Inside, Outside, and “The Real”

Atheism is on the rise thanks to progress in empirical sciences and reason. This movement of un-belief is popular in our social media due to the satirical efforts of atheists like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. Unfortunately it seems that these outspoken atheists cannot argue against the devoutly religious using reason, and so resort to a campaign of constant ridicule. Besides being generally distasteful and disrespectful, their comments have the effect of polarizing people, getting laughs from like-minded people while causing believers to dig in their heels. They generally do not promote dialogue.

When confronting this disrespect of religion it’s helpful to remember that religions maintained their power for centuries by the systematic persecution of all those who disagreed with them. This is much worse than ridicule, and entrenched power structures still pull this nonsense today. It’s only now that U.S. politicians are taking a second look at the religiously-inspired intolerance of homosexuality. (And just this weekend, BBC reported that a 60-year-old woman was tortured for alleged witchcraft in Nepal, which assault was apparently sanctioned by the local village council. Last year a different woman was burnt alive for the same reason.)

The problem seems to be that everyone is so sure of themselves. I recently saw an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher that mocked a Newsweek article called “Heaven Is Real”, in which a comatose neurosurgeon claims to have visited the afterlife. Bill and his panelists scoffed in their usual manner, claiming the account was unscientific and unreal. While the account was definitely unscientific, its reality is debatable.

The scientific empiricist laughs the experience off as a hallucination, as unreal because it is not verifiable in a laboratory. They say that such an article is harmful to science, and therefore to society, because it promotes belief in the supernatural. They would argue rightly that belief in the supernatural leads away from belief in empirically-testable phenomena and hence towards insanity.

Of course there is no doubt that Dr. Eben Alexander’s experience was real to him. It reordered his conception of reality and was a transformative experience with obvious subjective value. He is not wrong to write about his experience, though he is wrong to call it scientific. The whole method of science is to root out those variables that are purely subjective.

This debate brings me to one of my favorite topics: The Real. I get a lot of personal joy from the fuzzy definitions of the word “real”. Individually the definitions of the word are unbearably limiting because they fail to acknowledge the multi-ordinality of the word (to borrow a term from Alfred Korzybski). The definition of the word “real” depends entirely on its context and the structure of the argument in which it is used.

Through our entire lives experience is the primary datum. We can’t even properly speak of the universe without reference to our experience of it. Scientific advancements are valuable to us because they can make the macroscopic, microscopic, or sub-microscopic realms intelligible to our experience, just as a telescope is merely a technological extension of our sense of sight. A telescope does not measure the reality of far away places; it is the empiricist who proclaims “I see it, therefore it is real.”

“The empiricist…thinks he believes only what he sees, but he is much better at believing than at seeing.” – G. Santayana

I am comfortable in proclaiming the reality of subjective experience. However, subjective experience has the insidious tendency to colour our perceptions of the outside world. William James says the mystic has every right to his or her visions, and that no outsider can refute this. However the corollary to this is that mystical realities are valid only to the one experiencing them and do not extend beyond the subjective realm. The connection between the inside and the outside cannot be perfect.

This is where I can get on board with Bill Maher: theism and atheism aside, when purely subjective experiences leak out into the objective world, the objective world is made insane. When religious metaphysics shape our social policies, the politicians are out of touch with the external reality they ought to be governing. It is only when subjective experiences are true to the facts of the external world that they should be used to dictate external laws. To do otherwise is a confusion of planes; what is real externally may not be real internally and vice versa.

Zeno’s paradox of dichotomy, which states we can never make it to our destination because we have to first travel half way there, then half of the remaining distance, and so on ad infinitum, is silly and insane because it disregards the external fact that we don’t travel according to logarithmic principles. I simply walk to my destination and arrive without noticing when I’m half or three-quarters of the way there. Zeno puts mathematics before experience, but mathematics is a priori and doesn’t refer to nature.

When empirical policies must be formed, empirical laws must be obeyed. When we decide our own personal code of beliefs and ethics, the subjective experiences of our life will be determinative. To regulate belief from without would also be a mistake. As for religion, if a subjective, personal connection to the divine becomes good enough for everyone, I bet these atheists won’t have much to say about it. It’s mainly belligerent evangelism they’re trying to tear down.

A Far-Off Utopia

Science and religion don’t traditionally get along. The premises of religion are scientifically untenable while religious experience remains unquantifiable by scientific method. Of course being religious doesn’t mean you can’t be scientific and vice versa, but it occurred to me recently that science and religion don’t work together because they face opposite directions.

The scientific worldview gets more and more refined through time. It offers increasingly accurate discovery of our world, more and better ways to deal with problems, and continually improves on itself (in theory, at least). Science progresses along a forward timeline towards a far-off technological utopia.

Many religions, on the other hand, feel that we live in dark times. Hindu belief calls this age the Kali Yuga, as in Kali, the demon of confusion and pain. They consider it an age of spiritual degeneration, a dark age. Many Christians would agree that we live in an age of moral disintegration marked by vice and irreverence. There is something slower, more solemn, and holier about the past. They long for Eden.

The scientific person might say the religious person longs for something that doesn’t exist. Science considers the beliefs of the olden days naive; they didn’t have the tools or knowledge we have today. Since the scientific acumen of the people grows constantly, the people of the past must have been exceedingly dumb, relative to today, and especially relative to tomorrow.

The religious person has faith in a different mode of existence outside the scope of science. They don’t really look to go back in time, they are looking to get outside of time. Their Eden (or Heaven, for that matter) represents an extra-temporal mode of being, free from degeneration. Scientists can scoff all they like, the religious person isn’t worried. They can feel sure such a mode of existence is real, even without direct experience, because it has been documented through all stages of history as a fundamental human experience.

Technological utopia is unrealistic. As the leading-edge of technology is pushed further and further by specialists, the ability to integrate systems becomes harder and harder. The pursuit of technological achievement fills our world with cancer, confusion and noise in a way that makes it very difficult for us to find the sacred.

Eden is a mystical fable written by a desert-mad prophet and its lessons contribute very little to modern humanity. Longing for simpler times is fine, but shying away from technological convenience pulls one out of step with the rest of society. The world keeps getting noisier and the effects are inescapable.

If scientific and religious progress stopped, the scientifically-minded could still look for their utopia by looking outward towards an integrated, perfected whole while the religious-minded could look for their utopia by turning inwards to the realms of personal experience. Religion and science would still be looking opposite directions.

Maybe this is a good thing. Two heads are better than one, and if you look two different directions you have a better sense of the big picture. Interestingly, where history meets the future and the inner intersects the outer, we find the here and now.

The Secular Bible

This is the third time recently that Mark Frost has influenced my post (seeTwo Things “Argo” Missed‘ and ‘Walking With Fire‘). Through his Twitter feed I saw this article by Hunter Stuart about a “Hollywood Power Couple” trying to advertise their new History Channel program The Bible by advocating for The Bible to be taught in public schools.

The point this couple raises in their article (which you can read here) is that The Bible is important as a fundamental text of Western civilization, never mind the religious ethos attached to it. Fair enough. There is no doubt The Bible is one of the building blocks of our culture. It is still by far the best selling book of all time, even beating out 50 Shades of Grey.

They claim The Bible is responsible for many of the phrases that some people use every once in a while. They also claim the allegories originating in The Bible made possible the work of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Matrix and so on. They even quoted the Supreme Court:

“[T]he Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.” (Abington School District v. Schempp)

Naturally the sticky part here is the separation of church and state. The Bible is the foundational book of one specific religion, so the outcry from non-Christians would be unstoppable. It could be argued also that The Bible had a comparable impact on the formulation of The West as Roman imperialism and Greek philosophy. Why should The Bible, taken as a historical and literary document, take prominence?

Because clearly there is more to their agenda than English and History class. If we believe, as Roma Downey and Mark Burnett do, that The Bible is the living Word of God, we have to admit that God borrowed a lot of those stories. The New Testament borrows from the Old Testament. The Old Testament borrows from Egypt, Zoroastrianism, Babylon, and more. Christianity itself would never have existed without Neo-Platonism, but I don’t remember Plato or Plotinus from public school. Don’t we care about the foundations of the foundations of Western civilization?

And as for the literary merits of The Bible, Downey and Burnett might feel a little differently if The Bible was thrown into the English class alongside The Catcher In The Rye and 1984. Imagine the book reports.

“Moses: Murderer Hero” by Little Tyler

“Leviticus: A Comedic Interlude” by Little Billy

“Sexual Motifs and the Mother of Prostitutes in Revelation” by Little Monica

The whole idea of an “historical” Bible stripped of its religious principles is absurd. Were it not for the religious aspect The Bible would not have proliferated as it did, people would not have been “converted/saved” and other people wouldn’t have been burned to death as “heretics”. Are those nasty bits part of the curriculum as well?

In order to have real significance, a reading of The Bible has to presuppose the validity of Christian metaphysics, Christian morality, and the supremacy of YHWH, the Jewish God, who is one of several gods mentioned in The Bible (and the supposed author of the book…but I’m sure He’s impartial).

Please leave your book reports in the Comments section for grading.

South Beach Baptism

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Lying in the sun this morning in South Beach, Miami, I realized there are some things in life you actually cannot get from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

Radiation burns from your television don’t count as a tan.

Instead of kicking her to death for fun, try talking to your neighbourhood hooker. She might have hilarious, horrifying stories.

In real life it takes much more nerve to drag a cop out of his car and steal his shotgun. But it’s worth it.

The best thing I found in Miami that I never found in video games is religion. You can make a lot of money starting a religion. L. Ron Hubbard seems to have invented Scientology without much spiritual wisdom or intelligence, so I always assumed I would gather a decent cult following eventually.

But the wisdom of a child has shown me the light. Check out this yarmulke:

Power Ranger Yarmulke

Power Ranger Judaism.

In the beginning was the Zord.

Based on the successful television show, this franchise appears to have expanded into the newest form of get-‘em-while-they’re-young religions. Each of us has a pantheon of colourful power rangers within us. By communicating in mime-gestures and flying fists, we make our Power Rangers work together to defeat the awakened Godzillas and Mothras of our lesser nature.

Why don’t we see more designer or pop culture religions in society? During the acid craze of the sixties Timothy Leary talked about inventing personal religions. But you never hear about them.

For a while now I have been High Priest of my own religion based on the cult television series Twin Peaks. Initiation is rigorous and time consuming, but gives participants the ability to peek behind a certain red curtain.

It seems today’s religious institutions aren’t raking it in like they once were. Re-branding might be in order. If religion was as appealing to kids as Grand Theft Auto the churches would be making it rain.

 

 

 

Interiority Complex

I grew up Roman Catholic but never felt anything “holy” when I went to church. It was something like school – something that had to be done. Maybe this is my own personality, or maybe it’s the religion itself. It was the Romans who killed Jesus, after all.

Watching Twin Peaks in high school I realized something mysterious existed just below the surface. That feeling of mystery eventually spread from the television to all parts of my life, but it wasn’t until late university that I took an interest in other religions and philosophies and became preoccupied with getting to know the unknown.

Middle Eastern and Asian religions appealed to me aesthetically. Spires and colourful mosaics, sitars and multi-armed deities seemed more appropriate to worship, but this is likely because those schema were culturally alien to me and therefore had a stronger connection to the unknown.

Discovering yoga, meditation, shamanism and other techniques in my spare time helped me augment my nervous system and take an active role in the development of my consciousness. Those self-disciplines used to seem socially unacceptable somehow, probably a result of the anhedonic attitude of Roman Catholicism. Oddly enough, now I can find that “holy” feeling just about anywhere quiet.

When I read The Varieties of Religious Experience by the American philosopher William James, I was impressed with how clearly he laid out my some of my convictions. Why should anyone be able to call into question the authenticity of my interior reality? Experience shows me what is true and false, especially in those tricky interior realms where language breaks down. The value of those experiences is personal, but it infuses everything I do.

At one point in my life I would have called myself an atheist. Fortunately, having had my mind blown by interior experiences, I realized that “God” was just a word, a tool used to describe the unification of everything, and I didn’t have to worry about believing or not believing because the name is not the thing named. What matters is cause and effect. If I can sit still and see the universe as a unified whole, it doesn’t matter to me what path brought me there. The personal sacred experience is what matters. I’ve been meditating twice every day without fail for many years because it’s worth it.

One of my favorite words is psychedelic, from the Greek psyche, as in “mind”, and delos, “manifesting”. Psychedelic = Mind Manifesting. Unfortunately the word psychedelic is all caught up with drugs, hippies, trippy colours, and other bullshit that take away from what the word could mean. I find the definition of this word in dictionaries to be lazy.

Psychedelia should be synonymous with art. I believe all art to be psychedelic. What you are reading right now is a written manifestation of my mind. I had an idea, I thought about it, and made it manifest. Tattoos are psychedelic too; a person finds meaning in a symbol and they alter their physical body to represent that idea. Music works similarly.

Art is a sensory creation that adds something unique, meaningful, and valuable to the mental landscape. That’s what real art is to me, anyway. The rest is just filler. Industries apply the word “artist” to anybody who writes a book, acts in a movie, plays a song, without questioning the value of what is made. An unfortunate amount of movies, music, and books are either meaningless, or their meaning has no value. Fortunately for the world some people take art seriously and give out in love what is taken in by contemplation.

Literature is telepathy. Music is empathy. Film is orchestrated hallucination. These are powerful tools we’ve developed. If you can find transcendent meaning in a piece of art, let that be an acceptable road to the sacred. Incidentally, Catholic and Jewish religions are already based on a book, aren’t they? Sometimes I get a kick imagining that the authors of the Bible were intentionally trying to write the weirdest novel ever.

What I’m trying to say is that you should all pay close attention to “In Your Mind” by Built to Spill.