(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

 __________

* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006

Advertisements

(Copyright © 2009)

My freshman year in college, I learned about what were nicely called “fudge factors” in math class. You’d do your homework, of course, and compare the answer you got with the one in the back of the book. If they were different, you’d simply adjust your answer by a fudge factor that would make it come out right.

Fudge factors are as old as the hills. And as new as today. When I feel lightheaded and can’t think, I say it’s the new or full moon, or low atmosphere pressure, or something I ate, or I’m having a bad day, or I’m just not myself, or I got up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever is not going right can be explained by one kind of fudge factor or another that when applied, helps me adjust to the circumstances I’m in.

In the Second World War, when airplanes didn’t perform as they should, it was blamed on gremlins, ill-tempered little  beings who loved to gum up the works. Gremlins were fudge factors that marked problems until an explanation could be found. Kilrokilroywasherey played a somewhat similar function during the war as Allied Forces advanced through Europe, showing up in the damndest places as a little face with a big nose peering over a fence drawn above the slogan, “Kilroy was here.” Wherever you went, Kilroy always got there first, making foreign parts feel almost familiar to troops far from home.

Fudge factors are some of the first principles of consciousness. We are so earnest in wanting things to turn out right, we enlist them to do the heavy lifting of making events as they turn out conform to our hopes and basic assumptions. If we believe in a supreme being, then everything that happens expresses the will of that being. God hurled Hurricane Katrina at New Orleans to punish the city for its errant ways. Nothing is neater and tidier than that trick. Or for good or ill, whatever happens is a matter of luck. If you luck-out, you win; if you don’t, you lose. Either way, the assumption holds. Similarly, if you believe in astrology, you can’t go wrong. Whatever happens in life is a function of alignments and relationships between planets at the moment of birth (or conception). The system is so complicated and subject to subtle shadings of influence, everything ends up being a function of every possible effect, proving the worth of the system. Astrology works particularly well in hindsight so once knowing the effect, you can give proper credit to whatever cause you select.

Consciousness comes fully equipped with the latest fudge factors. Whatever you believe, you can justify; whatever you justify, you can believe. I believe ecosystems run all life on Earth. Wherever I look, there be ecosystems. Interfere with ecosystems, you interfere with life in that place. If life goes wrong, look to the ecosystems that support it. Neat, simple, and maybe even partly right. But ecosystems are never the whole story; they are the rationale by which I make sense to myself, my personal fudge factor in reconciling my understanding with the facts. “Ecosystem” is shorthand for a complex biological system beyond my comprehension. “Watershed” is of the same order in, as I say, receiving, storing, and distributing the water on which all life depends. When I look on a landscape, I see watersheds. Ah ha, see there! Moisture flowing through the land, bringing it to life—just as I said it would.

Or you could say of an event, it was fated to happen. In northern climes, snow generally melts in March or April, so the landscape seems fated to restore itself shortly thereafter. Fate is one of the oldest fudge factors because it explains everything. Whatever happens is fated to happen. Thus it is written in the great book of time. You don’t need to understand biological systems to give all credit to fate for how things work out. Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be—as if it was all written out beforehand, as somebody or something knew it would turn out.

Mother Nature is also a common fudge factor. I’ve heard a great many fishermen credit her with masterminding the migrations of fish, the relative abundance of species year to year, ups and downs of thermometers and barometers and tide gauges, and so on. Mother Nature works through natural cycles of dearth and plenty, bad years and good. Exploitation of resources has nothing to do with it. What happens is what she wants to happen. If a fishery gets depleted, you just turn to another—usually lower in the food pyramid. If a fishery recovers somewhat, you say “I told you it would, you’ve got to have faith in Mother Nature.”

Of course Mother Nature is the female counterpart of God the ultimate Father. We seem to like our fudge factors to take on a human guise so we can relate to them up-front and personally. Instead of seeing God as a creation of the human mind, we turn the notion on its head and see God as the creator of the universe—including the human mind—who controls everything that happens. On that assumption, there are no mysteries anymore because God is the ultimate cause, and you just trace everything back to him. That way you feel you understand everything when in fact you understand nothing. God is just a manner of speaking—a verbal figment whose only meaning is the ritualized suite of behaviors we perform when we mention his name. That, and the attitude of submission we assume in abandoning our quest to understand the workings of the world. Those who pose rational arguments against claims for God’s existence are wasting their time. The concept of God is not rational. Like any fudge factor, God is an expedient to deploy when you haven’t done your homework. God is a cop-out, not an answer to a serious question.

In minds where God holds forth in broad daylight, the Devil frequently lurks in his shadow. God is assigned the job of making good things happen, the Devil of bringing destruction and disaster wherever he can in his capacity as ultimate gremlin. The Devil puts a face on entropy, and makes it intentional in fulfilling a preconceived purpose. Ascribing consciousness to gods, devils, gremlins, elves, and even Uncle Scrooge makes them all agents of ourselves—the projectors—as if we fully understood what was going on. This demonstrates the weakness in Bishop Ockham’s razor by which the simplest explanation is likely to apply. Nothing is simpler than projecting consciousness into fictitious beings—yet even though it makes us feel good, it leaves our preconceived assumptions absolutely intact. Fudge factors mock true learning and intelligence by the shoddiness with which they are applied. We may entertain them with good-humored affection—as Kilroy was held by G.I.s in World War II—but in truth we are kidding ourselves if we take the joke seriously.

Fudge factors transform dross into treasure, which is what alchemists tried to do in transmuting base metals into noble ones. They serve as a kind of philosophers’ stone for rubbing tarnish off one thing, making it shine like something else as if mere friction could turn lead into gold. In that sense, fudge factors are elixirs of the mind for turning the annoying into the acceptable, the bad into the good, the not-so-good into the perfect. Fudge factors and elixirs are underlying principles whose falsity and absurdity are not taken into account because only the seeming results are what matter. They are lies we tell ourselves in striving toward little-t truth.

Science, on the other hand, messy as it is, relies on evidence, not magical explanations. If it has a magic elixir, it is likely a supposed dependence on reason rather than hunches, trial and error, persistence, and sometimes luck in being in the right place at the right time to witness a particular phenomenon. Scientists often employ the human faculty of insight—an exercise in informed imagination—which nobody truly understands, but can sometimes lead the way to discovery. The difference between insights and elixirs is that one comes from inside the problem itself as an organic extension, while the other is laid on from the outside to make it work out in an acceptable manner, so confirming prior belief. Science, then, is capable of moving forward; fudge factors always send us back where we were. At its best, science is progressive, while reliance on magical thinking is regressive, allowing us to think we are moving ahead while we are actually stuck in our tracks.

Attitude is the key to choosing between magic elixirs and true insights. Do we insist on claiming to know, or are we willing to live with the fact that we don’t? If we fall in the first class, pride and rigidity are our undoing. If in the second, disbelief and humility are our burden. The difference is told by the fabled race between tortoise and hare. Hare bounds effortlessly ahead, then sits on his haunches and gloats. Tortoise digs in with each claw and lurches in a direction he can’t fully appreciate—until he crosses the finish line first and discovers where he was headed all along. Those who leap lithely without fully challenging themselves are apt to fall behind; those who pull themselves along by doing the work required to go one step at a time will eventually cover more ground than those who advance by fits and starts.

Either way, the issue is to find a way of dealing effectively with our current situation as we construe it in consciousness. I mean the italics to emphasize the difference between, on one hand, thinking we already know the world as it is, and on the other, assuming responsibility for shaping that world by means of rigorous probing of personal experience. Elixirs and fudge factors provide ready answers as if we knew what we were talking about, providing immediate comfort in a false sense of security; taking trouble to investigate why we see things as we do commits us to a much more arduous path which, in the end, can lead to surprising and even profound insights into our true situation. The choice is ours to make, the understanding ours to earn.

Fudge factors and elixirs are the easy way out. In life, there are no answers in the back of the book because the book has never been written. Lead cannot be transmuted into gold no matter how hard we wish it so. Put differently, each of us must write her own book by living her life as best she can. That’s why I say attitude is so important in exploring consciousness. We can seed it with what we already know—and learn nothing. Or we can live with doubt and uncertainty by questioning everything we do. One way leads backward, one forward.

I opt to move ahead by studying how I visualize my own situation in the world, how I construe it, shape it, formulate it, depict it, describe it, concoct it, characterize it—all on my own. Without resorting to fudge factors, elixirs, gods, angels, devils, or easy answers of any kind. Life, in the end, is the result of how we live. It does not exist as an abstract entity we magically fulfill by being born. Life is neither this nor that—it is precisely what we make it for ourselves from our own inner stuff. Life is the process of making sense under the circumstances we find ourselves in, which we can only interpret as best we can, and then reconsider in light of what happens next. There are no right answers; there is only what we do.

hare-snowshoe_5-89

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.

 

¦