Sunday, 2 August 2015

Further Ruminations on East and West, Science and Religion ...

There is a difficulty for anyone seeking to engage with the 'Wisdom of the East'. If you think you are just a creature, ultimately, of matter subject to physical and biological laws, out of which your awareness of your self and the world has emerged, then you are going to be dismissed as wrong-headed by most (though not all) of those who look to the East as fount of 'wisdom'. Yet there is no necessary non-materialistic cause that would make the various transformative experiences that Eastern (and, for that matter, shamanic) techniques can offer anything other than experiences based on some (if not fully understood) physical or biological process.

The problem on the other side is that, whenever a scientist uncovers a bit of the alleged 'God gene' or works out what self-generated DMT actually does to the brain, he tends to crow that this means that all 'spiritual' thought can be reduced to his terms as a number-crunching rule maker. This sets up an interesting problem for modern man. One tradition is dismissive of the ability to 'become' through guided and learned technique: indeed, is a little frightened by its apparent irrationality. The other tradition insists on putting spirit or magic where none may be. Although we may smile at Dion Fortune today, there may have been merit in her insistence that occult matters were thoroughly scientific even if we demur when she suggests that it is a a science lost when an imagined continent disappeared.

Liberal intellectuals often spend inordinate amounts of time castigating irrational belief without investigating its social and personal functionality - to the extent that one suspects that they are behaving no less like gay-bashing closet homosexuals in the Southern Baptist pastorhood in their prejudice. Do they really so fear their own unconscious? They certainly do not have a fully formed and adequate answer to the claims of the 'spiritual'. What are they so obviously scared of?

You usually get some reference to the rise of the Nazi Party at some stage in the discussion of irrationalism which only goes to show that the average liberal intellectual has a highly superficial command of history, neuroscience and religion all at the same time - no mean achievement! Yet, and we return to Dion Fortune again, in her 'The Winged Bull' she provides a dynamic view of the berserker nature of the 'racial consciousness' in a hero who is by no means a bad man, rather a sturdy, decent and protective, an older type who worked for a society at a certain point of time (and helped defeat Kaiser and Fuhrer alike). Simply to throw this type out of the door of history means that we turn the undoubted evil that stalked Europe in the 1930s and 1940s into an over-simplified travesty of what it felt to be a man or a woman in a particular time or place.

Meanwhile, the 'spiritual' types rarely help their case (with some noble liberal exceptions) when they pontificate as gurus, looking with disdain on the poor saps who have not seen what they think they have seen themselves.  A third way might be to accept the reality of monism and materialism without throwing the baby out with the bath water. The laws of the universe exist alright. They are just science that is not yet understood when they appear to be spiritual or magical and actually 'do something' in the world. The problem for positivists is that some things not understood are actually there and may be the basis of techniques (a technology were we to be so clever) with positive benefits for many people.

We can throw away both the simplistic materialism that refuses to see future possibility and the determination of adepts to make their experiences a little bit more meaningful than they really are. The scientific approach to the spiritual (which is really the way we perceive the world in order to create meaning) and a 'spiritualisation' of science (which means humanising existence into forms that can mean something to people) seem to be the way ahead for a healthy humanity. A personal existentialism and a scientific humanism can leave space for the 'mysterium' without recourse to God, spirit or universalities that are not possible.

The third side of the triangle underpinning the modern mentality, set between scientific observation and the subjective experience required to create meaning, is probably the the existential capability to create fresh meanings out of what is 'given out' as the world over time. Both science and 'spirit' appear to like to fix things as immutable (this is not strictly true of good scientists and good mystics but is certainly true of those who claim to follow them). Both have laws or commandments called 'models' or dogma, urgent statements of how things are. The scientific models seem to do better under scrutiny than the religious ones. But the world in general and society in particular, let alone each and every individual, are in a constant process of Heraclitean transformation which either we command or we are commanded by. There are points where even science can tell us only what is impossible and not what might be possible within the constraints of the impossible.

So what might block a creative process of adaptive responsiveness to change? What might limit us as a species at the very moment in our history when we are sensing that we might be displaced by our own creation in artificial intelligence and have once again a hunger for the stars that will not easily be sated if we rely on biological entities, fish out of watery planets. Probably the block will lie in the extremities that stand just outside each side of the triangle: excessive positivism ('rigidity'), excessive essentialism ('gloom') and a propensity to change and shift for the sake of the matter rather than in accordance with one's own true will or unconscious ('the mind of the butterfly') .

Respect the nature of the given world, accept that it is partially but not entirely malleable to will and know your own will - those seem to be three reasonable responses to existence. All three are difficult but not impossible to handle. All three are subject to our having a critical stance to the sum of available knowledge. Dawkins, Biblical Fundamentalists and Robert Anton Wilson may all be necessary exemplars of unnecessary extremism in thought in this context - useful cases that show us where not to go.

The life well lived probably has more to do with a moderate respect for science and received 'normality' (which always emerged for a reason with its own history), with a selfhood that is fully aware that things change constantly and with the idea that we must control our own adaptation than it does with taking stands that merely show that we have no idea who we really are.

Do we really need to have our identities dictated from outside? In this context, the techniques of the East and the knowledge of the West are just tools for self-calibration and for social calibration under conditions of permanent flux. Eastern technique as an end in itself results in a sterile withdrawal from social existence. Western technique as an end in itself results in personal sterility. The flow of one to the other and back again, finely calibrated within oneself and between oneself and others, is both an art and a science.

There is no necessity for the concept of the divine nor of reincarnation nor of the 'eternal return' - these metaphors may be useful to kick-start thought but they become dessicating when they are believed to be true. Liberation starts with the elimination of the divine and placing science in our hands as a tool for our own purposes. Experts and priests are good on means (assuming they are tried and tested). They are very bad on ends. Only we can know our own ends.