Some people are attracted to an "Eastern" holistic outlook on life. Others, to a "Western" analytical viewpoint. I've always thought that these were just two different ways of looking at reality, with each having its strengths and weaknesses.
But some passages in Winifred Gallagher's Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life present another possibility.
She describes research by psychologist Richard Nisbett about how Americans and Japanese describe an underwater scene quite differently. Americans focus on the largest and most colorful fish, while the Japanese would say things such as "It looked like a stream. The water was green. There were rocks on the bottom, and some plants and fish."
Then Gallagher writes:
After a dozen years of investigation, Nisbett is convinced that Homo sapiens' natural inclination is to attend to and think about the world in a holistic way, as East Asians do. Instead of focusing in on the environment's most significant feature, such as those three bright, centrally located tropical fish, in the Western fashion, our species evolved to take in the big picture: the entire aquatic context, of which the fish are just a part.
By nature, human beings are also inclined to consider each situation on a case-by-case basis, as Asians do, rather than to sort things according to the laws of logic and categorization, like Westerners. As Nisbett puts it simply, "In most of the world, people's range of focus is much broader than ours."
This relates to my previous post where I engaged in one of my favorite Western-mind activities: dividing things into logical categories. I brilliantly simplified (the way I see it), or absurdly simplified (as some others will say), the entire history of human religiosity into three sentences.
There are two kinds of religious, spiritual, and mystical pursuits. One aims at bringing individuals into harmony with some sort of divinity. The other denies that individuals really exist, so there is no entity to be brought into harmony.
Religiosity #1 is a Wow! Big fish! perspective.
The "big fish" usually are an eternal soul and an eternal God. These become the central focus of a person's spiritual endeavor. Everything else in the cosmos fades into the background. Salvation, union with God, God-realization -- this is the individual's prime concern and what gives life meaning.
Religiosity #2 is a Look! A stream! perspective.
Fish can't exist without water. Likewise, the "stream" of reality contains countless entities, all connected in some fashion. It's impossible to carve out anything from the universe and claim that it stands alone: everlasting, unchanging, utterly separate and distinct.
Thanks to commenter Jon, who shared a link to an essay called "Is There a Soul in Buddhism?," I learned more about why Buddhism is very much in the Religiosity #2 category.
To recap the argument so far, we can divide the world of metaphysical thought into that camp which believes that sentient beings are possessed of an immortal soul created by the arbitrary will of a God and those who believe sentient beings are nothing more than a complex arrangement of molecules arisen in the last analysis by pure chance. In the middle of these extremes, we have the third camp, the Buddhists who believe that beings arise according to laws of cause-and-effect and deny that there is any arbitrary or random aspect whatsoever.
Well, in his effort to portray Buddhism as the Middle Path I think the author misstates the scientific viewpoint on sentient beings, which seems to be his "arose by pure chance" camp.
Evolution is anything but random, just as quantum mechanics is anything but random. Yes, randomness is present in the unpredictable nature of mutations and sub-atomic goings-on, but the overall evolution of life and the behavior of quantum phenomena are well understood by modern science.
Science, and life as a whole, is all about cause and effect. Which is another way of saying, "relationships."
Equations like E = MC2 express the relationship between this (energy) and that (mass and the speed of light). Without relationships the cosmos would be a formless mess of mush, a chaotic featureless soup.
So this is why I tend to agree with Nisbett that holism is the most natural way of looking upon the world, because it is a more accurate reflection of reality.
This also is why I'm now attracted much more strongly to Buddhism and Taoism, exemplars of Religiosity #2, rather than faiths which claim that an individual's soul is separate and distinct from everything else in the universe, being a sort of "stranger in a strange land" whose destiny is to return to an unchanging eternal heaven, paradise, or whatever.
I used to believe that some part of me -- "soul" -- would exist forever. This can be a comforting thought. The older I get, the more obvious it becomes that my body and brain are changing, and unfortunately not in the direction of everlastingness.
(This morning I picked up a table with a bunch of books on it. I could easily lift it over an obstruction, but felt a twinge in my lower back after I did so. That's new to me, these nonverbal bodily speakings of "take it easier on me, dude." But I take comfort in the fact that if I wasn't changing, I'd be dead.)
What's wrong with this? Nothing. It's the nature of reality. I'm the result of countless causes and conditions, a central Buddhist notion. Also, an eminently scientific one.
Why should I expect that only I, me, myself should remain unchanged, unaltered, unaffected out of the countless entities in the cosmos? Where does the idea come from that my true nature is eternal soul, separate and distinct from the ever-varying phenomena of this universe?
Ego. Selfhood. Self-centered self-awareness. I can think of myself existing forever, so therefore I am eternal.
To hell with relationships. To hell with recognizing that I'm nothing special, nothing which will last, nothing unchangingly unique. I want to be Me, Me, Me forever and ever, just like the vast majority of people on Earth who embrace Religiosity #1.
The only difference between me and them is that I'm coming to a ever-clearer realization of how unrealistic my desire for eternal unchangingness is. My nature lies in relationships, just as the nature of Nature itself is.
Rumi, a Sufi mystic, said it well:
Fear the existence in which you are now!
Your imagination is nothing, and you are nothing.
A nothing has fallen in love with a nothing,
a nothing-at-all has waylaid a nothing-at-all.
When these images have departed,
your misunderstanding will become clear to you.