Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More on the value of the absurd in belief

Post Surreal Configuration, oil on canvas, 1939
Post Surreal Configuration, oil on canvas, 1939 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Originally posted on two months ago as a comment at Real Life with Ryuei (for full context visit the link).

I am wary of any “hardwired” argument for highly complex and interactive sets of behavior given the discovery of the extensiveness of neuroplasticity and the hierarchical nature of developmental regulation. Highly reproducible and even impelled complex behavior to a limited degree within the proper genetic, hormonal, anatomical, ecological and social contexts? Perhaps. Indeed, it appears that indeed some experiences which are essential for compassion, such as empathy, are either enabled, encouraged, or generated by evolved neural architecture that allow and direct us to read the body language and vocalizations of others and mimic their projected feelings. But the hard problem of consciousness remains. Does the brain generate consciousness and its attributes or focus it in an ephemeral localized expression? For all of our metaphysical and scientific investigations, a definitive answer in analytical, reductive terms remains elusive.

Yet whatever the answer to hard problem, there is also the question of why it should be that nature would produce creatures with conscious awareness or why consciousness should exist at all. In neither case do I refer to structural or adaptive arguments about origin or persistence of a trait (“consciousness is the result of the confluence of the following neurological processes which became interconnected when…” or “consciousness has the following functions that enhance inclusive fitness…”). There are even arguments that consciousness is just a sloppy shorthand for an apparent coherence to brain function that doesn’t really exist and is instead a mirage. But I am thinking here of why consciousness, whatever it is or isn’t, should exist at all in the realm of possibility.
The problem with popular depictions of mysticism is that it is often associated with a “left-brained” literalism applied to the poetic/metaphoric nature of supernatural and religious imagery, which are intended to point to that which is beyond the capacity of the rational mind grasp except in a distorted and partial glimpse. The mystical becomes tied up with buffoonish characterizations of magical thinking and the kind of dreadful superstition born of flat imagination and a desire to control the unknown and the unknowable.

It strikes me that a more genuine and useful mysticism would, in fact, be rooted in forms of consciousness which do not limit themselves to such a piecemeal approach but facilitate what is sometimes referred to as a more unitive state. This need not be assumed to be either a superior or inferior form of awareness, but perhaps simply a different way to process information and engender perception. That is, whether deep meditation merely takes us to the root of the neural processes generating conscious awareness and our most rudimentary perceptions/distinctions/valuations or whether it is pointing to a non-localized consciousness that precedes material existence, it is still taking us to the ground of being or the root of “form” (where “form” is phenomenological prior to an ontological theory of its nature or origin).

Indeed, even if we go the neurological/materialist route, there is still the issue of why such a universe should have properties and qualities leading to living conscious beings. The irony of many debates on religion is that in any serious model of the universe the mystery and wonder of our existence as sentient beings cannot be suppressed except by distraction and ignorance, either with more trivial matters or more depressingly with trivial answers to such deep questions. The profound mysterium remains. And the common neurological, psychological and socio-cultural systems that emerge from this mystery as human evolved would still point us back to our existential dilemmas rooted in consciousness itself. The potential value of religious teachings and practices which lead to common insights and outcomes (even if through wildly different avenues) would transcend the significance of any ultimate mechanistic or causal explanations of science or theology for the origins of consciousness.

Of course, being grounded in a particular cultural-religious system one will tend to see other systems as partial or distorted or even as incompletely revealed versions of ones own system. That is why I compared the language of certain threads of contemplative Christianity discussing the universality and pre-immanence of “the Word of God”/”the Name of Christ” to your quotations and discussion of the pre-immanence of “the Lotus Sutra”/”the eternal Shakyamuni”. Each is grounded, by necessity, in a particular frame of reference, which is what then enables it to be all-inclusive. You’ve got to be looking from some perspective to be looking at all. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, prior to his more in-depth examination of Buddhism, described it as similarly incomplete or not fully refined (in “Bread in the Wilderness”, for example).

I am, unfortunately, neither a philosopher nor a theologian, and my knowledge of specific religions is very limited, so what I write is more of an amateur’s curious exploration rather than an informed thesis, so I appreciate clarifications or corrections where I go off track. That said, I do wonder if different sacred traditions reflect a kind of cypher needed to decrypt or decode the particular psycho-social and cultural-historic systems and landscapes which shape the minds of individuals in particular societies. In my personal writings I have been pondering this idea, that the absurd and the profound are intertwined because one allows the mind to go beyond the limits of normal expectation and perception to find the other. Hence the need for metaphor and poetic language and imagery to create a space (which we call the sacred) where truly novel insights and actualizations of the mind can be discovered and realized.

Or to put in simpler terms, some of the seemingly wacky and contradictory stuff has to be taken seriously (but not blindly or ignorantly) on faith in order to get past the mental barriers which keep us locked in a particular set of patterns governing how we know ourselves and our existence. And we need to look to others, like Moses, or Elijah, or Jesus, or Siddhartha, who “have gone beyond, beyond coming and going, far beyond”, who we believe have made that journey, so that we can suspend our own disbelief and our own grasping for our safe and familiar world and strike out toward that mystery. Each religion or spiritual littered with signs pointing the way, with jarring elements to shake us up and jolt us into new perspectives, and with the opinions and attitudes of people who really “got it”, those who sort of “got it”, and those who pretended to “get it” for their own ends. Each tradition a bizarre amalgamation held together by some hard to triangulate common destination but arranged in wildly different configurations at the whim of culture and history, all of them in perpetual states of degradation and renewal with some branches becoming spiritual dead ends.
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