“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” –Werner Heisenberg
I freakin’ love that quote. There might be a whole essay’s worth of material in it. I found it while researching the exact wording of Schrödinger’s “all in all” passage, and I immediately thought of the correlation to one of the most recent poems I posted on HA!:
For such a brief poem, I’ve always felt that this one had several elements and a multilayered mashup of intentions, three of which jump out at me now as being pertinent here.
First, and most simply: let us not be so quick to decide that what cannot be seen in our presently chosen context does not exist, lest we suffocate for lack of oxygen molecules in the “empty” space around us.
Second, there is the matter that atheism and pantheism can look an awful lot alike to the naked eye, but only the former is widely recognized. One of my main objections to atheism as a practiced system of thought is the tendency (most likely of those who stopped at one of Heisenberg’s gulps intellectually) to create a false dichotomy, whereby atheism is credited by discrediting all known forms of theism. I have taken pains to avoid any theistic connotations so far in this discussion, partly to steer clear of this prejudice, but also because if every supreme being ever visualized or imagined by humanity were lined up and shot dead by an atheist firing squad, the human imagination would suffer, but it would mean nothing in regards to pantheism, and Werner Heisenberg’s statement would be no less valid. There is nothing in a glass full of air, nor in Schrödinger’s all in all (nor even Huxley’s Divine Ground, minus the adjective that doesn’t change its essential meaning), in and of themselves, that contradicts the worldview of atheists. But they do throw a monkey wrench into their nice neat dichotomy, and as a heretic I feel a responsibility to tell the world that the physical evidence supports a third option.
Third (and this was the more conscious intention): to the extent that the glass is empty –that is, devoid of anything that engages our sensory processors at this level of perception– I wanted to engage the reader in consideration of the positive value of emptiness. Quite simply: we need to get better at recognizing the value of the invisible, the silent, the non-1 space that connects all things. Our reality on many levels –politically, ecologically, and psychologically, to name a couple– is clamoring for it.
As creatures competing for survival on earth, we have little going for us aside from an extremely refined nervous system and the most powerful neural processing network in the known universe. In other words, humanity is completely dependent on its unparalled faculties for selective attention, for creating elaborate but well-defined contexts for our minds to process into blueprints for preserving life. It is no wonder that we learned to pay such strict attention to what is, according to our senses (important qualification), while ignoring what appears to be nothing.
Beyond even these faculties, however, is something that as far as we know is unique to the human being among creatures: the ability to envision contexts that are contrary to sensory input –basically to manifest things that are not existent in the current time-space location, and give them significance that may even supersede sensory input. This, of course, is our imagination. Children have a virtually unlimited capacity for imagination, and it varies from person to person but we all see that capacity diminish in our consciousness as analogs for previous sensory experiences fill our mental reserves, in some people barely at all, and some to overflowing. People who misguidedly call themselves “realists” tend to chide imagination as a spurious juvenile faculty we are supposed to outgrow –completely ignoring the fact that every single innovation we use as a means of survival or convenience or comfort etc, literally everything made by humans, was once a product of someone’s imagination. One might as well say we should outgrow our need to breathe.
Nevertheless, once an innovation works and begins to spread, it is our selective attention and memory –our context processing and storage capacity– that preserve it. These, unlike imagination, are skills we have had to develop, as individuals and as a species. Human consciousness, then, is a mixture of both context processors and imagination –the former drawing from sensory input, the latter, definitively not– ideally in a kind of homeostatic balance. (These are roughly equivalent to the conscious and subconscious of Jungian philosophy.)
We now have the concepts at our disposal to state one of the bedrock tenets of metatheology. Religion –the Many Paths to One Truth– serves an essential function that we cannot live without: it helps keep these mental functions in balance. Religion preserves cultural contexts that bring a degree of alignment to the selective attentions of people within a community of adherents, but it also orients us toward a quiet space where we are free to contemplate the immaterial aspects of our world that selective attention cannot process (such as that which fills an empty glass). If the human mind and all we have ever created with it were symbolized as a body, religion would not be the brain (the context processor) nor the heart (typically associated with our imaginative faculties) nor the eyes (or other sensory portals), but it is the pancreas. It quietly regulates these more blatantly vital organs, keeping a balance that helps them function optimally. When our pancreas doesn’t regulate properly, death is not immediate but quality of life suffers.
In other eras, when survival was a more dicey prospect and chaos seemed to lurk everywhere (analogous to infancy and young childhood in our individual lives), imagination was not always a friend; the “monsters in the closet” that we laugh about now were a very real part of the human experience. Religion served as both a generator of social order and an apparatus for maintaining it by preserving cultural contexts for order. With imagination on a leash — exercised, taken for regular walks, but essentially tamed– it could be channeled into the labors of developing technical innovations, dreaming up new patterns of 1s and 0s that help preserve and enhance life. I believe that the dynamic tension between science and various religions is the driving force behind the flourishing of Western culture (the Great Books are all a product of this tension, I should add); for all its prejudices and brutality, the West was, for a while, a shining example of how effective this collaboration can be, if progress is the goal.
This is going to take maybe a whole series of essays in another space to elaborate, but here is my rough assessment of where this went wrong: the march of progress has been so effective, human beings in the first world and even much of the third have become so proficient at surviving and prospering, the confidence in our independence from the monsters of our past and the “hands of fate” that controlled our future is so strong that the social structure that made our slow, steady progress possible we now perceive as holding us back. Selective attention itself is our new lord, and we have more or less written religion out of the formula. It is no longer even a dynamic tension –the realists have won. In fact, I’d say the evidence shows that, with few exceptions, religion has co-opted the worldview of the realists (Exhibit A) and turned to pursuit of political power in order to survive at all. It is as though we, the human race, got drunk on Heisenberg’s first gulp of the natural sciences and forgot to follow them to their logical conclusion.
Organized religion, it should be noted, has done itself almost no favors. At this point in human history, religion should be invigorating the imagination, and in some ways I still believe it does or can. But for the most part, it is digging in its heels and puffing out its proud, concave chest as the Protector of Social Order, Preserver of Cultural Truth and Slayer of Demons that it once was. This is like finding someone slipping into hypoglycemic shock and injecting him with insulin.
So with religion left behind like some dying ancestor in an old folks’ home, humanity both West and East finds itself in a brave new world where progress is an end unto itself and each person’s selective attention has free reign over his/her own subjective state of being. But we lost something in this bargain with consciousness. First and foremost, we are becoming strict materialists, losing contact with the positive value of emptiness. Imagination is stunted as a result–and by that I mean not only the ability to create something from nothing, but also the ability to rearrange “somethings” in novel ways. Both are instrumental in the capacity to innovate and, as the great mythology scholar Joseph Campbell clarified for us, orient our journey through an ever-changing world.
Imagination works in the empty spaces of the world. It seeks to create new forms from emptiness, fullness where we perceive something missing. We symbolize this space as a blank page or canvas, an unformed lump of clay, an uncarved block of wood, an “open mind” etc. The creative powers we once attributed to God(s) originate in this empty space. Think of what was, for example, before Genesis 1:1, before “God created the heavens and the earth” -it is quite revealing that the holy book of both Judaism and Christianity begins with this statement, never really exploring the primordial state from which this creation springs. In mystic Christianity, this space is well understood and represented as “the Godhead,” a reality which continues to both transcend and permeate all of creation (are you thinking “non-1?”).
Naturally the nontheistic religions are more acquainted with the empty space. Buddhism has a confounding array of connotations for the concept of emptiness, and there seems to be a sutra to support every one of them, but what they all seem to have in common is the idea that the primordial state (Śūnyatā, translated literally as “emptiness”) is the same as Buddha-nature, that which constitutes ultimate reality now. Contrary to popular misconception, Śūnyatā is seen not as a negation of existence but rather as the undifferentiation out of which all apparent entities, distinctions, and dualities arise (ie the “non-1” Ground in which all patterns of 1 and 0 exist and shift). Here is one of the better pages I found on this.
In classical Taoism, we see the symbol of “the uncarved block,” popularized by Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh as “a state of pure potential which is the primordial condition of the mind before the arising of experience.” From the Wikipedia page for “Tao:”
Dao [alternate spelling] can be roughly thought of as the flow of the universe, or as some essence or pattern behind the natural world that keeps the universe balanced and ordered…Dao is a non-dual concept – it is the greater whole from which all the individual elements of the universe derive. Dao is rarely an object of direct worship, being treated more like the Hindu concepts of karma or dharma than as a divine object. Dao is more commonly expressed in the relationship between wu (void or emptiness) and yinyang (the natural dynamic balance between opposites)
Perhaps nowhere else will we find a greater direct correlation between an established metatheological concept and our “non-1” and “1/0” structure. Everything we have covered about the Divine Ground as illustrated through digital code and contemplated through the human imagination dovetails into the concept of Tao (which, let’s be mindful, is not the same as saying “into the Path of Taoism,” but similar to saying that Tao is one of our clearest expressions of the One Truth to which Many Paths lead). The “uncarved block” of a mind that is capable of perceiving its self-sameness in the Divine Ground outside itself (or, the pattern of 1’s and 0’s that knows it exists within an infinite ground of non-1) –this is the ideal state to which religion is geared to deliver or return us, the bottom of Heisenburg’s glass; it is the opposite of a mind attuned only to the sensory objects of the selective attention it perceives.
To the extent that we only see what exists according to our senses, we lose not only our uncarved block, our creative space, but maybe even our drive to create and innovate –or even connect. If I see nothing but fullness in my world, no positive value in emptiness, I lose the natural sense of connection with others, but even more so: I may say “why do I need to connect with others, or work together to solve problems? Why leave the world in a better state for future generations?” If I am so sure of who I am and the solidity of everything around me, what value does anyone or anything have to me, aside from being means to my own private ends? Why pay attention to the other voices in my mind crying out at the injustice of my neglect? I’ll just silence them with medication.
These are extreme manifestations to be sure, but they are the logical conclusions of what an unfettered selective attention does to human consciousness, and the resemblance to sociopathology is no coincidence. There is probably a spectrum for this kind of dysfunction, a gradation in which rare extreme cases are recognized as pathologies but all of us experience shades of it. To lose touch with empty space, to see only the glass and not the invisible substance of emptiness within it, in other words, is not immediately fatal and can even be called “normal” nowadays, but it stifles relationships in the present and chokes off creative options for innovations in the future. Mix in an overarching context that says indefinite self-preservation is the only universal end of human life, and a dash of the knowing that we all die anyway, and you have the recipe for a Molotov cocktail of insanity — one that we see served up in the news headlines on a daily basis now. The brave new world without a Divine Ground is a dystopian Objectivist mess.
Materialists and “realists” prosper, but their children suffer for it. Every family needs at least one idealist –or spiritualist, if you will. (Please see this brilliant poem by Rainier Maria Rilke for a much better image.)
No one religion, in and of itself, has the antidote to the insanity of the day. The One Truth to which religions have blazed Many Paths –this is our only salvation. Thank God/dess we can find it everywhere.
“While we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” — 2 Corinthians 4:18
A biblical verse, yes, but I insist that no theos has been invited into the room yet. All that Paul did there was state the premise of Part 2A in different words: every context, every interplay of 1 and 0, is temporary, but not-1 is eternal. Any further conclusions we draw are just that: our drawings. And draw we shall! it is our responsibility as humans to carve the uncarved block, draw on the blank page. We weren’t given these creative tools by accident.
Onward! to Part 5 (under construction as of 11.05.15)