01/01/2011

More or Less Critical Mysticism


(c) Roger Penrose, 1999


Can it be that so many men, of various times and nations, outstanding minds among them, have devoted so much effort, and indeed fervor, to metaphysics, when this consists of nothing more than words strung together without sense?"

– Carnap


I think now that the right thing to do would be to begin my book with remarks about metaphysics as a kind of magic. But in doing this I must neither speak in defence of magic nor ridicule it. In this context, in fact, excluding magic has the character of magic.

– Wittgenstein, PI manuscript



[Mysticism is] a philosophical urge gone wrong. Thousands of lesser philosophers are always with us to prove that it can go more wrong still, by trying to form systems out of no knowledge at all. Admirers of Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and Reich were all under the illusion that profundity can be attained by embracing principles with no basis in science. The occult and mystical are perennial short cuts to a supervening vision… Unfortunately it is quite possible for the subtle visionary and the shouting dunce to inhabit the same skull... the essential truth about people prone to catch-all theories is that they aren’t in search of the truth, they’re in search of themselves.

– Clive James



Bookshops tend now to have only one shelf of philosophy, if that - and eight of something they call "Mind, Body and Spirit": books trafficking in sentimental, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-psychological superstition-porn. Imagine the havoc Carnap would wreak amongst self-helpists. But surely in the proper world of thought, in seriousdiscourse, 'spiritual' is a dirty word; 'reality' a deeply suspect one; and 'metaphysics' one abused almost beyond salvation?

No. How is it that the philosophers, the stereotyped oddballs of academia, bracket out so much?
1) Because certain words (e.g. "consciousness", "cosmic", "reality", "dreams", "God", "truth", and latterly "quantum") are lightnings rod for empty melodrama and money-grubbing fear-parasites. Which forces caution when dealing with them.

2) Because by specifying "the fringes", you're talking about work outside academia, away from where validation (and canonization) of thinkers happens now. (This is justifiable practice, since the dialectic and basic standards would collapse without peer review.) There's an enormous amount of work to do sifting out the concept abusers (neo-Pagans, conspiracy theorists, 'Heads, money-spinners and fanatics) from the worthwhile heterodox philosophers. It might not be worth it, given the pool of academics who are very probably less of charlatans.

  • But everything in every canon has been sifted in the same way (you'd hope). Kant and Wittgenstein were once dubious and risky before they were institutionalized (and sometimes are still). Academic accreditation limits as it validates.

3) Because there is a certain set of cultural prejudices which (irrationally) precludes it. Reductionism, rationalization; the belief in science as the only valid form of intellection: together, "scientism". It has many benefits, including a pleasing ontological minimalism and the decline of harmful superstitions. There are people who find even analytic philosophy of mind "spooky". But this is just Lysenkoism.


We say there's "hard" subjects and "soft" subjects; their tactility proportional to their empirical rigour. But anyone who's done much philosophy of science knows that it is surprisingly difficult (and metaphysically expensive) to be a scientific realist. Scientism is often not "Hard" at all, but naive.

The rationalist mob have rightly stuck the boot in to soft spirituality - and retconning religious incentives like the Templeton Prize in particular. (In case you don't know, that's the largest money-pot in intellectual life, awarded to "someone prepared to say nice things about religion"). But philosophical bullies have also attacked contemporary work by Paul Davies and Derek Abbott which began to develop a non-realist quantum theory. Richard Dawkins' underlying premise is that there's no room for non-scientistic thought, and this is far from obvious.

Famously, mysticism came back in the 60s. It recurred for a number of reasons - a plausible sketch being that postwar disillusionment with the Western script of disenchanting materialism, led to consequent bad readings of Buddhism and Hinduism, the challenge of authority in art, romance, and war, fear of Cold War realities, sex freedom. But a minor reason is because the emergent Analytic philosophy, through its boring technical topics and formalism, withdrew from the public sphere. Rightly or wrongly, philosophy is considered the source of existential insights, and when it fails to supply it, less rational forces will supply. There is no intellectual dishonesty in holding that there is more to this than this. We've gotten used to branding this kind of thing 'mysticism'. So be it; but cut away the liars, Messiahs, irrationals and fanatics, leave in some of the schizophrenics, and you are left with the philosophical hard mystics. The kind worth reading I call critical mysticism. "Mind, Body and Spirit" books and their pseudoscientific-pseudoreligious ilk tend to be soft mysticism.

Problems preliminary.

  1. Am I wrong? Is to be a "mystic" just to be unclear, hyperbolic and without justification? At very least, shouldn't it require the mystical experience, the sudden disreputable transcendence that the religious and the extremely ill encounter? Well. I'm keeping the word "mystic", with all its recent pejoration, because I'm leaving it open for you to critically dismiss. Even Sam Harris did so.
  2. One of the downsides of working in philosophy is that it attracts a lot of people with mental-health problems." - Joseph Heath. But the best maxim in informal logic is nil ad hominem - that we address what is said, not who says it. Even if he is called Ram Dass.
  3. Oh, you've got the face on! The floaty face of the wise bird hovering on a million different quotes, about to do a massive wisdom shit on my head!" - Four Lions. It is very easy to slip into piousness when dealing with topics like these. Those writers who put on a rhetorical style to the detriment of their argument are not disqualified, but they do make themselves dubious. This can be best seen in the soft-mystic obsession for buzzwords and other Gladwellisms.
  4. Sir, there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out." - James Randi. God, I'll take notes on that, thanks.

    4b. "Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology." - Niven's Law.

    Could easily be, could easily be. Particularly, though, if we accept Heidegger's definition of technology.
  5. If my category hard mysticism is really just for "unorthodox inquiry with focus on the significance of the subjective", how do I draw the line between Continental philosophers and rational mystics?
  6. (And in what way is blabbering on about consciousness "socially unorthodox"? Everyone's at it!)
  7. How is a transhumanist - a person certain to be a hyper-materialist and eliminative functionalist - supposed to be "mystical"? (Well, if we can make a mystic out of Turing...)
  8. How soft can a 'critical' mystic get before they become a New Age quack?
  9. Dude, we don't disdain the occult for aesthetic or prejudicial reasons; it's because it's intellectually corrosive, isn't it? What grounds the claims made by these folk? One of Nietzsche's criticisms of Spinoza is a sort of Freudian nudge - "what kind of person needs such a big ontology, eh? Eh?" Related empirical suggestions are being made these days about the neurological underpinnings of sprituality. It's painted as a pathetic psychological trick. But people aren't ever going to stop doing metaphysics, not while they remain what I understand by "people". We might as well distinguish between doing it well and in a loose, deluded way.
  10. What do I mean? : I think I know it when I see it.

****************************************************************************


Spinoza is the paradigm hard mystic. (This adds to the exemplar function he already serves for the groups "mechanical philosophers", "early liberals", "deductive rationalists" and "inspiring heretics".) This is not to say that hard mystics are all Spinozists, but perhaps I should create an index, and give everyone a "Baruch Score".


TRAITS (not "criteria")

- Metaphysical cosmology
. (Thinking about everything at once. Just speculative systematization, not necessarily any worlds-upon-the-world. Usually implies a philosophy of life, too.)
- Epistemically modest. (this is the one that disqualifies almost all New Age writers)
- Taking consciousness seriously (not "taking it as given", nor as "the eternal soul!"; but as a potential ontological essence. They will have a metaphysics that subsumes what gets called spirituality rather than explaining it away.)
- Taking values as seriously as facts

- Non-reductionism with respect to complex phenomena.
- Denial of the "conflict thesis". (that religion and science are fundamentally irreconcilable.)

- Small-r-romanticism
. (Passionate and affective response to the world, and endorsement of these reponses as valid.)

- Capital-r-Romanticism: the World Unified. (holism, pantheism, panpsychism, the "anima mundi". Openness to idealism almost requisite.)

- Polymathic
(their wikipedia entries tend to list a half-dozen job titles.)

- Uncommon sense.


- Nonstandard epistemology (some form of non-logical inference is involved - intuitionism, "tacit" and "implicit" knowledge, Heideggerian work, embodied philosophy of mind, noesis...)

- Opposition to methodological individualism (the social version of nominalism.)
- Celebrities, in their day (Depending on your politics, this will seem to you either proof of the wishful, indulgent nature of their thought, or just that they communicated something people find important.)
- Attitude to free will varies extremely, from being the main motivator for their ontology, to utter Spinozist rejection.

Hard mysticism ghosts the canon all the way back, under a long series of movements with self-important names: "Theosophy", "Geisteswissengeschaft", "philosophies of freedom", "process theory", "Noetic science", "Analytical Thomism", "humanistic psychology". There's an eruption of it amongst the early quantum scientists. Mathematicians have always been prone to it.


Contemporary soft-mystic Movements include "New Thought", "Human Potential", most of the "Integral theory" stuff, "Transpersonal psychology", and "Neuro-linguistic programming". "Noetics" is a concept being dragged this way by Dan Brown types.

Contested: "Gestalt psychology", "Reichian psychoanalysis" etc.


  1. Technical mystics - Pure mathematicians (Neoneoplatonists),
    antirealist physicists,
    psychologists, if not parapsychologists
    deep ecologists,
    noeticists,
    imaginative astronomers,
    Hegelians who haven't heard that the war is over.

  2. Theologians (mostly omitted, because I don't know what makes a good one.) especially the "Analytical Thomists".

  3. Posthumanists (a special case) -


  • Types who tend to be soft:
  1. Psychonauts - Drug gurus, Huxleyans, psychogeographers, hippies.
  2. Avant - Mysticism used as postmodern artistic device, blurring the distinction between epistemic and aesthetic. cf. Satirists,
  3. Debordistes,
  4. Discordians,
  5. psychological science-fictioneers,
  6. Visionary Surrealists,
  7. guerilla ontologists;
  8. writers of "meta-fiction".

  9. Traditionalists - New Agers, occultists, Alternatives, gnostics & Theosophists, anchorites, cultists, astrologists, hand-wavers. All pseudoscientists go in here too.

(I've put the more interesting of the soft mystics in an addendum piece.)

It's not about denying science; one can easily be a scientific mystic (and so you must be, to make my list) - just not a scientistic one. Despite the parallels of the approach to theology, hard mystics are also mostly agnostics (literally "those without knowledge of God") as well as mystics ("those with experience of the divine"). Go figure.


In most departments outside Literature, postmodernists are similarly derided (and by the same people), but they have the solace of at least partial academic credibility. No one doubts that Foucault is a philosopher (just that he's a good one). The question is: who is to decide who are "proper" philosophers? And "People with jobs in the field" is the only game in town.



(I'm excluding Nietzsche on a technicality - since his *ahem* critical faculties didn't survive into the 20th century - but really because he's too much for my mirror. As such, Emerson's out too.)

So. A bibliography of 20th Century thinkers who have lucidly pointed out past the stars:




Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911)

All science is experiential; but all experience must be related back to and derives its its validity from the conditions and context of consciousness in which it arises, i.e., the totality of our nature. We designate as "epistemological" this standpoint which consistently recognises the impossibility of going behind these conditions. To attempt this would be like seeing without eyes or directing the gaze of knowledge behind one's own eye. Modern science can acknowledge no other than this epistemological stand-point.

No real blood flows in the veins of the knowing subject constructed by Locke, Hume, and Kant, but rather the diluted extract of reason as a mere activity of thought.



Early philosopher of social science. His idea of "erlebnis" - that knowledge is lived as well as thought - prefigured the nascent "embodied mind" trend by about a hundred years, and his encompassing philosophy of life is a good, rigorous non-naturalist start.





William James (1842-1910)
To use the organic causation of a religious state of mind in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one have already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our dis-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of their possessor's body at the time."
American pragmatist, Christian, spirtualist, and one of the first modern psychologists.The New Thoughtists claim his "Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" as an inspiration.



Vladimir Volovyov (1853-1900)







Henri Bergson (1859-1941)

To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly."

Endlessly inventive philosopher and Nobel for Literature. He and Einstein once totally talked past each other, which has given Bergson a bit of a disrep in scientific history. Did fearsome work in subjectivity which strongly shaped Modernist discourse. His opposition of "being" with "becoming" has led to a good amount both of excellent philosophy and vacuous soft stuff.




Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

"...it is no longer possible in our time to offer a religion of unsubstantiated miracles; our religion must rather be a proveable science." Our first soft mystic: pseudoscientist, 'clairvoyant', cultist, and...alternative educator. Intended to found a "spiritual science" following work by Goethe. Founded the "Anthroposophy" movement instead, which enjoys a bizarre, continuing prosperity in sanitized forms, like the "Waldorf" schools. His ideas about the evolution of consciousness are rigid and simplistic, but pioneering. He also prefigures resistance to subject-object metaphysics: positivistic mysticism!?




Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947)

'The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, "Seek simplicity and distrust it." '
Wikipedia: "A British mathematician who became an American philosopher", which is a wonderful thing to say. Helped found mathematical logic, but his metaphysical "process theory" was neglected for some time. It has gotten some academic currency (own journal in 1971) and relates to this systems theory stuff. Working with process (rather than substance) as the fundamental nature of the world, it ends up in a God who is the "sum cosmic process". He is perennial popular with stoners. In this he parallels Bergson's "becoming". I really don't know how he put up with Russell long enough to write the Principia.




George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1866-1949)

Critical faith is freedom. Emotional faith is slavery. Mechanical faith is foolishness." Be wary of anyone who only speaks in aphorisms. Massively socially-successful Theosophist and...soft mystic. His "Fourth Way".



Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950)

Our actual enemy is not any force exterior to ourselves, but our own crying weaknesses, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism."
Yogi, politician, narcissist, poet. His dad studied medicine at Aberdeen. Another borderline, this time one revered as a deity - though I'm not sure why. Updated Vedanta Hinduism with some Western frill. Through one idea, the "integral" (spooky spiritual evolution), he's the hidden influence behind a startlingly large New Age movement: "Integral Theory" (a blend of psychology, metaphysics and rank motivational speaking). Indian universities give out PhDs by the bucket on him, but you'd be lucky elsewhere.


Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)No one can flatter himself that he is immune to the spirit of his own epoch, or even that he possesses a full understanding of it."

Psychologist and repugnant little man, but important and indubitably mystical. Dreams... I'd like to include Lacan, too, but he wasn't especially cosmic, just awkward.




James Jeans (1877-1946)
...to many it is not knowledge but the quest for knowledge that gives interest to thought — to travel hopefully is greater than to arrive."

Physicist and popularizer. First guy to propose that matter is continuously created throughout the universe. Held that the universe is pure thought; the world is a mathematician.





Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

"To write the true natural history of the world, we should need to be able to follow it from within. It would thus appear no longer as an interlocking succession of structural types replacing one another, but as an ascension of inner sap spreading out in a forest of consolidated instincts. Right at its base, the living world is constituted by conscious clothes in flesh and bone."
Catholic eco-pantheist.







Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

"We used to think that if we knew one, we knew two, because one and one are two. We are finding that we must learn a great deal more about 'and'."
Physicist and cyclist. The first patron and popularizer of Einstein's theories. His grand Platonist "fundamental theory" ended up spiralling off into its own numerological navel (he denied new data which was getting in his way), but not in any notably different way than Dirac's more reputable ideas.





Paul Tillich (1886-1965)
Systematic theologian.




Faqir Chand (1886-1981)


Who knows what may happen to me at the time of death? I may enter a
state of unconsciousness, enter a state of dreams and see railway trains. . .
How can I make a claim about my attainment of the Ultimate?
The truth is that I know nothing...

This is the secret which has been kept so guarded by all the religions and even by the gurus of [my] Radhaswami Faith. They have kept the public in darkness. They have exploited us; they have robbed us; they have cheated us and they have deceived us by saying that they go [transcend]."


Self-deconstructing guru; Socrates of the Punjab?






Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer."
- Tractatus, 6.52
Patron saint of both sensible analyticity and gooey relativists. The most famous critical-mystical epigram is probably his: Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent". This was mistaken by the Logical Positivists as an imprimateur to go fuck old philosophy up, but it's really about tacit knowledge: the idea that the structure of the world is inexpressible, and thus has to be smuggled. (Heidegger says much the same, and Polanyi and Charles Taylor develop the theme.) Wittgenstein was also deeply religious and, better, deeply influential on anyone who wants to think about religion.

Another massively important idea of his is that there can be important, serious, and useful nonsense.


But even Wittgenstein had to go on talking and writing, for how else can a philosopher show that he is working and not just goofing off?"
- Alan Watts




Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Only a thoughtless observer can deny that correspondences come into play between the world of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology."
Cited a great deal by philosophers working in the post-Heidegger rubble, but he's still seen as marginal.






Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

Now, experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and co-ordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him."

Bloomsbury hippie. Orientalized Christian. Though he's an icon of Consciousness in general, his most significant actual idea is the perennial philosophy.




Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)

Truth is a pathless land. Man cannot come to it through any organization, through any creed, through any dogma, priest or ritual, not through any philosophical knowledge or psychologist's technique. He has to find it through the mirror of relationship, through the understanding of the contents of his own mind..."

Guru - social activist and sort-of-Spinozist. His adoptive parents paraded him around as the Messiah; others did so as a Buddha. Somehow he emerged from this experience as a human being. He doesn't avoid the assumption-heavy rhetoric of bad mysticism, but his philosophy is of a inoffensive humanistic kind, rather than esoteric. He's the patron saint of Bohmians, too.




Georges Bataille (1897-1962)

"Sanity is the lot of those who are most obtuse, for lucidity destroys one's equilibrium: it is unhealthy to honestly endure the labors of the mind (which incessantly contradict what they have just established)."

"Life has always taken place in a tumult without apparent cohesion, it only finds its grandeur and its reality in ecstasy and in ecstatic love."

Another Benjamin; highly influential on modern philosophy, but not quite In.





Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)

Called the greatest psychologist of the Twentieth Century by some; a liar, pervert and crank by others (as if these two sets were mutually exclusive!)




Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958)
"I do not believe in the possible future of mysticism in the old form. However, I do believe that the natural sciences will out of themselves bring forth a counter pole in their adherents, which connects to the old mystic elements."
Of Schopenhauerian physics. Collaborated with Jung, but we'll forgive him that because weird things did keep happening to him.

The problem of wavefunction collapse led to a decent number of hard mystics amongst the great quantum theorists (note that there are now good physicalist Collapse Theories):
  • Bohr's complementarity is an only mildly prickly solution;

  • Schrödinger was open to Vedanta ideas throughout his life ("each individual's consciousness is only a manifestation of a unitary consciousness pervading the universe")

  • Wigner is an out-and-out idealist.

  • Heisenberg thought that pure realism was unscientific;

  • while von Neumann has a huge, terrifying theory of how we produce finity.

Einstein, stop telling God what to do with his dice."
- Bohr



Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961)
"In our age, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action."
The Second Secretary-General of the UN and a deep man. No philosophical work except an oblique autobiography, though, so people are left to milk and exegesise and ponder political mysticism.






Arthur M Young (1905-1995)
Helicopter engineer and process theorist. Founded an "Institute for the Study of Consciousness", which (unlike every other place with this kind of name) seems sound.







Jean Gebser (1905-1973)





Kenneth E Boulding (1910-1993)

"The World is a very complex system. It is easy to have too simple a view of it, and it is easy to do harm and to make things worse under the impulse to do good and make things better."


An economist who talks about love(!)






Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

The ordinary person senses the greatness of the odds against him even without thought or analysis, and he adapts his attitudes unconsciously. A huge passivity has settled on industrial society. For people carried about in mechanical vehicles, earning their living by waiting on machines, listening much of the waking day to canned music, watching packaged movie entertainment and capsulated news, for such people it would require an exceptional degree of awareness and an especial heroism of effort to be anything but supine consumers of processed goods."

Very trendy cultural theorist of the 60s, now somewhat discredited. Metaphysical reading has I think yet to be done.




Arne Naess (1912-2009)



Alan Watts (1915-1973)

"The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nuhil fit, which means "out of nothing comes nothing." It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions. It lies at the root of all our common sense, not only in the West, but in many parts of the East as well. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down on nothing, and a put-down on everything associated with nothing, such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles. But to me nothing -- the negative, the empty -- is exceedingly powerful. I would say, on the contrary, you can't have something without nothing... The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast."

The sweetest counterexample to the idea that mystics are necessarily obscurantist, hollow showoffs. His work in reconciling Eastern philosophy with modern-Western beats Pirsig, Capra et al to the inevitably popular "atheist spirituality" idea.




Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003)

"Thoughtful physicists concerned with the workings of thermodynamics realise how disturbing is the question of, as one put it, ‘how a purposeless flow of energy can wash life and consciousness into the world.’ ... The important laws, the creative laws, lie elsewhere ... Irreversibility is the mechanism that brings order out of chaos."

Nobelled physical statistician, the "poet of thermodynamics". One of the first to suggest how life doesn't violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics (because our system is an open one, we "export" entropy and create a local "dissipating structure"). Later began to proselytise about how this proved the self-organising nature of the world.


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...Nobody outside of physics and chemistry has ever heard of Onsager, even though this is one of at least four fundamental contributions he made to statistical physics ... The reason is, of course, that [unlike Prigogine] Onsager did not claim any profound cultural, metaphysical significance for his work. (It has none.)"
- critic





William A Earle (1919-1988)

"Truth... is related to troth, which is the same as loyalty or faith... The passion for truth which men of good will manifest is not a matter of ascertaining the exact chemical composition of water or the number of grains of sand on the beach. It always was and remains a passion for recognizing and honoring the divinity in oneself and the other."
Phenomenologist & film theorist. Helped found the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in America (a bloody thankless task!) Apparently set out to do critical mysticism more or less exactly as I construe it: "strictly philosophical transcendence". There's really very little work on him.




David Bohm (1917-1992) Deeply open-minded physicist with mixed reviews. Worked on "quantum ontology", apparently in the true senses of each of those words.



Timothy Leary (1920-1996)

"Turn on" meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. "Tune in" meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. Drop out suggested an elective, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. "Drop Out" meant self-reliance, a discovery of one's singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean "Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity."
The most blatant 'Head on our list. A dismissed Harvard psychology lecturer, allegedly for popularising LSD amongst undergrads. Nixon called him at one point "the most dangerous man in America". But most of his metaphysical work can be directly linked to work by Whitehead and . He also founded two at least mildly credible fields And the philosophy of drugs is a perfectly valid enterprise, even if your interests begin to...conflict.


(See also Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007), satirist and sceptic, who has a little posthumous nook on the MIT website. Also the best key-to-the-city announcement ever,) Ontology is the study of being; the guerrilla approach is to so mix the elements of each book that the reader must decide on each page 'How much of this is real and how much is a put-on?'"



Robert Pirsig (1928- )

It is an immortal dialogue, strange and puzzling at first, but then hitting you harder and harder, like truth itself. What Phædrus has been talking about as Quality, Socrates appears to have described as the soul, self-moving, the source of all things. There is no contradiction. There never really can be between the core terms of monistic philosophies. The One in India has got to be the same as the One in Greece. If it's not, you've got two. The disagreements among the monists concern the attributes of the One, not the One itself. Since the One is the source of all things and includes all things in it, it cannot be defined in terms of those things, since no matter what thing you use to define it, the thing will always describe something less than the One itself. The One can only be described allegorically, through the use of analogy, of figures of imagination and speech."
Motorcyclist and rhetorician. Affirmative and philosophically serious, but he has only a vibrant fan-club and 20 million sales to console him (rather than academic credibility). In 2005, Liverpool awarded the first PhD with his "Metaphysics of Quality" as a thesis.




Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998)
"One goes to knowledge as one goes to war: wide-awake, with fear, with respect, and with absolute assurance. Going to knowledge or going to war in any other manner is a mistake, and whoever makes it might never live to regret it."
Superstar anthropologist, Shaman and phoney. His scholarly work is great if considered as meta-fiction: philosophical novels pretending to do anthropology... Goes on and on about "The Warrior", a vaguely Nietzschean agent. He went on to found his own martial art, and about a hundred neologisms: ricapituration, indulgence, the Tonal ...



Roger Penrose (1931- )

Does life in some way make use of the potentiality for vast quantum superpositions, as would be required for serious quantum computation? How important are the quantum aspects of DNA molecules? ... Do we really need to move forward to radical new theories of physical reality, as I myself believe, before the more subtle issues of biology — most importantly conscious mentality — can be understood in physical terms? How relevant, indeed, is our present lack of understanding of physics at the quantum/classical boundary? Or is consciousness really “no big deal,” as has sometimes been expressed? It would be too optimistic to expect to find definitive answers to all these questions, at our present state of knowledge, but there is much scope for healthy debate..."

Platonist physicist. He has (of course) protested that it's a new physics he wants, not new mysticism. His tentative model of 'quantum consciousness' can only be seen as unreasonable because current culture brackets out consciousness, trying to ignore or dissolve it. There is no significant difference between the project of Plotinus and physical Theories of Everything. What was mystic then is not so now. In the 1920s, cosmology was a deeply disreputable field: ""a pseudoscience and the preserve of scientists who might have done some useful work in their earlier years but who had gone mystic in their dotage." - Hawking





Fritjof Capra (1934 - )

"Mystics understand the roots of the Tao but not its branches; scientists understand its branches but not its roots. Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science; but man needs both."

Borderline, bridging the worlds of thought-porn and philosophy. The skinny is this: Quantum physics has come to parallel certain Eastern philosophical themes, especially those of Taoism. Capra himself is original and low on nonsense, but the 'quantum mysticism' that he popularised contains a shit-ton of spooky charlatans.


Zen Buddhism, for example, isn't (just) constipated, misty-eyed hokum; it insists on and obsesses over the physical world, and takes as its aim the destruction of mental constructs mistaken for the world: good philosophical work.




Eugene Gendlin (1926 - )

'Many philosophers avoid physics for fear of bringing reductionism into philosophy. They avoid human experiencing, for fear of bringing psychology in. Anything "ontic" threatens to bring alien explanations to philosophy. Heidegger knew better. Everything must be brought to philosophy, to questioning how it is thought, and to let it be differently...

My reform of phenomenology was not taken up. Of course I think: That is why phenomenology is rejected today. The popular assumption of neutral, uninterpreted "phenomena" had to fail. But the style has swung to assuming that all experience derives wholly from implicit assumptions breakable only by discontinuity. Either way misses the non-logical transitions.'
Philosopher of psychology and populariser of large Continental ideas. I concede that the first signs are bad: is it cultish? (check, the "Focusing Institute"); is there proliferation of self-help buzzwords? (check, "Thinking at the Edge") ; is there a free online library, and paid courses? (check). But his "philosophy of the implicit" is a development of Wittgensteinian themes, though what I've read seems a little simplistic, in need of sceptical trimming. (Particularly in his claim to be "beyond postmodernism".) This is perhaps inevitable.





Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.
The world is so exquisite with love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides."

Really? A famously sceptical, naturalist “mystic”? Well, he gave the 1985 Gifford Lectures, and displays a hundred times the epistemic modesty of Dawkins et al.

Perhaps another side to this is that we can always find heroic, mythologizable people: Mahātmās, "legends!!", idols. Those who - due to their iconoclasty, articulacy on large things, or just sheer likeability - people voluntarily embrace and structure their mind around. Nietzsche; Wilde; Wittgenstein; Stephen Fry; Jesus. Names that glow in the dark. And scientism absolutely has some of these people. (Dawkins, Sagan and Douglas Adams are the most touching).
'All that philosophy can do is destroy idols. And that means not making any new ones – say, out of the “absence of idols”.'
- Wittgenstein
Sagan's most famous and righteous line is "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" - a.k.a. Hume's Maxim. Question is, though: which "ordinary" idea does the claim have to be extreme to? Where did that discourse come from? Problem is that "ordinary" is a social concept.


Terence McKenna (1946-2000)
"There is a spiritual obligation, there is a task to be done. It is not, however, something as simple as following a set of somebody else's rules. Most people make it naively by thinking clearly about the present at hand, but we intellectuals are trapped in a world of too much information. Innocence is gone for us. We cannot expect to cross the rainbow bridge through a good act of contrition; that will not be sufficient...The imagination is everything."
Psychedelic philosopher (shaman), altered statesman, and elf follower. "Loathes science" apparently, which strikes me as a pretty dim thing to say. (There is, assuredly, a wikipedia page for "Antiscience", but it's a misleading, hostile name for a good idea.)









Ken Wilber (1949- )

"The real intent of my writing is not to say, you must think in this way. The real intent is: here are some of the many important facets of this extraordinary Kosmos; have you thought about including them in your own worldview? My work is an attempt to make room in the Kosmos for all of the dimensions/levels/domains/waves/memes/modes/individuals/cultures, and so on ad infinitum. I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored..."

Star spiritualist 'psychologist'. (A borderline gone to the Soft Side). Helped along the dubious "interpersonal psychology" field. His early work reconciling contradictory accounts of the ego is apparently good, but then rises the cultish, demi-Hegelian "Integral Theory" business. Recently endorsed faith healers & quantum quackery.

Note: William James believed in ghosts. Irrationality in one place affects only the argument it's used in.



Want to include someone as a symbol for the absurd online proliferation of spiritualism and mysticism (out of which someone hard could come). One guy, Martin Kazlev will do, since he's an amateur paleontologist: in 1998 he started kheper.net, a collection of mildly critical essays on modern esoterica, revealing some of the underbelly of the Wilberite post-Dianetics underworld.
Thus for anyone to write a biography properly, they would have to take into account past lives (which physicalist materialism doesn't believe in, nor do many religions), higher spiritual impulses that are at work (generally veiled) in the personality, the higher self and divine soul's activity and purpose for this personality, the semi-autonomous emotional-astral being, subconscious samskaras, miasmas inherited from one's parents (and they from theirs), racial memory, influences and formations from the subtle planes, spiritual and devic cosmecological evolutionary forces, and more, much more. All these things fall outside the dominant memesets of materialistic-reductionistic, exoteric Judeo-Christian society...



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It is a mistake to go to even the hardest of mystics looking for The Answer. But this isn't what I go to Epicurus, Kant, Derrida or Dawkins for, either. I'm not much of a Seeker. Wilber's tawdry relativism (quoted above) does hit something important.
The dominant intellectual language-game of our time consists in intellectual snobbery, the rationalization of the world, and professionalization of mental work. It has shoved large volumes of interesting inquiry into an underworld. I refuse to dismiss it all just so as to fit in. Further: never mind true; these ideas are loved. They are the intellectual livelihood of four generations of a global subculture. No matter how ill-founded, ill-grounded or even actively destructive they are, this gives them value enough for study's sake. Being wrong is not an ethical failure (though of course it very often leads to them).


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Since I took such a broad definition of mysticism, here's something prickly to cleanse the palette:



Notes from John Searle: "Why not have a science of consciousness?"

Objection #1: There is no satisfactory definition of consciousness. If it cannot be defined, the field cannot get started.
Reply: There's a distinction to be made between analytical and common-sense definitions. Analytic definitions are conclusions so, no, we don't have one yet. But we can easily formulate a common-sense definition of consciousness at the outset.



Objection #2: Consciousness is subjective, and thus outside objective science's remit.
Reply: This is a category error: the epistemic sense of the objective-subjective distinction is not the ontological sense. Consciousness is an ontologically subjective thing, which doesn't prevent an epistemically objective science of it.

Objections #3: We cannot explain how physical events cause mental events. (The attempt is precluded by the gap between neuron activity and qualia).
Reply: This is the same form as objection #1: no, we can't: that would be the result of the program. We know that it happens, and it is far from clear that progress is impossible. Current scientific puzzles are like earlier problems in the history of science, such as explaining life or electro-magnetism.

Objection #4: A science of consciousness would need to separate qualia from consciousness and leave the problem of qualia to one side. (And qualitative touchy-feely stuff cannot be easily discarded just to keep the objective portion.)
Reply: Fine: there is no distinction between consciousness and qualia. Conscious states are qualia.

Objection #5: Consciousness doesn't affect the world. Even if we did have a science of consciousness it wouldn't matter because consciousness is epiphenomenal.
Reply: Consciousness is no more necessarily epiphenomenal than any other high-level feature of reality.


Objection #6. What is the evolutionary function of consciousness? It plays no obvious role and thus theorists utilising have to deny functionalism.
Reply: All human activity (eating, procreating, raising offspring) are conscious activities. If anything, the evolutionary role of consciousness is too obvious!


Objection #7: A causal relation between brain and consciousness implies mind-body dualism. Consciousness science would have to be conducted with this metaphysics admitted.

Reply: This objection confuses event causation with bottom-up causation. Just as one cannot reach into a glass of water and pick out a molecule and say `This one is wet', so, one cannot point to a single synapse or neuron in the brain and say `This one is thinking about my grandmother'. As far as we know anything about it, thoughts about grandmothers occur at a much higher level than that of the single neuron or synapse, just as liquidity occurs at a much higher level than that of single molecules.


Objection #8: Science is by definition reductionistic. A scientific account of consciousness must reduce it to something else.
Reply: So? We need to here distinguish explanatory reductions from eliminative reductions. One cannot eliminate by reduction anything that really exists; and we begin with the hypothesis that consciousness really exists.
Objection: Any scientific account of consciousness must be functionalist, i.e. an account in terms of (mere) information-processing.

Reply: No, and in fact, it can't be: information-processing is observer-relative. Consciousness is intrinsic, observer-independent.

2 comments:

  1. It's not posthumanism, but: Materialist mysticism...

    The world as Turing-complete cellular-automaton metacomputer.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calculating_Space
    http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1062307/
    http://xkcd.com/505

    This makes computer science the new hermitage, the new psychonauting.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "The first adherents of a creed do not prove anything against it."
    - Nietzsche

    ReplyDelete