Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I am writing this post to address an issue that has been in the back of my mind for several years now, but that has not yet been developed to a significant degree. My re-interest in it arose while I was watching a video on Youtube relating to David Icke, the "New Age" conspiratorial speaker who tells us that the world is secretly being run by an extra-terrestrial race of reptilians who have the ability to shape-shift and appear like humans.
For me, Icke is a good example of the ridiculous heights that can be achieved by "New Age" and conspiratorial thinking. His thinking is also an example of what can happen when we let go of our faculty of critical reasoning entirely.
Yet there are some who would tout just such as release as something positive, as a step in the right direction. I will, at this time, not enter into a prolonged invective polemic on the dangers of such a move. I would, however, like to attempt a description, and perhaps a bit of a genealogy, of how many contemporary writers have attempted to substantiate such a move. (For now, I simply point out the irony of attempting to give a rational and scientific account for why we should let go of reason.) I would also like to give an explanation of what I think is going on when someone gives just such an account, that is, point to the function that giving such an account serves.
I begin with the video on reptilian shape-shifting that I referred to above. Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFFefD1hG9Y&feature=related. I would like to draw the reader's attention to the passage from the commentator/interviewer that occurs near the beginning of the video, between 0:14 and 0:35. It reads, "So if I can presume to summarize what you're saying, you're saying that this whole reptilian connection is impossible [only] as long as we're in this frame of mind, as long as we're thinking the way we're thinking, as long as we're experiencing the way we're experiencing now, but if we understand things in terms of the holographic universe and the holographic brain, these things aren't so far-fetched, aren't so far out."
What I find interesting about this passage are a couple of things. First, the passage occurs very near the beginning of the video. The second thing I find interesting is the implication that, if you accept theories about the "holographic brain and universe," then, basically, anything is possible -- including the kooky notion that our collective minds are currently being controlled and manipulated by an extra-terrestrial race of reptilian illuminati shape-shifters.
Before we continue, I would like to recount some personal prehistory. Around the time of my 20th year, I experienced what some might call a kind of "spiritual" awakening. Today, I would prefer to call it an opening of my faculty of imagination, something that seemed to occur just prior to a broadening of my intellectual horizons. Being curious, in my youth, in Crowley, ceremonial magick, and the like, I had come across a book called The Occult, by Colin Wilson. My interest piqued, I found and read another book with a similar theme and title called Occult Psychology, which favourably compared the sephirot of the Kabbalah with the kundalini chakra system of Tantric yoga and the archetypes of Jungian psychology. Then I encounted the book A Separate Reality by Carlos Castaneda and read with wide eyed fascination about the teachings of "Don Juan." Shortly after that I came across another book that I read with great interest and enthusiasm called Mysticism and the New Physics, by Michael Talbot.
At the time, I had dropped out of a science program at college and was living with a buddy in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of town and doing not much more than reading strange books and experimenting with psychedelics -- "cocooning" one might say. Following the reading of Talbot's book a virtual cascade of books concerning the "new spiritual paradigm" followed. The theme that began to emerge was that of "consciousness," and at the New Age bookstore down the street I bought and consumed every book I could find with the term "consciousness" in the title. Among these were Kenneth Pelletier's Toward a New Science of Consciousness, Robert Ornstein's classic, The Psychology of Consciousness, and another book by a one, Ken Wilber, called The Spectrum of Consciousness, published by Quest Books, the Theosophical publishing house.
There were other books to be sure (I read vociferously and eventually amassed an enormous library), but the above books proved to be the most influential and formative to my early thinking -- those and another book by Joseph Chilton Pearce called, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg.
Here is a summary/description of the above, which is perhaps Pearce's most famous book:
"The sum total of our notions of what the world is--and what we perceive its full potential to be--form a shell of rational thought in which we reside. This logical universe creates a vicious circle of reasoning that robs our minds of power and prevents us from reaching our true potential. To step beyond that circle requires a centering and focus that today's society assaults on every level. Through the insights of Teilhard, Tillich, Jung, Jesus, Carlos Castaneda, and others, Joseph Chilton Pearce provides a mode of thinking through which imagination can escape the mundane shell of current construct reality and leap into a new phase of human evolution."
I still think Pearce's book is interesting, though I now also think that there is something manipulative and tendentious about his writing. Pearce presents a range of interesting ideas, in support of which he introduces us to several prominent and important intellects: Paul Tillich, Jean Piaget, Michael Polanyi, Teilhard de Chardin. Pearce weaves their thoughts together in imaginative ways, but also in ways that are rather superficial and misleading. Eclectic, synthetic, or eirenic thought -- typified by the ideas of the "perennialists" -- often has these characteristics; as Ken Wilber might say, "And so Plato, Kant, Hegel, Plotinus, Shankara, and Nagarjuna all say the same thing."
(I currently think that eclectic thinking, typified by the idea of a "perennial philosophy," is itself not merely a response to the post-modern situation -- where the fragmentation of knowledge and the plurality of doxa ("belief/truths") confront the modern mind with a conflagration of confusion -- but is itself a symptom of the very post-modern condition it attempts to escape from. Where others see clarity and unity of vision I see simply more confusion and muddled thinking.)
Pearce is to be lauded for his emphasis on the development of the imagination and the exercise of compassion. But where the exercise of imagination is concerned, I think he overstates his case, and his ideas begin to approach the overwrought hyperbole that we find in some of the more sensationalist New Age and "new paradigm" writers. As the subtitle of Pearce's book itself reads, "Challenging Constructs of Mind and Reality."
After reading Pearce's book, I became subtly aware of not simply a recurring theme in the books I had been reading (recurring themes are after all THE refrain in perennialist-style literature), but also of a recurring technique, a repeating rhetorical gambit. And it is at this point that I would like to return to our present description: the structure and function of certain "new paradigm" accounts.
What I found in several of the books I had been reading at that time was a certain structure. Many of them had an introduction or an opening chapter, or both, that introduced specific ideas and presented them within a specific argument. The content of these ideas, and the arguments relating to them, were not always identical, but there was enough similarity among them for me to take notice.
What I frequently found in this type of literature was an opening chapter, or an introduction, or both, that introduced the idea that we are entering a "new paradigm" of thinking, a shift in our collective perspective that reflects, among others things (and depending upon the author) an "evolution of consciousness" or "the dawning of the Age of Aquarius," or what have you. This argument was sometimes bolstered through a reference to "the new physics" -- relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and so on.
For example, in the Introduction to his book, Mysticism and the New Physics, Michael Talbot writes, "In chapter one, I examine the change of world view from observer to participant." He writes this after noting that with a consideration of the implications of the "new physics, "The very epistemological foundations... of our selves must shift as our prejudices are attacked." (p.5) See http://books.google.ca/books?id=Xb89AAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcove...
I cannot at this time give specific references to Pearce's book, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, but I can recollect that he specifically, and more directly than other writers, invokes Thomas Kuhn's idea of a "paradigm shift," the idea that "world views" frame our collective scientific knowledge, and that these world views can radically change when certain new theories come to be accepted (as, for example, when the Copernican view of the cosmos came to be accepted vis a vis the older Ptolemaic view).
Talbot's use of the terms "shift" and "change of world view," noted above, also invoke, though indirectly, Kuhnian ideas, or at least their application. Kenneth Pelletier also refers to the ideas of Kuhn in the opening sections of his book, as the title "Toward a New Science of Consciousness" suggests. Pelletier also -- and he is among the first to do so, if I remember correctly -- attempts to relate consciousness to neurobiology via quantum mechanics. I take these three books as indicative of what I am talking about here.
Before explicating what I think are the functions of such arguments, I would like to refer to two other examples of what I am talking about. Of course, today, examples like the above can be multiplied ad nauseum. Above, I present what I think may be some of the first instances -- the paradigmatic instances, as it were. To continue, though, here are two other examples that I found online recently while researching another topic -- that of the "imaginal realm."
The first is a site called "Engaging the Imaginal Realm," by Carol Frenier and Lois Hogan. The first article by Carol Frenier is titled, "Consciousness and Field Theory: Framing the Question." Here, in the title, we find instances of the two ideas referred to above: that of "framing," which evokes Kuhnian ideas, and the idea of "field theory," which invokes quantum mechanics. In her article, Frenier writes that, "matter emerges out of a prefigured information field." Commenting and expanding on this idea, Hogan writes, "science is beginning to provide us with a construct for our understanding of these other realms of being." See http://www.collectivewisdominitiative.org/papers/frenier_imaginal.htm
Our second example is a site called "The Door to the Imaginal Realm," by Mary Pat Mann. There Mann writes, "The logical materialist world-view is based on a rigid distinction between fantasy and fact.... But we no longer live in the old Newtonian universe. Since Einstein, the solidity of matter has continually dissolved into space-time continua, probability, and fields of influence." Here Mann's use of the term "universe" has a double meaning: it not only refers to the “universe” of physics but, symbolically ala Ricouer, to the idea of a world-view. We also find a metaphoric use of language, to which I will return later, in the idea of the "dissolution of solidity." See http://www.mytholog.com/essays/mann_imaginalrealm.html
Before turning to what I believe is the function of such ideas and forms of argumentation, I would like to return to the David Icke video and have the reader listen to its very opening once again. At the very inception of the video, Icke states, "what you think, is what you create." In other words, whatever you think is possible, is possible, and whatever you think exists, exists. Now this may strike some as a rather extreme example, but I think that if one takes certain forms of "new paradigm," or New Age, thinking to their logical conclusion, this is what one gets.
Now, of course, there is some truth to the idea that, "what you believe in, you create," in the sense that we can change our view of the world and alter our social and psychological reality, but it is one thing to say and mean that, and quite another thing to say," if you can conceive of it, it exists," or, "if my belief in Jesus is strong enough, I will pass my physics exam tomorrow (which a roommate of mine in Hamilton from Hong Kong found out doesn't work)," or, "if I recite this money-mantra daily, I will literally become an actual money magnet." These latter examples are sheer fantasy, and far from "transcending" rational and "scientific" thought, they are merely regressive, and to confuse their content and intent with the everyday "real" world of daily transactions is juvenile at best and psychotic at worst.
Nonetheless, such ways of thinking, in which we let go of our critical faculty, do have a place; and by extension so too do the kinds of ideas and arguments concerning the "new paradigm" and the "new physics" referred to above. That place where we let go of our critical faculty and suspend belief is the realm of the imagination. And so too, by extension, the function of the opening sections of the books referred to above is to clear a kind of psychic "space" where the imagination can function freely and new ideas may be more readily accepted.
They function, in other words, just as certain images and ideas found in fantasy film and literature function. Their function is akin to the tornado that carries Dorothy away from Kansas to the realm of Oz http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPWenQxryr4; or the rabbit hole through which Alice falls so as to enter Wonderland http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctbEd6TQqHE&feature=related; or the ear canal through which we pass, near the beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, to enter the dark and disturbing world of Frank “it’s Daddy shithead, where`s my bourbon!?” Booth http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsQHPaGarh0&feature=related .
We find similar devices in children’s films, fairy tales, and science fiction movies. The loss of one or more parents, for example, at the beginning of a story can serve, symbolically and functionally, as a means to free the child’s mind from parental influences which may interfere with the free function of the imagination. In a similar way, science fiction films often take place in deserts or similar locations removed from the everyday world, and in this way the suspension of belief is facilitated.However, and to conclude, I would contend that, outside of the realm of mere entertainment, we should not take the free reign of the imagination and coincident utter suspension of the critical faculty of reason as an end in itself. To do so is to revert to the world of the toddler, or worse to the realm of the paranoid and delusional. Rather, the opening of the imagination should serve the end of helping the mind remain plastic so that the intellect may be open to new and potentially rewarding insights
As historian and archivist I thought I'd present some excerpts from the old Gaia IPS thread on the MHC:
kelamuni said Oct 9, 2008, 1:22 PM: Why do we need to think in terms of postformal stages of cognitive capacities? Admitting that there may indeed be a certain “hierarchy” to thought, can we not simply say that there are different orders of thinking?
Balder said Oct 9, 2008, 1:30 PM: Must certain orders be mastered, or at least realized with some degree of proficiency, before others are available? I expect the answer would be yes, with regard to some, and perhaps no, with regard to others. For those which do appear to rest upon or depend upon other orders, and which therefore exhibit a pattern of sequential unfolding or development, “stage” seems like a workable term. It seems to me that there are likely both different stages and different orders or types of thinking or cognition.
kelamuni said Oct 9, 2008, 2:15 PM: I would say that that might already be implied by the notion of order.
Balder said Oct 9, 2008, 2:18 PM: Might be, yes. Higher order? Developmental order? Alternative order?
kelamuni said Oct 10, 2008, 1:21 PM: Still, its seems misleading to speak of stages of development in this context.
I guess I'm not quite sure why you would say that I am opposed to the idea of trans-rationality in principle when I specifically stated that my sense is that any theory of trans-rationality would be problematic.
The passage Ed (helpfully) quoted is not the one I was recalling, but it was related. In the one I recalled, it seemed to me that you were rejecting the idea or possibility of a post-formal stage of development, of any mode of cognition developmentally higher than formal operations, not just the coherence of a (rational?) "theory" of trans-rationality. But if I was mistaken about that, that's good. I'm glad to hear it. :-)
Balder. I had written a respose but lost it. (I dislike the keyboard on this new netbook. it's alot like my old one. it highlights paragraphs randomly then deletes them as you type or it simply leaves the page. i'll try again later. i'm tired and want to read dostoevsky before bed.)