I planned to post a piece about RAW’s critique of Plato’s metaphysics, but I think that needs a bit more “work” before I press the PUBLISH button. So, in the meantime, I’ll fill some space with an impromptu journal about RAW’s model agnosticism. It’s a one-take, off-top-of-my-head “pixel-spill”, so please don’t judge severely…
When I was at school, the sister of one of my friends had a really bad time, verging on “breakdown” (I was told) – but then she had some kind of “born again Christian” experience, which seemed to “cure” her (to the extent that she appeared happy, confident, etc, again).
Fast forward a few years: (circa 1980) I’m an undergraduate at Bristol University, where several cults hang out, trying to recruit students – Moonies, and a couple of newer “psychological” cults, etc. (One of my flatmates allowed a young “Hare Krishna” convert, who was halfway through an extended vow of silence, to sleep on the sofa in our living room for a few weeks. He communicated with us by notepad, illustrated by strange dreamlike doodles of angels).
I’d noticed, by that point, that most of these “true believers” (the ones I encountered) displayed a kind of happiness, and also seemed to emanate a “superior” sort of “serenity” or “certainty” which apparently gave them comfort. I felt a bit jealous, as I intuited that I didn’t have the “right” mentality to become a “believer”. This seemed a disadvantage to me at the time (this was a few years before I discovered RAW’s books). In some ways it still seems a disadvantage.
[To digress somewhat (feel free to skip): why the “wrong” mentality to become a believer? Well, to give an example, an attractive older woman at a party chatted me up before inviting me to one of the “events” that a “psychological” cult (that she belonged to) used to recruit students. She had, I thought, the “true believer” superiority mixed with sexiness and other-worldliness. So, I agreed to go along the next evening, out of, y’know, curiosity. I recall mentioning this to a couple of fellow architecture students in the university studio the next day, and jokingly asking if they knew where I could obtain a live goat at short notice, as I was supposed to take one along. They found that quite amusing, but I don’t think the creepy, sanctimonious alpha-male who (it turned out) led the cult recruitment event found it so amusing.]
If you listen to the really nice clip of RAW, below, (talking about why his “favourite religion” is Shinran Buddhism), you’ll see why not having a “believer” mentality can seem a disadvantage. You just can’t manage “true faith”! (post continues below video).
‘There are some people always asking questions, never satisfied, always asking the next question, always a little bit sceptical. I’m one of them. And we just can’t manage true faith – we’re always wondering, maybe there’s an alternative, maybe there’s another way of looking at it.’RAW on Shinran Buddhism
As explained in the clip, Shinran Buddhism doesn’t require “true faith”, which is why RAW claims to like it. I don’t know much about Shinran Buddhism (even its Wikipedia entry seems over my head), but do you notice the paradox/irony in the notion (belief) that you will be saved by repetition of those words (mentioned in the clip) whether or not you have true faith about that!
The “reality selection” notion, as nicely illustrated by the cartoon in Prometheus Rising (arcade machine: “New Realities 25c – Crawl In”) probably has, as well as its philosophical implications, a lot of modern “consumer” type appeal. On that level it might make more sense to someone in relatively good health/circumstance – ie not in a life-threatening, or otherwise horrible, situation that practically limits one’s “reality selection” options, even in imagination.
On that level it would seem that people in dire situations might prefer something more “solid” and “certain” to lean on, to comfort them (this seems the selling point on many signs I see outside Christian churches – of which there are scores in my local region of north Wales). And those cults I encountered in my student days weren’t offering epistemological relativism! (A few of them offered quite convincing deconstructions of “respectable middle-class society” – but of course they stopped short of deconstructing their own dogmatic alternatives).
Whether it’s religions or cults, or New Age type affirmations, or RAW’s suggested positive metaprograms, or weird occult notions, or sophisticated nondual takes on Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, etc, one sometimes gets to a point where it seems: “It would work better if I actually believed it as much as I apparently still believe in more conventional, everyday notions”.
Greg Goode, an author I like, who has a sophisticated take on a radical form of “direct path” Advaita Vedanta (which at times looks indistinguishable to me from the “emptiness” “nondual” types of Buddhist teaching) calls this tendency “the reality effect” – the difficulty of dropping the implicit sense of the “objective reality of things”, and the accompanying beliefs about it that cause suffering.
Optimistic outlooks (beliefs) seem to work better when you feel sufficiently convinced by them (to state what probably seems obvious). I recall RAW framing pessimism as a luxury one can’t afford in bad times, because it makes the evidently bad seem unbearable. So one invests in optimism (or tries to), which certainly seems to have a “belief” element.
I’ve generally adopted two approaches to this conundrum. Taken together, I see them as Agnosticism’s gift of “grace”, which I think surpasses that of True Believerdom:
- De-burden myself of the all-inclusive category/belief. The all-inclusive category (the ultimate generalisation of generalisations, as it were) seems a foundation of the Aristotelian metaphysics that RAW critiques throughout his work. The notion of a “top-level” (ultimate) “objective” reality or existence/being “out there” (so to speak) – if all “real” things fall under this category, then beliefs “about” it must extend to all those “real” things, and must be consistent with “reality as it is”. And not inconsistent – ie right, not wrong.
(cf: that bit from RAW about his own approach, transactionalism, not being “the solipsist pole of the Aristotelian-solipsist either/or” – see RAW’s Dangerous Dave’s letter quote.* See also the cognitive linguists’ take on the all-inclusive category).
The problem with that in practical terms (in the current context): one can feel uneasy (or unconvinced) applying different – and mutually inconsistent – “metaprograms” (top-level beliefs, say) in different spheres of one’s life. “There must be top-level consistency!”, you imagine. You want to pay your bills on time and counter those QAnon Covid conspiracy theorists (or whoever, or whatever) with good, rational science, but you want to “entertain” some pretty radical notions that relieve your existential suffering, and which seem totally inconsistent with those conventional science and commonsense beliefs. Model agnosticism thus seems a good idea – but remember not to hold the all-inclusive category/belief exempt from that agnosticism. Different songs for different contexts.
- Using a thorn to remove a thorn. A metaphor for different (and perhaps mutually inconsistent) beliefs or metaprograms. Given the above, one feels okay throwing away both thorns after they’ve done their job. Just models, after all, not all-inclusive Truths.
The idea that because you negate fixed, absolute notions of meaning, purpose, direction, etc (ie seemingly in line with some of the above) that it follows that you should accept absolute meaninglessness, purposelessness, directionlessness, etc (ie a misunderstanding – still “stuck” in the original dichotomy).
I don’t think I’ve described any of that too well. Okay, never mind – no editing here, press PUBLISH.
*Note (6 Nov 2021): actually I did go back and edit a few things after publishing – see comment below.