Does Human Nature Have a “Spiritual” Component? 50 Pieces of Evidence
Because Having An Accurate Model of Human Nature Can Be a Good Thing | v1.0
Does human nature have a “spiritual” component?
This seemed like a ripe question for us to launch an investigation into.
After all, understanding “human nature” – our own nature – doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea.
And the opposite – not understanding ourselves – clearly sets the stage for disaster.
After all, each of us is navigating the terrain of life, groping our way across the rugged landscape between birth and death. And if we don’t have a good map of human nature – or if we’re using one that’s slightly inaccurate or just incomplete – we might easily wind up in some existential quicksand.
But before we would delve too far into this, we had to ask a basic question.
Why does this matter?
Isn’t this stuff lofty, abstract, intellectual late-night-bull-session fodder?
Our answer: No.
It boils down to a simple question: why do we do what we do?
What makes us tick? What model do we use to understand ourselves and others? What’s our map of human behavior, and how it works? And how accurate – or inaccurate – is that map?
Of course, each of us already has our own answers. And these answers, good or bad, make up the personal mental models of human nature that each of us carry around in our heads every day. The core ideas that comprise that model sit at the control desk of our lives, governing over a huge swath of what we do, think, experience, and even see in life.
So our model of human nature might be a good one. Or not.
This model might be fully conscious, well-articulated and highly sophisticated. Or it might be a crude Crayola sketch hidden deep in some dusty, unconscious mental filing drawer. Maybe it’s been upgraded every day for decades, or maybe it was scribbled out at age 5 and hasn’t been touched since.
However evolved our model might be (or not), it forms the structural beams that support a huge foundation of our thinking, perceptions and experience on our jobs, our politics, our religion, our relationships, our mental and emotional health, our personal lives – OK, basically everything.
All to say, if we want to navigate life with any degree of genuine success, a fairly accurate, objective, no-nonsense, relatively sophisticated map of human nature might not be a terrible thing.
In fact, it’s almost a prerequisite.
Yet, somehow, few folks actually seem to really talk about it much. We use our models all the time, but rarely seem to talk about the models themselves.
Which leaves most of us to just figure it out for ourselves.
Which translates into us facing some of the foundational ideas that will govern much of our lives, and basically having to, well, wing it. (Which lays the groundwork for Soft Nihilism becoming pretty popular.)
But instead of winging it on something as important as this, how about we talk about it?
OK, let’s start by trying to boil this down to something simple: one key topic, and two very different sides to it.
Some folks insist that “humans are essentially animals.”
“You are an animal,” they say. “I’m one, too.” Everybody is.
And that’s it. We’re nothing but that.
We’re intelligent animals, sure. Sometimes intelligent, at least. But still, merely animals, and nothing more.
Which is to say, folks in this camp would claim that there’s no such thing as a “spiritual” component in human nature.
They state, in so many words, that there’s nothing more to us than mere creatureliness. We have teeth, nails, hair, and we’re chock-full of instincts and genetic code, and that’s it. There’s what we can see, hear, feel with our physical senses, and that’s pretty much covers it. They believe that when it comes to understanding human nature, evolutionary psychology isn’t just part of the picture, it’s the entire picture. That’s all there is.
This perspective seems to be the official party line of much of mainstream academia these days.
Other folks, of course, think otherwise.
For some folks, there is a “spiritual” component that’s baked-in to human nature.
The idea above – that we’re merely animals, nothing more – doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s more to us than that.
For some folks in this camp, it’s not really a question. It’s self-evident. That there’s a spiritual component of human nature is, well, obvious.
But what is this “spiritual component”?
Folks in this camp often describe it in different ways.
They might say, for example, that a human being is like a Ferrari that we usually drive only in first gear.
Or they might say that the nature of a human being is like a huge building, with many floors and levels and extravagant rooms, while most of us only live in (and even know about) the basement.
Or they might say that there’s a tiny, exotic seed, rare and little understood, that’s planted deep within us, and that often hasn’t fully sprouted yet.
Or they might say that human beings are like caterpillars, most of whom haven’t yet figured out how to become butterflies.
However you describe it: some folks say there really is something more.
Or at least, the potential for something more.
The idea seems to point toward something else. It’s something – and you just can’t really make a lot of sense of human behavior without it.
But again: what is it?
Maybe it’s so obvious we usually miss it. (We use our minds to study the universe, but we rarely study our minds that we’re studying the universe with.) Or maybe it’s something more mysterious, something hidden in the depths, outside of our usual, mundane, day-to-day awareness, that typically goes undiscovered and untapped in the ordinary course of life.
They might use words like “soul,” “spirit,” “nuous,” the “Self,” the “Buddha nature,” “conscience,” the “Intellect,” “the beyond within,” “the law written in our hearts,” the “Atman,” the “sensus divinitatis,” the “Imago Dei,” “the eye of spirit,” “the spirit of God in man,” and so on.
All of these words point toward “something more.”
Something, perhaps, like a capacity for a higher happiness beyond creature comforts, or a capacity for knowledge beyond mere sensory empiricism, or a capacity for a kind of inner peace that’s fully independent of external conditions, and so on.
Our goal here isn’t to define what these are pointing to with exact precision. (That trail – worthy as it is –would likely become a long detour.) For now, we’re going to set that aside and keep it simple.
Our focus here is merely to ask whether or not there is “something more” at all.
So, those are two basic sides of the issue.
Our exploration here is geared towards a certain group of folks in the middle.
On one side of the matter are folks who already are convinced that there’s “something more.” These folks don’t really need more evidence, except possibly to help persuade others.
On the other side of the matter are folks we can call “scientism fundamentalists.” (Not to be confused with real scientists.) These are folks who have already decided that there’s nothing more to human nature than mere creatureliness, case closed, move along, please. They aren’t all that interested in considering new evidence or questioning assumptions.
For those folks – the “scientism fundamentalists” – this article probably won’t be all that useful to them. Why? Because we’re offering evidence here. And if they’re a true scientism fundamentalist, they don’t care about evidence. Which is why more of it won’t be all that useful to them.
So this exploration is geared mainly to the folks in between.
This article is geared mainly for folks who aren’t necessarily in either camp. Which means folks who are open and willing to examine evidence, consider arguments, throw stuff around, to follow trails wherever they might lead.
These folks want to question, test, and verify. They examine evidence, arguments, and their own direct experience, to sort babies from bathwater and worms from apples so they don’t have to take someone else’s word for it.
They want to see for ourselves.
In other words, these folks are genuinely scientific. Real philosophers. Seekers.
Which brings us to talking about “our method.”
(If you’re interested in the “how” of our approach here, we cover that here. If you’d rather skip right to the evidence itself, scroll down.)
Our method here is to gather evidence, present it as clearly as possible, and offer it for you to consider.
What we’re after here is a practical, no-nonsense, lucid, reasonable, logical, even commonsense approach that incorporates evidence, logic, and narrative coherence that rings true and feels right.
We’re looking for what helps make sense of life. The goal is to find something that holds up under questioning and scrutiny, that doesn’t contradict our everyday experience and reason, and navigate life more successfully.
But we’re not looking for “proof.”
Because there’s “truth,” and there’s what can be “proven.”
And those can be two very different things.
“Proof” isn’t our goal here.
The “proof” game is often like playing hot potato: everybody wants the other guy to be left holding it. Typically in these matters, each side demands it of the other, and neither side is able to provide enough of it to convince the other. A determined skeptic on either side is usually able to poke holes in almost anything the other offers up. In most cases, confirmation bias rules.
So, complete certainty in these matters isn’t our goal.
It’s just not realistic with this kind of approach. So we shouldn’t expect it.
If a “soul” could be found on the operating table or under a microscope, our job here would be easy. (Of course, anything matching that description wouldn’t actually be a “soul.”) But to presuppose that only that kind of evidence is valid is an unwarranted assumption. Plenty of things are true even if they don’t show up under a microscope. (There’s no DNA test for “meaning” in life, or litmus test for love.)
When Mendel proposed the existence of genes, he wasn’t able to actually see the genes themselves. When Dalton proposed the atomic/molecular theory, he did so without actually seeing molecules. Harder proof eventually came, but at first, they had to go with what seemed to fit the available evidence.
Our solution here to escape the paralysis of “Absolute certainty! And nothing less!” – is to realize that this approach deals in likelihood and probability. Absolute mathematical certainty in these matters is too strong of a test – one that almost nothing passes. So we can discard that criteria with a clear conscience.
We aren’t looking for a silver bullet. What we’re looking for is the most reasonable explanation of the evidence. Our method, in other words, is abduction.
So less lab coat, more street detective.
When you’re a detective hunting a killer, you can’t toss every piece of evidence that offers less than absolute certainty.
Anyone who does that eventually winds up sitting behind their desk, feet propped up, quite pleased with themselves and their very high standards. Meanwhile, the killing spree continues.
But we can’t do that. We have a job to do. There’s killer to catch.
Which means we can’t be too precious about how pure our data is.
There’s an urgency to the matter here.
Detectives can’t deal in “absolute certainty.” They have to deal in probability, consistent narratives, and best possible explanations of the known facts.
(After all, in the end, there may ultimately be no such thing as “proof.” There’s only evidence, and probability.)
So, not all evidence will be DNA-worthy, 99.9% accurate. It might be video evidence. Or witness testimony. Or skid marks on the road. Or comparing narratives that contradict each other, and deciding which is most consistent with the facts. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a vague hunch – a gut feeling or pure intuition – that uncovers more and better evidence.
Ultimately, we’ll take anything that gets us closer to clarity on the matter. Wherever it comes from.
Because eventually, each of us will sit as judge, jury, prosecutor and defendant in some kind of existential courtroom.
That trial – which is currently ongoing – will determine a major chunk of our life philosophy, or our responses to the existential riddles we all have to answer.
Eventually, we’ll pronounce our verdict.
And that verdict will have a big impact over the course of our lives. So we probably want it to be as informed as possible.
Now, at long last, let’s take a look at the evidence.
Here are 50 pieces to consider, in no particular order.
What is intimacy?
We know it’s not simply physical closeness. It’s not merely one physical body being physically closer to another physical body. After all, you can be inches away from someone but feel miles apart. And you can be miles apart and feel incredibly intimate.
So intimacy isn’t merely physical – it’s not closeness of the body. It operates outside of physical space. So, what is it, then?
We could say “closeness of the self.” But what is that “self,” exactly? Is it some sort of non-physical “something” that exists in each of us? Or as each of us?
Someone simply asking us personal questions can both touch us profoundly and terrify us. Admitting certain truths can sometimes be incredibly difficult. Intimacy can be something we both crave and avoid, something we simultaneously hunger for and are terrified of. We’re both attracted to it and repelled by it. Sometimes at the same time.
All of this indicates that there’s more going on with all this than meets the eye. Most folks will grant that intimacy exists. But fully understanding and explaining it is another matter entirely.
2. The fact that nothing satisfies us for long.
If we’re being honest, most of us will admit that we each seem to have a deep and semi-permanent restlessness. Sometimes we manage to experience short bursts of relief. But most of the time, we’re striving, seeking, searching, sometimes more frantically than others.
Even after some success – after you’ve experienced even the best that life seems to offer, there’s often the sense of wanting something more.
“There comes a time when one asks
even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is that all?”
- Aldous Huxley
Young folks typically assume that “something” profound, life-changing and transformative is supposed to happen at some point in the future. We could even describe life as a search for “IT”. Older folks, though, sometimes start to realize that this “something” hasn’t happened yet, isn’t happening now, and it doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. Which typically provokes an existential crisis.
What does this mean?
Perhaps it points toward something in us that isn’t satisfied by mere creature-comforts.
And perhaps this means we aren’t just creatures.
3. The existence of Angst
Humans seem to suffer from angst in a way that most other critters don’t.
Meaninglessness, boredom, anxiety, emptiness, guilt, ennui, “shallowness,” the “hollow,” the “one-dimensional,” and so on. It wears many different masks, but no matter how you slice it, we live under shadow of death, finitude, cosmic uncertainty, deep existential unease.
Ernest Becker said it well:
“We don’t know, on this planet, what the universe wants from us or is prepared to give us. We don’t have an answer to the question that troubled Kant of what our duty is, what we should be doing on earth. We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here, yet we know it must have some meaning.”
(The Denial of Death)
Animals, of course, avoid death when they can. But they don’t seem haunted by it the way we are. Their companion might get devoured right next to them, but as long as they’re safe at the moment, they’ll go right on eating as though nothing happened, seemingly without a care in the world.
Not us. This stuff bugs us.
Which could indicate something in us that sees this entire situation as a serious problem. Which could indicate that there’s something in us that intuits, however vaguely, that this isn’t the entire picture.
4. The experience of looking someone in the eyes
As Walker Percy expressed it:
“And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?”
(Lost In the Cosmos)
And Albert Low made a similar point:
“When I look at you and you look back at me, who is looking, and who is looked at? Who is the subject whom is object? Who is swallowing and who is swallowed? …It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul, but whose soul do they open onto? Yours, mine, yours and mine? Or do they open onto a unity that embraces both?”
Answering these questions might well require us reaching beyond “mere creatureliness.”
5. Science doesn’t understand consciousness.
One of the primary mysteries that science hasn’t solved is consciousness. In its current state, it doesn’t even seem to be close to solving it. By some extremely credible accounts (John Horgan), it's even moving backwards.
Of course, consciousness is like oxygen to us, only more important. It’s a fundamental part of not just human nature, but of our very experience. Again, we study the world with our minds, but we rarely study the mind that we’re studying that world with. We study objects we perceive without fully understanding how we really perceive anything. (See #38 below.) We become conscious of all kinds of things in the world without really understanding consciousness itself. It’s as if we’re all driving cars, but none of us are mechanics. We have no idea how anything works under the hood.
Some prominent scientists have even said that we might never solve it. (Colin McGinn) They say it’s unsolvable, and we might be comparable to rats trying to understand arithmetic.
The fact that science hasn’t yet figured out consciousness – something so fundamental to us and our experience of the world – indicates that there are some major areas we don’t yet understand (not scientifically, anyway) about ourselves.
Which is to say, we don’t know ourselves.
Admittedly, this doesn’t necessarily count as strong “evidence” for a spiritual element in human nature. But it definitely rules out that there is plenty of room for it. And with the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology being fairly well mapped – yet apparently leaving some major pieces missing – it seems to indicate that there’s something big in play that we haven’t fully realized yet.
6. The fact that we do things like climb Everest
Why do we climb Everest? Or go to the moon? Why do we feel compelled to explore the depths of the oceans, or outer space, or climb El Capitan using your bare hands and with no safety ropes?
Why do we do stuff like this, especially when these expeditions involve great risk, and yet, at least to many folks, doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of practical and tangible reward?
It doesn’t seem like we want to blast ourselves into outer space because we’re interested in gathering dirt samples.
Here’s a proposal.
There’s a spiritual component of human nature.
And we project that nature onto things like moons, and mountains, and oceans. And then we find those things we’ve projected onto irresistibly fascinating, and then are drawn to “conquer” them, because they represent the depths and heights within us.
7. Questioning beliefs can be terrifying.
It’s one of the fastest ways to make almost anyone want to punch you: question their core beliefs.
Why are folks so often defensive and threatened when this happens? Why do folks sometimes feel so incredibly frightened, insecure, and enraged when someone questions or even attacks some of their deepest convictions?
We can also approach this from the opposite side. Why do folks, in the vast majority of cases, often prefer living under whatever belief system they have – however oppressive or inhibiting – rather than questioning it? Why do beliefs seem to be so crucial to our very existence that we’d rather do almost anything besides question them?
Could it be that beliefs themselves act as an actual kind of defensive structure? If so, what are they “defending”?
8. The fact that we make “natural” things so difficult
If we are “nothing but” critters, and if our critterly nature summed up the entire story, then it seems like certain things we do should be fairly straightforward and uncomplicated.
Eating, for example. Or raising children. Or dying. Or sex.
It seems that if any behaviors should be “natural,” these should. After all, they’re among the most basic, elemental, necessary things we can do in life.
Yet these seemingly “natural” behaviors are, for us, anything but. A multi-billion-dollar diet industry, for example, could point to the fact that something that should be relatively simple, isn’t. Books on raising children alone could fill entire libraries. Dying? There’s probably nothing we’re as tied up in knots about. Except maybe for sex.
Perhaps there’s part of human nature that often makes “natural” creaturely functions, at the very least, incredibly complicated.
Evolutionary psychology runs into problems when it tries to account for altruism, or selfless actions.
Not that they haven’t made valiant efforts to explain it. For example, Robert Wright states that when we donate money to help famine victims in faraway lands, we do it because our mental “equipment” – which is meant to calculate our selfish benefits from every situation – has been “fooled,” probably by the way modern media makes us “mistake” those famine victims for immediate neighbors. Which means, we really help them because we secretly think they’ll be able to help us back sometime in the future.
All of which, of course, strikes most folks who actually do this kind of thing as pretty silly. Not to mention far-fetched. It would probably be insulting, if anyone really took it seriously.
10. The fact that we’re always trying to escape ourselves.
Why do we sometimes drink into oblivion?
Why do we sometimes do drugs to the point of being completely incapacitated?
Why do we go to movies, watch sports, play sports, pursue all kind of entertaining distractions? Why do we seek out all kinds of exotic experiences, each more sensational than the last?
They’re “fun,” sure. But why are they fun? They “feel good,” sure, but why do they feel good?
We aren’t looking for immediate, local, proximate causes here. We’re hunting for causes at the end of the line. “Ultimate” causes might be a bit too strong. But at least something a level deeper than “it’s fun.”
In that spirit, here’s a proposal:
Could it be that we’re trying to escape ourselves?
"I drink not from mere joy in wine nor to scoff at faith
- no, only to forget myself for a moment,
that only do I want of intoxication,
- Omar Khayyam
But why would we be trying to escape ourselves?
Maybe this gets close to the mark, but gets it reversed. Perhaps we aren’t actually trying to escape ourselves. What if we’re actually trying to escape who we think we are?
To say it another way: perhaps we’re actually trying to get closer to who we really are?
Of course, none of this is to say that alcohol, for example, is an effective means to self-realization. But it could mean that alcohol is sometimes used to try to help us escape ourselves – or more accurately, to escape who we think we are.
After all, what if we have a strong intuition that we aren’t who we think we are? And escaping ourselves – however we try to do it – is a sometimes crude form of trying to get away from who we aren’t and trying to get closer to who – or what – we really are? Because some part of us – however buried or hidden it might be – isn’t what we think it is?
And what if that basic intuition, however badly we might interpret it or act on it, is correct?
11. The fact that we seem driven to create “other worlds”
From Beowulf to The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, we seem driven to invent all kinds of strange, wild, otherworldly places.
Stories like these fill televisions, movie screens, novels, and more. Take a look at almost any science fiction movie, and it’s full of creatures, spaceships, and environments like nothing remotely close to anything we’ve witnessed in our mundane day-to-day.
And it’s been this way for thousands of years. (Greek gods, anyone?) We’ve just found different ways to do essentially the same thing.
If nature (and naturalism) is all there is, why do we seem so compelled to imagine new worlds? If we only know what we do from sense experience, and all we naturally saw for eons were rocks and dirt and trees and furry little critters, why are we so fascinated by the process of inventing and experiencing new worlds beyond anything we've ever known? Why does naturalism seem to take so much effort?
Let’s even look at the old Greek and Roman myths. Why invent gods at all? Why not conclude that thunder was just thunder? Why did we feel a need to “explain it” more? If our only real experience is of trees, skies, leaves, grass, and twigs and so on, why even bring up the idea of gods at all?
Yet we did.
12. Feeling like “a stranger in this world”
Each of us seems to have a sense or intuition of being, in some deep and profound way, “at home.”
Yet many of us have also experienced the opposite: the unsettling feeling of being “a stranger in this world,” or “spiritually homeless.” That “I just don’t belong here.” Feeling that our true home is…well, we don’t know. Somewhere else. But definitely not here.
Why do we feel that?
One reason, perhaps, could be this: that in a certain way, you actually are a stranger in this world. Perhaps this feeling, in other words, is a valid intuition of our true condition.
Malcolm Muggeridge said this:
“I just struggled along feeling from the beginning convinced of one thing, which I think perhaps is the basic nature of a religious faith, that in this world I am a stranger. I don’t belong here. I am staying here for a bit and it’s a very nice place and interesting place, but I don’t belong here. From the beginning I can remember that feeling and I have it still.”
Novalis put it this way:
“All philosophy is really homesickness: the wish to be at home everywhere.”
Sometimes, even the most familiar places – perhaps locations we’ve visited our entire lives – can, when in a certain frame of mind, suddenly seem strange, foreign, alien.
The same thing can happen with spoken words: the most familiar and simple word, if we repeat it often enough, can suddenly transform it into something that suddenly sounds strangely bizarre.
Our sense of “not being home in the world” can sometimes come from many places. It can sometimes be, for example, that we aren’t clicking with the people around us. Or maybe we just ate a bad burrito.
But it also might be something else. Which is to say, it might just be an intuition of the way things really are.
13. Our “Doubleness”
What is your most important relationship in life?
That, at least, is the answer many self-improvement gurus give these days. It’s debatable, it has the ingredients for a really good conversation, and most importantly, it’s catchy. But for now, just for the sake of argument, let’s grant that it’s at least one of the most important.
Yet, why is this “relationship” often so problematic?
Why, when we start really looking into it, does our relationship with ourselves seem so complicated? Why does something so seemingly fundamental sometimes feel like such a struggle, a chore, an uphill battle?
Why are we so often our own worst enemy?
Why is “our relationship with ourselves” even an issue at all? Doesn’t it seem like there’s something a bit strange about the idea itself?
Yet there’s definitely something there that, for a lot of folks, strikes a deep chord.
14. There are things we say that imply many other things.
There might be some revelations hidden in our everyday phrases. Which is to say, the way we naturally speak might reveal a great number of things.
For example: we say “my foot.” “My hand.” “My head.” “My body.”
What could this reveal? Perhaps, this: we often instinctively assume ourselves to be in a position that's superior to our bodies and minds.
Which is to say, we often assume ourselves to be in a position of seniority to our own bodies and minds, as if we’re the “owner” or “manager” or “director” of them.
If someone steps on your foot, you often say, “you stepped on my foot.” That – the phrasing of it, and the automatic, instinctive way we’ve phrased it – is revealing. We way “my foot.” It presumes that, in a sense, the foot is a possession of “me.”
Of course, this works the other way as well. We might also say “you stepped on me!” But the fact that “I” can go either way – that “I am the foot” or that “the foot is mine” – helps prove the point. Our basic existential position here is one of ambiguity. We seem to be both within and beyond. Both “in” but “not of.”
And this entire exercise can apply across multiple areas. “My body.” "My thoughts." "My feelings." (Feelings are a possession of "mine.")
And so on. This outlook is usually automatic and unquestioned. We often simply do it without thinking about it.
Some folks might say “it’s just a way of speaking, not thing more.” But that just begs the question: why did we decide to speak that way?
Perhaps it’s because there’s something more going on here.
15. The advice: “Be Yourself”
That many folks see this phrase – “be yourself” – as good and insightful advice, and deem it important enough to pass on to others is revealing.
What secret implications are hidden in this phrase, “be yourself”? What does this phrase assume?
Well, for one, it implies that it is possible to “be yourself.” And it assumes that “being yourself” is a good thing, something you should strive for. And it’s in your power to do so. And it also assumes that it’s possible to not “be yourself.”
If this entire matter was simple – that you are simply a self, and you have no choice but to “be” that – then this phrase would never be spoken (much less have become a popular slogan.) It would have been deemed redundant at best, silly and unnecessary at worst. After all, we don’t need to tell dogs to bark, or fish to swim, or wind to blow.
These things just happen. There’s no choice or struggle there. Cows don’t read books to figure out how to become cows. “Cowness” and all these other things are just, well, “in their nature,” we could say.
Yet we feel it necessary to say “be yourself” to each other almost constantly these days. We defend almost anything we do by saying that we’re “just being true to ourselves,” as if that explains it. And in case we forget, Disney is kind enough to remind about it in just about every movie they put out.
All this seems to imply that we apparently live in a condition where we are confronted with options where we can either “be ourselves,” or not.
And all this implies that there is, quite possibly, some kind of deeper self – your “real” self – that we aren’t fully in touch with with yet.
16. Our need for “self-expression”
Many creative folks feel a powerful urge to “express themselves.”
But what does that mean? What does this reveal?
This phrase seems to imply that we have a strong sense that “our true self” is, in the normal course of events, unexpressed, is bottled up, hidden, buried, asleep, mute, out of the light of day.
And from this point, the implication is, if we want to express our true selves, well, it takes no small amount of serious effort to do so.
This seems to presume that there’s something within us – perhaps hidden, buried, inarticulate – that “we” something need to work on getting in touch with, understand, and eventually, if we’re lucky, and all goes well, expressing.
17. Cognitive Dissonance
One of the few well-established and agreed-upon ideas modern mainstream psychology has to offer is the idea of “cognitive dissonance,” which says essentially that we feel extremely uncomfortable when we become aware of occasions when our beliefs and actions contradict one another.
Why is it so painful when our beliefs & actions contradict each other? Or to phrase it slightly differently, why is it so painful when we contradict ourselves?
Why do we instinctively feel that all of our beliefs and actions should be perfectly consistent? Or in other words: why do we feel so compelled to be “one” instead of “two”?
Psychology, to the best that we’ve been able to gather, hasn’t delved too deeply into answering this question. (Other folks have, but mainstream psychology doesn’t seem to really listen to them.)
The evidence itself here – that this exists – isn’t disputed. But the why of it, at least for most of psychology, remains a mystery.
But the answer to it could be revealing.
18. “Human dignity.”
What is “human dignity”?
What’s the source of it? Do some folks have more of it than others? Do some actions enhance and strengthen it, while others weaken and undermine it?
There seems to be something to this. After all, without the idea of human dignity, it would be impossible to insult someone. And folks feel insulted all the time. Some folks even see an insult – a “blow to their dignity” – as something worth fighting and even dying for.
Perhaps the whole matter seems to imply that, on some level, somehow, “you are better than this.” Maybe there is something in us that is able to rise above our current conditions. Not in a mere snobby, one-upsmanship way, but in a genuine, valid, authentic way that simply recognizes that, well, sometimes, it’s just true. Which is to say: perhaps, in many situations and conditions, you actually are “better than this.”
At least, some part of you is.
19. Tell someone “You are an animal.”
Why, when one person really wants to insult another, do they so often compare him or her to an animal?
When one person says this to another, it’s typically taken as an insult. This reaction is seen as a blow to their “dignity” (see above.) It seems to be almost universal. But why?
Could it be that this negates something essential in us that isn’t “just an animal.”
And if so, why do we accept it when, in so many words, academics say it?
20. Our sense of right and wrong
Most folks seem to have some sense of right and wrong.
This sense just seems to be built in to us. We can’t seem to manage to not have it.
Of course, what those “rights” and “wrongs” are vary widely. Some folks think it’s wrong to eat steak with ketchup. Others would say it’s right to eat an éclair out of the trash, as long as it’s above the rim. (Call that Constanza’s Law.)
The content changes, but the underlying structure itself stays the same. That some things are “right” and others “wrong” is universal. But what those things are, exactly, is often a hot topic.
What’s the source of this sense of right and wrong?
Some say this doesn’t mean much; it’s all just an accident of evolution that we’ve merely evolved a set of feelings that are more or less arbitrary. Others say there’s a deeper part of us that knows what the Big Picture is, and our senses of right and wrong are signals from that.
This comes into play even in things as mundane as everyday arguments.
21. What happens during arguments
Who wins an argument?
When we watch arguments closely, we often realize that there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. Usually, each person on both sides of the matter tries to convince the other that he or she is “right.”
But what does that really mean?
It usually involves an appeal to some invisible standard that’s unspoken and unwritten. Which is to say, arguments can sometimes seem to be a subset of “morality,” or our sense of right and wrong.
C. S. Lewis describes this dynamic that takes place when two folks argue. “Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.“
In arguments, we’re often trying to convince each other of what is “right.” This seems to indicate a sense we all seem to have: that there is some sort of “truth” about the way things are or should be, and we should all expect each other to behave according to that standard. Otherwise, there would be no point in arguing. While the specifics often change, this process itself stays the same. Our ideas of what are right and wrong often change, but the dynamic itself doesn’t.
This entire dynamic seems revealing.
22. The Existence of “Evil”
Some things strike us as “evil.”
When this word gets used, it isn’t considered to be merely an “opinion” or an intellectual conclusion we’ve drawn from a theory we’ve heard. We feel it viscerally. It’s instinctive. Very young children seem to understand this instinctively, as if it’s ingrained. Nobody has to explain that the witch offering the poisoned apple is “bad” and the heroine is “good.” It’s already there. It’s self-evident.
And these matters carry real weight. Folks don’t often say, “I think Hitler was evil, but that’s just my opinion.” Or “I’m not cruel to little furry animals myself, but that’s just my personal preference.”
Just the opposite. It seems that there’s an extra charge there. It’s stronger than “mere opinion” or “personal preference.” It carries the weight of what it believed to be an objective truth. Which points to something within us that is beyond mere subjective personal opinion. Which means it’s coming from another place entirely.
23. That even “bad guys” think they’re “good.”
There’s a strange phenomenon that many astute folks have noticed: almost everyone – even “bad guys” – sees themselves as “good.”
“I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time…” said Al Capone, as Dale Carnegie famously described. So Al Capone, in other words, apparently saw himself as “helping” people.
And he’s not alone. If we’re able to dig deep enough and look closely, it seems that every “bad guy” actually sees himself as a “good guy.” The key trick is to understand the way he sees himself.
Or if a person sees himself as “bad,” then often, it’s a matter of pride. Which is to say, he now sees being “bad” as a “good” thing.
Even when someone truly turns against themselves, as in a moment of genuine self-hatred, in that moment, they’re seeing themselves-right-now as “good” and judging their-idea-of-themselves as “bad.” In other words, to use a courtroom illustration: we could describe this as one part of a person being a “judge-self” that’s good and another as a “defendant self” that’s bad. Even a person who is hating themselves is, in that moment, identifying themselves as something “good” who is hating something “bad.”
So, the question: why does almost everyone feel the need to see themselves as good?
24. Our Desires
We’re often driven by our desires.
Note in the way that’s phrased (#14 above) implies that our desires are “the drivers” and we are “the driven.”
But every so often, we’re able to stop and examine what exactly these taskmasters are.
When we do this – when we stop and examine our desires closely in order to understand them more clearly – we can sometimes discover some strange things.
For example: we seem to desire things that don’t seem to exist in the everyday, mundane, day-to-day world.
These desires, in fact, seem to act as foundational elements of our everyday experience, even if we’re usually blind to them. Robert Spitzer outlined several of these, some of which we’ll explore below.
But all this poses a key dilemma. If even some of this is true, it seems to indicate that either we desire things beyond the creature comforts that are possible for us (which seems a bit absurd) – or it indicates that there’s something more going on here.
25. Our desire for perfect love
Each of us seems to have a sense or intuition of perfect and unconditional love.
It shows up in different ways. When we’re really young and naïve, it can appear as romantic longing for an idealized other. In romantic relationships, it can appear as, well, falling madly in love, or finding “The One.” In marriages and ongoing, long-term relationships, it can sometimes appear as an awareness of how actual relationships seem to fall short of some very high standard that we sometimes have, or once had.
They seem, in other words, to fall short of some critical measure that we apparently, surprisingly, carry around within us and refer to often. It’s a standard of seemingly infinite value that our everyday relationships may seem to fall short of (typically due to folks being, well, human, instead of whatever we were imagining they would be instead.)
This is something that can wreak havoc in our relationships and in our personal lives, if we aren’t careful, and if we don’t understand and approach it all properly.
26. Our desire for perfect goodness
Each of us seems to have a sense or intuition of perfect goodness or justice.
Children don’t need to be taught about this. Cries of “that’s not fair!” come natural and often. These cries imply that there is such a thing as “fairness,” and they know what it is without being told.
We seem to start out naïve in life, and sometimes get profoundly disappointed to realize that many bad, wrong, unjust things happen.
But this realization wouldn’t be so jarring if we didn’t start out with some hope, or expectation, or intuition of some kind of perfect goodness to compare it to. We can’t believe that we’ve been wronged without some prior awareness of what is right. Which seems to be baked in to all this.
27. Our desire for perfect beauty
Each of us seems to have a sense or intuition of perfect beauty.
Beauty just has something infinitely more compelling that the ugly does not. But what? What is that quality?
Whatever it is, artists of all kinds can become obsessed with it, and dedicate their lives to seeking it, discovering it, expressing it.
Yet it’s often elusive. If we taste it, it leaves us wanting more. We can hear a song once, and it can be a moving, intoxicating experience. But if we hear it a fifth, a fiftieth, a thousandth time, all too often, that quality is gone. It’s the exact same song. But something essential is gone. What’s left is a shadow of the experience it once was. The shell might still be there, but the power has faded.
We can experience this with paintings, songs, movies – anything, really. We have a strong sense of something mysterious that we can sometimes get closer to or further from. But it's elusive. There’s a sense of something more.
28. Our desire for perfect sanity
Each of us seems to have a sense or intuition of perfect sanity.
There are times when we experience moments of clarity. And there are also times when we experience the opposite of clarity.
These two basic references form a kind of spectrum – less awareness or “sanity” on one side, more awareness or “clarity” on the other. Precise definitions and specifics might offer a lot to argue about, but few folks will deny that there is a spectrum at all.
And at this point, the question then becomes: how far can we go in the direction of “sanity”? What would it be like to be truly “sane”? Would such a person be a poet, a saint, a healer, a self-actualized person of whatever type?
Our normal experiences vacillating between these two extremes suggest that we have a wide buffet of potentials within our nature. That we’re able to move toward sanity, or away from it. That in itself seems to indicate that our nature isn’t simple and fixed. And that, in fact, there might be more to us.
29. Our desire for perfect self-respect
Each of us seems to have a sense of respect for ourselves. Or lack thereof.
Sometimes this spins off one way: toward inflation or a “God Complex” (see below.)
Other times it spins off in the other direction: toward deflation, inferiority, or even self-hatred.
What is going on here?
We all seem to have some sense, however deep down or unconscious it might be, of some way to judge ourselves for better or worse. We always seems to experience ourselves as either meeting, surpassing, or falling short of some ideal that we secretly measure ourselves against.
The specific content of this ideal varies greatly. We might wish we were better dancers or firefighters, we might wish we were better at losing weight or parenting, we might sometimes wish we were different people completely. All of this fluctuates widely.
But what doesn’t seem to change is the dynamic itself – the need for us to hold ourselves to and measure ourselves against some kind of inner standard, whatever form that standard might take.
This seems to point to the possibility that, on some level, we sense that we’re able to become more – or less –than we are right now.
30. Our desire for perfect truth
Each of us seems to have a hidden sense or intuition of perfect truth.
Bernard Lonergen makes an argument (which we’ll likely butcher here) that outlines how we experience this in our day-to-day lives.
We can look at the experience of children. Young children ask questions. They seem to want to know everything. As soon as they learn something, they ask more questions. Which means they seem to know that they don’t know everything.
But how do you know that you don’t already know everything…unless you already have some prior sense of what “knowing everything” already is?
(Lonergan explores this much more deeply in his Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. The few sentences above are just a whisper of a hint of what Lonergan delves more properly into.)
31. War and Violence
How do we explain war and violence?
“Despite the years of thought and the oceans of ink
which have been devoted to the elucidation of war
its secrets still remain shrouded in mystery.”
- General George Patton
Evolutionary psychology offers some basic suggestions. War is simply caused by mere turf battles, for example, where animals fight for position in a hierarchy, status, territory, and control, and all that entails.
But that explanation, for various reasons, seems to fall far short of telling the entire story. It’s too simplistic. It “explains away” more than it actually explains.
But other schools of thought offer alternative solutions.
Erich Fromm, for example, said “destructiveness is the outcome of an unlived life.” Carl Jung and Ernest Becker have other theories involving unconscious psychodynamics. Charles Bellinger explored a similar vein: violence comes as a result of a refusal of the “call to selfhood” within a person. He describes it as a rejection of the task of spiritual and psychological maturity. In even simpler words: violence can be the result of a rebellion against oneself. One’s inner conflicts become externalized, and turns into violence out in the world.
This is obviously a huge topic. We explore more of this here.
32. What happens when one person kills another
Do we really understand what happens when one person kills another?
As Lt. Col. Dave Grossman describes in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, “…on this topic, there has been absolutely nothing available in the way of scholarly study or writing.”
And what topic is he describing, exactly? As he says, “…the act of killing: the intimacy and psychological impact of the act, the stages of the act, the social and psychological implications and repercussions of the act, and the resultant disorders…” He describes his book as “a humble attempt to rectify this.”
So, how is this evidence of a spiritual element of human nature?
Grossman states that his research draws a “novel and reassuring conclusion about the nature of man: despite an unbroken tradition of violence and war, man is not by nature a killer.” He documents how the vast majority of combat veterans of their era would rather not kill, and went out of their way to avoid doing so.
But when it does happen, there seems to be something incredibly profound that takes place. Something we aren’t even close to understanding. We’re so far, in fact, that we basically aren’t even studying it. (Despite humans doing it very often, and many of us ask others to do it for us.)
This “something profound” that takes place requires a major psychological adjustment on the part of the individuals involved.
If mainstream psychology hasn’t even come anywhere close to understanding this – and doesn’t seem likely to change course anytime soon – this seems to indicate that there are still a great deal of some major pieces missing.
33. Terrorism tactics: pressuring folks to commit terrible acts
Certain terrorist groups operate by recruiting children and forcing them to terrible commit acts of violence. (source here)
Something like this is depicted in the movie “Brothers” (spoiler alert), where two American soldiers are captured. Taliban fighters threaten one, at gunpoint, with being shot unless he kills his fellow soldier, which he does.
Why do terrorists do this?
Here’s one hypothesis.
When a person is pressured into committing acts of violence in the manner described above – especially against friends or innocents – it obviously causes profound psychological effects. And the terrorists know this. They deliberately and intentionally force individuals to confront a terrible dilemma – an apparently unwinnable situation with no “right” answer. This forces a person to do something they feel is wrong, which creates a tear or rupture in their very selves. (See cognitive dissonance, #17 above.) In this state, they might feel as if they’ve betrayed themselves, or their morality (see #20 above), or some kind of “higher” sense of themselves.
And in that kind of state, they become easier to manipulate and control.
Ernest Becker also understood this as well.
“The Nazis called it blood cement…It was the old gangster trick, this time used to cement together a whole nation…These they induced to commit extra atrocities that…gave them a new, criminal identity…the leader…tries to load them up with an extra burden of guilt and fear to draw the mesh of his immorality around them…He can then use their guilt against them, binding them closer to himself. He uses their anxiety for his purposes, even arousing it as he needs to; and he can use their fear of being found out and revenged by their victims as a kind of blackmail that keeps them docile and obedient…”
- from The Denial of Death, referencing passages from the Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, Journal of Criminal Psychopathology, Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences, and others.
(Quick aside: Becker expressed this decades ago, yet somehow, much of what he and others struggled to discover and express seems all too often to have been forgotten, ignored, or simply archived in some vast, dusty, cavernous catacomb of once-living knowledge, while much of psychological research these days seems to focus most intently on figuring out how to get folks to click “Like” buttons. But we digress.)
All of which means that terrorists, these days, might understand more about psychology in some ways than many of our mainstream psychologists.
34. The experience of meaninglessness
Many folks these days have experienced at least a small taste of meaninglessness.
“Meaninglessness” can be a feeling of asking “what’s the point?” and having no good answer. It can be a dawning realization that much of what we do is geared toward “getting somewhere.” But when we step back and ask where, exactly, that “somewhere” is, we realize that it might not exist at all. We might decide that there is no “somewhere.” Or maybe it exists, but it hasn’t been worth the struggle. And what’s left, when there’s nothing worth striving for? What’s left when there’s no vision of somewhere worth going? What’s there when there’s no answer to “why”? When there’s only emptiness, nothingness, a void, a dead-end? When life seems to be a road that leads nowhere?
(We're available for rousing motivational speeches, by the way. To book us, contact us here.)
To state the obvious: folks typically experience this kind of thing as disheartening, strange, and unpleasant. It feels unnatural.
Why is this experience so jarring? Why is it so tough to swallow? Why do most people reject it, and typically avoid it as much as possible?
For there to be an idea of meaninglessness, there must be some kind of prior sense of the opposite of meaninglessness. For us to experience a sensation that life is a road to nowhere, we must have first had a prior expectation that we were, at one point, on a road to somewhere.
This presumption that we’re headed somewhere – and somewhere good, even – seems to be hardwired into us. It might be unconscious, but it’s there. The idea that we might not be headed toward some destination that justifies the journey usually comes as a shock. Existentialists often take a bitter pride in what they see as a willingness to face what they see as a harsh reality, and to do it without flinching. But the fact that it’s a painful reality itself doesn’t seem to be questioned. And the reason why it’s painful seems to be rarely asked.
We seem to have an inborn sense of meaning that’s native to us. But we often realize this only when we lose it, or when it gets threatened.
And perhaps all this points toward something within us that we often intuit, yet aren’t fully conscious of yet.
35. The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is well-established in many fields of science. It’s usually seen as controversial only when its effects are ignored or forgotten.
It’s been established to the point that it’s essentially settled. A patient will sometimes be “treated” with a “pretend” non-treatment. (Sugar pills are the usual means.) That person will believe that they’re receiving actual treatment. And that person will heal.
This might not necessarily be a big deal if it wasn’t so pervasive. But the placebo effect is employed to explain all kinds of phenomena. Skeptics regularly call on it to explain the effectiveness of alternative treatments, for example. Yet science seems to have almost no idea how or why it actually works.
The norm here is to merely use the placebo effect solely in order to test whether a treatment actually works or not, not to understand how it works itself. Meaning, scientists often acknowledge this primarily to test whether or not healing is due to the treatment itself or expectations. But the investigation of how, exactly, it works – the mechanics behind it, and how it does what it does – seems to pass by, unexplored.
Is there a little-understood ability for us to heal ourselves in some way that is hiding in plain sight? That’s simultaneously everywhere, yet mysterious? Both universally accepted as a given in science, yet hardly at all understood?
36. How Stories Work
A question about movies: why do we go pay money to sit in the dark and watch folks pretend to be people they aren’t in imaginary situations that we all know are illusory?
Could it be that something inside us gets drawn out through this process?
Could it be that, through this elaborate and intricate process, something within us gets moved, touched, expressed, deepened – and this process can be something profound, and even worth seeking out any chance we get?
37. How dreams work
When we experience dreams, we see things.
Literally. If we dream about running through a forest, we “see trees, leaves, dirt and so on.” We see them just as if we were seeing them with our own eyes.
But of course, during dreams, of course, we aren’t “seeing” with our physical eyes. Our physical eyes are closed.
So, while we’re dreaming, if we aren’t seeing with our eyes, what are we “seeing” with?
Who is “seeing” the stuff within a dream? Do we posit some “mental” or non-physical self that can see with “the eye of mind”?
38. How perception works
We all see. But not many folks really understand how we see.
One guy devoted fifty years of his life to trying to figure this out. His entire career was focused on understanding how perception works. His name was James J. Gibson.
Of course, it’s unfair to summarize fifty years of work in a few sentences. That said, here goes:
Gibson concluded that the standard theories of how visual perception worked just didn’t hold up. The customary neurological and computer-theoretic approach to perception, he decided, were flawed. He stated that the perceptual system isn’t merely a sum of various parts, and the act of perception can’t be dichotomized into mere stimulus and response. The notion that “the eye sends, the nerve transmits, and a mind or spirit receives” needs to be radically modified.
All to say, much of the common thinking on perception was just wrong.
In many ways, visual perception, so far, has proven to be unsolvable to the method of ordinary science. It can’t be understood merely as an act of the body, or of the mind, or of the two operating together. Instead, it looks something like a “holistic ecology.” A holistic ecology at the basis of how we see.
OK, that was totally unfair summary, and the above barely scratches the surface of a summary. But if you’re interested in more of this, see Gibson’s classic The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception.
But in regards to such basic things as how we see, apparently, there’s much more to the picture than we often think.
Let’s sketch out a picture of a classic “addiction.”
Let’s imagine that one day, a guy – let’s call him Bo – comes across a certain something. To stay on point and avoid distraction, let’s call it “Ooo.”
So Bo comes across “Ooo,” and ingests it somehow. He takes it from outside him and puts it inside. And from that point forward, he’s obsessed with it. He can think of nothing else. All he wants is more Ooo. It’s all he cares about. His friends and family can all see clearly that Ooo isn’t good for him. Bo starts looking pale and weak and frail. It’s destroying his health, his finances, his career, his family, his relationships. Bo is giving his entire life to Ooo. And Ooo seems to be just taking it, and apparently giving him nothing in return. Eventually, Bo gives his actual life to Ooo, and that’s it.
Of course, this story probably seems tragic to almost all of us.
But what lesson can we extract from this?
There’s something about the concept of “addiction” that’s revealing. Because “addiction” implies that there’s something else we’re supposed to be doing.
What that “something else” is isn’t clear, of course. But whatever it is, we can feel pretty strongly that it isn’t Ooo. That just feels wrong. It seems almost self-evident.
Bo seemed to have an intuition that Ooo was “The Answer” to life. And again, we likely see Bo’s turn down this path as tragic.
But both of these statements are revealing in what they presuppose.
Which is to say: all of us can be seen as looking for an “Answer” to life. This might not be worth thinking about until we come across some kind of wrong answer (like Ooo) and seize on it. Ooo, then, seemed to be a kind of “Fool’s Gold.” Bo imagined it was real gold, even while everyone but him could see clearly that it wasn’t.
But Fool’s Gold can’t exist unless there’s such a thing as real gold.
Or to come at this from a slightly different angle: how would we instinctively consider a life as taking a tragic turn unless we instinctively sensed that a life has the potential to be something much better? Unless we have, at some level, some idea of what life is supposed to be?
And what, in us, is the source of these intuitions?
40. The “God Complex”
The “God Complex” is a term that describes, in brief, a condition where someone believes that they are, if not The “God,” at least a god. Ernest Jones accused Freud of having it, H. E. Barnes accused George Washington and Andrew Jackson of having it, Nietzsche supposedly signed letters as “Dionysus,” a Greek god. And so on.
While this condition isn’t currently in the DSM-IV, and isn’t a popular diagnosis, still: it was created for a reason. Namely, it apparently really is possible for a person to believe that they are “a god.” Which might just indicate that something within us makes that condition possible.
Or even if that seems like a bit of a stretch, we could settle for a classical term that’s thousands of years old: “hubris.” It’s seen as a weakness of pride or overconfidence. It can also be described as “forgetting one’s place.” And our rightful place, apparently, is being not a god.
So: a mortal creature, framed in a fragile, doomed body that’s utterly dependent on a thousand things beyond its control, one that’s vulnerable to thousands of surrounding threats at every moment, one that lives for a short time while clinging to life on a tiny planet that’s hurtling through a vast and largely empty space…seems to constantly run the risk of thinking it’s a god, and needs to continually be reminded against it.
Perhaps this is evidence that, somewhere in there, there’s something more to it.
41. There are things we don’t understand about human nature
OK, strictly speaking, it isn’t really fair to call this “evidence” for a spiritual component of human nature. It’s more an argument against anyone declaring that they’ve proven that it doesn’t exist. Which, as we mentioned earlier, isn’t totally fair.
Fair enough. But it still needs to be said, along the “best offense is a good defense” lines.
After all: if we explore every inch of a house and discover no elephant, then we can say with some degree of confidence that “there’s no elephant in this house.”
But human nature is a big house. And spirituality can, in some ways, be a small, quiet, and subtle elephant. (OK, bad metaphor there.) The point is, very few folks who even try to claim they’ve explored every room in that house. And many – even most – of those who have explored many rooms at all seem to come back and say “there is something more going on.”
The ability to say that "there is no spiritual component in human nature" would have to mean that that we know everything there is to know about human nature. To be able to say that truthfully would require us knowing it all, which means exploring every inch of floorboard, basement to attic, in that house. Otherwise, it could always be said that “it’s there, perhaps, but we just haven’t discovered it yet.”
42. That the forbidden is so fascinating.
Why does a certain act suddenly become more attractive when it’s been forbidden?
That this happens seems fairly predictable. But what explains it?
One possible answer is a simple, impish rebelliousness. We don’t like being told what to do and not do. So if somebody – anybody – tells us not to do something, we automatically want to do it. Even if it’s “don’t spit into the wind” and “don’t pee on electric fences.” In some ways, we just want to assert ourselves.
But this also begs the question. Why do we want to assert ourselves? Why do we want something more if we’re simply told we can’t, or shouldn’t have it?
Here’s one possible explanation:
On some level, we all want “IT”. And we know that we haven’t found “IT” yet. What we know right now hasn’t yet provided the kind of perfect, ultimate, and complete fulfillment that, at some level, we all yearn for. (See #24-30 above.)
And since we seem to know for sure that “IT” can’t really be found in what we know, then quite logically, there’s only one other possible area where we can look. Which means it must be found in what we don’t know.
Something like this seems to be the engine that feeds our relentless appetite for newness. This is what often makes the new experiences appear to be so attractive and old experiences so stale and lifeless. It’s the triumph of hope over experience. It’s The Search for “IT”.
So perhaps the driver of all this is a certain intuition: a sense that the kind of ultimate fulfillment we hunger for exists, and is nearby, and even within reach. And maybe the source of that intuition is something within us.
43. That heroism is so stirring.
Why do acts of heroism stir us so deeply?
Why does this kind of thing inspire us so profoundly?
If we define heroism as someone sacrificing themselves for some greater cause, why does it move us to tears, to the degree that we’ll go to great efforts to seek out stories of heroes in movies, novels, all kinds of stories, in real life?
Why does this usually involve triumphing over death, in some form or another?
Why, in movies or novels, is a heroic death – one that usually involves one person voluntarily sacrificing himself or herself to save another – why does that seem to be the only kind of death that isn’t bitter or tragic?
Could it be that it resonates with something deep inside us that also want to be heroic?
“Shyness” as a personality feature is usually defined more or less as “discomfort in certain social situations.”
Another way to describe this is experiencing fear, discomfort, insecurity and anxiety when around other folks. It could be contrasted with someone who is completely at ease in social situations: relaxed, totally confident, extroverted, utterly secure.
But notice the difference between those descriptions of someone who is “shy” version someone who is not. One person feels insecure, threatened, afraid, while the other feels secure, unthreatened, unafraid.
But what, exactly, gets “threatened” in these situations?
What, exactly, is “secure,” or lacks security? If there’s fear, what is the fear of, exactly?
Like with intimacy (see #1), this often has almost nothing to do with the physical body.
Someone experiencing shyness usually isn’t, for example, necessarily afraid of getting physically beaten up.
It seems to be something of an entirely different order. Could it be that “shyness” isn’t about a physical threat to a physical body, but something else, of a different level? Something more emotional than physical? And not mere emotions themselves, but something affected greatly by emotions?
Could it be a perceived threat not to one’s body, but to one’s self?
The idea of “responsibility” sits at a fault line of a number of modern arguments and debates.
The crux of the matter is this: are we responsible for what we do? Or not?
Some folks heavily emphasize personal responsibility: that individual humans makes certain choices, and this means something. We are responsible for what we do. Other folks emphasize the opposite: a persons’ environment, genes, peers, childhood experiences, social class, and so on are the ultimate causes. In some cases, individual responsibility is seen as primary. In others, it’s not.
The argument here is about, on an elemental level, what causes things? Why does stuff happen? How far back can we trace the thread?
Are human beings able to “cause” stuff?
Or are we mere links in a vast chain of causation with no real control, and no real responsibility?
Are we actors, or victims? Masters of our own fate, or mere puppets?
This is an age-old debate in philosophy of free will verses determinism. It’s hidden in the undergirding of many of our arguments today. Which is to say, many of our arguments about issues today are actually arguments about human nature.
The fact that something so primary is still so disputed seems to indicate that there’s a big missing piece of the puzzle in our current understanding.
That there’s such a large knot to untangle on such a core issue seems to indicate something big under the surface. If this was easy to solve, it seems, we would have solved it by now.
But maybe, if we really dig under the surface, we will.
46. That many people who have tasted death have things to say.
We’ve all probably heard stories about some folks who have physically “died”, and have stayed “dead” for a significant amount of time.
And then they’ve come back.
Sometimes, they’ve had some real stories to tell.
Let’s be clear: these aren’t idle speculators or bull-session jockeys. They aren’t folks who smoked or swallowed something and had a “vision.” These are folks in the midst of heart attacks, strokes, bacterial infections, or who have drowned, bled, frozen, disappeared into comas, suffered incredible traumas, and any number of hairy situations. These folks, in other words, had some very real skin in the game. Which means, to be fair, we shouldn’t be too flippant about dismissing them.
So it seems like we should study this kind of thing scientifically, and rigorously, right?
And many folks have. Kenneth Ring, Raymond Moody, Sam Parnia, Pim van Lommel and others are just a few researchers that have worked to study, with fairness and rigor, what these individuals report to have experienced.
Of course, not everyone agrees on this research. Skeptics argue against the conclusions of some researchers. The science here is far from “settled.”
But again, this is no idle speculation. Folks who have been through serious personal trauma have, in some cases, emerged with vivid and dramatic stories. These experiences have, in some cases, changed the course of their lives from that point on. Dismissing that kind of story with a casual back of the hand seems, at the very least, unscientific and biased.
The evidence in these cases, once again, still needs to be explained. Because if even a few of these stories can be taken at face value, it clearly seems to point to something more.
47. The existence of religion throughout history
To state the near-obvious: religion of some sort has played a central role in the lives of the vast majority of individuals throughout recorded history. At least until recently.
This, in itself, can be taken as a certain kind of “evidence” that there’s something there when it comes to human nature. Or as some describe it, “homo religiosus.”
There seems to be something in us that very often anoints religion as the most important thing in life.
The centrality of all this is critical. This isn’t the stuff of casual hobbies and past-times. These involve moments of death, birth, marriage, declarations of identity and loyalty, of day-to-day conduct, and beliefs on the afterlife – in short, the most important, mission-critical aspects deep at the heart of life. These are no abstract, obscure affairs, but literally matters of life and death (and beyond.) It most often comes to the forefront at our most vulnerable and solemn moments. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. And we all eventually face our own foxhole, of one sort or another.
And of course, all of this includes some of the most intelligent and respected thinkers, scientists and artists throughout history, who were often deeply religious.
Of course, this isn’t claiming that the content of every religious statement ever uttered is necessarily true. Whether religious statements themselves are true or not is one matter. These claims themselves are widely debated, as they should be. But the fact that billions of people make these claims – and in great quantities, as there always have – isn’t debated. It’s pretty settled.
Even if there was truly nothing to religion, and it’s all just some kind of grand, colossal illusion, then it would still need to be explained why that illusion is so central to so many billions of people. Why has religion played a pivotal role in the lives of so many individuals throughout all of known history?
Because it has.
And that counts as evidence.
48. The most influential people in history
Question: Who are the most influential people in history?
Answer: Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Mohammed, Confucius, and Lao-Tzu.
Each of these folks had a message that – to break it down to its most rudimentary level – there’s “something more” going on here. There’s something more than simple “born, eat, sleep, work, die.”
Why were these folks so influential? Were they wealthy, powerful, politically connected, commanders of armies, celebrities? Singers? Rappers? Athletes? Instagram influencers?
No. Usually, more often than not, they were simple laborers.
But the fact that these folks, often starting from humble origins (Buddha being an exception) became the most influential people in history seems to indicate that something about their messages resonated deeply with people.
And why did it resonate with people?
Perhaps because there’s something within each of us that, when presented in the right way, in a way that’s credible and clear, responds to what they’re saying.
49. When we aren’t religious, we create religions out of other things
A curious, strange phenomenon seems to happen sometimes: when some individuals have no apparent sign of traditional spirituality or religion anywhere in their life, they sometimes tend to create a different religion of some sort out of something else.
They might create a “religion” out of their politics, for example. Or their personal relationships might become a certain kind of religion. Addictions, art, music, wealth, status, knowledge, power and so on can take on such a central role in a person’s life that, for practical purposes, it essentially becomes a matter of ultimate importance. The same even goes for celebrities, causes, crusades to save the world, and so on.
Which brings up a very interesting and related note: that skeptics often think of “spiritual” as synonymous with strange, fringe, unscientific, irrational beliefs.
Yet strangely enough, some research suggests that the opposite is actually true. It might well be the case that the decline of traditional religion (source here) has been accompanied by a rise in a diverse range of supernatural, paranormal and related beliefs.
For example: nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers seem to have been going up. Infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.
It might be the case that there’s a part of our nature that we might not fully understand. And if it doesn’t find an outlet, it will pop up again, somewhere else, in a different form.
Maybe because it’s built in to us. And it demands an outlet.
50. “Spiritual experiences”
Many folks report certain experiences that they describe as “spiritual.”
William James, Richard Bucke, Alister Hardy and others have worked to document some of these experiences, including those of some of the most well-known folks throughout history.
These experiences, according to the folks who talk about them, are no small potatoes.
They have the power to turn lives upside down. Some folks say their lives changed direction because of them, and they were never the same afterward.
Witness reports, of course, are notoriously unreliable. Hearing about experiences secondhand can be problematic. Experiencing something directly, on the other hand, isn’t. If you’ve experienced something directly, at least in some ways, it doesn’t matter whether you can prove it or not. You’ve seen for yourself.
Spiritual experiences can be interpreted or explained in various ways. The nature and meaning of them generates a lot of discussion and disagreement.
But the fact that they exist, and have profound effects on peoples’ lives, isn’t controversial. On that point, pretty much everyone, it seems, is settled.
And it counts as evidence. Evidence that there’s something more going on here.
Sometimes, this might be all the proof you need.
So, there’s our evidence.
We’ll rest our case.
(For now, at least. This is version 1.0. We’ll probably come back to upgrade this later.)
So, do you think this evidence make the case? Do you think there is a spiritual dimension to human nature? Or, do you think other explanations for all this that are more plausible?
What’s your verdict?
Before you bang your gavel, there’s one other thing we wanted you to consider.
There’s each piece of “evidence” as it stands by itself.
But then there’s the matter of looking at all of these pieces of evidence together, as a group.
Maybe there are better explanations for certain individual pieces of evidence mentioned above. But this would require 50 alternative explanations. That, verses just one explanation that potentially explains all 50.
50 different explanations is entirely possible, of course.
But there’s a refreshing simplicity in that approach. And maybe we can pull Occam’s Razor in here: that all else being equal, simpler solutions are more likely to be correct than complex ones. And the idea that “there’s something more to us than mere creatureliness” is, in some ways, pretty simple.
OK, now you can bang your gavel.
What’s your verdict?
Is there “something more”? Or is this all there is?
(Take as much time as you need. Just not too much. Then, please pass your papers to the front.)
Whatever your verdict, there’s plenty more to explore from here.
For example, if you decide that there are perfectly good alternative explanations for all this, then well, there’s the matter of figuring out what exactly those are.
And by the way, we’d be interested in hearing about them. After all, part of what we’re doing here is honestly trying to get to the bottom of all this. The way we see it, all this is the stuff of good conversation.
And that – good conversation – is no small part of why we have a Member’s Discussion Board that’s part of our site here.
Or, if your verdict is the opposite – that yes, there is “something more” to human nature than merely creatureliness…
Well, now what? What should we do about it?
Well, we can say this much: we’ve made some progress. We’re getting somewhere.
Which means we’re ready to take the next step. Which is probably to ask, “well, what is that ‘something’”?
What’s the “nature” of it? How do we know about it? Can we understand it any better than we do now? And if so, how?
And what practical implications could this have for the rest of life? How can this help us live better, richer, more fulfilling lives?
This brings us to the key step: translating this over to our day-to-day, rubber-meets road reality.
So this is a starting point, not an ending point.
Even if we’ve decided that there’s something there, we still have to figure out what it is, and what to do about it.
If human nature is a Ferrari, and most of us only drive it around in first gear, then the problem becomes a matter of trying to figure out what exactly those “higher gears” are, and how to work them.
If each of us really does live in a huge building, but most of us spend our time in the small, cramped room in the basement, then the task becomes figuring out how to gain access to those other rooms on higher floors.
If there’s some part of ourselves that’s hidden, or buried, or sleeping in our unconscious – down in the depths, like Atlantis at the bottom of the sea – or a treasure lost long ago, just sitting down there, waiting for us, then maybe our task is to pull on our scuba gear and dive in.
As an expedition to discover – or rediscover it.
Maybe each of us, in a way, is born a caterpillar. And our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to become a butterfly. Perhaps there’s “another nature” or phase of ourselves, very different from that of caterpillarness. And maybe it’s possible for us to experience that, or to realize it.
So this can become a bit of a “Quest.”
Beyond this point, this endeavor can mean becoming something like a treasure hunter. Except instead of pawing through dirt, you dig through yourself. Because what we’re after is some kind of “gold” that might be buried in hills of a different kind.
Maybe it’s a bit like a classic fable. Maybe we’re like a knight on a valiant mission to rescue a princess.
Except that the princess isn’t actually a damsel in distress, but our own true selves, hidden away, under a spell, sleeping in a strange trance. And maybe the dragon guarding both her and the treasure is, strangely enough, also ourselves. Or at least, who we think we are.
There are mysteries here to solve.
So, how do we do all this?
If any of this is real, and not just some wild, caffeine-induced mind spasm, what do we do now?
If there’s some “higher” part of us, how to we activate it, turn it on and rev it up?
If it really is buried somewhere, hidden somewhere in the depths of our selves, how to we hook up our jumper cables and jump-start it, fire it up and get it running at top speed and full power?
These are all things that we, your trusty, cuddly, and super-humble LiveReal Agents are trying to get to the bottom of ourselves.
We’ve made some progress. For example, part of this, no doubt, means just facing the basic existential riddles we’re all faced with. Some of this means really digging in and investigating this stuff, and with a degree of rigor. This entails actively working to really know yourself, and not fool yourself. It probably means doing all this as scientifically as possible, even if you’re skeptical about all this, and even if it means plowing through a few existential crises. And this usually means running at least a few experiments. Hopefully, of course, these experiments result in some kind of happiness beyond creature comforts, or antifragile happiness, inner strength, or even some direct experience that makes it all come together in some kind of direct and profound way. All of which is part of what we could put under the umbrella of “inner work.”
That’s a start.
We’ll keep exploring. Because, well, that’s what we do.
We’re guessing you will too.
Until then, verdict well.
“We know what we are,
but we know not what we may be.”
- William Shakespeare
“Mankind is still embryonic…
man is the bud from which something more complicated
and more centered than man himself should emerge.”
- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
“There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.”
- Bertrand Russell
“…the kingdom of heaven is within you.”
- Luke 17:21
“The soul is partly in eternity, and partly in time.”
“It is what comes from the very depths of your heart that moves heaven and earth.”
A downloadable pdf version of this article is available here for LiveReal members.