(Copyright © 2010)

Speaking of writers who have influenced my life, as I did in my last post (Reflection 168: Edelman on Consciousness), I woke up this morning thinking of my debt to Jerome Bruner who, twenty-eight years ago, had a lasting influence on my writing and conscious mind. I offer the following sample of something I wrote then in which Bruner’s ideas helped me weave strands developing in my personal consciousness into a coherent pattern. I see now that the very words I wrote are a symbolic example of what Bruner was trying to convey.

Since I’m quoting myself, I’ll skip the block quotes I generally use to signify words spoken or written by others. The following is taken from the last chapter of Metaphor to Mythology by S. Perrin, 1982, printed by University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1983. Yes, the language comes from that other planet I lived on at the time.

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As Jerome Bruner states, “the mythologically instructed community provides its members with a library of scripts upon which the individual may judge the internal drama of his multiple identities” (see note (1) below), while, at the same time, certain heroic individuals themselves can contribute their respective scripts to the communal library. In this way the rich variety of personal heritages present within a community can achieve a symbolic (gestural, dramatic) kind of unity that lends support to belief in a common [mythology]. If different members of a community enact similar gestures on similar occasions, is it not safe to conclude that their intentions are also the same? It is the function of our mythologies to turn that question into an affirmation so that, in spite of our individual episodes of disillusionment and ineffective communication, we can find a general agreement between our own gestures as meant and the gestures we encounter in our community as performances underwritten by a supposedly similar set of meanings. Thus do we assent to a common mythology as a set of possibilities for self-realization in which we are able to recognize not only our own heritage of attained identities, but (on the basis of gestures we have never performed) the promise of other identities we have yet to fulfill. We are completed by our mythologies, for in them we find the complement to our own participation, finding innocence where we contribute gestures informed by competence, and competence where we volunteer our innocence. The outcome is that we do not picture ourselves as trapped within the limitations established by our heritage, nor restricted to those possibilities for being which we are capable of realizing right now, but as open to a future level of attainment that surpasses either so that we have a possibility of becoming more than we have been, more than we are.

In other words, by completing our being and our heritage of meaning, a mythology beckons to us as a revelation of possibilities for becoming, a promise of enrichment or of growth, because it holds out to us a limitless series of gestures which we ourselves have never performed, but which we believe ourselves capable of performing with appropriate (but as yet unknown) intentions. That hope, and that challenge, is the essential gift of community, the gift of becoming more than our heritage suggests, more than we presently are, allowing us to believe that we are not imprisoned within the confines of the past, nor trapped by the few dimensions of being we are able to appreciate right now, but are capable of fulfilling a greater destiny than we can even understand. Community does not gives us ourselves, but it holds out the promise of our own self-transcendence by completing our competence and our innocence with the suggestion of other competences and other degrees of innocence than we at present realize. Even in a face-to-face encounter with another, we each become aware of other possibilities for being and meaning as intimated by our exchange of gestures, and we serve to complete one another’s limited range of experience so that together we form a community of expanded possibility, even though we contribute to—and draw from—those possibilities in different ways.

If . . . we look at social reality as being fundamentally symbolic, there is no guarantee that any two individuals will regard an exchange of symbolic gestures from a single perspective, according to the same authority, or with identical degrees of conviction. In fact, given all evidence for our differences, it can never be assumed that agreement upon certain gestures as “symbolic” carries any certainty of agreement among the meanings to which they might refer within our separate streams of experience. For though we may come together in community, we come as particular individuals, not as some statistically-leveled “common man” who embodies the stereotyped ideals of the abstract whole. As Joseph Campbell reminds us:

In his life-form the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man. He is limited either as male or as female; at any given period of his life he is again limited as child, youth, mature adult, or ancient; furthermore, in his life role he is necessarily specialized as craftsman, trades-man, servant, or thief, priest, leader, wife, nun, or harlot; he cannot be all. Hence the totality—the fullness of man—is not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole; the individual can be only an organ (2).

The synchronized exchange of gestures, then, allows us to insert ourselves into the mythic text of our community by assuming the role of specialized parts or organs at one [pole of an interactive exchange] that loops between our concrete acts and the communal tradition into which they are received as meaningfully intended symbols in apparent conformity with the accepted grammar of our shared linguistic expectations.

In verbal exchange every sentence is a complex series of gestures (involving relations of pitch, stress, juncture, and phonetic units) as the existential performance of a set of mutually embedded meanings spread across a range of abstract levels (from the ostensively present and concrete to the referentially conceptual and abstract), a series of gestures themselves embedded in a context of other (situational, verbal, and nonverbal) gestures subject to construal by each respective participant. The relation between possible gestures and possible situations is dictated by the traditional grammar of the community within which the dialogue is taking place, so that language is not only a medium of communal mythology, but is itself an aspect of that mythology. Language is something in which we believe and to which we must commit ourselves—at the same time we commit our meanings to it. It is possible only insofar as it represents a convergence of our trust and of our cunning, our credence and our reservation.

That is, we must be naive enough to place our faith in language as a factor of our mythology while, at the same time, we must be canny enough to employ language as a medium for that same mythology. And the solution to that most amazing of all paradoxes lies in the skill with which we attempt to balance the one against the other—our innocence against our cleverness, our gullibility against our guile—within a synchronous dialogue in which mythology and language trade off against each other, first one as concrete figure within the subsidiary context of the other, then vice versa, allowing us to believe in our mythology as we practice our language, and to believe in our language as we practice our mythology while, at the same time, we extend those same beliefs and practices to embrace our partner who herself must complete our language and our mythology. It is this double sense of completion—of ourselves and of each other—that makes communal experience possible as a performance in which each participant does for the other what she cannot do for herself, bringing about a unification of language and mythology through their shared disjunction. When you speak I surrender my mythology to you so that I do not hear your words but experience your meanings directly. I embrace you with my innocence in order to appreciate your competence, and when I respond you do the same for me. Together we complete each other, achieving our separate identities within a community of activity to which we each contribute belief and practice in like degree.

Innocent belief and clever practice are, in fact, the two poles that Bruner discovers in all mythology:

From . . . early myths there emerge two types of mythic plot: the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness—the former being a kind of Arcadian ideal, requiring the eschewal of complexity and awareness, the latter requiring the cultivation of competence almost to the point of guile (3).

Every individual myth represents a variation upon the possibilities for equilibrium offered by these two poles, and the mythic hero who exemplifies a particular possibility for their integration serves as a paragon for the instruction of those who would strive for excellence within a particular community of belief:

The manner in which superior knowledge shows itself changes: the ideal of the crafty warrior, the wise man, the interpreter of the word of God, the Renaissance omni-competent, the wily merchant, the financial wizard, the political genius. It is true that in some way each is suspect, it is also true that each is idealized in his own way. . . . New versions arise to reflect the ritual and practice of each era—the modifications of the happiness of innocence and the satisfaction of competence (4).

The dynamic quality of superior knowledge, its essentially evolutionary character, demonstrates that a mythology is not a fixed system within which individuals are restricted to certain traditional ways of practice and belief. Rather, a mythology is a vehicle of transcendence, a way by which individual and community alike can undertake the hazardous journey of becoming. Its function is not to hold a people back, but to encourage it to propel itself forward, competently yet innocently into the altered conditions of the future. A mythology, in fact, is a miraculous aspect of biology that enables an entire population to base its forward thrust upon its most striking examples of past success while, at the same time, making allowance for the inevitable expansion and improvement—and ultimate replacement—of those same examples.

To function effectively in this way, a mythology should be allowed to grow. Its emphasis should be upon current affirmation rather than on preservation of the past. . . . A mythology is a progressive system of belief that seeks out successive states of dis-illusion in which the old innocence continually gives way to an improved sense of competence which, in turn, makes possible the attainment of a renewed state of innocence. The alternative is exemplified by the French Academy’s attempt to preserve the purity of the French language by withholding its sanction from all neologisms and words of foreign extraction. The conceit implied by that endeavor seems to demand the suppression of all evidence that the French of the 1860s was not the language of God the father, but itself evolved—as did Rumanian and Catalan, from a foreign tongue!

Each combination of competence and innocence represents the achievement of a particular heroic individual who shows others the way to obtain the “right” balance between cunning and acceptance, meaning and existence. In fact every individual within her [interactive] involvement with her culture is at once a free and independent person who only abstractly can be taken as a representative of her community and, at the same time, an amorphous mass of possibilities whose realization is entirely dependent upon the concrete gifts she receives from the mythology granting her an identity. Each of us, that is, is simultaneously an existential child, and affirmation of pure and innocent participation in being, and at the same time is a mature and sagacious elder of the tribe, a bearer of tradition and of wisdom. When we speak, we strive for resonance between these two aspects of our [conscious] experience so our words may convey a sense of conviction that we have managed to equate our heroism with our vulnerability and thus we stand forth as an integrated whole in which every aspect of experience is represented according to a dynamic balance of our longing and our accomplishment, a synthesis that makes our words accessible to our partners in dialogue because they seek a similar resonance.

A mythology is perpetuated by acts of mutual accompaniment that allow us to form a community of synchronous affirmation. My innocence affirms the competence with which you express your thoughts through symbolic gestures, just as my own competence affirms your innocence as a confederate in a shared mythology. We complement one another so that through our joint participation in mythology we are able to achieve a being together in meaning. We employ every aspect of that mythology, every symbol, in two senses: as a concrete linguistic statement of our being, and an abstract mythological reference to our meaning. By looping these symbols in a chain that leads from my being to your meaning and back again via your being to my meaning, we align ourselves in a community of gesture and belief that affirms the possibilities of our individual experience even as we affirm its superior possibilities for our inter-subjective conjunction. This mutual affirmation of individual and communal possibilities is discussed by Bruner in the following terms:

I would like to submit that the manner in which man has striven for competence and longed for inno-cence has reflected the controlling myths of the community. The medieval scholar, the Florentine prince, the guild craftsman alike, as well as the withdrawn monastic of Thomas a Kempis and the mendicant of St. Francis—all of these are deeply involved with the myths of innocence and com-petence, and are formed by them. . . . It is not simply society that patterns itself on the idealizing myths, but unconsciously it is the individual man as well who is able to structure his internal clamor of identities in terms of prevailing myths. Life then produces myth and finally imitates it (5).

Mythology alerts us to the possibility of attaining heroic stature and identity while receiving our creative gestures as a per-formance of our own heroic strivings. The hero . . . is the founder within us, the innovator who furthers the spirit of becoming within a mythology by questing after the expansion of the old tradition and the novel fulfillment of each individual’s heritage. By warranting our creative natures, a mythology commits itself to its own renovation and development through our fulfillment of its prospects. It holds before us “a corpus of images and identities and models that provides the pattern to which growth may aspire—a range of metaphoric identities” (6), so that our innovative competence is encouraged and the attainment of new horizons made possible.

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How strange to read over the shoulder of my younger self as a writer. Strange in that I was different then, but the same as I am today, pursuing the same quarry within the human mind, seat of all human experience. Mythology is alive and well in the recesses of consciousness, the same as it ever was, serving the same purpose of aligning the individual with her culture, calibrating her mind in socially-acceptable terms, transforming each unique person into “one of us,” providing her with a social identity, much as the State Department provides her with a passport so she can explain to the Customs officer who she truly is.

My current interest in innocence and competence is as broad categorizations of states of consciousness and the gestures (actions) by which they engage the world of objects and other conscious beings. Innocence is a kind of openness to—or even fearlessness of—events. It is the state of mind necessary for learning what the current situation has to offer. Competence is the state of mind adequate to performing appropriately in a variety of situations. Competence is suitable to every occasion; innocence is the gateway to experience in the here and now. In psychological terms, competence prepares for assimilation, innocence for accommodation, the two together equipping us to engage the world on either its terms or ours. Where competence categorizes the world as it sees fit, innocence is ready to try its hand at learning to categorize as a means of reaching out to the world. Experience is a balance between these two approaches, the willingness to learn and the willingness to show what you can do.

To me, personally, these are aspects of one of the greatest mysteries of consciousness—how we make sense of experience by categorizing it one way or another. Expect more on that topic in future posts. For now, thank you, Jerome Bruner, for the assist.

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Notes:

(1) Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” in Murray, Henry A., ed., Myth and Mythmaking (Braziller, 1960, 281).

(2) Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), 382f., quoted in Bruner, “Myth and Identity,” 280.

(3) Same as (1).

(4) Same source, 282.

(5) Same source, 282f.

(6) Same as (2).

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Mankind is beginning to realize that “under-standing” is only an illusion, that life and action are based upon illusions and lead to illusions.   Hans Vaihinger, The Philosophy of ‘As If,’ 1924, International Library of Psychology, Philosophy, and Scientific Method.

Cigarette smoking is a habit often acquired during adolescence as a means of coping with anxiety experienced in stressful social situations. It provides a ready ritual to create the illusion of being as calm and collected as Humphrey Bogart or the Marlboro Man. Too bad it’s addictive and can lead to lung cancer. In that sense, cigarettes are a kind of placebo, something to calm the waters of the soul when they are agitated or internally threatening.

Our word “placebo” stems from Latin placere, to please, and like “pleasant,” “placate,” and “placid,” from a more ancient root meaning to be flat—as a windless sea can be flat calm. Placebo literally means I shall please, taken from the first word of the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic Vespers for the Dead. We use the word today in referring to a sugar pill or some other ruse to make us think we are receiving effective medication when in fact we are not. The mind seizes on the pill as justification for feeling better solely on the basis of wishful thinking. Ineffective in itself, a placebo gives the mind an excuse for no longer feeling sick, leading to the illusion of effective treatment and recovery based on a very real reduction of self-induced stress. Placeboes give us a chance to demonstrate the truth of the old adage, “mind over matter,” or as Luigi Pirandello said, “It’s true if you think so.”

Doesn’t apply to you? Think again. We say the sun rises and sets—which is how we see it—but it is actually the Earth rotating on its axis that creates the illusion. Our word “universe” means one turning, but it isn’t the cosmos that turns but, again, our rotating Earth that is responsible. We don’t feel ourselves on the skin of a top spinning through space, but that’s where we live nonetheless. For myself, I was racing 15 mph over the speed limit today to make an appointment, which I excused with the handy placebo, I didn’t want to be late. The obvious retort to that would be, well, don’t wait till the last minute. We excuse ourselves as a matter of habit, always defending our self-image if not our actual behavior. “Not guilty, your honor,” we plead with a straight face, when we well know we’re guilty as hell. All for the innocent pleasure of being more self-righteous than the next person.

As I am so fond of saying in regard to consciousness, strange business, indeed. Just putting on a new hat can make us feel our social image is more attractive, like putting on make-up or getting our hair “done.” There’s a new bounce in our step and we feel younger and less drab. Donning a dark, pin-stripe suit lends politicians an air of authority, much as Superman takes on superhuman powers by changing his clothes in a phone booth. We defer to people in uniforms as if underneath they weren’t people who eat junk food on the run, argue with their spouses, and yell at their kids. Owning a late-model car lifts our spirits, even though it’s no better than the trade-in we got rid of. Much of what we do depends on the trade in illusions, which every marketer knows and uses in manipulating us to his profit and advantage, along with every minister who calms the waters of his flock by making reassuring noises, and every celebrity who performs the outrageous acts his fans demand as the price of their loyalty to someone they can identify with.

When we reach above the social plane to the theological or cosmological, we outdo ourselves in grasping at illusory placeboes to make us feel good about matters far exceeding human understanding. Vaihinger quotes Immanuel Kant:

I can make possible . . . systematic unity of the manifold of the cosmic whole, by looking upon all interconnection as if they were the orderings of a supreme reason. . . . This rational entity is, of course, a mere Idea, and is not simply and in itself to be accepted as anything real but is only problematically assumed . . . in order that all the connections in the world of sense may be regarded as if they had their basis in this entity, simply and solely however with the object of building thereon a systematic unit . . . which may be indispensable to the reason and is in every way helpful to the empirical understanding. (Page 281.)

So usefulness is Kant’s criterion for calling up the idea of God as the unifying principle which human reason takes as its base. The idea of God is useful in much the same sense placeboes are useful—both reduce stress by invoking illusions that have no merit in themselves. Yet if we take them as true, then in our minds they become true for us. Creating gods of convenience because it pleases us, we are the true creators of the world we choose to inhabit. In Common Sense (1776), Thomas Paine follows much the same procedure in establishing the idea of God as the ultimate source of the rights of man. I quote at some length from Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, (Classic House Books, 2009) to preserve the gist of Paine’s argument:

Before anything can be reasoned upon to a conclusion, certain facts, principles, or data, to reason from, must be established, admitted, or denied. . . . If . . . man has rights, the question then will be: What are those rights, and how man came by them originally? (Page 89.)

The error of those who reason by precedents drawn from antiquity, respecting the rights of man, is that they do not go far enough into antiquity. They do not go the whole way. . . . If we proceed on, we shall at last come out right; we shall come to the time when man came from the hand of his Maker. What was he then? Man. Man was his high and only title, and a higher cannot be given him. (Pages 89-90, italics added.)

The fact is, that portions of antiquity, by proving everything, establish nothing. It is authority against authority all the way, till we come to the divine origin of the rights of man at the creation. Here our enquiries find a resting-place, and our reason finds a home. If a dispute about the rights of man had arisen at the distance of an hundred years from the creation, it is to this source of authority they must have referred, and is to this same source of authority that we must now refer. (Page 90, italics added.)

Though I mean not to touch upon any sectarian principle of religion, yet it may be worth observing, that the genealogy of Christ is traced to Adam. Why then not trace the rights of man to the creation of man? (Page 90, italics added.)

I mean that men are all of one degree, and consequently that all men are born equal, and with equal natural right. . . . Consequently every child born into the world must be considered as deriving its existence from God. The world is as new to him as it was to the first man that existed, and his natural right in it is of the same kind. (Page 91.)

The Mosaic account of the creation, whether taken as divine authority or merely historical, is full to this point, the unity or equality of man. The expression admits of no controversy. “And God said, Let us make man in our own image. In the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The distinction of sexes is pointed out, but no other distinction is even implied. If this be not divine authority, it is at least historical authority, and shows that the equality of man, so far from being a modern doctrine, is the oldest upon record. (Page 91, italics added.)

Paine, rational man that he is, bases his argument on assumptions neither theological nor historical but mythological through and through. Make-believe is his ultimate authority for determining the origin of the rights of man. Take away God and his creation, Paine’s words fall in a meaningless heap. Yet he is so sure of himself, so relentlessly logical, so self-congratulatory, so much a victim of his prior assumptions that he is clearly peddling placeboes he earnestly feels good about and wants to pass on to us as fundamental truths. Times have not changed all that much due to human consciousness being in charge from Paine’s day to ours. Mind over matter is still our motto; if we believe something to be true, then surely it is. As long as it eases our minds and reduces stress, anxiety goes away and we feel our trusting, childhood selves once again.

Placeboes work because taking them pleases us, putting us in a different—more positive—frame of mind. We’ll settle for that over being right every time, because that’s how consciousness works. Consciousness doesn’t know anything for sure, it only claims to know. There can be no absolutes when it comes to telling truth from untruth, right from wrong. These are invariably matters of opinion and interpretation. The only way to check our beliefs is to adopt an attitude of skepticism, humility, and doubt toward every one of them, asking the ancient question: How can we know that we know what we think we know? And even that is no guarantee we’ll get it right. We must put in our ten-thousand hours if we want to come anywhere near the truth. Deep thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Thomas Paine didn’t reach far enough in seeking to justify their most fundamental assumptions. They merely discovered exactly what was present at the start of their respective trains of thought, and progressed not one inch beyond.

The fact is, there can be no true and fundamental basis for what we believe because the brain has no power to recognize such a basis if it ever came across it. We go with what the crowd believes, or higher authority, or our shelf of great books, or our mothers told us when bouncing us upon her knee. Much of what we earnestly take to be fundamental truth is a placebo we choose to put our faith in on no basis other than that is what suits us at the time. To a man and woman, we are self-made because each of our minds is unique in entertaining whatever enters our heads. Immanuel Kant is right for himself and wrong for everyone else, which is equally true for Thomas Paine, myself, and even the most respected authority. We choose to believe what we do because it accords with our nature and gives us pleasure.

That’s a hard pill to swallow. Which is why we so often resort to sugar pills because they reduce stress and make us feel better right away.

We make ourselves happen to please ourselves. To do it any other way would displease us, which seems senseless. Our only real choice is to press on as far as we can, always paying attention to inconsistencies that might give us pause—and a chance to reconsider the course we are taking in life.

Fluke-72

 

 

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.

 

¦

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

The biblical Book of Job is the story of a “devout and prosperous man” suffering physical misery from unknown causes. He attributes his suffering to God punishing him unjustly. Job’s friends say that God would never punish an innocent man; therefore, Job must be wicked. Job insists on his piety and innocence. In the end, God puts in an appearance as the omnipotent creator and judge of the universe, and proceeds to scoff at Job’s puny understanding in comparison to his own wisdom, and Job’s physical weakness in comparison to the mighty crocodile, God’s chief of beasts.

 

What could Job answer to that? Awed by God’s argument and physical presence, he admits he is out of his depth, comes to despise himself, and duly repents.

 

The rhetorical structure of this tale is similar to a court of law in which Job is the injured plaintiff, his “friends” witness against him, and God plays the role of presiding judge. From the outset, Job appears set up to score a moral point for the court itself rather than receive justice. The suffering at the heart of his quarrel with God is judged to be irrelevant. The outcome is rigged in favor of religious instruction: Without complaint, accept suffering as the will of God the Almighty!

 

God’s argument consists chiefly of listing his powers and accomplishments. Job’s suffering is beside the point. Job can’t perform any of the feats God lists in his resume, therefore the plight of this no-account human before him is of no interest to one who has far weightier responsibilities.

 

The irony being that God, we know now, has none of the knowledge or powers he claims for himself. The Almighty comes off as haughty and pretentious, whereas Job leaves no doubt that his suffering is real and unbearable (quotes from The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition, 1976):

 

My body is infested with worms,

and scabs cover my skin (Job 7.5).

 

My brothers hold aloof from me,

my friends are utterly estranged from me;

my kinsmen and intimates fall away,

my retainers have forgotten me;

my slave-girls treat me as a stranger,

I have become an alien in their eyes,

I summon my slave, but he does not answer,

though I entreat him as a favor.

My breath is noisome to my wife,

and I stink in the nostrils of my own family.

Mere children despise me

and, when I rise, turn their backs on me;

my intimate companions loathe me,

and those whom I love have turned against me.

My bones stick out through my skin,

and I gnaw my under-lip with my teeth (Job 19.13-20).

 

Job’s friends say or infer that he is being punished because he is wicked. Eliphaz the Temanite says, for instance:

 

For consider, what innocent man has ever perished?

Where have you seen the upright destroyed?

          This I know, that those who plough mischief and

sow trouble

          reap as they have sown;

          they perish at the blast of God

          and are shriveled by the breath of his nostrils

(Job 4.7-9).

 

And later adds:

 

Do not think that [God] reproves you because

you are pious,

          that on this count he brings you to trial.

No: it is because you are a very wicked man,

          and your depravity passes all bounds (Job 22.4-5).

 

To this slander, Job responds:

 

I swear by God, who has denied me justice,

          and by the Almighty, who has filled me with bitterness:

          so long as there is any life left in me

          and God’s breath is in my nostrils,

          no untrue word shall pass my lips

          and my tongue shall utter no falsehood.

          God forbid that I should allow you to be right;

          till death, I will not abandon my claim to innocence

(Job 26.2-5).

 

          Let God weigh me in the scales of justice,

          and he will know that I am innocent! (Job 31.6.)

 

In the end, out of the whirlwind, God confronts Job:

 

Who is this whose ignorant words

          cloud my design in darkness?

          Brace yourself and stand up like a man;

          I will ask questions, and you shall answer.

          Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?

(Job 38.2-4.)

 

In all your life have you ever called up the dawn

          or shown the morning its place? (Job 38.12.)

 

          Have you descended to the springs of the sea

          or walked in the unfathomable deep?

          Have the gates of death been revealed to you?

          Have you ever seen the door-keepers of the

place of darkness?

          Have you comprehended the vast expanse of

the world?

          Come, tell me all this, if you know.

          Which is the way to the home of light

          and where does darkness dwell? (Job 38.16-19.)

         

Has the rain a father?

          Who sired the drops of dew?

          Whose womb gave birth to the ice,

          and who was the mother of the frost from heaven,

          which lays a stony cover over the waters

          and freezes the expanse of ocean?

          Can you bind the cluster of the Pleiades

          or loose Orion’s belt? (Job 38.28-31.)

         

          If you bid lightning speed on its way,

          will it say to you, ‘I am ready’? (Job 38.35.)

 

And so on. God assails Job with items of received wisdom 2,500 years old. This is fable, not history. This is mythology—man putting words in God’s mouth to achieve a certain effect. This is theater, not theology. The men who wrote and edited these words are long dead. Their life situations and perspectives cannot be imagined today, much less understood. Their consciousness at the time bore slight resemblance to the story of Job as we can interpret it. Modern consciousness has evolved to fit us to a different world than that of the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. And to a different concept of God, which must now contend with the Big Bang, evolution, and all that has been learned about human nature, the Earth, and its universe in the meantime.

 

A great deal of poetry is to be found in the Bible, along with wisdom, drama, history, and other matters of interest. But the framework that holds it together—the concept of God—is flawed in accounting for consciousness at the time it was written in terms that were to the advantage of a particular group having a vested interest in how God was portrayed. Which is, none other than the priestly profession, intent in those days on assuring its own power, influence, and wealth by spreading God fear and consciousness through the land. Their livelihood depended on overreaching themselves. People who made a living from God were not neutral in portraying the deeds, sayings, and attributes by which he was made known to others.

 

No matter how eloquent the rhetoric, no one can rightfully claim that such writings were aimed at conveying a higher sense of the truth. Job, for instance, was hoodwinked, both by his friends and his God. On the basis of its own internal evidence, this story makes little sense. No matter how strongly someone wants to believe such events actually happened, the proper genre for this piece is historical fiction. It was fiction when written; it remains fiction today.

 

Consciousness flows with the ages. It has come a long way in 2,500 years. In some minds, at least. In others, it has traveled a lesser journey. The mindset that claims such writings as the Book of Job reveal eternal truths in literal language—such mindsets exist at a more primitive stage of development than can grasp or grapple with what is happening in today’s world. Spiritual truth, poetic truth—these are apologies for consciousness having advanced beyond its lowly beginnings. That Bush 43 could pander to a constituency taking biblical writings as a guide to proper behavior in the 21st century speaks a terrifying truth: that consciousness has atrophied in a significant portion of the American mind. That wishful thinking replaces wisdom for those who fear the future, and so look backward to a past dressed in the familiar words and cadences of bygone eras. Beware all truths advanced as eternal.

 

Novelty is the essence of consciousness, not sameness. To live in the past is to prefer dead times to living. If we are not on the leading edge of our own consciousness, we are relying on less than our full potential deserves or requires. If we insist on clinging to past stages of consciousness, Earth will move on without us, leaving us pondering the likes of Job, looking for insights and wisdom in outmoded speeches written for effect in times that once were, but are lost to us now.

 

If you wake up as the same person you were yesterday, you can be neither fully conscious nor alive. I find that a very scary thought. If we live not on the edge, where are we situated? That is the question of the ages. If we are anywhere but in the foremost rank, we are probably not where we claim to be.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

(Copyright © 2008)

Members of the first Pacific island cargo cults believed early explorers and missionaries had waylaid gifts that their island ancestors and deities had intended for them. The more strange and wonderful the cargo brought to their shores, the more certain the islanders became that only their gods were clever enough to create such treasures, and that surely the strangers had intercepted them before appearing on the horizon in their great wind-powered ships. When military forces replaced the earlier explorers during the Pacific campaign of World War II, the islanders hit upon the notion of imitating their dress and behavior, so to perform the powerful magic that had allowed the combatants to steal the treasures that were truly sent by island ancestors and gods to benefit none but their descendants.

 

There is a certain charm about this innocent—almost childish—tale of magic and gullibility among primitive peoples. Or would be if the story didn’t so closely reflect the origins of our deepest religious beliefs in the early days of pastoral tribes guarding their flocks by night beneath the stars in the valleys of the Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers, where so many of our cultural ways and beliefs were birthed in the human mind.

 

The regular motions of heavenly bodies—the sun during the day and stars, planets, and moon at night—were so evidently connected to flowing rivers, blossoming and fruiting plants, and migrating animals, that they were freighted with awe and even divinity because of the mysterious causal influence they exerted on Earth and its peoples. The remoteness of the heavenly host put it beyond human influence, squarely in the realm of causation, which in those days was ruled by the gods.

 

Just as Pacific islanders mimicked the ways of those who relayed their cargo to them, so early planters and shepherds believed their wellbeing depended on their imitating the ways exemplified by luminous bodies overhead. On earth as it is in heaven is probably the most profound religious formulation ever devised—because it was—and is—so evidently true. A tribe of nomads regulating its affairs according to the seasons will learn to plant, cultivate, harvest, migrate, and fast on appropriate days during the heavenly cycle of dearth and plenty. As migrant tribes moved north out of Africa 100,000 years ago, the heavens became increasingly important to their survival via the plants, wildlife, and domestic herds they depended on through the seasonal rains and flooding of the great rivers that begat early civilizations.

 

After discovery of the heavenly order, the next great advance was translating it into human affairs through use of the calendar. Which was not annually distributed in those days, but was built into structures enabling close observers to tell the progression of the seasons through the relation of heavenly bodies to Earthly landmarks such as trees, hills, and mountains, then to set stones, obelisks, and monuments, and later to temples dedicated to receiving and interpreting the instructions sent by the gods to humankind.

 

Where depicted, the gods were often surrounded by halos of light similar to the natural radiance of bright stars and planets. The planets moving among fixed stars were welcomed as angels, a word which descends from Greek angelos, meaning “messenger.” Originally, there were seven of them: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. These were revered as gods in early religions, and were worshipped in temples and sacred groves favoring aspects of their heavenly stature. Every tribe had its priestly reader of signs in the heavens to advise local leaders bent on keeping tribal affairs attuned to the wisdom and advice of the gods as relayed through the motions of, and relationships between, the angels.

 

Urbanization and removal of priesthoods from the countryside to more developed and populated ports and trading centers led religious beliefs to drift from their moorings in the skies and become attached to other deities and institutions as they evolved over time. One characteristic of this succession was the ruthlessness with which each succeeding system of belief suppressed its predecessors. Priestly classes shifted the secret lore that gave them power from the stars—which were in public view—to more arcane wisdom hidden away in sacred texts which only they had access to.

 

As long as all people shared in the survival wisdom freely told by the motions of the planets among the stars, the priesthood provided the public service of yoking human activities to a primal system of knowledge so self-evident that everyone willingly practiced its teachings. But once priestly beliefs in urban centers were distanced from folkways of the countryside (as Dionysian feasts and festivals displaced to Athens were cut off from the rural roots that had fed them for countless generations), the angels and heavenly host became detached in the urban mind from reference to observable events in night skies, so becoming abstract and conceptual, whereas before they had been at the perceptual core of pastoral and agricultural life. Formal, organized religious experience became subject not to phenomenal events but to doctrine. It was never the same after that. Some of the early forms persisted, but their substance was now assigned by the priesthood without reference to the self-evident connections between early shepherds and the visible heavens beneath which they watched.

 

In the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the nine deities were subsumed into one supreme being. Spiritual consciousness was given a single answer to all questions, whereas before it could have selected from a number of options. The supreme being became the Giver of All, Knower of All, Hearer of All, Seer of All, The All-Comprehending, The Perfectly Wise, The Greatest, The Highest. Diversity was looked upon as heresy. The One God was to be all things to all people, even when many of its attributes were in direct opposition: Giver/Taker, First/Last, Manifest/Hidden. In consciousness, the concept of deity was transformed from a plurality to an absolute. There was to be no room in the mind for more than one Being. By fiat, that One was declared Supreme.

 

Which created an outer limit to the art of concept formation, beyond which no mind could freely wander or inquire. The ultimate had been ordained for all time. For all men and women. In all places. Forever. God became a pure idea, unsullied and intangible. Henceforth it would be impossible to encounter this singular god on a mountain top, in a forest glade, or in dreams. The ultimate concept is beyond all sensible attributes. It is that which has no phenomenal dimensions of any kind. No shape, no size, no face, no body. No appearance, no voice, no heft, no motion. It cannot be portrayed in painting, sculpture, music, dance, drama, or other medium.

 

The Absolute can only be thought. And not even that because it has no parts or qualities that can be thought about. What it is is absolutely nothing. The human mind cannot conceive of such a thing. The absolute god of monotheism, meant to comprise all and intend all, is beyond conscious imagination. Calling this god a mystery is no help. There is no way a mortal mind can approach it, much less apprehend it. As that which cannot be known, it is beyond conception itself.

 

The sleep of reason creates monsters. The sleep of phenomenal consciousness creates ideas without substance, which is as empty as a mind can get. Yet people kill in the name of their singular God. Burn nonbelievers at the stake. Explode the bodies of infidels with improvised explosive devices. Murder others who look different, talk different, or dress different from themselves, without remorse.

 

Books have been written detailing the words of this fictional absolute, but they have been written by men to put fear in the hearts of others for the sake of taking power over them. We live in a time when those all around us devote their lives to making money without doing any work. Another way is to create wealth by getting people to worship nothing at all, and ask them to pay for the privilege. This, too, is happening all around us. As Brooklyn Bridge can repeatedly be sold to innocents with little in their heads and too many coins in their pockets, belief in nothingness can be dressed in passion and sold to the fearful and destitute. Brooklyn Bridge, holy writ—as far as consciousness goes they amount to much the same thing.

 

Belief without substance at the core is worse than an oxymoron, it is a travesty of consciousness itself. Without something to chew on, the mind is as useless an organ as the coccyx or appendix. Which may well be the point. When the mind is fixed on emptiness, it is that much easier for those in high places to take possession of such minds and fill the void with dogma, allowing the strong and clever to think for the weak and the innocent.

¦

 

Reflection 3: Mea Culpa

October 9, 2008

(Copyright © 2008)

Have you ever looked at something that’s right in front of you and not seen it? I have, many times. Take this example.

 

Where’s the mustard? I open the refrigerator and scan the shelves. I know just what I’m looking for: a small, squat, thick-waisted jar of clear glass half-full of my favorite, dark-yellow condiment. I don’t see it at first. Probably behind the milk; no. In back of a low shelf; no. Left out on the counter; no. In a cupboard; no. I know we have some, I used it yesterday. Check again. Move things around to peer behind them. Pickles, yes. Mayo, yes. Relish, yes. Broccoli, carrots, leftovers wrapped in foil, yes. Mustard, no. Misplaced in the freezer?, no. On the table?, no. Aliens must have taken it. I go through the search routine again; then in reverse order. No mustard anywhere. Major frustration. Man-child has taken it to his room? He never does that. Slowly fuming, I open the refrigerator door one last time. Aha! I spy the round, bright red lid. The jar was right in front of me all the time, next to the milk, lying on its side. I was looking for its profile while it was presenting its top. Wrong gestalt. Blindsided again.

 

Such is consciousness. Full of pitfalls and surprises. We generally find what we look for. When mental phenomena don’t match our expectations, we tend to disregard them as if they didn’t exist. They don’t measure up to our search criteria. Like the current economic crisis. Who saw it coming? Yet it was in view all the time. Partial view, anyway. Some saw the parts they were interested in creeping up, but very few saw the big picture because they weren’t looking for it. It just didn’t jibe with the conventional mythology of open markets and laissez faire capitalism, which were alleged to heal themselves.

 

I have read lots of explanations of what happened. And how it could happen. But the picture is shifting every day. And so far, I haven’t ready anyone who is even close to the truth. It is viewed variously as a financial crisis, a failure of government, an investment-market-insurance-banking catastrophe. Pundits review their notes on the Golden Age, the Great Depression, the oil embargo, the savings-and-loan fiasco, the dot.com collapse, the Enron-auditing game. And now the mortgage meltdown based on worthless paper selling at inflated prices so all concerned could get their piece of the action. First from over-stressed homeowners, now through Big Brother bailouts. Like me and the little mustard jar, the experts are looking for what they want to find, not what is actually looking right back at them.

 

How many crises does it take to signal the approaching collapse of Earth as a self-sustaining natural system because too many humanoids are demanding too much from what they take to be a cornucopia but is actually a minor planet orbiting its second-rate star, which happens to support all the life we know of in the universe? The crux of the problem is we are forcing natural systems to behave in an economic manner as if we designed Earth’s ecosystems to meet our needs, while in fact we didn’t produce them—they produced us. We are the butt end wagging the dog. If that dog isn’t free to lead its own life, we don’t have the smarts, background, or imagination to manage it from our limited point of view.

 

No wonder capitalism is falling around our ears. No respecter of natural ecosystems, we insist they serve us as resources regardless of our population or level of consumption. This crisis is telling us we can get only so much support from Earth’s ecosystems before they become stressed to the point of collapse. Simply put, there are too many mouths to feed, too many fortunes to be made. This is more than a warning sign; like global warming and preemptive warfare, it signals the beginning of the end.

 

Consciousness, our greatest gift, has failed us because we have substituted our own mythology for what it could have been trying to tell us all along. We get this one chance at life and then we are all going to die. We twist that into demanding to live high on the hog now, promising to worry later about aging and death when we can spare the time. Which (we chuckle to ourselves) is nevermore. So death stalks us throughout our lives, just as economic collapse stalks us, which is how we choose to deal with truths we’d rather not face.

 

If we think government bailouts and beefed-up financial oversight will do the job, we haven’t gotten the message. These signals are being sent with increasing frequency. Wake up, they cry, look around! Rise to consciousness! Be aware! Life is not about comfort unto luxury, and not about personal influence and power. Life is about fitting ourselves to Earth’s ways and means. About opening ourselves to phenomena rather than suppressing or ignoring them. About being curious and asking the hard questions. Then doing our best for the Earthling community—the only community we will ever have—not just for our trivial (street-corner) selves. In some quarters, not seeing the obvious is taken as a sign of stupidity. Mea culpa. How about you? ¦