Comments on “The New Age: appeal and limits”

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"What I write in this page is

Kate Gowen's picture

“What I write in this page is impressionistic, and unsupported by any specific evidence. This may be dangerously careless. On the other hand, I am not really interested in the New Age for its own sake. Instead, my goal here is to differentiate it from what I take to be its successor, what I am calling ‘contemporary pop spirituality,’ about which I’ll say much more later.”

You HAVE made rather a large, indiscriminate lump of things here, David; I will be interested in seeing to what rhetorical purpose. Myself, I see important distinctions between the ‘energy channels’ mapped in service of the practice of Asian traditional medicine and being guided by channeled Angelic / UFO / Atlantean spirit voices– for instance.

Slotting them together has more to do with philosophical analytical tidiness than with more empirical questions of how they function in practice, it seems to me. [I may sound as if I fear an ox of mine has been hit at least by the picador, if not the matador.]

An indiscriminate lumping

Oh, dear. Well…

My point here is that, whatever their actual merit or lack of thereof, New Age systems tend to be seen as a lump by most people, and dismissed as a lump. So it’s not so much that I’m lumping them, as that I’m reporting my impression that other people lump them.

What I will suggest in the next page is that there is a new form of monism going about that isn’t dependent on any of those systems. It thereby evades popular lumping and dismissal.

Although I think the monist eternalism that pervades the New Age is wrong, I’d agree that some of the systems (when stripped of that philosophy) may be valuable. I don’t know enough about most of them to evaluate them. And anyway, my tentative opinions about which might be valid and which are obviously idiotic are not particularly relevant…

David

Newage (rhymes with sewage)

Very interesting; I think you’ve captured the appeal of New Age very accurately and concisely: “What is important is the healer’s recognition of the client as a whole person—body, mind, and spirit—who is also inseparably connected with all living beings. ” I share your distaste for things New Age, but once you realize that that’s what it is about, it’s hard for me to say that it’s wrong – if the mumbo-jumbo helps people feel connected and whole, what’s wrong with it?

I know you aren’t out to write a complete history of the New Age, but it may be relevant that it grew out of the failure of the various social movements of the sixties to do anything productive. That always seemed the biggest thing wrong with it to me; that it took all that creative revolutionary energy and turned it into something bland, inward, and harmless.

lumpen philosophy

Kate Gowen's picture

You’re absolutely right that ‘most people lump them’– in fact, one of the really irritating features of what used to PROCLAIM itself ‘New Age’ is this intellectual slovenliness. That was before ‘new age’ became a slur, after the fashion of ‘politically correct.’ Ah, fashion and its vagaries!

Plus, what irony– that now the newage is being denigrated in the same indiscriminate way as it was promoted. In some cases, by those who jumped on the bandwagon first and are now making the first exits– scoping the scene for ‘the next big thing.’ Andrew Cohen, anyone? Wonder what he’ll come up with after dead German philosophers falls flat.

But can monism deliver?

My relationship with the New Age is more complicated than simple distaste. I do think it’s attractive in many ways. I may have to go back and revise the text of the page a bit; I don’t want to be any more offensive than necessary. As Kate notes, the term covers things that vary between stupid/pernicious and interesting/helpful.

As Mike notes, my aim here is not really to characterize the New Age, but to ask why monism was limited to maybe 5-10% of Americans before recently (when it seems to have jumped to more like 25%). My theory is that the obstacle was monism’s entanglement with specific systems that are unattractive in the details.

Regarding: “if the mumbo-jumbo helps people feel connected and whole, what’s wrong with it?”:

This question is—importantly—separate from the question of “do the specific New Age practices work in their own terms” (e.g. do the crystals used in healing do something that another arbitrary talisman would not). This difference is important because your question goes to heart of what is wrong with monism, independent of the truth or efficacy of any specific theory or practice.

The problem with monism is that (I believe) it can’t actually deliver on its promises. You’ve identified two key promises: personal wholeness and connection with the universe-as-a-whole. (Another is to free you from specifics.)

Monism can’t deliver personal wholeness because the self is inherently, irreparably incoherent. This is one of the most important insights of Buddhism, one which makes it very different from Hinduism (despite attempts to lump them). The fantasy of true self is pernicious because it diverts attention and energy from understanding and working with the nebulous self one actually has. It causes misery because is unattainable; people who devote themselves to finding it repeatedly fail and are bitterly disappointed and blame themselves for not being pure enough.

Monism can’t deliver connection with the universe-as-a-whole because the universe isn’t a whole—it is a sprawling beautiful mess which mostly has nothing to do with us. Monist methods that address the (genuine) problem of alienation try to eliminate it entirely through total identification with the Absolute. But this is impossible, and the methods fail.

On the other hand we are also not isolated; we are intimately connected—not with “The Universe”—but with our concrete personal environments (physical, social, intellectual, etc). There are practical methods for recognizing and enhancing that connection (e.g. some forms of meditation). Those methods seem inadequate if you persist in the fantasy of Cosmic Consciousness.

Fictional beings

I think the Buddhist notion that selves are not solid objects but instead a buzzing inocherent confusion is incredibly valuable. But I don’t think it’s the whole story either.

It’s useful to think of the self as a sometimes useful and sometimes pernicious fiction, and the monotheistic god in a similar way. Constructing and maintaining these fictions is an ongoing process. Just because these things are fictional doesn’t mean they’re not real in some sense – just as, eg, that Hamlet is fictional doesn’t mean that “Hamlet” is not a real, important, and useful concept that has consequences in the real world.

So religion (all varieties – maybe Buddhism is an exception?) has an important role in building both of these fictions, reconciling them with each other, and doing so in a social setting to bind communities together. It also provides all sorts of entries for charlatans to come along and lead people to where they think they want to go. Presumably the long-running religions have sets of practices for doing this in ways that are not completely harmful. The fiction of a coherent self seems to be necessary for normal functioning, and while I’d like to believe that one can get by without a fiction of god, I’m starting to wonder about that.

I tend to think of the oneness/wholeness/monism/monotheism complex as something like a strong attractor in fictional concept space. I find myself strongly attracted, at least at times, while at other times repulsed. But there it is. I guess if somebody was offering to serve up my True Self on a silver platter by means of his religion, I’d be pretty sure that was fraudulent. But there are ways to talk about such things in ways that are more poetic, allusive, attuned to the paradox and impossibility of the task – those I at least wouldn’t dismiss out of hand.

I tried to articulate some of these ideas in blog posts over the years, like here and here. The latter even alludes to your grad-school work!

Self, God, existence, physicalism

This raises many fundamental issues… So just brief replies!

My chapter on self treats two confused stances, true self and selflessness. There are versions of Buddhism that deny the self outright; but I think that’s mistaken. It’s just that it’s nebulous.

I can’t make any sense of the mind-body problem at all. (And I’m arrogant enough to suppose that those who think they understand it are mistaken.)

I used to subscribe to physicalism, but in the absence of a convincing account of what it would mean for something to be not physical, I am now skeptical that it’s a well-defined concept. (And therefore it’s not something one could either agree or disagree with.)

The problem with metaphysics, in the sense of “what exists”, is that people argue vociferously without ever thinking to ask “what do we mean by ‘exists’?” There is a simple version of “exists” that is something like “you could get your hands on it if you worked hard enough.” E.g. my spaghetti pot exists, and unicorns don’t. All other uses of “exists” are metaphorical extensions of that. But there are probably many different metaphorical extensions, and none of them are clearly defined.

What’s weird is that philosophers profess great certainty about what does and doesn’t exist, without ever stopping to ask what they are talking about.

There’s a fascinating branch of analytic metaphysics (now there’s something that should be a contradiction in terms, but unfortunately isn’t), viz. mereology, in which the leading light argues that my spaghetti pot doesn’t exist, and in fact only subatomic particles and living things exist. Apparently mosquitoes wink out of existence when you kill them but you can’t tell. Astonishingly, he’s managed to convince quite a lot of people of this. (This is Peter Van Inwagen, who is actually brilliant, but holds many other positions I find utterly whacked out.)

As far as God is concerned, it’s clear it doesn’t exist in the sense of my spaghetti pot. (Some theists would disagree, but never mind them.) If one wants to say anything more about God’s existence, I think one must say what one means by “exists”. (And of course also what one means by “God” – but that is probably a more obvious point.)

Clearly God does exist in the sense that Harry Potter does – i.e. as an actual fiction (whereas Yrrah Rettop does not exist even as a fiction). Possibly God exists in some other ways; but I don’t like God as a fiction, so I’m not enthusiastic about that.

We’ve both suggested that divinities exist in something like the way numbers do. But that doesn’t help as much as we’d like, since we don’t know how numbers exist. And we have good ways for deciding which numbers exist, but not for which gods exist in that sense.

Although the work I’m presenting on this site often might seem like philosophy, and does touch on many of the classical philosophical problems, I want to side-step them, because I don’t expect progress.

What I am actually trying to do is sort of at the triple junction of philosophy, psychology, and religion, but is none of the above. I’m trying to enumerate the ways people get confused about meaningness, and to suggest in each case that the confusion can be resolved by dropping the philosophy, psychology, and religion, and getting practical instead.

David

How to do things with god

Too many interesting thoughts – I think on the whole we are on the same page, although perhaps looking at it from different angles.

Speaking of physicalism and MIT, have you seen Gary Drescher’s book Good and Real? He is trying to take physcialism as far as it can go – I coined the term “ultramaterialism” to review it.

The interesting thing to me about “God” is that it is not just an arbitrary fiction, like Harry Potter (who isn’t completely arbitrary either – stories about people who are unpleasant or unmemorable don’t achieve his exalted status), but is a more stable, inevitable sort of thing – like 3 or infinity. OK, I see your page on Sambhogakaya is saying much the same thing.

It’s quite true that we don’t know how numbers exist, but at least we know how to do stuff with them. Similarly, I like to say that religion isn’t actually about belief, it’s about ritual and community. Which may be overgeneralizing, but the modern flavor of Judaism that I am somewhat accidentally involved with (Reconstructionism) makes that fairly explicit. Or perhaps, to (mis?)use your term, it’s about stances or attitudes towards god, the universe, and others. The important thing about god is not whether or how he exists but what your attitude is towards him (obedient, fearful, awestruck, angry, etc). It appears to me that all these noisy atheiests are defining themelves by an attiude towards god and are just as captured by the concept as any believer.

Sorry to keep pimping my blog, but here’s another post that tries to articulate what religion is for – in this case, for having a way to talk about or relate to concepts that don’t make sense but are nonetheless necessary.

God & Gary

Yes, I do think we have similar views. I read your blog regularly and find it insightful.

It occurs to me that the monist conception of God has much more the flavor of inevitability you describe than dualist conceptions. The monist God is an isolated point in concept-space, like the integers. You can’t have anything that is “pretty similar.” That’s because the monist God has no specific characteristics. So, as you put it, it’s an “attractor”: if you get anywhere near that concept, you fall into it. Probably that’s part of why it’s popular now.

Dualist conceptions of God can vary, because dualist Gods can have specific characteristics (like virgin birth, arbitrary ethnic hatreds, strange sexual fetishes or whatever). Probably the absence of repellent divine personality flaws is another reason for the popularity of monism.

We’ve discussed Gary Drescher’s book before, over on Approaching Aro. I haven’t actually read it, I’m afraid.

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