Monthly Archives: December 2014

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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