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An Explanation, Though It Won’t Change the Explained

Martin LeFevre:  A friend writes asking to inquire together into an essential question: “I deeply question myself and with friends, what is the root cause of this disastrous course of humankind?”

I understand her to mean, “when and why did man make the “wrong turn?” and “what is the root cause within us of humankind being on this disastrous course?” They’re distinct, but overlapping questions, and both urgently need to be explored.

The former is more of a philosophical question (albeit an important one) that I discussed with David Bohm. He was the physicist-philosopher that Einstein called his “spiritual son.”

Bohm was a student of Oppenheimer, and some of his early, groundbreaking work in physics was integral to building the bomb. But he was banned from working on the Manhattan Project, and even from reading his own abruptly classified work, because of communist sympathies as a young man, which many scientists in those days shared. In short, David Bohm was scapegoated, but he refused to name names when called before Congress and the infamous scoundrel, Joe McCarthy. 

Later in life, Bohm became passionate about the human condition and the increasingly destructive direction of man. In his seminars he often asked, “Where did man go wrong?”

Learning only of Bohm at the end of the philosophical obsession of my youth along the same lines, I sent him a 12-page synopsis of my proposed thesis, which I felt contained original insights into the question I began asking at 18:

Given that all plant and animal species on Earth are seamlessly interconnected in “the web of life,” and that the human species evolved along the same principles as all other life on Earth and not as some “special creation,” how is it that evolution produced a creature, Homo sapiens, that operates in contradiction to the wholeness of life, and is fragmenting the Earth to the breaking point?

This question emerged in me after an explosive, life-altering insight into the separative nature of thought when I was 18. Without having read or formed any ideas about meditation, I noticed while observing oneself in nature that there is always an observer that’s separate from what it was observing.

With curiosity I began asking, what is this observer that stands apart from what it is observing, even when observing things within oneself? After the question had percolated unseen for a few weeks, there was a shattering insight: The observer  (also known as ‘I’ and ‘me’) is an ancient trick of thought, the root of separation at the psychological level! At the same moment the insight ignited within one, there was, for the first time, a tremendous feeling of the unity and beauty of life and nature.

That initiated my philosophical quest. I had to understand how nature could evolve a creature antithetical to its first principle of wholeness. For 15 years I read everything and talked with every philosopher I could. Finally, the chair of the philosophy department at Stanford told me he knew of no philosopher anywhere that was asking the question I was. So I had to find out alone.

After about twelve years, there was what I felt then and still feel today an original insight. The fundamental mistake of believing that thought’s separations are real is inherent in the evolution of ‘higher thought.’ That opened up a whole new “theory of human nature.” (Interestingly, the words “mistake” and “sin” have the same root, and the emotionally-ladened idea that there actually is a separate observer and self accounts for the misnomer and false judgment of “original sin.”)

While in graduate school in philosophy as a late bloomer in my mid-thirties, I wrote David Bohm a long letter before a three-day seminar, outlining my hard-won insights. That weekend, basically only he and I engaged in dialogue, which consisted mostly of me asking questions for mutual inquiry, and picking his prodigious brain.

As clear as David Bohm was in some of his insights into the human condition, I felt then, and still feel today 30 years after his death, that he did not go to the root of what he himself described as the problem of thought. He believed that indigenous people understood thought in a deeper way, and that man only went wrong using thought after the emergence of agriculture and cities. Though this view only goes half way to the roots of the existential challenge to the human being of misuse of thought, it carries the day with people today.

In a sense, “where did man go wrong?” is a wrong question. During prehistoric times, after the emergence of “fully modern humans” 100,000 or more years ago, and during indigenous times, people lived in rough harmony with nature, limited by technology and bound by tradition.  

As many tens of thousands of years as that rough harmony with nature lasted however, it was temporary.  Higher thought has the strong tendency to psychologically divide, producing conflict, war, and the totally unsustainable fragmentation of the planet we see today. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, thought was unleashed with the appearance of cities, agriculture, and increasingly sophisticated technology.

That makes the misuse of thought, which is coming to a head with the planetary ecological crisis, the renewed and increasing threat of nuclear war, and the development of artificial thought that will soon surpass human cognitive capabilities, a much deeper challenge.

But it also means that the fault is not just in ourselves, but also in our stars, since evolution conferred the Promethean power of higher thought on us without conferring the wisdom to use it fittingly rather than fragmentarily. Obviously, it’s up to us to awaken that intelligence.

The irony, which I find funny, is that after finding out how nature could evolve a creature that operates antithetical to its first principle, I realized that the explanation is secondary, and won’t change the explained – me and you.

In short, insight into man’s core perennial mistake/“original sin,” while necessary, isn’t sufficient to transform us, the inheritors of the mistake. Psychological separation and the fragmentation of nature continue unabated. It has been replicated and vastly extended in my lifetime, producing an untenable level of darkness in human consciousness.

For the vast majority of people, our present, unprecedented planetary crisis has only confirmed the long-standing belief that “human nature will never change.” Of course, by human nature people mean the ancient habit of psychological separation, which gives rise to self-centered activity.

The human species doesn’t have an unlimited number of chances to change our basic, disastrous course. The Earth will determine the limits of man’s fragmentation.

But human extinction is not a given, as many now believe. A breakthrough in a minority of individuals can occur that ignites a psychological revolution in human consciousness as a whole, which will at last change the basic course of man.

Though faith isn’t my strong suit, I feel that until the fate of humanity is undeniably decided, one has to have faith that human beings will meet the challenge that has reached a critical point with and in the living generations.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.