Crossing the Mystical River: Part 1

I’ve been trying to think how to describe my philosophical position. Changing so deeply in such a short time, I suppose I am actually trying to decide my philosophical position. The vague yet monumental vista of a divine universe, in which my human life was inherently meaningful and redemption its natural end, collapsed.

It is so important to transcend duality, though, in understanding these things, or anything: we should try not to think in black and white or, if that is impossible, remember that we think in black and white. The great redemptive hope was not simply my belief, solid and unchanging, but something I saw a certain amount of sense in, yet sometimes doubted. Now, it is not a false view that I have rejected, but a theory that I strongly suspect is false. Similarly, I need to keep taking on that worldview again, doubting its negation, in order to check my reasoning and my intuitive feelings or imagination (call it what you will): the alternative is to be closed-minded.

But what is it I’m trying to work out? The word ‘mystical’ keeps coming to me, dragging a set of curious associations. I described myself on a forum yesterday as a ‘recovering mystic’, but this morning awoke to a train of thought that it would have been easy to label as a mystical observation, at least in the absence of a dictionary and before my first cup of coffee.

It was interesting but not immediately productive for me to look up ‘mysticism’ at Wikipedia just now. Firstly it reminded me how much I like to write and how little I have read. It scared me a bit to remember just how complicated philosophy is, and that somewhere out there are REAL philosophers (sic joke?) who could actually tell you what Kant or Heidegger or Plato said and how the different systems all fit together, or don’t.

Then I thought about it differently. There are several advantages to not having read what everyone else said about a subject. I knew this even as a youngster, and have had an ambivalent attitude to learning ever since. It is a great treasure, personal discovery, whether phenomenal or philosophical, and occupies a large part of childhood learning. It is in the nature of things, however, that if we gain knowledge of something first symbolically – being taught it in a classroom, for instance – it has the effect of biasing the field of our imagination thereafter, sometimes so strongly that we cannot think anything to the contrary.

I perhaps became a little too cautious, and am now trying to catch up with my education, but nevertheless I do feel that I have gained something quite important from my intuitive decision – long before I dropped out of college – to avoid specialising too much, to keep daydreaming, using my imagination and working things out myself. I wanted to take every theory that came my way with a pinch of salt – not fill my field of view with it, but store it on a shelf, as it were, to take down and ponder, compare and contrast with others.

But that is an impossible ideal. It could be thought that science biased my mind and then I found mysticism made more sense. It could be thought that I held on to mysticism mostly through my adult life and now I am overcoming that bias. Yes, I think that may be it: where my central beliefs about life and death were concerned, I failed to keep a democratic mental library, with the competing philosophies stored as resources, but felt compelled to pin the charts to my staff (“…of comfort still…”), and wave them at other people like flags.

Just coping with life demands a religion. My childhood religion, transmitted down echoing corridors full of the incense of blackboard chalk, glowed and buzzed with little particles, orbiting in electric dervish dances, the great wild-haired guru Einstein smiling down from the cloister wall. To the Old God we paid lip service on Monday mornings to avoid offence to His doddering ministers, but we knew that everything was made of bits, and we had a pretty good idea how those bits spontaneously became pieces, and those pieces replicated because they could, and, a long way up the chain of self-organising patterns of material objects, here we were, humans, inventing God in our own image.

I began to read about yoga at some point, I forget when and it’s not important enough to check my diary – we’re talking mid ’70s, I’d guess. My mother took up Hatha Yoga, a relatively new fad in Britain, with virtually no thought of its mystical dimensions, and, having found great health benefits from it, decided to train to be a teacher with the British Wheel of Yoga, which required her reading more theoretical works, and I picked up Ernest Wood’s book, simply called Yoga, among others, and began reading about a different world from the one I was still learning about at school, a world involving direct perception of Reality (it took capital letter) through meditation and purification. With practice, this direct perception or ‘insight’ would reveal to the adept yogi such strange ‘truths’ as different spiritual dimensions, personal acquisition of supernatural powers, the reality of reincarnation and a state of being in communion with God and/or liberated from suffering, etc.

To describe this condition precisely, it was pointed out clearly, was impossible, since it involved subjective experience – it was the nature of subjective experience itself. Reality was to be found in that empty space where words and thoughts have stopped. Words and thoughts were ephemera, ripples on the surface of Reality that distract us from Reality. Furthermore, the external objects we took for granted, I read, were also, in a sense, illusions: the whole conceptual world was an illusion, called in Sanskrit, maya. It is not to say that there was nothing there at all, only that what existed was in truth One (again with the capitals), sort of projected by ‘our’ deluded ‘human’ minds.

The single quotes above are to indicate an immediate objection that arises: if all is One and no object is really itself, who is having a delusion? This is, of course, a paradox, and what a useful word ‘paradox’ is! ‘Paradox’ allows questions to be left unanswered, yet with the subtle implication (at least in mystical circles) that they have somehow been dealt with. As Douglas R. Hofstadter says of the word, mu, allegedly used by Zen masters in response to paradoxical questions, ‘Now there’s a paradox!’ has the magical ability to unask the question. This is, of course, a serious concern about mystical systems and religions, but hey, what can I do about it? Paradoxes arise.

Lest anyone think that that’s an end to the matter and rationalism wins, it should be noted that paradox arises pretty well everywhere. Physics and mathematics are riddled with paradox: all matter and space and time exploding out of a singularity (‘nowhen’) is perhaps vastly more paradoxical than the real you being an unreality suffering from a delusion! In mathematics, in the simplest mathematics of counting, it is not long before we consider zero or infinity, and those concepts involve all sorts of paradoxes. Then there’s the question of what a number is: we can count objects and it seems we’re doing something physical concerning the real world, but no-one has ever seen ‘five’ alone, only five somethings.

The kind of worldview we might feel more comfortable with, where solid, three-dimensional objects inhabit three dimensions of space and float predictably along in one dimension of time, the one I grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s, actually seems quite untenable. At least, science must store what seems like an increasing number of puzzles on library shelves to solve later, since it does not allow the unasking of paradoxical questions, but must clear them up one way or another. My sense of it – admittedly as a layman – is that the cosmologists and nuclear scientists are scribbling equations, doing experiments to test their theories, scribbling some more (as they have always done), but not actually getting any nearer to offering an explanation of the world that would satisfy the original intention. Science developed to see if we could find out what the reality of the world actually was, if not the plaything of some self-explanatory deity. Its answers have always been in terms of new questions and still are so. Scientists seem to avoid the idea of reality, go the other way and pontificate about being engaged in discovering the Mind of God, or bite your head off if you point this out.

At the base of all this rationalism, on which science is founded, is the simple set of ideas we call logic, and one of the simplest of those is the dualism of true-false, or yes-no, proven-disproven. While things are not proven, they may inhabit the reaches of scientific thought, but are awaiting clarification, and their clarification depends on the binary resolution of other questions. We will know whether the moon is made of green cheese (yes-no) when we’ve brought some back and spread it on a cracker. Until something is proven or disproven we have only theories – usually, a number of competing theories – and can’t say which is true.

Of course, mature scientists who haven’t gone completely insane do acknowledge that the quest hasn’t quite led where it was supposed to, that they are as far from discovering the mind of god (which one would intuitively understand as revealing the meaning of the universe, as opposed to its constitution) as they ever were, or will say that science never should be thought of in those ‘human’ terms (‘meaning’ is a human judgement, an invented concept, which may not be part of the real universe). Yet here another central problem arises: if investigating nature is not meant to reveal its meaning, then what is it meant to do? We might add, why do scientists get so upset when people say they do know what the meaning is, if that’s not their bag anyway?

The answer to the first of these is something like this: science is describing observable phenomena in terms that allow the reliable prediction of other observable phenomena. Another way to put it is that it explains effects by discovering their true causes (a powerful thing), but can only trace this chain of causality back so far; it has not discovered, and perhaps cannot discover, any ‘first cause’ (and if we say that our universe began with the Big Bang, any fool can see that that is not a first cause, and ask the simple question, “What caused the Big Bang?”). Some scientists, I feel confident, would say that the idea of a first cause is nonsensical or not the remit of science, but I cannot help thinking that just supposing it were possible to explain EVERYTHING to people perfectly, they’d not hesitate to do so, claim that they had finished the great project of the Enlightenment once and for all, as they had set out to do just that very morning.

Another way to answer is to say that science deals with ‘how’ questions, not ‘why’ questions. Is there a difference between the two? If I ask why the Moon orbits the Earth, gravitational formulas would seem to suffice as an answer just as well as if I had asked how it does, except perhaps in two very closely related respects: how answers can be utterly impersonal and don’t have to be at all final, whereas why answers convey at least the faint suggestion of personal causality and have a very strong suggestion of finality. An adult would not expect personal causality where the Moon’s orbit is concerned, you might think, but of course, some adults do: God causes it, like everything else.

At a human level, if I ask ‘Where has my wallet gone?’ (deliberately avoiding either interrogative), “It is in a jacket pocket travelling west on the High Street,” demands another question, whereas “Someone stole it while you weren’t looking!” resolves the mystery – even if I would naturally want a name or description of the culprit. If someone gave the first answer, I would even unconsciously assume the missing ‘fact’ that the jacket is being worn by a person, even though it might not. ‘Someone did it’ is, to the human mind, a full, meaningful explanation, because, on our social level of thinking, the existence of human beings is taken for granted, and, for the most part, their possession of choice and agency is natural. We do not have to ask what caused the thief to steal my wallet; we can just assume that he decided to.

Clearly then, one of the challenges to religion is that ‘God did it’ is just a human-scale, convenient answer to everything, and it is a very powerful challenge. It suggests a deep and embarrassing flaw in the thinking of the religious person, an almost infantile requirement to answer difficult questions with an easy, final answer, the way a child is satisfied in the relating of fairytales and, indeed, the way primitive people satisfy themselves about the existence of holes in mountains by making up myths about giants taking pieces to throw at their enemies long, long ago.

There may be philosophically mature responses to this challenge, and perhaps I have indicated something of the flavour of one of them already, i.e. to propose that all the questions of matter and energy – which, as we have seen are not by any means resolved – are insoluble because they are illusory, and the foolishness is to be taken in by maya. The primacy of human meaning and consciousness can be elicited as reasons to ‘look again’. If human beings are still unable to understand the world in a full and meaninful way, and cannot even say what meaning is, yet seem everywhere to thirst for it and explain smaller problems with recourse to it, perhaps we are missing something. How, after all, could meaning, if it belongs just to the crazy mixed up delusions of human beings, have evolved out of a meaningless universe, from fiery stuff exploding into a void? If one considers this long enough, it is not hard to concede that it does require an incredible stretch of the imagination on the face of it!

So, where have I got to with all this, after writing about it all day? It may take another day to answer, but I’ll try to summarise for now. First of all, that incredible stretch between blind particles careening around in space and all the human consciousness with its rich symbols and emotion is, I have to say, not all that incredible. If we liken it to a river, then certainly there are stepping stones that traverse some of the distance. It seems undeniable that life, for instance, can get started, given a suitable chemical environment, and that stellar chemistry leads quite naturally to such an environment; so too, is it quite clear to anyone who investigates biology that evolution by natural selection is perfectly automatic, inevitable and true.

For those who are already materialists, that’s about all we need, with the addition of the most difficult, but penetrable, route from reactive animal functioning to a fully self-conscious human mind, thence human culture, agriculture, civilisation and Celebrity Big Brother …


In the course of this blog, I will approach some of those stepping-stones as I learn more about them. The ‘…but…’ indicates something else, however, two things, which are that I have my own set of questions about this crossing (which I probably need to discuss with wiser heads first), and that, as far as I know, it is accepted that there are still rather large gaps in the stones, or at least some very slippery surfaces.

In the meantime, to close somewhere near where I began, while consciousness is still a mystery to me, the steps in the river-crossing that I know about, combined with some of my psychological knowledge about self-deception, convince me that the mystical union, the direct intuition of reality, is not the divine connection I read about. It seems difficult to imagine any reason why the human mind would be capable of such intimate knowledge of its deep, ancient cause. It was honed to separate bees from honey and chip pieces off flint and estimate the motives of its fellow human animals by their expressions.

About lettersquash

White, male, heterosexual, left-leaning, almost-vegetarian blogger, musician, ex-psychotherapist and ex-mystic, now philosophical naturalist (atheist) ... somewhere near his sixtieth year on the freaking planet, trying to counter some tiiny fraction of the magical thinking and lies of his culture.
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