Reflection 93: Angels

April 22, 2009


(Copyright © 2009)


We are prone to leaping to conclusions on very shaky evidence. That is how our minds work. We tell ourselves stories to account for phenomena we only dimly understand. The first time I heard oldsquaws (long-tailed ducks) at night, I thought someone had opened the window on revelers at a New Year’s Eve party. The nearest house was over a mile away. I listened to the horn-tootlers for a while, rolled over, and went back to sleep. If I hadn’t seen and heard the ducks the next week, I’d have born a grudge against my dear neighbor.


Often, we believe what we can get away with, particularly in circles of like-minded friends. Testing the stories we tell ourselves requires careful observation and diligence. It is far easier to get by on what we think we know and let it go at that. We are impressionable to a fault, believing what we want to believe, not doing background checks on those who inform us, or questioning their motives, much less our own. We raise innocence to the level of gullibility, and are as overly trusting of others as of ourselves. Geniuses at making leaps of faith, we put a familiar face on the unknown and mysterious. We know what we believe and believe what we know.


Take angels, for instance. We have a word for them, therefore they exist. Angels are mentioned in the Bible, the Qur’an, Persian mythology, and The Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Pseudo-Dionysius (5th century C.E.). They are portrayed as supernatural beings mediating between God and man in the monotheistic religions of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Angels clearly have a history. They have been evolving in the human mind for over five millennia. In the beginning, there were messengers, which is what both Hebrew mal’ak and Greek angelos mean. Divine messengers from the heavens above. It was the vision of the sun, moon, and planets as messengers of stellar divinities in the night sky that sparked the origin of Sumerian beliefs in Mesopotamia, the same origin to which we can trace the roots of many of our modern beliefs.


The appeal of angels—heavenly bodies interpreted as divine messengers—was in serving as designated agents responsible for bringing affairs on Earth into accord with those in the starry realm overhead. That is, “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” or, “As above, so below.” That is powerful magic, bringing human conduct into line with the will of the gods. Such is the origin of astrology, knowledge gained through study of the stars. And beyond astrology, of theologies postulating the existence of divinities floating in the sky.


Angels are supernatural beings, figures that would shock us if we met them on the street. The company they keep is confined to the fabulous tales we spin in our heads to account for events we don’t understand. They have staying power in serving to explain that which cannot be explained, or which might be explained in less colorful ways.


The band of supernatural beings we believe in but never expect to meet face-to-face is surprisingly large. Start with the little ones, the clever, mischievous, magical scamps the likes of brownies, elves, fairies, gnomes, gremlins, imps, leprechauns, pixies, sprites, and trolls.


Then there are the big scary ones like giants and ogres. The ones with mixed body parts: Chimeras (lion-goat-serpent hybrids), harpies (women with the tail, wings, and talons of hawks), lamia (women-serpents who suck blood), mermaids, monsters, sphinxes (lions with the head of a man, ram, or hawk; or winged lions with the head of a woman), satyrs (bawdy goat-men), and werewolves. And the disembodied ones: banshees, bogeys, haunts, ghosts, phantoms, shades, specters, spirits, and spooks.


Not to forget cupids, demons, devils, dragons, genies, ghouls, hobgoblins, houri (dark-eyed virgins of Islamic paradise), poltergeists (noisy ghosts), vampires, witches, and warlocks. And for good measure, incubi (male demons that have sex with sleeping women), and succubi (female demons that have sex with sleeping men).


Through the years, a great many tales have been told of such beings to explain or justify specific aspects of human experience. Not all such agents are as outmoded as many of these. Who does not believe in Santa Clause to some degree, the Easter Bunny, Mother Nature or Mother Earth, Father Sky, various saints, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, Ronald McDonald, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker, the phoenix, Hamlet, Huck Finn, Scarlet O’Hara, Don Quixote, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Lassie, Archie and Veronica, Popeye, Tarzan, R2D2, Zorro, and a host of similar figures from art, literature, comics, film, theater, and TV?


Mickey Mouse and Garfield are as real to us today as Barack H. Obama, Charles Lindbergh, Oprah Winfrey, Humphrey Bogart, and Kim Jong-il. Aside from immediate family, a child’s world is often peopled largely with characters from books and television. How could a child not believe in Big Bird, Barney, teddy bears, Barbie, Ken, or the Cat in the Hat?


Our minds are filled with images of creatures we can name yet stand for beings we have never met in the flesh. We take the world we live in largely on faith. Virtual reality existed in human consciousness long before the Internet claimed it for its own. We can name these creatures, describe them, tell of their deeds, and swear to their impact on our lives. Fictitious beings are every bit as real to us as firemen, astronauts, or the president of the United States. In many cases, more real because they play a larger role in our lives and require a greater share of our attention.


How is it possible that fictional figures can be as real to us as natural beings of flesh-and-blood? The answer is shockingly simple. Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience. Unless we probe our beliefs, and test them, we have a hard time telling the difference between live and make-believe creatures. Figures in consciousness do not come flagged as real or unreal. Dreams seem every bit as convincing to us as the checkout girl in the supermarket. We are all subject to illusions and mirages—a trash bag flapping in the wind taken for a stricken crow, a stranger mistaken for an intimate friend, a friend in novel circumstances reduced to a stranger.


How can we tell if an object in conscious experience is real or unreal? That is, if it exists in the world or only in our heads? We must put our experiential loops to work on the matter and test our impressions. Do others see what we have seen when they stand in our place? What do the rest of our senses say? If we come back later, does the phenomenon reappear? Can we interact with the phenomenon by engaging it in some way? If we act upon it, does it respond?


Doubt is our greatest ally in probing items of belief. Anything can be believed for a time because it is the nature of belief to defend itself. Doubt cuts through such defenses. How consistent is this phenomenon with the rest of our experience? Is it an exception for which we must make special allowance—such as creating an entire realm governed by exceptional rules? Is it excessively complicated, or deceptively simple? Even the most respected authorities are wrong on occasion. No one’s consciousness is right all the time.


Take angels, for example. How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? We all know what pins are because we have been stuck by them often enough. They are small, slender physical objects made of metal, pointed on one end, flattened on the other. How big are angels? What are their proportions? What are they made of? How would you describe one? We say fluttering candle flames indicate the passing of angels; is that a reliable test? Mentioning angels in the same sentence as pins or candle flames doesn’t make them real. We are mixing categories of experience here, as if both were equally verifiable, pretending the attributes of one extend to the other. Which they don’t and they can’t.


Mythology begins within us in our left-brain interpreters. When we act out our fictitious beliefs as explanations for things being as they are—which we do in waiting for Santa, playing the Tooth Fairy, telling tales of storks delivering babies, or expecting the natural world to serve the human economy—that’s when the stories we tell ourselves can get us into trouble. That is when hesitation, skepticism, double-checking, doubt, and further research are called for before we act out our stories. Let’s pretend is fun on occasion, but a steady diet can wreak as much havoc as a suicide bomber.






7 Responses to “Reflection 93: Angels”

  1. epiphileon said

    Quote ”Both the natural and supernatural exist on equal footing in the same place—personal consciousness, the domain of all human experience.”

    There is a subtle, but I feel critical distinction here, and it seems to me, that it is one you make in your writing, i.e. that consciousness is the domain of the experience of experience.

    By the way, as I was once again amazed at the lines of reasoning, and conclusions you draw, after reading through this reflection, I think I’m coming to settlement of the nagging questioning of how, much of what you say fits so well into the model of consciousness as I’ve come to know it, without your being aware of that model. This phenomena was perplexing to me, and I think interfering with establishing clear pathways for connection. Today, I have the first inkling of where my trouble originated, it may be a classic example of disciplined approaches to any esoteric field of knowledge.
    If you are familiar with the two approaches taken to many of the “hard” sciences, there are the theorists and the experimentalists, if such can be said of our topic, I think it may be a valid appraisal of the difference in our manner of investigating the issue. If this is the case, it ought to allow for each of us easing the reservations, (for lack of a better word) we have inhibiting connectedness.
    Sine cera

    • Steve Perrin said

      Kevin, I am all for dispelling mists that deter connectedness. I am highly suspicious of conceptualizing matters of experience, so try to be more experiential (a variation on experimental) in my approach than wholly conceptual or cerebral. But it’s often hard to draw the line. I’d like to learn more about how you see the distinction. –Steve fr. planet Earth

      • epiphileon said

        Hi Steve, well first let’s be sure of the first point above, i.e. that consciousness is the experience, of experience. I think we agree on this but it is not the same as consciousness being the domain of “all human experience.” *

        As to this..and let me go at this statement backwards…”try to be more experiential (a variation on experimental) in my approach”
        precisely what I meant, and I would say not a “variation” of experimental, but that the way your approaching it, is part of the experimental approach.
        Now for the first part of that statement…
        “I am highly suspicious of conceptualizing matters of experience”
        I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this, I’ve tried out a number of possible interpretations, but can only return to you to ask further clarification.
        What I initially hear you saying here is impossible, after all if we did not conceptualize experience, we would have nothing to talk about, right? Is that not what you say the “interpreter” is doing?

        On the other hand, and particularly after the last sentence of your reply, I think your asking something different, but am unsure of what it is.
        Kevin fr. behind my eyes

        *This eventually becomes hyper critical, for an assertion that I sort of, started to bring up with the free will thing I mentioned. I dropped that for now as your response while I’m sure sensible, made no sense to me, and I seemed to recognize that it was due to insufficient common language ground. this is an aside for now, I mention it for the sake of future reference.

      • Steve Perrin said

        Kevin, I appreciate your doggedness in pursuing these matters. I got a doctorate in education from Boston University in 1982, then came to Maine to write my great environmental book. Only one thing stopped me: I could no longer speak English. I had picked up an academic version which nobody understands except people with advanced degrees. The problem was in speaking on a conceptual level so general in nature it left out the living details. I visualize sensory awareness and conceptualization at opposite ends of a continuum, concrete on one end, rareified and abstract on the other, one is full of minute detail but very specific, the other empty of detail but big as the sky. The difference is between “Dogs” as a category of experience, and “My 11-month-old Boston terrier with a game left rear leg, white patch over his right eye, who drools a lot and answers to the name Fluffy.” It is easy to adopt a level of discourse that sounds great but is actually empty of content. At the opposite extreme, we can say a great deal about very little at all. Anyway, both aspects of experience are active in the brain, the concrete sensory and abstract conceptual, and the trick is to bring them together so the sensory details flesh out the empty potential of the concept and something can actually be experienced in its fullness, as well as described in language. In my blog, I do my best to encompass both aspects of experience, adding feelings when appropriate, memories, and all the rest. The interpreter has access to summaries of everything going on, and is the judge of how best to fit it all together as a unified experience that makes sense under the circumstances. I am trying to be clear about this, but am not sure I am. One thing available to us is to point to something (as you have pointed out a couple of books) and ask the question, “How do you see that?” Then we can compare notes of the one thing from two different points of view. Which I think we’ve been aiming to do in our dialogue. Anyway, good to hear from you. Please, if I don’t make any sense, ask me to say it another way. I am spontaneous in writing to you, and don’t always get it right the first time. I write in drafts, and keep editing and revising until I say what I mean. –Steve

      • epiphileon said

        Hi Steve, I misplaced my reply to this response, look above it.

  2. epiphileon said

    Hi Steve, Thanks for a great laugh, I actually was nearly incredulous of this…”I got a doctorate… I could no longer speak English”, I didn’t get my Ph.D. but was involved in a post grad. research group, for 3 years, while pursuing a special major in Behavioral Neuroscience, with an emphasis in psychometrics. Till meeting you I have never encountered anyone”else” who ever came to that most unusual place of “no longer speaking English”.
    Now as to this matter of a conceptual/concrete scale.
    Boy howdy,ifn this ain’t like catch,n a greased pig in a mud hole.
    One thing we might take a look at is although “Theory” is of necessity concept based…. ummm…. the concepts within valid theory must be operationally defined fairly rigorously, and constructed out of observable phenomenon, so when you say the “conceptual” end of the spectrum is “empty and as big as the sky”, that is how and where I would object to theoretical being synonymous with conceptual. Does that much make sense?
    I need to do some intense diag.s on my computer that may involve accessing even hardware, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Besides I want to see about this point clearly before saying more about what theories, the model of consciousness I’m operating from is based.(On top of some of that info being rather extreme, as it involves neuro-cyto-architecture.)
    Kevin from behind my eyes

    • Steve Perrin said

      Kevin, I’m treating concept formation as a process of emphasizing the similarities between different experiences and minimizing the differences, as the concept of “dogs” is generated from experiences with 247 specific dogs, most of the specifics being lost in the process of coming up with a scheme based on similarities–4 legs, ears, eyes, symmetry, medium stature, tail, no color, no coat pattern, etc. Such a concept has a high degree of applicability, at a low level of resolution. Which is why I call the resulting concept “empty, hollow, vague,” etc. It is a category waiting to be fleshed out by the image of a specific dog or breed of dogs. A DOG is empty, THE DOG is specific in reference to only one specimen in sensory awareness. Does this make sense? –Steve

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