Religious but not Spiritual, Part Three: Mysticism

Posted: July 31, 2014 in Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

So, here I am, continuing on with my PHILOSOPHY OF LIFE. I talked before a little bit about what I think the world isn’t, and how we can have a functional morality within an atheistic context; then I talked a little bit about what I think the world is, and about how we navigate it. Today I am talking about Mysticism, and why I think it’s important, and this is the part where it begins to get weird (it’s going to get even weirder as we go) and where I’m probably going to start earning the scorn of my fellow atheists (who are my “fellow” only in the loosest-possible sense of the term).

Mysticism typically refers to a kind of intuitive, direct communion with the divine reality, but I don’t believe in a divine reality, so that’s not what I mean by it. When I refer to mysticism, I’m talking about something that’s a little simpler, and doesn’t make ontological statements (that is, statements about the nature of what things are) about the universe: “mysticism” is a sort of philosophical position in which we argue that the essential or important experience of the universe is a non-rational experience.

I realize this sounds pretty crazy, probably more crazy to people who know me, and understand me as being aggressively rational or logical, but maybe I can explain it a little bit. To do that, I need to back up.

Psyche, Reason, and Logic

First of all, I want to try to Rectify some Names here, and to do that I want to go back to something I’ve said before, about how there’s two different things we mean when we say that something “makes sense”. The first thing we mean is that it seems intuitive, which is when someone says something and you sort of grasp its meaning and veracity right away. The second thing we mean is that something seems reasonable, like we’ve thought our way through the idea and can’t see any holes in it.

And it seems to me that not only are these basically different things, but they’re the results of two entirely different processes – the first is the result of a process (or, more likely, a series of processes) of the unconscious aspect of the whole mind, the second is the result of a process of the conscious portion of the whole mind. Typically we talk about these things as the “conscious” and the “subconscious” or the “unconscious”, but I think that this is a little misleading. I think for one thing it presents this idea that there are only two aspects (i.e. thinking and unthinking), and that these two aspects of our mind are equal in stature.

In fact, I sometimes think that we tend to think that the conscious mind is actually bigger or more important than the unconscious mind, because we live in the conscious mind and it seems like it incorporates everything that we know and experience. I think it’s not as big as it seems though, I think actually it’s a very small part of the whole mind, and it only seems big because it’s sitting at the top of a whole bunch of systems that are funneling sort of summarized information up to the top – if you imagine it like President Roosevelt, sitting in the White House, reading executive summaries of all of the different departments going on in America. Roosevelt is not the government, he’s a tiny portion of the government; and for all his power over it, and familiarity with it, he’s got only a tiny fraction of the information available regarding what’s happening in each of those places.

And so for the purposes of this adventure, I’m going to call it “reason” when we talk about the small portion of the brain that has the responsibility for what we might call “deep analysis” or “executive function” – weighing different ideas against each other and making choices between them; everything else I’m going to refer to as “psyche”. The thing to remember is that psyche is actually really vast compared to the reasonable part of your brain, and that – and this is important – because we don’t live directly in the material world, but are divorced from it by the this sort of matrix of symbols that we live in, everything that reason does is contingent on psyche. Reason attempts to make decisions based on information, yes, but ALL of that information is provided by and mediated by the layers and layers of psyche that are between the direct data from the senses and the very top portion of this system. All of it.

And that’s where I want to just briefly take a detour and discuss Logic for a minute, because I want to assert that, in this context, Logic and Reason aren’t the same thing. Reason is analytic, yes, but it’s sort of analytical by comparison – this part of our brain relies very heavily on all of the elements of the psyche, to which “sense” is “intuitive”. It doesn’t work its way down to base principles for every single idea; in fact, reason can be just as messy as psyche, because it’s operating in a way that’s deformed by pre-existing bias or by a lack of or surfeit of information (in fact, reason is sometimes messier than intuition, which often leads to the idea that “gut instinct” tells is more about the material world than reason does; I think this is an illusion, maybe I’ll get to why, who knows).

The point is this: Logic is actually a formal process that we apply through reason to the information that we have to hand. The entire reason that we HAVE logic is precisely because our natural sense of reason is not, in itself, logical. If you look closely at the rules of logic, it starts to become clear that almost all of these are geared towards avoiding logical fallacies, which are things that seem true, but don’t really follow. Our natural instincts are towards fallacies, and there is no actual part of our minds that is inherently logical. Logic is a process that we invented and then applied to ourselves, so a person is logical only insofar as they are actually using logic.

(This is a good reason to be mistrustful of anyone who claims to be reasonable or logical, or who’s refuting a position by calling it “illogical”; by and large, even the people most interested in reason aren’t really using logic, they’re using the language of logic and reason in order to add weight and authority to their arguments; a lot of times they don’t even know it. And why? Because all processes of the mind are built on the back of this invisible psyche, up to and including reason, which is just as easily deformed as anything else.)

The Unillumined World

So what does all this mean? Well, I don’t want to say that it means that reason isn’t important. I think it’s very important, and a very good tool for helping us get around in the world, and we should cultivate it whenever possible. I think one of the ways that we should cultivate it is by comparing it to the rules of formal logic and seeing how well things line up.

But I also think that not only is it not the only part of the mind, it’s not even necessarily the most important part of the mind. That actually, the vast and invisible psyche is probably more important, and more relevant to the things that we care about in this world (happiness, compassion, morality) than reason is – reason is a useful tool for making what we want happen, but it’s not a good tool for actually having meaning in the world.

A good way to explain this is with strawberries.

Strawberries, of course, are delicious (I know some of you are allergic to strawberries; I assume this analogy works if you substitute a different fruit, but I don’t know, I have only ever tried it with strawberries). Strawberries are delicious, and I enjoy eating them. I also enjoy thinking about them! I know a couple things about biology and physics, and I know how the flavoroids (the chemical compounds in the strawberry) interact with the chemical receptors on my tongue to send information to my brain. I also know a couple things about why I have this ability to taste a strawberry – it’s part of an evolutionary adaptation that lets me find sugars (which I need to live) and a complex system designed to sort out ripe strawberries from unripe ones.

I also know that, in many ways, my taste for strawberries is arbitrary – if the first time I’d eaten a strawberry, a bee had been hiding in it and had stung me on the mouth, I might associate the flavor of strawberries with the pain of a bee sting, and develop a distaste for them.

So these are all the things that I know about a strawberry, and all the ways that I can think about a strawberry before or after eating it, but the important thing here is that none of that information is, in any way, a substitute for actually eating a strawberry. They are really categorically different phenomena – knowing about a strawberry doesn’t taste like eating a strawberry; eating a strawberry doesn’t give me special knowledge about what a strawberry is, or how the process of tasting it works.

Given that, then why should reason interpose itself between me and my strawberries? What do I have to think about when eating a strawberry, besides just eating a strawberry? Obviously, a bunch of things – I might want to be mindful, for example, of how many strawberries I’m going to eat, because I don’t want to be sick. And that’s a good point; I’m not saying that reason has no value, and should never be employed.

But the thing about reason is that it’s self-important; not only does it insert itself into every issue that comes up, but it also treats itself as the sole arbiter of truth regarding those issues, and my feeling is that the essential human experience is not really arbitrated by reason, but by all of these other deep processes of the psyche, and that a large part of achieving happiness is sort of undoing the overbalance of reason in our whole minds.

How Can Reason Be the Enemy?

I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a reason that I was careful to distinguish Reason from Logic early on. Logic is a system of formal rules that we do not naturally follow; reason is a process of the mind that refers to analyzing data and taking action based on it.

The reason that we have Logic is because reason actually isn’t necessarily very good at what it does. I mean, we know a lot about how the “rational” mind works, and one of the things we know about it is that we typically respond to situations with the limbic system first, and the neocortex (where all this reasoning is going on) second – we respond “psychically” (I am purposefully not using the term “emotionally” because I believe that this is misleading and contributes to a duality between emotions and reason that I don’t accept), and then the subject of the mind devoted to making explanations for things goes to work to explain why we did it.

I think this is probably pretty concomitant with experience; its concomitant with my experience anyway. When I get resentful of something (for example), it’s not because I’ve sat down and seriously considered all of the material evidence at hand and, after a thorough evaluation of costs and benefits, concluded that resentment is the best way to respond, then I flick the resentment switch and that’s how I go about my day.

Actually it’s usually the other way around and – you can tell me if this is how it is for you, maybe it’s not – and in a really insidious way, sometimes. Usually what happens is that I feel something like resentment according to no readily apparent cause (oh, sure, it’s because I saw this or that thing on facebook, but why should THIS make me feel resentment, and not something else?) and then reason goes to work – but it doesn’t go to work challenging my resentment, it goes to work justifying it, and it goes to work predicting what I should be doing next. It doesn’t even ask if this response is the healthiest response, or the most productive response, it doesn’t ask if I want to be resentful! It just accepts resentment as a given and goes about sorting it into context, sometimes so seamlessly that I don’t even realize I’m being resentful.

This is the problem with reason; it inserts itself into all of our experiences, it mediates everything that we do, and it calls itself the part of the mind that “analyzes” that “questions”, but it doesn’t question EVERYTHING, and it’s not like it gives you a list of things that it’s taking for granted before it gets started. (Logic, incidentally, DOES do that – before you do a proof, you’ve got to state right up front which things you’re accepting as axiomatic, and which things you intend to show.)

It actually gets a little worse than this, though. See, all of the parts of the brain are about predicting the future, but reason, more than anything, exists for the purpose of conceiving of imaginary consequences to things before the happen. And it is because of a couple things – because of a reciprocal arrangement between reason and psyche, because the matrix of symbols that we live in is divorced from the material world, and because reason keeps inserting itself into all of our experiences – we’re constantly sort of awash in these completely erroneous predictions about the future, and completely erroneous conclusions about the world.

So, imagine then that we get this information from the world around us, and it gets processed through our psyche, and then gives this information to our reason, which goes about trying to figure it out, and then dumps its conclusions BACK INTO the psyche, which uses this information to determine which information it should process and send back out, et cetera and so forth. You can see that this creates a kind of feedback loop which is part of the source of the drift – our own individual psychic drift away from the physical, material world.

So, Mysticism, Though?

What I’m proposing is this: it’s actually pretty easy to reconcile “reason” with the material world. We did it, it’s called “logic” and “the scientific method”, and it turns out that this isn’t particularly satisfying, and doesn’t really solve any of our problems. The reason for that is because reason is only a tiny fraction of our whole mind, and actually a result of the vast remainder of the mind.

Imagine the Titanic, and the iceberg that is drifting towards it. Imagine that you’re on the iceberg, and you realize what’s happening, so you decide to save the day by taking your chainsaw (in this scenario you have a chainsaw) and hacking off the part of the iceberg that’s above the water.

Plainly, this doesn’t solve the problem, it just LOOKS like it solves the problem. The actual problem is much bigger than the part of the iceberg that we can see.

Similarly, the actual rectification – the accommodation of the mind with the material world – doesn’t come with harmonizing this reasonable part with what’s around us, but with harmonizing that unreasonable part with the world. And to that purpose, logic has only a small (though not irrelevant) use – certainly, we can use reason to examine ourselves to some degree, and to dive deep into the psyche and see how it’s become divorced from reality.

All that’s good, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to keep in mind two things – the first is that “logic” is a tool of reason, and not a tool for the whole mind; the second is that the material universe (and therefore also the mind) do not necessarily yield themselves to logic. Because of this fact, we have to seek alternate methods for harmonizing the psyche with materiality.

Like What?

Okay, come on, I’ll get to that, that’s in the next part.

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