Friday, July 20, 2007

The Blessed Remystification of the World

We live in a world of fragmentation and doubt. The two are related, because our modern rational minds know how to tear down and analyze but not to synthesize and revision the whole. It is a cliché, but nevertheless true that a main purpose of religion is to reconnect one to the whole, or to at least give one a sense of it, both spatially and temporally.

A commenter yesterday chided me for poking fun at atheists, but I actually sympathize with them. As I have said before, when I ridicule them, I am specifically referring to the obnoxious, militant ones who get their jollies belittling religion in such a lowbrow way. I'm just punching back in the way that boys will do. No hard feelings. Assholes.

But I always emphasize that agnosticism is a completely honorable position, and I have no problem with atheists who refrain from becoming evangelists of stupidity. Look, for some people, religion comes quite naturally. It makes total sense to them, so they never had to grapple with whether or not the Creator exists, and what to do about it. There are also people to whom atheism comes quite naturally. Human traits are distributed along a continuum, and spiritual receptivity just happens to be one of those traits. Just as there are mathematical or artistic geniuses, there are surely spiritual geniuses. Necessarily there are spiritual dunces, imbeciles, and morons.

The difference between Vincent van Gogh and a Sunday painter is more or less infinite, which itself is a mystery to ponder. Likewise the distance between Van Morrison and Bon Jovi, or James Madison and John Edwards. Similarly, if you are sensitive to spiritual matters, you soon realize that history has probably deposited as many or as few authentic spiritual geniuses as artistic or scientific ones along the way.

We tend to think of history as self-propelling in the direction of progress, but as Charles Murray pointed out in Human Accomplishment -- in which he attempts to quantify human excellence from prehistory to the present -- you don't have to subtract too many people before history becomes an even bleaker place than it already is. In fact, when you assemble the list of people who have contributed the most to art, science, philosophy and technology, "only a few thousand people stand out from the rest. Among them, the people who are indispensable to the story of human accomplishment number in the hundreds. Among those hundreds, a handful stand conspicuously above the rest."

Those who stand conspicuously above the rest cut across disciplines. A religious genius and a scientific genius will have much more in common than either will have with a mediocre mind such as Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins. Most people can sense this: that depth converges, regardless of the discipline. This is why people can be spiritually invigorated, say, by great music or poetry.

But we can also be spiritually nourished by science, so long as we do not reduce it to the enclosed and circular little world of scientism. The more science discovers about the cosmos, the more reason for awe and wonder. I don't think science has demystified the world at all; rather, it has remystified it, especially after a little sidetrack down the paths of empiricism and positivism that only lasted for a couple hundred years at the most. The universe is so much stranger than supposed by antequated materialists, that we literally cannot suppose how strange it is. In order to be sufficiently puzzled by reality, we have to crank our puzzler up to 11.

But there is something in the human mind that wants to contain novelty and demystify the world -- to make the anxiety of not-knowing go away. In a sense this is perfectly understandable. Ironically, it is a legacy of our evolved nature which, after all, was not designed to ponder the mystery of being, but to survive and get tenure.

It is almost as if the atheist sophers from a hypertrophied "empirical ego," so to speak -- that is, the part of the mind which is more or less exterior to being, and is mostly an adaptation to its environment. As such, it just wants to map reality in the simplest way possible, irrespective of distortions and omissions impossible. This is why most cultures have generally produced one dopey map after another. They are simply ad hoc affairs, aimed more at diminishing group anxiety than approaching and assimilating Truth.

As I have mentioned before, science proceeds from the unknown to the known, while religion proceeds from the known to the great unknown. I have also made the bobservation that science is the subjective study of the ultimate object, whereas religion is the objective study of the ultimate Subject. Clearly, science involves human subjects attempting to understand reality by quantifying it. But science can never offer any ultimate explanation, because the scientist doing the explaining will always defy quantification. For he is an irreducible subject, an ontological category that slips through the coarse cognitive nets of science like trying to eat a soupy herd of Jello cats nailed to the wall with a fork.

One of my favorite little signposts along the way was The Philosophy of Consciousness Without an Object by Franklin Merrell-Wolff. It is a day-to-day, somewhat dispassionate autobiography of a spiritual transformation. At the time I read it, I found much in common with my own experience. It begins,

"August 17

"The ineffable transition came, about ten days ago.... At the time, I was engaged in the reading of portions of The System of the Vedanta.... I had been led to this specific program of reading through the realization that Shankara's words had a peculiar power, at least in my own experience. For some time I had spontaneously looked to him as a Guru with whom I was in complete sympathetic accord. I had found him always clear and convincing, at least in all matters relative to the analysis of consciousness, while with the other Sages I either found obscurities or emphases which which I could not feel complete sympathy...."

He goes on to describe the experience of a subtle current of transcendental joy that seemed to result from persistent efforts "to reconcile Transcendent Being with the physical universe. The idea is that ponderable matter -- meaning by that term all things sensed whether gross or subtle -- is, in fact, a relative absence of substance, a sort of partial vacuum." The effect was "a far more effective acceptance of substantial reality where the senses reported emptiness, and a greater capacity to realize unreality -- or merely dependent and derivative reality -- in the material given through the senses."

In short, he had reversed figure and ground, so to speak, in exactly the manner implied above, in that that he was vouchsafed the objective experience of the transcendent Subject. At once he realized the error in looking for an "ultimate object," either in science or in religion. Instead, he "abstracted the subjective moment -- the 'I AM' or 'Atman' element -- from the totality of the objective consciousness manifold." Looked at another way, he had an experience of the implicate ground of consciousness itself: "The Silence is Full and Pregnant, and out of It flows the Stream of all formations in endless variety: symphonies, philosophies, governments, sciences, arts, societies, and so on and on and on."

Yesterday we touched on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo. In his approach to yoga, the initial stage involves the "awakening" or identification with what he calls the "psychic being" (not to be confused with "psychics," channelers, and the like). Although Aurobindo gave it a particular name, I obviously believe that he was describing something universal, and which is recognized in some form or fashion in all the major religions. Looked at in the most abstract way, we would simply say that it is that part of man which exists on the vertical plane, both "behind" and potentially "above" the ego. It is both the subject of spiritual knowledge and the object of spritual growth. In my book, I give it the symbol (¶) to distinguish it from the horizontal self, (•).

Baby's up. Back in a bit... He's got a cold, so this may take awhile....

Longer than I thought. Mrs. G was up with him several times last night, so she just went back to bed. Now my hands are full. Better just post now and continue tomorrow. In any event, I hope this post has nudged you a bit toward the remystification of your world, or what we call "higher coonfusion."


Blogger Robin Starfish said...

The Unreal Hut
living neural net
optic nerve to golden orb
window to the east

7/20/2007 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger Aspentroll said...

Well, aren't you just a dictionary on wheels. I'll bet you could put your intellectual assets to better use than what I just got tired of reading.

7/20/2007 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

True, but it would only make you even more tired.

7/20/2007 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous hoarhey said...

Amazing what cynical losers will post in order to try and raise their own view of themselves.
Remystification just isn't an option in certain universii.

7/20/2007 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"For he is an irreducible subject, an ontological category that slips through the coarse cognitive nets of science like trying to eat a soupy herd of Jello cats nailed to the wall with a fork."

My guess is that asspentrol is just embarrassed to be caught here holding a fork.

7/20/2007 11:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Bob F. said...

Right from the first paragraph you pinpoint a big problem-we think too much, good for analysis & breaking things down, not so good at seeing into things; but we keep at it because it is what we know how to do; it's actually pretty hard to do nothing, to be still and silent (without falling asleep).
Bob F.

7/20/2007 12:44:00 PM  
Anonymous salsipuedes said...

I wonder if God believes in me...maybe He is an "atrollist" and can't believe such beings could infest His cosmos.

7/20/2007 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Good point. The question of our existence is much more problematic than that of the Creator, who, if he doesn't exist, only he knows it.

7/20/2007 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous walt said...

You were quoting Merrell-Wolff:
"The Silence is Full and Pregnant, and out of It flows the Stream of all formations in endless variety: symphonies, philosophies, governments, sciences, arts, societies, and so on and on and on."

I've been using the general category of 'Stillness' as a focus for practice for some time, and the above statement struck me as "True, with a capital 'T'."

Ha-ha, and your suggestion that, "In order to be sufficiently puzzled by reality, we have to crank our puzzler up to 11," is the type that deserves to be written out in calligraphy, and hung on the wall!

7/20/2007 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger juliec said...

And now, for something completely different,

A little video to bring in the weekend; sublime? No. But I think a few here share the sentiment, anyway :)

(Via Kim du Toit)

7/20/2007 03:42:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

"In order to be sufficiently puzzled by reality, we have to crank our puzzler up to 11"


7/20/2007 05:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it strange that you can refer to, and approve of, both Charles Murray and Franlkin Merril-Wolff in the same posting. It seems to me that their "world" views were/are quite literally "worlds" apart.

Wolff was an advocate of the primacy of consciousness, or that fact that everything arises in consciousness--including seemingly solid objects.
And that everything is an inter-related seemless unity. And that "self" is very fluid.

Murray on the other hand is a champion of the modern desacralised "mind" which acts and moves in the world in which everything is very hard edged and solidified,and in which the "self" is very solidly defined. In which the "external world" of entirely separate objects is granted the senior status and which is used to define what is real. Also of a "mind" that is completely identified with left-brained thinking processes only, and which is is totally divorced from even the possibility of right-brained "thinking", or free open ended psychic participation in world process. Such free psychic participation and investigation being the wellsprings and source of our sanity, and indeed the creative process which produces truly great works of art.

Consciousness? What world process? What psychic participation? You wont find even a hint of any of these terms in Murray's writing--nor in any of his fellow true believers over at the AEI. Scientific man and his drive to total power and control rules (at the AEI) OK! With squeaky clean "jesus" added/allowed for "religious" justification and consolation.

7/20/2007 05:52:00 PM  
Anonymous cousin dupree said...

I find it strange that you read Bob's blog.

7/20/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger Magnus Itland said...

Actually I sympathize with Anonymous here, although I don't know the thinkers in question well enough to know if it is right.

It is entirely commonplace by these Racoons to sneak into the philosophies of people who seem to live worlds apart, and abscond with some small revelation, or at least a good idea, or at least some good fun.

There was a time when I too would have regarded that kind of behavior with utter disbelief. But it's a while ago now.

7/20/2007 07:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Petey said...

Yes, the Raccoon tends to be spiritually and intellectually OMnivorous.

7/20/2007 07:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Golem14 said...

Apropos of nothing in particular-- well, actually I shouldn't say that...

There's a subject I've been wanting to bring up for a long time, but I couldn't find a good lead-in, so to speak. It's a movie that I saw again last night and finally decided to recommend, because I think it's very relevant to the theme of Bob's Web site and I haven't seen it mentioned here yet. The movie is called "The Ninth Configuration" (written and directed by William Peter Blatty and based on two previous novels on the same subject), and it deals with religion, atheism, and psychotherapy in a very deep but humorous way. Sorry to interrupt the thread, but I figured that the film is relevant to just about everything that's being said here-- so it wouldn't matter much where I mentioned it.

If the subject has already come up and I somehow missed it, then please disregard this message...

7/21/2007 07:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad you take a 'resistant' position (with humour and compassion thrown in) to the humourless and bleak non vision of the mediocre Dawkins and Dennett.
What bugs me about these guys is they presume to pontificate about all levels and degrees of religious experience, without ever once seriously engaging with a contemplative or meditational exercise.
If either of them had done 15 years of contemplative prayer, zazen, vipassana, TM or anything and then said they thought it was all mythic and pre rational tosh then at least their opinion would be based on some sort of genuine inquiry, rather than third person objectification and rigidly a priori positioning in atheistic dogma.
What on earth is the difference between a fundie who says God absolutely exists according to the scriptures portrayal and Dennett Dawkins saying God absolutely does not exist. Both are absolutist and tied to a very literal, belief centred approach to the spirit, not an experiential one.
At least with some agnostic positions a fruitful diaglogue can be had. Atheistic militants are as lost and pernicious as most fundies.

7/23/2007 01:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A commenter yesterday chided me for poking fun at atheists, but I actually sympathize with them. As I have said before, when I ridicule them, I am specifically referring to the obnoxious, militant ones who get their jollies belittling religion in such a lowbrow way.

I don't call those "atheists".

I call them "ANTI-THEISTS".

7/24/2007 09:27:00 AM  

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