Nescience

Did you ever hear about the great deception
Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to love city
Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun

Don’t it hurt so bad in love city
Don’t it make you not want to bother at all
And don’t they look so self righteous
When they pin you up against the wall

Did you ever, ever see the people
With the tear drops in their eyes
I just can’t stand it, stand it no how
Living in this world of lies

                                           —Van Morrison

I have been sitting on this post since the election, expecting incidents of hate and violence to be more violent in the current climate of unreality.  But never did I expect the tragic events of January 6.  Regrettably, I am sure that this is not the end.  There is every reason to expect that this tragic trend in American history will only get worse as it plays itself out as the weeks and months ahead.  The fires which have been kindled during the last several years cannot be extinguished immediately.  The result is something  Representative  Eric Swawell described as “the crescendo of years of hate”.  Reactions vary.  For my part, I feel outrage, but my primary emotion is one of deep sadness.  For a secular place, few can approach the sacredness of our nation’s capital, a symbol as well as a building, one that Representative Anna Eshoo has rightly called “the temple of our democracy”, one that tourists visit in awe and children learn about with a studious admiration.  But more about this later.  We must first examine the source from whence all this comes, for it does not begin with hordes of rioters—it begins with us.

Here I must introduce the word “nescience”.  It is certainly not a household word, and I would surely have never encountered it had it not been for the writings of Swami Prabhupada.  Those of you who have read my previous posts may know that Prabhupada was a severe critic of conventional society, to the point that many may be put off by the sternness of his countenance.  This man meant business!  He certainly did not possess the effervescence of, say, the Maharishi.  But I accept his severity.  His words, to me ring true, letting  judgment (and truth) fall where it will.  Coincidently, his position as a prime proponent of Divine Personhood (the purpose of this website) makes him a personal favorite and adds additional weight to his message.  Why would I not like him?  He writes (in Śri Iśopanisad: Discovering the Original Person, mantra 9), “Those who engage in the culture of nescient activities shall enter into the darkest region of ignorance.  Worse still are those engaged in the culture of so-called knowledge.”

So if nescience is ignorance, why do we need another word?  Well, here is my take: one can exhibit ignorance in many common occurrences (I didn’t see the stop sign, I forgot to pay the electric bill,  I didn’t know that dogs weren’t allowed) but nescience is not your garden variety ignorance.  I feel that Prabhupada’s specific application, the spiritual darkness of a culture averse to wisdom and to spiritual values, could be expanded to include a more secular context.  It could refer to a departure from, a disregard for and an avoidance of the truth, a preference for drama and fantasy, and an aversion to reason.  This is only logical as both symptoms proceed from the same source.  While human carnage can be an inevitable result, truth is its first casualty.  Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, calls it “truth decay”.  Concerning the specific example of Covd-19, she asks the question: How is it possible that Americans are polarized along party lines even on something as seemingly apolitical as a virus?  Her answer is that Americans no longer rely on facts and data as much as they should. That is a problem at any time, but it is especially troubling during a pandemic, when people need the best, most reliable information to stay safe.  She identifies four trends:

  • increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data
  • a blurring of the line between opinion and fact
  • the increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact
  • declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

These trends mark our descent into a post-scientific, post-rational society.  Gathering and assessing the facts can be boring, so we look to something that can entertain and excite us.  Our contemporary society gives us so many opportunities to do this.  We are being entertained to death!  How many times have you seen a movie or a TV drama that was “based on a true story”?  Did you ask how much of it was true?  Probably not, because you watched it to be entertained, not to find the facts.  It is so easy via the entertainment and social media to jump into an alternative universe, where we cannot only be sidetracked but be convinced by the echo chamber of similar ideas that this is the real truth.  The value of this stimulation outweighs anything else. And, to be sure, banishing someone from Twitter or Facebook for false statements, or shutting down a website, will only drive those people to another platform—the digital age makes this all too easy.  

In my mind I am sitting in eighth grade science class.  We are being taught about the scientific method, beginning with a hypothesis which must be rigorously tested by all available facts before coming to a conclusion.  To many, as we see from current events, this is no longer required, or even important.  In the internet/social media world, just choose the topic that fits your fantasy and collaborate with those who entertain your preferred notions.  We are fascinated by endless conspiracy stories and willingly follow what inflames our passions.  And it is no longer necessary to bear the scrutiny of those who would criticize you.  They exist in a separate universe, as you do in yours.

Science (and just plain observation) tells us that temperatures are trending toward hotter levels worldwide, that ocean levels are rising, that the polar ice caps are melting.  Science tells us a multitude of concretely discernable things.  Science also tells us that, in the pandemic, wearing a mask not only decreases one’s own chance of infection, but decreases the likelihood of passing it to others.  Yet, somehow, mysteriously, this public health measure became conflated with the loss of freedom, with the repression of First Amendment rights, with the actions of a dictatorial government.  How did this strange twist occur?  Certainly, not by the level-headed observations of science.  The “no-mask” adherents have been transported into a koo-koo alternative universe, and as a result many more of us (and them) are needlessly dying.  It is not a civil rights issue.  Do they really think this is like Rosa Parks on the bus, Martin Luther King on the streets of Birmingham, or John Lewis on the Edmund Pettis Bridge?  We hear the cry, “We want our freedom!”  Yeah, right.  The freedom to infect yourself and others, and while you’re at it, saying that the virus is not as dangerous and public health officials say it is.  Name your delusion—there are many from which to choose: the Holocaust really didn’t happen; we didn’t land on the moon (we only made a video); pedophiles molest children in the basement of a New York pizza restaurant (which doesn’t actually have a basement), voting machines were re-programmed by a Venezuelan company allied with dictator Hugo Chavez, who, inconveniently, has been dead for ten years, and any other sort of deep state conspiracy you can name.  Last week, a local radio program featuring a smorgasbord of conspiracy talk featured the (in)famous proponent of the theory that the real killer of John Lennon was Stephen King.  How fitting!  

Far more sinister, these worlds of alternative truth serve as facades which hide a multitude of evils.  They harbor a tolerance for violence, racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, disdain for the poor and underprivileged, and a preference for totalitarianism.  Adolf Hitler and his henchmen did just fine without digital media.  Their phony appropriation of Aryan symbolism spawned the pernicious idea of the Master Race, leading to the needless death of millions.   We are not there yet, but the American versions of alternative truth have gripped a large part of our society, with many disturbing consequences.  This did not happen overnight.  What led to the Capitol insurrection was building for years.  What are we to expect?  Four years ago we chose a reality TV star to be our leader, and reality TV is what we got, an endless drama full of what you would see on such a program.  By the way, the term, “reality TV” is actually a misnomer.  It takes more producers for one of these than for a fictional TV drama, for the scene must be staged and the participants must be coached, or coerced, to act in the ways they do, and then the footage must be edited to show the desired outcome, one which is the most outrageous (=entertaining).  Reality is twisted into fiction.  Doesn’t this sound like the events of the past four years?  It is nescience indeed, on a national, public scale, and its adherents are drawn to it, like moths to the flame, much in the way that viewers of a TV show are. 

It was the culture of nescience that made the Desert Fathers flee from the society of their time into the wilds of nature to recover the true meaning and value of life.  This call has been renewed in various times and places (including today) in many cultures as the monastic life becomes the answer of many to the emptiness and delusion of conventional society.  It was what drove Albert Schweitzer to the jungle of Africa to provide a deep and affirmative answer to a white European culture who, caught up in its own socio-religious rituals,  failed to acknowledge the universal brotherhood of all people and our need to care for them.  His philosophy of Reverence for Life triumphed over these limitations and stands as a testament to the greater Wisdom to this day.  It was why Mother Teresa was truly at home with the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta, and has been mirrored by many others who follow in her spirit.

What to do?  First, let’s get back to Eighth grade science class.  Let your mind burn with a passion for the truth.  Have the courage to be objective, even if it burns up your preconceived notions.  Gather all available facts and use them to test what you think and what you are told.  Everyone can be a scientist in this way.  Second, cherish the silence, seek to be alone, even if only for a short time each day.  Let it permeate your consciousness, settle and calm your mind, incline yourself to reason and judgment, serve as a beacon to guide you.  Shut off the overly present media influences.  At least for a while, turn off your TV, your radio, your computer, your phone.  Cleanse the gates of your thoughts.  Simplify your life.  Get your bearings.

It is my hope that the culture in which we now find ourselves will not last forever.  We can take encouragement from the fact that the call to seek truth, depth, and value rings out to us as it has at critical times throughout the centuries.  Many seek the true goal and will not be consumed by the nescient culture of their time.  In conclusion (and, returning  to the religious context) may we be consoled by the words of the prophet Habakkuk (2:14)  “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”  And, in Psalms 9:10 “And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee: for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.”

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