Future, Present, & Past:
Speculative~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Beyond ≠ beneath
Last post, I concluded with: "What I hope for is the acknowledgment that the territory [of spirituality] is real, and that the real journey is far more interesting and worthy (and less dangerous) than an imaginary ride on an imaginary chairlift."
So what would an account that "recognizes that the territory exists" look like? How would one acknowledge the spiritual realm without merely ceding all responsibility to reflect rationally?
It ought to be surprising that this question should even arise, when there are so many precedents, but we live in a culture in which reason is very casually treated, by both its attackers and its defenders.
Ken Wilber's essay "The pre/trans fallacy" very nicely summarized what this costs us. (My argument here draws on, but does not try to faithfully represent, Wilber's whole argument or its context.) Reason, after all, is opposed to the irrational. It is sometimes suggested, for instance, that there is no more evidence for the existence of God than for the Flying Spaghetti Monster, an argument that is somehow supposed to demonstrate that all such assertions are more or less on the same level of indemonstrable irrationality. To this, one might counter with the experiences of the great mystics, say St. John of the Cross or Vivekananda (I cite cross-cultural examples here because this is the context of Wilber's thinking and my points at this stage will not involve the differences between spiritual traditions). These great friends of God report an experience which may or may not be "the same" in every case, but they do have at least one common feature--they do not report encounters with the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Wilber would say that the reductionist claim that assertions about God are all on the level of assertions about the F.S.M. have fallaciously collapsed the trans-rational into the pre-rational. It may well be that many accounts of God do indeed arise from what Christopher Hitchens calls "the bawling and fearful infancy of our species." God as wish-fulfillment, God as the fantasy of revenge on my enemies, God as the maker of rain and the bringer of earthquakes; all these are pre-rational memes, and the God they describe does not hold up under scrutiny. The classic instance of this critique is Freud's The Future of an Illusion, which of course accounted for every "experience" of God as essentially the work of the psyche performing some mighty act of denial or projection or just succumbing to a comforting fantasy occasioned by an idiosyncratic neural tic. This is made the more plausible because mystics' experiences are all, notoriously, impossible to describe in the medium of rational discourse. But this by itself does not justify the wholesale dismissal of assertions of encounter with God, or the reduction of theism to irrationalism, because (Wilber says) there is more than one kind of assertion that is "irrational." The transrational may be formally indiscernible from the prerational, from the perspective of a reductionistic rationality. This argument itself can only strike one as a version of Russell's teapot--a difference that doesn't make a difference--unless, of course, one has other reasons for buying into it, reasons which may themselves be prerational (say, commitment to a community) or transrational (having had a mystical encounter oneself). The point is that against the acidic critique of reductionism there is no extra-experiential defense. The only way to convert the rationalist is to induce an experience that is outside rationalism. And even this of course may not work, because any such experience--one's own included--can still be made the object of skepticism.
This much of Wilber's argument goes down rather nicely for those who want to be able to have their theology and their science too. But Wilber warns that not all theology is created equal. There is a parallel danger to reducing every transrational experience to the prerational, and that is to elevate the prerational to transrational status. By their fruits you shall know them, not by somebody elses; in vain will one appropriate the mantle of St. John of the Cross to cloak the Roman Catholic version of fundamentalism in a spurious dignity. Not every light that shines down on you is the breaking-in of the divine fire, and the fact that there have been those on whom the divine fire has shone does not prove that it has shone on you. In short, sometimes an illusion is just an illusion.
As Freudianism provides the classic instance of the reductionist version of the pre/trans fallacy, so Jungianism shows all the hallmarks of the fallacy in the other direction. There are indeed pre-rational "encounters" with archetypes, psychic upheavals of a purely subjective nature, sometimes reinforced within cultural systems and discourses that lend it a contextual "legitimacy" that falls away when one views it from outside. There are pathological devolutions of psychology, mere madnesses, which may include aspects or glimpses of genuine transrational insight but lack the psychological scaffolding to grow. And there are plain old fakes, delusions, mistakes, and nonsense.
In such terms, Wilber diagnoses vast swathes of the New Age movement. Particularly in his major work to date, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, (I have a short review of the book here), Wilber offered a vigorous (and, in many critics' opinions, overly polemical) critique of postmodernism and newageism alike. (I will note parenthetically that this polemical streak in Wilber appeals to me, but that especially in its online voice, comes off as very much over-the-top sometimes, especially when he is "correcting" critics who frequently turn out to have misunderstood him, and sometimes to not even have the requisite altitude to evaluate him properly. I do think that these critics have a point or three, but you don't have to be a die-hard skeptic to find this uncomfortably close to self-validation. In any case, let me state unequivocally: I have no pretense of having exhaustively described Wilber's position--or anyone else's for that matter. All my accounts are, I believe, plausible and responsible, but they are also corrigible.)
Wilber is thus engaged in a two-front struggle; on the one hand against the reductionists; on the other, against the indiscriminate elevators of their favorite flavor of spirituality. Wilber's names for the makers of these two mistakes are "descenders" and "ascenders," respectively, and his critique of each is extensive, scathing, nuanced, and complex. I haven't duplicated it here. But whatever my differences with Wilber (and they are not few, as the review linked to above will suggest), I appreciate very much this double-pronged stance, which for obvious reasons reminds me of my own position on the Abrahamic traditions. (I might add that Kierkegaard had a similar dance to dance in his Book on Adler, though in his case he was not arguing against fundamentalism but against a sort of 19th-century version of newageism.) What I gloss as Christianity's imagining of a "chairlift," is my version of a critique of Christianity's pre/trans fallacy. To put all your effort into a tremendous denial of thinking in the name of "belief" is to make a travesty of human personhood. On the other hand, to yawn, sneer, or shout at every prophet or mystic (to deny the very existence of a "territory" of spirituality) betrays an intransigence and incuriosity that is hardly better. To break out of this false dichotomy will require some version of a radical empiricism that takes account of genuine "transrational" experience while remaining on guard against collapsing these into their prerational simulacra. Wilber's synthetic account of evolutionary philosophy--which would require its own post, or more than one--may or may not provide the best apparatus for doing this sorting; but he has provided an invaluable service even by pointing out that the job is there to be done.