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Return To The Garden?

Modern science, our beloved paradigm of truth has failed to show us the spiritual light.  Compounding its shortcomings, like a petulant loser unable to admit its inadequacies, science often reverts to trivializing and deconstructing the mystical and transcendent to the point of irrelevance.  Though imperious empiricists may be quick to dismiss the realm of the unseen, for the rest of us the questions of our spiritual being still persist.  As such, like a new breed of existential explorer many contemporary people feel we must look to the culturally remote, pre-modern peoples of the planet in search of the ultimate answers.  Like modern Transcendentalists we’re convinced something as basic and pure as the nature of being must lurk in places of similar character.  Places of yore where the innocents remain uncontaminated by the taint of modernity; where idyllic life styles coexist with the forces and principles of creation.  In desperation our imaginations run wild.  We’re convinced the pre-moderns hold the answers to our mystical awakening.   You know who I’m talking about.  Those whose cultures have yet to bite from the apple of science and its anti spiritual bias.  Those living in tribal circumstances, cloaked in primitive mystery and draped in superstition.  They dress in loin cloths and grass skirts, paint their faces in macabre fashion, indulge in unfathomable rituals and live in a state of uneasy grace with strange deities.  They perform blood sacrifices, build idols, play with snakes, shake rattles and keep the sacred Words.  Or so they say.

Many believe within pre-modern cultures there is a greater receptivity to the ontological value of metaphysical and spiritual phenomena than within contemporary societies.  They claim pre-modern existence provides surroundings and conditions more conducive to recognizing the greater, more essential spiritual truths of our being.  Not all who hold this opinion are starry eyed romantics.  The reasons for such assumptions are conventionally broken down into four categories of explanation; environment, perspective, continuity/pace and inner orientation. The validity of these suppositions is subject to continual debate.

The first volley in any comparison between the spiritual awareness of modern versus pre-modern cultures relates to environment. The common assertion is that because traditional societies continue to exist within a more natural environment they have a greater awareness and sensitivity to the forces of nature than their modern cousins.  Many are those who trumpet the connection between intimate knowledge of nature and deep ontological insight.  Nature is thought to be the elemental revealed.  It’s a template for understanding the essential forces creating and guiding existence.  Through nature the fundamental processes and patterns of life reveal themselves to the discerning eye.  To live in harmony with the environment and subject yourself to its will is to be more synchronized and in greater communion with the ultimate scheme.  Or so they say.

Not only do pre-modern people see more of nature, many claim they see it differently and in a more pragmatic and spiritually revealing manner than modern people.  Living amidst surroundings that have remained consistent in character and appearance for generations coupled with the slower pace at which pre-modern life unfolds is a potent observational advantage.  In most pre-modern societies there are fewer distractions to divert one’s attention from a finite amount of stimuli.  The combination of a more static environment with greater amounts of time to spend in observation affords pre-modern people a more prolonged and deliberate view of natures “existential template.”  Contrast this with the speed and diversity of modern life.  The relentless barrage of new materials, forms and ideas often afford only the most superficial of understandings as one ricochets from one stimulus to the next.  A patient gaze in a static environment sees detail and structure the roaming and harried eye would otherwise miss.  It’s easy to see how continuous exposure allows for a greater compendium of knowledge and perspective of the specific elements of one’s environment as well as a deeper appreciation of the more subtle interrelations of cause and effect.  It’s much like the circumstances of our family dogs.  Through endless observation of the same people in the same surroundings from the same perspective they notice behavioral nuances and subtle cues we ourselves are unaware of and may accurately anticipate the events and actions these indicators foretell.  Or to use a more prosaic example; continual exposure and experimentation on the same plant for hundreds of years increases the likelihood of discovering more and different properties and uses than would be evident from a more cursory study.  Static surroundings and the luxury of time allow a more penetrating perception of deeper precision and understanding.  Or so they say.

Then there is the issue of perspective.  The mainstays of Western science, deconstruction and analysis are invaluable for explaining the intrinsic nature of the elements of existence.  However, such micro perspectives often do more to obscure and confuse essential truths and meanings than illuminate them. Pre-moderns often have trouble understanding our infatuation with constitutive elements.  To them our study of such entities as atoms, molecules, quarks and neutrinos often seems irrelevant.   Though holding little knowledge of the mechanistic workings of physical phenomena, the pre-moderns have a different kind of understanding thought to be more revealing of the fundamental condition of existence.  They have the advantage of seeing the so called “bigger picture.”  They don’t see existence as the sum of its parts.  For them, the macro not the micro presents the more realistic and utilitarian perspective of the relationships existing between worldly elements.  By placing humans within a broader context a different perspective of our nature and role within the greater whole is thought to be gained.  We are no longer viewed apart from but within the fabric of existence.  The focus of existence is shifted away from the transient nature of the individual towards the more enduring relationships existing within the whole.  As such, a clearer recognition of the way in which the forces of existence shape our lives and a better sense of the totality in which all play a part is revealed.  Pre-modern life views are in many ways more expansive and all encompassing than our own. Such perspective allows them to operate more in concert with their environment and the natural forces of existence.  Absent the ability to impose your will, one must accept and accommodate.  Or so they say.

The divergence between the modern and pre-modern is most dramatic regarding accepted sources of information.  While both groups utilize an empirical base, pre-moderns sanction and value intuited knowledge where modern science doesn’t.  This is likely the major attraction for contemporary spiritual seekers.  Whole new spectrums of existential possibility present themselves absent the tools and paradigms of modern science.  And not all are entirely untenable.  As any materialist freely admits, many phenomena currently fall outside the realm of scientific explanation.  On a deeply subjective level we all relate to the revealing power of intuition.  All of us have an intuitive or instinctual feel for many of the events within our lives.  Certain things attract us while others incite a palpable sense of anxiety or dread.  Some events trigger inexplicable associations and we have a stronger resonance with certain ideas of cosmic order than others.  Lacking the information to explain these intuitions does nothing to diminish their reality.  Deep within our psyche we trust in and react to our inner voices.  However, despite their powerful reality, the subjective side of human existence is beyond the positivist paradigm.  While science doesn’t deny the subjective, its inability to be defined or examined precludes its inclusion within conventional study.  When it comes to sanctioning inner knowledge the pre-moderns are the only game in town.  Science may try to investigate the veracity of particular intuitive claims but always lags behind the curve.  Unable to prove or disprove these kinds of assertions they essentially have to surrender the field to the pre-moderns and their more accommodating systems.

None of the above possible reasons suggesting the pre-moderns to be better attuned and informed with the ultimate powers of existence are necessarily correct.  By themselves they do nothing to bestow any greater degree of credibility upon specific issues be they pragmatic or spiritual in nature.  In truth the world of the spiritual and mystical is not exclusively the domain of the pre-modern.  Most human beings would seem to have similar spiritual capacity.  Numerous modern people credibly claim to have attained many of these same higher insights through other types of activities, (study, meditation, direct experience, etc.) or stimuli, (drugs, fasting, lack of sleep, etc.)  Spirituality and rationality are not mutually exclusive.  In fact many modern thinkers believe spiritual and ontological awareness is more the inevitable result of gradual human psychological and cultural development.  Clair Graves using his system of Spiral Dynamics and the transpersonal writer Ken Wilber are just two of many who view psychological and spiritual awareness as a continuing evolution from one stage of human development to the next.  These stages or hierarchies of development are not exclusively characterized by higher levels of science and technology but also emphasize more advanced degrees of psychological perspective and cultural development.  Both contend, non-pejoratively, pre-modern people and their thought world filled with spirits, magic and other supernatural forces represent a lower, irrational stage in the process.  If the ideas of Graves and Wilber are to be believed then modern/rational people would seem psychologically closer to confronting and experiencing ultimate truths than those of the pre-modern/irrational.  It’s claimed the development of knowledge, experience and awareness through time is what gradually allows deeper ontological and spiritual insight.  As societies progress they develop higher levels of transcendent perspective until they ideally reach what Wilber calls a “trans-rational” stage of existence.  This heightened, mystical stage of human development allows for insights beyond the realm of the empirically or rationally apparent.  The “trans-rational” stage is essentially the same state of mystical and cosmic awareness so many attribute to pre-modern peoples.  And therein lies a potential state of confusion all too endemic to our field.

Wilber uses the phrase “pre/trans fallacy” to refer to the process of confusing the spiritual awareness of lower states of psychological development, (pre-modern/irrational,) with higher ones, (trans/rational,) and vice versa.  It’s an easy mistake to make.  We look at the highly visible mystical and spiritual perspectives of early, “pre-rational” tribal societies and tend to ascribe to them disproportionate levels of cultural sophistication and transcendent awareness.  We accept these forms and thoughts of spirituality as being more psychologically and ontologically developed and insightful than our own.  They appear “beyond” the levels of our own knowledge and experience.  The tendency is to suppress the possibility we may only be dealing with base superstition within a culture of lesser development rather than one of superior cosmic awareness.  The reverse is also true.  Some would take “trans-rational” insights derived from a higher level of individual and cultural development and ground them in the less sophisticated world of “pre-rational” peoples.  In this manner higher, acquired levels of spiritual development are debased through association and identification with the less intellectually sophisticated pre-moderns.  In either event a severe distortion of understanding occurs.  Either the pre-modern/irrational has been given an unrealistic level of credibility and sophistication or the highly evolved modern trans/rational perspective has been demeaned to the level of superstition or anti intellectualism.

The most egregious examples of the pre/trans fallacy are found within the extremists of both camps; scientific reductionists and new age acolytes.  When scientific reductionists dip their hands into the world of the spiritual all things intuitive and metaphysical disappear. As strict empiricists, they’re honor bound to deny all elements of the unseen.  They’re quick to write off all trans-rational thoughts as being nothing more than primitive, ignorant, pre-rational superstition.  With a wave of their materialist wand the intuitive and metaphysical are instantly degraded.  On the other hand many new agers are only too happy to elevate the thoughts and forms of the pre-moderns to the realm of a deep, ultimate and sophisticated truth.  Employing Bronze Age discernment they indiscriminately embrace all forms of starry eyed metaphysics with little or no regard for established knowledge or rationality.  Their level of accommodation for all things spiritual would make the most hardened Theosophist blush in shame and does great disservice to the cause of knowledge.

So what’s the verdict?  Do the pre-moderns with their wider perspective, simpler lifestyle, longer cultural heritage, greater intimacy with nature and belief in intuitive knowledge represent our best option for enhancing our own spirituality and answering ultimate questions?  Do they really keep the sacred knowledge contemporary people have forgotten?  Or is the apparent purity of their lifestyles, attendant world views and insights just a rampant case of pre-trans fallacy wrapped in contemporary nostalgia and romantic yearning?  Is it ultimately incumbent on science and the gradual biological, intellectual and cultural development of the human creature to carry the day?  Unfortunately, as with all things in life, there seems to be no absolute answers.

While it’s quite evident there is much to be said in defense of the conditions facilitating pre-modern spiritual notions they are not without problems.  There is little doubt the natural conditions pre-modern peoples live in may give them many “essential” insights regarding the patterns and conditions of their immediate existence.  However, it would be far too ambitious to extrapolate and uniformly overlay these observations upon all of existence without qualification.  Longer and detailed observation of these static phenomena may provide a deeper and more insightful perspective of nature but by itself does little to extend the reach of these truths beyond their immediate context.  Naturalists have haunted the corridors of philosophy since the times of the pre-Socratics.  As such all are familiar with the many variables, caveats and lines of exception inherent in this position.  Then there is the question of inner knowledge.  This is the critical blind spot within the empirical/materialist/positivist paradigm.  No credible ontological investigation can ignore the undeniable value of human intuition and impression.  However, regardless of value and necessity intuition is not infallible.  Left unchecked by reason and discrimination intuition frequently runs wild through many an overgrown field of imagination and delusion.  The same could be said for “big picture” perspectives.  They can be revelatory if applied correctly but always remain subject to the mind and interpretation of any given observer.  Clearly case and context have everything to do with determining the privilege of the pre-modern perspective.  In each circumstance the discerning investigator must evaluate the same core issues: how credible are reports of metaphysical and spiritual occurrence within pre-modern societies, how valid are local explanations and do they offer anything affording us greater existential understanding?

To uniformly believe in the inherent superiority of one “age” of people to divine or understand transcendent truths would be clearly erroneous despite the possible strength of any one line of reason.  One should neither arbitrarily assume that all pre-modern intuition is correct and insightful on the one hand nor relegate it to the pile of superstition and ignorance on the other.  How nice it would be if we could just assert the pre-modern/intuitive method of understanding was best suited for subjective truths and the modern/empirical method was better suited for objective truth.  We could assign each domain its own area of specialty and leave it at that. Unfortunately, things aren’t so clear cut as both groups have much to say about the others area of reputed expertise.  Clearly each assertion and observation made by people from both camps needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis.  It would seem apparent that the tools and observations of both the modern and the pre-modern hold potential value in understanding our ultimate ontological nature.  When assessing the veracity of any spiritual phenomena both science and intuitive impression must be brought to the table.  Regardless of context or reputation neither is strong enough to preclude deeper investigation and question by the other.

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  1. CommentsWebsite   |  Wednesday, 25 July 2018 at 10:18 am

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