Filed in Science

The Transcendent Imperative

At a time when our spiritual traditions struggle to remain relevant in a culture dominated by scientific materialism, Andrew Cooper considers the pros and cons of a new religious model based on the psychology of “flow.”

Andrew Cooper

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It is against this backdrop that Csikszentmihalyi's work is most instructive, both for its merits and its shortcomings. His is an attempt to find through science a basis for a virtuous and purposeful life. Using the tools of science, Csikszentmihalyi abstracts an essential and defining human experience—flow—from the countless activities that elicited it. In addition, he discerns the conditions, internal and external, that are most likely to give rise to the experience and the factors that obstruct it. Further, he interprets his findings in such a way as to address convincingly the place of flow in matters of meaning, value, and purpose in human affairs. Toward this latter end, he seeks to affirm and to integrate the wisdom of the past with “our most trustworthy mirror of reality”—that is, with scientific knowledge. He is trying, one might say, to work out a response to the problem of modernity T. S. Eliot poses in The Rock: to find the knowledge that is lost in information, and to find the wisdom that is lost in knowledge. And like Eliot, Csikszentmihalyi's ultimate concern is perennial and, in a generic sense, religious: to find that secret life that is lost amid the concerns of living.

As with any worthy scientific endeavor, as work on flow proceeded, new questions arose, two of which were particularly significant. The first was moral. Optimal experience is morally neutral. In applying his skills to a challenging break-in, a burglar is likely to experience flow, as is a grifter working out the details of an elaborate con or an assassin taking aim at an unsuspecting victim. Adolf Eichmann, writes Csikszentmihalyi, “probably experienced flow as he shuffled the intricate schedules of trains, making certain that the scarce rolling stock was available where needed, and that the bodies were transported at the least expense. He never seemed to ask whether what he was asked to do was right or wrong. As long as he followed orders, his consciousness was in harmony.”

The second problem followed from just this point. This is the problem of meaning. One might experience a high degree of flow in one of life’s domains and yet be hopelessly boorish in every other. One need only pick up a newspaper or open a book to be made aware of artists, athletes, intellectuals, and other persons of accomplishment whose virtuous activity fails to extend beyond the parameters of their chosen field of expertise. This calls to mind a caution, often a criticism, arising from within religion, which has long been aimed at those who pursue gnosis, or transcendent knowledge. For mystics, yogis, and contemplatives of any stripe, single-minded focus on the transcendent imperative can become so compelling a force that those garden-variety virtues that make for an ethically sound life suffer by neglect.

For the Stoic philosophers of antiquity, no virtue could stand alone. Each virtue needed others to be complete. The term for this was antakolouthia, or the mutual entailment of virtues, and we might well apply this notion to optimal experience. To realize its potential as a virtuous activity of the soul, flow must be experienced wisely and in connection with other traits of a positive character. But to make wise choices, one must have faith in a framework that gives purpose and coherence to individual acts and decisions.

To place optimal experience in a meaningful and moral context, Csikszentmihalyi turned to the idea of evolutionary complexity. Complexity, he believes, can serve as the foundation for a viable faith at a time when the traditional religious frameworks no longer can. In his 1993 book The Evolving Self, he writes, “Understanding how evolution works, and what role we may play in it, provides a direction and purpose that otherwise is lacking in this secular, desacralized world.”

Csikszentmihalyi subscribes to the view held by many, but hardly all, evolutionary thinkers that evolution proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity—that is, toward continuous differentiation and integration—and that the realization of complexity is, therefore, the benchmark for measuring evolutionary success.

Differentiation refers to the degree to which a system (i.e., an organ such as the brain, or an individual, a family, a corporation, a culture, or humanity as a whole) is composed of parts that differ in structure or function from one another. Integration refers to the extent to which the different parts communicate and enhance one another’s goals. A system that is more differentiated and integrated than another is said to be more complex.

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