Thursday, October 2, 2008

Into the great wide open, part two - going beyond supernaturalism

Do you give any credence whatsoever to stories such as the Buddha and his followers holding a "ceremony in the air" at Vulture Peak? What about the story of Moses and the burning bush? Or Job and the whirlwind? Do they have any value other than as story devices in ancient literature/oral traditions or as tripe to feed the gullible? This post is a sequel to "Into the great wide open - going beyond materialism". This time our question is: In our quest to go beyond materialism, does that mean we are embracing supernaturalism?

Defining superstition, magic, and the supernatural

In a previous description of my perspective on superstition, magic, and the supernatural, I wrote: "From a Western perspective, superstition can be viewed a way people gain a feeling of control over that which they cannot control, of knowing what they cannot know. Magic, the engine of superstition, can then be presumed to be an incorrect or unsubstantiated attribution of causality. What you are describing your complaint is "religion as superstition and magic". Similarly, we can define the supernatural as the hidden or occult realm of superstition and magic where the unseen forces at work operate, and we can describe the supernatural as a set of ontological category violations which provoke a sense of mystery (see Pascal Boyer's theory of religion, which he conflates with supernaturalism)."

This needs a slight alteration. Superstition is an incorrect or unverified attribution of causality. Magic is the use of ritual based on superstition to generate a desired effect. The supernatural could then still be defined as the occult (as in it's general meaning - "hidden") realm where the unseen forces involved in the causal chain of a superstition are supposed to operate. In that sense, given the previous description of the potential for a reality that goes beyond mere materialism, one could in fact call the hidden or cryptic phenomena posited as belonging to a larger set of phenomena (of which material phenomena would be a subset) the supernatural. In effect this would move such phenomena into the natural category, requiring a rechristening of sorts. But I find this much too simplistic and convenient to our limited human understanding and our cultural symbols.

Metaphors as catalysts for a change in perspective

Instead, I do think Boyer has recognized something important, although I prefer the approach taken by folks like Gary Eberle. Anthropologists and psychologists have shown us that humans tend to use fuzzy categories for dividing up experiences. A schema, or a set of related experiences associated with a particular concept or event or object, can then be used as a prototype to classify and organize other experiences by degree of similarity or dissimilarity. So the prototype is like an attractor around which a set of experiences orbit. Hence we can "sort of" sort things into categories which are more or less similar to those of people with similar experiences. These can be the basis of symbols, and through semiotics, of language and creativity.

We can predict then that those closest to us share our experiences to a greater degree as well as the language we use to describe them, while those further away (geographically, politically, economically, linguistically, etc) share the less. When viewed at a certain scale, this resolves into the differences in worldview that are sometimes referred to as different cultures - their narratives about the meaning and purpose of existence and the shared symbols of those narratives are simply alien to one another. This is akin to clinal variation in biology - while the differences locally grade one into the next, if you look at a sampling from two areas several clines (grades) away, the difference appears very sharp and distinct. And yet we do share a common biology and a common planet, hence some common experiences, so communication and understanding on some level is always possible.

One such commonality is the use of metaphor, a la the aforementioned Eberle. Whereas Boyer seems to think we like supernatural stories because the category mish-mash (the properties of one category are mixed with the properties of another) make our brains tingle with a false sense of profundity of meaning, this is assuming a strictly materialist reduction. Metaphor, though, can be visual or auditory as well as verbal, as the semantic (=meaning) domain of the prototype of one category is mixed with another. The tension between the paradox is resolved by a shift in perspective which reorders the meaning of both the symbols (words or images or sounds) - you are opened to a new way of seeing things, beyond the limits of the categories into which you previously used to interpret your experiences of reality.

The supernatural as an active metaphor

These weird events, then, in accounts such as that of the burning bush, are meant to convey the realization that the storyteller is taking us beyond the conventional, beyond our realm of rational human understanding, beyond our schemes, prototypes, and language. We are not meant to see the bush literally but neither are we to take it as a symbol for something we can relate to a known quantity or concept. It is mystery itself. In this, the supernatural is NOT the place where the "magic happens", a shrinking realm of faeries, invisible pink unicorns, angels and God(-of-the-gaps). It is our humility in the face of wonder. It is the inspiration of the potential, and the well-spring of hope. It is that which reveals that everything we think we see and touch and presume to know is actually greater and more glorious than we could have dreamed. And the characters in these stories act appropriately - they fall flat on their faces, stupefied and shaking. This kind of revelation is painted as overwhelming to say the least!

If our capacity reason has limits on its ability to perceive and understand, is it really so odd to think that a key to transcending those limits might rest our capacity to imagine the absurd - to use such taxa-bending ("taxon"=named category, pl. taxa) notions to break us out of one mindset and open ourselves to new possibilities? Wouldn't much of what we believe to be true today have sounded absurd to our ancestors? Might it not sound equally absurd to our descendants? As I've written before, I am not suggesting invoking the broader possibilities of reality at every turn as a substitute with equal credibility to extant explanations, but I would also keep that space open.

I still do not subscribe to supernaturalism - the belief in the story of a supernatural encounter in its literal form, nor do I see it as having much use simply as a plot device or as a symbol for something already "known". I would share the materialists' objections to the former, and I think the latter simply misses the mark. The accounts of the supernatural more appropriately and sensibly seem to be intrusions from that which lies beyond our grasp or control - beyond either a simplistic literal or figurative understanding. It is something to be felt as we hear the story, not dug up with a shovel or simply dissected with logical analysis. They offer a powerful message of hope and humility, a message to which we would be wise to listen, even if the literalists and the scoffers count it as foolish.

Potential side effects

Yet the capacity for error here is strong, in that it is very easy to slip into the symbol for a known category way of thinking rather than experiencing spine-tingly shakeup in our views. In that sense, if one had to choose between hollow symbolism or literalism, literalism is the superior choice. Why? Because then we cannot help but confront the implications or fail to be shocked. By holding our noses and swallowing such a pill, we are in effect taking a poison meant to help us shed our old perceptions and open us to new possibilities. The trouble is that for some, this process isn't completed. Our capacity for and attachment to our limited and ego-centric views can neutralize such beliefs in mid-action. Hence our previous views have started to melt away but our new perspectives are still in the nacient stages of development. The result can be a horrible deformation of how we see the world, warped and malformed.

This is the mixed up, bizarre perspective the bitterly non-religious use to stereotype most or all of the religiously faithful. And no wonder then why they would want to avoid such a pill. Unable or uninterested in seeing the difference between a successful and an aborted transformation, everyone who takes that poison must be nuts! Some who have ingested the poison in the past have, through an emotional and intellectual form of plastic surgery, managed to make cosmetic changes to hide their own disfigurements, but deep down they are still affected. It still eats at them. Which may account for something Einstein once observed. In from Einstein: His Life and Universe Walter Isaacson cites the great physicist:

Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who--in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses'-- cannot hear the music of the spheres."

(emphasis added)

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