Thursday, 30 September 2010

What is Spirit? An entry level set of definitions..

This post originally entitled 'Getting into the Spirit of Things' was written for (more vomited upon) a naturalistic pagan audience i.e. folk who deny the supernatural ( But even for these most skeptical of people, 'Spirit' can have meaning. A naturalistic spirituality is my 'default' option when all else is doubted (I don't seem to have a 'no-spirituality' option in my psyche)

A very long post about the meaning of 'Spirit' - possibly nonsense - that I splurted out some time ago, re edited many times and regurgitated here, for the purely selfish reason that I needed to get it out of my head.

Religious people see spirits everywhere. Spirit is what sprites, faery folk, magical beings of all kinds, angels and gods are allegedly made of/are by nature 'Spirit' beings: But whatever do they mean? - Spirit seems to be some kind of invisible, incorporeal and intangible stuff or force apparently. Religious people almost never define it or insist it is undefinable, even describeably indescribable. Naturalists have a problem with talking about Spirit. On the face of it, naturalists don't believe in spirit or spirits, though even atheists can apparently have a spirituality according to the precepts of Caer Abred.

As it happens i believe in Spirit, in everything, through everything, encompassing everything and so each particular thing has spirit too. The term covers a lot of ground. It is a handy term for the nature-mystic for discussing matters of personal contemplation and enjoyment. I'd venture even to try to define what it represents to me, using three key ideas - being, life and consciousness - which terms I hope even the most ardent anti-supernaturalist can find some connection with.

Firstly Spirit for me is 'being' or 'essence' or 'is-ness'. I am refering to the surprising and mysterious quality of anything, any-thing, as being something, here and now, rather than nothing. Being, in the philosphical sense, seems to imply we have something left when a concept has been analysed to almost nothing, stripped of all its particular qualities, before form and even substance come into it... not the phenomena we experience, something even philosophers elusive (blame the philosopher Immanuel Kant for he coined the idea) called the 'thing-in-itself'; Yet spirit understood as being is not just emptiness or an empty concept - paradoxically spirit signifies plenitude too. The indefinable, unique essence and special nature of something is above and above the sum of all its qualities and relations. The spirit of something, as well as the Being of something is perhaps then, its holistic quality ('more than the sum of its parts').

Pagans think nature is sacred, and when it comes to creating a pagan ethics some believe this means all living things and nature generally, should be allowed to enjoy and fulfill their existence with minimal threat or interference from mankind. If ethics is about the practical wisdom and steps needed to realise certain values (e.g liberty, happiness) then a pagan nature ethics starts with the premise that nature has 'inherent' value (in contrast an eco-belief/ethic that involves just the principle of 'sustainability' is not about inherent value but, if you think about it, really about human needs only).

What we mean by 'inherent' value is difficult to pinpoint, without eventually bringing the discussion back again to meanings that human's seem to want to project into nature. It might be easier to talk of aesthetic value and take the view that somehow this may be independent of our subjective judgement, and the human beholder; Certainly by the way language is used the notion of the 'spirit of something' seems to be indicative of its aesthetic quality - an ability to provoke a meaningful emotional response,

We look at anything out there in the world and our minds apply a whole set of personal meanings to the object particularly if it is something we fear or desire. So we really mean perhaps by the spirit of something, whatever significance that thing has for us personally, our 'feelings' and 'reaction' to a thing and our connection to it. And it is notable that we are more inclined to find 'spirits' present where there is some, strange, special or unusual feature of the environment and nature - rarely, on our culture do we react in this way to man-made, uniform or highly common place objects that we might pick up in the supermarket. Some objects and particularly parts of nature create suprise, awe and wonder in the human mind.

Which might lead us to think that any talk of 'spirit' is after all not about something 'out there' and inherent, but 'merely' about how our minds and emotions respond to the world and try to understand and relate to it, prior to rationalisation and analysis. Still I don't agree it is 'merely' our culturally conditioned perception that counts. I am you see, a little wedded still to there being 'inherent' value in nature, that is not just my projection upon nature of what I'd like to see there.

So under the category of Spirit as 'being', the idea can be further unpackaged as something's essence, holistic quality, inherent value and aescetic appeal.

Secondly, Spirit is for me about whatever evidences an object's life and by extension, an object's vitality/energy/power. Life involves at its most basic the ability to self-move (internally or externally) or processes and cycles within organic chemical structures, and particularly the ability of these structures to generate and regenerate from itself more life.

The Latin word 'animus' that is translated usually as 'spirit' provides us with our verbal classification of 'animate' and 'inanimate' objects. We don't usually have much problem identifying the living from the non-living, though we might have difficult pinpointing exactly what is 'lacking' or not present when life has ceased. A recently dead human body may look like a 'waxwork' copy compared to the animated living person we knew so well. . It is easy to see why our ancestors believed something had 'left' the body upon death, something literally vital, the animating principle or force.

The ancients/ ancestors variously imagined the spirit as vital principle, and something contained in the breath, in blood, or anatomically, having its place in the heart or in the head. Scientifically we look at the cells and see that non living things don't appear to be undergoing the same chemical reactions and processes and interactions with their environment, in particular multiplying and dividing . In some circumstances and viewed of course from the molecular, ultra fine viewpoint- such as found in the original primeval 'soup' - the distinction between living and non living things is very blurred. And so it seems eventually science wil show in detail how life arose from the 'inanimate'. The non naturalistic alternative is that life proccesses come from an external creative or generative source of life, because there is this eternal life enjoyed by the gods, somehow, somewhere..

A pagan and/or naturalist will really get a buzz from the vitality of nature, but in my case that extends beyond what is conventionally understood as animate, life forms ( like birds, and trees) to include the exciting natural 'inanimate' stuff such as waves on the sea, wind and thunder and lightning. Here I guess I am emotionally responding to what is basically the power/ energy /physical forces involved in the ocean and the atmosphere. Its a thrill if there is a slight danger of harm and the unexpected..there is probably some naturally selected instinctive reason for my fascination. Paying attention to stuff like that is brought a good survival strategy.

At the most fundamental level of existence we are all 'energy' and any change from nothing happening to something happening is due it seems to the transfers of energy within physical systems. These flows are the basis of living and non-living processes . And here I mean energy as described by physics not some imaginary force. So perhaps sometimes for 'spirit', we really do mean this kind of real physical 'energy', and in particular those non-linear (chaotic) patterns of energetic change found so much in nature. We don't see it of course, but there is a real sense in which we can all be described, in terms of the fundamental stuff out of which we are 'made', as simply 'patterns of energy'...poetically we are processes, unsolid objects, and in the scheme of things, we come to be and disappear, so I say poetically that we are 'ripples on the ocean of being ' or if you like, a complex of unusually persistent quantum fluctuations. And now modern science suggest that some beautiful pattern-states appear to be self-organising as well as naturally selected, with their 'great attractors' suggesting a strange kind of implicit order hidden behind the seemingly random... well, I just think that the more science advances, the stranger, the more counter-intuitive the vitality of the world appears. And then I just have to use the 'Spirit' word again.

So under the category of understanding 'Spirit' as life, this can be unpackaged further to suggest Spirit means vitality, biological activity, whatever distinguishes what is living from the dead, physical energy, and even the fundamental energy patterns of the universe.

Finally, spirit is a synonym for mind or consciousness as distinct from other bodily processes. Today this is often just a linguistic convention, while others hold to a strict dualism - i.e dualists believe mind/spirit and body/matter are distinct. Such dualism is very philosophicaly difficult to defend in the light of modern science and has unpleasant conceptual consequences and even ethical consequences because it may mean we devalue the physical in the natural world.

Naturalists don't believe consciousness exists without bodies, and generally they also think consciousness is confined to complex neural networks - brains. Naturalism's underlying materialistic philosophy rules out disembodied persons,life after death and probably, animism. However we don't fully understand even human consciousness, particular the subjective sense of 'I', and self awareness. No amount of scientific experimentation of a human brain will find the 'self'. We do have a very good idea about how mental function is tied to physical brain states though and drastically affected by drugs, lack of oxygen, illness and brain damage. Stimulation of the brain can result in (artificially created) conscious experiences. Certainly without a healthy brain, we can't have a fully functioning mind.

We cannot be sure though what physical conditions and level of complexity - higher animal, insect, tree?, ecosystem? - are needed for at least some form of 'self awareness'.We think we know that, trees for instance can't be self aware, but how do we test this?. Indeed how can we test any hypothesis about self awareness that does not rely on purely human expectations of what evidences consciousness, which is question begging. But why should consciousness necessarily be demonstrated only where there is a (human form of) logic, concepts and language?. But this may not be so for other creatures.... So the mystery of where in the evolutionary tree of life consciousness arises continues, and while we shouldn't 'argue from ignorance' and speculate, of course I do anyway in this way: what if consciousness may be not epiphenomenal but fundamental to the universe, along with, say energy, and space-time. Of course this is not something we can prove at all - at present.

A little aside here - one concept I don't really understand is how a fundmentally physical process - the creation of particles - is somehow related tp consciousness I am referring to how the measurement action of the observer is ' needed' to 'collapse the wave function' transforming the indefinite blur of energy governed by the uncertainty principle into definite particles and patterns of the macroscopic universe . The question remains persistent even in intellectual circles, while in New Age and Fluffy Bunny world, there any many garbled and pseudo scientific accounts of quantum physics that claim that the role of the observer - i.e. the role of consciousness - in quantum processes, also proves the world creating power of the mind. Usually, like me, they lack an understanding of the science. So I move swiftly on at this point.

I can at least say that I am conscious now from birth to death, but my mind is not quite my own. My everyday self is captive to something more basic. My self is driven here and there by unconscious forces, the primal instincts, desire and aversion, creating patterns of behaviour I can't shift out of. And oh, yes, I believe in the theory of Jungian archetypes, and symbols inherited from my culture and perhaps from some 'collective unconscious'. The archetypes are contentless, potentialities and repeating patterns until given a final shape in a given culture, and these actualised forms are found in all our great symbols, myths and embodied in our images/ideas about our gods. As gods our religion does poetic justice at least to the (subjective) power of archetypes - our relations with gods and archetypes can come to bless and curse us individually.

And I also wonder about spirit as consciousness when I sleep - perchance to dream. In between dreaming, there is deep sleep, and in case we are inclined to believe in a body independent self and imagine still that we have a permanent mind, then the mere fact we can daily be unconscious while the body continues surely demonstrates that the self 'comes and goes' with physical need. My consciousness when awake is like the ripples on an otherwise still pool. or the other metaphor, after William James, described the 'stream of consciousness or thought'; the metaphor implies something that is totally unstable, mutuable. It involves the arising and disappearing of myriad and successive images and concepts flickering on the 'screen' of the 'mind's eye'... (perhaps thats too many mixed metaphors). Anway the external 'observer' of the process turns out to be an illusion - perhaps. A whole religion, Buddhism, involves a fundamental analysis of our stream of consciousness and concludes there is 'no self', just the process. As the 'self' is never stable, it is never the same even from moment to moment. And where is it? Where in the head? It appears to be literally no-where, but my entire individual life that is my self, that I value so much, this ' has no scientific reference point, and the self is not so obviously rooted in either space or even time...

I analyse and I only find in my conscious mind a desire for happiness and a will to be, to create, to make a difference (whatever desire and will are at base I'm not sure - surges of neural transmitters/pulse?).The mind's content without which it seems to be an empty set, is turning on and off - dying - even more rapidly than our physical cells, yet we persist with de facto stability, rather than complete descent into incoherent mental madness - at least most of the time.

Most of all we tend to want to believe, that though the content of the mind is vapid, unstable,constantly flowing and changing, that some form of memory or at least our self awareness and identity might persist beyond one physical form and biological life. Any continued existence post mortem would have to be an extension of the process, the stream, if there is no permanent self - so if every mental-physical 'effect' must arise from the proceeding 'cause', can an effect extend to a new incarnation, a new body by some unknown transfer of what? Energy? Information? Formative Causation? Interestingly reincarnation is not really any kind of break or alternation in what is already going on in the mind of the living person, at least from the point of view of the stream of consciousness. The same propogating ripple of awareness, driven it seems by desire, creates our mental existence and somehow, subjectively speaking, a stable identity - so all that is required is some, obviously unknown force or process, to allow that stream of consciousness to move from one form of embodient to another. In fact no 'thing' has to transfer only for there to be a causal process, one mental life the 'effect' of a 'cause' in a previous mental existence. Though down through the ages a perhaps delusional wish and hope for an afterlife make us willing to accept any goobledegook, the scientifically supported notion that the consciousness is not a thing or substance, but the result of a dynamic process, had already been discovered by Buddhists over two thousand years ago.

Okay, so we have also looked at Spirit under the category of consciousness and found that the word 'Spirit' is most often used to describe human mind and self awareness, while we have no strong reason to rule out such mind extending to beings we would not normally imagine to be self aware; We do find that consciousness is brain dependent for manifestation of mental life, consciousness is not stable, and the process view of mind is compatible with one ancient religion's view of afterlife, and their notions of 'reincarnation'.

So are we now closer to some definitions for 'Spirit' that even a naturalist druid might appreciate? I think so....

Spirit is -
Being, Life, and Consciousness


unique quality
inherent value
awe and wonder inspiring
aesthetic affect
bio-physical energy
fundamental patterns of energy
dynamic thought stream process

This of couse is a minimalist account of Spirit, for the skeptical unbeliever. For mystics, lets just say it is the 'entry level'..... :)

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Pretty Poly..

Recently, I took a diversion into polytheism. Yes, thats right, I began to think in terms of many Gods. I still believed in some absolute ground of being and unity, but thought divinty could have a plural manifestation. So i said 'one in essence and many in existence'.

The biggest obstacle to acceptance of polytheism - assuming we accept any God at all, which is of course itself hugely problematic - is the theist's insistence upon divine omnipotence. Eventually this obstacle was not such a problem for me, because I didn't believe the divine was omnipotent in the sense of 'able to do absolutely anything'. (I didn't believe this because it made the problem of evil insoluble) If we accept that God must be omnipotent however, there could only be one omnipotent being. But omnipotence can be qualified to not include the logical impossibility of one omnipotent thwarting another omnipotent being. Either my considering that in the case of any conflict omnipotent beings must reach a stalemate or perhaps we can imagine that omnipotent beings may not have contrary wills - as one might expect from beings which are also defined as 'perfectly good'.

The only polytheistic tradition in the West that is well documented with an extant and extensive authentic literary tradition, is that of Ancient Rome and Greece. Some of the images of the divine gods of the Classical period are 'vital', 'dynamic' and aesthetically pleasing. However much of the mythic material is hugely problematic for me - the Gods are capricious, unethical and involved in intrigue and love affairs. The myth can be of course be interpreted as allegory. Certainly the Classical Philosophers were embarassed by the myths about the gods and sort to read them in a way that reflected that philosophical concerns.

However in the last week, two more corrosive problems have troubled me. Firstly, the fact that the Classical Gods could be 'defeated' for 1000 years by the monotheists. Where did the Gods go? There may be an answer here, that the Gods turned their back and allowed ignorance because of impiety or because of a cycle of the ages reaching it's nadir.

Secondly, it is apparent that the Gods' characters are not static. The ideas about the God's natures change. New Gods are imported, old God's relegated in popular piety and the change reflected in myths of one generation of God's usurping an older generation. And the are more than one polytheistic pantheon we can worship. I realised that polytheism does not solve some of the cardinal problems of theism viz

* Why God's do not intervene, at least to protect their devotees.
* Why are God's 'silent' for centuries
* How do we deal with unpalatable and unpleasant characterisations of Gods found in myths and ancient stories
* How do we resolve/tolerate religious pluralism

The problem of multiple pantheons - each culture having its own gods in other words - did not seem to cause a problem for Roman religion. But treating Foreign Gods as aspects of one's own Gods, or as the same Gods by different names, or adding them on to the existing pantheon, actually begins to undermine the notion that the gods are independent, distinct beings. Hard Polytheism cannot account for multiple pantheons. It might think that practically the problem is avoided by toleration, however intellectually, this does not satisfy. The problem of religious pluralism is most easily solved by a 'soft polytheism' where the gods are really manifestations of a single deity or a God and Goddess.

Something else I found intrigueing was that in various polytheisms - Celtic, Greek, Indian and Taoist, there are notions of a 'Triad' of gods or at least a belief in the Threefold nature of the divine. Of course the Christian Trinity could be added to the list. However it is not at all apparent that all these very different religious cultures influenced each other directly. It is rather as if the Threefold nature of the divine is almost from some primitive ur-religion or archetypal, taking some peculiar character though in each culture.

I am moving quickly now to believing in one supreme ineffable deity, manfiest in threefold nature, the 'gods' are theophanies or the personification of divine attributes and actions. This God is not from any particular tradition, I would rather tap the archetypal notions.