9809020_sI’m working on two novels these days. One of them is A Sip of Fear, the first story in the new series The Illuminated which I described in the last post. The other is The Rapier, volume three of Refuge. Since Refuge, unlike most of my work, is science fiction as well as fantasy, I’m able to do more in the way of incorporating speculation about where we’re going as a species and a civilization. The two alien races incarnate as human beings give me a good platform for this, as both of them lived in advanced, high-tech societies before they blew each other to bits.

One passage in The Rapier has Amanda Johnson, the Andol leader, visiting with Deirdre Kane, leader of the Humanity Faction that’s struggling to keep the human race independent of both alien races. The third person in the meeting is Terrence Franklin, the only human being to have the Refuge spell that lets the Andol and Droon reincarnate after each death with all their memories intact. Terrence got his spell from a Droon in the fourteenth century, shortly after the aliens arrived. Here’s how that conversation goes:

“Do you mind if I grill you on a couple of things? To get a second opinion after Deirdre’s.”

“Not at all. I have nothing to hide.”

“Hmm,” said Deirdre, “that’s a switch.”

“Be nice,” said Terrence, looking sideways at Deirdre.

“Well, she has a point,” said Amanda. “Actually, I have quite a few things to hide, but the reason the Andol are here and what we want aren’t among them. The answers are simple. We’re here because our home world was destroyed and our species is extinct. We sought a refuge by magic. We found one. Now we’re trying to survive here and help humanity achieve its potential.”

“See, Amanda, it’s that second part that bothers me,” said Deirdre. “We’d like to achieve our potential without meddling by aliens — you or the Droon.”

“I understand,” said Amanda. “Really, I do understand. You’re in a very different place now than you would have been if we hadn’t come. But sooner or later, Deirdre, you would have faced the decision you face now. As far as we know, there are only three possible ways to go.” She held up a finger. “You can mature as the Andol did.” A second finger. “You can mature as the Droon did.” A third. “Or you can destroy yourselves. Most intelligent species take the third path.”

Deirdre shook her head. “How many intelligent species did you find out there in space?”

“Including extinct ones, about fifty or so.”

“How many that weren’t extinct?”

“Ourselves, the Droon, and the four species the Droon had enslaved.”

“And the slaves never matured because they never got the chance, right?”

Amanda sipped her tea. “Right. But —”

“So you know of two mature species, you and the Droon. And from that you decide there are only two ways to get there?”

“What third way could there be?”

“Amanda,” said Terrence, “what do you mean by ‘mature’?”

“A mature civilization,” Amanda said, “has a sustainable society. It has abolished war by establishing a global government, and it’s gone green, as you would put it — no danger of self-destruction either by war or by exhausting resources or poisoning the biosphere.”

“Hmm. So that’s it? Global government and environmentalism?”

“Essentially, yes, but there are many changes to culture involved with both of those — in one direction or the other.” She paused. “There’s a lot of resistance to those changes from people who fear modernity and want to cling to old ways of doing things. Some of them want to make money without considering other people, let alone the biosphere. Some cling to old religious traditions or to nationalism. Maturation involves getting past that resistance, and there are two ways that can happen. Either people come to their senses and change their ways, or an enlightened elite takes complete control and makes them do it. The first is the Andol path. The second is the path of the Droon. Can you think of any other way?”

Deirdre never answers Amanda’s question, because Emily comes into the room ready to advance the plot. But it’s a good question nonetheless.

I’ve long believed that human society is in a transition as profound as the one that took our ancestors from foraging and hunting to farming, leading to classical civilization in all its glories and horrors. That deceptively simple change created a completely new paradigm of society, with formal government, organized religion, class structure, patriarchy, and slavery, none of which had existed (except in embryonic form) when humans lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. Since roughly the sixteenth century, we’ve been moving away from this civilized way of life, what I call the Classical Civilized Paradigm, into something radically different that I call the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. It might also be called the Mature Civilized Paradigm. The transition to the Classical Civilized Paradigm flowed from an ability that humans gained which they hadn’t had before: the ability to control their food supply so as to produce a food abundance and allow population growth. It also flowed from the inherent limitations of this ability: that it took a lot of work, and that it required settling in one place.

Formal government and organized religion were needed as systems of social control because the increased number of people living close together created frictions. Class structure flowed from the increase of wealth, along with the need for lots of work to generate the food supply, which also resulted in slavery. The possibility of population growth created a necessity of population growth in competition with other societies, and that led to patriarchy, because women who control their own fertility tend to have fewer children. And that’s why we see this pattern developing universally throughout all agrarian civilizations, including ones that had no contact with each other, in both the old world and the new.

The transition to the Advanced (or Mature) Civilized Paradigm is also being driven by new abilities. We can produce wealth with little or no work. We can communicate with each other instantly over huge distances. And there are two darker abilities we’ve gained, the ability to destroy our civilization in war, and the ability to undermine the natural support base of human life. From this flow two things, a possibility and a necessity.

We can, finally, have an egalitarian society in terms of wealth and political power, and a genuinely democratic government.

We must end our propensity to kill each other on a massive scale and to behave irresponsibly towards the biosphere.

The first of these has driven all of the political and social movements of the past centuries towards equality in terms of gender, race, religion, and other characteristics that have divided us in the past. It has driven the movements for democracy and for socialism, for the abolition of slavery, and generally all of the goals and efforts labeled “progressive” in political discourse, with the exceptions of the anti-war movement and environmentalism, which instead are driven by the second one, the “must.”

As Amanda noted, maturation meets plenty of resistance from people who are uncomfortable with these changes to society, and some of the strongest resistance comes from traditional religion. All of the so-called “great” religions of the world emerged during the period when we lived under the Classical Civilized Paradigm. While all religions have an ultimate, timeless source in spiritual experience, all of them represent an interface between that experience and ordinary life, and the nature of ordinary life has changed radically since the Buddha meditated under the tree, or Jesus was crucified, or the Prophet Muhammad fled to Medina. Many of the views and attitudes and moral precepts taught by these traditional religions have therefore become obsolete.

I’ll go into the ramifications in more depth in the next post, coming soon.

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The Illuminated: A New Fantasy Series in The Making

14342905_sThis post is to discuss ahead of time a new fantasy series of mine, the first book of which is about one-third complete. The book is called A Sip of Fear, and I’ll talk a bit about it later in this post. The series is called The IlluminatedIt’s closer to a classic urban fantasy than anything I’ve written before. It’s a bit darker than I usually write (although still far from “dark fiction” — there are heroes, there’s genuine optimism, and although the moral questions can be complex there’s moral clarity). The first book has a theme of death and its part in life. Back to that in a moment.

The Illuminated is contemporary fantasy. A Sip of Fear is set in Seattle, where I lived for 18 years, and it’s likely that most of the future volumes will be, too. (Although I’m not completely sure of that at this point. Sip is told in the first person from the perspective of Gordon, who lives there. I haven’t decided if he’ll be the central character of the whole series, or if I’ll tell the stories of other Illuminated in future volumes instead.)

The world of The Illuminated is our world, with one fantasy addition, the Illuminated mages. The Illuminated are real-world occult magic users who have bonded to familiar spirits called Luminous. Each Luminous gives his or her Illuminated (a Luminous can have more than one) a certain set of fantasy magical powers. What that means is that each Illuminated is a real-world magic user with normal real-world magical powers (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, fateshaping, etc.) and one power, or a related group of powers, that is more fantastic.

Each Luminous also expects some service from his or her Illuminated in exchange for the powers. This is the Illuminated’s Purpose: what he or she feels compelled to do in service to the Luminous. The bond with the Luminous creates subtle changes in the personality of the Illuminated. This can make for interesting and difficult personal interactions. Finally, each Illuminated can talk to his or her Luminous and has that relationship going on as well.

So far, the story has introduced the following Illuminated:

Gordon Greenbough. Gordon is the viewpoint character. He’s a bio-mage. His Luminous, Ela-Tu, gives him powers over life and living things. He can heal injuries or illnesses, coax flowers to bloom and fruit to ripen, improve the taste of food, make incredible sex happen, and generally do good things for life. He can also reverse these abilities and cause harm by magic, and cause plants to move, bind animals in roots or vines, and so on. His Luminous expects him to heal those around him, humans, animals, and plants. More problematically, she also expects Gordon to make a healing connection to others through sex — with anyone he’s even mildly interested in. This makes it difficult for Gordon to maintain a lasting relationship, and his tense interaction with his ex-girlfriend Erica is part of his character revelation.

Rose Tillith. Rose is Gordon’s current girlfriend. She’s a mentat, blessed with powers of intellect by her Luminous, Kakoth. Gordon describes her as “a cuter Sherlock Holmes minus the cocaine.” Rose’s powers are more subtle than those of some other Illuminated, but she’s almost impossible to fool. She’s the one who figures out that Shadow is real, and pinpoints Shadow’s identity. Her icy rationality lets her accept Gordon’s philandering as part of who he is as a bio-mage and has allowed their relationship to last.

Erica Jenner. Erica is Gordon’s ex. She’s a frost mage, commonly known as the Ice Woman, who has a simple power: the ability to suck heat from an object (or person). Her Luminous is mostly concerned with the danger of fire, and Erica puts out fires whenever she can, usually beating the fire department to the scene. Despite her Illuminated nature, Erica has a fiery temper and is no one to cross — something Gordon found out the hard way.

Marcus Jones. Marcus, the owner and manager of the Green Woman bar (a local Illuminated hangout), is a tinker mage. His Luminous inspires him to invent magically-powered devices that shouldn’t work, but do. His basement is a big laboratory with chemistry, mechanics, and electronics sections as well as a table devoted to putting the final magical touches on his devices. Marcus is well liked and gregarious. He invents a device that can detect Shadow’s presence, among others.

Jenny Carrow. Jenny is a mind mage, capable of controlling the minds of others to inspire loyalty, or any other emotion she wants. Her powers, fortunately, don’t work as well on Illuminated.

Frank Nguyen. Frank is an animal handler. His powers are like Jenny’s, but applied to animals.

Doug Walker. Doug is a shape-shifter. A werewolf, simply enough.

Sarah Cole. Sarah is new in town. She calls herself a “glamor mage,” with mind-control powers from her Luminous that mostly involve illusion. She’s very smart and very beautiful and looking for a tryst with Gordon, which, of course, she’s likely to get, creating complications for everyone. Rose thinks there’s something odd about Sarah, some connection between her and Shadow, but isn’t sure what yet.

Shadow was a scary legend among the Illuminated until Rose proved he’s real. Shadow is undead, an Illuminated bonded to Apophet, the spirit of Death, who had to die to achieve the bond. He’s the basis for all the vampire stories and legends. He is rumored to be at least a thousand years old. His powers are a devastating mix of superhuman strength and speed, illusion, mind control, and a fatal touch. He drinks blood or drains life-essence — the stories conflict. Shadow’s purpose is a matter of speculation, but what the Illuminated in Seattle know is that he comes to a town, stays a while, and kills one — just one — Illuminated, and then moves on to the next location where he does the same thing.

This time, in Seattle, he’s coming for Gordon.

A Sip of Fear should be finished and published in 2015, hopefully some time around June or July. I’ll keep you updated in future posts. The art above is what I’m considering for cover art.


Filed under Fantasy Storytelling

The Epistemology of Consciousness

13613038_sThis post is going to encompass some things that I have never had much success in communicating to other people. And yet, I’m convinced that it is a form of propositional knowledge, and can be communicated. It’s just hard, and I’ve never found the magic words yet. Here’s another try. I’m going to explain why consciousness — by which I mean, the ability to experience reality subjectively, in the first person — must be cosmic and universal, not individual, and on the way, why the mechanistic materialist conception of consciousness as a function of the brain has to be wrong.

I’m going to do so relying on epistemology. Epistemology is the philosophical study of how we can know what we know. It’s also involved in the limits of what can be known, and that’s where the key lies. I’ll explain shortly, after a brief defensive detour, to head off an argument based on a fallacy that this vaguely resembles but is not.

Why This Isn’t an Argument From Ignorance

Argument from ignorance is a logical fallacy that says, in one form or another, “We don’t know that A is not true, therefore A is true.” The reason why this is a logical fallacy should be obvious. That we don’t know if a proposition is not true is not in itself evidence that it is true (it’s merely lack of sufficient evidence that it isn’t). In casual debate, accusations of this fallacy are often tossed into arenas where they don’t belong, whenever anyone asserts anything based on a lack of knowledge. Here are some examples of arguments that include the idea of ignorance but are NOT arguments from ignorance.

The argument TO ignorance. When someone claims to know something, demonstrating that they don’t is not an argument from ignorance. It’s an argument TO ignorance: pointing out that ignorance exists where someone thought it didn’t.

The argument that ignorance is permanent. This is a little more complicated, and it’s more or less where I’m going in this post. Ignorance may be of two kinds. We may not know something because we have inadequate data. For example, we don’t know if there is life on other planets or not. There’s no reason why we can’t find such life, though, if it’s out there, so eventually we may remedy our ignorance and know that life does exist on other planets.

The other kind of ignorance is based on the limitations of perception and cognition, or on the nature of what is observed, about which we are asking the wrong questions. For example, we don’t know the exact position and momentum of a photon in motion. This ignorance, unlike our ignorance about life on other planets, can’t be remedied. No matter how good our equipment gets or how complete our data sets, we will never know the exact position and momentum of a moving photon.

We can actually draw a conclusion from this and from certain experimental evidence that a moving photon doesn’t have an exact position and momentum. The universe exists as we observe it and experience it, and when we are inherently and forever unable to observe something, directly or indirectly, or to experience it subjectively, then as far as we’re concerned it doesn’t exist. The reason we can’t answer the question, “what is the precise position and momentum of a moving photon?” is because, given the nature of photons, it’s the wrong question.

This isn’t the logical fallacy “argument from ignorance,” either. In short, whenever it is logically valid and appropriate to draw a certain conclusion from ignorance, then it isn’t fallacious to do so.

Consciousness and Other Parts of the Mind

When I talk about “consciousness,” I mean the ability to experience reality subjectively, from within, in the first person. That and nothing else. We call this a “mental” ability, and there are other abilities that we put into the same category and tag with the same name. These include the ability to use language, to reason, to feel emotion, to remember, to observe, and to decide. It’s normal and common to lump all of these together as functions of a single entity that we call the “mind,” but they are separate functions and may not be functions of the same thing. That’s particularly true of the inherently subjective functions, the ability to feel emotion and consciousness itself.

The other mental functions named above are all objective functions that can be described in the third person. Now, all of them can also be experienced in the first person, so there’s a connection with consciousness and some cross-over. But we can observe someone talking or writing or responding to spoken or written words, and describe his or her behavior, and that is a third-person account of language use. We can do the same thing with regard to reason, memory, and even observation and emotion. All of these can be described in terms of brain activity and/or overt behavior, and they can also be described in a subjective sense of personally doing or experiencing something.

Consciousness, however can only be described subjectively. There is no behavior or brain function that we can point to, and say, “that is someone experiencing something subjectively, in the first person.” Moreover, all of the first-person descriptions of mental functions that can be described in the third person, become first-person when consciousness is added into the picture. We can imagine and describe language use or perception or emotion (though we prefer the word “affect” in that case) or reasoning or any other similar ability done by a philosophical zombie, but we can never imagine a p-zombie being subjectively aware — that’s a logical contradiction.

What we should take from this is that consciousness is one thing, and all other mental functions something else, distinct from consciousness. All mental functions can be conceived as happening with or without subjective experience also happening. And further, this means that the concept of the “mind” is somewhat misleading. There is no single thing that could be properly called a “mind.” Rather, there are various mental functions which may in specific cases be associated with an individual, and these can be grouped in terms of their nature, but not as parts of a single coherent entity.

Things Closely Tied to Consciousness

There are at least three parts to consciousness as (apparently — more on this below) manifested by a person. These are:

  • The experience of reality in the first person (consciousness itself).
  • The ability to remember experience of reality in the first person (subjective memory).
  • The ability to report experience of reality in the first person (self-reference).

Note that this last does not require actual consciousness, unless we specify that the report must be true. In that case, consciousness itself is a prerequisite of subjective memory, and subjective memory is a prerequisite of (truthful) self-reference. But there is no logical reason why consciousness itself can’t happen without subjective memory or self-reference, and this is an important point that I’ll come back to in a moment.

Regarding whether self-reference is truthful, let’s note that there is no way to tell objectively. In order to do that, we would need some objective way to determine whether consciousness itself is present and active, so that we could tell whether the person claiming to be subjectively aware is telling the truth or not. As there is no way to do this, we can never affirm that someone else is engaging in truthful self-reference. and most psychology and neuropsychology experiments accept people’s subjective self-reference at face value — which is fine for most purposes, but does not allow any claims about where consciousness is coming from.

When someone posits a particular brain function as the source of consciousness, this is exactly the problem that arises. There is no way to objectively verify that anyone is conscious, and so there is no way to show that it is present as a function of some part of the brain, and not present otherwise. We may be able to show that certain parts of the brain are crucial to subjective memory or to self-reference, but we can never show this about consciousness itself.

Remember the discussion above about the position and momentum of the photon. When we cannot answer a question, ever and in principle, it means we’re asking the wrong question. The fact that we cannot observe consciousness itself or verify its existence means that consciousness itself isn’t there to be observed — it’s not a part of the material universe.

Another important point here is that, since we recognize that consciousness itself and subjective memory are distinct, it’s possible to have consciousness where we don’t have subjective memory. This means that many of the things we call “unconscious” — actions performed without attention, or deep sleep — may instead be conscious, but not remembered.

The Inarticulate Problem

It’s common to believe that consciousness arises from the brain (psychic materialism). Most people who don’t subscribe to some form of dualism think that. But no one has ever been able to articulate exactly how that might happen.

To state the problem in perfect clarity, consciousness itself is inherently first-person, while all observed functions of the brain (and of all other things) are third-person. All causal models take the form of a third-person cause (or causes) producing a third-person effect. There is no articulate way to get from any set of events observed in the third person to subjective experience by any causal mechanism that makes sense and doesn’t amount to verbal magic-wand waving.

Note that this has nothing to do with proof or evidence. It’s a step back from that. In order to have, or even to look for, evidence of a proposition, we first have to have a coherent proposition so that we know what to look for. We don’t in this case. The statement “consciousness arises from the brain” is grammatically sound, but logical nonsense, because “consciousness” isn’t a thing that can be observed. It’s a statement without any meaning.

Note also that, to refute me on this, it’s not necessary to have the right answer as to how consciousness can arise from the brain. Certainly it isn’t necessary to have an answer that can be proven, or for which there is sound and solid evidence. All that’s necessary is to have any answer that makes any sense at all, because what I’m saying here is that no such conception is possible.

So far, no one I’ve discussed this with has been able to come up with one.

If it’s not even possible to articulate an idea so that it becomes a coherent proposition, then we may dismiss it as inarticulate fluff. (Unless it’s non-propositional truth, and that’s not the case here.)

What Is It, Then?

Given that we can never observe consciousness, and therefore that it is not part of the material world, we are left with two possible ideas explaining it.

  1. Consciousness arises from some discrete and individual source outside the material world. This is dualism: the treatment of consciousness as inhabiting or emerging from some other reality, something non-material. In this conception, it’s the soul that is conscious, while the brain is what the soul is consious of.
  2. Consciousness is all of the material world — or a function of all of it — rather than any discrete part of it. This is panpsychism: the treatment of consciousness as an inherent function of reality itself, and brain functions creating subjective memory and self-reference as articulating or reflecting the consciousness of the universe. In this conception, individual consciousness is an illusion, while in dualism it is not.

Can we see reason to choose one or the other of these? I think so, although it’s not quite as cut and dried as what leads me to reject psychic materialism.

First of all, dualism is untidy and inelegant. If the individual soul is what is conscious, where does it come from? What happens to it after the body dies? These aren’t new questions, of course, but they are ones that have never had satisfactory answers. Also, how far down the line of biological complexity do we find souls? Do grasshoppers have souls? Trees? In the latter case, is there a soul for an individual tree, for an individual tree cell, or for a forest?

Panpsychism sidesteps all of this complexity and untidiness. Consciousness is an inherent property of reality, and therefore everything experiences consciousness itself (although not necessarily subjective memory). Asking what happens to the individual soul after death is asking the wrong question: there is no individual soul, and consciousness remains what it always was, a property of all creation. Sure, trees are conscious, as are individual tree cells, as are forests. So is everything. (It’s unlikely that trees have subjective memory, though.)

The second problem with dualism is that it ignores the ways in which we can show that the individual sense of self is an illusion in other ways than subjective experience. The illusory nature of the self is dealt with in Buddhism and in the philosophy of Spinoza, of Hume, and others. It’s supported by a rising amount of evidence from psychology. If the individual self is illusory, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to posit an individual soul to account for it.

Panpsychism has implications about life after death that are radically different from both the simple extinction posited by psychic materialism and any religious conception of individual post-mortem survival (survival in another reality, or reincarnation). I may return for some discussion of this later, but for now, enough.


Filed under Philosophy, Spirituality

Religion and Violence in a Rapidly-Changing World

bookReligious violence is in the news these days with the attack by al-Qaeda operatives that murdered cartoonists in Paris, allegedly because of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The brutality of the Islamic State continues unabated, the Taliban commits atrocities against women, and less-extreme Muslims all over the world look on all this with dread and concern. Violent Islam is in the news, but other religions aren’t far behind. In several African countries, Christians engage in literal witch hunts, while American Christian extremists continue to engage in violence against gay people and providers of reproductive health services. Even some Buddhists are getting into the act, terrorizing Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Where is all of this violence coming from? It’s not central to the teachings of any of the religions claimed by those who do the vile deeds. Not that either Christianity or Islam is any stranger to violence historically, of course, but attempts to blame the viciousness on (for example) teachings appearing in the Quran or the Hadith amount to special pleading, and ignore the fact that violence is quite rare among followers of Jesus or of Muhammad, as in fact it’s rare among people in general.

On the whole, the level of religious violence in the world is declining. This makes it stand out all the more when it happens. Christianity’s past is soaked with blood: the torture and murder of heretics, the slaughter of Jews, pagans, and Muslims, the Crusades, religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Yet today, Christians for the most part seem to have risen above the brutality of the past. Or have they? In the West, in Europe and North America, yes, with the occasional religious-right exception. But today, Christianity is increasingly a religion of the Southern Hemisphere, especially Latin America. Religious conflict and persecution continue in a Christian context, emerging with the greatest ferocity in majority-Christian developing countries.

At the same time, Muslims living in the West increasingly adopt Western values, including many things we reflexively think are in conflict with Islam (it’s not actually that clear-cut): feminism and gay rights, for example, and secular government in general. Educated Muslims living in advanced societies tend to look upon Islamic terrorists with horror, partly because their behavior comes from no version of Islam they want anything to do with, and partly because they know how easily that kind of thing can provoke a backlash threatening the lives and livelihoods of Muslims everywhere in the West. (Which may actually be the terrorists’ intent.)

Where Does it Come From?

If one wishes to nitpick scripture, it’s pretty clear that the actions of Muslim and Christian terrorists violate injunctions in the Quran and/or words of Jesus or the Apostles in the New Testament. The Quran clearly enjoins Muslims to be at peace with unbelievers who are willing to live in peace with Muslims, and to fight only in defense against the attacks of infidels. The Jesus of the Gospels frequently exhorted his disciples to mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and similar advice comes from the Apostles in their letters.

This kind of argument convinces no one who is determined to engage in violence, unfortunately. Passages in scripture that condemn certain kinds of behavior or belief or people are enough to justify the violence in their eyes, and they fudge over passages leaving the punishment up to God.

Nitpicking scripture may make the co-religionists of the violent feel a bit better, but it does nothing to help us understand why the violence is happening. The terrorists and other violent folk are clearly acting in accordance with their own understanding of their religions, so saying that they are not acting in accord with “real Islam” or “real Christianity” serves no practical purpose.

At the same time, it also doesn’t do much good to pander to bigotry. Condemning Islam as a religion of violence, when most Muslims aren’t violent, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes even less sense to condemn all religious belief because some people commit violence in the name of theirs. There’s a clear distinction to be drawn between religious people who commit acts of violence and those who don’t. Any explanation or understanding that fails to recognize that distinction is lacking in nuance.

But on the other hand, some of the facile arguments advanced that attribute all religious violence to some convenient secular resentment, e.g. against Western imperialism, also sound facile and are much too glib. When violent people say they are committing their violence for religious reasons, we should recognize that that is indeed part of their motivation. But what does it mean exactly? Why do these particular people find themselves inclined to commit terrorist acts, when most of their co-religionists not only don’t join in, but condemn the violence?

How Religion is Changing

At root, religion is an attempt to give intellectual clothing to spiritual experience. As I noted in the last post, spiritual experience gives us an understanding that is non-propositional — it can’t be literally expressed in words or symbols — and so all religious ideas regarding the nature of the sacred are metaphors and myths. One of the questions emerging from spirituality is, “How does this impact the way we should live?” Hence the religious involvement in questions of morality, social justice, and human relations generally.

But such questions don’t involve spirituality alone. Moral questions are always asked in a material context: they are questions of what we should do, given a set of circumstances and possible actions. As those circumstances and the possible actions we can take change, moral values become outdated and either wrong or irrelevant. When the pace of change is glacial, as it was throughout the agrarian age, religions can make claims to timelessness. But today, change is rapid. Moral values have had to adapt. Many things that were once acceptable are now condemned, and other things that were once condemned are now acceptable.

Believers in the timelessness of the old agrarian age religions are often uncomfortable with these changes, and that leads, at the apex of fanaticism, to religiously-motivated violence in an attempt to force a stop to the decline in the old ways. But among those who don’t engage in violence, other sorts of circle-the-wagons behavior emerge, including political activism aimed at shoring up the decaying structure of old dogmas and commandments through legal and governmental, rather than private force.

It Will Pass

This trend is not the future. It’s a last-ditch attempt to preserve the past, and it will fail. Things look frightening at the moment, but these movements exist at all only because our religious consciousness is in transition, and that’s a good thing. As the transition continues, the attempt to stop it will crest and decline, and with it the violence and terrorism we’re currently seeing.

If I’m right about this, the peak should be either on us already, or soon to come. The religions of the future, which will include new ones, transformed versions of the old ones, and increasing numbers of people who, although spiritual and in a sense religious, don’t identify with any one tradition to the exclusion of all others. We will come to see the ugly things going on today as no more than growing pains.


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Two Types of Knowing

11699922_sWhen we say the words, “I know that,” we can refer to one of two very distinct things. On the one hand, we can be talking about a proposition, something that can be expressed in words or symbols.

“The Earth is the third planet from the sun.”

“Yes, I know that.”

There’s no need to take a telescope and replicate the observations of the early astronomers who figured out the order of planetary orbits. All you have to do is to read about it. The words and numbers convey the concept perfectly and precisely, and so when you repeat them, you give the knowledge to someone else, with no meaning lost. This is what might be called “propositional knowledge.”

On the other hand, we can be talking about what it’s like to experience something. Unlike propositional knowledge, this second sort of knowing can’t be expressed in words or symbols, unless one is talking to someone who already knows it, and even then one is forced to use metaphor.

“Being in love is like you’re in a binary orbit, the two of you forming a common center of gravity.”

“Yes, I know that.”

But you can only say “Yes, I know that,” if you’ve been in love. Otherwise, the statement makes no sense. Two people aren’t in a literal binary orbit with a common center of gravity; both of them are part of the Earth’s gravitational system and the influence of their masses on one another is trivial. But if you’ve been in love, you know what the statement means, because you know what being in love feels like.

Using the words above, talking about binary orbits, or any other metaphors for being in love — a passage of music in the heart; a burning in the blood; two bodies and hearts merged as one — doesn’t convey knowledge. If someone has never been in love, these words convey nothing but confusion. What it’s like to be in love can be known, but it’s non-propositional knowledge in that it can’t be literally expressed or communicated. It’s not reducible to a proposition. You can’t learn it by hearing it from someone else. You must experience it yourself directly.

These two types of knowing are communicated in different ways, and they are also acquired in different ways.

Detachment and Immersion

Propositional knowledge is gained in a detached fashion. One does not participate. One observes, and as nearly as possible one reduces the effect of one’s presence to nil, so that what one observes can be seen on its own, without that influence. (Of course, it’s not possible to reduce the effect of observation all the way to zero, but that limit is only important in quantum mechanics.)

The goal of detached knowing is to create propositions about what is observed. These propositions can be combined into a cognitive model that describes the phenomenon or phenomena. Models can be used to generate an overall theory. This is, more or less, the scientific method.

But as useful as detached observation is for purposes of gaining propositional knowledge, it is no good when it comes to non-propositional knowledge. That requires another and in some ways opposite approach: immersive knowing.

Immersion is the inverse of detachment. Instead of observing, one participates. One is a part of what is experienced, and so the emotional side of things is all-important. You don’t try to reduce your own effect on a phenomenon, because you are part of the phenomenon and you are trying to understand what it is like to be in that place. Having plunged in and experienced something, you then know what it’s like to do it. But this does not result in a proposition. You know, but you can’t tell anyone else. You can give hints. You can use metaphor. You can also describe how to go about gaining the same understanding that you have achieved. But you can’t just tell someone what it’s like, and have that person know and understand just by listening to you.

Detached knowing can be communicated. Immersive knowing must be gained anew by each person.

Just One is Incomplete

We have achieved so much in the way of detached knowing, and also we are so bound up in a world constructed of words and symbols, that it’s tempting to think of this as the only form of knowing, but the truth is that if all you have is detached, propositional knowledge, then you do not know:

  • How moving a piece of music is for you.
  • What it’s like to achieve something difficult or challenging.
  • The importance of real friendship.
  • The intensity of love for a child.
  • The delicious relief of spring after a hard winter.
  • The delights of being mildly intoxicated.
  • The languid bliss after really great sex.

If you don’t know these things, or any other form of immersive and non-propositional knowing, then clearly your understanding of the world is sadly incomplete, no matter how elegant the structure of your scientific or philosophical theory. It’s not that there are things which can only be understood by immersion. It’s more than immersion provides a different way to know and understand the same things that can also be approached by detached methods, and your knowledge of these same things is incomplete without both.

Immersion and Spirituality

It’s obvious that spiritual experience provides immersive knowing rather than detached knowing, and that this knowledge is non-propositional, but to treat it otherwise is a common mistake. The essence of fundamentalism is to treat religious belief as a set of propositions, all reasoned logically from an ultimate source, which is usually a sacred writing. This can result in creationism and other very bad science. It also results in very bad religion shorn of spirituality.

We can (imperfectly) know the reality which underlies such metaphors as “God” or “the cosmic intelligence” or “Brahman.” But this is not propositional knowledge. It’s not something we can communicate to someone else, so that understanding is conveyed without loss of meaning. As such, it’s not realistic to ask someone who has not undergone the type of spiritual experience which conveys understanding to believe anything. It’s not possible for them to meaningfully either believe or disbelieve, because it’s not possible for them to understand.

The most that can be communicated, aside from poetry and myth, is methods and techniques for altering consciousness and achieving spiritual experience, and hence understanding, for oneself. That’s the nature of immersive knowing and non-propositional knowledge. It’s inescapable.

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If Every Religion Disappeared

musingsWhat would happen if every religion in the world were to magically vanish overnight? Never mind just how that could happen. It’s magic, a spell from some meddlesome wizard that causes every church, mosque, temple, or shrine to vanish, every religious text or work of literature or art to disappear, every bit of knowledge that religion ever existed to be plucked from everyone’s brain. No more Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Neopaganism, Baha’i Faith, Mormonism, Shinto — no nothing. What would happen? Would we all become enlightened, secular atheists? Would religion never reappear?

Where did religion come from in the first place? That’s a question with a complicated answer, but at least part of the answer suggests that if religion were to disappear, it would make a swift return — but in completely new forms.

Spiritual Experience

Let’s start from the very beginning. You’re not a religious believer. You have no concept of God, the Void, an intelligent and conscious cosmos, faith, devotion, meditation, enlightenment (in the spiritual rather than the intellectual sense), or anything else that currently goes into the mix of religious ideas.

Then one day, something happens. Perhaps you have a brush with death and a near-death experience. Perhaps you experience a runner’s high, a dose of psychedelic drugs, or an out-of-the-blue shift in your self-image and self-awareness. Your perception of who you are and of your relationship to the universe changes. Your identity dissolves. You feel a connection with, an identification with, all that is.

If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Remember, you have no religious ideas that can explain this experience and what it means. You can’t say that you have experienced a union with God, because you don’t have a concept of God. You can’t say that you have merged with the Cosmic Soul (Brahman), because you don’t have that idea, either. But these experiences keep happening, and it’s your brain’s nature to try to understand every experience you have and incorporate it into a coherent world-view. What do you do?

The obvious answer is that you make something up, some metaphor that you can wrap around the experience to give it form. Some way to talk about it. If you can write, maybe you write a book. If you can speak, perhaps you’ll try to convey your new awareness to others. If you’re an artist or a musician, you’ll create art or music with a religious theme — even though you won’t call it that, because the word “religious” isn’t part of your vocabulary.

Maybe you personalize the greater reality you’ve become part of, and call it God. Maybe you don’t, and call it the cosmos. If you’re especially insightful, you’ll recognize that it doesn’t make much difference whether you personalize it or not. It’s beyond the ability of your mind to comprehend rationally, so any labels you put on it are purely for convenience and not really descriptive, still less definitive.

The religious experience is wonderful, pleasant, and powerfully moving, so you try to recreate it, make it happen more often. Ideally, you want to live in that cosmic consciousness permanently, and eliminate the times when you forget the insights altogether. So you develop rituals, exercises, mental practices, and ways to enter communion with that greater reality. At this point, you have theology or religious philosophy, religious art or music or writing, and religious ritual and practice.

Now you go online and communicate via social media with others who have also had similar experiences, and share your ideas with them, while appreciating theirs. Pretty soon, you’ve got a community of believers going. With that, plus theology or religious philosophy, plus religious ritual and practice, plus religious art, music, and writing — you have a religion.

Minus the Internet, that’s pretty much how the religions of the past emerged. Someone had a powerful sequence of religious experiences, developed ideas around them, communicated them to others who understood to a degree because of similar experiences, and these people together created a body of teaching and practice.

After this happened, typically things went south as the religion started playing the politics game and sought power for its own institutions and the people in charge of them. But the description above is how just about all religions began. And that brings us to some interesting speculation about how, if all religions were to disappear magically and we started all over, things might proceed differently.

New Religion in the Modern Age

We have a very different culture and society than existed in, say, Muhammad’s time. Today’s world has not only the Internet and instant communication, but also a fast-paced, rapidly changing society in which the idea of Truth preserved unchanging for all time is hard to countenance. This, then, is the first and most obvious difference between our do-over religion and anything that has emerged from the agrarian age: it incorporates the idea of change. No commandments written on stone tablets. No Seal of the Prophets — as time goes by, we anticipate more enlightened voices without end. No timeless truths. Maybe timeless truths do exist, but our brains aren’t capable of understanding them perfectly if so, and the evolution of our own understanding amounts to the same thing as changes to truth itself.

Another difference in circumstances, which must inevitably affect religious thought, is the immediacy and global character of communication. Post a religious idea, or any other sort of idea, online and it will draw attention from those who agree, those who disagree, and those who simply have a different take. The religions of the agrarian age emerged in a time when, say, a Medieval peasant might never talk to anyone from outside his own village, and his final authority on spiritual matters rested with the village priest. Today, what would emerge would not be individual and competing religions, but competing religious ideas in a global marketplace of ideas. Rather than many different religions, what would likely emerge would be a single religion with multiple currents of thought in a constant state of evolution.

Finally, we face today a set of material circumstances mandating a radically different moral and ethical environment than obtained in the time of Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad. True, there are many core values expressed by each of these prophets that remain valid today, but the details are often obsolete. Today, we must recognize the value of gender equality, environmental responsibility, peace, and universal compassion in ways that were either outside common awareness altogether in the distant past, or else amounted to an unworkable ideal.

If religion were to magically vanish overnight, we would not all become enlightened atheists. But our culture would change pretty dramatically nonetheless — and much for the better.


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11988840_sThird in the series of posts about tropes in contemporary fantasy is my favorite: the witch.

Magic is obviously a staple of all fantasy, but the role of the witch in contemporary fantasy has a layer of mythic meaning over and above magic itself. The witch is set apart from society, living in secret, misunderstood, often persecuted. In a lot of fantasy stories set in today’s world, the witch is the guardian of nature’s purity and health. Witches stand in conflict with a rampaging industrial society that has little regard for ecological sustainability and that values profit above all.

Witches are ancient. They follow a magical, spiritual, and religious tradition deriving from before the dawn of civilization and are in possession of a truth denied to and scorned by mainstream religions. Where those religions have held temporal power, witches have been accused of demonic magic and those convicted of the practice have been condemned to death.

Of course, those killed by the ignorant are seldom real witches.

The witch, then, isn’t just another name for the magic-user, but something more specific: the powerful, wise, and insightful outsider, the reminder of our natural roots, the cautionary voice that threatens nature’s wrath at our disregard and hubris.

Fantasy Witches and Real Witches

There are, of course, real witches in the real world, and they bear some resemblance to the contemporary-fantasy witch, mostly because they are themselves tapping into the same myths as shapers of their own life-paths. Witches in real life are followers of a loose-knit nature religion, a branch of Neopaganism, characterized by devotion to nature, the practice of magic, and related progressive values such as feminism and environmentalism. Witches typically meet in small groups or practice their craft alone, rather than gathering in large congregations. They are typically individualistic, a bit geeky, rebels against the cultural norms of the past, and possessed of a dim view of the big traditional religions. Their existence makes the witch the contemporary fantasy trope most closely grounded in reality. (There are, as far as I know, no real vampires or werewolves.)

The fantasy witch begins with the real witch as a template, but of course departs from it in a number of ways. The most obvious departure is to amplify the real witch’s ability as a magic user, giving fantasy witches delicious powers that are beyond the scope of most real-world humans. In addition to that, fantasy witches are sometimes not quite human. Perhaps they are rare family lines bearing the genes for magical power and connection to the Earth, passed from mother to child (or sometimes also father to child) down the generations. Perhaps they constitute a separate species that look human, but aren’t.

These are just window-dressing, though. In essence, the fantasy witch is the real witch on booster drugs.

The Role of the Witch

The witch in a fantasy story may be the main protagonist or a side character. As a main protagonist, the witch presents us with a set of witchy issues as well as the usual array of personal issues that are available to any main characters. The common issues are things like relationships, jobs, family, friends, and danger from fantasy creatures out to slaughter them — the usual. In that respect, the witch is just like any other fantasy character with remarkable but limited powers asked to solve problems that look impossibly daunting and survive dangers that seem to promise certain death.

In addition to all that, the witch has spiritual issues and obligations that can weave into the story. She (note: the witch need not be female, but archetypically is) has a job to do, dictated by her role in life, and that is to safeguard the natural order of things. She is the preserver of life and health against the threats of — whatever threatens them, which in the modern world mainly consists of rampaging, out of control industry. She’s an environmental extremist with magical powers: watch your backs, Koch brothers! In addition, she’s the defender of women against slope-browed patriarchy.

One common theme for a witch in a young adult story is her reluctant or troubled coming of age. A young witch may be ignorant of her heritage and powers, or reluctant to believe in them, or determined to fit in and be like everyone else, when in reality she is anything but that. She may have to go through a passage in which events force her to take up her role against her preference. On the flip side, she may be a little too enamored of magical power, arrogant and impulsive. The story or a side plot may involve the consequences of her attitudes and the need to gain maturity and humility.

Witches also make good supporting characters, offering wise counsel to protagonists and helping them against magical dangers or offering the assistance of powerful spells.

Either as main character or as supporting character, the witch always rides the same mythic current. She is a reminder of our role as part of nature, calling us to humility in the face of our own power. She tells us, as often as necessary, that the power we carry is offered in trust by the cosmos, and is ultimately in service to something greater than ourselves — and abuse of it carries grave consequences.
Copyright: nexusplexus / 123RF Stock Photo

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