Reading a post on Facebook about Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s explanation on Cosmos of how wild ducks are able to navigate when migrating, and how creationists are incensed with his explanation let me also to a post on Salon about the late Christopher Hitchen’s book God Is Not Great.
The article is Christopher Hitchen’s lies do atheism no favors, and it’s by Curtis White, of whom I haven’t previously heard. I haven’t read any of Hitchens’ work, though I used to converse with someone who liked it a lot. White states that he’s an atheist himself, at least with relation to the religious fundamentalist version of God, and criticizes Hitchens for intellectual dishonesty.
It’s easy enough to criticize organized religion for religious wars and persecutions, but to say that’s all there is to religion is to ignore religious philosophy that goes back a long way, not only in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, but in a variety of other religions.
Hitchens, says White, enthrones reason, but never really defines it. Not a good way to persuade. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher: “I am committed, but I do not know to what.” Hitchens seems also to have been committed, but doesn’t wish to say to what (or so I gather from White’s commentary).
Another criticism is that Hitchens believed that conscience was innate, but didn’t define either what conscience is or what innate means. He seems to have been replying to the idea that conscience is derived from religion, a proposition which superficially seems plausible.
But George Gurdjieff answered these questions in a much more dispassionate fashion than Hitchens. When I recently reread P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, I was struck by a quote: “Two consciences can never disagree…” Moralities, however, disagree all the time. The answer to this conundrum is that there are local moralities, but universal laws.
In his semi-autobiographical book, Meetings With Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff cites a friend from his youth who observed that a young Russian woman who didn’t act as hostess to male visitors to her home, serving them food and beverages with her face uncovered would be considered spoiled, and not acting correctly. In a Muslim home (at least at that time and in that area) a young woman who DID do those things would be considered spoiled. There are other obvious examples. Cannibalism has been considered virtuous at various times in various places, as has human sacrifice. We don’t agree with those things now, though.
Gurdjieff said conscience was like a still small voice that could easily be ignored, but if followed would lead one in the right direction, ultimately to God. This definition is of something living, not codified, and thus not subject to the problem of becoming outmoded.
He also said that conscience was at least potentially a very powerful force that could lead us to resolve our individual contradictions in the same way that enough heat can fuse different materials together. This statement is based on his proposition that virtually all of us suffer from something akin to multiple personality disorder: we have different selves, each organized around something specific, and are usually unaware of this, considering ourselves to be one indivisible person. To actually BE such an individual, he said, was a very great accomplishment.
Hitchens’ condemnation of religion, easy enough to make, seems to be a type of projection: he believes in something he doesn’t bother to closely define, let alone defend in any sophisticated way, then condemns fundamentalists for doing much the same thing.
An easy example of this is the Creationist’s dislike of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s explanation of how wild ducks manage to get where they’re going when migrating. It seems to have something to do with electricity: that they sense magnetic currents, and are able to navigate according to that. Why this should be a problem for Creattionists, I don’t know. It seems to have to do with their condemnation of evolutionary theory, and the idea that wild ducks evolved this ability. Why is that controversial? I suppose because of the idea that God and evolution are incompatible, but I don’t see why that should be so.
DNA research tells us that humans and apes are closely related. Other research seems to tell us that animals are more intelligent than we’ve usually thought. Humans do seem to have more free will than animals, are able to develop further, and aren’t controlled totally by instinct. That gives us freedoms that animals don’t have, but freedoms can be easily misused, especially if we have misconceptions about ourselves and our place in the universe. Our place in the universe seems to be what makes evolution such a touchy subject with fundamentalist Christians.
I have never believed that religion and science had to necessarily be antagonistic. In Europe and America they became so because religion claimed more knowledge than it actually had. Early astronomers got in trouble with the Catholic Church because they said the earth revolved around the sun, though it superficially appeared otherwise. Scientists, many of whom were devout Christians, reacted against the Church making pronouncements in areas in which it had no expertise, while scientists were fascinated with observing how the natural world worked, and coming up with theories to explain it. It wasn’t necessary to exclude God from the scientific view of the world, but it became a political stance. Scientists didn’t observe miracles, and so were tempted to conclude they were imaginary. With Darwin’s theory of evolution, many religious people reacted against science, and there came to be an ever deepening chasm between science and some forms of religion. Not all scientists were alienated from religion, and not all religious people were alienated from science, but enough were to make a great deal of conflict. A conflict that was, in my opinion, destructive for people in general.
George Gurdjieff, mentioned earlier, came to Russia about 1910 and began teaching students who were interested in philosophy and religion. He expounded another science, one that was not divorced from religion, at least in the same way. This was a science with different premises and different definitions, and was based largely on relativity. He said that matter was composed of vibrations (with which Western science agrees), that everything in the universe was material (including knowledge), but that the higher the rate at which matter vibrated, the finer the material, and that there is matter which Western science has not yet noticed.
Part of the relativity of this science has to do with different worlds, which interpenetrate each other. He pointed out that for us, the earth is the world; but, he said, the earth is also an intelligent being, and for the earth, the solar system is the world. For our sun, however (also an intelligent being, and the clearest example of divinity that we can easily perceive), the Milky Way galaxy is the world.
He stated that God provides us energy in much the same way that our sun does, on a different level, but that as that energy travels to us along what he called the Ray of Creation, it creates worlds that are distant enough from God’s intention (which may not be the right word) that the worlds created become mechanical. Only a little at first, but by the time our world is reached, much more mechanical. The first worlds created in the Ray of Creation are subject to three fundamental laws, the next to six, then twelve, then 24. Our world is subject to 48 fundamental laws, which means we’re relatively far from God, and our life is quite mechanical. We have more freedom than do animals, but less freedom than we often think. Much of the reason for this is the nature of consciousness.
Many religions teach that the “world” is sinful, and often exhort us to be in the world, but not of it. The word for that usually used in Hinduism and Buddhism is nonattachment. Nonidentification might be as good a word. We identify or become attached to things around us or things within us, and consequently lose freedom. Gurdjieff taught that contemporary humans are badly out of balance, and had a formidable array of exercises to, as he said, “…repair broken machines…” and make humans capable of evolution, which he said was an individual choice, not necessary to nature for the purposes for which humans and other organic life exist.
Evolution of the sort he spoke of is not something many people are interested in, and many of those interested may find themselves unable to pursue it very far. But this sort of individual evolution is what can potentially bring individuals and the world back into balance.
One difference in what he taught from traditional religions was that humans don’t automatically possess souls. Starting on an evolutionary path, however, could make it possible to create a soul. The soul he spoke of was similar to the popular conception of the astral body, and he said it was possible to make three additional bodies to the ones we were born with, through specific exercises. He said humans have three foods: the food we usually think of, air, and impressions. The exercise he called “remembering yourself” opened a pathway in the body to allow energies in the air to reach a place in which the “soul” could begin to grow. Without this exercise, these energies would never reach the right area. Another necessary exercise was that of transforming negative emotions.
Both of these had to do with what he called the Law of Seven, a universal law that governs processes. This law was recognized in very ancient times and was applied to music, creating the octave scale, which is the basis for most music in the world, but which applies to other things as well. To keep a process going in the right direction it is necessary that shocks from the outside enter at the right place in the process, and be correctly absorbed. Otherwise, the process can turn back upon itself, and develop in the opposite direction from what was originally intended, which he said had happened to Christianity.
The only person, he said, who could be called a true Christian was one who followed ALL of Jesus’s precepts, which he said was also impossible for most of us as we are. To become truly Christian, we have to be transformed, or “born again”. People may believe they have been born again, but in many cases, it ain’t necessarily so. Because of our imbalances we are in a sense asleep, though it is a waking sleep. Sleep causes us to act like machines, which may serve the purposes of nature, but prevent us from reaching our potential, which might serve the purposes of nature even better.
What are the purposes of nature? Gurdjieff had a very unusual question, which he said had come to him when he was still quite young: what is the purpose of organic life in general, and human life in particular? The answer he arrived at was transformation of energies.
Just as we haven’t identified all matter in the universe, we haven’t identified all energies existing around us and affecting us. We see the transformation of energies on the material level: seeds growing into plants which can then be eaten, animals eating the plants, and other animals eating the herbivores. There exist, according to this theory, energies generated by lower levels of life that support the higher levels energetically, where we can’t readily observe. All life thus supports other life, which Gurdjieff calls “Reciprocal Maintenance”, and which works against entropy, in which a closed system eventually loses energy. We like to think of ourselves as separate, even isolated, but we are not. We depend on life around us, and higher forms of life depend on us.
A lot of people won’t care for this interpretation of life either. I recently posted on a conservative website that destroying God’s world for profit is a really stupid idea. Someone replied, saying that God told us in the Bible to subdue the world. I asked if he or she KNEW that God said this, or if this was a later interpretation.
Saint Paul has commentary that bears on this point, though it has more directly to do with our actions as individuals, which support or do not support collective actions taking place in the world.
“For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law, that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is in my flesh) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would do I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do….I find then a law, that when I would do good, evil is present with me.”
There are a number of ways to interpret this, and one of them is dualistic: the body is inherently evil, and only the spirit is good. Gurdjieff is NOT saying this. The body needs to be disciplined and trained, and though it can fall into bad habits (and usually does), it is NOT inherently evil. It is our habits, our unconsciousness, and lack of will that produces bad results.
It can also be interpreted as the necessity to develop the higher bodies, or soul, which are able to do good in ways that our undeveloped selves can not.
It can also be interpreted in terms of another cosmic law Gurdjieff taught: the Law of Three. This says that any compete phenomenon consists of three forces: an affirming or positive force, a negative, passive or denying force, and a reconciling force. None of these forces are inherently one thing or the other, except in relation to each other. It is tempting to believe that we live in a black and white world, good on one side, evil on the other, but that is not the case. If the negative force (however defined) is necessary to the construction of the universe, it can never be destroyed, and is only negative in specific instances. That makes the reconciling force, about which we rarely hear, and the functioning of which we know little of, most important to learn about.
When we try to do what we consider good (from whatever perspective) we act through what we think of as ourselves, which are not genuine. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” If what we act through is not genuine, how can it produce good results? The answer that William Patrick Patterson, in Eating the I, comes to is that the further we refine ourselves, the more God can act through us. We are then empty in a positive way.
J.G. Bennett, another of Gurdjieff’s students, speaks about this in the sense of self-sacrifice. To allow one’s self to die is to no longer be subject to the limitations of existence. The crucifiction of Jesus is the archetype of self-sacrifice in our culture, but the history of it can be traced back much further. Many agree that on the spiritual path selves must die not once, but many times.
The question of whether science or religion is correct about evolution is trivial compared to this vision. From my perspective it’s foolish for religious people to reject the scientific view of evolution. There’s no necessity for it to conflict with a spiritual vision, though western science is itself only a partial view. And the religious views that we know are also only partial views. For them to be more complete it’s necessary for us to expand our consciousness so that we can see more broadly, deeply and clearly.
Gurdjieff brought a way to the west that promised to do this for anyone willing to work hard enough to achieve it. It’s a difficult way, and different from western science in that our bodies and minds are the laboratories. External laboratories have little to do with this. This is an alchemical enterprise in which the person strives to separate the coarse from the fine, and transmute what they have into what is priceless.
This is a vision of the world that transcends politics and is the opposite of a meaningless world of accident. That the world could have come into being by accident and exist as we see it now I find no more believable than that it was created by an old man with a long white beard who is petty and vindictive, more interested in finding excuses to punish us than anything else. The world depicted in the Book of Genesis may contain scientific principles (recognizable or not), but is not to be taken literally, unless one simply doesn’t want to understand.
Scientists do want to understand, but are as liable to blind spots as anyone else. The process of science is meant to eliminate these blind spots, but may take some time to do so.
Many religious people also want to understand, but are as liable to stumble over dogma as anyone else. Dogma is, after all, not confined to religion.
So why not approach religion scientifically? Rather than consider the Bible completely unhistorical and unscientific, consider that it may contain truths unclearly stated that may be difficult to test in traditional ways.
There are, however, spiritual practices that CAN be tested, and in the writings about George Gurdjieff and the system he brought to the west we find testimony that these led to many unusual experiences. Testing and understanding may not be easy, and approaches may have to be changed, but why not opt for understanding instead of excluding any knowledge with which we’re uncomfortable. Arguably, that’s exactly the knowledge and understanding we need.