"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Mysticism and Reason

I don't want to offend anyone with this post, but I might. C'est la vie.

So, one of my newest and favorite blogging pleasures is The Brody File from the Christian Broadcasting Network (aka parent org of The 700 Club). Mr. Brody is a pretty good writer, and he's covering politics -- mostly the GOP presidential nomination process -- from an angle distinctly different from my own.

I find this kind of perspective valuable. I have been generally digging on The Right's Field, which is on a similar beat, but that's written by people who are on my side and in some cases my friends, so it just doesn't have the savory flavor and nuance of getting into the head of the Other.

Anyway, reading the Brody File seems like a good way to get in touch with mentalities that I don't often encounter socially, which is worthy even (especially) when I may disagree with said mentality. Keeps things nimble and limber. I wish there were a similar blog -- meaning readable and relatively non-propagandistic -- that was on the "Bomb Iran" tip that most GOP candidates (save Ron Paul) seem to be rolling on. That would be tight.

Back to the point, in the first Republican debate, three of the ten candidates stated that they did not in fact believe in evolution. The rest -- especially the great tan hope Mitt Romney -- have been doing the politician potty-walk ever since, and Brody has been following it, for obvious reasons.

In this post he publishes some letters from readers presenting arguments for the creationist viewpoint:

First as to the literal 6 days of Creation- on day 3, God separated the land from the water. This was in preparation for when He created vegetation that same day so that plants could become rooted. On day 4 He created the sun which was essential for plant life because they require photosynthesis, provided by the sun. In addition, He created insects on day 6 to include bees which are necessary for pollination of many of the plants that are food sources. It is impossible for plants to survive without the process of photosynthesis produced by the sun. How could God create plants and create the sun millions of years later, when the sun is the vehicle by which photosynthesis is possible? The time between days had to be short since plants and the food they produce were dependent on the sun and insect pollination. Without plants, no animal life could survive. So the days of Creation had to be literal 24 hour days.

Parsing that, it sort of blows my mind that someone really thinks this way. Now, I'm sure my vague agnostic notions of physical existence, the origins of the species, and my dubious ontology of "power through belief" and "social interaction" would probably blow whoever wrote that's mind if I tried to spell them out. People do believe in different stuff, it's true, and we can all get along anyway. Hooray pluralism!

However, what strikes me about this (and about other arguments I've seen for creationism) is that there appears to be a level of complexity or scale where direct understanding fails us, and at that point Reason has a way of checking-out, or becoming disconnected from reality. I think this is probably natural. I mean, the level of complexity where it becomes difficult to impossible for a human mind to completely track what's going on is not very high; certainly many orders of magnitude away from literal comprehension of geologic time, molecular activity, or the course of human events in a world of billions (let alone a nation of millions or even a city of thousands).

We deal in abstractions. It's one of the things that seems genuinely special about Human Beings. Existence is unimaginably complex, and so we have shorthands and stories for all sorts of things, from Newtonian Mechanics to creation stories. There's no way around this, though some abstractions are clearly more useful and/or externally verifiable than others.

We're rational creatures too, another thing that's special about us as far as we know. We like our abstractions to be true, or at least consistent and helpful in making our way through our lives. We appreciate order, and delight (at least initially) at being able to predict and control things.

We also like other people to agree with us. In this, rationality helps, as it tends to hew to the empirical ethos of the scientific method ("do you see what I see?"), but so does prejudice. All ideas are, at some level, social, meaning things get mighty sticky in the execution.

The above quote illustrates a really fascinating collision between rational and mystical abstractions. There's a sort of agricultural shorthand, which is a little sloppy but close to what a real man or woman of the earth would tell you about what plants need to live, and there's the deep-seeded belief in a story about how the Earth came to exist. These two are combined in a pseudo-logical argument which (QED!) "proves" that the days of the creation tale were literal 24-hour periods.

These kinds of pseudo-logical complexes are common to most mystical traditions, from Scientology and its Dianetics to the power-structure and rites of Catholicism, or the general concepts of shamanism, or psychedelia for that matter. There are things people can do, the mystic suggests, which can alter the course of events. Mystically. And there's a code to this, maybe written in a secret book. As my man Samuel says, Witchy Shit; here's some blood to drink.

At the same time, it doesn't seem like there's any real problem holding truly rational and mystical abstractions in one mind. Many great scientists (from Darwin to Einstein) were also religiously observant, even devout. On the flip, there are plenty of atheistic or non-religious people who believe all sorts of irrational things, though many of those beliefs -- I'm thinking of conspiracy theories here -- do approach the level of mysticism.

The problem, such as it is, seems to be that our rational and mystical threads become entangled, and when this happens beyond the margins of what we ourselves "know" or can immediately grasp -- what's within the reach of our scale-comprehension -- whatever we consider common sense (which Einstein called "the compendium of all prejudices instilled by the age of seventeen") will probably win out. There are few Christians who would deny the reality of Nuclear Power, but the follow-on conclusions reached through the same scientific principles, e.g. radiological dating, are unacceptable. Because the linkage between the real/graspable thing (electricity!) and the implied conclusion (the Earth is billions of years old) is beyond the understanding of most people, it's just the word of some guy called "a scientist" vs. common sense.

What I'm interested in is how the stack of abstractions that we use to make sense of reality gets built, how it functions, and how some abstractions seem to have the effect of extending the scale of our comprehension, while others do not. It seems to me that there's a way of evaluating the worth -- or perhaps the persuasiveness -- of an idea in there somewhere, and that it might be a good one.

Also, how is it that some people seem to be able to scale their understanding further than others? Is this learned, and if so how?

Anyway, lots of food for thought.


On the flip, there are plenty of atheistic or non-religious people who believe all sorts of irrational things, though many of those beliefs — I’m thinking of conspiracy theories here — do approach the level of mysticism.

i've always been amazed by the theatre atheists i know, with aversion approaching violence towards the idea of a god and his kid waking up from the dead - just patently false! unobservable phenomena are no basis for a life! - but who feel completely at home passing energies through the body, and other such witchy theatre activities.

bit of a cognitive dissonance.

That's a good one. The whole woo-woo aspect is another real bastion of non-religious mysticism, although people who take that very far -- into New Age stuff or Buddhism or the like -- tend to develop more relaxed pan-theistic attitudes. But it's a very teenage kind of attitude for the most part.

I think for the most part the militant stance that a lot of out-front Atheists express is really a reactionary thing. It's easy for me to be relaxed and lessez fair about spirituality because I wasn't raised with any particular viewpoint to embrace, or to reject; but many take a more combative path. After a time a lot of those people mellow out too.

It's interesting though. The whole "unobservable phenomena are no basis for a life!" thing sort of fits with the way Witchy Theater exercises will get you feeling something. I think this also might factor into the changing demographics of churchgoers, in terms of how the growing denominations offer a more physical, overtly mystical (born again!), and/or rock-opera experience. That's only part of the picture -- clearly organization plays a role -- but I think it's significant.