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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Future is Immanent: Speculations on a Possible World

Written by J.F. Martel

The pressure's on in the noosphere. Opposing views on everything from the use of plastic to the existence of God vie for dominance in the arena of collective thought. There are times when philosophy leaves the cloisters of academia to impose itself upon every individual. Philosophy today is not a Mickey Mouse elective -- it is a universal verdict. On the other hand, if there was ever a time to acknowledge the elusiveness of absolute truths, it is now. "Everything is relative" has attained the self-evidence of a cliché.

In a recent article, Daniel Pinchbeck considers the possibility that through our dialectical deadlocks we may come to a revival of "mythological consciousness," a way of thinking rooted not in logic and discursive reasoning but in "symbol and image." He writes: "A society that reintegrates mythic thought at a deeper level of awareness will be able to handle seemingly contradictory perspectives without breaking down." [1]

We talk a lot about transformation these days. The problems we face are serious, but if every problem is an opportunity, then our ravaged earth still holds promise. In many circles, apathy and resignation have given way to hope for another possible world, a revolution of human culture. Of course, the danger in any revolution is that you end up rebuilding what you left behind. Recall the end of Animal Farm, when the animals gather at the window of the farmhouse to watch their pig leaders argue with human farmers: "The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again but already it was impossible to say which was which."[2]

Repetition compulsion is a familiar concept to fans of Freud and anyone who has ever suffered from neurosis or addiction. When the mind can't get to the core of a problem, the same mistakes are made again and again. In psychoanalytic terms, such situations confront us with aspects of the psyche of which we remain unaware. Implicitly or explicitly, the so-called consciousness movement is an attempt to penetrate this unconscious blockage. But when we say, with Terence McKenna, that we need an "archaic revival" of shamanic thinking in our culture, what exactly do we mean?

Many people expect the revolution to take the form of a grand intervention: a transcendent "Other" will break into our time-stream to transform us body, mind and soul, if not change the fabric of space-time itself. Is this a realistic (or even safe) expectation? Would it be better to see in events like the end of the Mayan Long Count a symbol whose value is lost the moment we mistake it for the thing it represents?

"Mythological consciousness" may be the key to another age. But what is myth? What is consciousness? And what do the Hopi mean when they say, "We are the ones we have been waiting for?"[3]

Myth and Archetype

D.H. Lawrence defined myths as "attempt[s] to narrate a whole human experience ... a profound experience of the human body and soul."[4] Though they are not equivalent to the propositions of science, myths do have a factual basis. The facts they point to are those strange attractors that C.G. Jung called the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Pre-lingual and pre-rational, the archetypes exist deep in the human organism and evoke, across cultural and geographical boundaries, the same recurring images, symbols and patterns of behavior. They are the "inborn forms of intuition, the archetypes of perception and apprehension, which are the necessary a priori determinants of all psychic processes."[5] The archetypes are not reducible to the gods that often personify them in traditional cultures. They are in fact much more powerful than gods, and more mysterious.

The archetypal realm is not an eternal order of being superior to our own like Plato's forms. That is to say, it is not separate or transcendent, but immanent to the human organism, instinctual. Jung wrote that the archetype is "the instinct's perception of itself."[6] The archetypal image is the psychic correlate of an instinctual drive. Freud stressed that you can never "see" a drive; you can only know it through its effects. The archetypes never reveal themselves directly, but their influence produces consistent images that manifest symptomatically in our dreams, stories, rituals and art. We can know their presence and their meaning by engaging with their imaginal manifestations in the language of the psyche; i.e., the language of myth.

To reduce archetypal forces to the gods that personify them, as organized religions (and often the New Age) do, is to mistake the symbol for the thing and surrender reason to irrationality. Recognizing the power of the archetypes does not require us to give up our power to think. It simply means becoming aware of the fact that there are patterns to the ego's behavior, and that much of what we think and do is rooted deep in the psychic and sensory apparatus, even if we perceive in it a rational basis. By seeing the patterns, we can understand the true meaning of our actions and direct our behavior more creatively.

Truth and Meaning

Goya's print "The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters" shows a man asleep at a desk while a dark menagerie of nocturnal animals -- bats, owls, a lynx -- materializes in the background. The traditional interpretation of this print is that "when reason is suspended, superstitions are bound to arise." This interpretation is in keeping with the Enlightenment ideals that mark Goya's period and modernity in general. But set against the backdrop of the historical events that have unfolded since the eighteenth century, the print offers up a new meaning; namely, that when it is considered to be the only valid mental faculty, reason itself is a kind of sleep, which spawns horrors and monstrosities.

The imperialistic doctrine of the White Man's Burden, the ovens of Auschwitz, the gulags of Stalinist Russia, the cryptofascist activities of the Western intelligence establishment and the devastating consequences of "rational self-interest": these are some of the horrors that can occur when the cult of reason comes to dominate a civilization. The Enlightenment tried to do away with myth by denying its existence and relegating the mythic impulse to the swamps of superstition. But as Jung tells us, denying the existence of the gods does not abolish them; it merely forces them into hiding. In losing myth, we lose the only language we have for dealing with the psyche.

The genius of Camus and Beckett lay in their showing us the fundamental absurdity of modern life. Death is reason's limit. If everything must end in the utter silence of the grave, what reason do I have for living? In strictly rational terms, life is fundamentally absurd and meaningless. Therefore whatever meaning we see in life cannot come to us rationally. It must come from somewhere else, even if it amounts to a courageous engagement with the Absurd as such, as in existentialism. It must come to us through the faculty of intuition.

Because it is intuited from the invisible nexus of primordial psychic forces, meaning belongs on the same plane as myth; in fact it is the function of myth in any culture to provide the meaning(s) of life. Darwinism may accurately reflect the process of natural selection, but the moment I draw meaning from the theory, I turn Darwinism into a myth; which is to say, I read the theory intuitively. Modern science is completely immersed in myth insofar as it perceives a purpose in itself-even if that purpose is to blindly obey our "selfish genes" in the name of evolution. If scientists oppose dogmas and ideologies that curb their pursuit of knowledge, it is because they see that pursuit as being intrinsically meaningful. The quest for truth is an archetypal idea -- it precedes rational thought.

A university professor once told me that he suffered a spiritual crisis when he read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene in the late seventies. Dawkins made his case so powerfully that my professor lost his faith in God and became an atheist, to his own horror. I asked him, "How do you feel now?" He said, "Oh, I feel great. I got over it a long time ago. You come to terms with truth."

When we confront a reality that challenges our most deeply held beliefs, we enter what Tibetan Buddhists call a bardo, an in-between state where the ground of all beliefs vanishes from under our feet. In his essay on Proust, Beckett wrote that human beings are not interested in the New but strive for the peaceful ignorance of habit. The intrusion of the New -- be it a traumatic event or the discovery of a painful scientific fact -- invariably throws us into a state of panic. "The creation of the world," Beckett writes, "did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day."[7] We project our beliefs into our environment in order to protect ourselves from the Void of the real. But sometimes, something tears through the veil and opens up an unknown space, forcing us to adapt to a new reality. "The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations ... represent perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being."[8]

For my professor, "coming to terms with truth" meant finding meaning in a world that God had suddenly abandoned. Remembering that myth and meaning arise on the same plane, we can say he had to re-mythologize his world.

Even scientists who dedicate their lives to proving that the mind is a chimerical trick of the biological brain live according to the same principles as the rest of humanity. They too have desires, goals, families, lovers, dreams, guilty pleasures. In other words, they hold one set of beliefs but act on another. They live as if they were "ensouled," as if their lives had intrinsic meaning. A person who truly saw existence as meaningless would not do research, let alone write books.

Think of the suicidal teenager who writes in his journal that life just isn't worth living, that "nothing matters." The very act of writing betrays him -- for to write is to care. Meaning matters even if life doesn't. As the narrator utters at the end of Beckett's novel The Unnamable: "I can't go on, I'll go on."

Imagine the following. A neuroscientist makes an incredible discovery showing once and for all how all processes of the mind can be reduced to neuronal activity. She reacts with joy, excitement and pride at having made an important contribution to the advance of human knowledge. Her head fills with visions of medical breakthroughs, Nobel prizes, TV interviews and science textbooks. That night she dreams of diving into the ocean to recover a magical pearl in the ruins of a sunken city. She brings the pearl back to the surface and saves the kingdom. If death is the great equalizer on the physical plane, then dream is its correlate in the psyche. In dreams we all believe in magic, regardless of our faith or opinions.

In order to get money for their research projects, scientists must tell potential funding agencies why their project should be financed; they must present the purpose of their work. Even a hypothesis whose proof would shatter all hopes of finding meaning in nature would never get backed without some sort of justification. A scientific hypothesis is insignificant until it is wrapped in a myth, be it "the betterment of mankind," "victory against the Nazis," "the war on drugs" or "the quest for knowledge." Like everything else, science must take root in mythic soil in order to bear fruit.

Myth is the life-world of humanity. As science continues to describe the workings of nature, it will create new gaps where meaning will suddenly withdraw, only to be found anew:
"The scientist tries to examine the 'real' nature of the photograph; he tries to get away from the psychological configuration, the meaning of the image, to move down to some other, more basic level of patterns and alternating dots of light and dark, a world of elementary particles. And yet what does he find there but another mental configuration, another arrangement of psychological meaning? If he persists in this direction long enough, the mythological dimensions of science will become apparent in his work, as they would have if he had asked himself questions about the meaning of sunlight rather than questions about the behavior of photons."[9]

Whether light strikes the retina directly or first passes through the lens of an electron microscope doesn't change a thing: the world remains just that, the world: a mystery to explore and a meaning to discover. The "disenchantment of nature," an idea that resurges every time science challenges our traditional views, only makes sense from the perspective of what is passing away. If we understand the psyche for what it is -- a machine, perhaps, but a machine for producing meaning -- then spirituality (religiosity) is inevitable. The moment we glimpse meaning in existence, the world not only becomes "enchanted" once more; it reveals itself as always having been that way.

Sound and Fury

The atheistic crusade of Richard Dawkins brands religion as fundamentally superstitious and inexorably bound to the idea of transcendence. This view allows Dawkins and his followers to lump all forms of religiosity together and dismiss them all as rubbish. In their view, spirit as such is the enemy of reason. On the other hand, it is difficult to read Dawkins without getting the sense that he is actually pretty spiritual, if not downright religious:

"I hear myself often described as a deeply religious man. An American student wrote to me that she had asked her professor whether he had a view about me. 'Sure,' he replied. 'He's positive science is incompatible with religion, but he waxes ecstatic about nature and the universe. To me, that is religion!' But is 'religion' the right word? I don't think so."[10]

Dawkins admits that the beauty and harmony of nature evoke in him feelings of wonder, connection and humility. If he weren't so insistent on saying that these feelings represent nothing more than esthetic appreciation on his part, we would not hesitate to call them spiritual.[11]

Dawkins' hatred of religion, combined with his faith in the unquestionable finality of science and technology, have led some critics to accuse him of being just as fundamentalist as the dogmatists he is crusading against. His recent statement that books like the Harry Potter series may actually harm children by teaching them "mythical" rather than "scientific" thinking don't help his case. It puts him squarely in the company of his enemies, the religious fanatics who have banned and burned J.K. Rowling's books.[12]

Where does Dawkins' vitriol come from? And why is it surfacing at such a fever pitch now, at this particular time? In For They Know Not What They Do, Slavoj Zizek offers a brilliant interpretation of Hegelian dialectics as they operate in history. He tells us that in any conflict between two opposing historical forces (say, naturalism vs. religion), the synthesis that will eventually result from the conflict already exists. "‘Things happen before they effectively happen ... [T]he final ‘word of reconciliation' is a purely formal act, a simple stating of what has already taken place."[13]

During the Enlightenment, for example, by the time the Church had to resort to rational arguments to fight the secularists, it had already lost the war. The transition had already taken place and it was just a matter of time before the Church admitted defeat and withdrew from the sciences altogether.

Zizek links his immanent dialectics to the psychoanalytic process of conversion, how a person goes from one psychological state to another. The crisis that precedes a conscious conversion occurs after the conversion has already happened in the unconscious. What we see in the crisis are the final throes of the ego as it attempts to go on the way it has been going. Zizek's example is particularly relevant here:

"Let us take the case of an atheist becoming a believer. He is torn by fierce inner struggles, religion obsesses him, he gibes aggressively at believers, looks for historical reasons for the emergence of the 'religious illusion,' and so on-all this is nothing but proof that the affair is already decided. He already believes, although he doesn't yet know it."[14]

The sound and fury of today's atheist fundamentalist is the ego's reaction to the still-unconscious fact that science has already disclosed its spiritual dimension. The religious fanatic's resistance to science shows that he is caught in the same state of denial, because the spirituality that science is in the process of uncovering in the very fabric of the universe is as alien to monotheism as it is to the dogma of traditional materialism. The spiritual dimension of science is not metaphorical, nor is science becoming a religion in its own right. Rather, science is revealing that nature is in itself spiritualized, that consciousness is not a problem we can pin to the pineal gland or some other part of the brain. Consciousness in all of its facets -- including myth and meaning -- is part of nature.

If there's one thing Richard Dawkins hates, it is the tendency of non-scientists to use the ideas of quantum mechanics to justify their own "irrational" beliefs. But the point is that physics does show that there are elements in our universe that do not obey Newtonian laws. Unfortunately for Dawkins, the "enemies of reason" have already reached the inner sanctum of the most fundamental science. When Niels Bohr said, "Sometimes, the opposite of a profound truth is not a lie but another profound truth," the game was already over. Arguing that metaphysical speculation should be strictly reserved for the initiates of particle physics would do little more at this point than elevate those experts to the rank of priests and confirm the dogmatic nature of scientism.

The spiritual dimension that science discloses lies in the interdependence, still only vaguely understood, between nature and consciousness. The quantum physicist David Bohm theorized that nature is imbued with deep creative intentionality. He writes:

"[N]ature is much more than what appears on the surface. That would be a way of expressing a sort of extended form of materialism. But -- and this is the point -- it could equally well be called idealism, spirit, consciousness. The separation of the two -- matter and spirit -- is an abstraction."[15]

The atheist's critique of monotheistic dogma in light of the findings of modern science is valid. The animus behind it, however, is a symptom of denial: denial of the fact that the mysterious core that exists in all religious systems is also present at the heart of scientific theory.

God and the Alien

Spirituality does not require a transcendent God -- an abstract Other -- against which the spiritual experience must take place. On the contrary, spirituality is the intuition of the immanent possibilities, infinite and magical, of our reality. Transcendence is an obstacle to the spirit: it builds a wall that we must scale to get a glimpse of the infinite. That is why mystics insist on going beyond all categorizations in order to find the emptiness that is the true source of being.

The philosophy of Gilles Deleuze is an attempt to establish a spirituality of immanence. The "plane of immanence," he tells us, is the ground of reality, synonymous with Spinoza's single substance of mind and matter: "the immanence of immanence, absolute immanence: it is complete power, complete bliss."[16] It is consistent with the "luminous emptiness" of Mahayana Buddhism. Neither idea requires us to postulate the existence of a transcendent God.
Instead of limiting the field of infinity with an abstract Other, immanence continually posits the coming of an Other. It sees the Other not as transcendent impossibility (Tertullian's credo quia absurdum) but as a virtual Possible, immanent and imminent -- the promise of an encounter. Here, the Other is not God, but the Alien. The Alien can take the form of an extraterrestrial race, a celestial intelligence or a robotic consciousness; what matters is that it replaces the absent God without rebuilding a transcendent structure.

Science needs the Alien. How else can we explain the existence of SETI? Or the deep-space satellites carrying messages for other civilizations? Or the efforts of Japanese scientists to build an android? Or, for that matter, the following verse from the Built to Spill song "Goin' Against Your Mind":

When I was a kid I saw a light / Floating high above the trees one night. / Thought it was an alien, / Turned out to be just God.

The sidereal longings of Arthur C. Clark and Carl Sagan speak volumes about the latent religiosity of scientific thought. God is dead, long live the Alien. Faith in something that has passed (Jesus, Mohammed) has been replaced by hope for something to come. However, this something comes not to replace our reality (earthly paradise) but to expand it (interstellar civilization). The Other is a possible world:

"There is, at some moment, a calm and restful world. Suddenly a frightened face looms up that looks at something [out of frame]. The other person appears here as neither subject nor object but as something very different: a possible world, the possibility of a frightening world. This possible world is not real, or not yet, but it exists nonetheless: it is an expressed that exists only in its expression -- the face, or an equivalent of the face." [17]

The face of the Grey Alien, itself an age-old archetypal image, is an icon of immanent spirituality. It is a picture of another world, either organic (the beings at the end of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or artificial (the beings at the end of Spielberg's AI). The world of the Grey is unknowable, but it is possible. To some, it is a terrible insect world where empathy does not exist, while to others it holds the promise of cosmic communion. The hope (or fear) of an encounter with the Alien is a fundamental component of scientific civilization. It is one of the cracks that let its preconscious spirituality shine through.[18]

The spirituality of immanence is a central theme of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, if not of Kubrick's work as a whole. In my previous article "The Kubrick Gaze," I argued in support of the view that the Black Monolith in 2001 represents, on one level, the movie screen; it symbolizes the medium of cinema itself, showing us how cinema offers a way out of the prison of language, which sets a limit to thought.[19] On a deeper level, the Black Monolith symbolizes the plane of immanence, and also the Alien in its essential nature, the mirror-void where we see ourselves reflected as producers of being. The Star Child at the end of the film heralds the arrival of a new epoch, when humans (re)gain the capacity to think in symbol and image rather than in logic and words.

Nature as Culture

The secularism of the modern age did not free us from the gods. By day, we lived in a grey world devoid of myth, but by night our dreams continued to bathe us in the submarine glow of primeval magic. The very drives we had chased from the light of conscious thought still exerted their pull upon us, only now they wore the mask of reason. A buried god is an angry god: by repressing him, by limiting the flows of psychic energy that he personifies, we merely invite him to resurface in the form of individual or mass neurosis.

The fact is that we cannot exist without myth; meaning and being are inseparable. If we do not consciously construct our myths in full cognizance of their instinctual power, then they will impose themselves on us unconsciously. Nearly thirty years ago, William Irwin Thompson wrote, "The shadow which our technological civilization casts is Lilith, the ‘Maid of Desolation' who dances in the ruins of cities."[20] The myths of progress and contest can be useful, but when we ignore their irrational origin, they become monstrous and destructive. By repressing an essential dimension of the human, the Faustian modern world only made the forces of the unconscious more powerful and uncontrollable. As a result it became sick, and it is still stick. Once you accept the reality of psychic phenomena, the real superstition, the one inherent in the "sleep of reason," reveals itself to you: it is the belief that something will disappear if you pretend it isn't there.

The return to mythological consciousness does not imply a transformation of consciousness itself, but a collective re-valuation of the human experience as it naturally unfolds. It requires us to effect a cultural shift, the creation of communities where human beings are allowed to be what they have always been.

Myths are born in the bardos, in the in-betweens. Whereas the myriad anomalies of life (synchronicities, sudden hunches, slips of the tongue, psychedelic visions, ominous dreams, telepathic connections, phantasmal encounters) were once discarded as hallucinatory noise in the smooth transmission of rational data, they must now be seized upon and explored like all other experiences. In doing so we can become aware that myth and meaning are synonymous with the immanence of nature in all its varieties.

A time of mythological consciousness does not elevate myth above reason. On the contrary, it is a time when, by harnessing the power of the archetypal forces, we are able to build the world we desire: a conscious world. Such a world will not fall into our laps as a gift from the gods. It must be co-created with them.

* * *
[1] Pinchbeck, Daniel. "The Age of Uncertainty":
[2] Orwell, George. Animal Farm. (London: Penguin Books, 1945), p. 120
[3] Pinchbeck, Daniel. 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (New York: Tarcher Penguin, 2006), p. 394
[4] Cited in: Richard P. Sugg, Jungian Literary Criticism (Northwestern University Press, 1992), p. 140
[5] Jung, Carl Gustav. The Portable Jung (London: Viking Penguin, 1971), p. 52
[6] Ibid., p. 56
[7] Beckett, Samuel. Proust. Cited in: Steven Connor, "Beckett and the World":
[8] Beckett, op. cit. Cited in: Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (London: Penguin Books, 1961), p. 59
[9] Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1981), p. 3
[10] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), p. 33
[11] In chapter one of The God Delusion, Dawkins uses Einstein's self-identification as a "deeply religious non-believer" as an explanation for the purely metaphorical use of the word "God" in science writing, and for what might seem like pantheism in his own work. Dawkins' work is reductive in that it dismisses not only the concept of God but also anything that can't be verified in a laboratory (and some things, like Rupert Sheldrake's research, that can).
[12] Dawkins' comments on Harry Potter can be found in: Beckford, Martin and Urmee Khan. "Harry Potter fails to cast spell over Professor Dawkins", 25 Oct 2008
[13] Zizek, Slavoj. For They Know Not What They Do. (New York: Verso, 2008 (1991)). pp. 63-64
[14] Ibid., p. 66
[15] "Creativity: The Signature of Nature" (interview with David Bohm) in: Renée Weber, Dialogues with Scientists and Sages (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), pp. 100-101
[16] Deleuze, Gilles. "Immanence: A Life" in: Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, translated by John Rajchman (New York: Zone Books, 2001), p. 27
[17] Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. What is Philosophy?, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Birchill (New York: Verso, 1994), p. 17
[18] The shadow of science is pseudoscience. Pseudoscience will follow science wherever it goes, the two being aspects of the same thing.
[19] Martel, J.F., "The Kubrick Gaze":
[20] Thompson, op. cit., p. 250

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