Allah” to “The Magic Teapot” in some passage and reread the text. See how it makes you feel and then ask how a non-believer would respond. But, that’s not really the point of today’s article.
I’m a “gnostic atheist” in the religious department in that I’m 100% sure there is no “God” as defined by any past or existing religion. If there were, I would claim that “God’s” powers and abilities can be understood by science and reduced to a technology. (See this earlier blog for an example of how creating universes may be within technological reach of future humans.)
I didn’t arrive at “empirical physicalism” as a philosophical perspective through rejecting clearly inconsistent or nonsensical religious/spiritual beliefs. I don’t “hate God” or even “hate religion.” Neither of those provide good reasons for my philosophy. Empirical physicalism came to me through decades of scientific training and thinking about the nature of the cosmos.
Bashing religions is simply not my style. Today, I want to discuss some of the thoughts that passed through my mind as I enjoyed the spectacle of this concert and of my more spiritually-inclined fellow human beings.
Thoughts on a Chant in B-flat
There were a few things immediately striking about the concert. One was that the music was excellent and Russil Paul’s voice stirring. Towards the end of the evening, as the beats became louder and more frenetic, he managed to get a good portion of the audience to its jubilant feet.
As I sat in my seat watching people get increasingly excited, I couldn’t help but think about the relationship between religion (or spirituality) and music. The two are a powerful combination, almost like a drug. It’s no wonder that almost all religious rituals include some musical component in their practice. The joyful ecstasy that many feel while moving to inspirational songs heightens their spiritual experience.
As non-believer (but raised Catholic and living in Catholic Ecuador), I view these experiences as a chance to watch mass manipulation in action. I don’t mean this in any demeaning way. I could have just as easily said “mass inspiration.” I mean manipulation in the sense that you walk into a public event feeling one way and leave feeling quite differently. The same kind of “manipulation” (or “inspiration”) goes on at political rallies, debates, churches, sporting events, and at concerts. It’s part of being a social animal.
But, how could an event with the only stated purpose of helping spread love, joy, peace, and understanding possibly be anything but good? Especially, in a world worried by unemployment, slow economies, and the dark prospects of slipping (accidentally or intentionally) into another global war? I think everyone walked out of this concert feeling pretty good, folded in the loving arms of the grace of their Creator and fellow humans.
Then we all had to get home.
Reality comes crashing in
I should say the University of Azuay is outside the center of the city. It is well-serviced by roads and buses, but few live in the area. Unlike other popular locations for the frequent, free concerts in Cuenca, most attendees were unable to walk home from this event. Some had driven their cars and a few grabbed buses home, but many needed a taxi.
In Cuenca, taxis are plentiful, comfortable, fast, and cheap ($3 gets you almost anywhere in the city). At home, my wife and I can walk out our front door and be guaranteed to flag down a taxi on the street within a few minutes. In most parts of the city, up to five minutes might be required. But, when a few hundred people all need to hail a cab at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night (date night!) at a smaller university campus outside the central district, it can be a challenge for the system to handle.
Let’s just say all the peace, love, and understanding we felt leaving the concert was quickly put at risk by the practicality of dealing with the regular world. In Cuenca, as in much of Ecuador, systems aren’t always carefully planned and don’t always run smoothly. Something as obvious as a concert can drive the taxi system into paroxysms.
Native Cuencanos have grown up with this, and are capable of displaying patience and grace when their systems fail them. The gringo expats are another story. System failures or weaknesses drive many of them simply batty. To the best of my knowledge, no altercations of any sort broke out, but the potential was there. Happily, it wasn’t raining or things might have turned out differently.
All the love in the world evaporates quickly before system failure, even when it involves something as simple as being unable to get home late at night.
Systems make the world go ‘round
Inspired by comparing the joy of the concert with the reality of getting a taxi ride home, I couldn’t help but realize that systems, not love, make the world go ‘round. Sadly “All you need are functional, effective, and resilient systems” does not make for good song lyrics. Maybe we need a new word, shorthand for “functional, effective, and resilient systems.” Something that would make for snappy song lyrics. I’m open to suggestions.
One of the major themes of this blog site, one of the things I am most concerned about, is making the world a better place. Religions and spirituality have tried for thousands of years in numerous ways to accomplish this by preaching gospels of love, tolerance, and peace (at least to other adherents of the same faith). Yet the world is far from the Eden they seek.
Why is that? Could it be that love isn’t enough? Could it be that “losing our attachments” or “going beyond our ego” isn’t possible, or won’t lead to bliss in the context of our modern society? Or is it just impossible for human beings to love one another and live in peace?
Systems have their own “goals”
The answer is clear to me. Love truly is not enough. Not love of self, love of others, of love of Jesus. The problem is we preach love but build (or evolve) systems that have their own built-in, non-loving goals.
Over millennia, our sociopolitical world has established systems and institutions based on competition: for limited resources, for limited time, for limited labor, for limited goods, for limited abilities, and for limited attention. Why then are we surprised when the systems we’ve constructed deliver exactly what they were designed to rather than the peace and love we claim we desire?
I think we fail from a lack of imagination, from a lack of ability to think clearly and thoroughly about the consequences of our systems, rather than from any lack of intent. Everyone “intends” to do good; even politicians—just listen to their speeches. We have tolerated decades, centuries, of candidates and leaders of all stripes buying our votes with promises (“Our new Health Act will deliver better coverage for more people at a lower cost, without compromising pre-existing conditions”) that pluck at our heartstrings but that would fail the most superficial analysis (“How?”).
Sure, everyone wants the great things the politicians promise to deliver, but it’s usually clear from the moment they utter those promises that there will be no way they can fulfil them. We put this down to politics, saying things like: “Nobody really expects them to do everything they promise.”
When did it become standard operating procedure to *NOT* achieve almost all one’s promises? Why do voters tolerate it? Is it a measure of the cynicism or apathy of our times? Is it an unintended consequence of playing politics like a team sport, instead of a selection process for the way the majority would like to be governed? Do we think that, if everyone just gets onboard, everything will work out? Have we lost our ability to critically analyze policy proposals?
Whatever the reason, this site focuses on the pragmatic. The most important question to me is: “How can we design and construct social systems that increase the general well-being of humanity and the world?” The goal, the intent, is very much the same as that expressed by most religions: “Make things better.” Minus the need to glorify, praise, or worship any higher being along the way. While many religions have inherently given up on this world and focus their efforts on the afterlife, I claim we can make our physical world better, if we go about it in the right way.
Trying to get it right
I have hosted (and will continue to host) guest blogs (like this notable one by author-friend, George Wier) on this topic. Many of them will make well-intentioned proposals that I’ll call “utopian” in the sense that they would work only if everyone behaved just the right way. But we know humanity is a fractious, raucous, disorganized, competitive beast. Behaving in line with the best of intentions is not something we do well.
Many thinkers around the world realize this and are beginning to propose systems that work well without humans having to be better, smarter, kinder, and more loving than we naturally are. I would call this kind of system design “social engineering” except that term has an unbelievably negative connotation; look at how it’s defined in Google:
the use of centralized planning in an attempt to manage social change and regulate the future development and behavior of a society.
There’s not much positive in that definition. “Centralized planning” is one of the most loaded terms around; the failure of the Soviet Union is often pointed to as the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the idea. Some people also reference the forced relocation from rural villages to towns and cities that was implemented in China over the last decade. We all know centralized planning never works; its failure (“an attempt to manage”) is built into the definition of social engineering.
In most other contexts, the act of engineering gets a much better (or, at least, neutral) rap, like this definition from dictionary.com:
Engineering is to plan, construct, or manage.
Now, if I said “social engineering” is all about planning, constructing, or managing social policy, economic, and financial systems, you might not think that’s a bad thing. I mean, isn’t it good to plan and manage? To have an idea of your goals and to move towards fulfilling those goals?
Societal Systems Engineering anyone?
Instead of social engineering, which seems to mostly be concerned with altering people’s behavior to fit institutional needs, I’d like to propose societal systems engineering as follows:
Societal systems engineering is the analysis, design and construction of the systems used by a society—primarily the institutions, laws, policies, regulations, and customs—to promote general human well-being over the longest possible timeframe.
There’s lots more to be said about taking a scientific and engineering approach to designing and managing our societal systems, and I’ll be writing more about how I see this working. But this isn’t a panacea for all the ills of the world any more than using the scientific method means you know everything.
Rather, it’s an approach, a beginning, a change in perspective from backroom decision making by mysterious figures who keep their process and criteria secret from everyone. Providing an objective, public basis for proposing, analyzing, and evaluating policy making is the primary goal.
Now, if only we could find a university to start offering the program…
I always look forward to your feedback and input. Please feel free to share this post, to ask questions or to comment below.