Thinking back on my first four years of grad school, it's often difficult for me to figure out what kept me going, what I was searching for, and what I thought I was on to. The fact is, even at the time I was never entirely sure.
I had found Nietzsche and Lao Tzu. Both seemed to be able to express certain basic truths about life that couldn't be found in science or academic philosophy. It became increasingly clear to me that university academia produced scholars, and not Nietzsches or Lao Tzus. I continued my search for philosophers of the past who spoke to me in the same way.
But spoke to me in what way? I'm not entirely sure. Their writings were not dry and pointless like much of academic philosophy. Instead, they were clear and thought-provoking.
This led me to more earnestly doubt the idea, still dominant in philosophy and science, that the only really useful way of thinking about things is scientifically. On the face of it, it seems pretty reasonable to demand scientific evidence before believing something to be true. Otherwise you might as well believe whatever you wish.
But on more careful thought I realized this was a false dichotomy. In fact, most people have never demanded truly scientific proof in their entire lives, and yet they still manage to go about their daily business with reasonable success. Only a very small percentage of the population has been trained in scientific methods, and these people generally only employ it when they are at work in the lab.
From this point of view it seemed all the more bizarre that Nietzsche and Lao Tzu were basically off limits in academic philosophy. How had science, which really constitutes such a small portion of our lives, managed to take center stage in academic philosophy?
I came at this problem from every angle I could. I took voluminous notes on every thought that seemed to bear on the subject. Eventually, from all these notes, a simple theme began to emerge. The reason we put so much faith in science today is the same reason I had been drawn to it as a kid: science is seen as the source of modern progress. Everything that makes our lives civilized -- namely, technology -- is the result of scientific discovery. Or so the common wisdom goes. But once I started thinking about it, I had difficulty finding an example of a technology that had made life truly "better." Medicine and agriculture had lengthened our life spans and increased the population, but more is not the same as better. Transportation and communication devices allow us to interact over long distances, but once again faster is not the same as better.
On the other hand, I realized that these doubts were facile and unoriginal. "Has technology really improved our lives?" sounds like a parody of an eighth grade writing exercise, I admit. Nevertheless, these doubts gnawed at me constantly. The fact that they were cliches made them no less disturbing. Everything we do is based on the assumption that modern society is better and we can continue to make it yet better still.
These thoughts led me to the next stage of my search. It would prove a dangerous detour, but ultimately a worthwhile one. In 2007 I became convinced that one could make a clear-cut argument, based on the modern theory of evolution, that societal progress is not possible in the long-run. Though this project distracted me from the spiritual lessons I needed to learn, it led me to take a much needed two-year leave of absence. Living as a virtual hermit during this time was the jarring experience I needed -- to help me rediscover the importance of the divine.
(I'll write more on my leave of absence tomorrow, at which point I should be done telling the backstory.)