Thursday, March 31, 2016

Metaphoric Roads to Reality

The dichotomies we reify into conflicts can be healed, according to Bernardo Kastrup in his book, Meaning in Absurdity.  I’m in accord with the author’s opening salvo.  He begins with a list of experiences said to occur on the margins of credible reality.   Alien encounters and archetypal dreams are a bold starting-point for constructing a new scientific metaphysics.

He writes: “. . . by the end of this book it will hopefully become clearer what those shamans might have meant when they spoke of an identity between the literal and the metaphorical.” 

Pleasantly enough, this completely clashes with common sense.  We can diminish the shock by admitting that the identity is invisible most of the time, though it may show up in the more exceptional registers of human experience.  The truth is that some people have experiences radically dissimilar to what most of us are accustomed to.  Given the wild diversity of human experience, this is a reasonable assumption to make and a good principle of epistemic humility.   

So there may be a secret bridge from metaphor to reality, but we won’t find it on the surface of mundane experience.   

We may conceive of ourselves as already existing in another world.  Again, this converges with Kastrup’s surrealistic inclinations, his refusal to separate dream from reality.  English analytic philosophers, H. H. Price and C.D. Broad, suggest that our dream life, its central characters and leading dramas, are playing out even as we’re awake the livelong day, pursuing our conscious lives.  They occur in a distinctive dream space that physicist Bernard Carr postulates, and that impinges on our waking life, periodically in normal REM sleep cycles and sporadically under random or willed circumstances.  Fechner, Myers, James, and others were alive to this sense of subliminal immersion in a richer, wider mental environment.

This is a bold metaphysical conception, and points in Joseph of Copertino’s story illustrate Kastrup’s identity of the literal and the metaphoric in ways that invite comment.  The first thing that comes to mind is a common piece of English usage.  About Joseph one could say that in certain inspired moods he “got carried away”.   To get carried away could be construed metaphorically and literally.  Carried away has the metaphoric sense of being swept by a superior force into a state of ecstasy.  But carried away also has a literal sense, as in “he picked up the book and carried it away.”   

Now this identity of metaphor and literal matter of fact – at odds with common sense – seems to apply to Joseph when he enters ecstasy.  The Latin version of carried away is rapture.  We know the subjective, imaginative aspect of rapture but the same term is used in Bernini’s biography of Joseph for levitation.  In Joseph’s reality the raptures of consciousness translate into bodily raptures in space.

All the metaphors of spiritual aspiration and ascension unfold into literal bodily upliftings, literal hoverings and even dancings in space.  The imaginative stretch of meaning in metaphor assumes the outer trappings of physical reality in the image of Joseph levitating. 

In this surreal dimension of being, dream and reality copulate.  So now the metaphor comes vividly to life in our dreams, and in our dreams we are like gods and can fly above cities and mountains; but in Joseph’s corner of mind at large the flight of the spirit becomes “identical” with the flight of the body. 

The marvelous things Joseph was said to do would be commonplace in our dreams where we fly and are immune to pain and fire. The ecstasy of levitation is known to most of us, however rarely and briefly, in those rare experiences of flying dreams.  Levitation seems to reveal in a dramatic way the profound oneness of mind and matter. 

If one thinks about a levitating friar like Joseph, the many strange physical acts he is said to have performed are things we might all do in a dream.  Different sorts of event occur in dream space, impossible in 3-D waking space, like, for instance, flying or levitation.  Now it is a fact that we all experience waking and dream space  successively, cyclically.  In addition, experience shows there are intermediary experience-spaces, for example, hypnagogic, hypnopompic, and lucid. But here’s the crux of our enigma. 

What if Joseph, instead of dreaming and being awake in succession, experienced dream space and waking space simultaneously, producing a tertium quid.  In this new compacted space – an effect of Joseph’s ecstasies – Joseph could levitate (as we can in our dreams).  He would elude the constraints of normal physical reality.  My conjecture is that ecstasy may in some incomprehensible way cause a localized compaction of dream and waking space.  Inside the transient bubble of that hybrid space the impossible becomes actual, and figures of speech signal a power to transfigure reality.

Metaphors make unexpected connections, so that the trivial may foreshadow the momentous, the inconspicuous mirror the over-arching.  For example, levity seems the anti-type of levitation; lighthearted banter is nothing compared to awesome levitation.  On what grounds, then, may we assert Kastrup’s identity of metaphor and literal fact?   Frivolity of spirit seems the very negation of the ecstatic levitations of mystics.

One way to escape what Kastrup calls “bivalence”, or metaphysical schizophrenia, is to follow the metaphoric road to the source of the identity of levity and levitation.  That road takes us back to the Roman root of the two words from levare, “to make light of”.  Levity and levitation, united in their etymology, are about making light of things – perhaps of all things.  

What does that mean? To make light of all things implies a move toward inner detachment, the great virtue of the mystics; in this sense, making light of is a figure of speech – and could apply to many situations.  It is always possible to lighten up.  But with Joseph who practically lived in the zone, making light of referred to his strange behaviors in space.  Su! Su! Andiamo! he was fond of saying. “Up there!  Up there!  Let’s go!”


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Words Between a Cynic and an Afterlife Researcher

CYNIC -- Good evening – and are you awake or dreaming? 


CYNIC --Then why are you wasting your time searching for proof of an afterlife?   Can’t you see? – it’s against the interests of humanity.

AFTERLIFE RESEARCHER --   Against the interests of humanity?  To prove that death is not the end?  That the universe is open for adventure? That the miserable majority on earth may hope for a second chance? Is hope bad?  More life bad?  A chance to perfect what we start here elsewhere -- can that be bad?

CYNIC -- I’ll tell you what I think is bad.  You’re helping to rationalize acts of terrorism!   You justify every religion-inspired murder of innocents. You make it easy for fanatics to blow themselves up in the hope that heavenly rewards await them postmortem.     

AFTERLIFE RESEARCHER --    Psychopaths use religion to justify their criminal behavior.  And you’re blaming me? How can I influence these moral monsters?       

CYNIC -- I’ll tell you how. It’s your duty to preach annihilation after death. Those prepared to give their all for the faith must see that nothing awaits them after death but extinction.  They must learn to see that their religion is a cruel deception that ends in pointless suffering, followed by nothingness.  Hammer home the liberating idea of afterdeath extinction.  It will cure them of their religious psychosis.

AFTERLIFE RESEARCHER --   I prefer to hammer home the alternate but liberating idea of infinite consciousness. Don’t you know, you old Cynic, it’s bad for your health to be so narrow-minded!

CYNIC  Sorry, I agree with Spinoza.  He said a wise person should meditate on life, not death.

AFTERLIFE RESEARCHER --    Spinoza was right.  The research is on life after death, not death after life.  The soul, if it’s not already dead, craves life, more life, infinite life.  And by the way, your objection is misguided.   Fanatics won’t be influenced by reason and evidence, in any case.  Survival research could do nobody harm.  It could, however, be helpful.  I’ll meet you again on this corner some time and we’ll discuss it further. 

CYNIC -- Possibly.

AFTERLIFE RESEARCHER --   In the meantime, we can agree to disagree.

CYNIC --Forever.

AFTERLIFE RESEARCHER --   See ya, you grim old Cynic

CYNIC -- I doubt it, you fond old dreamer. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Consciousness and Life After Death


Aside from various faith traditions, is there any useful information about this subject available?  The answer is “yes!” but you’d never know it.  It’s not commonly known that science has important things to say about life after death. The problem is that in our materialist culture, the question is a non-starter.

Why?  Because, we are told, there is no such thing as a soul, no consciousness without a brain.  We are our brains, neurons, neurotransmitters; it follows that after brain death, the curtain is down forever.      

That is the popular scientific view.  But human experience reveals a different picture.  For one thing, there’s a history of research on the afterlife enigma, beginning in 1882 with the founding of the English Society for Psychical Research.   The founders, renown in their fields -- philosophers, physicists, classical scholars – studied and assessed fact-based narratives that point to survival.  A minority of  heroic academics carry on this research today, probing the fate of consciousness after death.  (A lonely lot, to be sure.) But what have they found?

It’s a tricky space to navigate but the effect of all the evidence is impressive.  Nowadays, we hear about the near-death experience (NDE), a remarkable phenomenon.  Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist, studied near-death experiences of patients who suffered cardiac arrest.

He made a curious discovery.   During cardiac arrest the heart stops pumping oxygen to the brain, which should, according to the mainline view, instantly terminate consciousness.  But that’s not what happens all the time.   In spite of a functionally dead brain, some reports prove that consciousness not only continues but expands in life-transforming ways. 

Near-death experiences, according to official theory, should not occur, should not exist.  But they do.  It begins to look like our minds can unhinge from our bodies, wander off in space, and observe our clinically dead bodies from a distance.  These experiences typically convince people of postmortem survival.

This is by no means the only type of evidence for survival.  Research from the University of Virginia has shown that people may survive death by migrating into the body of a newborn.  There are thousands of documented cases of reincarnation.

The research suggests that the hidden depths of our subconscious selves may be very deep indeed, stretching back through many lives.  Each of us then harbors a vast unknown self – a stunning idea. Perhaps one day we will learn to communicate with the memory layers of our previous lives.  Afterlife research opens ways to understand our living selves in new ways.

Besides near-death and reincarnation phenomena, other forms of evidence exist. Scattered throughout history are reports of ghosts, hauntings, and apparitions of the dead.  Now and then the revenant comes with proof of identity and information unknown to any living person.  There are famous cases of this type in the literature of psychical research.  In one of my favorites, an apparition reveals the hidden whereabouts of a last will and testament that no living person knew of.  So the ghost of a man made finding the document possible, which seems like an argument that he survived death.

There is another source of afterlife evidence – mediumship.  Great modern mediums like Leonora Piper or Gladys Osborne Leonard have produced strong evidence for survival. Good mediums place their minds in abeyance and become receptive to messages from apparently discarnate minds.  The message of mediumship is that each of us, at least in principle, could be an instrument for communicating with the otherworld.  Who knows?  Mediumship may evolve into an art form of the future. 

New forms of survival evidence keep cropping up.  For example, there are cases of so-called “terminal lucidity,” people with brain diseases who spontaneously regain their mental faculties just before dying.  How strange!  At death, persons with damaged brains recover their faculties: the exact opposite of what materialism would predict.  

One thing may surprise us.  Science today has no idea how our brain machinery produces our consciousness.  The two things are wildly diverse.   Even the most committed materialists admit this obvious mystery.  But, if science cannot explain how consciousness emerges from the brain, we are free to assume that it pre-exists the brain.  This leads to a new way to view the problem.  Now we can say that the mind (or soul) uses the brain; it is not produced by the brain.  If our brain doesn’t create our consciousness, it would not follow that our consciousness dies when our brain dies.  

So the issue of what may come after death remains open.  It is closed only to people who accept the dogmatic assumptions of scientific materialism.*

*The literature on life after death is vast, so I’ll mention just a few books to launch the reader.  Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life; Ian Stevenson, Children Who Remember Past Lives; Stephen Braude, Immortal Remains; Kelly, Crabtree, and Marshall, Eds; Beyond Physicalism; M. Grosso, Experiencing the Next World Now.           

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Levity and Levitation


Joy is feather light, but who can carry it?

                                                Chuang Tzu
Confucius and the Madman

In his closely observed life, Joseph of Copertino proved a mystic known for his frequent ecstasies and strange phenomena such as levitation.   The friar appears in history as a multi-pronged counter-example to the reductive metaphysics of physicalism.  

In this post, however, I want for a moment to deconstruct the idea of levitation.  There are less literal ways of looking at the phenomenon.  And they seem to speak to us more directly, perhaps in ways that might be useful.   Surely there’s something here of significance -- but what exactly?  The question is this: Are there threads of wisdom from Joseph’s otherworldly career that we can weave into the mix of mundane life and present realities?

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Contest For America

Not long ago I stumbled upon Mark Edmundson’s memorable essay, “One Nation Under Fear”, which echoed in spirit his previous essay that exposed the disappointing shallowness of the current poetry scene in the U.S.  What does American fecklessness have to do with its clear opposite, the apocalyptic high energy of Daesh, so-called Isis? 

Both, in my opinion, suffer from an undiagnosed disease; both are victims of unhealthy worldviews.  One major conflict today may be described in the following way: on one side, fear-ridden techno-chicken-hawks with unprecedented power – lined up against psychopathic apocalyptics, disaffected outcasts hungry for power and lusting for vendetta.

Both sides suffer from worldviews that systematically dehumanize their victims. We are of course in the subtle realm of metaphysical crime.  It seems correct to say that  history is the slaughterhouse where the victims of other people’s pictures of reality are continually piling up, and with no end in sight.    

In America, the dominant picture of reality is manufactured by corporate interests. Among the so-called terrorists, the working worldview is contrived by distortions of religious traditions. The disease infects both worldviews by systematically justifying violence.   

Sick worldviews that dominate the mass mind are the root causes of the growing misery and instability of the world.  Is there a way to cope with this epidemic of metaphysical disease?    

We may have to just wait for history to play itself out.   This is how it looks when we observe the world of nations at this junction of spring in 2016. 

The greatest power on Earth is on the threshold of endgame, suffering from what Vico called the “barbarism of reflection”.  That is when reason turns malicious and works to dissolve society. The sensus communis or common human bond withers on the vine.  Sect and schism multiply, individuals behave like raging beasts, the people descend to chaos and civil warfare. 

Roughly, in Vico’s model, barbarians inspired by a poetry that justifies atrocity will take full advantage of the empire’s divided, fractious self.

Or else renewal must come from within, according to Vico, through poetic rebirth of consciousness.  The present course of the nation points toward a downward phase of the cycle, driven as it is by a selfish minority with technical power and intelligence, but lacking all poetic sense.  Is there anything we can do? 

I suppose we could call for a National Contest.

A call to the American people to think about their working picture of reality.   What are our life-enhancing aims, ideas, values.   Do we cherish them?  Are we happy with them?  Are there weak spots, sore spots, or possibly sick spots?

What can we do to heal our demented life-vision?  Deconstruct and refurbish the American Dream?  How about a few new mock ups of the ugly American idol, Exceptionalism?   Surely, something must be done  about the moribund state of life, beauty, courage, justice, freedom, and other causalities of deconstructed virtue.   

The undiagnosed disease can strike when you least expect it. The calculated moves, the smooth routines you rely on suddenly fail.  In the excitement of novelty or terror, old beliefs are shattered and old skills dropped by the wayside.  The vertigo of existence is no longer a metaphor.  The ground tilts, you stumble, swivel off balance, feel yourself being pushed over the edge.

What then? Are your saving resources at the ready?  Any fortress (a cave will do) you can retreat to or mount an attack from?  A vantage point in your soul – a place where you can surmount the obstacles that seem suddenly to be rushing at you from all directions? 

How to come up with a saving vision? This is the main problem we face today. Let this be the chief challenge we might all respond to.  A competition meant to liberate the saving imagination.   It would be a contest where we all stand to become winners.

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