bell hooks, empathy, freedom, intelligence, personal identity, philosophy, politics of identity, religion, spirituality, transcendence
Thinking about spirituality is a challenge, and it benefits from going-over-it-again from time to time. Not everyone is interested or willing. Critical thinking about spirituality seems offensive to many people, although that may be unusual now in some places. Spirituality intersects with philosophy with respect to ideas and experiences of intelligence, freedom, creativity, transcendence, and on the issue of what can be known. It isn’t easy to read someone else’s writing about spirituality. However, one way to get on with a personal process of thinking about it would be to read the thoughts presented here (and other places), let them go, then search your orientation and listen for your thoughts.
Spirit is the same thing as intelligence or personality. In Plato’s Republic, spirit (as in competitive spirit, ambition, or school spirit) was one of the three variable impulses of subjectivity or personality (along with appetite and rational contemplation). However, “spirit” has come to mean personality (intelligence) detached, like a ghost, from normal animal embodiment; intelligence as a disembodied, immaterial, free floating entity, yet still with power and effect in the objective world; also it can be intelligence ’embodied’ in an extraordinary way such as in the planet Earth as a whole, or in a star (wishing on a star) or in the entirety of existence, in nature as a whole. The category of spirits includes, for very many people, the idea of a supreme-intelligence with ultimate creative power. So spirituality is an individual’s vision of and feelings toward the self as spirit, and the relevance of self-as-spirit to disembodied spirits and especially to a supreme-intelligence at work in the world. A sense of transcendent sacredness, of something profoundly supernatural attaches especially to that super-intelligence.
Mysticism is a vision, normally including practices within a simplified and contemplative way of life, of a way to achieve knowledge (gnosis) of divine things, ultimate mysteries. This knowledge of divine things, say, of flows of supernatural power through nature, is thought to be revealed to people determined and devoted enough to impose long periods of discomfort and sensory deprivation on themselves (de-emphasizing their existence as animal and material body), resulting in trances or experiences of separation of spirit from the body, in which condition the spirit can travel anywhere, meet and communicate with other disembodied spirits, and explore the normally invisible structures, origins, and destiny of the cosmos. Claims of such knowledge of the whole has been passed privately in person from master to disciple, kept arcane and secret, restricted to few initiates, because it is considered safe only in the minds of those proven most worthy. Sometimes supernatural powers are thought to accompany that knowledge. In spite of the secrecy, there have been leaks and deliberate hints and speculations about mystical experiences, to such an extent that the culture of mysticism has had widespread influence on ordinary conceptions of spirituality. Additionally, claims of mystical knowledge often appear to have metaphorical meanings concerning non-mystical but more generally spiritual or philosophical matters.
What we are doing when sensing personality outside ourselves is primordial empathy, recognizing questions, intentions, hopes, fears, and desires that are not our own, and so recognizing other entities acting from intelligence. We are making sense of the movements of (especially) people and animals by recognizing intelligences as elemental forces. Empathy in the ordinary sense is complicated in that awareness of external personalities. Fear and enmity seem to be very common. Still, we find that the beings moved by intelligence sometimes shelter each other from the terrifying boundless darkness, uniting by physical closeness as well as by mutual nurturing and imitation-play. The first experience of other intelligence is probably mother or parent, which leads to the imprinting of an orientation toward what passes for an indefinable exterior super-intelligence in the experience of newborns, infants, and toddlers. The universal imprinting of an orientation toward an indefinable super-intelligence gets generalized and idealized, guided by a massive effort at cultural (religious) influence on every individual, with the effect that the ideal super-intelligence is conceived as transcendent and immortal, often immaterial and disembodied, or, in other words, a God or set of gods. Toward the external personalities identified as gods, people feel empathy coloured by profound fear, like fear of an emotionally distant and unreliably engaged parent. That free-floating and supreme super-parent has no other grounding than a culturally conditioned structure of orientation extending childhood dependency, but it provides a common sort of human parasite with a mechanism of profound control. By asserting the claim to be the earthly proclaimer and enforcer of divine will, a powerful faction can gain parasitic control of masses of people.
Two things converge: the universal imprinting of an orientation toward an indefinable super-intelligence, and the history of a parasitic human faction which has been spectacularly successful at sanctifying its top-down human-on-human parasitism by exploiting that universal psychological predisposition of people to orient toward a supreme external intelligence “in the blind”.
There is considerable evidence that we humans have tended to sense personality or intelligence in worldly events far too often. Humans judge intelligence by an entity’s ability to imitate (with variation/ innovation) and so to communicate understanding, act out social roles, and form social attachments. Given the fact that humans have imagined personality in all sorts of natural phenomena such as trees and storms, there is no reason why we might not imagine personality in computers and robots. Seeming intelligent is not a matter of being structured and ‘hard wired’ to behave in ‘human’ patterns, because most ‘human’ behaviour is based on intelligent imitation of models in the ambient social system. From time immemorial natural phenomena were seen to be moving under their own inner motive force in coherent patterns and misjudged as being ready or capable of normal intelligent imitations as communication. Storms were seen to act out an angry outburst by a terrifying father. Fathers do not do this because of their ‘hard wiring’, but because they must imitate a certain social role. If engineers want to make machines which seem intelligent, the machines will have to do interesting imitations.
Desire, hope, fear, purpose, curiosity, or intention (teleology) as explanations of events in the objective world have generally been acceptable and often preferred over ‘brute’ natural-law cause-effect explanations. In ordinary discourse, explanation of events based on the motives of personalities as forces in the world has been privileged over brute material cause. “Somebody did it.” “A ghost did it.” “God did it.” These are all still commonly accepted among educated people as sufficient accounts of why and how something happened. There is even an inclination to fall back onto such act-of-personality explanations where they are clearly not appropriate: “There is a little guy inside the machine who counts the money you put in and drops out the change.” Anyone who claims belief in God, gods, or a deity is irrevocably committed to intelligence/ personality and its acts of reason, desire, or questioning as the final, ultimate, original, and primordial creative source and cause of everything that exists, which goes far beyond the experienced models or examples of the powers of intelligences. Since we tend to think of an act of intelligent-will when the question of cosmic creation comes up, it seems that the experience of intelligence necessarily includes creative power and freedom. A sense of the sacred that is connected to ultimate creative power comes with the fact that it is gob-smackingly inexplicable that there is anything rather then simply nothing, but it is neither necessary nor helpful to project a fanciful pretence of explanation onto that. It doesn’t help to say that the world rests on the back of a giant tortoise, and it doesn’t help to say that the world was created by a disembodied super-intelligence. The pre-existence of a divine intelligence isn’t enough since the inevitable, unavoidable question is: how did the divine intelligence (or the tortoise) come to exist?
A Quarrel with Religion: Malign Effects of Imaginary Super-Parents
What can never be passed off as benign about any religion is that religion is the ultimate legitimation of the way things are, of the existing order, the status quo. Religion is always a celebration of submission or subordination to some super-version of the universally imprinted parent, a psychological relic of childhood. Since such a super-parent is assumed to arrange every detail of the cosmos as it wills, the condition of the world is necessarily a direct expression or manifestation of the divine will of the unquestionable super-parent. Even Buddhism legitimizes the inequalities of social hierarchies through the idea of karma, since moving up the moral hierarchy of lives requires the inequalities of a social hierarchy. Such a religious acceptance of, or reconciliation to, the way things are, can produce feelings of calm and a certain sense of transcendence, of rising above all the injustice, misery, and futility, through uniting with the totality of being, the great turbulent river of being. However, feeling good isn’t enough. It’s a withdrawal, a kind of profound personal refusal of the freedom of intelligence.
The Imprinted Parent Lies About Who You Are
A main problem with the universally imprinted parent is that it tells you who you are, and you are inclined to accept what it says because it is the unquestionable internalized parent. What the voice of the imprinted parent always tells you is that you are a belonging, specifically their belonging, that you are their possession and as such you exist for their purposes. Whatever they choose to do with you, such as sending you to war, or confining your work and thinking to what you are told, you obey because it is their asserted right as the owner to use force or kill you if you hesitate or resist. However, that is all a lie because there really is no super-parent, only fraudulent pretenders representing particular social factions and using this age-old psychological back-door to appear to come from inside your head. The pretenders lie about who you are because they benefit from the results of people generally believing the lies. Anything, such as a state, family, religion, or the economic organization of production and distribution, that claims the right and competence to assign your identity is inappropriately playing on the psychological imprint of the parental super-intelligence left over from childhood, which in fact ceases to be legitimate as every person becomes adult. What makes personal self-possession possible even in that extreme (but normal) situation is that elemental or innocent intelligence remains outside any cultural influence, and so can think outside and critique any kind of cultural effect including the imprinted parent.
Not Saying It
An enormous amount of energy has been devoted (academically and politically) to not saying that human societies are structured as forms of top-down human-on-human parasitism. Historians do not say it even though it is the most obvious thing that jumps off the page from a little reading of history. Social scientists and established political parties don’t say it even when credible studies (Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page) reveal completely dominant influence on (nominally democratic) governments by organizations using massive accumulations of capital. There is no doubt about the reason this cannot be said: the junta of parasitism is still very much in power and feels confronted and threatened when identified as such. The legitimizing ethos of the ruling ownership faction is crime-family culture (fig-leafed by patronage and supportive consumption of art, monumental architecture, and high culture), which licenses any deception or brutality to secure its parasitic advantages. In the ideology of modernity the idea of social progress is headlined in large print, but the system of human parasitism continues getting more strident and overt in many ways, such as in explosive inequality in wealth and income. The whole intellectual culture of human societies has been systematically distorted by not saying the reality of political power.
More than Love
Love is not effective in getting beyond or overcoming the power and grip of entrenched human parasites, but neither is hate or rage. Getting in touch with the supposed cosmic unity of all things or of all sentient beings is also proven to be completely ineffective. It is certainly not helpful to be immersed in an inescapably negative, dark, or stressed emotional state, but, although feeling calmed by a feeling of love for all creation is certainly better, it is not in itself good enough to create a more widespread improvement. Improvement will be a process rather than a single mental accomplishment, of course, but progress on the path must begin with a certain single mental accomplishment, namely elemental self-identification or self-possession. The reason elemental self-identification is crucial is that it is the route via which the transcendent becoming of every other individual intelligence can be recognized. It is the way via which the sense of sacred transcendence is redistributed away from some imaginary super-parent and instead recognized where it truly is, in every separate person.
De-effacing the questioning directionality in any human gaze, as discussed in posting 72, The Question of the Gaze, is a requirement for freedom of thought and agency. Without that interior-oriented grounding of self-identification, a person is, by default, in the grip of super-parent supplied (culturally supplied) criteria of self-identification, (personal identity in terms of family, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, nationality, language, socio-economic stratum-of-origin, level of education, personal income, net worth, trophies, titles, occupational skill set, accumulation of possessions, appearance, athletic ability, …) all of which have the effect of making the individual a property of currently reigning avatars of the universally imprinted parent, which in reality is an institutional system of top-down human-on-human parasitism. Full agency requires self-possession of the innocent intelligence which so easily slips into the blind-spot of the outward gaze. A universal imposition of diminished self-recognition is enforced through culturally legitimizing and obscuring the parasitic core of the capitalist economic system. It is not going to be possible to conceive a superior replacement for capitalism without first advancing a reformation in spirituality.
Branding the Construct of Power: imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy
The problem with bell hooks’ concept “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” is that those cultural structures and the personal qualities they are taken to express are (regrettably) widely respected and even considered admirable. Empires and imperialism are spoken of with adulation: Alexander of Macedon is not remembered as Alexander the Diabolical, but as The Great, and his conquest of the known world of his time and place is hailed as a great achievement. The supposed glories of the Roman and British Empires, for example, are staples in the teaching of history. Historians and politicians normally glorify imperialism and war generally, and a strong ideological undercurrent of white supremacist racism is included in that glorification, something like: “European races prove their superiority by exercising dominance and imposing their glorious achievements on all other people.” Masses of regular people just hold such assumptions as unquestionable truths, even people who do not consider themselves racist. On capitalism, in the most economically developed societies of the modern world capitalism is the reigning ideology and it is continuously gushing forth streams of admiration for itself in mass media, including declarations of its unshakable inevitability, so that it is difficult (nearly criminal) to imagine anything different within that matrix. As for patriarchy, it has mainly managed to retain its original branding as meritocracy, and so again as something good for everybody, with maybe a little tweaking needed here and there. Regrettably, the negative-sounding concepts used by hooks for the normal organization of society are (although accurate) full of cultural ambiguity, and consequently sound like name-calling, unfairly harsh characterizations of arrangements at the core of society. They sometimes provide an excuse to dismiss the important message. Parasites, however, are not widely admired, and it is the (false) cultural legitimation of top-down human-on-human parasites that needs to be identified and exposed in imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.
Colonization, even in the most literal sense of British capitalists and armed forces assaulting, occupying, and imposing their possession of India, for example, is always some form of asserting ownership by a pretending avatar of the universally imprinted parent. Accepting any form of unthinkable super-parent, even on a persona level, is an invitation to parasitic colonizers to come here and do their thing. Any personal process of de-colonization requires identification of and critical thinking on the issue of the imprinted parent in general, followed by a personal process of getting beyond the internalized parent in all forms. Nobody’s personal identity includes being the possession of some other intelligence, embodied or disembodied. No intelligence-as-such is a belonging. Identify the internalized super-parents in personal orientation, and then move past them, help them fade away. Identify all the culture-imposed criteria of personal identity (self-identification, self-definition, personal evaluation) and then move past them, help them all fade away. Something remains, an elemental questioning or accumulating orientation, innocent or elemental personal intelligence: the authentic grounding of personal identity. As a being in the world you are still not beyond the power of the human parasites, but your personal interiority is ready to open up the creative gusher of curiosity, pleasures, emotional responses, and impulses to craft expressions, and to re-orient more generally through those experiences.
When you begin the process of de-colonization, how far do you go? Can there be an arbitrary stopping place that retains some or most cultural value assignments but discards personally offensive ones such as the pigeon-hole assigned to your race, gender, or sexual orientation? What if you don’t stop? Is there anything at the end of that rainbow? Socrates looks like being another person (roughly two thousand years before Luther and Descartes) who kept going and de-colonized from everything he possibly could, which accounts for his declaration that his only wisdom was knowing that he knew nothing, a state of elemental innocence. Now that’s de-colonization, and it didn’t leave Socrates passive or reconciled to the status quo of his society. It released him as a questioner, as an active intelligence. At the end of this rainbow is innocent intelligence-as-such or personality-as-such. Before anyone has a gender, race, or language, before becoming a child of a certain religion, family, landscape, or nationality, before any of that, every individual is already a particular intelligence/ personality, and those other features are just cultural variables in the situation of that intelligence. The ground on which to stand to judge culture of any kind, and so to judge the malign effects of otherwise unquestionable super-parents, is personal innocent intelligence, deep underneath the layers of colonization by culture.
Spirituality is Transcendence in Time
The rejection of super-parent religion is not a rejection of spirituality. Spirituality is the creation of time. Time is freedom into which an intelligence creatively projects itself, a personal hyper-space of non-actuality. Freedom is possible because time is a device or technique created by individual intelligences to transcend (be free of) nature’s determinism, and so it could be said that being-in-time is what distinguishes intelligences from the natural world within which intelligences build lives. This is a startlingly unfamiliar idea, but time is the foundation of freedom from nature and as such it is the transcendence of intelligences. Temporality is teleology. Transcendence is in the questioning directionality of any human gaze and not in free-floating deities (there are none), nor in the vastness of nature itself, nor in the supposed one-ness of all existence. Individuals cannot claim to be creative masters of nature, but each person creates a time-system (a life) of possibilities and probabilities in our own universe of interiority, a personal orientation within non-actuality, which is then actually imposed on brute nature with variable success, and shared by building interconnections with other ordinary intelligences.
A New Philosophic Empathy
The sense of the sacred, previously and currently reserved for an awesomely powerful super-parent, a centralized and externalized transcendent supervisor, urgently needs to be redistributed. The reason elemental self-identification is crucial is that it is the route via which the transcendent becoming of every (other) individual intelligence can be recognized. It is the way via which the sense of sacred transcendence is redistributed away from some imaginary super-parent and instead recognized where it truly is, in individual people. All the super-parents must be allowed to fade out and pass away and be replaced by a sense of the sacredness of each individual intelligence.
Copyright © 2014 Sandy MacDonald.