Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Belief in Reason Is Not Itself Rational

A family member e-mailed me a rebuttal to my last post's review of Roderick Tweedy's The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation. Specifically the e-mail criticized a quote from William Blake, "Nothing is displeasing to God but Unbelief & Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil", instead, arguing that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao committed enormous evil, and that "these were not the acts of reasonable men.  These were the acts of men trying to be creative without regard to other human beings."

Here is my reply:

William Blake’s last book was “Illsutrations to the Book of Job.” In one drawing he depicts God showing Job the creatures Behemoth and Leviathan, and quotes Job 40:15 “Behold now behemoth; He is the chief of the ways of God” and 41:34 “Leviathan is a king over all the children of pride.”

Were the atrocities committed by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao more the result of the individual evil within those men, or of the vast, impersonal “Behemoths and Leviathans” that in our age are growing out of control?
I need to be more clear in my review (of The God of the Left Hemisphere). It is not reason that is the problem. It is rationalization--reason abstracted from its physical context. Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were far from reasonable, but, as I will try to explain, they truly believed themselves to be, and that is precisely the problem.

There’s an amazing TED talk given by Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor, who suffered a stroke that temporarily disabled the left hemisphere of her brain. The book quotes her talk:
“when I experienced the hemorrhage and lost my left hemisphere language center cells that defined my self, those cells could no longer inhibit the cells in my right mind. As a result, I have gained a clear delineation of the two very distinct characters cohabiting my cranium” (JBT, p. 133). As we have seen, she describes the “character” of her right brain in very different terms from that of the left-brain “self”: “at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world” (ibid., p. 133). It is interesting that Bolte Taylor speaks of the left-brain self as “inhibiting” this other, primary sense of self. McGilchrist has noted that much of the evolutionary strategy pursued by the left hemisphere has been based on a form of hindering or “handicapping” of right-brain processes: “left hemisphere superiority is based, not on a leap forward by the left hemisphere, but on a ‘deliberate’ handicapping of the right” (M&E, p. 132).”

The book quotes psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, “Only the right-hemisphere can deliver real, three-dimensional and embodied ‘value’ to us, to our lives, and without this sense of value, all the processes run by our logical faculties, however ‘splendid’, will partake of a curious lifelessness and dissociation.”  Cut off from this right-hemisphere value, the left-hemisphere rational programs are left to operate with no values left except those of the ego. The ego becomes the default "value center." The individual may not be at first aware of this, and for a time may fervently believe that they are acting morally. Whereas some may eventually realize their lostness and look outside themselves for answers, admitting such mistakes would be political suicide, so individuals such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao have strong motivations to repress any doubt they have about their moral faultlessness, and continue to preach the party lines.

Blake equates this rationalizing process with the construction of a chapel in place of a garden.
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 & desires.

Back to evil, it’s easy to see the evil in others, but as Plato pointed out, impossible to identify within in our present selves.
I think it’s important for groups not to take Blake’s (or anyone's) words as infallible. There’s a reason that Jesus never wrote anything himself, I think, because he intuitively understood that writing lends itself to being taken out of context, and thus transformed from liberating to oppressive. That is what he meant when he says, “I have come to fulfill the law, not abolish it.” If the law were abolished, new laws would quickly fill in the void. Jesus was calling for a reorientation towards law. A fulfilled law is one that nourishes people's peaceful, joyful, creative faculties, not restricts them. Despite this, churches today make the same error as the pharisees, taking law out of context, and treating it as infallible. It is exactly that left-hemispheric program that takes laws and twists them for egoic pursuits (building cathedrals over gardens) that Jesus identifies and condemns in the Pharisees.

Blake wrote,
“Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. [What they call] Good is the passive that obeys Reason[.] [What they call] Evil is the active springing from Energy.”

So for Blake, evil is just a “left-brained label” that condemns anything that operates outside of the system of laws that Urizen upholds as reality. For Blake, it’s not God that condemns Evil, but Satan, disguising himself as the Holy Reasoning Spectre. Thus, Blake’s quote, “Satan thinks that Sin is displeasing to God; he ought to know that Nothing is displeasing to God but Unbelief & Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil.”

I agree with you that this is a simplification of the problem. However, I feel that it is a simplification that is true within the specificity of our historical era. Another of my favorite writers, Wolfgang Giegerich writes:
“The good-evil opposition is by no means a Universal, an eternal and inevitable theme for the soul to struggle with. It is relative to a distinct stage in the history of the soul, and it existed in this stage not for its own sake (as an eminent truth), but only for a psychological purpose and as one extremely important and powerful instrument for the further development of consciousness out of and beyond its mythological-ritualistic stage. But this instrument has done its job. The development it was supposed to bring about has already been fully accomplished long ago. There is nothing more for it to do, and the soul is now somewhere else and confronted with truly other tasks.” [In other sections Giegerich explains that general statements such as this are directed to the norms and projects (the major one being profit maximization) that our age establishes. Individual persons are often exceptions to these general norms and projects, so good-evil opposition might still be highly relevant to many on an individual level today.]

Quoting one last passage from the book:
As Tolle observes, judging is one of the most fundamental processes of the egoic rational mind, one of its deepest programs. “Making yourself right and others wrong is one of the principal egoic mind patterns, one of the main forms of unconsciousness” (Tolle, 2005, p. 44). Such judgments strengthen the ego “by giving it a feeling of superiority on which it thrives” (ibid., p. 66). To cease to judge is immediately to liberate the mind, but the processes of judging have become so engrained and entwined within the human brain that this is neither a straightforward nor an easy act. Tolle notes that “if you stop investing it with ‘selfness,’ the mind loses its compulsive quality, which basically is the compulsion to judge, and so to resist what is, which creates conflict, drama, and new pain. In fact, the moment that judgment stops through acceptance of what is, you are free of the mind” (Tolle, 1999, p. 128). The “moment that judgment stops” is exactly what Blake means by “Last Judgment”.
“I do not consider either the Just or the Wicked,” Blake notes, “to be in a Supreme State but to be every one of them States of the Sleep which the Soul may fall into in its Deadly Dreams of Good & Evil”

The point I’ve gotten from my readings is that it is essential to not stop thinking. I am as guilty of this as anyone. At my job grading standardized tests, I found at first I would actually get better statistics when I had not gotten a full night’s sleep, because I would grade in a more mechanical way that the rubric called for. (I eventually adjusted by simply taking longer “thoughts breaks” so I wouldn’t overthink the essays I was reading.) I’ll close with another Giegerich quote:

"[Profit maximization] needs us, needs our heart, our feeling, our imaginative attention and rigorous thinking effort so as to have a chance to become instilled with mind, with feeling, with soul. It must not be left as something that happens totally outside of us and apart from our consciousness. It must, as it were, be reborn through the soul and in the soul." 

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