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The Weights of Truth

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really grasp the fact that we are continually constructing the meaning of life. A naïve perspective assumes that meaning is something ‘out there’ in reality to be searched out, discovered, and assimilated into our view of things. So, even though constructivism has been in our cultural consciousness now for well over a hundred years, the overwhelming majority of us don’t accept it as a valid statement concerning the nature of meaning and our mind’s role in making life meaningful.

In our day particularly, rationality has gone out of fashion. Our social agreements and personal beliefs are based on other sources and foundations, not so much on whether our explanations and reasons are very reasonable.

It’s of critical importance, then, that we take some time to dig into this question of truth and how we construct the meaning of life. As a tool I have designed what I call “weights of truth,” organized as a pyramid of sources and foundations, with each level building on ones underneath it and in turn serving as a basis for those higher up. By “weight” I mean that we tend to rely more (deeper levels) or less (higher levels) on the various sources and foundations; that is to say, we give them more or less weight in our construction of meaning.

Let me start by defining each weight (or level), and then we can come back to look at how this relates to a couple enterprises of culture that frequently contradict each other – at least in our time. Science and religion don’t have to compete for our loyalty, and for the longest time they actually complemented each other in constructions of meaning known as the distinct worldviews of human culture. After we have clarified the various weights of truth, I’ll make a case for how science and religion might once again cooperate towards a larger and more relevant meaning of life.

Experience

When the individual senses, perceives, or undergoes something we say that he or she has an experience of it. As we all know, these senses and perceptions are not always (or even all that frequently) reliable representations of reality. There is a subjective quality to experience that makes it finally impossible to verify whether two individuals in the same situation are really undergoing the same thing. Experience is notoriously mercurial and inescapably biased. And yet we rely on it all the time to determine what is true and meaningfully relevant in what’s going on.

Included in this category are the profound and essentially ineffable assumptions we carry from our prenatal, newborn, and early childhood period. Way back then our brain was calibrating our body’s internal state according to its sense impressions of the environment. Mother’s womb, the family circle, and our material surroundings conspired to form in us a nervous state that would maximize our chance to survive and grow. A warm, nurturing, enriched, and supportive environment strengthened a sense of reality as provident, benign, and friendly. In contrast, a toxic, hostile, and abusive environment signaled our nervous system to assume a state of anxiety, hypervigilance, and chronic distress.

I give the greatest weight to experience precisely because everything else in our construction of meaning is built upon this baseline nervous state formed in our early days and years of life. As already suggested, its ineffability – the fact that we can’t fully find the words to articulate how we’re feeling at this level – is due to its formation prior to our acquisition of language. Consequently, experience is where the articulate mind sinks into the literally unspeakable urgencies of the body. To us, this is very simply (and indisputably) the ways things are. As we look out on reality, our nervous system is filtering out and focusing in on whatever confirms a visceral sense of what truly matters.

Testimony

By testimony I mean the words and witness of other people. It is positioned deep among the weights of truth because our worldview, as a construction of meaning, borrows heavily on the authority of those we depend on and admire. For reasons that don’t need to be explained, our baseline nervous state in early life seeks and finds confirmation in what our taller powers tell us about the nature of reality. Taller powers who abuse or neglect us are more likely to hold beliefs that represent life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” just as provident taller powers tend to speak of reality in more positive and optimistic terms. In this way, their nervous state literally spoke to our nervous state and we joined the trance.

In essence, testimony is less about the factual accuracy of what is said than the trustworthy character of a witness. That’s why testimonies in the courtroom are validated or impeached on the basis of how honest and truthful a witness is made out to be. Particularly in religion, the unimpeachable authority of witnesses who attest to revelations whereby a higher truth was made known to them is a powerful shaping influence on the worldview of believers. They – or more accurately, their words as preserved in scripture and tradition – either confirm what believers already sense or hope is true, or else the authority of their witness might persuade nonbelievers to convert.

Rhetoric

The power of language in shaping thought, evoking feeling, and confirming or persuading belief is what we call rhetoric. The ancient tradition of Greek rationalism elicited suspicion in the philosophical establishment towards those (called Sophists) who used language to stir the emotions and entrance an audience, rather than challenging students to think in clear and distinct ideas. Rhetoric goes very naturally together with testimony, since it’s not typically the rationality of what someone says that pulls us over to their side, so much as how they say it.

Thus charisma, speech-craft, pitch, volume and the cadence of words spoken (along with posture, gestures, and body language) are most often what persuades us, more so than the coherence, soundness, or realism of what is said. Indeed, if we have to determine the truth-value of someone’s testimony, we will check it against how trustworthy the person is before we bother checking the facts. It may well be that our susceptibility to rhetorical entrancement goes back to the sing-song voice of our mother that so effectively calmed us down and put us to sleep.

Evidence

Evidence is how reality presents itself to our senses. We detect something ‘out there’ and focus our perception in order to establish its objective status. Evidence is not how something feels to us or what it seems to be like, but what it is as determined through our observations of it. Despite this virtue of objectivity, however, we still find it necessary at times to distinguish between strong evidence, which is based in the way things really are, and false evidence that can lead us to believe something that isn’t really a fact at all.

For example, before Copernicus the cosmology of most people took the observation of the sun arcing across the daytime sky as evidence of Earth’s stationary position at the center of everything. They really were seeing the sun moving, although what they saw wasn’t really the sun moving. It was false evidence, and it took Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Brahe, and a few other astronomers to finally convince most of us that in reality it’s the earth that moves around the sun. Western science has been a wildly successful enterprise in exposing false evidence and verifying strong evidence.

Logic

My last weight of truth in the construction of meaning is logic, another element of language but more about the connection and coherence among the thoughts that words represent than the craft and persuasive power of speech. We can regard science as a research discipline (or system of disciplines) that is constantly working towards the most rational explanation of empirical observations gained through specialized instruments and meticulous observation in the field or laboratory. The terms rational and empirical acknowledge the two principal traditions of philosophy (rationalism and empiricism) that have shaped our Western mind and worldview.

In other words, science isn’t and cannot be only about evidence – just the facts, as we say. It too, like religion and culture in general, is involved in the process of constructing meaning. Digging up fossils, splitting atoms, and organizing data must eventually flow into an exercise of theory-building, which is itself a special kind of storytelling but without the spell of rhetoric. No doubt, the success of science has everything to do with its commitment to doubting experience, setting aside testimony (e.g., “We believe it because Copernicus said so!”), completely replacing rhetorical flourishes with mathematical terminology, and bringing only the strongest evidence into theoretical patterns and predictions that can withstand rigorous controlled experiments.


Science and Religion in the Construction of Meaning

At the beginning of this post I alluded to that complicated relationship between an enterprise (science) dedicated to keeping our constructions of meaning as logical and evidence-based as possible, and one (religion) that is much more interested in reality as the provident, creative, and benign mystery in which we have our existence. For millenniums these two enterprises – one looking out and around to the turning unity of all things, and the other looking within and beneath ego to the grounding mystery of being itself – collaborated in the construction of worldviews that guided the lifeways of both indigenous tribes and great civilizations around our planet.

Instead of a Great Chain of Being as proposed by esoteric philosophies, I am suggesting that what really held these constructions of meaning together and made them work was something closer to my weights of truth and the continuum of meaning they comprise.

But when the theoretical framework of reality as articulated by science started to shift toward stronger evidence and more rational explanations, the sacred stories of religion couldn’t adapt as quickly. They continued to assume a three-story universe in the background of their sacred narratives, while science was revealing a very different cosmic order. In the attempt to save its myths, religion insisted on their basis in fact (evidence), drawing on the words of infallible witnesses (testimony) who had walked with gods, encountered angels, and touched the savior with their very hands.

Today many devotees and true believers are trying desperately to keep science in service to religion, arguing for creationism, supernatural agencies, historical miracles, and a world beyond this one. But it won’t work – it can’t work, for the straightforward reason that its claims are rapidly losing currency, credibility, and relevance in contemporary life. It could be argued that our dogmatic insistence on the truth of obsolete and collapsing constructions of meaning is what is driving religion to fanaticism these days, at the same time as many disillusioned former believers are quietly slipping out of the sanctuary.

By positioning religion deeper in the pyramid of weights I am making a case for interpreting its mythology as poetic art, representing in metaphor an experience of the present mystery of reality, and preserving its testimony through the tradition of generations. Rather than journalistic accounts of supernatural beings and miraculous deeds from a golden age of salvation history, its sacred stories serve to orient human existence – right now – in the great web of life and the adventure that each of us must take on, of waking to our higher nature and giving back in gratitude.

 

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In the Beginning

In the Genesis myth of chapter one, the breath (spirit) of God hovers over the primordial waters – the one element in creation that is co-eternal with God (so technically not a creation). God says, “Let there be …” and therewith issues forth light followed by the rest of the cosmic order: the dome of the sky with its sun, moon, and stars; the salt seas, freshwater rivers, and rain stores above the clouds; then comes the fertile disk of earth itself with its flora and fauna and, at last, the first humans standing squint-eyed in the radiant splendor of it all.

Now if we take the view of biblical literalists, the truth of this marvelous account lies in its factual accuracy in describing the origins of the universe and our place in it. We must think of it, that is to say, as referring to an event in the past – the very earliest past, to the beginning of time itself, whether 6,000 years ago (according to a strict literal reckoning) or fourteen billion, as proposed by modern science. Regardless, it happened long ago, and here we are.

The problems with taking the Bible literally this way are numerous, but perhaps the most serious problem is that it makes the Bible into something it isn’t. When its stories are read as eye-witness records of miracles and metaphysics, they lose their power as sacred fiction and become falsifiable. Not only scientific scrutiny, but rational logic and adult common sense must be given the privilege of testing the claims of a literal Bible. In that case, the evidence and arguments against its truth (as factual accuracy) are fully persuasive, leaving a literalist no choice but to reject science, rationality, and the obvious so the Bible can stand alone as revelation.

There is another way, which actually returns to the Bible some of its authority as holy writ. Before I demonstrate what I mean, by using the Genesis myth referenced above, we need to remember that these sacred stories were not originally rendered in writing and kept in books, but instead were composed and recited for audiences in settings of ritual performance. An often overlooked consequence of transcribing oral narratives into written documents is that the present-time immediacy of a live storytelling audition gets reduced and flattened to mere words on a page. Furthermore, the sacred act of storytelling – of bringing scenes and characters to life – is utterly eclipsed, leaving only the scenes and characters of another time and place, fixed and passive under the distancing control of the reader’s eye, susceptible to being skipped or reviewed as interest demands.

So really we should imagine an ancient ritual ceremony where the story of creation is being performed in real time, with the storyteller speaking and gesturing before a congregation in raptured imagination. What is this myth revealing, if more than factual information about how the universe came to be? One thing, certainly, is that everything starts with God, or better, with that ineffable mystery of intention and causality to which this dry and overused name refers. We’re hearing about – or are we hearing directly from? – the primal source and creative intelligence behind the world as we know it. Yes, but not about or from something else, not a supernatural or metaphysical being – back there, up there, out there.

I propose that this story is sacred because it reveals us to ourselves, as the world creators we are. My returning reader is likely familiar with my term ‘creative authority’ as referring to the achievement of self-actualization, something of an apotheosis of maturity where an individual takes responsibility for the authorship of his or her own personal myth (i.e., identity) and construction of meaning (i.e., world). Up to this point the authority has been in other hands, those taller powers (parents, guardians, and other tribal handlers) who conspire to shape youngsters into compliant members of the group. At maturity – or hopefully not long afterwards – the individual needs to step out of dependency and into self-responsible authority as a creator.

What I’m suggesting is that the one who first composed the creation myth of Genesis was not doing it for the quasi-scientific purpose of explaining how the universe came into being. Obviously he or she was not an eye witness of the events described (humans don’t show up until day six), but neither is it necessary to assume that our storyteller was simply repeating what had been revealed by divine messenger. We can reasonably suppose that he was in full possession of his faculties, that she was conscious of what she was doing. That leaves us with a decision between deliberate deception (but only if we must take the story literally) and artistic insight into the creative process. I’m going with the latter.creative-authority-flowWe need to be reminded (and then double-check the text for ourselves) that according to our myth the primordial waters is the one thing God did not create. (This insight resonates with the theory of Thales of Miletus, in ancient Greece, who was likely a contemporary of our storyteller.) The ‘formlessness and emptiness’ that preexists creation can be found in many myths worldwide, and it is generally taken as a metaphor of chaos – not the mixed-up confusion of random things, but rather the formless vibration of energy, analogous to the quantum reality of contemporary physics.

This indeterminate potentiality of chaos rises into pattern and form in its aspect as the ground of existence, in energy manifesting as this or that, crystallized in the latticework of matter, order, and meaning. But chaos is also a solvent into which these same patterns and forms will eventually disintegrate, and this is its aspect as the abyss of extinction. As ground, chaos is generativity and fullness; as abyss it is dissipation and emptiness. Should we seek security from its abyssal aspect behind our walls and defenses, the devastating outcome will be that we lose access to our grounding mystery as well. In other words, creative authority (as well as artistic creativity) requires that we stay open to chaos and learn to trust the process.

Our goal and ongoing task in any case is to live a life of purpose, which means living intentionally and taking responsibility for our choices. (It should be obvious how different this notion of purpose is from the evangelical Christian idea of a ‘purpose-driven life’, where a believer must surrender his or her will to the perfect plan of god.) And this is where three related terms come into the picture, which have not only an impressive representation in the Bible but are also found throughout the mythologies of ancient cultures: breath, voice, and word.

Word

These three terms, in fact, name what we might think of as the three ‘moves’ in world creation – remembering that the construction of meaning is the end product of this creative process. It will help if we start with the product (the world-construct) and work in reverse along this sequence of moves. Word refers to speech and to the instrument of language itself, as the medium that enables the mind to facilitate the translation of experience into meaning. Pure (immediate) experience is meaningless until the logical units and categories of thought that filter, arrange, and frame it into significance are imposed.

Our worlds are constructs of language – conventions, narratives, mental models – that we must continually validate by spinning the scripts that keep them suspended in our imaginations. If we should lose track of the script, as in amnesia where the neural circuitry supporting it gets bumped off-line and we forget who we are, we find ourselves in a very unpleasant place – or rather, we can’t find ourselves without a context, and that’s precisely the point. This language-dependent nature of our world is a more recent rediscovery that inspired the postmodern school of constructivism.

Voice

But it’s not merely words on a page that keep our worlds suspended, but the stories we tell ourselves and others. That’s why ‘voice’ and not ‘text’ stands upstream from ‘word’. Voice is the sounding instrument that produces the word, but it cannot be reduced to the mere sound of words. Indeed, whereas words are public and shared packets of information, a voice is exquisitely individual and unique. In the Indian psychosomatic chakra system, the throat chakra is the center of personal power and self-expression. This is not about hitching onto someone else’s meaning or borrowing another’s truth, but giving ‘voice’ to one’s own perspective and will.

It’s important to realize that in the Genesis myth God didn’t merely do or say something a long time ago, but is depicted (in the act of storytelling) as speaking forth, vocalizing, and articulating the structure of reality in this very moment. The cosmic order comes into being and holds together by virtue of God’s active and sustained speech; the world is words sustained in the act of speech.

Breath

Our third and final move upstream in the creative process brings us to the very edge of chaos, to the threshold where the urgency of life in each breath that our body requires is channeled through the voice and into the words that construct our world. In ancient languages, the often refined idea of spirit (Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus) has etymological roots in this very body-centered power of the breath to animate, inspire, pacify, and empower. Breath keeps the body alive while it serves our higher aspirations for meaning – in which, strictly speaking, the body has no interest whatsoever.

A more embodied notion of spirit as breath serves additionally to keep it from leaving the body for heavenly, metaphysical, or esoteric abstractions, where it has been coined by religious orthodoxies and secret societies, time and again, into something they can claim exclusively for themselves. Even a traditional reading of the Genesis myth will tend to identify the spirit that was hovering over the surface of primordial waters with a deity who is separate and far superior to what we are. In such cases the story is enervated and its revolutionary insight into our nature as world creators is locked away.

Let’s not forget, however, that worlds are constructs of meaning; that meaning is a production of words; that words are sound-bytes of speech; that the speaking voice is a channel of the breath; and that breathing is our grace between life and death.

“In the beginning” is always now.

 

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