In the last several years I have been impressed with the power and persistence of conventional thinking in the face of powerful evidence that would contradict it. So what do I want to say here that hasn't be said a thousand times before referencing Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts, etc. Everybody reading here already understands that conventional thinking creates an epistemological frame that conditions what we accept uncritically as true or reject as false. It's what becomes our "common sense", and I don't have to argue here that too much of that common sense is nonsense.
But I want to think out loud a bit about why we humans are so resistant to having our minds changed. Why do some people eagerly embrace frame-crashing truths and others resist them? Is it merely a superficial embrace of novelty that distinguishes liberal progressives from traditionalist conservatives? Is anyone, if he moves from the old frame to a new one, really just swapping one set of illusions for another? Is the idea of 'progress' always an illusion? If not, how do we discern the difference between the 'novel' and the 'true'? If there is a difference, what is in us that knows it, and what is in us that embraces the truth or resists it?
So before I go further, let me frame what I'm going to say by laying out my philosophical biases. I think the Christian Neoplatonists have it more right, and the rationalists have it mostly wrong. I'm not going to try to defend that bias here, but merely note that I assume that we all begin in a state of consciousness in which we see the world as if through a glass darkly. That everything we see and think we understand as true is always partial and distorted, and that the goal is not simply to correct that problem by adding more light and adjusting the focus, but to deepen our relationshp with the world and people around us, which means to increase our experience and awareness of the ways we participate in Being.
We are each of us deeply embedded in the cosmos, and yet we feel ourselves cut off from it. It's precisely that experience of disembeddedness that distinguishes Moderns from almost everyone else who has lived. Most moderns think they are better for it, and in a way I would agree, but I don't think it gives moderns a better sense of what the cosmos is. Moderns think that they have a superior epistemology because it is "objective", and while objectivity and precision are valuable for engineers, an unbalanced preference for objective truth has given us a world of objects and with it a world that has become un-souled.
My criteria for truth has less to do with clarity and certainty than with intensity--Intensity in delivering an experience that expands our level of communion or participation with the 'known'. Truth, the kind that matters, is not something you know like 2 - 2 = 0; it's something you find yourself intensely engaged with, like the love for your children. Objective truth is always either an abstraction from the lived world, or a provisional construction of conventional wisdom--at best a tinny, superficial, provisional representation of the world.
It's in subjective truth you find the gold and the eternally valid. Truth is something that is given, in other words, in way similar to the way we develop a friendship. We make the initial encounter. We have first impressions and make preliminary judgments, and over time our appreciation for the 'other' deepens. It's the quality of the communion between you and the other that sets the conditions for how deeply he or she can be known. The other can never be completely known, and yet what we know of him is true. The quality of the communion determines the quality of the knowing. So some people know more and others less, because all of us have greater or lesser capacities for communion.
The goal is not to know more, but to know better by increasing our capacity for communion. It's easier to understand how this works with people, but the same kind of communon is possible with all of Being. (I've got Goethe and Buber in mind here, and while I'm not particularly enamored of Heidegger, I think he's barking up the same tree: Communion, or our throwness into Being and enmeshment with it is a given; so why do we experience such a profound alienation from Being, and how do we overcome it?)
So I assume that as moderns we begin in a state of profound alienation from the world and from one another. The more modern you are, the more you live in your head, and the more you live in your head the more alienated you are. And because we are so deeply alienated, we don't see anything clearly and most of the efforts over the last five hundred years to obtain clarity and certainty have been profoundly misguided because they've been such a head trip. They have given us a way of experiencing the world that has allowed us to cleverly exploit it to make the lives of a relative few more comfortable, but at the price of making the world and the creatures in it 'things'--pure extension--and in doing so making the lives of so many people more miserable than they were before their traditional lives, lives saturated with communion, were disrupted by the flat-souled modern obsession with novelties and innovation.
So, you may be thinking, this guy thinks of himself as a progressive? He sounds pretty conservative to me. I'd argue that I am a progressive who rejects the Liberal frame that defines modernity, and this blog is about trying to develop a counter frame to modern liberalism that is nonetheless progressive. Such a counterframe would retrieve the gold that moderns have thrown off the boat over the last five hundred years. Their doing so has given us an impoverished, half-assed metaphysics and epistemology, and it needs to be replaced. But it won't be until our experience of the world changes radically. We can't think our way to a solution, but bad thinking, insofar as it impedes our capacity for freedom and communion, must be called out for what it is, and replaced with something that offers more 'progressive' possibilities.
The modern philosophical frame is impoverished because its chief characteristic is an epistemology of alienation--it assumes the separation between subject and object rather than their communion. And epistemology of alienation has had profound effects in shaping our soical imaginary. We live in a world of objects that we experience mainly through sight and touch. The only truths our conventional wisdom accepts as true are the ones we can see, ones that can be recorded by a camera, or that can be represented as data on a spread sheet.
So, perhaps to reinforce my anti-liberal bona fides, let me ask the question: Would a camera have recorded the resurrection of Christ? I don't think so. Does that mean it didn't happen? No. Does it mean that the post-Resurrection appearances to the apostles were therefore delusional (or just symbolic)? No, they were real, historical, and transformative events, but they cannot be understood within a modern rationalist frame because it is too one dimensional.
My argument is that this rejection of what seems to be the more outlandish claims of Christianity derives from the limitations of the frame or the lens through which the modern mind encounters them. They can be more easily understood within a different frame that embraces a participatory and cosmic multidimensionality, which is essentially what the Christian Neoplatonism of the medievals embraced, and it's why I think it needs to be retrieved and adapted to a post-quantum theory world.
The post-resurrection appearances in such a frame are quite plausible if you understand it as a historical moment when reality in one dimension interpenetrated with another in such a way that some humans were conscious of it. It was, in other words, a privileged, but temporary moment of interdimensional communion. I would say that the salvation of the world that Christians and some other religious traditions talk about it is essentially a process of becoming increasingly aware of the of the communion between these dimensions. It is the only progressive remedy to the deep alienation we currently experience.
Nominalism and the kind of rationalism that engenders it has led to the hypertrophying of the eye, which in turn has led to the atrophying of soul, and the atrophying of the soul leads to a diminished capacity for communion. The more diminished our capacity for communion, the more implausible the existence of anything existing that cannot be empirically verified as true. And so the more we live in the surface reality, the more inaccessible and unconscious becomes the deep reality. The more unconscious it becomes, the less we are capable of understanding and managing our lives freely.
We are unfree to the degree that our lives are determined by any number of entities that can compel us to do what we do not will to do, whether enemies or family, the gods or the tribe, or our own inner demons, addictions, and compulsions.
And so the more unconscious we are, the more vulnerable and receptive we are to a will that is not our own. We are easily hypnotized by the will of the crowd and seduced into living in a collective dream that we call conventional wisdom, which in our time is dominated by the rationalistic, materialistic assumptions on one hand, or a banal, self-absorbed spirituality on the other. The key characteristic of any idea that comes to us from conventional thinking is its banality, its flatness. When something is deeply truly true, it has an energy, an intensity, that disrupts our superficial complacency and moves us into a deeper experience of communion. There are subjective truths, and there are subjective cliches.
None of us can resist living in the darkened, alienated consciousness that is given to us through conventional thinking, but the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that what is given to us by conventional wisdom is mostly wrong and that we should be suspicious of it, and that what is resistant in us to its soul-deadening banality is the best thing in us--our longing for a deeper communion with Being, and to participate consciously in the world at greater and greater levels of depth.
Both skeptic and cynic share the fundamental insight that the world defined by conventional thinking is a skein of illusions, but skepticism is not cynicism. The difference lies in that the skeptic accepts the conventional reality as a provisional convenience, something he needs to work in because that's the world everybody lives in, but it's not what he cares about. He cares more about the subjective truths that grab him and subvert the collective dream. He believes that there is an alternative to collective delusion, that the alienation that comes with a non-participatory, non-communal experience of the world can be overcome. Cynicism, on the other hand, believes that there is no alternative, that delusion is all there is, so make yourself as comfortable as you can in a world that makes no sense. Both conventional thinking and the cynicism that stays stuck in debunking it are mental prisons, both in their different ways are forms of arrested development stuck in the same closed system.
In the opening paragraph I asked:
Is anyone, if he moves from the old frame to a new one, really just swapping one set of illusions for another? If not, how do we discern the difference between the 'novel' and the 'true'? If there is a difference, what is in us that knows it, and what is in us that embraces the truth--or resists it?
Truth works on us in different ways to wake us up, first, to the fact of our alienation and, second, to the freedom and communion that lie beyond it. Progress is not just more novelty or innovaton; it's a movement toward greater freedom and deeper communion. That which is deeply true increases our capacity for freedom and communion. That which is false impedes it. And for any culture its conventional wisdom either works to enhance or impede its "progress". It is false to the degree that it impedes, and true to the degree that it enhances. It's hard to imagine a moment in our history when there was a greater impediment to progress. That's where I share common ground with thoughtful conservatives. But the challenge is to move beyond those impediments, and it's usually there that I part company with them. For me the 'moving beyond' overlaps with the future orientation that typifies the conventional wisdom of the left.
But there are positive and negative ways of moving beyond. I see the conservatism of the political right in this country as a particularly insane form of the basic alienation that affects us all; it offers no solutions, and if anything aggravates what is already a bad situation. But neither does Liberalism have a solution. I see the Liberalism of the political left as a spent force that was always contrained by its rationalist and Rouseauan assumptions. It was just a matter of time before it would collapse, and we're living through its collapse now. At best it was just something we had to go through; at worst, it's laid a path leading to a mechanomorphic transhuman future.
Such a transhuman future is not my idea of progress, but perhaps that's because I look at it through the limitations of the current conventional wisdom's materialistic framing of it. If transhumans have a greater capacity for freedom and cosmic interdimensional communion, I would embrace a such a future. Pehaps the resurrected Christ was the first transhuman.
In Part II I want to look at two films, Costa Gavras's 1982 Missing and the 1984 film The Shawshank Redemption as parables that show how we both want to leave our world of alienation and yet often fight tooth and nail to stay in it. I want to look at the parallel relationships between, on the one hand, Andy DuFresne and Red Redding in Shawshank, and on the other, Charlie & Beth Horman's relationship with their father/father-in-law, Ed, in Missing. The first part of the pair are more "progressed", so to say, because they are freer and more deeply in communion with the world outside the constraints of the prison of conventional wisdom; as such they point the way for those of us who are still contrained.