We think of ourselves as unique, and so we are, but defining individuality is problematic. Ninety percent of a person’s cells – mostly bacteria – are not their own while those cells with our distinct genetic codes only last up to ten years.
In terms of consciousness this poses questions such as: where is memory located if cells in the brain degenerate along with the rest of an atrophying body? Is it possible that morphic fields containing recollections lie beyond ourselves – like data stored in a cloud – as Rupert Sheldrake has proposed? Is this close to the elusive idea of soul that scientific rationalism considers impossible?
In ‘The Science Delusion’ (2012) and other works Sheldrake (who has a PhD from Cambridge and is the author of numerous articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals) argues for his hypothesis of morphic resonance employing a scientific methodology, albeit not to the satisfaction of many sceptics including his nemesis Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976) remains a classic exposition of neo-Darwinian genetics. His persuasive argument is that the battle for survival is at the level of the gene which conveniently uses the replicator, our bodies or that of another species, for its purposes.
But even within the field of genetics the neo- Darwinian consensus is cast in doubt by the new era of Epigenetics that suggests genetic codes are altered by the use of certain faculties by an organism over the course of its life. Apparently the child of a practising musician enjoys a musical predisposition beyond any genetic inheritance. It goes to shows how mistaken it is for any age to assume its reigning ideas are impregnable.
Nevertheless this should not provide an excuse for abandoning measured analysis or the quest for elusive truths notwithstanding the limitations of human minds. Scientific methodology yields extraordinary results but we must be careful to avoid new dogmas. It could also be that there is wisdom in ideas now considered obsolete.
Faced with our own mortality and that of those around us, many of us entertain the possibility of an afterlife, a phantom echo from a person’s life on earth, and possibly a unifying principle, or One, conventionally called God. But scientific rationality argues it is only possible for minds (or souls) to outlive bodies through ideas and artefacts, or as memes in the rather obtuse description of Richard Dawkins, and mostly dismisses the idea of a unifying principle. And make no mistake the arguments adduced by scientific rationality are compelling.
But a consequence of accepting this approach of scientific rationalism is moral ambivalence. For example, although science shows the effect of human activities on planet Earth there is no discourse within it to offer a way of prescribing our behaviour, it is simply descriptive. Moreover per Dawkins, if it is a case of elements within us competing for expression it is hardly possible to invest them with any moral sensibility.
Within the framework of a supersensible world redemptive possibilities seem to arise: if souls exist beyond bodies this appears to impose moral obligations as we could be compelled to endure the consequences of our actions for an eternity. The idea of a unifying principle also suggests that truth can be arrived at through the exercise of intellect.
This concept is domesticated by religions through ideas such as sin and karma but we need not accept the tenets of a particular religion in order to accept the possibility of Oneness and immortality. Let us consider evidence of those possibilities then, especially through the lens of art, which need not succumb to the dogma of a particular organised religion.
Our own WB Yeats, perhaps the foremost English-language poet of the twentieth century and certainly the greatest Romantic, held ideas anathematic to the intellectual culture of his day, and perhaps even more antipathetic to those of our own time. But what might be dismissed as superstition, far from holding him back, liberated an artistic imagination engendering verse of truly magical quality that he attributed to presences beyond himself.
If Yeats had simply expressed his ideas in philosophical terms they would easily be dismissed but through the beauty of their poetic form they are more acceptable to the wider society. Passively or otherwise this poetry is still a conduit for notions adopted by most school children, inculcating what many would normally dismiss as obscurantist notions about faery realms and spirits. And who would dare remove such perfectly crafted verse as Yeats’ from the school syllabus?
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
In an article entitled ‘Magic’ written in 1901 he set out his beliefs:
“I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in our visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices”.
He identifies these principles as:
“1. That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
2. That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
3. That this great mind can be evoked by symbols”.
Yeats comes from a tradition in Western thought that stretches back to Pythagoras and Plato which has been the philosophical basis of Christianity also. The statements, or revelations, of the itinerant preacher known as Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament do not contain sophisticated explanations for the origins of the world, or even arguably, prescriptions for the formation of a just society on earth, so forcefully articulated in Hellenic philosophy.
Especially via St Augustine, Plato’s ideas were absorbed by the early Church. Of course Christianity became a tool of oppression particularly linked to its adoption by the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine. But this does not detract from the central idea of treating thy neighbour as thyself contained within the corpus of Christianity that made a powerful contribution to human fellowship, not least on the question of slavery which began to disappear from Europe after the spread of Christianity.
Indeed the Italian Marxist director Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed a film called ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ (1964) which exclusively relies on words from that gospel including: “it is easier for a camel to go through the idea of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven”, an idea ignored through most of the Catholic Church’s history and in most Protestant churches that equated time with money.
The moral collapse of Christianity is expressed by William Blake in one of his ‘Songs of Experience’:
The Garden of Love
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And ‘Thou shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
Notwithstanding the tyranny of the Church, the idea that we may encounter knowledge greater than our own, and perhaps persevere beyond a material form, still offers a form of liberation from the limitations of the gene and promises access to higher knowledge. The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus (d. c 270 CE) argued that: “those who are inspired and possessed have knowledge to the extent that they know that there is something greater than themselves in themselves – even if they do not know what it is …”.
Plotinus, like Yeats, laid out his most persuasive arguments by analogy or through symbols. Art, rather than philosophy, better evokes those symbols.
Plato himself began life as a poet and Jesus Christ is described as one by Percy Shelley in his ‘Defence of Poetry’ where he described his kind as the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
It has been through an elusive faith that mystics and visionaries have developed many of the great advances in human thought. Of course they may not always channel positive forces: what passes for the supersensible world appears to have its fair share of diabolic forces as have been attested to through the ages.
Plotinus describes the existence of souls by analogy with our perception of physical beauty in another: “when a face sometimes appears beautiful and sometimes not, though the proportion remains the same, would we not have to say that beauty is other than the proportion and that the proportion is beautiful because of something other than itself”. The appeal we find in another seems to reside in something beyond physical matter as: “when a good man sees in the fresh face of youth a trace of the virtue that is in harmony with the truth that is inside himself”. It is perhaps for this reason that romantic love may arrive as a form of revelation that creates a spiritual awakening as Dante found when he encountered Beatrice.
Since the Enlightenment and especially Charles Darwin’s ‘Origins of the Species’, the idea of a supersensible world has progressively fallen into disrepute at least in the West. Of course religions have endured but in many cases these have been as defenders of tradition and conformity, their exoteric state. Nonetheless, the shock of the encounter of a secular Western civilisation with Political Islam partly flows from the dismissal by an overwhelmingly secular intelligentsia of an ideology predicated on prophetic revelation. Many Western intellectuals cannot fail to conceive as backward any movement with a religious underpinning, assuming a common intellectual trajectory towards their own dominant scientific rationalism.
Western civilisation also encountered another even older spiritual tradition, especially during the 1960s, in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. But their influence has, thus far, been relatively superficial. This is perhaps because many of the forms are culturally distant and advocates bypassed a slow movement to enlightenment in favour of powerful mind-altering drugs, especially LSD in doses often ten-times as powerful as are commonly consumed today.
In his remarkable analysis of the cultural context and influence of the songs of the Beatles ‘Revolution in the Head’ (1994) the great cultural historian Ian MacDonald identifies some of the trends:
“Though framed into terms of sexual liberation and scaffolded by religious ideas imported from the Orient, the central shift of the counterculture was drugs, and one drug above all: d-lysergic acid diethylamide 25, or LSD. Synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist looking for a cure for migraine, LSD is a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement – an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it. The LSD view of life took the form of a smiling non-judgmentalism which saw ‘straight’ thinking, including political opinion across the board from extreme Left to Right, as basically insane. To those enlightened by the drug, all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With LSD, humanity could transcend its ‘primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility’ and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia”.
“Using it, normal people were able to move directly to the state of ‘oceanic consciousness’ achieved by a mystic only after of years of preparation and many intervening stages of growing self-awareness – as a result of which most of them not unnaturally concluded that reality was a chaos of dancing energies without meaning or purpose. There being no way to evaluate such a phenomenon, all one could do was ‘dig’ it. Hence at the heart of the counterculture was a moral vacuum: not God, but The Void”.
McDonald argues that:
“the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.”
This he argues was the precursor to the New Right that has degenerated into the Tea Party, Donald Trump and now Brexit: “What mass society unconsciously began in the Sixties, Thatcher and Reagan raised to the level of ideology in the Eighties: the complete materialistic individualisation – and total fragmentation – of Western society”.
The signs of this McDonald said are found in the degeneration of artistic forms:
“While the instantaneous/simultaneous mentality introduced by the Sixties suited new idioms like pop and television (mainly because substantially created by them), it had a less benign effect on older established forms. Classical music, once an art of expression, became a pseudo-scientific, quasi-architectural craft of technique whose principles of design, opaque to the ear, were appreciable only by examining the ‘blueprint’ of the score. Similarly the rapid succession of conceptual coups in the world of painting and sculpture, so novel at the time, turned out to be merely the end of modernism and, as such, the dying fall of Western art. Overtaken by the ‘artistic discourse’ of postmodernism, art became as literary as post-Wagnerian classical music was visual, producing the arid paradox of paintings to listen to and music to look at. Shorn of their content, art, music, and literature degenerated by increasingly inconsequential stages from art about art, to jokes about art, and finally to jokes about art about art”.
All healthy human beings appear to have a capacity for intellectual engagement of a kind that leads to a perception of a supersensible world beyond a material self. It seems a profound mistake therefore to dismiss esoteric ideas when we see the power of myth, fable and art to raise the human spirit. The challenge seems to be how we should control a tendency for power to accumulate in law-making institutions that arise to implement the collective will. Individual autonomy should be retained where any spirituality is envisioned: church and state are toxic for one another.
The “oceanic consciousness” that emerged in the 1960s thus appears to be a lie and we are left with a civilisation floundering. Lonely, isolated and passive, in the estimation of Erich Fromm, most human beings see little point in doing anything that will improve the world around them, taking refuge instead in satisfaction- through-consumption and sexual dalliance.
This all matters because human beings are on the brink of a series of environmental catastrophies and the discourse of science, complete with statistics and charts, is insufficient to instigate meaningful change in the way people live and relate to the world around them. The ideas of the preacher Jesus Christ about human wealth remain relevant. But human beings in the Anthropocene must look beyond themselves and develop a genuinely ‘oceanic consciousness’ where we see all our connections to a wider whole including all the animals and plants we share the planet with, not above them but among them. That so many of the cells in our body are not our own is suggestive of our interdependence.
The challenge of envisioning a supersensible world is not beyond our capacities and in so imagining perhaps we bring it into being. That this is an enormous challenge is readily admitted by anyone who has struggled with the question of faith, but simply to dismiss it is insufficient. It should be read on its own terms, not through the prism of, or in competition with, scientific rationality. A progressive development would be for us to restore the sublimity of form in our artistic fields, from architecture to poetry.
By accepting the presence of magic in our lives, however difficult this is to fathom, perhaps we can summon the responses to the challenges we confront in the Anthropocene age. In so doing we might learn to recognise the significance of the fact that we as individuals are part of a wider constellation.
By Frank Armstrong