Devonism

Not long after I received my degree in philosophy, someone glibly introduced me to the idea that a philosopher can end up in one of two places:  They can become cynics, bitter that the world does not revere the importance of their work, or they find god.  I found god.

Someone once asked me what my religion was, and I jokingly responded:  “Devonism”.  But that led to a followup question:  What are the fundamental tenets of Devonism?  What do I believe?

That’s a difficult question, not least because saying you believe something is fraught with baggage.  Saying you believe in something is almost like saying you know better but  believe anyway.  “Do you believe in god?” is a loaded question, and the answer is political:  It’s more about identifying with a group than about god.

Belief also operates on a deeper level.  One of the problems that philosophers face is the problem of how we know the things that we know (this is an entire branch of study, called epistemology).  When we say we know something, we generally mean there are good reasons to believe it is true.  The problem is, you can the ask the same question again:  How do you know the reasons are true?  You have other reasons.  And how do you know the other reasons are true?  You can keep asking why indefinitely, chasing the chain of reasoning back forever.

Eventually, if you want to claim that you “know” something, you have to justify that knowledge, and there are only a limited number of unsatisfactory ways to do that.  You can assume that the chain of reasoning is infinite.  But, it’s impossible to follow an infinite chain of reasoning; proving it would take forever.  Since we don’t have forever, we have to take it on faith that the chain of reasoning is correct.  You can assume that the chain of reasoning is cyclical, which means putting faith in the correctness of a very special case of circular reasoning.  You can assume that the chain of reasoning isn’t a linear chain at all (a position known as coherentism).  This requires having faith that a greater truth can arise from a web of otherwise unrelated facts.  Or, you can assume that the chain of reasoning is justified by certain foundational beliefs.  This requires having faith that foundation is self-evidently correct.

All of these possibilities involve some form of faith, and that faith is where we tend to identify god.  We can even identify different types of gods with different faiths:  Judeo-Christians tend to put their faith in foundational reasoning.  Scientific, empirical minds tend towards coherentist views.  Buddhist and Hindu cultures see the universe as cyclical, and the oldest, mystical religions put their faith in the infinity of the universe.

At the end of the day, we can’t avoid faith; no matter what we try to explain, we have to put our faith in something.  Everything we know about the universe, about ourselves, everything we know about this planet and everything on it, depends on a leap of faith that is unjustified by logic.  This is the deeper level of belief that I mentioned; the one we can’t avoid; the one that is truly being asked about when we ask “What do you believe?”  This is the domain of the “big” questions:  “Why are we here?”, “Where did we come from?”, “What are we here for?”.

So, what do I believe?  My big insight after studying philosophy in depth for four years was that human knowledge is a better mirror of the ways that we think than it is of reality.  We understand the universe in terms of atoms and energy because those are the terms under which we can understand it, not necessarily because the universe actually contains those things.  This understanding is the consequence of a fundamental axiom of science:  That there is a rational explanation for everything.

I don’t mean to denigrate the power of science.  Our understanding of nature allows us to do amazing, terrifying, wonderful things, and that would not be possible if our ideas of the universe did not correspond to reality on some level.  What I’m saying is that we frequently confuse our understanding of things with the way things are; we assume that our explanation constitutes everything we need to know about reality.  And we don’t recognize that our explanations depend on the unsupported beliefs that make up the foundational axioms of science:  Beliefs in empirical data, in testing hypotheses, and in the power of rational explanation.  These are useful beliefs; they are beliefs that I share.  But, they are not all I believe.

This is where I think Devonism begins:  In the space beyond explanation and rationality.  Kant called this space metaphysics and concluded that there was nothing useful to be said about it, but I’m not so sure.  The foundations of science are beyond explanation, but that doesn’t stop science from being useful to us.  I think the same is true of spirituality.  It is a space where nothing can be proven; instead, how we see the world is literally up to us.  It can’t be proven true or false, but what we choose to believe has just as much effect on our lives as science does.  Unlike science, which is a description of the reality outside of us, spirituality is about the part of reality that we create for ourselves.

One of the most important abilities we have is the ability to choose what is important to us.  Science and rationality are very useful tools for understanding what the outcome of a particular action will be, but they are silent on the question of whether doing it is a good idea.  Science tells me that launching a nuclear missile will result in widespread destruction and possibly the end of life on earth.  It is silent on the matter of whether or not that is a good thing.  I cannot empirically test for good or evil.  Instead, this is a matter of what values I hold, and this is something I get to choose.

How do I make that choice?  This is the question at the heart of most religions, Devonism included.  In my case, I think the deciding factor is this:  Does the choice bring me closer to god?

Now I’ve done it.  I brought up god.  I use this word quite deliberately because, whether you are Christian or Pastafarian, the concept of god serves a common purpose.  I’ll do my best to describe this purpose in the language of Devonism, but the purpose is the same whether it is described in my language, the language of the Holy Church, or your own internal language.

Let’s use the Christian tradition as starting point.  The Christian God is described as omnipresent (god is everywhere) and omnipotent (god is all-powerful).  This is a reasonable way to look at god, but I think Devonism can be simpler.  I say this:  God is everything.  Literally everything.  God is the word that we use to describe what’s around us when we don’t feel like being specific.  It is the ultimate generalisation.

That makes it a very frustrating concept to grapple with, because human thought is fundamentally about being focussed and specific.  If you want to say something meaningful, the way to do that effectively is to distinguish what you are talking about from every other possibility.  There is literally nothing useful we can say about god because it’s impossible to narrow things down.  God is every possibility, so the answer to any possible question we can come up with relating to god is “yes”.

The heartfelt “waaaahhhhhhh” of a newborn baby is just as profound a comment on god as any of the 1,200 or so words I’ve written here so far.  Possibly more so, since the waaaahhhhhhh is literally the first thing that baby has ever said, and it’s difficult to imagine what a newborn could be expressing other than a comment on his or her newfound separation from god.

“Separate from god”?  But … didn’t you just say god is everything?  How can you be separate from god?  Well, you can’t.  But, you can experience separation from god.  Each one of us has a separate viewpoint, a separate consciousness.  That consciousness is a part of god, like everything else, but my consciousness is uniquely mine, and yours is uniquely yours, and I have no way of accessing your consciousness or knowing what it is like.  All I can do is appeal to god.  God knows what it is like, because your consciousness is a part of god.  But, I will never know what it is like, because I am something separate from you.

And, really, that’s what makes me me.  I am a point of view, an infinitesimally small part of a much, much larger whole.  With that point of view comes the ability to see selectively.  I see only what is around me, not the whole of everything that is god.  My point of view comes with a consciousness, which means as I grow up from being a newborn, I learn to separate out the parts of my point of view that are important to me, and I give them names.  I make them separate, independent entities that my limited consciousness can understand.  I start to see the world as a collection of things, rather than an undifferentiated mass of god.  I start to see things happening, and this helps me to see relationships between things.  As I grow up, I start to reason and make sense of the things in front of me.

All of this happens as a consequence of my consciousness having a limited point of view.  The way that we think is dictated by the fact that we need to make sense of the world around us, and thinking provides us with a way to identify what is important in our field of view.  This need is a survival need; if my consciousness is going to continue as a separate piece of consciousness, I need to assert myself as a separate entity.  This means taking care of the physical shell that holds my point of view.  It means feeding my shell to keep it strong, and it means identifying predators so my shell doesn’t get eaten.  All of this requires the ability to identify separate parts of the world and to make judgements about which parts are food, which parts are friends, and which parts are frightening.

This is what I mean when I say that human knowledge is a better mirror for the way we think than it is for any objective reality.  Objective reality is god; it is undifferentiated, an unordered collection of countless individual points of view, none of which is really independent of any of the others.  Atoms and energy only exist once there is a point of view for these things to matter.  They exist to help us understand the world as seen from our individual points of view, not because they are fundamentally separate from anything else.  We see them because it is useful to us that we see them; because separating them out from the rest of reality helps us accomplish something.

I don’t mean to say that the knowledge we hold about reality is false.  What I mean is that the truth of our knowledge rests on whether our knowledge is useful from our point of view.  Our knowledge is an interpretation of reality that serves a purpose.  A consciousness with a different point of view might well divide things up differently (or not divide things at all) and be equally correct in its interpretation.

Now that we’ve talked in depth about separation and division, let’s go back to the choice I was talking about:  How do I make a choice that brings me closer to god?

For the most part, we do not have a choice in our knowledge of reality.  The earth really is a globe, and I cannot simply choose to make it flat.  Life really does progress according to the principles of evolution; I cannot keep the world static by refusing to believe in change.  Those particular parts of our knowledge are bound to our particular point of view (a point of view that is broadly shared by humanity).  That knowledge more-or-less accurately describes reality from our points of view, even though it says nothing about reality from any other position.

What we can choose is how we apply that knowledge.  And, when we do that, we can choose actions that cause us to be more or less separate from everything else.  We can narrow our point of view so that it is harder to connect with other people, or we can grow to appreciate other points of view.  The choices that connect us to other conscious beings — other points of view — are the choices that bring us closer to god.

Something seems impossible about this.  We are fundamentally restricted to our own point of view, yet, we experience god when we transcend that point of view.  It is here that we reach the limits of what our choices can achieve.  We cannot choose to step outside of ourselves.  It is beyond us to voluntarily touch god.  But this is not true both directions.  God is not restricted to a point of view.  God is everything, and sometimes, that everything imposes itself into our consciousness.  So, although we cannot choose to reach out of ourselves, we can choose to be open to god and to put ourselves in situations where god can touch us.

When god does touch us, the experience is unmistakable.  We get a taste of the whole of reality, transcending our limited point of view.  The experience is fundamentally beyond explanation, because explanations are an expression of thought.  To explain something is to frame a thought within a point of view, which is obviously incompatible with trying to frame the whole of everything.  The divine is spontaneous; it cannot be predicted and it appears without cause.  No explanation is possible; we can only take in the experience and expand our consciousness to accommodate it.  And, if we are wise, we will use that experience to create new understanding for our newly expanded point of view.

Just like god, spontaneity is everywhere.  Getting closer to god means opening yourself to spontaneous experiences. There are lots of paths to the spontaneous.  Art is a common one; it is impossible to create without allowing yourself to try things for no reason other than whim.  We experience the divine in each other every time we act with conscious intent.  Intent expresses a desire that bubbles up spontaneously within us; we act on our desires, but the desires themselves come seemingly from nowhere.  This is free will:  We do things for no reason other than it is our wont to do them.  We may be aware of motives within ourselves that affect our actions, but we are oblivious to other people’s motives, which makes their actions seem spontaneous:  an expression of the divine.

This gets us to the core of Devonism.  I’ve written 2,500 words to explain these two words:  Seek spontaneity.  And, even those 2,500 words are inadequate, because, like any religion, Devonism is beyond the realm of explanation.

Which says something about my degree in philosophy.  I spent four years thinking intensely about the nature of reality, and the best I could come up with is that it is beyond explanation.  You can see why so many philosophers end up as cynics.  And, hopefully, you can also see why, given the choice, philosophy led me to god rather than disillusionment.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Devonism by Devonavar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Review: The Clean Money Revolution by Joel Solomon

The idea of “Clean Money” is an attractive one.  We are intimately familiar with the harms that concentrated money can cause, whether it’s the corrosive effect of money on politics, the ability of large corporations to buy legal immunity by dragging out the legal process indefinitely, or the fact that the financial system is set up to benefit the 1% at the expense of the 99%.  We are less familiar with the ways that concentrated money can be used in positive ways.

Joel Solomon’s The Clean Money Revolution provides passionate proof that money is a tool, and it’s the quality of the people using it that determines the quality of the effects it has.  It’s at once a moral plea to those with money to recognize the power that money grants them and a memoir of Joel’s successes in living that morality by helping others put their money (and Joel’s) to good use.

It’s hopeful and inspiring in its attempt to envision a world where our financial and social systems evolve gracefully into a more sustainable, stable, just future rather than collapsing around our ears into chaos and anarchy.  In a world where corporate money ensures that governments stay impotent against the various social and environmental crises that might cost those corporations their quarterly profits, the idea that Clean Money used well can be a force for positive change is a refreshing, if idealistic vision.

And, thanks to Joel’s intimate knowledge in the arcane arts of investing and business, it’s also a seductively convincing vision.  Joel knows how money works.  He knows how to use it wisely, and he’s also not afraid to point out how it can be (and is being) used badly.  He’s candidly aware that the current level of socially aware investing is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of capital that is pulling in the other direction.  And yet, his book is the Clean Money Revolution, and he believes that the revolution has started.  He believes that, at the very least, there is a path forward that will shift vast amounts of money from the old, profit-at-any-cost mentality to a new, more sustainable and socially responsible mindset.  And he believes that this transition will be shepherded by the Millennials as they take over management of the funds from the Boomer generation.  As a Millennial, I find that flattering.

Unfortunately, I also find it unrealistic.  And, to be honest, on an intellectual level at least, I think so does Joel.  He comments that if we use only our intellect, we have no reason to believe we will be able to avoid the social and environmental collapse that is the consequence of unsustainable use of resources and misuse of money.  To be successful, his revolution requires spiritual fortitude and a deep sense of purpose, both on a personal level and in our culture.  Wise words from a member of the hippy generation:  Change comes from the heart, not from the head.

I have two major criticisms of his book, both of which are intellectual.  Thus, I hope they will be useful for understanding the flaws in the book, but not fatal to the intent of it.

The first major criticism is that it relies on those who have wealth to develop the spiritual conscience necessary to invest their wealth responsibly.  And it’s not just some of the wealthy.  It must be all of them, or at least a large majority.  There must be a cultural shift among the very wealthy that pushes them in the direction of “Clean Money”.  He believes this will happen when control of the wealth shifts to Millennials.  In other words, it will happen through inheritance.

Unfortunately, a key part of Joel’s own relationship to money is defined by the fact that he inherited his wealth young, while he was still in his idealistic 20’s, and before he had been fully groomed as an heir to his family’s fortune.  And, most of the other Clean Money investors whose stories he tells share similar backgrounds.  There is no reason to expect that most of the Millennial heirs to the $100 trillion that will change generational hands will inherit young.  There’s much reason to think that, in addition to inheriting wealth, the rarefied group of multi-million dollar heirs will also inherit their parents’ strongly profit-driven values.  Sadly, a plan that counts on the majority of those in power to naturally use that power for good is not a very good plan.

The second criticism is perhaps the more serious one.  Joel correctly identifies wealth inequality as one of the most serious issues that must be solved.  It’s an issue that directly relates to money.  Yet, the book advocates that wealthy investors can have it all:  They can invest Clean Money and still profit at the end of it.  Perhaps they do not take as much profit, but the model is still a capitalistic one in which investments are ultimately expected to pay off monetarily.  Such an approach cannot solve the issue of inequality — not alone at any rate.

The reason is structural.  It’s a fundamental law of money that wealth generates money.  This is the way that the wealthy have lived for generations, and it’s the reason why the wealthy stay wealthy.  Once you have a pile of wealth, you hire a money manager to invest the wealth and you live off the profits of the investments.  The bigger the pile of wealth, the bigger the profits you have to live on.  This is the principle that endowments, hedge funds and foundations operate on:  The principal is invested, and only the profits are spent, thus ensuring the perpetual financial security of the person or organization that owns the wealth.  It’s a sound financial strategy.  Unfortunately, it’s also the fundamental cause of wealth inequality:  The more quickly wealth gets accumulated, the less that wealth is available for everyone else.

Joel has lots to say about this.  He writes extensively about spending down the principal, about ensuring that foundations invest their principal as Clean Money, and about divesting money that is supporting harmful organizations.  Unfortunately, as important as all those things are, they are still all in service of profit:  Endowments are still intended to preserve wealth, and even the strategies for spending down principal involve making investments that are ultimately intended to recoup with a profit.  No matter how well the money is invested, it’s still expected to accumulate over time.

Such an approach is impossible.  Inequality builds up pressure, and historically the only ways that pressure is released is through appropriation (as in the French Revolution), warfare (as in WWII), or inflation.  Of these, inflation is the safest — though still tumultuous — option.  Only when the rate of inflation rises above the rate of return that endowments generate — only then does the distribution of wealth become more equal:  The inflation in everyone else’s wealth out-paces the natural tendency of wealth to grow.  In such a situation, the return on investment is no longer “profitable”, because the real value of the wealth at the end of the investment is less than the value that that wealth would have had if it has just been left on its own.  The Clean Money Revolution does not solve this problem — wealth inequality is inevitable as long as our central banks maintain policies that are designed to minimize or prevent inflation.

Thus, the Clean Money Revolution is not the panacea that Joel hopes it is.  It’s not enough of a revolution. We cannot escape the financial, environmental, and social crises that face us solely through enlightened investment.  There is more to the story (there always is).  But … intellectual flaws aside, there is still much value in stories of hope and inspiration that Joel writes about.  Just because Clean Money is not the solution does not mean it cannot be part of a solution.  Investing generously and selflessly is certainly better than investing blindly and selfishly.  Even if we must shrink our collective wealth for the sake of surviving sustainably, the organizations and institutions that help us live sustainably must still be grown — and will inevitably produce financial profits while they grow.  Clean Money must be part of that growth.

On a more personal level, the book is not just inspiring in general; it inspired me to seek out the environment in which Joel nurtured his skills with Clean Money:  Hollyhock.  As a documentary filmmaker, I’m driven by the desire to create social change.  And I’m also painfully aware of how difficult it is to find money to support that social change.  And, once I’ve created a documentary, I’m aware that it needs to be seen by the people with the power to help create social change:  People with money and big ideas.  If nothing else, Joel’s book has convinced me that I can find all of those things at Hollyhock.  I’ve signed up for a workshop at Hollyhock called Story, Money, Impact.  Here’s hoping that my journey there helps me find people who believe in Joel’s vision:  The vision of Clean Money.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Devonism by Devonavar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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