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Thursday, June 9, 2005

I am reduced to this.

For a while now I have been wanting to write a post about religious liberalism:

  • importance thereof to intellectual history and the American polity;
  • recent decline thereof;
  • difficulties inherent in a society polarized between mutually antagonistic and aggressively evangelizing secularists and fundamentalists;
  • nature thereof, as a positive and coherent philosophy, rather than the vague and muddy, or cowardly, compromise it is usually portrayed as.

I have still not managed to do so.

Instead, you get this blog meme quiz thingie (via Chris):

You scored as Cultural Creative. Cultural Creatives are probably the newest group to enter this realm. You are a modern thinker who tends to shy away from organized religion but still feels as if there is something greater than ourselves. You are very spiritual, even if you are not religious. Life has a meaning outside of the rational.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View? (updated)
created with QuizFarm.com

Of course, the text there is all wrong (I don't shy away from organized religion in the least, for instance, and I suspect the idea that my position is something new "in this realm" (which realm?) of being an expression of the current bizarre invisibility of the religious-liberal tradition that founded this country), but the questions of the quiz feel like they are groping towards the right framing for the conversation that I want to have.

I guess I can add this bit of this conversation:

My personal best guess about the nature of the soul is this: there are two mutually inconsistent and exclusive and equally accurate frames in which to view the universe (like one of those drawings where by focusing your eyes differently you can see the young woman or the old lady, or a cube extending outwards or inwards from the sheet of paper).

In one, the world is the movie that I am watching, "I" being the soul, which is not related to the physical Ben Rosenbaum other than in Ben Rosenbaum being the peephole through which it watches.

In the other, the world is a closed system of material causes (whether or not the operations of those causes devolve strictly into regular laws) and my "soul" is an emergent property of the operation of my material components.

It's a category error, a fallacy, to describe one of these views as the reality for which the other is a metaphor; the metaphorical relationship is mutual.

...and I might add that I think efficacious and deliberate action can as well proceed from the first model, as from the second.

Posted by benrosen at June 9, 2005 02:54 PM | Up to blog

Given that they seem to have made "cultural creative" up themselves, I'm not real surprised that it doesn't make sense.

Posted by: David Moles at June 10, 2005 11:53 AM

I'm not sure it doesn't make sense -- I can imagine someone holding the position described -- it just doesn't fit me.

But, really, I would be a little distressed to fit snugly into one of eight philosophical categories!

And the term is kind of snazzy, if incoherent.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 10, 2005 12:27 PM

Hmm. Maybe the term is just badly chosen.

Posted by: David Moles at June 10, 2005 03:06 PM

There is an interesting Buddhist exegesis of Star Wars at beliefnet. Kharma inevitably leads to a discussion of causality(fate) vs. free will, that dovetails nicely with previous posts on your blog.

Posted by: Michael Musson at June 11, 2005 08:24 PM

That's a fascinating article on beliefnet. I didn't realize Lucas was a Buddhist or had such a sophisticated understanding of karma :)

The fact that the article used the plot of Star Wars to illuminate karma made karma a little more accessible to me, and I feel like I understand it better. At least the Buddhist understanding of karma. Or Matthew Bortolin's understanding of the Buddhist understanding of karma. Anyway, it was elucidating. Thanks for the link, Michael.

Incidentally, I took the same blogmeme quiz and scored as an Idealist. I felt like the description of the philosophy was a little off, as well, particularly the whole Golden Age aspect of it. Still it was an interesting quiz.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 13, 2005 11:21 AM

Hey Ben

I was poking around on David's blog, reading your earlier posts, and I ran across what you called the "Bishop Berkeley/Shankara/Red King" worldview - can you thumbnail what you mean by this, or point me at somewhere I could learn about it? You can take this offline if you want - matthulan@hotmail.com.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 13, 2005 02:34 PM

Bishop Berkeley was an 18th cen. Idealist philosopher; Shankara lived (probably) in the 9th century AD and is one of the central figures of Hindu nondualist (Advaita Vedanta) thought. Since I am a freewheeling amateur philosopher instead of an academic, I get to say that these guys, separated by vast gulfs of time and culture, had awfully similar metaphysics.

The central notion here is, in Advaita Vedanta's admirably economic phrasings, "there are not two things" and "thou art that". The idea of individual entities is a provisional illusion caused by the scale at which we observe life; more accurately seen, there is only one thing: Mind.

The Red King is from Through the Looking Glass, where he is asleep, dreaming all of us, and if he wakes up, poof! There we go.

My zeppelin story is an attempt to describe an advanced technological world with empirical sciences and popular literatures based on the nondualistic premise, rather than, as in our world's dominant culture, sciences and literatures based on methodologically reductionist materialism.

See also Wikipedia's discussion of monism.

This stance has always appealed to me greatly, as fulfilling Occam's Razor to precisely the same degree that reductionist empiricism does, in a wholly incompatible manner. It seems to me -- on an emotional level -- that it is most elegant to either disregard qualia, as David Moles says he does, or to disregard everything but qualia.

If we do the former, there is no need to introduce such entities as minds, souls, or divinities; we can simply regard the world as a number of more or less observable particles and forces, distinct from one another each as simple as we can get it; trust only those things we can all verify and agree on together; and regard with suspicion all our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and experiences, as provisional and misled, proceeding from ultimately inaccurate and erroneous observations of what really is -- the stuff out there.

If we do the latter, there is no need to introduce such entities as forces, particles, matter, or natural laws; we can simply regard the world as the flow of experience, the dream of the dreamer, and read it as such. In this case there is no need to assume that we each have individual consciousnesses or souls, either (as in, say, Samkhya, or C.S. Lewis's Christianity); one soul, perhaps dreaming various dreams, suffices.

The most intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally satisfying position for me -- in what I consider essentially a nonrational, or prerational matter not amenable to empirical resolution -- is to hold these two positions simultaneously as my guess about the true nature of things, one in each hand, as it were.

(These two worldviews are kind of the inside-out of each other; I think one can be converted to the other by (metaphorically) a kind of reversible transformation that preserves most symmetries).

But maybe there's a third hand, becuase I do have an affection for the traditional monotheistic notion of a sovereign, separate creator God, and that's probably whom I'm most likely to talk to when I talk to the Divine; even if, when I'm thinking philosophically I tend to assume that (as in Hinduism) God, or Goddess, ultimately resolves into one or the other of the above worldviews.

And when David Moles asked me to revise the ending of "Biographical Notes", to come up with some resolution that would go beyond simply "here's their worldview, here's ours, and now I'm stuck hanging from an unpiloted air-boat", that's what I went to, and I think the story is much truer for it. Ultimately, whatever the philosophers say, maybe it's the heart of the devotional mystic -- the Lover of the Unseen Friend (I'm reading Attar at the moment) -- that is the most honest; when we turn from the task of speaking about the world, to the task of speaking to it.

What I tend to be somewhat politically allergic to, though not necessarily utterly disregarding of, is the idea of an interventionist historical God who goes about punishing and rewarding humanity or its subcomponents in brute physical events.

Or maybe not so much the idea of such a God, as the idea of mixing that kind of story with our modern understanding of the world. The Biblical story of Exodus and Numbers, terrible as it is, has an enormous artistic and moral truth and vision seen through the filter of the culture and time from which it comes; it's the attempt to port it with naive literalism to our modern world, and interpret AIDS or tsunamis naively with the same tools, that often seems so frightening, toxic, perverse and immoral.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 13, 2005 03:26 PM

(These two worldviews are kind of the inside-out of each other; I think one can be converted to the other by (metaphorically) a kind of reversible transformation that preserves most symmetries).

Yes. For me, as a matter of practice, they come down to pretty much the same thing.

Posted by: David Moles at June 13, 2005 04:19 PM

Wow - it's really "ask and ye shall receive" with you, isn't it? :)

Sounds like I'm with Shankara. I'll investigate Berkeley further (starting with your wiki link), since you don't really talk about him...

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 13, 2005 04:25 PM

I have read Shankara, whereas I have only read secondary literature on Berkeley -- which gave me the impression that he's essentially saying the same thing, dressed up in Christian clothing.

David, I think they do come to the same thing in most of everyday life -- but I wonder how much that is a symptom of our culture's addiction to the former as a tool set, such that we can only clumsily imagine being rigorous about the latter. They don't come to the same thing in principle, certainly. The former view tends to imply that prayer and magic spells will not be efficacious, for instance, and tends in practice to steer one away from the primacy of individual observations towards the primacy of group-verified observations, I think.

Also, they are worlds apart emotionally.

I have a certain sense of grief at the loss of the magical-thinking worldview I had as a child -- maybe not the loss of it in principle as a notion to entertain, but the loss of it to a great extent as a vivid force in my life.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 13, 2005 04:38 PM

... where "magic" may be a rather clumsy way of talking about what I want to talk about above...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 13, 2005 04:39 PM

Also, they are worlds apart emotionally.

Only if you get emotional about them, I think. It takes a certain amount of negative capability, but I don't have much trouble believing (for instance) both, as a matter of record, that causes have effects and that the present is largely determined by the past, and, as a matter of personal practice, that the contents of an envelope are not determined until I open it. :)

One might argue from a Buddhist perspective that attachment to a concrete external universe and attachment to a dream are equally attachments -- and, hence, equally misleading.

Posted by: David Moles at June 13, 2005 06:49 PM

I have been interested lately in the role of orthodoxy and orthopraxy in religions. It seems that this distinction is often overlooked. Orthodox meaning that the emphasis is placed on correct or right belief, and orthoprax meaning that the emphasis is placing on correct or right actions.

Every religion falls somewhere on this spectrum. Protestant Christianity being an example of an orthodox religion and Islam with its five pillars being an example of an orthoprax religion.

I consider the scientific method to be a sort of orthoprax religion because specific beliefs or theories are not as important as adhering correctly to the process of the scientific method (hypothesis, test, results).

Posted by: Michael Musson at June 13, 2005 07:10 PM

Y'know, I tried several times to work the orthodoxy / orthopraxis distinction into that last comment of mine, and couldn't quite do it. :) It's my new favorite dichotomy.

Back to the old science as religion debate from a couple of months ago, I think that when I start to get irritated is when folks whose side I'd normally be on start insisting on scientistic orthodoxy rather than just scientific orthopraxis.

Posted by: David Moles at June 13, 2005 07:28 PM

Only if you get emotional about them, I think.

I always try hard to get emotional about things. :-)

More on this in the next post.

It's my new favorite dichotomy.

It's an old favorite of mine, a staple of the "explaining Judaism to the goyim" speach I've been mastering, in various forms, since first grade... :-)

when folks whose side I'd normally be on start insisting on scientistic orthodoxy rather than just scientific orthopraxis

That's a good way of putting it.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 14, 2005 10:16 AM

Here's a synthesis of my worldview to add to the discussion.

Everything is an aspect of the consciousness of goddess, which you may conceive of as the idealist meme of Mind. I conceive of my self as being a triune entity, made up of Spirit, Robot, and Body.

The Spirit is my consciousness, which is to say that it is that part of me that percieves the Now in which I find myself. It is that part of me which Buddhists would call awareness, and it is only through practice and meditation that I am able to access this part of me directly. The Spirit is a fragment of the greater universal consciousness that is goddess.

The Robot is a complex entity part animal and part mind. It is comprised of my instincts and physiological events (adrenaline, endorphins, etc.); my memories and experience; and my more ephemeral thoughts, opinions, etc. It is the Robot that provides context to the Spirit and it is the Robot that believes that it acts in the world. It is the Robot, indeed, that believes in the world at all. It is the Robot that holds this worldview.

There is also the Body, which is the vessel for the Robot and the Spirit. The Body is made up of many smaller entities (cells, atoms, particles), each one of which also has Spirit, each being a fragment of goddess. The Body doesn't have much to do; it just carries the Robot and the Spirit.

Incidentally, I don't know whether cells and particles and other animalcules of any sort have Robots and Bodies.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 14, 2005 12:54 PM

Having reread my post above, I see that it's yet another case of "that's nice, Matt, but it's not really what we're talking about..."

SO, to speak a little more clearly to the point, but using the terms I establish above, Spirit is a Nothing But Qualia kind of guy. Spirit's view is that we are in and of the dream, and Spirit is itself an aspect of the dreamer.

The Robot, on the other hand, is forced to interact with what it perceives as the material world. The consensus reality that it subscribes to is informed by a scientific paradigm, which disregards qualia. I, the Robot, act as though the world is real and predictable. I eat, poop, make love, take care of my kid, post incoherent rants to the blogs of patient friends, and generally pretend that context matters.

I don't know if that's any better. I'll shut up and go away now.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 14, 2005 01:39 PM

You shouldn't shut up and go away, Matt; your comments are appreciated. (I'm sorry if I bit your head off before when you stumbled unwittingly into my mystical-quantum-physics pet peeve; I like the straight-up mysticism much better). :-)

I make a distinction somewhat like yours, but essentially I conflate Robot (which is a great word for it) and Body, for most purposes -- I wouldn't know where to draw the line between them -- and that whole mind/body machine is, iIrc, what the Upanishadic and Buddhist traditions call bodhi.

My view of Spirit might be somewhat sparer than yours -- you say "Spirit's view is that..." but I'm not sure Spirit has views; all those views, the high and the low, are mappable to neurons firing in Robot. Spirit, or atman, if it's anything at all, (and for Theravada Buddhists, I understand, it's nothing, but a very interesting nothing) seems to me to be something that can't have views, opinions, history, etc.

Not that, if you'd like to have a more feature-rich Spirit, you're in bad company -- lots of people whose opinions I respect think you can take it (your name, history, values, ideas) with you. But I don't buy it.

Or do you mean to say is "the view from Spirit", or "the view Robot takes when it regards Spirit as the principal reality", or something like that?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at June 14, 2005 02:16 PM

When I said Spirit's view, you're right; I was speaking sloppily. Spirit's perspective, perhaps?

My conception of the Spirit is that it's that part of us that is most purely of goddess. Spirit is timeless and eternal. It is Spirit that partakes in the cycle of reincarnation (my conception of reincarnation is that Spirit passes through everything and everyone - there is no distinction between my Spirit and your Spirit, except that it's riding in me to the extent that it's riding in me, and it's riding in you to the extent that it's riding in you - for "me" to achieve Nirvana, "I" will (have? am?) reincarnate also as you (and that blade of grass over there, and the mountain, and the river and that quark...) on the way. To me, Nirvana is the condition of having been everything, which is the same as goddess. The notion that you can work towards Nirvana is saying that the Robot can achieve Nirvana, which I don't think is the case. I think the Robot goes bye-bye. Goddess is richer for having passed through my Robot, but the Robot won't exist past its expiration.

Gee, that was somewhat Confused and Rambling... Anyway, there's some more fodder.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 14, 2005 02:31 PM

And by the way, Robot isn't my word for what I'm describing - I think I got it from the Fourth Way, which is the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky philosophy. It might have come from somewhere else, but I think that's their meme.

Posted by: Matt Hulan at June 14, 2005 02:33 PM
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