The circumstances we find ourselves in are material, and of material. Bodies and resources, and even, ultimately, capacity and propensity toward suffering, are not distributed uniformly by an indifferent universe which must simply be lumpy (i.e. non-uniform) for us to exist in it. It is up to humans to redistribute resources and to ease suffering.
People get confused because thought seems to be different in quality to the material. It was in theory possible that our sciences would not demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that our thoughts, and indeed all our behaviours, are materially caused. It is theoretically possible that, for example, smacking in childhood didn’t lead to worse material outcomes and behavioural problems. Yet it does.
People generally want to think they can transcend their circumstances. This idea of a “transcendent spirit” is an important motivator for the Animal Who Can. It is impossible to beat the odds but thinking you can may help you to try to take on what are actually low odds, or a least seem so.
For all that, can we say we are truly more motivated than all other animals? It seems unlikely. The truth is we have brains far better at understanding and solving problems. It seems more likely then that the “transcendent spirit” is simply a way of suppressing that part of the understanding which recognises low odds. The trapped tiger persists because it doesn’t know the hopelessness of its situation. The human persists because she suppresses the knowledge of that hopelessness. After all, unlike the tiger we know that we get weaker and that eventually, one day, our bodies will fail altogether.
It is not my purpose to kill all illusions for good. Let us have some mindfulness of our illusions, however. The “transcendent spirit” is a tool, as is all belief. If we can be agile with our beliefs, yet committed as need be, then all the better.
Let’s look at what we are doing when we apply this notion of “transcendent spirit” to others. Clearly there is some value in “You can!”, up to a point. What though when we start to apply it negatively, as in our suppression of the knowledge of the material circumstances which make our friend who he is? “You haven’t” isn’t beyond redemption, if it might be motivational. If. Is that why we said it?
We might even explicitly apply our notion of transcendence divisively, to exclude others or to justify our own advantages, and there is everything grubby about this, nothing lofty at all.
“I had many challenges and yet I have succeeded and you have failed. There is no excuse.”
…As if there is an “I” distinct from the material circumstances of what made you, an “I” superior to the other!
“Of those with less, we must help only those who want to be helped.”
which is half a step from the lie of the undeserving and deserving poor.
Those who want to insert a magic Will, whereby some people are good and some are bad, are seeking to mitigate a basic fact: the intrinsic unfairness of this material world. Thus we get a justification of the evil of centrism, which is a half-baked approach to inequality, and a demonstrably failed method for tackling it. We scarcely need mention any politics to the right of this. Of more consequence, we will find many a self-professed Socialist who hasn’t fully grasped the full moral implications of materialism.
To those who say there are none, this sermon was never intended for you. So be it.