Reasonable Magic and Magical Reason (2)

For part one of this paper by Joseph Felser, Ph.D., see yesterday’s post.

Part II: The Nightmare of Reason

As I struggled to make sense of my experiences, I was not aware that my bad dreams were more than my own private nightmares. The maverick British philosopher Robin George Collingwood argued that we never struggle with our problems in isolation.(3) Whether we know it or not, our deepest personal challenges are rooted in the common ground of our cultural and social difficulties. No one is an island.

What is our chief problem? As Bob Monroe observes in Far Journeys, it is that we are a “half-brained society.” (4) That half, of course, would be the left side of the brain: our rational intellect. But what about the other half of us–the right brain of feeling, intuition, psychic sensitivity, and imagination? Like the sorrowful mother rabbit of my dream, this creatively fertile, “magical” aspect has, by and large, fallen asleep. In psychological terms, this means it has fallen into the unconscious, where it becomes an unknown object of fear and misunderstanding.

My dream was compensating for, and attempting to correct, this underlying imbalance–the hegemony of the intellect. The old split maple tree was none other than my own self, divided at the base. The mother rabbit symbolized my own lost magical side, chastising me, but also announcing her imminent rebirth in my life. She had been left underground for too long a time. Her grief was, in fact, my own.

Now, to reason attempting to hang on to its illusion of purity and isolation, this rebirth is indeed the stuff of nightmares. Yet it doesn’t have to be.

However, if reason insists on going it alone, we then become sufferers of what the poet Robert Bly terms “the sickness of the rational thing.” (5) In the past, this illness has followed a familiar and predictable course, as the following three major historical episodes illustrate:

The first case is that of the ancient Greeks. As you may know, our English word “philosophy” comes from the ancient Greek word philosophia, which means “the love of wisdom.” This term, and the whole way of life it represented–namely, the cultivation of the soul–was invented by Pythagoras, one of the great mystical figures of the ages, around 500 BCE. As the classical scholars E.R. Dodds and Peter Kingsley have demonstrated (6), Pythagoras and his contemporaries were deeply influenced by the Eurasian traditions of Shamanism. And the shamans, of course, didn’t merely talk about the soul; they taught, as well as practiced, various techniques for soul-travel and soul-enhancement. The Greek word for this was ecstasis, which means to be outside of one’s self (or physical body).

By the fourth century BCE, however, Greek philosophy had severed its roots in the shamanic experience of ecstasy in order to focus on the purely intellectual analysis of the meaning of concepts. With Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, talk about the soul replaced the direct experience of the soul. The sheer poetic wonder that ecstasis had inspired in such earlier figures as Pythagoras and Parmenides devolved into an arid, rigid rationalism: a verbal jousting match, a logical game of argumentative one-upmanship. The pursuit of a genuinely holistic wisdom that had included the non-rational experiences of the right brain was out; the pugilistic display of intellectual cleverness was in.

This same basic pattern would repeat itself some eight hundred years later, as the classical world of Greece and Rome gave way to the Christian Middle Ages. As the writings of Professor Elaine Pagels reveal (7), early Christian thought was ripped from its moorings in the living, personal gnosis (i.e., inward experiential knowledge) of inspired individuals. In the hands of St. Augustine and the other Fathers of the new Church-State of Constantine and Theodosius, that living thought was converted into a petrified, doctrinal Christianism, against which direct, unauthorized personal experience came as a threat. A brief window of opportunity for the right brain was once again slammed shut in the veritable blink of a left-brained eye.

Centuries later, after breaking out of its long period of confinement in the medieval cloister, reason enjoyed a brief burst of freedom and creativity in the Renaissance. The seventeenth century French thinker René Descartes violated church policy by paying attention to, and interpreting, his own dreams and visions–an act which led to the founding of modern philosophy and modern science. (8)

With his famous statement of first principles, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes made the soul the basis of his philosophy. “Soul” is thinking consciousness, which is independent, not only of the physical brain and body (through which our thoughts may be channeled or enacted), but also of any by-products of thought, namely our beliefs, which may or may not be true, no matter how firmly entrenched they are. Thus, the free, critical, and creative activity of the soul–the questioning intelligence, in other words–is not subject to the mechanical laws of cause and effect that govern physical matter, or even the laws of logic that govern our answers. Because of this, the soul can only be examined inwardly, by direct introspection. Only consciousness can study and know consciousness.

Unfortunately, Descartes’ successors ridiculed his view of the soul as a baseless superstition that the great master had not had the courage to jettison. If we want to make our philosophy truly scientific, they argued, we must admit that only the physical body is real. Man is just a machine, declared the French physician-philosopher, Julien Offray de la Mettrie, and thought is just a byproduct of the brain. (9) What counts is the biological process and its output: our behavior, which we call our beliefs. Thus were Descartes’ heretical insights co-opted by lesser intellectual lights, and converted into the dogma of materialistic Scientism.

In hindsight, then, the broad outline of this recurring historical pattern is clear: No sooner does the upstart right brain get an audience with the establishment left, then it is ushered out the door and told never to return. As the old saying goes, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” The similarities are quite astonishing. Although Classical Greek Rationalism, Medieval Christianism, and Modern Scientism differ in content, they share the same basic structural form. This common form is shaped by a habit of mind that I have elsewhere dubbed “Answerism.” (10)

Answerism is my name for a one-size-fits-all, half-brained type of thought that sees itself as the Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. Answerists are convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they possess a total system of explanation or belief, an interpretation of reality that is complete and comprehensive.

One of my favorite examples comes from the writer Sam Keen (who, by the way, was raised as a strict Presbyterian). He tells a joke about a little boy whose Sunday school teacher asks a question: “What is a small, grey animal with a bushy tail that collects acorns?” The little boy raises his hand. “Well, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus or God,” he replies, “but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.” For the Christian, says Keen, whatever the question, the answer is always Jesus or God. (11)

Answerists are literally know-it-alls. So it’s no accident that Answerism generates the type of violent, apocalyptic clashes between religions–as well as between science and religion–that we witness today. These closed systems are hostile, not only to rival theoretical ideas, but also to any anomalous data, in the form of experiential inputs, that might upend their basic premises, definitions, or interpretations. Answerism reflexively resists deep self-criticism of a kind that could lead to a revision or fundamental transformation of the system from within. Infidels are bad, but heretics are even worse.

An illustration of this principle comes from the work of the Australian sociologist and near-death experience (NDE) researcher, Dr. Cherie Sutherland. (12) She relates the story of a female subject she calls Shana, a nursing student who had a dramatic and elaborate NDE when she unexpectedly went into anaphylactic shock on the operating table during routine elective surgery. Although she experienced supernal realms of light and inexpressible bliss, Shana, fearing ridicule and rejection, did not speak openly of her NDE.

Several years later, Shana attended a Buddhist meditation retreat, where she expected to find a receptive audience. Her companions listened politely as she recounted her experience, which began, as Shana described it, with her awareness exiting her body through the top of her head. At the conclusion of her story, however, the students informed her that she was in error, for only saints and gurus leave through the top of the head; the rest depart through the feet. Shana, of course, knew better, but she resumed her previous practice of not speaking openly of her NDE. (13)

This is the essence of Answerism: placing certain beliefs and values beyond questioning. However, this mentality is by no means restricted to religion. Academic philosophy has its share of sacred cows (as I know all too well from my own experience). And, thanks to the work of the physicist-philosopher David Bohm (14), and the philosopher-historian of science, T.S. Kuhn (15), we now know that even the natural sciences (including physics–the very model of science) exhibit certain pronounced Answerist tendencies.

Kuhn argued that there are lengthy periods of what he termed “normal” or “problem-solving” science, in which the attitude toward the reigning theories (or “paradigm”) is basically that of unquestioning acceptance. Normalcy is only rarely punctuated by brief, so-called “revolutionary” episodes of creative thinking, in which the fundamental premises of the system may be challenged, or even overthrown, in the light of anomalous experimental data and new ideas. As happened, for example, when Copernicus’s sun-centered astronomy overthrew Ptolemy’s earth-centered view, or when Newton’s physics retired Aristotle’s.

But Kuhn saw that the intellect quickly retreats from visionary insight and serious self-criticism like a turtle withdrawing inside its shell. “Normalcy” is restored, and reason resumes its role as a timid, conservative, problem-solver, content to operate within the tightly sealed borders of the newly established territory of Truth. Once again, the wagons are circled, and science reassures us that we are but baby steps away from having a Final Theory of Everything. This, even though, as Bohm often said, reality is so infinitely vast and mysterious that it is always something more, and other, than what we think it is.

Not that there’s anything wrong with reason as such, mind you–far from it. As Bob Monroe well understood, our power of logical analysis is perhaps our greatest tool. In Ultimate Journey, he writes: “Our prime and fundamental purpose, aside from learning through experience in being human, is to acquire and develop what we label intellect: left brain consciousness.” (16) It is the rational intellect, he adds, that eliminates fears, converts Unknowns into Knowns, and clears out the thick mental underbrush of dead and decaying beliefs. Which is unquestionably so.

And yet–as I think Bob would also have been the first to admit–when reason (stymied by its fear of change) refuses to question itself or its basic guiding assumptions, it stunts its own growth. When the intellectual side fails to acknowledge the value and importance of its intimate creative partnership with the magical side, it turns downright pathological. The left brain convinced of its own omnipotence and omniscience becomes a dangerous megalomaniac. As the Native American (Abenaki) writer Joseph Bruchac observes, “When the life of the intellect and the life of the spirit grow apart, terrible things become possible.” (17) Terrible things, indeed.

Even a cursory glance at today’s headlines reveals the nightmare of reason now unfolding before our waking eyes. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” writes the poet. Were it not for the numerous red warning lights flashing away, our brain-dead politics of greed, stupidity, corruption, lies, and sanctimonious religious hypocrisy would be merely laughable. However, as it is, we literally can’t take the joke–at least, not take it and survive. Consider the following list as representing just a small, but telling, sample of items of interest:

—The Arctic sea ice cap continues to melt down at an alarming rate, having lost an area the size of Texas since 1979. At the current pace of melt-down, in just a few decades the area will be completely devoid of ice for the first time in over a million years. (18)
The 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (a report drawn up by 1,300 researchers from 95 nations over a four- year period) estimates that:
—60% of the planetary ecosystems have been degraded.
—Dead zones (i.e., places where no fish can live) in the coastal waters of the world’s oceans are rapidly increasing —The species extinction rate is 100-1,000 times greater than at any previous time in the Earth’s past. (19)

Writing in a recent series of articles in The New Yorker, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert notes that the global warming situation is so dire that, very soon, our planet will be hotter than at any time since the dawn of human evolution.
Of course, our own role in this climate shift is profound. Thus, with a disruption in monsoon patterns, a shift in ocean currents, or a significant drought, we could soon see natural catastrophes that produce millions of refugees, making the recent devastation of hurricane Katrina look like a small-scale, out-of-town rehearsal for the main Broadway event. Kolbert concludes on a rather somber note: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself,” she writes, “but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” (20)

There is fresh evidence to support Kolbert’s most pessimistic conclusions. In January 2006, our own NASA scientists reported that 2005 was the warmest year on record–closely followed by 1998, 2002, 2003, and 2004. (21)

Then there is scientist James Lovelock, the father of the Gaia hypothesis (which views Earth as a living organism). He says that Gaia is “seriously ill, and soon to pass into a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years.” According to Lovelock, before the end of the 21st century, global warming will bring about the collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions of humans. Almost all wildlife and entire ecosystems will go extinct. (22)

Folk wisdom says that half a loaf is better than none. Well, maybe not. A “half-brained society” may even be a recipe for a suicidal extinction of the human species on this planet. Something essential is indeed missing. And we’d better find it in a hurry–before it’s too late.

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