Reductionism and Fundamentalism

Reductionism and fundamentalism are the twin evils of our time. If, as William Blake puts it, “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”, we owe a lot of that to secular reductionism and religious fundamentalism. Both are implicated in that problem that Gebser calls “the mental-rational structure of consciousness now functioning in deficient mode”, and they are correspondingly also implicated in Nietzsche’s definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”. That nihilism is equally reflected in Oscar Wilde’s definition of cynicism and the cynic as being someone “who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing”.

What was originally understood to be merely a convention, and not the truth, has become inverted. The abstractions are now thought to be the real and the true, and not just conventions or mere descriptions. The original rationale for reductionism and fundamentalism both was the desire for a simpler representation and explanation of a very complex truth and reality, just as the subject-object divide was initially only a methodological convention for the sake of gaining psychological distance from things — thinking is thinging”, as it were — and was not considered to be actually true. And I will point out the obvious in that choice of methodological convention which dichotomised Being against itself in such a way — for if it became necessary for the purposes of thinking and reason to gain “psychological distance” (ie, the principle of “disinterestedness” or objectification), it is because that dichotomisation of Being into discrete subject and object states or “apartness” wasn’t and isn’t “real” at all.

And so of reductionism and fundamentalism we can say the same thing: they were considered conventions, and not the way things really were or are. The principle underlying them was this: explanation and description should be “as simple as possible (but no simpler).” That’s the principle of “abstraction”, and it’s quite valid and useful in its place. The problem began when the “convention” or abstraction became confused with the reality and the truth — as the way things really were. However, I will point out what should be the obvious in that (but apparently isn’t) — that what reductionism and fundamentalism aimed for was a an economy of description, representation and explanation, and what it has ended up as is a confusion of the abstraction  — the description and representation — with the reality itself.

This is what we call “idolatry”. It’s also the description of what we call “narcissism”, for they are equivalent. Both terms correspond to the exact same state identified by Blake in the citation above. And if, as Pope Francis says, “duplicity has become the currency of the day”, it really does have something to do with this confusion.

The true and the real is, simultaneously, more complex and multifaceted and yet at the same time, much simpler and coherent. Let’s look at some examples of the confusion of the abstract with the real, and the way reductionism and fundamentalism both distort that reality and the truth.

As you know, I consider the debasement of the meaning and value “the whole” or “the All” into a mere “totality” or sum of particulars to be one such significant distortion and confusion of reductionism and fundamentalism, for they do, in significant ways, have exactly opposite meanings, being originally connected to the meanings “life” and “death” respectively (or, the healthy and the not healthy) — that’s a pretty significant confusion and perplexification of values. And in large part, we confuse these “higher” and “lower” (or the”noble” with the “ignoble”, in Nietzche’s terms) precisely because of the “two souls” issue, as reflected in Goethe’s Faust, raised in the last post on Duplicity. “Faustian Man” has become a being divided against itself in exactly the same way. Why?

I’ll venture an explanation. There is something in the human form that does not belong to the finite and temporal order of things, but to the infinite and the eternal. We tend to refer to these as “the Self” and “the Ego” these days. The “whole” and the “totality” correspond or run parallel to this relation of the infinite to the finite form, or eternity to time and the temporal. The “mind” however concerns itself with concepts and definitions, which are finitudes, and these it calls “the facts of the matter”. It is constantly drawing boundaries and limits around “things”, which it calls “objects” and “facts”, where there are no real boundaries or limits, just outlines. The world of “facts” is a mental construction, a system of discrete logical abstractions, outlines, and representations. And for that reason, we are compelled to realise that “the facts of the matter” and “the truth that sets free” are quite distinct affairs.

We hope, nonetheless, that our “facts” (the word means “made” — as in artefactmanufacture or factory) correspond to the truth — or at least we should. The problem is we don’t take care to distinguish between “the facts of the matter” and “the truth that sets free”, and this, I believe, is the source of the epidemic of duplicity that Pope Francis has called attention to.

Bear in mind, again, what I’ve called “Khayyam’s Caution” which states: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. And there you will see the problem of reductionism and fundamentalism — they are concerned with images of the truth, which images are called “facts” and “definitions”. But the image or representation, in the form of the abstraction, has come to displace and overrule the reality and “the truth that sets free” it is only supposed to represent or symbolise. This bears on the problem we call “egoism”.

Of course, if you’ve been with the old Dark Age Blog or The Chrysalis for some time, you will know that I address myself to a complete range of such reductions or debasements of what we call “the higher values” (or “noble virtues”) into “lower values” (the “vulgar” or “ignoble”), and that this is the meaning of “decadence”, or the meaning of “the fall of the angels” and which is associated with exclusively sensate ways of being: assimilation confused with integration, productivity confused with creativity, uniformity confused with unity, and “mind” also confused with “awareness” equally. We might as well confuse gold with lead. And yet, false form and the true remain associated, even if divided also by the same “hair’s width” of delusion. That “hair”, as mentioned earlier, is also called “veil of Maya” or “Cloud of Unknowing”. In other words, it is nothing whatsoever. The seed of the infinite and eternal remains even in the false form. The false form is, in that sense, simply an error of perception and a misperception — a perversion, distortion or corruption of the true and the real. And for this reason some speak of the omnipresence of the Divine, even in the midst of “Hell” and samsaric existence, which is William Blake’s “Ulro dark“.

Do you understand the perfect irony of that “hair”? Similarly, what was it the kept Castaneda, initially, from entering “the other world”, as his teacher don Juan referred to it? A gnat. A tiny bug. Yet Castaneda experienced that tiny gnat as a 100 foot drooling monster that barred him from entering that “other world”, much to the great amusement of his teacher. The “integral consciousness” is all about dis-spelling. Dispelling that trancelike condition that sees a hair as a hundred foot drooling monster that blocks our attempts to overcome the boundaries of oneself and to transcend the human form, which is only a distorted self-understanding impressed upon us by the twin evils of reductionism and fundamentalism — the “nothing, but…” attitude that states that the human is “nothing but” a naked ape, or “nothing but” the body or “nothing but” a slave of fate and necessity. “Homo sapiens“, “homo faber“, “homo oeconomicus” — so many definitions of the human that are simply a continuous stream of “nothing buts…”.  If we feel limited and weak in relation to the cosmos, it is because we have made ourselves that way. But as Nietzsche says, “the human-all-too-human is something to be overcome”.

Contemporary reductionism and fundamentalism are the consequence of the narrowing of perspective consciousness now orbiting in circles around the tiny “point-of-view” and following “the line-of-thought”. The old model of the atom, as a tiny solar system, was, in effect, the image of that mind as it understood itself and projected it’s limited self-understanding in that form. For what we call “the outside” or objective is a perfect mirror and reflection of the “inside” or subjective. Cosmos and consciousness evolve together. As human self-understanding and consciousness changes, so does the shape of the Cosmos change. If you actually examine the various historical cosmologies — the picture of the cosmos at different times in human history — you will see it. The cosmos is ever a perfect replica of the self-understanding and consciousness structure of the human creature, even when it was not consciously known to be such. That’s what Nietzsche means by the “self” with does not “say I”, but which “does I”, and which is the distinction we are drawing between “will” and “intent” or intentionality. This distinction between the self that “says I” and that which “does I” (and therefore between willing and intending), parallels the distinction between “the facts of the matter” or “the truth that sets free”.  And this, additionally, marks the distinction between Max Stirner’s “egoistic individualism” and Nietzsche’s “free spirit”, which some have equally confused as being the same.

Let’s dive right in and take a couple of contemporary examples of how reductionism/fundamentalism has led to a distortion of reality and of human self-understanding equally — the contemporary issues of “non-locality” (or transluminal effect) and current thinking about time.

Non-locality, as you probably know, is the principle (largely confirmed by some clever experiments) that two particles originally associated, retain that association, and are in instantaneous and simultaneous contact and communication with each other, even though they may be at “opposite ends of the universe” (whatever or wherever that might be). In effect, that is the old hermetic principle of “affinity” which was earlier discarded by science as “magic”, ie, the sympathy of the whole. For that is what it means. It’s not just “two particles” that were associated at the Big Bang, was it? It was everything. Logically, therefore, and by definition, everything in the cosmos (including you) is in instantaneous and simultaneous contact and communication with everything else.  Of course, you can’t even begin to think of that complexity in any reasonable way. But it was already represented in the “mystical” image of Indra’s Net and in Buddhism 2500 years ago, or what is presently called “inter-being”. It’s beyond the mind’s capability to cognize or map such a inconceivably vast web of co-dependencies and such an infinity of variables, when the mind can only reason with two or three variables at a time!

That was precisely what was called “God” or “Supreme Being”, but which ended up as a distortion also. God is not “Supreme Being” because God is a superior being dwelling over and above a plentitude of “inferior” beings (in the plural), but because God was All-Being itself. “Supreme” did not mean, essentially, “over and above” all, but inclusive of all being — the unity of all Being itself — omnipresence.

Non-locality brings us to the issue of “time” and the meaning of “time”, for if everything is interconnected and inter-dependent across all spacetime, that raises the issue of whether space and time are illusory, or at least whether what we call “reality” doesn’t indeed rest upon or within the timeless and spaceless, the eternal and the infinite, or what has been called “the Great Nothing” or “the Void”.

You read in contemporary physics literature that there is no “universal Now” or “universal Present”. Instead, there are conceived to be an infinite number of “now points” or “now moments” and so the cosmos preserves a constant memory of itself in each of these “now moments”, and even probable futures in their own “now moments”. So, these “now moments” are innumerable. These innumerable “nows” are like atoms, then. And perhaps there is no greater fragmentation of the real than an infinitude of discrete “now moments” without a Universal “Now”. But that’s what we hear in listening to physicists discuss time, as in the CBC Ideas programme “Living on Oxford Time” (and it’s best to listen to it yourself).

A little thought will show that such a conception of time is quite incompatible with the principle of non-locality where everything is implicitly connected across all spacetime, inclusive of past and probable future states. This is somewhat what David Bohm refers to as “the Implicate Order” in his great book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. (and it’s wonderful that it’s available online).

It’s “Everything All The Time” in the Eternal “Now” as it were. But the mind isn’t capable of comprehending what is incomprehensible. It can only stand in mute awe before that incomprehensibility, yet to that incomprehensibility to which it also itself belongs essentially. Instead, it shrinks back into speaking merely of “two particles” or an aggregate totality of innumerable “now moments” adding up to… what?

Where does one draw a boundary or limit around a “now moment”? Is it a nonsecond? a second? a minute? an hour? That’s just the mind imposing definitions again where there really are none. In fact, why would “now” have any boundary or definition or limit at all? It’s just the mental-rational consciousness seeking to impose a definition upon something that essentially has no definition. What they should be saying in speaking of “now moments” (which all have this quality of “now”) is that anywhere you go in the cosmos, you are connected with and in the presence of the entire cosmos. That is to say, the physicists “now moment” is a hologramme of the Universal “Now”. In every part or “moment”, the whole is Presence in its entirety.  There is no boundary of time or space that would serve as a “definition”, which is why a “now moment” is so impossibly vague. But its a constant compulsion of analytical and reductive mind to divide, and divide, and divide and subdivide some more in order to try and gain mastery of the situation, ie, to become “masters and possessors of Nature”, as the old expression runs.

But, as they say “Nature bats last” and always will. But what we understand by the word “Nature” and our own self-understanding in consequence, has to change dramatically and drastically in light of the implications of all these recent discoveries.



10 responses to “Reductionism and Fundamentalism”

  1. donsalmon says :

    “The cosmos is ever a perfect replica of the self-understanding and consciousness structure of the human creature,”

    it is so telling, then, that our present image of the cosmos is an absolutely dead, meaningless, purposeless whirl of immaterial “something’ (physical – which nobody can define except “it’s whatever physicists say it is), that miraculously emerged out of nothingness, thorough some unintelligible combination of chance and mechanism ended up developing certain kinds of patterns of behavior, out of which “emerged” something we call living but is not essentially different from the dead physical “somethings’ before it, nor is the ‘consciousness” that “emerged” different either.

    What a frightening reflection of our reductionist, fundamentalist consciousness.

    I love Eddington’s explanation of abstraction in science. It’s embedded in this longer passage from our yoga psych book:

    Over the course of several centuries, this capacity for objectivity became more widespread, gradually becoming a predominant shaping force in society. At first, the new attitude of perspective-taking did not involve a denial of subjectivity, only an attempt to minimize its distorting influence. By the 19th century, science had gained a great deal of prestige due to the enormous success and pervasive influence of technology. As a result, the objective approach which had been so successful in the sciences was gradually applied to virtually all spheres of life. The view associated with this approach came to be known as “materialism” (or, more recently, “physicalism”) – the idea that the basis of everything that exists is purely objective matter and energy, devoid of consciousness or intelligence.
    Whereas the materialistic view had once been understood to be only one view among many, it gradually came to be seen as the best, and ultimately the only valid view. Philosopher Thomas Nagel coined the phrase “the view from nowhere” to describe the detached point of view which has come about as a result of the attempt to abstract all subjective factors from our understanding of the universe.

    Physicist and astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington provides us with a vivid illustration of how this process of abstraction works, by describing a typical problem one might encounter on a high school physics exam:

    The problem begins: ‘an elephant slides down a grassy hill-side…’ The experienced candidate knows that he need not pay much attention to this; it is only put in to give an impression of realism. He reads on: ‘The mass of the elephant is two tons.’ Now we are getting down to business; the elephant fades out of the problem and a mass of two tons takes its place. What exactly is this two tons, the real subject-matter of the problem?… Two tons is the reading of the pointer when the elephant was placed on a weighing-machine. Let us pass on. [The candidate continues in this way to abstract further measurements from the world of experience.] And so we see that the poetry fades out of the problem, and by the time the serious application of exact science begins we are left with only pointer readings.

    Any feelings about the elephant, how it looks or feels sliding down the hill, any interest the creature may take in the scenery it encounters along the way, have all effectively been eliminated from the calculation. The view from nowhere is an attempt to describe the world without subjective distortion. However, with the subject or viewer eliminated, the world can have no qualities. That is to say, it can be neither friendly nor unfriendly, kind nor cruel, moral nor immoral – as these are values requiring a point of view. Thus we are left with a world of quantity – Eddington’s pointer-readings.

    The “view from nowhere” – viewing the world in terms of what can be measured – is not in itself problematic. What makes it a problem is the added attitude that only that which can be measured is real. As some economists put it, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.” In the attempt to avoid bias and subjectivity, modern thought is in danger of eliminating the subject altogether.

    The effect of the view from nowhere in the field of psychological science has been to make human experience – which cannot be easily measured – an inexplicable mystery. The very existence of consciousness and free will has become a matter of widespread dispute. This development is of more than purely intellectual concern. Because our view shapes the way we think and feel and act, it has far reaching consequences for the kind of society we create. One of the consequences of ignoring the subjective element can be seen in the misuse of cost-benefit analysis. Such misuse allows us to pursue a particular political or economic goal without taking into consideration the number of people who may get sick, injured or die, as long as the material benefit outweighs the cost. We may destroy whole species of wildlife and vast stretches of forested land, but if the economic gain is seen to justify the cost, we consider the destruction merely collateral damage.

    The denial of the importance of subjective experience in the economic and environmental spheres reflects a deeper split within our psyche. To the extent we are cut off from the part of ourselves that connects us to other people, animals and the greater physical universe, we are deprived of those aspects of our experience that have always been the source of joy, beauty, meaning and purpose. We live our lives unnourished by the feelings, insight and creative imagination that have their roots in subjective experience. Our world, our lives, are deprived of their deeper meaning and value. It is not surprising then that we have come to see the universe as having arisen through a meaningless process of random physical occurrences, indifferent to our hopes and dreams as well as our pain and suffering. Basing our actions on a view that does not take the subject into account, we create a world in which no subject would wish to live.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes, I recollect reading that passage about Eddington’s views in your book, which I’m still in the process of reading along with Krishna Prem’s Initiation into Yoga (a very interesting book). I’ll be taking both along with me when I leave for my biannual trip to the West Coast next week.

      Eddington’s name keeps cropping up lately in all sorts of different contexts. Maybe I’m being nudged to read him by the Nudger.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    It occurs to me, this morning, that probably one way to understand the physicist’s “now moments” is like the single frames of a moving picture. At least, that’s the only way I can conceive of it. “Cosmos: the Movie”, as it were. And perhaps film is the technology that influenced or insinuated itself into their thinking about time and the “now” in that way. But such a metaphor or analogy has its limits.

    To my mind, the only reasonable way to think of such “now points” or “now moments” would be in terms of a hologramme, and not the frames of a moving picture.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    A timely, illuminating, and an even necessary essay, given the very fragmented times in which we live.

    This movement of things from “the whole” into “a sum of particulars” is itself a sign of weakening Man. He has become incapable of understanding the true nature of reality because of His increasing “egoistic individualism.”

    I began to understand that point when I thought of a selfish person; i.e. someone who sees mostly himself and is without empathy or any listening skills. Now, that’s a very small world to live in. But that’s exactly where Man has headed since the descent from Heaven – or more symbolically, since Adam bit the apple and felt himself “naked.” Before then, he saw himself in the unity of things and nakedness was a notion that did not exist in his mind even as a concept.

    Existence is an extremely interesting phenomenon. Time, old age, and “loss” of any kind exist because we have not really figured out what this phenomenon really is or how it works.

    But this mystery is exactly what motivates many to reach beyond themselves. As you have mentioned it before and I paraphrase: “The question is the answer.”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for the comment. I’m presently in Vancouver, and with access only to a very inadequate computer with a crazy keyboard. Yes, seems we can also model our own neurosis and insanity in a computer as much as “intelligence”. It’s a Sony Viao, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a neurotic computer.

      It’s quite disturbing to think that AI might also model the possibility of paranoid schizophrenia in a computer or even symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. Remember HAL from the movie?

      In any case, I’m tempted to post something while I’m here… some observations made during my long drive out here… but it would be frustrating struggling with this computer to make it see sense.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Hey, Chief, not a problem, take your time……..:) I’m actually trying to catch up during your brief hiatus online 🙂

        LOL……my laptop is a Sony VIAO 🙂 I’ve been using this computer for a little over five years now, and I’d give it a C+ 🙂

        My previous laptop was an HP and I’d give that one a D+ 🙂

        Oh, yes, I do remember HAL. They had chosen an excellent “voice” for HAL in that movie and every time it said “Dave……” very coolly, I would nearly drop off my couch from laughing. 🙂

        Vancouver, B.C., eh? O’ dear, that’s a long drive from Saskatchewan. I’ve heard it’s “the most beautiful city in the world,” and the pictures online seem to verify that that’s probably true. I hope you enjoy your stay there.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          By the way, the number one problem I’ve been having with my Sony VIAO has been the “display driver” crashing and recovering.

          I’ve already had the “display driver” replaced once (about 18 months after I purchased the laptop) while the laptop was still under warranty. But then again, about a couple of years after replacing the “display driver,” I began to have problems with it again. Whenever my “display driver” crashes (which is dozens of times now), I’ll have to close the browser and re-launch it again. Soon, I’ll have to replace this laptop. I know it.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Vancouver, B.C., eh? O’ dear, that’s a long drive from Saskatchewan. I’ve heard it’s “the most beautiful city in the world,” and the pictures online seem to verify that that’s probably true. I hope you enjoy your stay there.

          It’s splendor is matched only by its ostentation. It used to called “Lotusland”, but now it’s just harried, manic, frenzied — everybody trying to chase down a dollar so they can buy their little bit o’ Paradise in a Big Hurry. And, of course, they rush right by it. Really amazing.

          • LittleBigMan says :

            “……everybody trying to chase down a dollar so they can buy their little bit o’ Paradise in a Big Hurry. And, of course, they rush right by it. Really amazing.”

            An insightful remark that jibes very much with what Henry Thoreau observed in his time. Here’s an excerpt from his Walden, from the chapter called “Where I lived and What I lived for,” page 82:

            “The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it.”

            All this forgetfulness about what’s truly important in life is pretty much a repeat of Columbus’ landing on the shores of South America, where and when the real treasures – the native peoples – were staring Columbus and his crew right in the face, but he and his crew looked right past them searching for some other treasure they can put in their pocket. Same ‘ol, same ‘ol.

            While I quoted Thoreau, let me quote him on the subject of “infinity,” too. This quote is from the same chapter, page 93:

            “In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here.”

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