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 artefact, manufacture 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.