Seekers of Depth and Profundity

In a thought-provoking and stimulating book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Density, Amartya Sen provides a powerful critique to the current trend of analyzing modern conflicts as “clash of civilizations” or clash between cultures – i.e., the tendency to look at human beings as distinct groups rather than individuals. He argues, quite convincingly, that the “prospect of peace in the contemporary world may well lie in the recognition of the plurality of our affiliations” rather than communitarian thinking that crudely categorizes people into contending groups by assigning them a singular one-dimensional (often religious, cultural, or ethnic) identities.

This omnipresent phenomenon of thinking-in-terms-of-groups reduces people to confined unidimensional space. Be it “the Islamist world” against “the Western world”, the Hindus against the Muslims, the Tamils against the Sinhalese, or the Marathi manoos against the “non-Marathis”, this us-against-them rhetoric is very effective in provoking hatred (that easily gets manipulated by vote thirsty politicians). Why, one would think, this communitarian approach is so popular? Sen explains:

It is not hard to understand why the imposing [communitarian or] civilizational approach appeals so much. It invokes richness of history and the apparent depth and gravity of cultural analysis, and it seeks profundity in a way that an immediate political analysis of “here and now” — seen as ordinary and mundane — would seem to lack.

We are the “seekers of depth and profundity”. We try to find greater meaning and higher purpose in not only conflicts or struggles (as mentioned above), but also in the very existence of life itself.

Which brings me to the topic of my last post (Divine Justice?): how this tendency increases our proclivity towards unscientific convictions. We want to believe that life has a greater divine purpose.Β But if there’s one lesson that evolution teaches us, it is that the human beings are, like monkeys, fishes, birds, ants, worms, roaches, and bacteria, a product of a random, unsupervised and impersonal process. Darwin’s evolution is a pink slip to the benevolent creator, to the purposefulness of life.

Depressing? It shouldn’t be. Consider the following passage from Richard Dawkin’s Unweaving the Rainbow:

To live at all is miracle enough. — Mervyn Peake,Β The Glassblower

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

And here’s a short interview between two of the greatest living stalwarts of Darwin –Richard Dawking and Daniel Dennet:

Hallelujah for the universe!


7 responses to “Seekers of Depth and Profundity

  1. rags

    I like this one. Yeah, the us vs them rhetoric is a commonly used one to short circuit rational thinking and reasoning. Also, like you said it is much more comforting to think that there is Ian actual ‘us’ group, belonging to a tribe gives a sense of security.

    I liked Dawkins statement, its true, living is a gift by itself. Most problems in the world are because we don’t value each other enough and cherish our short existence in this beautiful world. On that note, I’d say avatar is a fabulous movie because it protrayed precisely that..

    But I still do think my life has a higher purpose πŸ™‚ Not divinely sanctioned but purposeful all the same πŸ™‚

    • Vishal

      >> But I still do think my life has a higher purpose πŸ™‚ Not divinely sanctioned but purposeful all the same

      I knew you were going to say that! πŸ™‚

      But I think “higher purpose”, by definition, requires the existence of a grand scheme or design – which requires a designer. Doesn’t a nod of approval to the life-has-a-higher-purpose belief an indirect endorsement to the existence of a supernatural (if not divine) being?

      • AP

        Higher purpose could simply imply an inclination/premonition of a higher (above average) purpose from the perspective of the speaker. The idea of higher is relative as are most ideas relating to opinion. Your version higher could be framed as ‘spiritually’ higher and someone else’s can be based on something else.

  2. rags

    Aargh..You knew I was going to say that? I’m becoming predictable now. πŸ™‚

    I get what you’re saying.
    I can’t explain this clearly because I’m not clear about it myself… Maybe there is a design… but who designed it…. is there a designer … no clue about that.

    But somehow I don’t think things happen in a random way… Maybe its just an intuition, or maybe I’m just deluding myself.
    Either way its nice. πŸ™‚

    P.S. spell check.. should be ‘portrayed’.

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  5. Dammerung

    I strongly disagree. To me, everything about life seems to communicate a kind of purpose. Which is not to say that I think there’s a God ruling from a laboratory and micromanaging every particular strand of DNA.

    I’m remind of a Hindu parable… a great saint goes before Mahabramha, and says, “there’s one thing I’ve always wondered. HOW did you create the universe?”

    Mahabramha replies, “oh, I had no particular method”

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