30. Mysticism as scientific observation
freebasing pure perception, soaring through the psychic cosmos
Materialism is the dominant philosophy of our day and age:
But philosophies are complicated things. It’s easy to endorse an idea, without knowing what it entails; it’s common to think X is a required part of a worldview, when X is just a preference, habit or bias of its adherents.
I believe materialists ARE committed to error-theory about non-material entities. That’s a core principle. Non-material shit don’t exist. Straightforward.
But IME materialists merely tend to be (but aren't strictly committed to being) error-theorists about non-rationalistic ways of knowing.
By non-rationalistic, I don’t mean ‘insane’ - something I’ll discuss in this post. But we can look at the modes of thought materialists happen to like, and call these ‘rationalistic’: things like analysis, explicit theory, deduction, and reductionism. This preference makes sense, in a way, given the rationalist’s favored object of study: the material world. Atoms and bits and chemicals are well apprehended through rationalistic ways of knowing.
But the identification of some methods as ‘rational’ poses a challenge for a self-described mystic and proclaimed ‘naturalistic theologian’ like myself. Are the remainder of mental modes ‘irrational’? Are they just crazy?
In the last year I’ve begun to believe in God, on a certain definition - but I’m not out here trying to abandon the cause of truth. This will seem like a flat contradiction to many, especially those of my generation, who got Dawkins-pilled in high school or grew up in a blue state during the evolution versus intelligent design debate.
So when the topic comes up, I find myself defending mental orientations and practices that look very mystical, or even superstitious - to many a hard thinker.
My limited case is this: People can believe what they want, but I at least see no compelling reason why even the crotchetiest materialists or rationalists should be averse to trying on a more mystical frame of mind. Not only that, I bet this contemplative mysticism business can aid them on their quest.
An example of what I mean by a ‘mystical mental practice’: imagine intending to gaze out over the entirety of existence, to witness it, entertain it as a gestalt, to see how the macro connects to the micro in all its magnificent, terrible and wondrous detail. To let the vision impact you, rather than narrating and mitigating it with extra thoughts interpretations, and interruptions. Doing this for 15 minutes, God forbid. Half an hour. An hour a day, for a year.
Yes, it seems meditative - it is. Yes, when you go with the flow of mental experience, shit can get weird, and incredibly confusing. But where in the big science rulebook is this banned? If not banned, where it is marked as a dangerous or irrelevant distraction? Dare I call a contemplative practice aimed at witnessing the universe and everything in it… 'observation'?
I could use the buzzword 'neural annealing' here. Some like it. I could talk about how sitting with complexity is a skill, how we neuter our thinking by avoiding the experience of the unknown, about how unexpected connections between parts of a whole are a critical source of observation and insight… But nevertheless I believe people mostly get tripped up about contemplation (distinct from ‘thinking’!) due to ‘genre association’ or a social disgust instinct. Sharper minds may have truly philosophical objections, but mostly people just don’t like the vibe. Like I’m telling them to talk to the goblins under their floorboards, and stop thinking about molecules.
People get tripped up about it because you're never told to do it in school. Science class doesn't explain how to ‘behold a complex gestalt’. It barely teaches the word gestalt. It barely talks about ‘beholding’ anything. It barely teaches you how to produce explicit theories about natural phenomena, let alone freebase pure perception by soaring through the psychic cosmos.
Worse, many if not the vast majority of us in the modern West are quite alienated from our personal experiences and direct perceptions, an alienation that on certain theories runs generations deep. Jaynes, McLuhan, Nietzsche and many others have commented on this.
In any case, I think the process I described and others in the same microgenre 1) work, at least given some curiosity and diligent fiddling, 2) are meaningfully distinct from ‘meditation in general,’ and 3) are definitely not to be condemned as the self-important fumblings of sophists, gurus and hippies. The brilliant must reclaim them! Join an ancient and honorable tradition. Broad and implicit contemplation, as a complement and enhancement of scientific observation.
In looking, you change. 'Being you' is altered. You see how despair & confusion cloud your ability to look. You find ways in which the desire to look is itself confused. You see how something you thought was ‘hard reality’ was more of a perceptual accident, as you got in the way of your truth-finding lens. You might even see something you don’t expect.
Congratulations: you're a mystic! And that doesn't mean you're no longer looking for the world.
Because the spirit of it is... LOOK!
I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this yet, but I recently put up a ‘Prayer Index’ on my personal website, which links to some of my better writing about prayer and related mental practices. Check it out here.