Comments on “Spiritual smugness”


IS the smugness of the 'new' monism unique?

Kate Gowen's picture

Egregious, unwarranted assurance of one's correctness seems to me to be a feature of the desperation with which one holds those beliefs. To my eye, defenders of materialist/scientistic views seem just as smug as the "V R ALL 1" crowd. But maybe that's just me: I find both equally annoying, and I have little desire to set either straight.

But perhaps someone else here has something more entertaining to say on the subject.

We all want self-validation

Yes, all sub-cultures and systems seek certainty, security, and self-validation through belief, and probably no one is any worse than others. My hope is that the different emotional textures of smugness point toward the reasons people adopt particular stances.

The air of superiority that comes with scientific materialism is connected with nihilist intellectualization, which I wrote about recently. It is characterized by spurious rationalism, hostility, and pessimism.

I understand nihilist smugness much better than monist smugness, because I'm much more prone to it. I adopt monism only rarely, whereas nihilism is my habitual disposition. (Even while I'm committed to avoiding it; this is a matter of temperament, at least partly.)

I do think that it is more important to show a better alternative than to critique wrong ideas. Both have value, though. And perhaps the better alternative can only come into focus once you see exactly what is wrong with monism and dualism.

Non-Duality Smugness

How did Rin'dzin come upon that -- does she have a Kindle loaded with Philosophy texts? With all her bee-bopping around the globe, how does she get to books? Ah yes, the internet. Kudos for the James discovery -- and very nice analysis. It is so nice to see that criticisms of errors have been around for a long time -- "nothing new under the sun".

Smugness is smugness, maybe it doesn't need to be "distinctive". But of smugnesses, my least favorite is "sanctified" smugness -- smugness wrapped in the supposed safety of the ethereal spiritual world that protects it from dissection. As you tweet stated, many Buddhists use "non-Duality" to dismisses any thinker while they hug their monism. (damn, you got me buying into your convenient categories!)

I think the "Poetry Culture" feeds on the same intuition-is-truth trough. People into poetry thing of the poet like a Greek oracle. Such thinking has been with us for millennia -- it is a normal temptation of mind, I am afraid -- and that appears to be what James is saying, right. Is that his quote which starts: "We all have some ear ..." (you might want to label that).

I think the "varying levels of spiritual development" analysis is used in many religions -- heck, maybe ironically even the Nyingma seemed to use it in their method of classifying all other forms of Buddhism. Such modeling is a common method of dealing swiftly with those not in agreement. I think you are right about Monist using a similar tool to dismiss criticism.

In the end you said: "I don’t believe in a God separate from me, because it couldn’t save me from those things.” Why would having a pantheistic (or immanent) God be more efficient at salvation than a Transcendent God?

throwing down on poetry

Kate Gowen's picture

Sabio, sir-- this perennial poetry student picks up the glove, to reply.

Once I asked my Lama if there were an enlightened expression for the 'cognitive sense' whose neurotic ideational loops cause so much grief. He replied, with an air of mild surprise at my confusion: "Certainly-- poetry." This was probably half a decade ago, and little hidden aspects of that pithy wisdom are still unfurling for me, not so much in writing poems as in noticing the metapoetics in Asian medical systems, for instance; or the connections between various shamanic systems; or how the noticed correspondences between external nature and human nature function. Poetry is my approach to meaningness; and I take the James quote to acknowledge this approach-- while at the same time pointing out the pitfalls of the glib, oversimplified bombast that often claims the name.

Perhaps surprisingly, what I look for in poetry is, first, accuracy of insight; and second, grace of expression. The best poetry is a synthesis of both that creates something with greater power than its single parts.

Kate, I suspect that you

Curt's picture

I suspect that you already know this but I thought that I would mention it just in case.
Muslims claim that the Quran besides being a source of guidance for behavior is an incredibly poetic book. So poetic that it is desribed as a miracle.
Of course non Arabic speakers would call such a claim nonsense.
But in the end how can YOU really say if you do not speak Arabic.
My take on it is even if it is from a non human source, we should like the Buddha said, trust nothing in it unless in corresponds with our own expierience.
I only mention this because you spoke of you love of poetry. That gives you something in common with Muslims. It could perhaps be more of a benifit for you to learn Arabic than me so you could discuss things with Muslims on terms that they appreciate.

Monist and dualist Gods

Transcendent vs. immanent is not quite the same distinction as dualist vs. monist. A dualist God (like the Christian one) is separate from the soul, and always remains that way. Christian salvation means that you go to heaven, not hell. One of the benefits of heaven is that you get to be in the presence of God, but you don't get to be God. A monist God is the soul (and always has been). Salvation means that you have the experience of being God (which you always were). It is the removal of the veil of illusion that seems to separate you from God (which is also, by the way, the entire physical universe, so you get to experience being that too).

So these Gods are different in terms of what they can save you from. All a dualist God can save you from is hell. A monist God is more powerful—it can save you from being a separate, finite soul, with a particular history and characteristics. Monist salvation makes you omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. (And if you act now, we'll include these beautiful holy white robes, a $895 value, for free. But only if you call before midnight tonight. That's absolutely free, with a purchase of salvation. You get to be God, and you get the robes. Call now, cult operators are standing by.)

Yes, it was James who wrote "We all have some ear for this monistic music". He was referring to some exalted rhetoric from Swami Vivekananda, whom he quotes at length. I've added a footnote clarifying that all the quotes are from the same chapter of James' book; thanks for pointing out the lack of citation.

Temperament and spiritual choices

Sabio, thanks for the pointer to that study on serotonin genetics. Fascinating. (I'm reminded of recent research that suggests that different prevalences of infection with toxoplasmosis could be a major determinant of cultural differences. In other vertebrates, the toxoplasmosis parasite manipulates host brain biochemistry to increase the likelihood of host behaviors that result in parasite transmission. There's preliminary evidence that this occurs in humans; and because toxoplasmosis infection rates vary hugely between cultures, it could be causing major differences in national personalities.)

Regardless of the biochemical details, it certainly seems that temperament plays a significant role in people's adopting particular stances and systems. Smart, angry, depressed people are more likely to adopt nihilism, for instance. Of course, nihilism also makes you depressed and angry, so proving the direction of the causal arrow could be difficult.


Dear internet entities and our reptilian overlords,

We are all cosmic schmucks. We have so many nice and wacky ideas and we always wonder why others do not think like us. But, my brothers and sisters, there is a cure to this ailment - the cosmic schmuck principle formulated by my favorite metaphysical humorist Roberd Anton Wilson:

"I spent a year and a half, at least, half believing that I was in telepathic communication with a higher intelligence from the Sirius double star system, and as a matter of fact, I still believe that every Thursday for two hours. No, not really. I'm really cured on that one. I'm still an optimist, though. In the age of George Bush, that's roughly equivalent of thinking you're talking to intelligent dogs from Sirius.

You might say it hasn't ended yet. I'm still trying to figure out what the hell is going on. I like the giant rabbit from County Kerry because there's no chance anybody will take that literally. Anything else I say they might take literally.

Q. How about yourself?

A. That's another reason why I like the giant white rabbit from County Kerry: I'm not going to take him literally. Well, not too literally. Sorry about that, Harvey.

My cosmic schmuck principle holds that if you occasionally notice that you've been thinking or acting like a cosmic schmuck, you will become less of a cosmic schmuck, and the more often you notice that you're thinking and acting like a cosmic schmuck, the less of a cosmic schmuck you become. On the other hand, if you never, never, never suspect you might be thinking or acting like a cosmic schmuck, you will remain a cosmic schmuck for the rest of your life."

- A transcript from the documentary <i>Maybe Logic - the Lives and Ideas of Robert Anton Wilson</i>

By the way, how can you say that someone is delusional because s/he has had a "spiritual experience", and s/he cannot express it in a proper way? Has the way of communicating such experiences ever been easy? Is the direct experience of rigpa something that handles our nice logical constructs of how the world works with silk groves and care bears?

Oh, and the poetry. I do that often. Like now. I may be a scientist, but I have my membership card in the Interdimensional Fraternity of Mad Scientists. More fun that way, and better parties.

Best wishes,
A Canine Intelligence from the Sirius B


Rin&#039;dzin Pamo's picture

@ Sabio:

How did Rin'dzin come upon that -- does she have a Kindle loaded with Philosophy texts?

Um...sort of.

But the smugness idea came more from observation and interaction than reading. I may have fallen prey to it myself in the past and figured out what other people were doing based on my own experience. does she get to books?

Pesky little things know I'm a soft touch and track me down. They sneak up when I'm not looking and settle themselves into my rucksack. I cull them as best I can at regular intervals, but they're like bunnies. Once you've got them….

Why would having a pantheistic (or immanent) God be more efficient at salvation than a Transcendent God?

To begin with, I think it may have been a question of agency, rather than efficiency. Protestant (immanent) salvation addressed the persistent Christian problem of evil (an omnipotent God can't logically coexist with evil). It wasn't necessarily more efficient than a transcendent saviour God, so much as a shift in agency that dovetailed with the rise of individualism and the Enlightenment. If the individual has access to direct communication with God (cutting out the third party/priest) then s/he can save themselves - through hard work/good deeds, etc. (hence the growth of the Protestant work ethic).

Subsequently, maybe wanting the best of both worlds, Monism maintained immanence but stole back agency. (I'll comment more about this later, in relation to smugness, but I'll be busy for a while: perhaps someone else will get to it first.)


And now something completely different

New day, new thoughts.

I have not come across this kind of monist smugness very often - maybe the reason is that most people I know who are interested in spiritual matters are actually heathens and occultists, who are usually not particularly monist.

I have though experiences this smugness especially in connection with a particular "Tantric" yoga school where I took yoga classes at one point. One person even said to me once that the Buddhist methods of meditation I was interested in were "useless", because their meditation method "laya-yoga" was "more superior and direct route to the enlightenment" but because I was not initiated into it I could not understand.

I left, because of these kind of attitudes, before the "initiation". I still do not know what their "laya-yoga" was but at least more publicly their methods of meditation were about listening to "meditation music" and visualizing chakras.

Many distinct monist that I have met regard meditation being about attainment of blissful states and strong visionary experiences. With those people, it is very difficult to talk about meditation. I do mostly shi-nè, which does not seem uphold very blissful states at all if you do not enter into sleepy shi-nè. They usually tend to dismiss me, because "they spent so much more time meditating than I do" - like four hours per day. My usual amount is about an hour, or less in very busy circumstances or more when there is a lot of extra time. It seem that people hooked on bliss states find a lot of time for their meditation, with expense of everything else (like getting something actually done in one's life). It does not look like an attainment to me.

Poetry gets no special Pass

I also appreciate poetry like you with the first filter being "accuracy of insight" [if any is stated]. For poetry is a form like other forms: prose, mathematics, sculpturing, debating and more. It gets no special pass-card because of some mystical notion of it being a special or revelatory form.

'special pass'

Kate Gowen's picture

Is someone claiming a special pass for poetry? I thought I was arguing against its special dismissal-- as opposed to, I suppose, mathematics or neurology or quantum physics.

We Agree

Sabio's picture

Sorry, yes, I was trying to say I agree with you and restate our agreed point.

To David and Rin'dzin

@ David

So how do you see a pantheist or a panentheist god's salvation. You separated Dualist and Monist. Are you saying that Transcendant and Immanent gods are both examples of Dualist gods?

Yes, the Toxoplasmosis stuff is fun. If infected, you like cats and have a higher probability of schizophrenia. Thus, "Cat lovers are crazy". (sorry to readers who aren't aware of these studies).

On a hopeful note, the field of epigenetic has also shown us the behaviors (thoughts being one of those) can change the expressions of our genes so that, even if we have genes for something, we can sometimes turn them off or we can even up-rate our weaker ones to some degree. Genes spell out our options more than our fate, it seems. But still, the options are limited, of course.

@ Rin'dzin Pamo

Yeah, I need a diagram to separate out Monist, Dualist, Immanent, Transcendent. And certainly I need better clarification why any one of those stances would be perceived as worse than any other at "saving" a believer.


They are different distinctions; independent axes. Crudely, immanent/transcendent is about where God lives; monist/dualist is about whether or not you are God. All four combinations are feasible (and held by someone). Offhand, I don't think immanent/transcendent has any implications for the form of salvation.

Monism vs dualism has big implications for salvation. If you are God, then you save yourself, and all you save yourself from is not noticing that you are God. That's the monist story. If you are not God, then you need God to save you. Although what God saves you from is himself (i.e. damnation). So these are very different conceptions. Which is "better" would be a matter of personal preference; but it's not like we get to choose, so it's a pointless question.

I'm reminded of "The Courtier's Reply", a rather splendid satire I just learned about.


Rin&#039;dzin Pamo's picture

They are different distinctions; independent axes. Crudely, immanent/transcendent is about where God lives; monist/dualist is about whether or not you are God.

Right, but I think the axes may be related.

All four combinations are feasible (and held by someone). Offhand, I don't think immanent/transcendent has any implications for the form of salvation.

Hmm...I'm not sure. I do think the distinction has implications for the form of salvation (see my previous post). The individual becomes intricately, personally involved with their own salvation with an immanent God. Salvation isn't just about conforming to an external ethical code and seeking atonement for aberrance. It's a personal endeavour to reveal God in this world. Although it's still within a dualist paradigm, it seems to me that immanence lessens the separation between humanity and God. In which case if dualist separation is, in some sense, quantifiable, immanence may be the point of connection/flipping between dualism and monism. Possibly there's a historical linearity here, but I would need to research more to find out.

This connection - monism retains the personal revelation in immanent dualism - may be important for what's distinctive about the emotional dynamic of monist smugness.

Both nihilist and monist stances are looking for an external source of validation, but someone with a monist outlook, falsely or accurately, may feel they can't rely on other humans to do that. Someone adopting a nihilist stance thinks they're special in the eyes of others; their intelligence is 'of this world.' Intelligence is socially respected. A monist, for some reason real or imagined, may feel incompetent in the eyes of others. But the revelatory nature of their specialness makes them invulnerable to the criticism of other human beings.

God/the Universe ascribes and recognises the specialness of monist insight - you don't have to prove yourself to others. Either they get it, or they don't. Also, you don't have to address the emotional problem of incompetence - you can hide that feeling because Oneness equalises everyone (except, of course, those who don't get it).

But it's all tentative conjecture. I look forward to you trashing my argument. :-)


PS. I loved the Courtier's Reply. I hadn't come across that before, either.

Immanence, monism, and salvation

That's all interesting, thank you. It references aspects of theology I am not familiar with, so I'm only partially able to follow your line of thought. Let me see if I can re-state it, and you can tell me what I'm missing. There seems to be two parts; I'm not sure if they are connected. The first is:

  • The monist and immanentist conceptions of God are similar in that God is present in the material universe and directly accessible.
  • Plausibly the circa-1800 European version of monism evolved out of the Protestant insistence on personal access to God (unmediated by priests, contra Catholicism).

Second part:

  • Nihilist intellectualism and monist "enlightenment" are both strategies for making yourself seem special.
  • The problem with intellectualism as a strategy is that other people might not agree that you are brilliant. You need a lot of self-confidence to adopt this strategy.
  • Monist specialness is self-validating, or validated by God (who is yourself). Thus, monism is more likely to be adopted by those lacking confidence.

That last bit fits my impression of the typical monist.

Part of the appeal of monism seems to be that you somehow convince yourself that you omnipotent (since you are God), so (by fiat) you don't have any problems. I don't understand how that works psychologically, because obviously you aren't omnipotent, and becoming a monist doesn't make you so. You have to explain-away your limitations. Or actually, you simply refuse to acknowledge them—monism never tries to explain anything.

Here's Swami Vivekananda, one of the most influential figures in bringing Hindu monism to the West, as quoted by William James:

When man has seen himself as one with the infinite Being of the universe, when all separateness has ceased... then all fear disappears. Whom to fear? Can I hurt myself? Can I kill myself? Can I injure myself? Do you fear yourself? Then will all sorrow disappear. What can cause me sorrow? I am the One Existence of the universe... Then all bad feelings disappear. Against whom will I have this bad feeling? Against myself? There is none in the universe but me... [I have] traced the reality of everything unto the Lord, that centre, that Unity of everything, and that is Eternal Bliss, Eternal Knowledge, Eternal Existence. Neither death nor disease, nor sorrow nor misery, nor discontent is there.


Rin&#039;dzin Pamo's picture

I think the possible connection between the two parts is that the type of personal access you have to God is revelatory. That means you feel you've been chosen in some way, when others haven't.

Part of the appeal of monism seems to be that you somehow convince yourself that you omnipotent (since you are God), so (by fiat) you don't have any problems. I don't understand how that works psychologically, because obviously you aren't omnipotent, and becoming a monist doesn't make you so. You have to explain-away your limitations. Or actually, you simply refuse to acknowledge them—monism never tries to explain anything.

I'm not sure this is right. I think the appeal is the experience of revelation. I don't think you convince yourself that you're omnipotent, or that you don't have problems. That might be the logic of monism, but it isn't necessarily how it manifests psychologically. You may see your problems and your limitations, but they don't matter. They're irrelevant, because you're chosen. And, that might be something to be rather pleased about, as, being One, you've effectively chosen yourself.

Committed vs. accomplished monists

What you say seems much more right, concerning the average monist in the street, than what I said. Thanks! I think the difference here may be between committing to monist vs. accomplishing it.

Someone who thinks they've accomplished monism, like Swami Vivekananda, does have to somehow imagine they are experiencing omnipotence. But only very special gurus are supposed to do that. Everyone else has to intellectually accept that they are omnipotent (because really they are God), but due to the veil of illusion, they appear not to be. However, it is comforting that the limitations and problems are somehow imaginary. And, you are fairly special person because you have accepted this revelation and are trying to live by it (commitment).

Some skepticism


How often you guys talk with monist? Like, have a relaxed and open minded conversation with them about why they think like they do - in a non-argumentative manner? Seriously, I find this conversation becoming more and more alienating. It reeks of too many a priori assumptions.

And what if a monist is a practitioner who does his practices and has their results. Can we completely disregard that, because of our own theoretical assumptions? I think that the monist interpretation can result from misinterpretation of meditative insight. But misinterpretation does not necessarily make those insights go away.

Understanding monists

Hmm, well, I talk with monists a lot, I think. Some of my closest friends are committed monists, and usually they take the initiative in talking to me about it. (Monism is quite evangelical, I find.)

Mostly I find these conversations hard to follow. I understand intellectually what they are saying, and I think I understand why they want to believe what they do; what's hard to understand is how they can set aside the everyday facts of disconnection and separateness and finitude.

Mostly I listen politely; they know I don't agree, but I rarely disagree explicitly.
Monism seems fragile, tender, usually; I feel I have to be exceptionally gentle in questioning the assumptions. If I were talking with a nihilist, I could just say "that's crazy, look at the evidence", and a nihilist would have no problem coming up with a reply. Monists seem to retreat into themselves if you question their assumptions at all; and that is part of why I don't understand monism as well as I want to.

What's interesting is that at times I adopt monism myself. There are times when I think I am everything, I am the entire universe, when my body dies I will not die, but will absorb into the nature of fire. I sometimes think this even when I am in an ordinary state of consciousness. So monism is definitely not alien to me. And yet, looking back at such times, I think "what on earth was I thinking? How could I have believed that? What did I mean?"

And when in an altered state (from meditation, sex, drugs, rock&roll, or whatever), experiences of unity are pretty common. That is a real phenomenon, and I think it's an important one. But, as you say, it's easy to misunderstand what it means. When you return to ordinary consciousness, you are likely to interpret the experience in terms of your metaphysical framework, whatever that is. So if you are a monist, you think "I realized I was God", and if you are a Buddhist you think "my ego dissolved into emptiness", and if you are a Christian you think "I was in the presence of God", and if you are nihilist you think "wow, brain chemistry can get really screwed up." From maybe all the same experience.

So if that experience is important, it might matter what it actually means, and it would be good to try to figure out which of these interpretations is correct, or if several or none of them are.

I think I understand some things about monism, but it's the stance I understand least, and I am eager to learn more. If your experience of talking with monists, or your personal experiences of unity-with-all-things give you insights I'm missing, or if you think I've misunderstood something, I'd love to hear about it.

Monist nihilism

Thank you for this, David. It cleared up a lot of thing for me. The trouble with the internet conversation - you cannot hear the tone in the other people's voice. I am somewhat dependent on that myself.

Mostly I find these conversations hard to follow. I understand intellectually what they are saying, and I think I understand why they want to believe what they do; what's hard to understand is how they can set aside the everyday facts of disconnection and separateness and finitude.

I wonder are the monists in Finland at all as similar as those in United States. My reaction was partly due to that your description of monists seemed very different from the monists I know. In this part of the world monists are not usually saying that they are either chosen or god (though counting typical Finnish cultural neuroses, we tend to think ourself often as inferiors and not the other way around). They tend to just emphasize how everything is from "the source" or "god". We might be dealing with even huge cultural differences.

What's interesting is that at times I adopt monism myself. There are times when I think I am everything, I am the entire universe, when my body dies I will not die, but will absorb into the nature of fire.

In a funny way I sometimes enter into stance of monist nihinlism. It seem that I cannot find better word for its. I could describe it shortly this way: "Ok. So all is one at some level. But how does that help anything? That consciousness is just vast and uncaring - and so alien that it cannot be comprehended. If we do not care about one single skin cell in our body, the why would Universe really care about one planet?" Maybe I have just read too much H. P. Lovecraft, but this thinking has its root in something - however the matter it too sensitive for public discussion even if I do not use my real name here.

If your experience of talking with monists, or your personal experiences of unity-with-all-things give you insights I'm missing, or if you think I've misunderstood something, I'd love to hear about it.

There is something I could tell you, but as I already said above, the matter is very private and sensitive. Maybe I will write something to you privately. However it will have to wait. I will fly to Aro Ga'dzong tomorrow.

Elder Gods

I'm glad that was helpful... I hope not to be hostile to anyone or any group. Or really even to any ideas, although I think some are cause unnecessary suffering. Sometimes it seems useful to make fun of those—but that could come across as angry in a way I try to avoid.

There probably are cultural differences between Finnish monists and California ones. Californians are famous for being smug even when they aren't monists!

Most monists, even in California, wouldn't say "I am God." But most monist teachers do. Being God is the essential job qualification for a Neo-Advaita guru. Their central message is "I became God, so you can too."

What you say about monist nihilism is very interesting. Monist nihilism seems quite rare. One way to approach it might be via field theory. There's only one thing, the field; and it's just a bunch of partial differential equations, so there's no meaning there.

I've always found Lovecraft fascinating. I also always found my own fascination baffling; he's an awful writer by most criteria. It was only when I read about Houellebecq's interpretation of him as a nihilist philosopher that I started to understand what is great about him. Philosophers often accuse each other of being nihilists, but probably no one before Lovecraft would have proclaimed themselves so; and probably no one before him actually was one. (I'm planning to write about this on Buddhism for Vampires at some point.)

"The Universe" is a puzzling thing. There is "the universe", which is mostly empty space, with a slight sprinkling of photons, dark matter, and hydrogen atoms, and insignificant quantities of the other stuff we care about. That universe has nothing to do with us (as far as I can see).

And then, on the other hand, at times we seem to have non-conceptual insight into "the Universe", which has attitudes, including about us. I'm pretty sure that it's a mistake to think that "the universe" and "the Universe" are the same thing—which is common. But then what is "the Universe"? I don't know... but I'll run the risk of making an idiot of myself by blathering a bit.

"The Universe" might just be a mistake. Perceptions about this Universe are maybe just brain malfunctions. I think that's probably partly right.

I think it also might be an accurate insight, wrongly put into words. A better formulation than "the Universe love us" might be something like "reality is patterned in ways that constantly provide us with opportunities, and that are sufficiently reliable that we can get on with our lives without having to be paranoid about everything all the time." If everything were totally nebulous, we'd be completely screwed. So existence is benign, to that extent.

Another thing is, we are non-separate in important ways. Dualism is wrong. What is it we are non-separate from? From our "life-worlds"—the parts of reality that we participate in. That is not only our material environments, but also society and culture and biome. I'll offer this as the "complete stance" resolution of the monism/dualism opposition.

But then, maybe that's not right, or not the whole story. Mystical experience always seem to involve vastness, infinity. There's a sense of being everything, which seems to go beyond the life-world. I don't know what to make of that. Maybe, again, it's just brain malfunction. Or maybe it's important in some way.

I regard this as a phenomenon to appreciate and be curious about, and keep a don't-know attitude toward. Monist eternalists take that experience and say: "I know what this means, it means we are all God, which implies X and Y and Z." Nihilist dualists say "mysticism is just nonsense".

I'm pretty damn sure that X and Y and Z (the monist eternalist interpretation) are wrong. I think mystical experience might just be the brain doing something unusual (but that doesn't mean it's not interesting, or that the phenomenon can be denied).

Sorry for the brain-dump; for the past couple days I have had too much coffee and not enough sleep!

dumb question--

Kate Gowen's picture

'Nihilist dualists'? I'm confused: 'duality' seems to posit a schism between the 'higher' and the 'lower' [God/man; spiritual/material; temporal/eternal]. If Nihilism is the belief that it's all random and meaningless, how do you make a single distinction to produce 'duality' rather than a chaos of multiplicity?


Yes, that's confusing. In Western philosophy, this would probably be called "pluralism" rather than "dualism". I decided to go with the Indian terminology (in which "dualism" means "more than one thing"), for reasons that seemed good at the time, but that I can't recall now. Maybe that was dumb and I should change it before it gets even harder to back out of a wrong choice...

The Challenge of Taxonomies

I agree that Kate's question is good. When creating a taxonomy, it comes with many limitations and certainly making the terminology itself a limitation can be a hindrance.

Here is an article from SEP which shows the difficulty in that "Dualism has a variety of uses in the history of thought." So like many philosophers and theologians, David is creating technical definitions of common language terms to describe his taxonomy.

When I read David's scheme, I first thought that most Nihilists would be Monists ("there is only physical reality"). In Hindu Philosphy, the Advaita were non-dualist while the Samkhya were dualists in that they denied the existence of God and their TWO things were Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (material things). Scientific Nihilism does no such thing but may be declared Monists because they only believe in Prakriti. The wiki article on Samkhya contrasts Western and Indian "dualism".

And that an example of Dualistic Nihilists would be some ancient Greeks who though they believed in the spiritual world (Dualism) and their gods, they viewed their gods as capricious and thus they despaired and said, "Lo, if that is the best we have, life is meaningless"(Nihilism).

But then I re-read and said, "Wait, he has those flipped".

And in philosophy of mind, Dualists feel that mind and brain are radically different which Scientific rationalism (in David's Nihilistic Dualism) definitely don't believe.

If find that when I sketch things out -- transforming them from paragraphs to pictures -- some of the issues become clearer. It is cool to commit our wonderings to various forms.

Real Indian Nihilists: Dualism Category falls apart

In classical Indian Philosophy, the Cārvāka held a real Nihilism. They were Monists like most of our scientists: one thing -- reality (Prakriti)-- no spiritual or consciousness realm. No fairies, disembodied boddhisattvas, gods, demons or any such construction was felt necessary by this crowd. They gave "monists" a good name! Smile

And as you know, the whole "meaning" issue is not solely in the territory of the "Forever and Ever" folks (Eternalists), even people who don't believe in spiritual realities can embraces meaning. "Enchanted Naturalists" is Luke's term for this at Common Sense Atheism.

Where would they live in your scheme?

Diverse dualisms

It will be good to clarify this. There are (at least) two independent axes here: mind vs. matter and self vs. other. "Monism" and "dualism" in Western philosophy typically refer to the mind/matter axis; I'm using the words to refer to the self/other axis, which is more typical of Indian philosophy. These axes are independent, so there are four possibilities:

  1. Mind≠matter, self≠other: the common sense view.
  2. Mind=matter, self≠other: mainstream reductive/eliminative scientific materialism.
  3. Mind≠matter, self=other: there is only one Mind, which is separate from the material world. (I expect someone has argued for this, although I can't offhand think of who. The Neoplatonists maybe?)
  4. Mind=matter, self=other: Advaita Hinduism, current SBNR pop spirituality

[Edit: I've removed several paragraphs here that tried to make a joke about the complexity that results from combining different distinctions. It wasn't obvious that it was a joke, and a couple of comments below rightly criticized me for making things unnecessarily complicated. It was the result of too much coffee and not enough sleep.]

Anyway, it may be that I need to find less confusing terms to name the confused stances regarding the sameness or isolation of self and other. Suggestions are welcome.

(It's tricky, because all English words already have a penumbra of philosophical connotations. For example, "individualism" might be good for the view that the self is radically distinct from the world—what I'm currently calling "dualism"—but it already means various other things. I guess one has to choose on the basis of which will be least confusing.)

reply to Kündröl

How often you guys talk with monist? Like, have a relaxed and open minded conversation with them about why they think like they do - in a non-argumentative manner? Seriously, I find this conversation becoming more and more alienating. It reeks of too many a priori assumptions.

When I converse here about the emotional dynamic of monism, I'm partly drawing on my own experience. I find it helps me think clearly to separate the implications of the monist stance as a thing in itself. But as you point out, that runs the risk of generalisation and could sound alienating.

In conversation I usually find monist expression muddled in with other stances and beliefs. I don't think I know anyone who would self-identify as monist, but many people I chat with slip in and out of expressing meaning in monist terms. I know I've done that myself too - and flipped into nihilist analysis, without noticing the contradiction at the time. It's difficult to avoid your default stance sometimes, even when you know it for what it is.

My reaction was partly due to that your description of monists seemed very different from the monists I know. In this part of the world monists are not usually saying that they are either chosen or god ...They tend to just emphasize how everything is from "the source" or "god". We might be dealing with even huge cultural differences.

That sounds like the kind of monist expression I'm used to too. It's interesting how, in Britain anyway, saying that "everything is from the source" sounds much less arrogant (or crazy) than "I'm God," although when you think about it, one implies the other.

Subtle philosophical positions vs Tendencies of Mind

@ David,

What you seem to be building is a large edifice of philosophical stances with several options. On my site, I invited Christians to share their positions on theological positions (not so interesting) and philosophers/atheists to do the same. (links supplied)

The 15 philosophical positions I offer for readers to declare their philosophical stances enumerate to 645,120 permutations. Of course I'd imagine there are clustering of positions and so maybe boil down to about 64 positions groupings. All to say. We can start naming all sorts of positions. The trick is finding the ones that matter for how we really organize our lives.

But thought declaring all these philosophical positions is mildly interesting, I nonetheless think the common person does not think philosophically at all. Instead they tie their identity with larger ideologies or systems and have very scatter, non-systematic, multi-self-shifting notions of pragmatic alignment (whewww, and that is with no coffee!). And, thank goodness, they don't really buy into what the philosophers/theologians in their systems spin, but just buy in because of family, neighborhood and community. Instead, for me it is interesting to look a deep fundamental modules of mind --- the habits of mind. The permutations of these habits are boundless too. But it is because of these that people in very different systems with different orthodox philosophical stances are more similar than their systems pretend they are.

Enchanted naturalists, Carvaka, and complexity

@Sabio (three different posts):

Yes, I'm highly sympathetic to "enchanted naturalism". (Some resources here.) The "enchanted" aspect means "not nihilist"—so meaning is treated as real. On the other hand, their naturalism means they avoid eternalism as well; meanings can't get fixated by God. So this seems to be quite similar to the "meaningness" stance I'm advocating. On the self/other axis, they are presumably dualists, in which case they hold that meaning is purely subjective. I think that is both wrong and hard to sell. I think the neither-subjective-nor-objective story I tell is compatible with naturalism, however, so maybe I can convert them... Obviously they are monists on the mind/matter axis. I am agnostic about that. So I'm not squarely in their camp, but I am very glad that they are pursuing an approach that is neither eternalist nor nihilist. That's rare.

Carvaka is fascinating. (Namit Arora wrote a fine piece about them, and some of the comments on that page are worthwhile. His own site has all kinds of way-cool stuff on it.) Carvaka is going to feature in volume 3 of my vampire trilogy (if I ever get to it). That volume is about Nagarjuna. I think he can be understood only in the context of non-Buddhist philosophical influences (including Carvaka). It's interesting to speculate about what might have happened if Carvaka had gained ascendancy. Maybe the Scientific Revolution would have happened in 9th Century India.

I agree strongly with what you say in "Subtle philosophical positions." The "periodic table" thing was a joke... I am trying hard to avoid anything like academic philosophy in the book, because I want to change ordinary people's minds. (I'm allowing some more academic-ish stuff to come out in the metablog and comments.) The "stances" I enumerate are simple and basic and should make sense to regular folks, I hope. I am avoiding not only academic language, but also hope to avoid almost all of the standard philosophical questions. For instance, I think the mind/body problem is something only academics care about, and I intend to ignore it. On the other hand, regular people definitely do care about "am I an isolated individual, or am I totally connected with everything?" We know people care about that because Eckhart Tolle has sold 10 million copies of his answer.

Beloningness -- One layer closer to the heart

Let me speculate before hitting the sack:
If you are writing it for common folk, then I think understanding things on basic levels helps. I think the tension is between Independence and Belonging.
Belonging has happens tribally with ritual and more tricks. With the demythization and scientific explanations, some of the tribal bonds break. As more efficient economic means develop (thing Robert Wright), tribal elements (belongingness) break up. People try clubs, YMCA, School activities and sports but the belongingness is not as strong as the tribal hypnotism -- this can be recaptured by nationalism, fundamentalism and others. Or, "One-ism" which means you belong to something very large and the falseness of that feeling can not be shown in anyway. The illusion is safe again.

The degree of need for Belongingness vs Independence depends on economic, social and psychological strains but people will evolve ways to meet them -- delusional or not.

That is just one of the fundamental issues. Putting it in terms of Monism or Eternalism or such seems a layer of philosophical abstraction one too many if your primary goal is the common person. Unless you are trying to trick them like Tolle has.

Good night!

Thanks for doing the research and posting the links

Kate Gowen's picture

One of the reasons I keep coming back to this discussion, despite being underqualified to follow the more abstruse peregrinations about philosophy and AI and the farther reaches of the development of Indian Buddhist epistemology-- is these little portholes into worlds I didn't know existed.

Enchanted naturalism-- cool! What I am in sympathy with in religions-- and miss in the kind of brass-tacks 'science' expressed in technology-- is acknowledgment of the numinous. Where I differ from the theistic religions is in not finding it necessary to anthropomorphize a quality of experience that I could call 'divinity' into A Divinity, or The Divinity [or in the case of the classical Greco-Roman world, the Rampaging Mob of Divinities].

Belonging vs. independence

Belonging vs. independence is definitely an important issue. I'm not sure it's the same issue as what I've been calling monism vs. dualism, though.

Dualist religions like Christianity and Islam are mostly not noted for promoting independence; and belonging seems to be the most common reason people commit to them.

Conversely, the current "spiritual but not religious" brand of monism is supposed to be anti-organization. I think that's probably overstated, but tribal identification seems to be less of a motivation for SBNRs than it is for (say) American fundamentalist Christians.

I think you are right that a big part of the appeal of contemporary monism is to "belong to something very large and the falseness of that feeling can not be shown in any way." But it's not so much a tribal/social belonging. It's about feeling alienated from existence altogether, and trying to magically overcome that by unifying with the universe as a whole.

Do you think the concepts of dualism and monism are problematic, or is it the words?

(Actually, it may be that I haven't yet explained the concepts well enough that you could answer that...)

Tensions create plethora of theologies

The various sects within Christianity are in part because of the pull between independence and belonging. That tension and the need of any given historical situation generates theology to manipulate the system to supply these needs. These tensions in Buddhism probably helped create Terma, for instance -- a desire for independence much like speaking in tongues does for the Pentacostals.

Yes, I think monism vs dualism is problematic depending on your audience and your purpose. If you are talking to Buddhist who have grabbed monists tendencies, it may be a good term. But when talking to atheists, the terms are too loaded with other ideas. And if you are just talking to non-philosophical/ non-religious types, then more basic terms like independence and belonging are useful. OR, as you stated: connected vs. separate and meaningful vs. meaningless. The deeper the abstraction, the easier to misunderstand, I think.

But don't get me wrong, I am enjoying the model. Just be sure to always wash your hands after you write! (inside joke from your recent Twitter quoting Robert)

"The Numinous"

@ Kate
I wonder if what you call "The Numinous" serves as your Buddhist monism.
I think people differ in how they perceive what you are speaking about. But many people do not perceive this at all. I think some Buddhists would feel very comfortable talking about the "numinous" and many wouldn't have any notion similar to it.
This sensation is interesting and I feel is deeply personal and perhaps temperamentally determined.
Of course I am not sure it has any ontological anchor, but then that is my temperament, of course. :-)


Kate Gowen's picture

It's possible that unbeknownst to myself I am some kind of monist; however I didn't call it 'The Numinous'. I called it a quality available to experience, not some kind of concretised entity. It is more akin to 'the nothing' in Wallace Stevens' poem, "The Snow Man" --

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

And to have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there
and the nothing that is.


Kate Gowen's picture

This poem is my personal exemplar of 'Negative Capability'-- which I think is more nondual than monist. I've no claim to be a philosopher, of course.

Saving sacredness from religion and nihilism

@Kate, Sabio:

Yes, the denial of sacredness is one of the most problematic aspects of the scientistic world-view ("we can't measure it so it doesn't exist"). And, fixating sacredness ("we've got it in this box, and you can't get it anywhere else") is one of the most problematic aspects of dualistic religion. My chapter on sacredness will make this point. It will probably be 17 years before I get to write that; in the mean time, the schematic overview might give a hint.

I suspect that recognizing that both denial and fixation of sacredness are unworkable is a big part of what drives people to contemporary pop spirituality. It's spiritual but not religious—and that is one of the several things that is right about it.

I also think it's possible to accept sacredness within a purely naturalistic world-view, should one want to do that—that's what "enchanted naturalism" is about. No woo-woo required. (I don't find the natural/supernatural distinction coherent, so I'm not exactly a naturalist. But maybe this is relevant for some readers.)


Thank you very much for the discussion of the terms "monism" and "dualism". I think social belonging/independence is a different (related) distinction. But something like "total connectedness" vs. "perfect distinctness" would be better terms for the distinction I do want to draw. Better both to avoid confusion with monism/dualism in the mind/body problem and to avoid sounding academic. I'll chew on this for a while.

Proliferation and 'diverse dualisms'

Wow, the discussion is really lighting up here, and is sometimes interesting. I do get the impression that all the participants know each other face-to-face, so I hope I'm not butting in.

I just wanted to respond to David's analysis of 'diverse dualisms'. It seemed to me that it might be a good example of 'proliferation' (a term used in the Pali Canon and translating the Pali term papanca - I don't know if it's found in Tibetan Buddhism). Roughly speaking, papanca means something like 'a distracting flow of associated mental influences'. It's sometimes a useful idea when analysing what happens in meditation, but I think it can also be usefully applied to philosophical analysis.

What distinguishes proliferation in meditation experience is that the flow of associated ideas is a direct indication of indirect resistance from a part of one's psyche that is resistant to the object of meditation. It's almost as though the psychic 'enemy' is using a special magnetic weapon to disrupt integrative activity that would threaten its independence. What makes proliferation stealthy and sneaky is that it gradually grows the object of meditation itself into something else. I tend to think a similar thing is happening on a larger scale when purely metaphysical ideas proliferate, and one starts to get engaged in them for their own sake. The motive may still be to get beyond them, but the part of us that wants our ideas to stay fixed and dogmatic remotely disrupts the analysis of those fixed ideas, so that the proliferation of the analysis itself does the same job the metaphysical ideas themselves would formally have done.

I've certainly experienced this myself in the analysis of eternalist and nihilist ideas I engaged in for my thesis, and I'm not sure that I escaped it. For example, I got bogged down on the question of whether Marx was an eternalist or a nihilist (see In the end, it doesn't matter whether or not he was an eternalist or a nihilist, and it was only attachment to the categories I had created in my own analysis that made it seem to matter. What mattered practically speaking was the ways in which metaphysical assumptions in Marx could be linked to moral failures of the kind that students of twentieth century world history are very familiar with.

So, I wondered whether you think your analysis of diverse dualisms serves a purpose in melting dualism or whether it has subtly become an end in itself. Some of the same comment might even be made about the discussion of monism: surely the important thing is to identify how it is problematic in practice, rather than exactly why? If we go too much into why, we are perhaps debating who shot the poisoned arrow rather than pulling it out. The why, as far as I can see, does not differ markedly from the 'why' behind many other metaphysical positions.

Which stance combinations matter?

Hi, Robert. You are welcome here, of course. I know most, but not all, of the commenters face-to-face; almost none of them know each other.

The complexity in my "diverse dualisms" post was meant to be a joke. It was trying to make the same point you and Sabio did, that this sort of analysis gets complicated and academic quickly, and is mostly irrelevant to practical problems. Apparently it wasn't clear that it was meant ironically—probably due to a high caffeine/sleep ratio on my part—so I've gone back and replaced the whole thing with a note to that effect.

You somewhere used the phrase "unholy alliances between eternalism and nihilism", which I think is brilliant. That's just what happened in Marxism, I agree. (By the way, there's a nice analysis of this in Camus' The Rebel—a book that strongly influenced the analysis of ethics I'll eventually present.) The same thing happens even in traditional Christianity, in its denial of the meaningfulness of the mundane. (Nietzsche made this point.)

The question you raise in your final paragraph is important: do we need different antidotes to monist and dualist eternalisms? I think the answer is yes; I've sketched that in my reply to your other recent comment.

Trouble with Sacred

I have always had trouble with both sacred and non-sacred, with meaningful and meaningless. You are pointing at a philosophy that takes neither of these stances. But if I am right, that 4th way is hard won. So my view must be different and perverse, for it is not hard won. Or at least it seems not that way to me.

Easy win

It's uncommon, I think. Difficult? I don't know. Maybe it's a matter of temperament, and it happens to be easy for you and hard for most. Or, you have been thinking hard about this sort of thing for a long time. (Haven't you?) Or maybe... maybe lots of things...

Yeah, I have thought for

Yeah, I have thought for decades about such things and am always accused of "thinking too much". But I am not sure how it works. Another explanation is that "meaningfulness" and "sacred" are abstractions layered on a cocktail of emotions which varies from individual to individual.

The simpler emotions could be fear, loneliness, anger, lethargy and such and then your culture teaches you how to organize these into words/sounds like "sacred" or "meaningful". Perhaps some people contract the "meaningful" meme-virus more easily than others for some reason. But in the end, we all dance with the same emotions.

Wallace Stevens

@ Kate
Thanks for the intro to Wallace Stevens. I read his Wiki article -- he sounds like a fascinating fellow. He will be fodder for my planned posts on How we Use Poetry.

poetry as a way of knowing

Kate Gowen's picture

@ Sabio-- funny about conversational 'meander': Wallace Stevens has been a culture hero of mine for decades; but so familiar, it never dawned on me to look him up on Wikipedia. Great stuff there!

Mulling over why I'm more inclined to poetry than science, I think it is the contrast I perceive in its ability to present complexity, without succumbing to that reductionist drive I see in 'science' (at least at the level I'm able to follow it-- and that may indeed be the problem). At the level of popular science, 'explain' seems largely to mean 'explain AWAY.' Is science a kind of monism, then? Maybe that's been said here and I failed to notice.

Common Prejudices

@ Kate
I have never met a person who is deeply into science or math that would derogatorily use the word reductionist nor be inclined to contrast science and poetry in any meaningful way. The people I know who are deep into science or math are awed and inspired by it. I imagine a superficial knowledge of either poetry or science can lead those with an inborn disposition to see the other as inferior or certainly less satisfying -- but that only makes sense (albeit in a scientific way). :-)


Kate Gowen's picture

It seems I have been careless with my 'vorpal sword';
accept my apology if it was your ox I gored.


Kate Gowen's picture

Having given some thought to this over the last few days, my apology for having given offense [my take on the 'common prejudices' comment] stands.

However, the offense was inadvertent; looking again at my comment, which seemed to occasion it, I see many qualifiers indicating personal opinion, understanding-- possibly deficient-- and preferences as to how to proceed in arriving at 'meaningness.' I don't see 'contrast' as a 'fighting word,' rather as one attempting a dispassion that I've understood to be part of the scientific method. Just this old lady's take on the matter.

The only reason to refer to this exchange is that I think there is utility in considering the idea of 'poetry as a way of knowing.' I would hate to see that made inaccessible to discussion by my having been clumsy in trying to introduce it.

An answer to the ultimate in smugness! Yes, really.

Matthew O&#039;Connell's picture

I think the smugness of New Agers is the ultimate in smugnes because it goes beyond reason and argument and therefore beyodn questioning and doubt. The notion of oneness is ultimately beyond conceptual thought and it cannot be argued with so it means the need for intellectual rigour and debate is non-existant. It is timeless and beyond form. Any rational thought and debate of oneness is to 'not understand' and 'not feel' the great truth that can only be arrived at through 'instinct and feeling'. It is a post-rationalist rational (can I say that?) and therefore to question is to be below such a lofty standard of grace. The arrival at the conclusion of oneness is fundamentally through 'intuition' and the 'feminine side' of the brain/womb/dildo etc, so therefore is more intune with the Earth's, sorry, Gaia's menstrual cycle of holiness and spirituality and is perfectly achievable through shiny crystals and magic wands (especially those made by Hitachi).

Stir it up!

Noah's picture

To potentially stir up, perhaps unwisely, an already-died-down discussion:

@ Sabio

You said: "I think the "Poetry Culture" feeds on the same intuition-is-truth trough. People into poetry thing of the poet like a Greek oracle. Such thinking has been with us for millennia -- it is a normal temptation of mind, I am afraid -- and that appears to be what James is saying, right. Is that his quote which starts: "We all have some ear ..." (you might want to label that)."

Did I miss something, or did your denunciation of the "Poetry Culture" kind of come out of left field? Anyway, I've learned, I think, that observing non-duality from a form-fixated perspective makes said non-duality appear to be, perhaps you see poetry as emptiness-without-form? 'Just' intuitive?

I like poetry (and perhaps Kate was saying the same thing?) because it (at least the good stuff) seems to integrate intuition - nebulosity - within a framework of words and stanzas - form - that is understandable.

I like, and am amazed by, science as well - cosmology, for example. Maybe good science does the same thing, but from the opposite approach - perhaps it integrates "the facts" within the undeniable mysteriousness of our universe. Perhaps we appreciaters of poetry can sometimes accidentally see science as dismissive of intuition, as form-without-emptiness.

A good synthesis, a good integration, of science and poetry would almost undoubtedly help most people in most situations, yeah? I think so.

@ David

You said: "If I were talking with a nihilist, I could just say "that's crazy, look at the evidence", and a nihilist would have no problem coming up with a reply. Monists seem to retreat into themselves if you question their assumptions at all; and that is part of why I don't understand monism as well as I want to."

Yes. Absolutely. This has been my experience as well. To qualify, my experience with Monists has been mostly in northern California, but also a bit here in Wisconsin. I imagine, these days, thanks to Mr. Tolle and others, that Monists can be found pretty much everywhere you go.

What do you think about the idea that many Monists DO have good intentions, and for someone to check them on their ideas is maybe interpreted as an attack because perhaps they don't realize that they are fundamentally Nihilist? They are Nihilist in that they cannot conceive of actually analyzing systems/approaches by the RESULTS of said systems/approaches, but only by their INTENTIONS...because..."the world will do what it does, and I am not in control, so my intentions are really all I have".

That is perhaps a bit confusing...but so is Monism.

Is Monism a delusional overcompensitory response to feeling impotent?

Questioning Monists on their ideas is, from their perspective, dragging them back down into Nihilism, which they are desperately trying to flee from, right?

So, yeah: they think that the options are Nihilism - "nothing matters because I have no control over anything because I am too weak" - or Monism - "I am God so I can't even experience discomfort".

So why the hell would we be so sadistic (from their perspective) as to purposely drag them back down into the shitty option of Nihilistic pain?

I think I'm really starting to understand this. Maybe not though. :-)

So, how do you convince someone that Monist delusion and Nihilistic victim-think are not the only two options?

I suppose one might try to DEMONSTRATE this cognitive Threading-of-the-Needle, and maybe that's what a good Lama can do.

And I suppose your whole Meaningness website is also an attempt to show people that they don't have to settle into one extreme camp or the other.

So, thank you.

Regarding the denial/fixation of sacredness:
" It will probably be 17 years before I get to write that; in the mean time, the schematic overview might give a hint."

I laughed out loud when I read this. I love the number 17. Primes represent!

@ Mr. Ellis

"If we go too much into why, we are perhaps debating who shot the poisoned arrow rather than pulling it out."

Yes, this rings true with me for sure. Analysis paralysis, or something akin to it, right?

I think that sometimes, though, so many different people are getting poison arrows shot at them from so many different directions, and for such a long period of time, that sometimes a systemic approach seems necessary. Think war.

Maybe we can do both - pull out the arrows, and ALSO figure out who is shooting at us. Maybe understanding WHO is shooting at us can help us understand FROM WHICH DIRECTIONS we should be defending ourselves.

Analogies are fun.

@ Everyone

Good luck!

Noah Stirs the Pot

@ Noah
Poetry is just a form -- it can be romantic, comical, boring, highly-nuanced, mysterious or bland. There is nothing about poetry that helps us expect any content or helps us to know anything about the writer. It is just a style of putting words together.
"No," to answer your 'question', "my comment was not coming from left-field. But it may have come from a field you have not considered."

When you wrote,

I like poetry... because it (at least the good stuff) seems to integrate intuition - nebulosity - within a framework of words and stanzas - form - that is understandable.

You are ironically illustrating dualistic thinking in categorizing good and bad poetry. And worse, you are telling us that "good" is what you like. Or again, worse, you are trying to tell us what poetry should be.

It is this snobbish sort of mystical presuppositions concerning a mere form that I was addressing. Sort of the "snobbishness" David is speaking of -- in my opinion (and thus not "left field"). Though I doubt the snobbishness is intentional, it is nonetheless there.

Concerning science -- it is a method for testing the world. It does not have to be integrative, that can be another project. Facts can be ugly, isolated, contradictory and much more.


Noah's picture



Well, define poetry then. If it's "just a form", then what, exactly, are its characteristics?

It sounds like you can't imagine an understanding of "poetry" or "science" that isn't a dictionary definition. I feel like I'm having a conversation with that teacher they bring in to 'teach' poetry to the kids in Dead Poets Society after they oust Robin William's character. Remember what happens next?

Poetry has to be understood poetically. Your cognition has to be artistic.

What poetry moves you?
Does the phrase "the poetry of the movement of the trees" mean anything to you, or is that just an unintelligible sentence?

And tell me how the 'facts' of science are presented objectively if they have to come THROUGH people who are, a lot of the time, very confused, not 'objective'.

I mean, I'm sure you are familiar with the phrase "bad science". Are you not?

How does this bad science come about if science is about the "facts", and these facts are just what they are, supposedly indisputably.

"The Earth is flat..."
"The Earth is the center of the universe..."
"The lives of native peoples are nasty, brutish, and short..."
"More and more energy-intensive technology will save us..."
"The Aryan race is OBVIOUSLY superior to all other races..."
"Women are not as intellectually capable as men, especially white men..."
"Nutrition is purely carbs, protien, fiber, and vitamins..."
"Agriculture is purely nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium..."
"'Free-markets' are obviously the most superior form of economic organization..."
"Fracking doesn't contaminate groundwater..."
"Fluoride is not carcinogenic, but rather is good for you..."
"Plastic is a miraculous substance (not the scourge of the planet)!"

Thanks scientists!

Science has to be interpreted. (by both the scientists, and the people to whom the scientists are presenting their findings)

Interpretation is an ART.

Insane people interpreting scientific findings brings about insane conclusions.

I mean: evolutionary psychology, e.g. (A funny and emotionally triggering article - Feminism Makes Boners Sad -

Reading scientific findings, just like reading poetry, is not like reading the instruction manual for a DVR.

AND many of these scientists are very much swayed by where their funding is coming from, which sucks.

There is no Pure, Above-It-All science.

Are you saying words like "good" (in regard to poetry, in this instance) mean nothing now? Well, that sucks too.
There are no good or bad wines...or films...or good or bad good, no bad anything...because they can't be verified scientifically, quantifiably?? These words just stop meaning anything?

Science is just out of its depth when it tries to understand emotion (and if poetry doesn't treat with emotion, then I don't know what it does), but since science thinks of itself as the pinnacle of cognitive evolution, it simply goes into denial about things that can't be quantifiably tested.

Imagine a stodgy, dusty, old schoolmaster: "All that 'Punk Rock', as the children call it, is just NOISE!"

Poetry looks like it's out of control, or boringly inane, from science's point of view - much like I imagine a lama who manifest yeshe cholwa appears to be out of control (or boringly inane?) to the Monastic Misers - and when something thinks it is the Premier Controller Of All it either has to imprison those scoundrely bandit types, who refuse to play by its rules, in its framework (This poem is 100% scientifically tested and guaranteed to produce feelings of joy in you!), or, if it can't, it has to go to great lengths to dismiss their power/importance (Poetry is just self-important nonsense!).

You seem to interpret my use of the word "good" as coming from an objective point of view, as opposed to a subjective point of view. Yes, I am telling you what poetry SHOULD be. I am not a fan of political correctness, so I'm sorry if an unapologetic opinion is too much to handle. I think poetry SHOULD be certain garden SHOULD be certain relationships SHOULD be certain ways...that painting SHOULD have more red in it...that band SHOULD turn down the treble. Or am I supposed to just leave everything up to chance, or up to someone else volition, pretending I don't have opinions?

But, fine, go through your life scientifically, 'objectively' (as if that were possible), deconstructivly, nihilistically ...stay up there where its safe.

I'll stay down here in the confusing, opinionated compost.

There's chaos down here...but the trees can't grow without the wind.

"Though I doubt the snobbishness is intentional, it is nonetheless there."

Thanks for pointing that out. I'D like to point out that snobbishness is just a form, no better, no worse, than any other form of communication. Or did I miss something?

See? Nihilism sucks.

Good luck.

Shaming away the imagined, evil, nihilistic, science idolator


Well, define poetry then. If it's "just a form", then what, exactly, are its characteristics?

Definitions separating novels, essays, bathroom graffiti, poetry and such would be very hard. See my post: "The Myth of Definition" for part of that reason.

What poetry moves you?

I enjoy some poetry indeed -- as I do some novels, some bathroom graffiti and some essays....

Concerning bad science vs. bad poetry. Science has an aim of an objective test -- where all can agree. Poetry, art, music, sex and more is subjective, by nature. No? Maybe we are mixing senses of the word "Science" -- I am talking about the process of testing hypothesis. You are possibly discussing the institutions and the politically invested manipulative uses of science -- and of course I agree whole heartedly there.

There are no good or bad wines...or films

My kids love movies I think are horrible. A recent study on taste in wines shows how unreliable these evaluations are -- pricing, labeling and thus expectations are huge. People widely prefer different wines that others would swear are bad. But then you know all this.

Poetry looks like it's out of control, or boringly inane, from science's point of view

I am not speaking from a science point of view. As I said, I like some poetry, some wine, some films .... And when I like them, I actually sometimes love them to tears. And when I dislike them, I may think them bland, boring or out of control. It is all subjective. I love the subjective too.

Yes, I am telling you what poetry SHOULD be.

Ah, OK, so you are agreeing with me.

But, fine, go through your life scientifically,'objectively' (as if that were possible), deconstructivly, nihilistically ...stay up there where its safe.

I think you misunderstand me. I think I can disagree with a few of your points without being typified as some horrible, nihilistic substitute teacher. Btw, I too greatly enjoyed "Dead Poets Society"!

Sorry to have frustrated you so much. I too detest the politically correct -- continue your great blasphemies, they enliven the world ! :-)


Noah's picture

@ Sabio

Well, no hard feelings.

Maybe we can go out a get a good/bad beer sometime. :-)

A Nebulous Mind

@ Noah,

Fantastic -- where do you live? I'd love to join you for a GOOD beer, someday. :-)
Our conversation motivate me to create an image (influenced heavily by David) to typify my views. If you look at it, I was arguing against the near enemy called "Romantic Idealism". Thank you for the inspiration and the dialogue.

@ Sabio Hey. Sorry about

Noah's picture

@ Sabio

Hey. Sorry about the long response-time. Not intentional.

I live in Wisconsin.

Where are you?


No Beer tonight

I'm in Pennsylvania. E-mail me through my contact page on my website -- so we can spare this thread.

probably guilty as charged

I spend, or waste, a lot of time arguing on a philosophy forum, and am probably one of the 'Green' types - pro-spirituality, and anti-materialist. I am enrolled in Buddhist studies at a university, and practice meditation. There is a lot of food for thought on this and your other blogs (and Glen Wallis' blogs too.) Nevertheless I am wary about deconstructing my belief system too forensically. I am not atheist, and can't imagine being one even though what I believe about 'God' would probably make me an atheist in the eyes of many of those who talk about 'God'. But nevertheless, I understand life in a generally neo-platonist and mahayana Buddhist type of way.

Part of this is that there is actually something that corresponds with 'the devil'. It might not be a literal reality, in the same way 'God' isn't a 'bearded sky father', but, as myth, conveys an idea: namely that there is a strong force whose aim it is to throw one off the track, confuse the issue, muddy the waters, re-define the terms, and so on. Just as there is a kind of gravity pulling one towards enlightenment, this is like a counter-force that acts to prevent it. The far enemy of spiritual enlightenment is scientific materialism and physicalism, but the near enemy may be schools of enlightenment, or forms of religious and philosophical discourse which appear to be supportive of the idea.

Don't know what category to put this site in at the moment. I am wary about talking myself right out of any commitment to actual sadhana, which I think is what it takes to actually grow spiritually. Talking is much easier than doing.

I'm guilty too, probably

Hi, Jonathan,

Thanks for your comment and interest!

One of the main things I'm trying to do here is to point out an alternative to both eternalism (in which I include most or all God ideas) and nihilism (which includes scientistic materialism). Rejection of either one does not obligate you to embrace the other—nor to adopt some confused agnosticism in-between.

I think you may have obliquely tagged me as a Satanist, which I find rather delightful. I demur, but it's not utterly inaccurate.

Perhaps I can return the compliment. I sometimes rant to the effect that Neoplatonism is the root of all evil. This is somewhat exaggerated, but I am hostile to eternalist monism, which Neoplatonism is an instance of. Along with, as you note, some trends in Mahayana: Yogacara and atman-brahman interpretations of Tathagatagarbha.

Best wishes,


Can Pragmatism Cure Pop Spirituality?

James Hansen's picture

Excellent read, I appreciate the reference to William James. I just recently learned about the "North American Pragmatist" movement as a result of listening to the podcast of Jordan Peterson (Maps of Meaning).

Peterson had specifically referenced Jean Piaget, are you familiar with the latter's work? If so, I'm curious what you think about it (in relation to the potential for resolving issues that surround pop spirituality/psychology, specifically).

Pragmatism and Piaget

Yes, there's a lot to like in the Pragmatists!

Also in Piaget. (To be clear, Piaget was not a Pragmatist.) He founded the intellectual lineage that Robert Kegan works in, of stages of psychological development. I've written about Kegan in quite a few places now... a major influence on me.

In Kegan's terms, pop spirituality/psychology is "stage 3" stuff. For an individual, the way to move forward is into "stage 4," in which you develop a more rigorous and differentiated understanding.

Kegan's Model

James Hansen's picture

Ah yes, I'm somewhat familiar with Kegan's work, but need to read more into it. As far as I can generally tell, it seems to be a robust and coherent progression in the direction of Piaget's model.

What I like about Jordan Peterson's work is that he stitches together a cohesive "narrative structure", so-to-speak, which connects that model to the domain of "religion". According to these neurophysiological developmental models, we're adapted to the environment by virtue of several layers of cognitive abstraction. It seems, therefore, that there's market potential for a Darwinian conception of morality.

This is my general understanding of the argument:

Our cognitive layers are constructed sequentially through a continuous process of signal I/O. As long as we're considered "alive", our nervous system is processing sensory input and generate some kind of (whether conscious or unconscious) motor action.

Since this is a kind of signal flow, the input part of the conveyer belt comes from the same (objective) domain as where our motor impulses output. In other words, we see the apple that we touch.

The other end of the conveyer belt, then constitutes some kind of topology of neural nets. They have a base structure, which is printed out by one's genetic code, then they are "parameterized" over time.

Humans are somewhat unique in their short gestational period and great delicacy as infants. This is, it seems, because we have a lot of grey matter that has to be very spongey in order to be parameterized in a way that enables us to navigate complex social terrain.

So, if there's some set of data that is applied to our neural structures after gestational development, what does that data look like? It constitutes all of the relations that constitute our (developing) object-oriented view of the world.

If you raise a child with wolves, the map that child is equipped with as an adult, to navigate the world, will be deficient if that adult is to function in modern society.

Jordan Peterson's point, generally, is this: the elements of the map such as nuclear non-proliferation treaties, laws, business contracts, stocks, are all present within an essentially materialist society. And yet, the 20th century also experienced wave after wave of materialistic dictator.

This is because God was dead, as Nietzsche said, and Peterson elaborates that the essential elements of religion are required in order to construct an effect map. The contents of the map are meaningless if the charting is off (i.e. being an ideologue).

Nonetheless, to remain pragmatic, the essential elements of religion appear not to include beliefs that conflict with the contributions of science to our growing atlas.

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