Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A line of thought

"God" is the label that we affix to what we believe to be most important.

For some, there is more than one God. Integrity is not possible in this context.

For some, there is no coherence in what is desired, merely a living moment to moment. There is no integrity possible here, in a more obvious manner.

For most, however, there is a desire for some sort of integrity, for the experience of a life knitted together and formed by the pursuit of a higher purpose.

It has to be a _higher_ purpose; our own wills and desires are not a sustainable diet and soon become jaded. In other words, in order to generate a life-long sense of vocation, personal growth, maturity in love etc etc there has to be something transcendent about what is pursued. Some sense that it has value independent of what any of us happen to think about it, even, perhaps essentially, that there needs to be some sort of internal struggle in order to attain or achieve what that value might be.

This is the spiritual path. This is learning to see the world truly. This is learning to desire one thing.

For some, that one thing may be completely secularly explainable - say, pursuing the agenda of Amnesty International whole-heartedly. Yet for any identifiable value I believe it fairly straightforward to generate situations where that identifiable value comes into conflict with other similar values.

It seems to me that it is only a religious tradition - specifically, it is only a religious tradition which has a place for the apophatic - that can generate the intellectual resources which enable the higher values to be pursued with integrity.

In other words, and succinctly, I do happen to believe that it is not possible to be "moral" (= pursue a path of personal integrity) without a properly formed belief in and worship of "God" (= transcendent source of value with intellectual tradition enabling the exploration of the same).


  1. “In other words, in order to generate a life-long sense of vocation, personal growth, maturity in love etc etc there has to be something transcendent about what is pursued. Some sense that it has value independent of what any of us happen to think about it…”

    But isn’t this just hopeless metaphysics? Does it need to just have “the sense of being independent”, or do we need to believe it’s actually independent? It’s one thing to say that one’s pursuit of “X” is greater then one’s self, but it seems quite another to suggest that that pursuit has value independent of what we may think about it. Where is there value independently of human pursuits and projects?

    It almost seems as though you’re referring to “getting oneself in the proper psychological state of mind”, so to speak. Again, I can’t help but think that you’ve just turned the metaphor into a metaphysic.

    Andrew Louis

  2. Andrew,

    Everyone has some metaphysical position, by which I mean some notion of what reality is like fundamentally. Most may not articulate it, but it is implicit in how they respond to things. So I do not see why a move to metaphysics is in any way "hopeless". It is better to articulate one's position. Indeed, in my opinion, the fruitless atheist/theist debates are fruitless because they are undertaken without clarifying the debaters' metaphysics.

  3. Scott,
    I'm not necessarily disagreeing with anything (or wanting a debate per se) as much as I'm doing a little probing. I certainly don't shy away from using "transcendence" in my own dialogue, however I'm becoming increasingly unhappy with it.

    Further, I'm pretty confident Sam doesn't endorse any sort realism, and certainly I don't either. Since transcendence brings to light a sort of "reality behind the appearance", I struggle with what use it has, and I struggle with the sort rhetoric that presses us to think in terms of "a value that exists independent of what anyone thinks about it." because I don't see that as value per se at all.

    Again, I was just hoping for some more thoughts. What do you think?

  4. Regarding what you state here:
    “Indeed, in my opinion, the fruitless atheist/theist debates are fruitless because they are undertaken without clarifying the debaters' metaphysics.”

    You said a lot here with a few words. In some cases I agree, and in some cases I'd disagree. For example is a theist is coming to the table with a “proof for God”, and an atheist is coming to the table to argue how the conclusion is unsound because (blah blah blah) I see no reason why the atheist has the burden of offering up his/her worldview.

    Personally I think the problem is that in the current environment it's often the case that you're pitting one version of realism against another version of realism, in which case both sides endlessly beg the question over the other. The other case I see less frequently is the Sam's vs. the Stephen's, in which case I do think it's important (for the sake of defining the objections) for both sides to come clean on their metaphysics. I noticed some months ago you were unsuccessful in that attempt (but I was applauding your efforts). In any case, it's crucial to come clean in an effort to get to the bottom of how one's arguments even apply to the other. For example realist argumenst often don't apply pragmatist justifications, if at all.

  5. "a value that exists independent of what anyone thinks about it" is a little like claiming whiskey is so intrinsically intoxicating that it lies drunk in it's own bottle !

  6. Andrew,

    Well, yes, I agree at least that value implies awareness of value, and thinking about that value -- except that on a transcendent level, (if I understand the mystics) there is no longer a "thinking about", rather there is some sort of "thinking with" -- the value is the thinking (Logos) is the awareness is the non-subject/object reality. Or something like that. But getting down from that mountaintop, couldn't Sam's statement mean just that a value exists independent of what we physically alive sinners think about it, if for no other reason than that value (and awareness and thinking) is not limited to physical existence? That is a straightforward metaphysical question.

  7. Here's the problem I have; the sort of language that takes on this form:
    “a value exists independent of what we physically alive sinners think about it, if for no other reason than that value (and awareness and thinking) is not limited to physical existence?”

    Suggests that a certain sort of “thinking about”, will lead to the proper form of “thinking with”. In that way it allows people to start capitalizing on what they think the proper values are, as opposed to the improper ones, thus leading people astray from the point. I think there's a fine line between getting a population of people to dance, while at the same time allowing their idiosyncrasies to do the same.

    Because the value that transcends isn't subject to human definitions, it's manifestations are neither good nor bad, they just are. Because God will fashion people according to his own purpose, there's as much good in someone “thinking with” in accordance with an act we'd call evil, as there is in the opposite case. If the goal of Christian mysticism is to get one living in accord with a “thinking with”, that arose from a sort of “thinking about” (in a general sense), how do you do that while at the same time dumping the Platonism that comes along with it. That's my real problem. I can appreciate what Sam is saying, but not all will appreciate it in a way that steers clear from the distinctions I highlighted (and I think one goal of mysticism is to wake us up from those distinctions. In one sense anyway).

  8. PS,
    in that way you can see "A line of thought", as not so much one to another, but one to oneself. But that's just how I tend to view what I do.

  9. Andrew,

    In response to your worry, one hopes that those who get the revelation of the reality of transcendent, non-dualist thinking have also received the warning from the same revealers that such thinking does not "arise" from dualist, sinner-corrupted thinking. There is no progression from the one to the other. Of course, there will be those who do get it wrong, but that has always been the case, and always will, short of the second coming.

    BTW, I for one don't want to dump Platonisms, or at least not the core ones. They, with the reinforcement of mystical revelation, provide the metaphysical underpinnings of how to understand Original Sin.

  10. Scott:
    "BTW, I for one don't want to dump Platonisms, or at least not the core ones."

    Now THAT'S something I'd argue with you about.

  11. Andrew,

    I'm tempted (to argue) but not here. So I'll just mention Franklin Merrell-Wolff's Experience and Philosophy again, this time as my source for understanding and not dumping Platonisms. And Owen Barfield, as always.

  12. Although - I'm not sure exactly sure what you're grasping when you say that you don't want to dump core Platonisms.

    For example, core to Plato is perhaps the alegory of the cave from which we get the idea of the appearence/reality distiction.

    But, maybe you're right... Maybe we shoudln't muscle in on Sam's turf?

  13. Andrew,

    Yes, I would call the allegory of the cave a core Platonism, which I accept. As I see it, if one accepts that there are authentic mystics, then the appearance/reality distinction follows. While I would not follow Plato in saying that what appears to us are inferior copies, I would say that what appears to us, filtered as it is through our subject/object consciousness, is not the whole of reality.

    Another core Platonism that I accept is that the ground of all that exists is Good Intellect (to be taken analogically).

  14. Lots to engage with here but it might be Monday before I can...

  15. Scott,
    you just said a mouth full. First off you say that the appearance/reality distinction follows - which, I'm not sure how you get to that, but in any case... Then you suggest that unlike Plato, we're not seeing inferior copies of things, yet you do say that it's "filtered", and it's "not the whole reality".

    It's sort of looking like you follow a correspondence theory of truth. If that doesn't follow from what you're saying, then what you're saying is a bit meaningless.

  16. Andrew,

    Would it make more sense if I said "structured" rather than "filtered"? Because of my inability to transcend the subject/object structure of my consciousness, I am out of touch with divine reality, and hence what appears to me is (a) not the whole of reality, and (b) is in some sense false (I am not "participating" in the things -- see Barfield.

    It could be that you mean something different by the term "appearance/reality" distinction. My invoking it in this context has its origin in a discussion with a materialist pragmatist, who I felt was arguing against making appearance/reality distinctions not as a pragmatist, but in order to bolster materialism.

  17. First, I'm not a materialist, but I am arguing against the appearance/reality distinction. Your post on Barfield only works if what you say about this distinction holds – but there's not reason to interpret what they were doing beyond using the tools that seemed to work best for them at the time given the tough nature of their circumstances. So I would take what you said a couple posts back and flip it on it's head; you said:
    “As I see it, if one accepts that there are authentic mystics, then the appearance/reality distinction follows.”

    I think it would be more appropriate to say that if the appearance/reality distinction holds, then that means we can interpret the mystics as saying ….... You're starting with the distinction, then making assumptions about what they may be referring to, and I think that's exactly the problem. Personally I think there's plenty of evidence in mysticism against what you're saying, particularly in the east. It was the mysticism of the west and mid-east that was tainted by Plato's metaphysics. Many of the Chrsitians responsible for passing down the traditions we have today were not just exposed to Plato (and the Greeks in general) but were card carrying Neo-Platonists themselves.

  18. I'm tempted to puke out something larger then what will fit here, so let me just ask you this:

    Beyond the idea that you simply think it's “true” or “correct”, why should we interpret the mystics in the manner that you suggest? I tend to think that both you and I interpret them as saying “true” things, but the difference is (I think) in what we do with that, and what it's good for.

  19. Andrew,

    The Vedantist talks about Maya as non-real. The Buddhist talks about avidya as false consciousness. I call both of these appearance/reality distinctions. So I ask again: what do you mean by "appearance/reality distinction" that means something other than "we live in a state of sin/Maya/ignorance, while we could/will live in the Kingdom of God/Enlightenment"? I brought up my earlier discussion because I am only acquainted with arguments against appearance/reality distinctions from materialist pragmatists like Rorty, who obviously reject any possibility of transcendent reality.

    The Platonist (or maybe it should be called neo-neo-Platonist -- that is, the core features I mentioned above, modulated by modern critique) interpretation is Wolff's interpretation of his revelation. I just agree with it, also with Barfield. Wolff, by the way, was not Christian. Prior to his Realizations he was a follower of Shankara. After, he felt Buddhists had the better metaphysical understanding. But trained as he also was in Western philosophy, he had no problem discussing his discoveries in Western jargon as well -- which is why I think he is particularly valuable for a Western audience.

    As to what I think should be done with mystical revelation, see here and here.

  20. If the appearance/reality distinction follows, then the correspondence theory of truth (or some version of it) also follows – i.e. some version of words as representation. So when you give as an example of then distinction,“The Vedantist talks about Maya as non-real. The Buddhist talks about avidya as false consciousness.” I'm tempted to say that you just said a bunch of meaningless nothing; where's the reality? And if there is no reality, then what was stated was just a waste of breath.

    I see those ideas from the Vendantist and Buddhist as pushing us away from that distinction, as pushing us away from the idea that words are representations (or that there's a reality behind the appearance, or behind the metaphor), and pushing us towards the idea that words are merely tools – which of course is a theme you see throughout Buddhism. To think that the distinction holds leads one astray to thinking that somewhere within the metaphysic itself lies the key to enlightenment, or that we can talk about it – as opposed to shutting down the metaphysic and going about the task of living ones life.

    To say that what they're talking about is actually some literal transcendent reality (in whatever non-form it takes), demands the need to account for that reality in some non question begging way. And that goes for anything you call truth as a Platonist.

    For me, there is no great mystery, nothing profound to be understood; revelation (I'll say) is that which is had when one is caught up playing with one's kids, or cutting the grass.


  21. To go with the Buddhist in saying, (and I think this is perfectly accurate) that words are tools (as well as going along with the Pragmatist) is to simply recognize – in one sense – that words are simply part of the human experience, not a representation of it, or an act of directing one to some reality behind the metaphor.

    I think if you take a broad enough view of mysticism you can see it implicitly as a sort of polemic against metaphysics. It's pulling you away from a life that looks to rhetoric for truth, to one that looks for truth in life. At the end of the day the language of transcendence is simply that language which recognizes that e.g., the beauty and majesty that is the grand canyon can't be captured in a short anecdote to somebody at work, and can't be captured in a photo on your wall, you just have to go there and experience it for yourself.

    When Sam says:
    “In other words, in order to generate a life-long sense of vocation, personal growth, maturity in love etc etc there has to be something transcendent about what is pursued. Some sense that it has value independent of what any of us happen to think about it…”

    I interpret this as saying to me, “become who you are.”. If something has value beyond what others think (and in turn “say”) about it, then you are truly throwing off the current and historical contingencies/pressures that society presses upon you, and have created yourself anew. But that's to take Sam as not being metaphysical, and not being Platonic.

  22. Andrew,

    Avoiding falling into the correspondence theory of truth in this arena can be done through use of the Buddhist tetralemma ("Not X, not not-X, not X and not-X, not neither X nor not-X"). But words can point, and I don't think we should throw out the pointers just because some mistake them for the moon. Hence, it seems that we only disagree on whether or not it is worthwhile to point to transcendent reality. I think it is, for example consider the following pointer from Wolff:

    "At the deepest level of discernible thought there is a thinking that flows of itself. In its purity it employs none of the concepts that could be captured in definable words. It is fluidic rather than granular. It never isolates a definitive part, but everlastingly interblends with all. Every thought includes the whole of Eternity, and yet there are distinguishable thoughts. The unbroken Eternal flows before the mind, yet is endlessly colored anew with unlimited possibility. There is no labor in this thought. It simply is. It is unrelated to all desiring, all images, and all symbols."

    That sure makes me think of Plotinus' Nous (not to mention the Christian Logos), so I think of myself as a Platonist. And I think it is at least as worthwhile considering the hypothesis (hypothesis to me, reality to Wolff) of a non-conceptual Intellect by which all that is made is made, even though it is not part of my everyday appearances, as it is to contemplate sunsets.

    So the bottom line, as I see it, is that we are on different paths, and on my path it is useful to make an appearance/reality distinction, while on yours it isn't.

  23. Scott,
    I’m not by any means throwing away pointers, gestures, etc.. What I’m throwing away is the idea that underlying those points and gestures is a reality in and of itself that the pointing represents.
    You did said something I really agree with; that we should not conflate the pointing with what’s pointed at. But the question I would follow up with is, “why?” I think the answer is simple, because what we have to say about it doesn’t in any way represent some existent reality in and of itself. If there’s any cash value in the language of transcendence, it’s not wrapped up in existence or a reality behind the appearance, rather (I’d argue) it’s wrapped up the positive effects that come as the result of having that sort of discourse. I’ve always argued that religious discourses have value because of what they bring to our lives, not because of what they say about the underlying form of reality.
    Finally, I’m fine with the, “you’re on this path and I’m on that”, but since we’ve moved to this philosophical context we’re really playing the game of, “if you’re going to make a representative claim, you sort of have to back that up.” Otherwise what you’re saying is, “Well, you win by your rules but I win by mine.” When the conversation really started with, “just what are the rules we should be playing by anyway?” I personally don’t think you’re wrong per se (I mean I think we understand eachother fine), so much as I think that Platonic distinctions can lead people astray to capitalizing on Truth, which can in turn lead to absolutisms that can lead to dangerous fundamental and atheist societies that plunder in the name of whatever their ultimate authority is. But, I still have to read through you links again – I have actually read your entire blog some time ago and really enjoyed it, but I don’t remember.


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