A Sincere Call for Responses

January 12, 2012 8 comments

ATTENTION: Religious and spiritual folks who read this blog, I have a question for you and I am very interested in your responses. This is more than idle curiosity, however, for it cuts to the core of both spirituality-as-such and of what I plan on studying in my return to college.

What is your response to (and/or explanation of) the strongly apparent necessity of the physical brain to metaphysical mind? Neuroscience more and more finds direct correlates between brain states and mental states; how does this affect you and your worldview? Do you have any particular religious and/or philosophical responses? In short, what does this seemingly causative relationship from “brain” to “mind” mean?

I have my own ideas, here, but I’m looking for the ideas of others. Please share!

Its a Conspiracy!

There is no need to uncritically accept conspiracy theories, and it is high time that “spiritual” people in the United States bring the light of reason to their socio-political views. There is no worldwide organization in total control of the world’s economic and political structures. The Illuminati was a short-lived attempt by a Bavarian atheist to infiltrate occultism and use it as a tool for popularizing secularism (a worthless effort, given that occultism was already largely in favor of political secularism, at the time). The Freemasons do not rule the world’s banking system; if they did, I would not be working retail and worrying over going into debt for college. The Bilderberg Group is just a group of big business and high finance gamers trying to get in on more and more successful business investments; it may be crass and selfish, but it isn’t shadowy or sinister.

Even the “1%” are not in a deliberate conspiracy of social or economic control. The fact is, they don’t need to hide what they’re doing or why. Who’s going to stop them? All it has ever taken is a little political nudge here and there and most people will pretty naturally fall in line with a pro-business agenda. Why? Because a pro-business agenda looks exactly like a pro-individualist agenda, and who doesn’t love freedom?

The principle of parsimony (popularly known as Occam’s razor) states, quite simply, that all other things being equal, the explanation which requires the fewest assumptions is the correct one. This means that an explanation which takes account of all evidence without injecting unnecessary assumptions is the correct explanation, while its neighbor which has added even one assumption above and beyond the evidence is at least partially wrong.

With this in mind, we simply do not need the Illuminati, or the New World Order, or the Grays cloaked in near-earth orbit to explain the problems in this world. A healthy mix of greed, fear, and incompetence are more than enough to cause an economic collapse, tyrannical laws and social instability. And, quite honestly, aren’t these enough to worry about without dragging unrealistic paranoia into it?

I have a hypothesis. It seems to me that many “conspiracy theories” work in two directions at once: on one hand, they provide a scapegoat, which is everybody’s favorite mechanism for avoiding blame for the state of the world; on the other hand, conspiracy theories provide an ersatz consolation in that they send the message that, “Well, at least somebody is in control of this mess!” The fact is that people (and societies) are more often buffeted by the winds of fate, pushed around by the tides of luck, and bogged-down by the flotsam and jetsam of good, old-fashioned human incompetence. Still, even if everything is going wrong, it is somewhat comforting to think that some understandable, human agency is both maintaining and benefiting from the seemingly implacable scenario of earthly life. And, to some extent, there are plenty of humans who do benefit from such things. But these aren’t shadowy cabals; they’re us. Even the “99%” in America (with the obvious exceptions of the extremely poor and the homeless)—the middle and upper-middle classes especially, but not exclusively by any means—benefit directly from the hellish conditions of other parts of the world. This isn’t a reason to merely feel guilty, but is worthy of serious attention. Even the “1%”—who do rule the world, after a fashion—aren’t evil sorcerers committing intentional human sacrifice; they certainly do evil, but not out of a will to do evil; they, like all imperfect people, are doing what they think is best for themselves and their families. Almost nobody does something “bad” because they want to do “bad”; usually, evil is committed out of a misguided and narrowly-focused zeal to do good.

So, let’s stop with the black helicopters, the Illuminati, and the like, and face the very real, very serious problems which we do have before us—problems which are spoken of not in shadowy, pentagram-laden grottoes, but openly in board rooms, congresses and parliaments, shareholder meetings, and trade conventions. The problems may arise from nature, but they are bound-up and intensified by ignorance, irrationality, and a callous disregard for the broader needs of others.

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Book: “Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction” by Eliot Deutsch

December 28, 2011 1 comment

I just started reading Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction by Eliot Deutsch. Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This book kept popping-up in my Amazon.com shopping trips, as well as in various bibliographies and the like, so I finally ordered a copy (along with two jars of Branston Pickle, because Amazon.com doesn’t want me to ever leave my house again). It just came in today, and I’ve started my usual pre-read skimming, and just finished reading the preface.

The subject is of particular interest for me, as I have spent a lot of time over the past several years pondering similar philosophical problems in relation to Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hermeticism. The author’s main objective—one which I stand behind on principle—is a reconstruction of Advaita-as-philosophical-school according to a modern Westerner’s view of universal philosophical problems. How does Advaita address “problems” such as God’s existence and nature, the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness (or, more precisely, nonconsciousness), karma and morality, experiential (direct) and observational & studied (indirect) epistemology, and so forth.

As up-my-alley as this book seems, I must say that I’m somewhat skeptical of the author’s ability (really anybody’s ability) to fully deconstruct the cultural and historical context of Advaita in order to put it clearly in view of the broad strokes of Western philosophy. I certainly intend on giving Deutsch enough of the benefit of the doubt to read the book and see how much I can learn from it, but “religious systems” and “spiritual philosophies” (for lack of more precise terms) more than not defy this sort of deconstruction-and-reconstruction; please accept as evidence the utter failure of so-called “Neopaganism” to produce a viable path of spiritual growth. (Apparent examples to the contrary are almost always practicing some combination of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hermetic methods with a light dusting of Neopagan terminology on top, leading an astute observer to the realization that they would be much better off dropping the Neopagan trappings altogether and devoting themselves to that which is of real worth in their systems.) Deutsch’s approach remains to be seen by this reader, though, so he could very well still surprise me.

Book: “The Road to Reality” by Roger Penrose

November 9, 2011 4 comments

I just started The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe by Roger Penrose (2004, Vintage Books). Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

I’ve only ever read short pieces by Penrose, before, or else excerpts from his stuff quoted in other peoples’ works. It seemed like a good move to begin with this approximately 1050 page leviathan before diving into his other books for the simple reason that The Road to Reality is sometimes considered to be Penrose’s magnum opus.

The first 16 chapters, according to Penrose’s brutally honest preface, are devoted to the ideas of modern mathematics, and the entire book is peppered with mathematical exercises to help the reader to understand what mathematicians and physicists think about a lot of the important and profound ideas of cutting-edge science. It is also, he says, his humble attempt at demonstrating the beauty of maths to a population largely terrified of the subject. I welcome this sort of approach from a popular science book for the same reason I appreciated Brian Greene’s inclusion of maths in the endnotes of his books: I’m one of those people who was brutalized by mathematics early in life, but instead of resenting maths I have chosen instead to resent the presentation of it which I suffered. As a rationalist-at-heart, I know that maths are vital to understanding the reality with which we are presented daily; as something of a Platonist (a self-identification I share with Sir Roger Penrose), I also understand that mathematics have a beauty, even a poetry, all their own, and an independent self-existence, which all speak to the very nature of the cosmos more directly than most certainly any other language. So, I relish the anticipation of digging-in and trying my hand at Penrose’s exercises all the while enjoying his flowing prose explanations of the ideas the maths embody.

So here, it seems, is an exercise in not just popularizing science (though certainly that), but also in respecting the intelligence of the readership enough to challenge them in multiple levels. No mere Dawkins-esque “Everything you know is wrong, which is why I am a better man than you,” Penrose seeks not to bully us with his ideas but to use them as tools for treating us as his equals. I would expect no less from a man often called “one of the world’s most original thinkers.”

Book: “The Mystery of Consciousness” by John R. Searle

I just finished The Mystery of Consciousness by John R. Searle (1997, New York Review of Books, Inc.). Have you read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This little book is constituted of some revised and expanded articles of John Searle’s from the New York Review of Books, circa the mid-1990s, each being an extended review-and-response to a major philosophical and/or scientific book on consciousness studies. Its an interesting read, and a pretty quick one, and serves as an excellent introduction or refresher on a number of influential viewpoints and important modern thinkers in the area of the nature of consciousness and conscious experience. It is especially good as a quick introduction to Searle’s own position: briefly, Searle is of the mind(!) that consciousness is an irreducible feature of the universe (unlike traditional materialism), but that it is entirely biological in nature (unlike traditional dualism). He often compares consciousness to digestion or photosynthesis, and considers it to be sourced in equally physical/chemical processes of the brain, though he also emphasizes that unlike digestion or photosynthesis it is not reducible to those biological processes for the simple reason that the appearance of consciousness (ie, the fact that you and I each think that we are conscious) is the fact of consciousness (that is to say, if a being thinks it is conscious, it necessarily is because the thought, “I am conscious,” requires consciousness). The contrast, here, is that consciousness, while arising from biology, cannot be reduced to biology, while in the case of digestion we can reduce it to the individual chemical and physical processes which go into the breaking-down of food and the extraction of nutrients, etc., without risking the loss of subjective, first-person experience. In analyzing conscious experience, you can only look so far down into the biological underpinnings before you find that you are no longer dealing with conscious experience but instead with peptides, calcium ions, electrical impulses, synaptic knobs, clefts, and post-synaptic receptors, etc., etc., and have forgotten “first-person consciousness” back a few layers up the causal chain.

Whether or not one agrees with this position, it is at least logically consistent, as far as I can see, and certainly has longer legs than, say, Daniel Dennet’s or Patricia & Paul Churchland’s “functionalist” (a sort of “post-behaviorist” behaviorism) view which says simply (and naively) that all that exists are the physical brain-states, but there is no consciousness at all in reality. Searle is at least intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that “consciousness is as consciousness does”, and if we think we have it, well then we do. If nothing else, The Mystery of Consciousness is of value for pointing-out just how wrong Dennet, et al, really are.

 

Projects & Books

Sorry to those who occasionally look around here in hopes of finding some new yammering out of me. I’ve been spending all of my mental energy working on a large writing project and an even larger research project (with an eye toward getting a large-scale writing project out of it!), so there really just hasn’t been much to devote to this little blog of mine.

So in the meantime, while I work on the bigger stuff, I’d rather not leave the Magical Messiah to totally languish. In that spirit, I’m going to start posting short descriptions of books I’m reading (or have just finished reading) in the hopes that those others who have read it may tell me what they think, or those who have not read it can post questions or comments about the book or its subject matter. That way, even though the blog itself won’t have a ton of new content (until a shorter article idea pops-up, anyway) there might still be a little bit of discussion here and there to keep things interesting.

Thanks in advance to anybody who chooses to participate!

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Book Review: “Stargazer” by Miguel Conner

Stargazer
Miguel Conner
2011, Aeon Byte Press
280 pages

When I was looking for a good beach read, my instincts immediately pointed me toward a novel I’d been meaning to read for a while: Miguel Conner’s vampire sci-fi dystopia, Stargazer. The tagline says it all: “The future is paradise. But not for humans.”

Let’s start with a quick look at the modern vampire. Popular fiction has done the famous bloodsucker to Final Death over the course of several decades. Everybody points to Ann Rice as the last good example of vampire fiction, but if we’re being honest with ourselves she only produced one good one: Interview with the Vampire. It had a sense of romance to it, but never forgot that vampires are basically horrible supernatural parasites. Since then, it has been a downhill slide in which vampires have become more and more romantic, less and less threatening. And now we find ourselves with the totally, er, defanged Twilight. But the Twilight vampires aren’t merely overly romanticized; worse, they are symbolic (probably not intentionally, given how self-absorbed and unreflective Stephanie Meyer comes off in interviews) of the severe emotional abuse which many women suffer through at some point in their lives. The couple of Bella and Edward are the very picture of co-dependency, and Edward (the vampire, for those unfamiliar) is obviously experienced enough to be doing it on purpose, for his own ends. (Bella has no better options on her hands, as her other love interest is the werewolf Jacob, who appears to represent physical abuse, given what is revealed about the relationships habits of werewolves.) So, vampires are still symbolic of the darkest tendencies in humanity, only our contemporaries don’t seem to notice! Stephanie Meyer and her ilk have not stripped vampires of that which makes them frightening, but have instead instilled those qualities with an ersatz romanticism; Bella loves Edward because he manipulates her feelings. Anybody who has been in an abusive relationship, or who has even looked into the dynamics of them, will tell you that this is a common psychological state to find oneself in: the abused often want to return to their abuser for any number of reasons, not least of which are the need to feel needed, fear of the abuser’s retribution, and a sense that the abuser can be “saved”.

Compare the semi-conscious mindgames of Twilight, however, with the vampires of Stargazer: predatory violence hidden behind a veneer of civilization, wanton cruelty masked by “necessity”. In Miguel Conner’s literary hellscape, humans are little more than talking livestock, cattle with culture. Vampires—who refer to themselves by the more romantic title of “Stargazers”—raise them on farms, herd them into slaughterhouses, and kill them in an industrialized fashion. The Stargazers took the land over by destruction: they unleashed military power on humanity and reworked the world so that it was only by their vampiric will and technology that humanity could survive at all. Sound familiar at all? Miguel Conner, in the grand tradition of Phillip K. Dick, uses weird horror, sci-fi, supernatural tropes not to pull us away from the world, but to point us back toward it. Conner’s “vampires” are simply the worst elements of ourselves, of humanity, of intelligence and culture. We pretend to be civilized, but we are killers. We insist that we are unique among all of creation, and yet we behave toward one another and the other creatures of this planet no better than the lowest of beasts. And yet, there is no room for pessimism. Even if everything is terrible, if we look deeply within and bring with us the full force of both intellect and intuition, we will find a rationally workable something which, if we identify ourselves with that instead of with our animal bodies and passions will save us. And if we first can save ourselves, perhaps we can help others, too. And this time, really help them—unselfishly, not merely because it aids our own survival but because the Good demands it!

The Gnostic themes in Stargazer are thick but not heavy; if you know what to look for, they’re mostly pretty obvious, although by and large they are woven into the narrative such that they don’t jar you out of the action. And there is plenty of action. As a vacation read, Stargazer works: there is enough going on all the time that even without any interest in the overt Gnostic ideas, there is still plenty of story to keep the reader hooked. In fact, I passed my copy off to my father, who has no real religious leaning at all, and he’s presently enjoying it as a great sci-fi romp! It is a rare novel which can facilitate the transfer of ideas while still flowing like a story should.

The one problem with Stargazer is a mechanical one: though Conner’s style is good, the book could have lived through another cycle or two of editing. I’d say: one cycle of editing (as there are a small handful of stylistic issues which could easily be resolved), and a follow-up copy-edit (to pick up the remaining grammatical mistakes). Even these aren’t deal-breakers, but they do sometimes grab one’s attention away from the story itself.

All in all, Stargazer is a very good novel, with plenty of action and no dearth of big ideas, but it could have used just a tad more polishing. Even with that one complaint, I recommend it whole-heartedly for Gnostics in search of their own “inspirational fiction”, as well as fans of sci-fi action and new takes on the tropes of horror. Fun, intense, and thought-provoking, it provides something no matter what you’re looking for, even a bit of romance!

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