Saturday, September 4, 2010

"Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot" spurs additional questions, conclusion

[This is the second half of an essay written based on responses to a previous entry, Quantum tempest in a celestial teapot.]

If we want to explore the source and fundamental character of existence, we can do this with various metaphysical programs available to us such science.  This is the route that brilliant and distinguished minds such as Hawking have taken, and all of humanity benefits from the insights offered by such labors.  Yet such efforts inevitably lead to the problem that we cannot out-think our own brains and their mental limits in perceiving and pondering existence.  We trace causes and effects and necessary conditions as far as we can, but it would be foolish to think that reaching this limit is the same as having a complete and final answer.  Some people may not care what else there may be to know or some may simply reject any other way of knowing.  That is their choice.

If that is the case, we simply have our mysterious source of phenomena like gravity (the same source as any cause that is found for gravity, and for the cause of that cause, and the cause of that cause).  Again, in the theology we are discussing, however many causes you add, they are contained within and an aspect of the Divine.  God isn't simply a link in the causal chain, even the hypothetical first link.  God is the steel of the chain and the shape of the steel and that in which the chain exists.  Again, this leaves some of us wondering about the relevance of such a remote God, while others may also be asking whether there isn't another avenue to discover more about the fundamental nature of existence.

How might one go about getting additional insight into the source of our being?  Like other avenues, it will be limited by our biology, psychology and culture, and hence will contain a strong element of subjectivity.  It will be validated by values, experience, and consensus.  But rather than using standard categories and labels and discursive thought, it will be rooted in what is sometimes called intuition.  This is a term with many meanings and implications, but it refers here simply to that which does not follow a logical progression that is common to arguments taking the form of syllogisms.  It is sometimes called direct or unmediated awareness, but these labels are misleading.  This kind of insight is presumed to bypass some processes and filters, but our human limitations such as the wiring of our brains mean that even such experiences are imperfectly perceived and less perfectly described or explained.

On the topic of the brain, such awareness has sometimes been associated more strongly with the right hemisphere of the brain, but we need to be cautious.  Localization and lateralization of focus and function can be taken too literally, in which case misleading ideas can arise.  Just because a part of the brain is necessary for for some function doesn't mean it is sufficient to accomplish that function on its own.  And in some cases particular areas may be important but not essential for particular functions, which is apparent when an area or even a hemisphere of the cerebrum is removed and other areas take over the role of the missing tissue.  Conscious awareness, for example, seems to be a more global rather than local phenomena.  So whether a region of the brain really is correlated to the capacity to experience the world in a fashion where the distinctions of time and space dissolve or whether it is non-localized, it is the capacity itself to be open to experiences beyond our expectations that is relevant.

It is more than relevant, to be honest, it is our avenue to additional insight about the nature of our existence.  Because we are looking to go beyond the part of the brain that relies primarily on building on what we already think we know and which follows the same patterns and processes in assessing and correlating that information which we've already discussed.  We are trying to get a view of something which cannot be reduced to fit within conventions like time or space.  It still isn't possible to out-think our own brains and their mental limits in perceiving and pondering existence, but what we are looking at here is another way to stretch ourselves to our limits, to make the most of what our brains are capable of, and to take advantage of additional insights that are available to us to glimpse the source of our reality.  To glimpse God.

But that part of our brain is messier.  Its output may be less predictable and often surprising or baffling.  So it is easy to label it unreliable and to label anyone who hopes to use it to address important questions as flighty, spacey, frivolous or capricious. Yet it is precisely the unconventional ideoclastic nature of such a perspective that makes it a good candidate for seeing past the limitations of more conservative forms of thought.  On what basis can we possibly conclude that the intuitive aspect of our brain is any less congruent with reality than the discursive aspect without referring back to a view of the world shaped by the latter?  Or to put it another way, how could one decide that the truth glimpsed and expressed by van Gogh is somehow inferior or less accurate in telling us about our existence than the truth spied by Einstein?

At this point, one has a choice.  To decide that what is here referred to as intuitive thought might provide insights worth considering about the universe or to decide that it cannot.

If one accepts the potential value of such insights, that is, that such a possibility is congruent with ones epistemological and ontological values, then the issue turns to whether there are insights which match ones own experiences or which have some reliable consensus.  This can be a difficult search.  Do descriptions of experiences from different periods of history and different cultures really refer to the same thing?  There are those who have worked on these types of concerns, such as Ralph Hood (creator of the M-scale) and Andrew Newberg (whose work has involved connections between spiritual experiences and brain function), but such work cannot conclusively demonstrate an equivalence between what different people report.  Such a demonstration may be unattainable, yet studies by these and other researchers do point to impressive similarities between the experiences of people with beliefs and worldviews as diverse as Buddhists and Catholics.

Taking all of this into account, we can look at what the major sacred traditions have in common.  This is not to say all practitioners always agree, but that the elements we consider are accepted parts of each tradition.  That full exercise is beyond the scope of this essay, but we can narrow our focus to things which are included in descriptions of that which lies beyond words, concepts and labels.  It is not anti-intellectual but simply overwhelms the intellect.  And it corresponds to our goal of increasing our knowledge of that which lies beyond our conventional perspective.  This experience has been the fruit of those educated in the art of training their minds and who in some cases spent a lifetime cultivating and expanding their awareness, the insights of whom have been recorded in traditions going back thousands of years (some of the earliest such reports are known from ancient India).  So how did they try to describe that to which they connected?  How did it seem to them?  What was it like?

To put in shorthand, it was like being immersed in boundless compassion and the fullness of wisdom.  A sense of acceptance and wholeness that is absolute.

Does that mean that we have to assume that this is accurate?  Of course not.  But is a consistent picture painted by intelligent and sane people from many cultures over thousands of years who were devoted to an intuitive way of  gaining insight into reality.  And in particular the aspect of reality which is impenetrable to other forms of acquiring knowledge.  It is a potential window on that mysterious source of the existence.

Do you have to believe that?  Surely not.  But it does help us with our original question:  What basis is there for connecting the source of the universe and the mystical experience of love? The same capacities, including our biology, and the same goal, to seek the nature of our existence, leads us to both. 

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