The Perennial Philosophy Revisited
Volume 3: The Case Against Fatalistic Determinism
Chapter One: On Our Being Hoodwinked by Language Turned Against Itself
Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning, but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.
Mind and Cosmos (p. 3)
1.0 Language as ‘Metatwaddle’
In her introduction to Selected Essays by Richard Dawkins, Latha Menon (editor) speaks of Dawkins’ unique ability to seek out truth in contrast to the muddled thinking of New Age mysticism, spirituality and “the superficially more impressive ‘metatwaddle’ of postmodernism.” She adds for good measure: “[A]nd the closed, authoritarian, faith-bound beliefs of revealed religion.”1 In one particular essay – Postmodernism Disrobed2 – Dawkins attacks with characteristic verve what he detects as linguistic obscurantism, that is, postmodernism’s linguistic attempt to be “thought profound” when it is mostly a languaging-up of ideas that are not as profound as they are made out be. The term ‘postmodernism’ means nothing at all except in the restricted context of architecture, he tells us; in fact no one actually knows what the word means.
Having pursued my fair share of postmodern texts, I am in general agreement with Dawkins, although I diverge to the extent that I think it is possible to identify what drives postmodern thought in this so-called postmodern age. I say ‘so-called’, for it may well be that old-fashioned modernism, in spite of its idealistic search for intellectual clarity, lucidity and truth may yet prove to carry theoretical observations concerning body, mind, awareness, consciousness and self too quickly discarded by hardline advocates of postmodernism’s love affair with language. And it is exactly there that the problem between modernism and postmodernism arises, for the latter hasn’t much time for theory, and certainly no room for metaphysics. Due to being associated with the experimental findings and theoretical ruminations of science (an irony given Dawkins’ background), some forms of postmodernism reflect what is believed to be a similar precision in terminology, and that in spite of the language used unravelling towards absurdity. Numerous examples of this tendency are supplied by Dawkins, but one from the writings of the French psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, will suffice.
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multi-referential, multi-dimensional mechinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.3
We can ‘clearly see’ indeed, and it is not a pretty sight. Language is self-destructing even as it claims to be doing the opposite; yet it is a form of language that seems to be saying something profound. Something is going on in this collection of words which perhaps only other postmodernist thinkers can detect, decipher, or appreciate. Well, you would certainly hope so, except that that is not always the case as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont (both professors of physics at prestigious universities4) have shown in their book Intellectual Impostures, an attack on postmodernist language which outed certain French intellectuals as purveyors of intellectual gibberish. Or, as they put it in relation to Guattari, ” . . . the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered.”5 Guattari’s collaboration with Gilles Deleuze (see 7.5 para 3), a postmodernist thinker celebrated by no less a figure than Michel Foucault as ‘among the greatest of the great’, is in turn judged by Sokal and Brickmont as questionable in that it is all but impossible to tell what either Gauttari or Deleuze are actually trying to say.6 Which causes Dawkins to suggest that there is an anomaly in the whole postmodernist affair with language, namely, that it is either so profound as to be beyond one’s comprehension, or intentionally designed to “conceal an absence of honest thought.”7 There is, I think, an element of truth in both statements.
The story unfolds thus: In 1996 Professor Alan Sokel, alarmed by examples of scientific metatwaddle being peddled by fashionable French intellectuals, did the unthinkable: he submitted a hoax scientific paper to the American journal Social Text written not only in the metatwaddle style, but also riddled with scientific howlers that any competent editor ought to have detected. That did not happen. The hoax paper sailed through the journal’s editorial process in spite of “half truths”, “non-sequiturs” and “syntactically correct sentences that [had] no meaning whatsoever”, the editors apparently delighted with Sokel’s efforts.8 And the mischief didn’t stop there; Sokel at the same time published an article in Lingua Franca, another important academic journal, exposing his own hoax on the same day. As can be imagined, all hell broke loose, the editors of Social Text retaliating as best they could, their reputation in tatters, their postmodern waving of old fashioned processes of verification the principle factor in their downfall. Sokel then determined to unmask those responsible for the texts so approved of by journals such as Social Text, and in conjunction with Jean Bricmont wrote the book that caused such a furor in France. Opening a window of scrutiny on a form of thinking, and writing, that sometimes defied imagination in its contortive, misconceived complexity, they alerted both the academic community and the general public to what was going on in such circles, names such as Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray, Bruno Latour and Jean Baudrillard being the butt of their investigations. But only in relation to physics and mathematics; professors Sokel and Bricmont stayed within the confines of what they knew and understood best. Which of course raised the question as to whether the writings of these same individuals suffered from similar inadequacies in relation to other fields of inquiry.
1.1 Perambulations of the Disenchanted mind
To understand how such a situation could arise requires us to dig a little more deeply into what postmodernism is in itself, and into what modernism is by way of contrast. This difference can, I think, be summed up as a fundamental difference in how life, as a whole, is viewed. Modernism’s approach can be defined as a search for universal truths, postmodernism the belief that there are no such things. In alignment with this, some theorists divide the 20th century in two and view modernism and modernity as a culture of reforming movements whose aim was to improve life on all levels, postmodernism as a disenchantment with modernist thinking brought about by the horrors of the Second World War. True as this is, it should be noted that the disenchantment had actually set in at the end of the First World War due to the extraordinary levels of cruelty experienced on the battlefield. Faith in a rational and peaceful future had all but been disabled, modernism’s claim to be a revolutionary and progressive force questioned by the postwar generation’s new-found distrust of civilisation itself.9 Social and cultural reassessment was in the air, denial of past beliefs and hopes the basis of a new vision, the nature of language questioned and postwar art released from the straitjacket of old-fashioned values. Which is to say that tradition was either dead or dying, and that a disturbed world was being further disturbed by a rush of confronting ideas, images and patterns that challenged the mind at every turn. Truth was on the rack, authority under question, art’s past credibility shattered, religion’s historically suspect theological offerings subjected to a ruthless process of demythologisation. A new world was forming, and with it a new set of beliefs where what was ‘new’ became a truth-bearing package in itself. I am indebted to Suzi Gablik’s Has Modernism Failed (1984) for this overview.
By 1908 the Futurist manifesto of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was advocating the burning of libraries. The past was being questioned as never before, an uncertain future held up as providing a new set of answers, a new set of ‘values’ in answer to old questions. A second manifesto denied art’s past as relevant to art’s future, a perspective taken by some artists to mean that they could do, well, any old thing and call it art. Gablik describes the Dadaist and Surrealist contribution as the public being “baited with meaningless, aggressively absurd objects – white-haired revolvers, Lesbian sardines [and] vaccinated bread”,10 an accusation that could just as easily have been applied to deconstructive postmodern metatwaddle as it later evolved. Stimulated artificially, art started its journey into traditionlessness, philosophy into a new form of thinking where the French neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan assessed our sense of inner unity and stability as an illusion that should be abandoned. And as an experience, one has to suppose. Or, as suggested in the Introduction, put up with knowing all the while that one was fooling one’s self. Lacan’s statement was at least clear; he was telling us in blunt language that there was no such thing as a self, just a selfing process we naively bought into as if it were substantial. Sense of self was a convincing hoax hatched in the space between brain and world, a virtual space composed of outer-world images, interactions and memories housed in language, the notion of entering into one’s self an illusion experienced, or generated, at the interface between self and world. The already disturbed Enlightenment world had to be infiltrated, its patterns destroyed, its accumulated authoritative truths abandoned,11 its idea of ‘art’ turned inside out and upside down.
Digging deeper still we discover that hyphenated post-modernism is not the same as unhyphenated postmodernism: they are similar, but not the same. Post-modernism with a hyphen is conceived as a recalibration of modernism, postmodernism without a hyphen as a complete replacement of modernism. And to further complicate matters there are divergent views even within the main postmodernist camp. But one thing is clear: postmodernism with or without a hyphen is anti-modernist in stance; it rejects just about everything early modernism ever gleaned from the Enlightenment. It is, in other words, skeptical of modernism’s liking for objectivity, clarity and lucidity in relation to ‘truth’ statements. But even here it isn’t of one mind; some postmodernists reject ‘theory’ altogether, others believe theory should be changed into something else. What that means is obscure, but that is only to say that it is ‘postmodern’ in sound and outlook. Advocates of postmodernism reject, on the whole, notions of ‘hierarchy’ (good/bad, high/low); they prefer nonhierarchical states (and statements) that are complex, ambiguous and diverse. Modernism prefers hierarchical states (and statements) in relation to theory and analytical objectivity.
Strictly speaking, there is no identifiable theory base to postmodernism. It does not produce recognisable theories for consumption; it decenters its thoughts through a process of multicentering that pulls theoretical centrality out of each and every question. Hence the sense of obscurity in many of its statements, the sense that something is being said yet simultaneously not being said: a methodology is at work that lends an aura of profundity to statements where profundity may not exist. Indeed, where ‘meaning’ may not even exist – a fact ably demonstrated by Sokel and Bricmont. So the question must be: Apart from the ravages of war, was there any other major influence at work in the production of such a strange, disorienting approach to reality? Answer: Yes. It was also the result of important questions being asked about the nature of language and communication by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) as early as 1878. Aged 21, Saussure published a precocious paper called Note on the Primitive System of the Indo-European Vowels, and in doing so he initiated a revolution in language studies.
1.2 Ferdinand Saussure and Structuralism
The ‘new thinking’ offered by postmodern thinkers is actually old-style Saussurean ‘structuralist’ thinking developed and incorporated into the radical demythologising, deconstructive process now being applied to language and literature by modern linguistic philosophers. It should rightly be referred to as ‘post-structuralism’. Saussure’s conception of language was binary, that is, it distinguished between language as a symbolic system (la langue), and language as speech, or performance (parole). Although useful as an initial framework for linguistics, such notions soon proved to be inadequate due to their dependence on the structure and rules of language being conceived as sole determinants of meaning and value. Language was conceived by Saussure as social communication backed by ‘signs’ and ‘sounds’, the bond between these elements being simultaneously arbitrary, yet necessary, our everyday, plebeian idea of reality weighed against a sophisticated conception of reality in terms of linguistic process alone. A new form of thinking was required, a new ‘consciousness’ of our relationship to world in which language was perceived as that which constituted world and ourselves. We were significance-bestowing creatures who “moved within a significance world”12 of our own making. The uttering of sentences did not equal communication in any deep personal sense; participants in a conversation had to be acquainted with a whole language system for communication to take place: communication, in itself, was language system talking to language system. Word or sentence isolation (the illusion of conscious choice) had to be replaced with ‘structure’ as the defining force, written language perceived in terms of structure and not in terms of individually sculpted units. La langue was “a system in which all the elements fit[ted] together, and in which the value of one element depend[ed] on the simultaneous co-existence of all the others.”13
Language as ‘performance’ (parole or ‘patter’ in Saussure’s terminology) was perceived quite differently. Performance as ‘dialogue’ was classed as heterogeneous and unsystematic, unsophisticated, inexact and prone to misinterpretation, linguistic structure as the exact opposite of that. Linguistic structure was described as a well-defined entity that could be tracked by experts, language as performance as a mishmash of “words and their histories, grammar and its principles, pronunciation and its physiology” carrying no discernible unity.14 Language as surface structure was visible; linguistic structure was invisible because ‘deep’, but it could be teased into visibility by those who knew how. Linguistic structure was a “static language-state . . . a synchronic totality from which the passage of time [was] entirely excluded”.15 As such it was a system of pure values not sensed by the speaker; it was passively registered and self-generating in relation to language as its carrier. With this conceptual tool at our disposal we could skirt the many philosophical follies of Enlightenment thinking and arrive at language’s underlying field of objectivity. Language as ‘performance’, as ‘speaking’, as ‘dialogue’ (more on dialogue later) did not supply a field of objectivity; it had no unifying formal mechanism. Which is to say that language, a particular language, cannot function as an autonomous object of scientific scrutiny, merely as a junction between itself and others.
All of this sounds good except for one thing: there is no actual proof for such an underlying linguistic unity. It is conjectural. It is a bold intellectual assumption. It is a postulate on which much has been built, not a fact in the old-fashioned sense of ‘fact’. It is, as Newton Garver states in his preface to Jacques Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, “an idealised abstraction”16 in relation to language’s deep structure. Why is it so? Because without such a formal structure logical truths and logical considerations would, it is presumed, be unable to gain traction in the mind. A timeless element of mind is required for deep abstractions to form, and that timeless element has to belong to a zone within language other than that of an individual’s general consciousness. Which tells us that mind in terms of a private mental space carrying private understandings is insufficient to explain sophisticated forms of reasoning, and that we are, in essence, a sphere of deep linguistic activity, a contextual system with “No sharp dividing line . . . between understanding and response”.17 Hume may have dismissed the unity of the self as an illusion, but structuralism in its new, developed form as a radical, deconstructive demythologising process has taken Hume’s dismissal of self-unity and changed it, via thinkers such as Lacan and Derrida, into a more radical dismissal of the self. To lack ‘unity’ is one thing, to lack a ‘central core’ is quite another.
Resorting to a sometimes unnerving level of certainty that science actually strains to avoid (a point emphasised by Dawkins), and promoting the premise that we humans are no more than processing mechanisms, advocates of the ‘new thinking’ are apt to wield Occam’s razor with what can only be described as gay abandon. We are, in their estimation, linguistic mechanisms fooled by the brain into thinking that we have selfhood. There is in fact no such thing as a subjective dimension: the subjective self can never be caught in the act of existing (Hume), just the mush of processes processing in body and brain (Cupitt 1998). Mind is then not a phenomenon in its own right, it is an epiphenomenon generated by the physical brain in relation to body, world and language, sense of self a reflexive illusion, consciousness a trick of brain processing spliced into the five senses. Which tells us that old fashioned behaviourism is alive and well, and that we’re back in troubled waters. And it is this form of postmodern thinking that has caught on; it is blossoming in just about every academic nook and cranny, its emergence discernible, by degree, in the thinking of those who have broken with the Enlightenment’s optimistic notions. In breaking with these notions such thinkers have necessarily set in motion a form of thinking lacking an across-the-board coherent theoretical base, but they are in possession of a shared epistemology: post-structuralist, deconstructive postmodernism is in effect a ‘theory of knowledge’ before it is anything else, a theory based on an underlying linguistic ‘code’ within language such as has been found in genetics. My questioning of this approach is not to deny any of the above, however; it is to question the sometimes extravagant extrapolations now being made in relation to those postulated elements. As physical beings in a physical world, in a physical universe, we are obviously part and parcel of the whole shebang, problem is, we have not yet fathomed what ‘knowing’ this about ourselves means in itself. What does it mean to know something? What is knowing? What is reasoning? What is being alive?
1.3 Imagination Versus Facticity
This is an admittedly complicated area of research, but is such a dour physicalist interpretation of human sentience warranted on all levels? Is this way of perceiving human beings so set in stone that it disallows all the other things we know about human beings? I think not. To make just about everything we know about human beings subservient to this kind of reasoning is to unfairly limit you and me to a premise itself limited in scope and imagination. Imagination is not ‘reason’ by another name; it is not a form of subterranean, unconscious reasoning. It is ‘possibilities’ glimpsed by the mind when it shrugs off its tendency towards a deadening facticity. It is a momentary disengagement of the mind from mental stuff. Engagement with mental ‘stuff’ is our greatest strength, but it is simultaneously our greatest weakness in that it initiates varying degrees of self-entrancement within which the mind is blocked by stuff interacting with stuff. Imagination can certainly function in terms of an automatic linking of stuff with stuff, but that seldom results in the ‘creative leap’ which reveals the conscious self’s hidden creative capacities. Not ‘hidden’ in the sense that linguistic structure is said to be hidden, more in the sense of experientially unknown, or not properly recognised, dimensions of self-awareness arising within which creative insight replaces logical combination. Timelessness may not belong to mind in relation to language; it may belong to psyche in some yet to be defined and explored sense. Dependence on ‘theory’ may be said to have been discarded by deconstructive thinkers, but individual ‘facts’ are nevertheless being used to construct an overview of existence (an overview is apparently not a ‘theory’) pointing to everything being an adjunct of those facts which, unless I’m very much mistaken, suggests some kind of ‘hierarchy’ in spite of hierarchies having being dumped. That tells us that the overall argument presented by deconstructionism isn’t actually as well-rounded as some would like us to think: facts are one thing, how one interprets facts an altogether different exercise.
What, one has to ask, is actually going on during a creative moment? Is it just thinking intensely about something? Is that all creativity is in itself: thinking a little harder than usual? Any clever person can think hard, that’s a given, but it takes more than hard thinking to open the mind up to its dark, creative interior. This is the ‘dark hole’ I referred to in my Author’s Note, and it constitutes a dark, timeless ‘whole’ from out of which wholly original conceptions of reality can tumble. Or should that be holy conceptions of reality? In saying this I am not trying to trump mystification with further mystification, I am trying to edge my way towards the self’s vertiginous depths where psychic mush gives way to a domain or territory within which the self can perceive radically new approaches to difficult questions, and cognitively experience its own existential unity beyond the firings and misfirings of the objective mind. And that takes me back to Suzi Gablik’s provocative evaluation of modern and postmodern forms of art where, with enviable dexterity she sums up the many oddities this transition has spawned and links it into the possibility of symbols having been used for nefarious purposes. “In the complex transition from modernism into postmodernism,” she says, aiming for the heart of the matter, “a new terrain of consciousness is being occupied – one in which the limits of art seem to have been reached, and overturning conventions has become routine.”18 Anything goes, in other words. Innovation in terms of stylistic breakthroughs (Dadaism, Surrealism, for instance) is now all but impossible because the culture of the avant-garde has worked its desire to shock and challenge modernity to a standstill. Which raises the question of what we gained from the exercise, and what we have lost. Did we emerge from that hugely experimental period enriched, or impoverished in spite of its obvious riches? Did modernism go too far in its frenzy to dismantle past meanings, and if so, is postmodernism’s attempt at some ultimate freedom of expression a descent into meaninglessness? These are Gablik’s questions, and they are good questions. Then comes a glimmer of hope laced with uncertainty:
“Is Neo-impressionism a true renaissance of sacramental vision, an attempt to reconstitute a world of archetypal symbols forgotten by our society and to bring back to light their meanings? Or is it just another demythologising tactic of postmodernism, one more form of eclectic pastische, that merely recycles old metataphysically picturesque images into yet another new salable genre?”19
A moot point. Some critics see Neo-impressionism as ‘market-oriented’, others as a reinstating of the imagination “after the dry, hard-edged cerebralism of Conceptual art and the bankruptcy of late-modernist abstraction.”20 A reinstating of the imagination? Gablik explains: “[Are] these artists. . . acting on whim, or out of stylistic necessity, or from a belief that art can have real mystical value again.”21 Real mystical value? What is this celebrated writer on art trying to say? Could she possibly be referring to art that has ‘depth’ (visionary quality) instead of ‘lack of depth’ (the late modernist and postmodernist preference for surface) as a necessary feature? Was there, even as early as the mid-eighties when Gablik’s book was published, a struggle going on to regain something of what had been lost in art due to the influence of Conceptual and Minimalist thinking? Modernist secularism had got the ball rolling, but postmodern secularism had put it into the air and worked to keep it there. Which introduces the question of ‘transcendence’, the question of whether there is a transcendent ‘realm’ as Kant believed, or whether absolutely everything is ultimately defined by our voracious and sometimes vicious egos. Is our present interpretation of reality no more than an excuse to plunder it? Are the symbols passed down to us from past ages no more than an interesting source of advertising fodder? Have the whims of self-indulgent emotion replaced the evaluative sensitivity of affective, creative descent? What nonsense I can hear some say. Keep affective experience out of the conversation. Feeling, or emotion, has nothing whatsoever to do with avant-garde conceptions in art: these were purely intellectual in that they were consciously conceived to upset the Enlightenment’s stifling hold on artistic forms. The whole idea of the artist descending into him or herself is romantic fiddle-faddle. Symbols belong to the conscious mind in relation to culture and locale, not to some nebulous, imagined strata of the self. Wittgenstein was not so sure: in his scheme of thought the result of being unwilling to descend into oneself rendered one superficial in the sense of being unable to resist the temptation to misunderstand what one ought to be able to understand.
The physicist and philosopher Bernard d’Espagnat picks up on the subtle difference between emotion and feeling in Physics and Philosophy (2006) by drawing our attention to pairs of epithets such as ‘audacious’ and ‘rash’, ‘patriotic’ and ‘chauvinistic’, ‘wary’ and ‘timorous’, word-pairs carrying the same apparent meaning, yet endowed with “affective colouration that is positive as regards the first ones and negative as regards the second.”22 Not so with terms such as ‘affective’ or ’emotional’, however; these words are generally used interchangeably and in a pejorative sense. Affective experience also has a negative and a positive pole, however, and this fact is being ignored. But there’s a problem, for according to d’Espagnat we lack the language to properly describe the difference between these modes of experience. Well, not quite. The affective ‘colouration’ of consciousness includes emotion, but affective colouration is not the same thing as, say, a raw emotional state. Raw emotional states are by nature reactive and afford little that is creative beyond knowing that we are, or were, out of control. That’s d’Espagnat’s negative pole. His positive pole, I would contend, is where emotion is ‘evaluative’ rather than ‘reactive’, where delicacy of feeling allows one to consciously balance oneself on the mind’s dark creative edge. Which is to suggest that delicacy of feeling, or, if you care, ‘subtlety of awareness’, helps control the ego’s tendency to drift towards combinatory ordinariness and/or rationalistic excess. An almost breathless waiting is involved during moments of genuine creativity, a meditative waiting where rational, information-based thinking is swapped for a state of empty attention. A vibrating form of attention. Suspended over the abyss of the self, which is a form of descent, the creative person hangs entranced, not by ‘stuff’, but by a momentary absence of stuff and the rising of an almost tangible inner silence – a silence from out of which rational thought again blossoms. This is not ‘non-verbal’ thinking’, it is mental silence allowing the mind the opportunity to avoid stereotypical thinking and follow silence into unexpected tracks of possibility beyond notions of truth and falsity. There is, suddenly, the possibility of mind exchanging well-worn avenues of thought for teasingly original approaches to reality. I’m sure this is what Bernard d’Espagnat is sensing when he says “concerning Being, affective consciousness sometimes provides us with genuine elements of information – which are not obtainable from other sources”. Aware however that his claim of affectively gained information is problematical, he adds:
Where may we hope to come across such elements? I, for one, have three domains in mind: mysticism, poetry and music (without barring other arts). To speak of mysticism would only be possible on the basis of an experience but very few people have. Moreover, having it would hardly be of any help since all mystics assert their actual experience is ineffable. Then comes an interesting question: Does meditation yield some glimpses? Maybe. Fortunately, concerning poetry and music the situation is much better. In such fields even average people may have their views. Thus, Alquie maintained that, viewed under this light, poetry is in no way metaphorical; that it does yield genuine information. ‘Poetry’, he wrote, ‘is meant to be a seizure of Being: if this it is not, it is but the most idle of games.’ Optimistically, I tend to speculate that he is right.
A seizure of Being? Mysticism, poetry and music as domains? Meditation as a means to tap into these domains? In relation to Kant’s notion of reality being forever ‘veiled’, d’Espagnat adds.
“. . . as Kant’s thesis suggests, our understanding locks us up, top level poetry as well as top level music cut a tiny window that looks on to – indeed! – ‘the Real’. True, what we perceive through this window shows no contours. But in the realm of Being normality goes this way.”23
In the realm of Being normality goes this way? Meaning what? Meaning that what we perceive through this window cannot be ‘known’ in the normal sense of knowing (the perceived has no ‘contours’ – cognitive hooks?), but that it is nevertheless ‘intelligible’ in terms of the curious normality the realm of Being exposes us to. Again, meaning what? That something is known yet not known? No, it can’t mean that. What we’re talking about here either makes sense, or it has to be discarded as nonsense. In a final act of clarification d’Espagnat admits that although the images he has presented are neither scientific nor philosophical, they are not implausible conjectures. There may be some deep connection between mind and the experiential memory of Being prior to the split of mind from Being. So is this French physicist on to something? I think he is, and I think it has to do with ‘timelessness’ (intense states of inner silence) as an experience. In such moments the ego goes missing; it goes off-line, so to speak. That’s all. Ego consciousness automatically differentiates between one thing and another – our egos are functionally conjectural and can’t stop being so. We automatically ask Why? Find the means to take the ego out of the scene, however, and everything changes. Suddenly, delightfully, mind has no conjectural hooks; it has no Why? It has been freed from the need to differentiate and has experiential, affective access to the larger dimension of the self in terms of a silence that annuls our deep sense of before and after. The ‘self’ is more than ego and personality in some convoluted relationship to language and world; it is also ‘self-consciousness’, and self-consciousness is something we have not yet fathomed in relation to Being, to a Being ‘dimension’ experienced beyond that of our being in the world.
Philosophers will argue that ‘Being’ is a concept, or abstraction, not a dimension of the self that can be experienced. Being is ‘ontological’, they will say; it is the study of the nature of our existing. True, but as such it carries a curious, ultimate sense of our existing, a sense of hereness beyond the confines of physicality that ordinary mind, ego or personality cannot realise. We can however sense our way into our ontological hereness by way of a more expansive form of awareness – an awareness of the self’s essentially timeless nature. Ego-centered consciousness is an expression of world that allows us to manipulate the world, and each other, but it also amputates us from experiencing our essential nature. The timeless immediacy of our essential nature links us beyond ‘world’ to ‘cosmos’, for in essence that is what we are, we are cosmic beings carrying an ‘entrance point’ to fundamental reality – the reality of which we are an intrinsic part. Pure being is then more than an area of study; it is also a realisable condition of mind, a condition of pure attention that harks back to not only an earlier stage in our evolution, but also to our cosmic origins. And that, in a nut shell, is what art and meditation are at their best; they are, by degree, tried and tested routes back into a state of mind beyond acts of differentiation which allow highly unusual, highly original and intelligible experiences allied to Being and Cosmos to erupt. Time, stops; we are released. The difference, of course, is that these undifferentiated levels of awareness are now surfacing in a mind that has already emerged from the silence of Being into language. But not to the extent of being forever locked in language. Language, as a state of mind, cannot be consciously shrugged off, but it can be sidestepped when mind disengages from its surface needs and regains entrance to its fundamental emptiness. Not the nihilistic emptiness mooted by postmodern philosophers, the ‘unhooked’, mode-neutral emptiness (Albahari 2009), enjoyed by those who have learned to negotiate the spectrum of awareness levels available to mind. Problem is, the ego has to learn how to let go of ‘time’ for this to happen.
At an intense, concentrated level of affective experience, Being constitutes a domain, or dimension of experience enterable by way of art, and by way of meditative and contemplative skill. Albert Einstein referred to this curious state as ‘third-level religious experience’, that is, religious experience centered neither on fear nor morals (religiously defined morals), nor on some humanlike conception of God, but on a recognition of the sublime nature of things.24 Not ‘sublime’ in the sense of aesthetic appreciation, or pleasure, but in the sense of glimpsing what Kant may have glimpsed when he refers to the sublime as “a tension towards what radically lies beyond sense data.”25 I like that. It is a statement identified by d’Espagnat as suggesting that Kant may have experienced more than he was willing to admit: a creative tension allied not to intention (thinking about), but to a state of thought-empty being, or pure attention. To experience Being is then not to know Being objectively, it is to enter into communion with Being, into relationship with Being, into being able to be. Being able to be is a gift some individuals are born with, or one they develop out of the circumstances of their lives, but it can also be a state of mind nurtured into existence through an intentional disengaging of the mind from the stuff mind is generally concerned with. It is then a discipline of mind which art encourages and regular meditative practice can change into a skill – a skill available to all human beings no matter their level of differentiating intelligence. Not for nothing is the final chapter of Bernard d’Espagnat’s book titled The Ground of Things. Quoting Albert Einstein yet again, he offers us an interesting perspective on life and living: the possibility of living “the whole of what is” in terms of unity and meaning.
1.4 The Parameters of Doubt and Certainty
In its Faustian desire to tie everything down in physical terms, earlier-century forms of science made much the same mistake as its postmodern counterparts: human beings were just a plumbing system with an electrical system on top, the universe a species of machine, the whole of human existence comprehensible in these utilitarian terms. Useful as this approach was, it was at the same time a simplistic view requiring considerable expansion and refinement as modern physics has shown. Which tells us that there are two science-based approaches to modern questions, not one, and that one of those approaches is based on types of explanation predisposed in the direction of scientific minimalism. Problem is, scientific minimalism is not science proper; it is shortcut scientific thinking, and it leads inevitably to truncated, too-quickly arrived at judgments that do human beings an injustice. (The two quotes prefacing this book concerning neuroscience’s recent corrections to earlier statements in relation to human volition is a case in point.)
But is scientific minimalism what Latha Menon is referring to when she speaks of ‘postmodern metatwaddle’? Actually, no. She’s referring specifically to the language of postmodernism at its most obtuse, at its tendency to drift towards a form of language where language retreats from meaning even as it attempts to lay meanings bare, and spare. This is not scientific minimalism; it is, as Dawkins rightly observes, stylistic obscurantism. Metatwaddle is a case unto itself; it is language all but devoid of sense; it is language rendered all but insensible even when sensible through a process of linguistic gymnastics that disable even its best intentions. And so postmodern thought has got a bad name, and not without reason. It is a given that language cannot always be simple, it would be absurd to expect such a phenomenon, but language need not be reduced to a form of linguistic gobblygook to be recognised as profound. Dawkins’ evaluation of language used in this way is straightforward: “Scientists,” he writes, “tend to take a robust view of truth and are impatient of philosophical equivocation over its reality or importance.” Then comes a particularly salient point: “Truths about everyday life are just as much – or as little – open to philosophical doubt as scientific truths. Let us shun double standards.”26 This tells us that philosophy is in exactly the same position as science when it comes to the detection of truth: ‘doubt’, not ‘certainty’, is the operative condition of mind required. There is no law of nature that says boundaries have to be clear-cut.27 (my italics) There are of course fundamental truths, fundamental facts of our existence that cannot be ignored. How we interpret those facts in relation to what we are, to what is, is however another story. Advocating ‘doubt’ instead of ‘certainty’ may sound like a postmodern judgment, but it is not. Reductive ‘certainty’ has infected postmodern evaluations of self, other and world to an alarming degree in spite of claims to the contrary, and as such constitutes the ‘double standard’ alluded to by Richard Dawkins.
Some postmodern, post-structuralist philosophers do seem to be following Dawkins’ rule, albeit it in an unusual and sometimes infuriating fashion. They avoid the kind of obvious linguistic metatwaddle referred to by Latha Menon, but resort instead to an opaque, poetic form of language where meaning teeters on the edge of being unveiled, but never fully shows its face. There is something there, but one is not quite sure what that ‘something’ is. And not in the sense of this something being too difficult to take in, more in the sense of our being intentionally led away from too clear an exposition of what is being expressed. Which is perhaps what Dawkins means by intentional deception: a conscious walking away from being too explicit. Language should apparently be ‘performative’ rather than ‘analytical’ (a contradiction in relation to Saussure’s notion of dialogue, or parole, as useless patter), a factor embodying something of Nietzsche’s notion that philosophy need not be wholly consistent to be useful. In this sense analytical certainty is conceived as a modernist myth where ‘consistency’ equals subservience to a range of Enlightenment ideas embedded in highly suspect cultural and political factors. But is this actually poetry? Is poetry in this sense the work of poets, or is it the work of ultra-clever word-smiths? Poets, real poets, are not ‘word-smiths’, and that in spite of their being word savvy; they are those among us who intuitively (vibratingly) tease language beyond its conceptual limitations by what could be termed unusual means. Real poets are not after an ultimate condensing of language towards a hidden philosophical precision, they are teasing open d’Espagnat’s ‘little window’ into reality through a refusal to be hidebound by language. No matter how hard one tries, ‘Being’ cannot be enticed to ‘open up’ for scrutiny via poeticised language, merely driven further into linguistic obscurity. Being opens up to beings through silence, stillness and emptiness, a tripartite state where each part experientially supports the other, and where no one part can properly function without the other. What one senses in real poetry, in real creativity, is a tripartite timelessnes, a mode-neutral condition of consciousness alluded to in Advaita Vedanta teaching as witness-consciousness.
1.5 Reductionism and Secular Mysticism
Statements of clarity to do with self, mind, consciousness and world are, on the whole, perceived by post-structuralist thinkers as doing an intellectual disservice to the complex of neuronal and linguistic facts underlying each. As with language where there is said to be a hidden, linguistic code in operation, so also with our mental life: mind, too, is conceived as a coded phenomenon beyond personal detection in relation to language. We are, in essence, a walking, talking, thinking system of codes and naught else. That to me is a curious piece of reasoning: it is the ‘self-emptying’ process generally associated with spiritual disciplines reinterpreted in a nihilistic fashion. It is no longer a loosening of the limited ego-self’s constantly engaged state of mind (the basis of meditational and contemplative experience in every major religious tradition); it is a denial of that self having any dimension of meaning other than the one generated via language and language’s significance-imbuing skills. Doubt, in Dawkins’ sense of avoiding premature boundaries of thought has been torpedoed by predetermined conclusions about self, other and world based on too quick, to slick an evaluation of information supplied by the sciences rather than by the senses. Slick? In the sense of it being an interpretation of what we are in our innermost being rendered flat and lifeless through a flat and lifeless form of linguistic reasoning bereft of inner being as a corrective.
The cognitive philosopher Bruce Mangan buys into this problem when he describes fellow philosopher Stephen Katz’s evaluation of mystical experience (funny how ‘mysticism’ keeps cropping up) as “applying the most standard, narrow and lifeless forms of analytic/linguistic philosophy to mystic utterances.”28 For Mangan, ‘experience’ is primary, not language: mystical experience (a state of ego-transcendence) isn’t “religious experience . . . couched in the locally available symbolic vocabulary” as Katz claims; it is ‘evocative’ rather than ‘descriptive’, and in being such is not subject to the formative and constructive processes of language and culture. Mystical experience does not have to be recognisably propositional to be meaningful: self and world are more than language events, they are cognitions on a level of awareness not yet fully understood, but self-evidently operative in some individuals. Interestingly, Mangan is a supporter of Robert Forman’s penetrative studies in mysticism at Columbia University (1994), and Forman speaks of “unhitching the experience-cart from the language-horse.” Mystical experiences aren’t consciously ‘built’ or ‘constructed’, he argues, they are an un-constructing of language and belief, an overt decontextualisation of experience. Mangan straddles alternative positions in his evaluation of mysticism, but when all is said and done he obeys Dawkins’ injunction to avoid premature boundaries.
Iris Murdoch is of similar persuasion when writing about the demythologising process linguistic philosophy is now engaged in on a wide front. This is ‘structuralism’ in its new guise as ‘deconstructivism’, she tells us. “It seems like traditional metaphysics, a search for hidden a priori determining forms, constituting an ultimate reality,” but it isn’t that at all. It’s more “a matrix of linguistic (meaning-bearing) codes which are not the production of individuals, [but] which constitute the reality to which in the past [individuals] seemed to point.”29 That’s pretty clear, I think. It accurately sums up the core of the ‘new thinking’ by detecting the shift in emphasis from human being to process. It is ‘fashionable’ minimalist thinking ruling the intellectual roost; it is not some species of Gospel truth that cannot be argued with.
The philosopher and religious reformer Don Cupitt avoids mystification on all levels; well, almost. He is completely up front with what he thinks is going on in our lives, and in Mysticism after Modernity (1998) he spells out his thoughts with admirable clarity. As a self-confessed postmodernist, he contends that it is language-all-the-way-down in the sense of language, as it is generally understood, being all there is. To ‘know’ something, anything, is for Cupitt to coat the thing known in syntax, grammar and analysis, which tells us that everything known is secondary, not primary. Linguistic knowing in this basic, utilitarian sense, is what underpin all acts of understanding. There is no mystical depth-dimension to language, or to human existence, beyond depth of ideas conjured into existence through the rational manipulation of language: wordless ‘knowing’ in terms of mystical experience is not a tenable notion. Knowing is language. Cognitive recognition is language. The material world is a construct on the outer surface of language, mind a construct on the inner surface of language.30 Even language is a construct. There is no rock-solid starting point, no foundational point, no primary substance, no absolute in the sense of something existing prior to everything else, no beginning and no end.31 We have to embrace a “free-floating relativism”32 and accept the end of metaphysical speculation around the question of Being. Postmodernist philosophy puts “language before experience, Culture before Nature, and the public realm before the private.”33 If we want to read St John of the Cross, we should read him in the same way as we read Dante’s Divine Comedy.34 Language should be seen as the new supernatural, the surfing of language as the new mysticism.35 Why so? Because language also constitutes the space within which words intermingle.36 This is the subjective realm we consciously and unconsciously inhabit, the invisible linguistic world, or ‘space’, we mistake for the ‘mind’ and without which our notion of hereness would be an unknown factor. Without language we could not perceive the world in which we exist, the world of named things which speaks back to us through the medium of words. We do not actually see ‘things’ when we look; we see words without realising that that is the case. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
A new supernatural mysticism indeed, and one carrying the same scrambled capacity to bamboozle as its religious predecessor in spite of harbouring many undeniable truths. Yes, words get in the way, but that does not mean there are only words, that reality is only words, that our loved ones are only names before they are anything else. That is an extrapolation gone too far; it is a reverberation of Iris Murdoch’s impersonal world-rhythm. The use of ‘supernatural’ in relation to ‘mysticism’ is a serious mistake: Cupitt, brilliant as he is, has seemingly not fathomed the difference between the ‘mystical’ and the ‘supernatural’. He is however in very good company. Philosophy and theology’s myopia in this area is a problem seemingly beyond penetration for both parties.
1.6 On Being Able to Be
The feeling of being a particular kind of organism or agent is sometimes present over and above the feeling of having sensory experiences, it’s just that we are not consciously aware of the difference between these overlapping states and fail to recognise the transition. Some kind of effort is required to lift us out of the one and into the other beyond chance encounter, and that effort is dependent on our waking up out of constantly engaged thinking and doing to the extent that we recognise our plight and act on it. But we have to notice our plight. To have meaning, effective self-meaning, the difference between being in existence and having sensory experiences has to consciously register on us. We have to notice the change in rhythm, the change in focus, the subtle change in perception that takes place as we cognitively come back to ourselves and immediately dive back into an engaged frame of mind. If we fail to detect this moment of emergence, this interstices point in our being here, or in our not having been here, then we will fail to understand the question of being that Being poses, the question we embody, the question that transcends mind and body yet reveals itself through mind and body. This is the interpretation I prefer to place on the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s insightful term ‘the call of conscience’, and in this sense it may constitute the sense of existential unease, or anxiety, most of us attempt to ignore throughout our lives: the beckoning of Being present in each engagement-laden moment.
Or are such moments no more than the brain-generated epiphenomenal mind folding back on itself, a secondary form of awareness (reflexive awareness) due to the nature of perception and the nature of language as Don Cupitt contends? Is it language doing a back flip? Or is it an altogether different form of awareness where, as the cognitive psychologist Benny Shanon argues in “A Psychological Theory of Consciousness”, cognitive-mentations [our sense of being in existence] displaces meta-mentations [thinking and talking], so allowing us to experience ourselves as a living organism.38 Not just as an organism; as a living organism. Question is, how near to being a living organism can we get? Isn’t there an immediate cut-off point where sense of self is always secondary and never primary, an endless ‘becoming’ to use Cupitt’s terminology? Shanon does not agree with this conclusion, for him there is an intrinsic difference between the feeling of being a particular kind of organism or agent, and the feeling of having sensory experiences. To confuse such feelings is, for Shanon, to confuse the quality of being with the quality of sensory experiences had by beings.
I’m in agreement with Shanon; they are not the same thing at all. The meanings arising from them are altogether different in quality and significance. Intercepting ourselves as living beings is to register, to one degree or another, a sense of our existence beyond the constrictive tendencies of selfconsciousness and the objectifying tendencies of the engaged mind. Such intimations are not secondary, they are primary, they are immediate and they are real. Our normal, everyday registration of self, other or world is however a constant falling back into mental engagement that inadvertently shields us from detecting this underlying shift, or focus in attention. Which brings us again to the knotty (naughty?) question of non-verbal experience in relation to meaning, for it is there in the interface between being conscious as it is generally understood (being conscious of in the sense of being mentally engaged) and being conscious as (our sense of being in existence as a living being) that we stumble into another set of questions, questions often too quickly dispensed with.
To be conscious as is not a concept in operation; it is not a secondhand interpretation of our existence. It is an experience in operation that does not immediately reference back on itself reflexively as language. It is, in other words, non-verbal to the extent that it is not embedded in grammatical, syntactical or epistemological concerns. It is an existential form of knowing over and above theoretical knowing which, for Shanon, constitutes a cognitive domain allied to meaning in terms of one’s existence. Not self-consciously registered (it has nothing to do with the Cartesian ego identifying with itself), more an expansion of awareness carrying, as William James seems to suggest in ‘A Suggestion about Mysticism’ (1910), the possibility of infinite extension.39 In The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1957), Cassirer suggests that “all meaning is in someway ultimately grounded in being“, a suggestion which, to my way of thinking, is a self-evident truth capable of including self-meaning as an experience in itself. For just as the question posed by Being is not a question as generally understood, so also is the knowing of Being a knowing altogether different from how knowing is generally conceived. There is a form of fundamental knowing that is purely perceptual, a registration of our existence that can on occasions take our linguistic breath away, a being able to be of which I’m sure Bernard d’Espagnat has some inkling. Why else refer to the realm of Being as a ‘normality’ that goes this way. Which way? The way of having ‘no contours’ (linguistic hooks), a way that nevertheless provides an experience that informs. Informs? In the sense that it changes one’s attitude, one’s approach to absolutely everything.
To this extent we are not empty existential sites where stuff registers on stuff and that’s the end of the matter; we are an integrated system of changing awareness levels with an inbuilt capacity to realise our way out of engaged forms of awareness and into ever greater cognitive immediacy. Cognitive immediacy is what underpins high-order creativity as Kant was well aware, and cognitive immediacy is a level of awareness, or attention, that can be roused into revealing itself through sustained acts of attention post our noticing the gap in attention. There is a ‘gap’ in attention not generally detected by the engaged, or momentarily disengaged, mind, a gap we gestalt our way across in our effort to sustain the illusion of self-continuity. Yes, self-continuity is an illusion (any Buddhist will tell you that), but it is an illusion that can be exchanged for something beyond moments of subjective self-involvement. Cognitive immediacy has progressive levels of awareness belonging to itself, that is, to sense of existence as back- grounding medium brought to the fore through consciously sustained acts of attention. Sense of existence stumbled into cognitively is then our greatest creative act. Why? Because it is the introduction of a whole other level of awareness, an undetected cognitive domain that helps complete our experience of being in the world.
In saying all this I am not arguing, as I think I’ve made clear, for a substantive self in the sense of some hidden entity existing independent of body and world; I am suggesting that being in the world generates more than a self-reflecting capacity of mind mistaken for a substantive self. There is an unrecognised level of cognitive awareness beyond thought and reflective thought (they are not the same thing) that certain types of questions and experiences cause to stir, an ever-deepening sense of self, other and world possible in relation to presence, or hereness, aligned with acts of pure attention. Hereness, as an experience, need not only be self-conscious; it can also herald the approach of something deeply disconcerting, namely, a sense of one’s existence beyond selfconsciousness misinterpreted by postmodern physicalists as information feedback. Selfconsciousness certainly constitutes part of daily experience, but selfconsciousness is not always selfconsciousness in this pedestrian sense. When dealing with people we do not, on the whole, perceive ourselves to be speaking to self-reflecting linguistic mirrors, or to be interacting with empty existential sites. We do not leave their presence without excusing ourselves for that very reason. We are in the presence of a presence and become, inadvertently, a presence to ourselves whether we like the experience or not. And we may not like the experience; it may threaten us in some difficult-to-define sense beyond selfconscious unease. Or we may find ourselves in the presence of a person who functions like an empty existential site, or find ourselves functioning in a similar manner; that is, as an alienated being. Or, more precisely, as a being alienated from sense of Being. There are degrees of self-awareness, degrees of response, degrees of being here to self or other, and such moments can, on occasions, blossom out into unexpected experiences of nearness, moments of intimacy where self, other and world seem to coalesce. In such instances lies a vital clue as to our capacity for truth, and much else.
The question of Being is then not a question we pose; it is a question posed by Being itself, an experiential question carrying implications of import in relation to our being in the world, and what that might mean. Thinking creatures we may be, but it is a thinking predicated on a fundamental question constituting the very nature of what it means to be alive, and that question opens out into an even more demanding territory of self-interrogation where our belonging to being prior to the emergence of language takes on greater urgency in relation to what forgetting means in this context. The ‘forgetting of Being’ is more than Western philosophy treating the question of Being as unimportant, or incomprehensible, or the remembering of Being being merely an ontological intuiting of being in terms of some ultimate category of understanding. It is, I would contend, our estrangement, our alienation from ourselves as beings capable of more fully registering our prior belonging to being as a homecoming. Any such homecoming is now post the advent of language and difficult to actuate, but that need not constitute, as we shall see later, the kind of cognitive barrier language has inadvertently become. We are not entirely presentless. There is a way out of the intellectual dilemma we have created for ourselves, but it will take imaginative daring to fathom the route. When all is said and done, however, Richard Dawkin’s assessment of deterministic metatwaddle and the human condition is as good a starting point as any. Referring to the bogey of ‘genetic determinism’, he makes this pertinent observation:
There is an important distinction between a blueprint and a recipe. A blueprint is a detailed, point-for-point specification of some end product like a house or a car. One diagnostic feature of a blueprint is that it is reversible. Give an engineer a car and he can reconstruct its blueprint. But offer to a chef a rival’s piece de resistance to taste and he will fail to reconstruct the recipe. There is one-to-one mapping between components of a blueprint and components of the end product. . . There is no such one-to-one mapping in the case of a recipe. You can’t isolate a particular blob of soufflé and seek one word of the recipe that ‘determines’ that blob. All the words of the recipe, taken together with all the ingredients, combine to form the whole souffle.40