Some persons appear to be awake, but when questioned, it turns out that their mind was unfocused, or barely awake, or almost in a semi-dreaming state: You speak to them, and they say, “Whaaaat? Where am I? What’s happening’, man?” It seems to me that many persons, much of the time, are in this semi-dreaming state between genuine alert wakefulness and full sleep. They are unconsciously conscious, or unwakefully awake. To be truly awake and alert, open to reality and responsive, takes much work, practice, dedication, love. It is all too easy for a human being to sit or lie down, and enter into a kind of twilight zone of mindlessness. Television watching encourages this kind of unconscious consciousness. By the effects on consciousness, every television show is, to some extent, a variety of “The Twilight Zone.”
To be mindfully conscious, alert and responsive, is no easy task, and seems to be especially difficult and all-too-uncommon in our present culture. Bodies move around, or sit on a sofa, or mouths move, but not much thought or awareness of reality is exhibited. For example, much of what passes for political discourse is nearly a mindless mouthing of words, slogans, or lawyerly smokescreening, detached from practical reality. For a man of common sense, such verbal meanderings are quickly recognized as “b s.” The politician I have heard the most words from in my life is Barack Obama, as he has so often appeared in the news, talking—more Twilight Zone. Much of what he says exemplifies what I call lawyerly smokescreening. He says many words to avoid saying something of pithy and of consequence. Politicians of both parties engage in the same verbal games. They are not thinking or dialoging with us, or engaging our minds, but seeking to dominate minds by mere verbiage. The right purpose of speaking is to engage other minds, to open us up more fully to reality, and not to dominate, confuse, baffle, or entomb our minds.
Dialectics and eristics
What is thinking? Thinking in the proper sense is a movement of thought from one point to another, if in the practical sphere, leading to a decision and taking action. Intellectual thinking, in which one explores some problem or question, is far better done in writing, because writing channels and disciplines the mind. “Wool gathering” or anxiously going over any matter is not really thinking, but a form of neurotic worrying. Much of what people call “thinking” is anxious worrying, not a genuine search for truth leading to insight or to concrete action in the world.
To think in the intellectual sense is to pose questions and to explore answers. For example: What are the differences between constructive thinking and anxious, worrisome “thoughts”? Much of what is called “thinking” in our society is not thinking in the proper sense, but spinning of words or images in the mind, not leading to action or definite insight. Genuine thinking requires a discipline of the will, hard work, and an ongoing search for truth. If one is not seeking, how can one find? If one does not question, what could “answers” possibly mean?
Following Plato, I wish to distinguish two kinds of “thinking” that may appear as intellectual, or constructive, or as searches for truth. One kind he terms “dialectics,” the other he calls “eristics.” Dialectical thinking is a search for truth within the in-between of existence, as the human inquirer questions reality as it presents itself to him in consciousness. This genuine thinking is in truth a movement between the divine and human partners in being. One who thinks in this mode is not alone, isolated, or self-enclosed, or “introspecting.” Nor is he or she speculating on what might be, or on some imagined deity dwelling “out there” somewhere—in the Twilight Zone. Dialectical thinking is a response to the divine mind moving one to question and to seek the truth. And this kind of thinking is limited to the exploration of concrete experiences, to reality as it presents itself to consciousness. It is a movement within reality; or in other words, reality is becoming conscious in the thinking of the one seeking truth that emerges between the divine and human partners. Dialectically, one questions because one is moved to question; and the one who seeks, finds. “What are you seeking?” are the first words of the Christ in the Gospel of John. One seeks by questioning reality as it presents itself to consciousness.
Eristics is argumentative, speculative, intellectualistic, and not grounded in experienced reality. The best examples of eristic thinking in our western culture came from hardened religious positions taken over centuries: one accepts or “believes” certain dogmas or opinions, and then argues about them, trying to instill the same opinions in others. At least since the Enlightenment of the late 18th century, religious “thinking” or “beliefs” became far less tolerated by the intellectual elites, who turned instead to ideological, secular, political, inner-worldly eristics. Whether liberal, conservative, progressive, Hegelian, Marxist, feminist, or so on, these “thinkers” engage in the semi-conscious and more or less irrational practice of eristics: speculating or “reasoning” about matters outside of the human-divine in-between, and seeking to replace reality with a second reality, an imagined world. The genuine exploration of reality engaged in by scientists exploring real problems is a wholly different matter; but speculating on science and its place in culture is often a matter of either “science fiction” or scientism, the latter being an ideological elevation of “science” to the position of a monopoly of truth about reality. A physicist may know much about the causes and effects of gravity, for example, but that knowledge tells him virtually nothing about the nature of consciousness and the human condition. Philosophy dialectically explores the in-between reality of consciousness; eristics speculates on reality or realities more or less divorced from concrete experiences of consciousness.
In this regard, a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist, a progressive intellectual, and a Marxist are essentially doing the same thing: speculating on reality without due recourse to concrete experiences of consciousness. If one were to examine actual states of consciousness rather than mere doctrinal or scriptural beliefs, one may well discover that there is no essential difference between a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist or “believer.” Differences among concrete human beings may emerge if one asks real questions: “Does this person truly love God and neighbor? Is this person seeking to do good, to enhance life, or destroy it? Is this person seeking truth, or does he presume that he has already discovered truth? What actions is this person actually taking to do the will of the that which he calls “God” or “Allah”? Similarly, one can ask of the true believing Marxist: “How does he or she really live? Are they open to the truth of reality as it presents itself to consciousness, or do they seek to impose on reality pre-conceived intellectualistic categories? What is the end state of human society according to the Marxist conception? Can violent action now truly produce a state of peace and justice? Can human beings truly “change the world” as Marx said; or are there fundamental structures in reality which all beings, including human beings, must observe and respect? What are these fundamental structures that transcend human volition and action? What is the nature of reality in which we exist? Or should one follow Marx’s dictum: “Do not think. Do not ask questions,” because the “socialist man” does not ask such questions, but “knows” that he “creates himself by his own labor.”
To think properly requires that one work within the given structures of reality, and seeks to explore these structures, “the nature of things” as they were called by the ancients. The sphere of human action, and what may be changed for the better, requires discovery, and working within the limits set on human activity. It is the old lesson taught by the story of Daedalus and Icarus: one must not seek to fly either too high, or too low, but stay within the limits set by reality. Dialectical thinking, or philosophy, seeks to understand human being’s place within the mysterious whole of reality, and to help us adjust to that reality, and make the best of our apportioned time of living on earth—or rather, our existence between time and eternity. For present human existence is mysterious indeed, as we participate by our bodies and minds in the whole range of reality, from inert matter up to the mind of God. Our lot is to explore the realms of reality, seeking truth and doing good within the relatively brief compasses of our lives; and to do so even as we stretch ourselves out towards “that which is immortal and everlasting,” sharing even now, by “faith working through love,” in what is by long tradition called “God.”
To be conscious is to explore the truth of existing within the whole of reality, and to move, by “the voice of this calling and the drawing of this love” into eternity present here and now.