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Thread: Humans seek to transcend nature via culture

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    Humans seek to transcend nature via culture

    Humans seek to transcend nature via culture

    But Love has pitched his mansion in
    The place of excrement.--Yates

    “What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”—Tolstoy

    In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker suggests that we all create an artificial world to avoid confronting the hopelessness of the human condition.

    The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism.

    Meaning is number ONE. What wo/man fears most is extinction, which includes insignificance.

    Wo/man wants assurance that their life has somehow counted; if not for her or his self then at least within the overall scheme of things. If there is some kind of “judgment day” then I want to be in ‘that number’ that matter. While alive I want to know that “I am somebody”.

    Religion is our primary means for responding to that basic need to be somebody. Otto Rand says that all religions spring up “not so much from…fear of natural death as of final destruction.”

    “It is culture itself that embodies the transcendence of death in some form or other, whether it appears as purely religious or not…culture itself is sacred, since it is the “religion” that assures in some way the perpetuation of its members.”

    Our dichotomy of sacred and secular aspects of social life is an egregious error. There is no such thing as a distinction between sacred and secular in the symbolic affairs of sapiens. Sacred is that which transcends the natural world while secular is that which is of the natural world. In the world of symbolic affairs such distinctions do not hold.

    “As soon as you have symbols you have artificial self-transcendence via culture. Everything cultural is fabricated and given meaning by the mind, a meaning that is not given by physical nature. Culture is in this sense “supernatural” and all systemizations of culture have in the end the same goal: to raise men above nature, to assure him that in some ways their lives count in the universe more than merely physical things count.”

    Self-transcendence, i.e. transcending nature via culture, does not provide a simple means to deny the primacy of death; the terror of death still lurks beneath the veneer. We have shifted the fear of death onto a new level of anxiety; we must “now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which we live…a new kind of instability and anxiety are created.”

    In our attempt to deny evil, i.e. death, we bring a new and grotesque form of evil. “It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter fate.” Wo/man has, through ingenuity, heaped great evil on the world; far greater than could ever be created by our animal nature.

    Quotes from Escape from Evil—Becker

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    Registered User billl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst View Post
    We have shifted the fear of death onto a new level of anxiety; we must “now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which we live…a new kind of instability and anxiety are created.”
    Quotes from Escape from Evil—Becker
    It is hard to get the ideas connected up in this extended sentence, I think it was a bit ambitious, grammatically, to splice them together like this. I think the first and last clauses are maybe just the same statement? I think (?) it is a reference to how people in a culture can be thrown into dangerous straits due to a concern with largely arbitrary cultural concerns and constructs. I think that that such an idea would be a bit overboard, because a lot of what goes into "culture" is (or was, in the beginning) motivated by making life less hellish.

    People being caught up in artificial/cultural passions and perhaps cooking up distractions, tragedies, and panics--grotesque, cultural fantasies of no "real" import that aren't necessitated by our position in the natural world--isn't the whole story. But it is a dangerous part of the story--this was an interesting post, thanks.

    Quote Originally Posted by coberst View Post
    In our attempt to deny evil, i.e. death, we bring a new and grotesque form of evil. “It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter fate.” Wo/man has, through ingenuity, heaped great evil on the world; far greater than could ever be created by our animal nature.
    It will be interesting to see if people can turn the trend around. Is it culture and technology in general that bring rise to such an unavoidable sounding fate, or is it something else, something that could be changed? It used to be that extracting resources, building things, and dumping our waste wherever we wanted presented no real problem to us (and, if we turn the clock back far enough, no real problem for our fellow creatures). Now, we are at the point where it is impacting the pre-cultural/non-tech ("natural") world in ways that are extremely harmful, increasingly difficult to ignore, and increasingly a threat even to us. Indeed, the artificial aspects of the cultural world(s) are (as you and Becker point out) providing a fertile breeding ground for new forms of exploitation, corruption, delusion, and all manner of hellish conditions of existence.

    I think that, if a person sees a sheet of paper with a message on it that urges him/her to plant a tree, that might ultimately provide an example of how culture can react to such an issue (if a tree gets planted). It isn't enough, there's a lot of stuff to work out (lots of habits that worked well in the past), and one tree (or one internet thread) won't be enough to turn the tide. But, with any luck, the whole thing will turn out to be just another culturally-constructed perception of "bitter fate," maybe not as certain as might be feared.

    As ugly as it can often be, it can also be changed if our panic and revulsion can be put to good use.
    Last edited by billl; 11-04-2009 at 03:12 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by billl View Post



    Is it culture and technology in general that bring rise to such an unavoidable sounding fate, or is it something else, something that could be changed?
    e.
    I think that the only way to prevent our self destruction is for our society to become much more intellectually sophisticated. Presently we are too unsophisticated to comprehend the problems that are bearing down on us.

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    Haribol Acharya blazeofglory's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst View Post
    Humans seek to transcend nature via culture

    But Love has pitched his mansion in
    The place of excrement.--Yates


    In our attempt to deny evil, i.e. death, we bring a new and grotesque form of evil. “It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter fate.” Wo/man has, through ingenuity, heaped great evil on the world; far greater than could ever be created by our animal nature.

    Quotes from Escape from Evil—Becker
    I agree and of course through ingenuity or inventiveness man has heaped greater miseries and evils on his race. More specifically man has kind of through cultures, civilizations, earnings trying to overcome his beastly nature and in his endeavors at divinizing himself and acculturating himself he has demeaned his status. That is why our civilization has failed and now the repercussion is we have fundamentalists warring with one another for one and only reason – to ensconce cultures, religions, faiths, ideals and the like, of course defacing the entire human race. Your analysis is really absorbing and probing. We have indeed blinded our kens thru religions and cultures and in our pride over bettering ourselves we are worsening ourselves thru our cultural attributes in point of fact.

    “Those who seek to satisfy the mind of man by hampering it with ceremonies and music and affecting charity and devotion have lost their original nature””

    “If water derives lucidity from stillness, how much more the faculties of the mind! The mind of the sage, being in repose, becomes the mirror of the universe, the speculum of all creation.

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    I agree and of course through ingenuity or inventiveness man has heaped greater miseries and evils on his race. More specifically man has kind of through cultures, civilizations, earnings trying to overcome his beastly nature and in his endeavors at divinizing himself and acculturating himself he has demeaned his status.
    Quote by blazeofglory
    I agree with you very much on this point.

    Mankind has devoted its cause to rising above all the other species of this planet so that we can become the ultimate race. However, practically all the humans in this world refuse to accept the fact that we are just another species of animals. We share similar traits and attributes as most species, but mankind doesn't want to be seen as just another type of animal, so we invented concepts such as politics and ethics that we can separate ourselves from the other species.

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    Registered User Lumiere's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Acro iris View Post
    I agree with you very much on this point.

    Mankind has devoted its cause to rising above all the other species of this planet so that we can become the ultimate race. However, practically all the humans in this world refuse to accept the fact that we are just another species of animals. We share similar traits and attributes as most species, but mankind doesn't want to be seen as just another type of animal, so we invented concepts such as politics and ethics that we can separate ourselves from the other species.
    I'm inclined to disagree with this statement. Humans did not become "the ultimate race" by choice or will, but by chance or providence (whichever suits your fancy). We happened to be the animals that were given superior capacities of reason and emotion. We are not just another species of animal. True, we are animals, and we have animal instincts, but we are also something else. We haven't invented these things in order to distinguish ourselves. Again, chance or providence has set us apart already. We have invented these things because we're here, and we're scared, and none of us has a clear idea of what to do with ourselves, and we've got to do something; we've got to make some sort of effort at improvement or discovery. Are we just supposed to sit around and wonder about all those questions without answers? Unless you go into Philosophy , the answer is no. And given our rather problematic position, (that's an understatement), as a species, I think we've done pretty damn well with this "existence" stuff.

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    Out-Z the Z Molpadia's Avatar
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    While this logic is presented well, I'm afraid it's flawed on numerous levels.

    The author assumes that death equates non-existence and synonymously, insignificance relative to all which will remain after one's detachment from our existential plane.

    Arguments such as Becker's hold the assumption that they know what death is. If you ask me, this is a rather pretentious foundation upon which to construct an argument, as it holds that with his own limited human understanding, he understands the nature of human consciousness and/or existence beyond our physical death.

    I myself am what I suppose would be classified as an agnostic - though I use that term loosely. When making such arguments as Becker's, they must be approached with humility. Whether there is a god or not, whether there is a continuation of life beyond physical death or not, I don't know. And that's just it - nobody does.

    Becker has built an argument upon a baseless empirical assumption. While it seems his argument's intent is to refute the notions of religion, he himself is actually embracing the core fundamental workings of religion. Whether a religion is about Jesus or inter-dimensional cosmic toaster ovens is moot; it's the fact that religion demands that the believer accept absolutism in order to properly function. While Becker may not have formed a religion in the traditional sense, he is still, just like religion, making an entirely baseless empirical claim about something which he in all actuality knows nothing about.

    In total, I find his whole argument ironic. His goal is the same as religion; to refute the humility of admitting "I don't know" and to provide an answer for something far, far beyond our capacity to understand.
    Og ég fæ blóðnasir
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    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Did it ever occur that culture is natural to humans? To transcend nature through culture is absurd.

    If nature is taking a crap in the woods and not using toilet paper, then you can keep nature and I'll gladly transcend it.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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    Rawr. Blanket Heist's Avatar
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    Assuming "culture" is referring to theater, music, film, literature, etc.

    Then how would the consumption of said culture fit into this idea?
    "Art is either plagiarism or revolution."
    "Great writers are indecent people. They live unfairly, saving the best part for paper."

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    Registered User billl's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Molpadia View Post
    While this logic is presented well, I'm afraid it's flawed on numerous levels.

    The author assumes that death equates non-existence and synonymously, insignificance relative to all which will remain after one's detachment from our existential plane.

    Arguments such as Becker's hold the assumption that they know what death is. If you ask me, this is a rather pretentious foundation upon which to construct an argument, as it holds that with his own limited human understanding, he understands the nature of human consciousness and/or existence beyond our physical death.

    I myself am what I suppose would be classified as an agnostic - though I use that term loosely. When making such arguments as Becker's, they must be approached with humility. Whether there is a god or not, whether there is a continuation of life beyond physical death or not, I don't know. And that's just it - nobody does.

    Becker has built an argument upon a baseless empirical assumption. While it seems his argument's intent is to refute the notions of religion, he himself is actually embracing the core fundamental workings of religion. Whether a religion is about Jesus or inter-dimensional cosmic toaster ovens is moot; it's the fact that religion demands that the believer accept absolutism in order to properly function. While Becker may not have formed a religion in the traditional sense, he is still, just like religion, making an entirely baseless empirical claim about something which he in all actuality knows nothing about.

    In total, I find his whole argument ironic. His goal is the same as religion; to refute the humility of admitting "I don't know" and to provide an answer for something far, far beyond our capacity to understand.
    Beyond the quote from Otto Rand, I thought the post seemed compatible with agnosticism. I am not entirely familiar with Becker, and so I figured that I might be missing some implicit atheism, based on his reputation and writings. However, it turns out that Becker was not an atheist (at least according to a couple websites I could track down, including ernestbecker.org) and that he was, in particular, opposed to absolutism in spiritual matters. In the OP to this thread, it seems that there is a concern that religion and culture might not have sufficient flexibility/humility to respond to side-effects or dangerous potentials resulting from technological development, or something like that. Becker doesn't seem to deny a spiritual issue for mankind, but is opposed to those who claim that "they know" about such things.

    Here's a bit of info about Becker from this link:
    http://www.ernestbecker.org/index.ph...ives&Itemid=33

    Rather, Becker argued for the fusion of science and religion. He ranked four levels of power and meaning that an individual could "choose" to live by: the personal, social, secular and sacred. The ideal heroism, the highest level of power and meaning, can only be found at the fourth level, the sacred, the "service of the highest power, the Creator."

    In his Pulitzer Prize winning opus, The Denial of Death, Becker again focused on heroism in the final chapter entitled Psychology and Religion: What is the Heroic Individual? He concluded by stating "The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism. Science, after all, is a credo that has attempted to absorb into itself and to deny the fear of life and death; and it is only one more competitor in the spectrum of roles for cosmic heroics."
    The quote even seems to suggest Becker had faith in a creator of some sort... In any case, I don't see him (or the OP) as taking an atheistic stance. And what I've read in the OP and in the desriptions of his position elsewhere doesn't seem to indicate any knowledge about death/afterlife.

    I posted my own take on the OP earlier in the thread (I am basically agree with Virgil, maybe). The post struck me as a bit too pessimistic, and perhaps exaggerated the importance of fear as a motivation lying behind human progress and culture. But I think that the OP is interesting, and its cautions/concerns are well-worth keeping in mind.

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