I am quite grateful for Peter Dybing’s praise for my writing in a comment he left a day or so ago. Considering his immense service to Paganism and to humanity in general, and the stage of (current) burnout he has reached because of (I assume) rampant ingratitude, I find his goodwill toward me very special. His focusing on how I “process” in my writing, rather than merely present conclusions, seemed, well, unexpected; at least, “process” was not a term that would have occurred to me, but I think I know what he meant. I still need to ask him. I tried replying to his comment on this blog, but the system would not let me. Besides, he deserves a thank you that is not hidden in the footnotes.
In writing I do try to explain how I arrive at my conclusions or speculations or wild guesses, because in many ways the journey is more important than the intended destination, which one might, of course, never actually arrive at. I never think that even the things I am most certain about are 100% certain. One rule in genuine scientific method is that nothing can ever be 100% certain; someday there will be a new and better theory. However, that’s the situation with religion also. Some people are clearly 100% certain that they are 100% right—but they are always wrong. As I’ve already argued, if we are attempting to understand an infinite divinity, what we know, no matter how great we think our knowledge is, approaches asymptotically to zero as a percentage of infinity. Our knowledge is always infinitesimal, not certain at all.
I cannot keep my subjective personality separate from the topics I pursue, for several objective reasons.
First, we are not separate from the reality we perceive and are embedded in. As Heisenberg pointed out about 80 or so years ago, our act of perceiving changes the reality as we perceive it. That’s fairly obvious if one thinks about bouncing a beam of radiation off an electron and knocking it into the corner pocket. It’s not so obvious about mundane perception, but the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox implies that such is still the situation. I’ve mentioned that Cat before; I’ll get back to him again. This concept is now almost a cliché among professional intellectuals, yet few people seem to think about its implications.
Second, in dealing with religion, there is no way to be strictly objective in the way that is possible in the hard sciences (except for the Heisenberg issue, quantum fluctuations, and suchlike). It is impossible to be neutral about religion, because we human animals must have a set of values that enable us to make important decisions and that therefore function for us as a religion, no matter what we choose to call it. Not having any such values, not being able to experience life as meaningful, is a late and often lethal stage of clinical depression. The best one can do is be open and candid about one’s own beliefs, and open-minded about other people’s beliefs.
Some other assumptions that are usually (and sneakily) packaged in with scientific method also do not work for studying religion. For example, one such assumption is that a phenomenon cannot be real unless absolutely everyone in the vicinity perceives it in the same way. That’s all very well for mundane macroscopic phenomena; that rule certainly eliminates many hallucinations and much wishful thinking. But it does not work well for subtle psychological phenomena. For one thing, it makes the person with the least gift for spiritual discernment into the measure for everyone else. The rule can then be justified only if one assumes that there is no such talent as spiritual discernment. Such an assumption arises out of a particular philosophy; it is not part of science. Many professional scientists and academics subscribe to the philosophy of atheistic materialism, but that philosophy is not part of scientific method.
For an example, suppose I had been present in that grove of trees where Joseph Smith Jr. had his vision of the Father and the Son when he was 14. Would I have observed anything—aside from Joseph acting strange and passing out? No, I do not believe I would have—because the message was for Joseph, not for me or anyone else. I see no reason to doubt that Joseph had an Awakening experience in which he was “anointed as a True Prophet,” just as I think Jesus was. One heckuva lot of people have had such experiences. Their characteristics can be and have been described quite consistently. To think that such experiences do not happen, or that they do not convey real information, is to be just plain closedminded and thoroughly unscientific. Would you want to think that Bill Wilson’s Awakening experience in his hospital bed was a hallucination? An epiphenomenon? A fantasy? Does a hallucination end up saving the lives of millions of human beings? Bite your tongue.
I have been fascinated with the problem of epistemology since I was 14, that is, with the issue of how we know what we know—or think we know. I know most people never worry about that. It seems obvious to them that they see what they see, that what they see is really there, that everyone else (except the meshuganers) sees it too, and life is too short to worry about such a non-issue. But here my favorite mantra applies: It’s not that simple.
Ever since I had it proved to me that “divination” by means of Tarot cards, astrological charts, and suchlike does work, that those methods do provide real information, I have been thinking about the nature of consciousness. Other people have thought about that too, of course: Blake, Kant, Jaynes, Ornstein. But I think it is now possible to go farther. I cannot start a discussion of consciousness here and now, but I can promise you it will be a thread I will explore and develop in future blogs.
And meanwhile, Peter, heal, worship Rebekah as she surely deserves, and carefully pick your next battle, as I’m sure you will when the time is right.