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Gnosis: The Third Leg of Western Civilization
Is ancient mysticism returning?
Several years ago I began investigating the historical origins of the philosophical differences between all of us in American society. The motivation to know this is deep within me manifesting in different ways, and it is not limited to curiosity about Americans. There are a couple perturbations in what had been settled for me recently. The smaller one is the ultimate positioning of George Orwell on socialism and what actually happened in the West to keep it away. The easy answer is Hayek, but there’s more to know, especially vis a vis a recent essay calling Christopher Hitchens a ‘conservative socialist’.
The second perturbation is much deeper and goes beyond the political to more fundamental questions of canon law vs secular law and the matters of faith and reason. It is the conceptual capture of mysticism. This idea of the influence of mysticism on Western thought was something I was clearly aware of, but I didn’t give it a name beyond ‘tribalism’. I saw it in the tattooed, pierced and barefoot world. I saw it as ‘scientism’ - the cosmopolitain appeals to technological authority in the new media. Everywhere else I just called it stupidity unless I found some coherent cultural tells. For example, in my plunging into the depths of Karl Popper’s defenses of the scientific method and the open society, I recognized his steamy antipathy to Hegel. I also recognize in argumentative Nowhere Men a kind of sophistry that falls into circular reasoning and/or an unwillingness to give up the grasp of two contradictory ideas in one’s head as a sign of intelligence. Of course there is also Rousseau whose anti-establishment naturalism animates tree-huggers and bootlicks of ‘indigenous peoples’ everywhere. But I couldn’t put it all together and blame Plato. I tried, but it didn’t gel in my head. Then I stepped into this big puddle.
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James Lindsay. Damn. I said before that I would be content to limp around in the small circles defending what little I know, but I must have broken the line of the summoning circle, because here comes the demon of new knowledge. So now I am bound to integrate it without contradiction to the sum of what I know to be closest to the truth. Because that’s how I roll. Discovery is part of my troika of epistemic skills.
Now that I think of it, maybe I can align them.
3rd Person Epistemic ← Discovery
2nd Person Epistemic ← Reason
1st Person Epistemic ← Humor
OK I can live with that. Any Boomers here remember the lyrics to Allan Funt’s Candid Camera? “It’s fun to laugh at yourself… It’s fun to look at yourself as other people do.”
Anyway. To start off with my understanding is the following idea. Religion, Science, Magic, Technology. Which goes with which? Most people associate Religion & Magic and Science & Technology. The lesson which I explain at length is that actually Magic & Technology go together. They are both driven from the top down by the will of man, whereas Religion & Science are driven from the bottom up by the humility of man. The long form is here in this previously unliked essay:
East Meets West
So where does Gnosticism come in? Well, as the third leg of the three-legged school of Western thought and philosophy, Lindsay basically places it as our equivalent mysticism. That makes a lot of sense. So now I need to work through the implications. In order to make it fit the CS Lewis paradigm I need to establish reasonable terms on an axis of willfulness and humility, or I suppose more properly between Hubris and Logos.
The hubris of mysticism would be Gnosis itself. It turns out that the contemporary exemplar of the ultimate Gnostic would be the villain of the Guardians of the Galaxy known as The High Evolutionary. His [evil] mission is to evolve every species through his special powers. This he claims to be the perfection of the galaxy because he just knows this is destiny. Gnosis is the ultimate secret knowledge, once revealed to initiates transforms them into minor deities who are justified in their every action by having been converted to something beyond mere humanity’s ability to reckon. The Gnostic is read into the conspiracy that rules the universe.
In Gnosis there is no faith, there is no reason, there is only revelation.
The logos of mysticism is what I will lazily assume to be my interpretation of the Atman. This is the divine spark within the soul which is quiet and always awaits patient and disciplined self-discovery. It is the knowledge of self that allows one to transcend the pedestrian concerns of the world. It is humble precisely because it only has the coercive power over self. But it also has a mystical quality. It presumes, as with Gnosis, that you neither use faith or reason to achieve this transcendent nature, that somehow you will just know. I have used the following image to describe that previously when introducing the Epistemics.
I tend to believe, as I characterize these first person epistemic skills as some concrete method to move oneself from stress and anxiety to peace of mind but I only know how it works on me. Quite honestly, I haven’t done as much meditation as I thought I would be doing at this moment in my life. But here’s the thing:
I have assumed, like Aldous Huxley that there is some connection between the various mystical traditions in religion. In The Epistemics I said the following:
I am involved in a deep consideration of the self. Of the mind, body and spirit. What I hope to learn from these first order epistemics is essentially a self-help framework. I expect it to cross Western and Eastern philosophies and touch on universal mysteries. In the end, this is both useful to me and useful as a hedge against an encroaching dark age. As we lose faith and competency in our institutions, we will need to be more self-reliant. As our institutions become corrupted we must guard foremost against authoritarian power that undermines self-determination.
In this, I think I will take the example of Nelson Mandela as my first hero. His survival in the Robben Island prison is a model of self-maintenance that should inspire us all. Our world is not a prison. The challenge is to comport oneself in such a consistent way that the survival of our minds, bodies and spirits need not vary even if it were.
Qualia & Consciousness
The problem that I have is that when people start talking about AIs and ‘what it means to be human’ they get into a certain weird space. Aldous Huxley took on board the same kind of shortcuts as Timothy Leary, which is essentially that mind-altering substances would allow us to transcend our ordinary reality and perceive the meaning of all things in a superhuman way.
In a similar way, when we question the intelligence of an artificial intelligence or some non-human animal, we often bring up a question of qualia. IE does it really know that it knows in the same way I know that I know? Does it experience consciousness? If not then how can it be be real intelligence? I have recently figured a way out of the dead ends of these sorts of questions in terms of the following sentence.
Consciousness is the sense of the mind’s understanding of its own embodiment.
So consciousness is the property of my mind dealing with the way I know that hand in front of me is my hand, as opposed to somebody else’s hand. It is the kind of intelligence that gives that hand purpose and guides learning to control it in ways that benefit and sustain my body. In that regard it is not an abstract kind of thinking. It is not like performing arithmetic.
So consciousness, in this respect, is not exclusive to humans. I think it is fair to say that consciousness is an emergent property of evolution. Therefore a dog’s consciousness is focused on what a dog knows about its dog body, and consequently other dog bodies. Our senses, or a dog’s senses, or a plant’s ability to sense sunlight or nutrients in soil combine to form our consciousness. These are the combinations of qualia that are ever present in our journey through evolution. We feel pain because it is important for us to know the condition of our embodiment. That is an evolutionary selection.
This dovetails with the somewhat scary theories of Donald Hoffman who tells us that we don’t perceive the universe as it is. We only sense what we can sense because our senses themselves are co-evolved with our environment. What we see will save our lives, but that does not mean we perceive the truth of the world. We perceive what we need to survive, and we should do that with the understanding that we are evolved in a somehow haphazard and minimalist way. If we could smell like dogs, then we would perceive reality very differently, but our sense of smell is only enough to get us by. Dogs can smell human hormones. We have no sense of this chemical reality at all. We have no qualia for everything. We must bring such things to our attention by other means.
The important thing to mind here is that one cannot order the world through gnostic knowledge of self. No matter how much we may ‘elevate our consciousness’ even to ‘a higher plane’ our consciousness is only about our own embodiment. We don’t exist on an ‘astral plane’ and bring some unity of time and space, much less control reality through joining our ‘earthly’ selves to our ‘cosmic’ selves. These concepts are quite alive in Western society but they simply don’t work no matter how much we desire to have the experience of Doctor Strange.
The understanding that we are somewhat blind to the reality around us gives us a ‘god-sized hole’. We don’t know why there are optical illusions. Our awareness of results raises questions of causation. We cannot immediately explain why and how. So we try explanations. ‘It came to me in a dream’ is just as legitimate as any other explanation when all are ignorant of causes. We might decide to call that ‘unique genius’. After all, generals might do something unthinkable in the heat of battle that ends up turning the tide, inexplicably. How many licks does it take to get to the chewy center of life’s Tootsie Pop? The world may never know. But the world can certainly accept an illusion as Revelation. Let us propose that ‘charisma’ is an illusion. Let us propose that various illusions can be sustained in language and explanatory writing. Somehow we deal with the disturbing size of the ‘god-sized hole’ with mysticism. We accept there is no scientific or faith-based way of knowing, and yet we also cannot accept the gaping size of that mystery. Yet we face the mystery of complex adaptive systems in the world, like weather or social media as if some guru could figure it out. Again, and furthermore, our brains are evolved to solve problems even when problems don’t exist. We engage the speculation. Why? Fear of the unknown, and of course the readily available shortcut of revelation. Every conspiracy theory seeks and claims revelation to be sustained by its adherents.
So revelation is a part of human society and there are going to be very specific Western flavors. Before the organization and distribution of the scientific method, before the organization and distribution of religious discipline we made choices. Today every individual who hasn’t advanced their own capabilities in faith and reason falls back to mysticism. It is not expunged from human consciousness. Our minds tell us there are things we just know. We just know we are hungry. We just know we are uncomfortably hot. We just know we are achingly horny. What could be more American in these times than embracing (and appropriating) all of the feelings and desires of all of the diverse people of the world and of World History? So we look to The Other and determine we must break [Judeo-Christian] faith and [Enlightenment] reason to access and incorporate their mystical essentialisms. We have victimized them and await their revelations. Right?
The Modern Gnostic
I don’t want to go into the reasons why we are in an incipient Idiocracy. But we should have some understanding of how Western civilization has the ability to teeter on the brink of reversing many of its gains. This is especially relevant when in fact there are individuals among us who have institutional superpowers who leverage forces we Peasants barely know exist. Giving credibility for a moment of the stereotypical billionaires of the World Economic Forum, why would they not attempt to interrupt our faith and reason in Western institutions? Why would they not exploit our fallback from democracy to feudalism? Why would they not open a ‘god-sized hole’ underneath our feet so that we might honor and respect their mystic incantations? I mean if I were invited to Dubai and put up in the Burj Khalifa for a month and promised 300,000 units of the new global currency that will displace Bitcoin and the USD, I’d be very hard pressed to say no. I’d want to be read into the conspiracy. I’d want to banish economic mystery from my life, and I’d shut the hell up about it. I’d love to flash my new Ulysse Nardin watch while being seated at Buddah-Bar in Tribeca. Everybody would check me out, but I would just know.
It seemed very difficult for me to believe that Black Lives Matter and its ideological cousins would rack up tens of billions of dollars from the corporate elite of America. But DEI and ESG are no joke. They are one of the god-sized holes created by the mysteries associated with racism, sexism, various sex-preference phobias and the absence of social justice. I, for one, do not expect to be able to determine a humble explanation of how such imbalances have come to exist, but clearly there are people who just know and they have been able to wrestle much dough from the various powers that be. After all, 97 billion is only 2% of the US personal income of 41 trillion in 2021. It shouldn’t come as such a shock that 2% of us are Gnostics. Surely that’s an undercount of those who have abandoned both faith and reason but are certain that they just know. Like Mandalorians they walk around in masks claiming to know The Way.
I don’t want to be repetitive of James Lindsay and I really am not interested in grinding his particular axe any further, but his reasoning is sound to me and it helps me adjust what I have expected in my journey of analytic philosophy and Stoic enlightened indifference. Still, it certainly makes for a fitting bucket for, among other things, Standpoint Epistemology and the influence of various other mystical traditions influencing Americans, among which are:
Hermeticism & Gnosticism itself
The circular reasoning & sophistry of Hegel
It has been said that the American Right is going postmodern, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see the slavish cult of the Trumpists and various n-Chan activists in action. One of my favorite films of all time is Aronofsky’s Pi which associates Wall Street sophistry with Kabbalah. As I’ve alluded to previously, using mind-altering drugs to ‘reach a higher plane of consciousness’ is nothing more or less than revelation.
What is interesting is how these trends will absorb various fears about and revelations by AIs. When we are faced with the unknown and our religious disciplines and scientific theories fail to guide us confidently, we will abuse them and fill gaps with illusions and mysticisms. We will refuse to accept that what we know about ourselves is sufficient. We will fail to be humble and begin our punditry on the hubristic side of the spectrum.
I tend to consider my role as someone who makes a decent answer to the question “What were we thinking?” But I sure want a better tool than blogging. So this is another small plug for Citizen Media. I have genuine interest coming onboard, so that’s good news.
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