Monthly Archives: July 2007
After much consideration I decided to post my interdisciplinary dictionary online. It seems best suited for the web. But don’t just read about it here. Check it out! » Think Free!
To return to the original question of “Which Way is Up?”, this really seems quite relative. Think about it. We live on a sphere so up at the North Pole is always down at the South Pole. Not too tricky to understand this. Up and down are relative to one’s position on the globe.
But perhaps there’s another kind of “up” and “down” that isn’t relative. This kind of up and down derives not from geography, subatomic physics or abstract intellectual speculation. Rather, it comes from a very old source, that being mysticism.
By ‘mysticism’ I’m not talking about charlatans charging anywhere from 20 to 200 dollars for some trumped up ’reading.’ I’m talking about sincere, sane and scrupulously self-critical individuals who claim to have analyzed different inner experiences which they believe are from God and, in some instances, the devil.
Pretty much across the board we find mystics talking about levels of consciousness from low to high. We hear about a hell, an underworld and also about heaven. This isn’t just something passed on in some fuzzy oral tradition. Mystics often write. And many have written carefully about their experiences. The reason this isn’t too well known is probably because not too many people are mystics and thus have little concern with the subject matter. It seems most people busy themselves with making a living, getting a date or planning where they’ll take the family for the holidays.
That’s all very nice and necessary. But I believe the world also needs genuine mystics to help maintain humanity’s spiritual balance. Through their contemplative prayer of intercession (or with some Shamans, more active forms of guidance) mystics from various world traditions usually say they help to prevent the less spiritually aware from taking wrong turns and thereby sinking even deeper into a state of spiritual ignorance. Mystics are subtle guides in the service of and answerable to God, so they say, assisting seekers and the lost through a wilderness of ignorance, delusion and sin.
These otherworldly guides usually don’t claim to be perfected souls. In facing the challenges of living in a world peopled with the full range of humanity, they’re given ample opportunity to reflect and improve on their own imperfections. True, some spiritual teachers claim to be perfectly enlightened and without error. But these, I think, are the cult leaders and crackpots who should be avoided at all costs.
Genuine mystics may own less things and seem to be relatively inactive to worldly folk. But this kind of judgment is made by those not having access to the genuine mystic’s inner experience and is probably severely flawed. Just think how the Christian saints suffered at the hands of imbeciles and incompetents who couldn’t begin to grasp their import. St. Joan of Arc, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Faustina Kowalska, to mention some of my favorite figures–they all suffered dearly in their own unique way and for the greater glory of God.
But this blog isn’t going to focus on saintly suffering. Instead, it’s about how contemplative mystics, and not only within Christianity, use the terms “up” and “down” to describe their inner experiences. Up is generally associated with ideas like “more loving and pure,” “sweeter graces,” “greater joy,” “brighter” and “closer to God, saints and angels in heaven,” whereas down generally denotes, “more hateful and impure,” “intolerable pain,” “greater torment,” “darker” or “closer to Satan, devils and souls in hell.” In other words, the words up and down connote the quality of the mystic’s inner experience. The poet Milton alludes to this kind of experiential distinction. Here we find the master devil, Satan, lamenting his loss after being cast out of heaven and plummeting down to hell.
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav’n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light?
-John Milton, Paradise Lost
This passage illustrates a possible answer to the riddle of “Which Way is Up?” While we may not find answers from subatomic physics or contemporary philosophy, the legacy of the great saints and mystics seems to show the way.
Genuine mystics live in the world of matter/energy (or the “field”) but their lives are dedicated to so much more. For a mystic being ‘up’ isn’t just about enjoying a tasty meal, cheering at a sports stadium or having a fabulous night at the opera. Those are but passing pleasures for the mystic, soon to recede as mere shadows when compared to the bright light and pure love of God. The only thing that truly lasts, they say, is the lovelight of God and, for the unwise, the wrath and darkness of Satan.
Thus the truest sense of ‘up’ and ‘down’ is arguably based on the quality of one’s relationship with God. And while mystics may, indeed, help those seeking or stumbling through a spiritual wilderness, it’s ultimately up to us to make the right ethical choices that would, we hope and trust, lift us ‘up’ instead of drag us ‘down.’
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES:
Previously I deconstructed and offered some alternative philosophical views concerning the notions of matter and energy (see parts 2 -3). Some might say that one of these views ’restores’ the reality of matter (and by implication energy).
However, I favor the notion that there’s a ‘field’ (for lack of a better term) out there prior to our interpretation of it. This seems most sensible to me but I cannot really prove it, of course. It’s my cosmological myth of choice. But I don’t stop there, as so many subatomic physics enthusiasts seem to; that would be incomplete because the idea of the ’field’ doesn’t really account for spiritual and other dimensions.
I also suggested that ‘emotion’ and ‘spirit’ are qualitatively different from one another and from the ’field.’ This is an important point, I think. It precurses my contention that the ’field’ somehow interacts with other dimensions.
One could further elaborate as to how the dimensions of ‘thought’ and ‘emotion’ interact with the ‘field.’ But to do so here would be unwise as I haven’t considered these ideas too carefully. So I’ll stick to a distinction that I’ve given a fair amount of thought to, this being the distinction between the ‘field’ and possible ‘spiritual’ dimensions.
Theologically speaking, this would be the distinction between the natural, created world on the one hand, and spiritual graces, powers, infused knowledge, revelation, illumination and so on, on the other hand.
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES:
My guess is that the moon landings happened but were augmented for TV with some phony footage.
Further to Part 2, one could argue, of course, that matter is real or, at least, relatively real because we interpret it as such.
The point I’m trying to make, however, is that divorced from the senses, there seems to be some kind of ‘field’ out there, for lack of a better term. But even this view has been questioned by those adhering to the notion of solipsism.
Alternately, one could say that the universe is activated the moment we perceive it. Otherwise it doesn’t exist or exists in a potential state, much like an encoded DVD just waiting to be ‘activated’ by a DVD player and monitor.
Uncertainty seems to be the key here. In other words, we can imagine all sorts of scenarios but perhaps can’t really know for sure if they’re right.
However, I believe that the universe and other people do exist independent of myself. I arrived at this position about 15 years ago, mostly for ethical reasons. Suppose one treated other people badly because one felt they didn’t really exist; wouldn’t it be terrible if one were wrong and other people did exist. Given this grave uncertainty, it seemed prudent to reject solipsism.
At the time this seemed to be mostly an intellectual argument based on the ethics of uncertainty. The older I get, however, the more I believe that the intellect isn’t the master faculty. It seems there are deeper, more authoritative sources of knowledge.
In my view the abstract intellect divorced from faith and lived experience can only take one so far. Something other than intellect, alone, must become more prominent if one wants to continue to learn about God, the universe and oneself. And perhaps when, in my youth, I supposed that I’d resolved this issue on the basis of intellect alone, this higher power (i.e. God) was at work without my consciously knowing it.
A discussion of this will, of course, necessitate a look at some theological ideas… and leads back to the initial question: Which way is up?
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES:
After believing in the ideas of matter and energy for thousands of years, mankind is ready for a change. We’re hearing about an emerging new paradigm, mostly because sub-atomic physics experiments have thrown the concepts of matter and energy into question.
Physicists are now saying that so-called matter is really “intensely concentrated” or a “wave packet” of energy. Actually, several theories try to account for the seemingly strange findings of sub-atomic physics, where the smallest “particles” of light (called photons) behave like “energy” if observed in a certain way.
The very notion of a discrete “particle” has been ultimately replaced by the concept of something like wave-packet of an uncertain boundary, whose properties are only known as probabilities, and whose interactions with other “particles” remain largely a mystery, even 80 years after quantum mechanics was established.
And for those skeptical of Wikipedia:
Subatomic particles were initially believed to represent the smallest solid objects in existence. They are now known to not be solid but rather highly concentrated foci of intense energy.
Basically this means that the world around us isn’t as solid as it seems. Its solidity is largely a perception created by our senses and minds. Some Indian philosophers call not only the idea of physicality but the entire universe an “illusion” (Skt.: maya). That’s because they believe that true reality doesn’t change and is to be found in the afterlife or in an extremely profound state of meditation. Other Indian philosophers have slightly different views, however. And some have very different views. If interested, check out the various theories of Ramanuja, Sankara and the Carvaka school.
In future blogs I’ll look at the implications of deconstructing the notions of ”matter” and “energy.” Then I’ll look at some theological ideas which might make some sense out of any ensuing ambiguities.
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES:
I’ve decided not to write in a scholarly style. That would be too boring for me and probably for the reader. So let’s just say that emotion, conscious and unconscious, plays a huge role in human thinking. Most psychologists suggest that the best type of reasoning blends the “logic process” with emotions such as empathy. In other words, if we write or speak keeping in mind how we imagine the reader or listener will receive our words, we tend to be more effective and humane.
It’s pretty well known that the emotion of anger can limit our reasoning powers. When we’re ticked off we fail to consider alternatives, give the benefit of the doubt or see a bigger picture. Have you ever heard an angry person say “I KNOW I’M RIGHT” and then sheepishly admit later on that they were blinded by their heated emotions? We’ve probably all done this from time to time. Hopefully we learn as we go along and can recognize when we’re hot under the collar and not let that influence our better judgment.
On the other side of the coin, positive emotions such as enjoyment and love can facilitate learning. But positive emotions, not just negative ones, can also influence thinking to produce what psychologists call “cognitive distortion.”
The term “cognitive distortion” is somewhat problematic because each individual, I would say, has a unique perspective on life and the universe. True, there are cultural agreements from which we can draw some kind of temporary norm. But any student of the globe and/or history will note that cultural norms are rarely if ever absolute truths. And sometimes they’re downright scary (e.g. those produced by a Hitler, Stalin, Nero… ).
I don’t want to go too deep into sociology and philosophy here. Rather, I’d like to also point out that many explanatory systems seem to fall short when it comes to the spiritual aspect of mankind. Some even equate the words “emotion” and “spiritual.”
This likening of emotion and spirituality is problematic as many different faith systems and philosophers, alike, make important distinctions between “emotional” and “spiritual” experiences.
In actual fact, nobody fully knows just what causes emotional or spiritual experiences. However, it seems to me that emotional and spiritual experiences coexist but somehow differ, just as sunlight will hit a pond of water, warm it up and eventually evaporate it. In this analogy, sunlight would be spiritual light while the pond of water would be a personal emotional center, for lack of a better term.
By now you should see that I’m not a scientist in the commonly understood sense of the word. But at the same time, I believe we can apply a kind of ‘science’ to human experience. We can form hypotheses and test them on the basis of our ongoing, lived experience. We may never reach absolute truth. But we can certainly improve upon existing models.
Thus to return to emotion, we wouldn’t be very good scientists if we allowed our emotions (both desires and dislikes) to prevent us from considering alternative hypotheses.
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES:
Now here’s an interesting tidbit of cosmological history. Apparently the ancient Greeks, those clever guys, knew all about the earth being a sphere and rotating about the sun well before the medieval Europeans twigged on to the idea.
Aristarchus (310 – 230 BC) is the first known Greek to have proposed a heliocentric model (i.e. the earth rotates around the sun). His theory was rejected in favor of the geocentric models (i.e. sun and planets rotate around the earth) of Aristotle (384-322 BC) and later, Ptolemy (90-168 AD). Meanwhile Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) apparently was the first to calculate the size of the earth using math that involved measuring the angles of shadows. Incredible, how smart these two guys were.
It seems to be a truism that cosmological innovators are often met with ridicule and rejection by those around them. Perhaps this goes back to some kind of herd instinct. Animals generally don’t like disruptions to their usual way of doing things. Ingrained patterns make life more manageable for both animals and I would dare say humans too. The problem, however, is that behavioral patterns might have to change when environments change. This certainly seems to be the case with humanity. And not only our behavioral patterns, but perhaps more fundamentally, our thinking patterns from which much of our behavior originates.
At the risk of sounding like an Al Gore or Michael Moore, I’d say it’s definitely time for another change. Or at least, it’s time to start thinking about one in a manner consistent with our species’ inherent brainpower.
THIS BLOG IS PART OF A SERIES:
I was just down in my basement library and noticed Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (Bantam, 1990). I couldn’t help but post this quote, for those who think there’s only one ‘present.’
Up to the beginning of this century people believed in an absolute time. That is, each event could be labeled by a number called “time” in a unique way, and all good clocks would agree on the time interval between two events. However, the discovery that the speed of light appeared the same to every observer, no matter how he was moving, led to the theory of relativity–and in that one had to abandon the idea that there was a unique absolute time. Instead, each observer would have his own measure of time as recorded by a clock that he carried: clocks carried by different observers would not necessarily agree. Thus time became a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it. (p. 143)
Some people believe that hell is just a creation of the imagination. Others say if we believe in hell and feel we deserve it, we’ll go to the kind of hell we believe in. And yet others say that it exists independently of whatever we may or may not think about it. Here’s a post that illustrates the latter view from the perspective of two Catholic contemplatives, Sister Josefa Menendez and Saint Faustina Kowalska. Pretty scary stuff… I don’t think even Buffy the Vampire Slayer could get us out of this fix: