Tool Use and Spiritual “Cheating”
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
~ Marshall McLuhan
“Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.”
~ Thomas Carlyle
One of the more common topics in intellectual or spiritual conversations I’ve seen pop up is on the question of whether or not certain things constitute ‘cheating’, usually with connotations that one should have ‘just used willpower” or ‘relied on yourself and not external crutches”. Usually it goes something like this:
“So how’s your lucid dreaming experimentation been going?” asks Person A
“Well, I was having a bit of a standstill, so I opted to purchase a light-induction helmet from the internet.” answers Person B
“Dude, you can’t do that.” Person A exclaims, “That’s cheating. You shouldn’t use crutches.”
“So, how have your studies been going?” asks Person A
“Good, good.” answers Person B, “I even bought some nootropics to help give me an edge.”
“Dude, you can’t do that.” Person A exclaims, “That’s cheating. You shouldn’t rely on substances.”
I however find the idea of cheating at spiritual/philosophical endeavors to be misunderstood. It would seem to me that any action taken to get to the goal which does in fact bring one to that goal is a helpful tool. It also needs to be understood that often times, when we speak of ‘cheating’ at anything in general, that we may as a culture suffer from a fundamental error in thinking; namely in that the conclusion of an event is victory, and that the experience is merely the dregs you wade through to get that victory. However, context has to be taken into account. Sometimes, its the experience that is the fruit of an endeavor. Sometimes it is the conclusion. Deciding which is which takes first-person consideration, and careful discernment.
My point is that fast-tracking to a conclusion may indeed be what is called for in a situation, and humans have been utilizing tools to make easier and shorten the time of these conclusions being met. The same kind of people who forlorn technological advances might have been the same kind to say that the first spearsman was cheating, that they did not get the visceral experience of throwing rocks to bring down game, or that the first bowman was cheating, or the first rifleman. I cannot agree, but I will say there will be times in which the conclusion is most certainly not the goal.
For example, hunting in the 21st century for the vast majority of hunters is not about the conclusion (even if they might think it is) because of the ease of attaining meat. Rather, I would point to this as an example of a goal being experience over conclusion. The same way a hitch hiking road trip is more experience than conclusion based compared to taking a days time in flight to reach a destination. But does that make the airplane ‘cheating’ for the person who has an important business meeting, or for the person who is trying to reach their mother or father on their deathbed? I would posit that they are rather different goals unto themselves.
Tools can be used for either of these kinds of goals. There are tools for aiding in the experience of things, some that give you an experience you literally could not have without them (such as scuba-diving ) and there are tools that aid in the conclusion of things (such as getting to work on time via vehicle). We have a habit as a culture to think of our tools as entirely separate from our ‘selves’, we distinguish our items from our very being. But should we?
Over the course of a day, you’ve lost about a million skin cells. Did you notice? Unlikely. But while they are attached and living, one would most likely consider them part of oneself. Humans generally identify with their body (barring spirit dichotomists and ascetics, which there are plenty of) but they shed the old bits without any notice at all.
Very much in a similar way it is to pick up a tool, use it, and then put it away. The brain is not an idle organ. When we use these tools we make them a part of our mind. Anytime we have ‘learned’ something our brain has shifted physically and our mind has shifted with it. Tools are not trite either, we rely upon many of them with our very lives.
Can tools make us lazy, or weak, or take away from us a chance for potential experiences? Can convenience be addictive? You will get no more an enthusiastic “YES” than from me on those questions, but it is not so simple to say they are all cheating.
The next time you feel like someone is ‘cheating’, stop for a moment and consider if they are utilizing the tools they need to accomplish a goal, in a way you hadn’t considered before. You could benefit from it.
Or you could find out they are lazy. But discernment is your job.
~ Seth Moris