We’re approaching a time when many things will be happening that will test to the maximum our ability to believe and accept. I tell myself it may be useful to discuss my own way of proceeding with the novel and strange.
You’ll have your own way as well but perhaps we can compare notes (and I’ll leave comments open for you to contribute your own ways). We may need every tool in our toolboxes soon.
Phenomenology vs. Empirical Materialism
It’s very useful to have a common language so let me introduce some distinctions. I apologize for the Latinate diction, but a few basic terms may assist us.
First of all, I am by nature what’s called a phenomenologist rather than an empirical materialist. It’s been a long time since I sat in a philosophy class so, if I say what that means, I’m saying what it means for me only.
To say “I’m a phenomenologist” for me means that I study and accept the subjective (as well as the objective) where empirical materialists might rather restrict themselves to studying and accepting only the objective. If I were only to accept what can be objectively touched and seen and felt, then I probably would not study or accept the existence of the soul, God, faith, or love.
I certainly would not accept the existence of unseen beings in higher dimensions or their equally-invisible spaceships. And how could I explain Ascension or even enlightenment? Where would a discontinuity find a place in my research? No, empirical materialism confines me to too small a world, I’m afraid.
I could as easily say I’m an experientialist rather than an empiricist, or a subjectivist instead of an objectivist, in the sense that I look for proof of something in my own subjective experience of it. That leaves me in a position where a lot that I study is only “verifiable by me.” I’m not as attracted to empirical studies like astrophysics as I am to experiential fields like the growth movement or mysticism.
The central assignment in life is to know who we are. But the study of that and the knowing of that leaves empirical studies far behind. On my path of self-awareness, there are few empirical devices or tools that can help as much as experiential tools.
Heuristic Value: What’s Useful?
The heuristic point of view encourages us to take a new point of view based on the usefulness it promises. Heuristics refers to the process of discovery in which we use whatever is helpful to further our process. Something has heuristic value if it proves useful in a process. And it has heuristic value because we say so.
That doesn’t mean I allow the ends to justify the means. It doesn’t mean I would somehow torture someone to get the truth because it’s useful. Dharma and the divine qualities trump heuristics. But it does mean that I release myself from confining rigidities of disciplinary conventions and boundaries.
When I was a doctoral student in Sociology, I spent days in the library wandering through folkloristics, proxemics, semiotics and every other neighboring discipline. I could not keep myself within paradigmatic boundaries for the life of me. Finally I had to leave the university for so many reasons – empirical materialism was too small, disciplinary boundaries were too confining. (I think we call me an “Indigo,” do we not?)
For me, the master of the heuristic was Edward de Bono, the inventor of lateral thinking. He would do things like open a dictionary, look at a word and then ask what that word had to tell him about the solution of a problem.
To solve a teacher shortage in Nigeria (I think it was), he found the word “crocodile.” What did a crocodile have to tell him about solving a teacher shortage in a developing country? The crocodile’s tail follows the animal around. So de Bono designed a system in which the teacher-in-training followed the teacher around and after so many years was certified as a teacher.
He was a Houdini at escaping any confining box, context or paradigm. And skills like those are what we’re going to need.
Suspension of Disbelief
Another useful tool in my toolbox is the suggestion made to readers or viewers of science-fiction to “suspend disbelief.” That was a pre-requisite for getting into a good Isaac Asimov novel or an Arthur C. Clark film. One has to be willing to enter the scene on the writer’s or film maker’s terms at least for the period of the experience if one wanted to derive the benefit from or be inspired by it.
Another cut at this I call acting “as if.” Adopting this point of view is similar to suspending disbelief. For the purposes of what’s produced, we act “as if” something were true. That too allows an avenue to discovery by opening me up to new ways of seeing.
Try It On/Test It Out
The growth movement is dedicated to helping us to emerge from the illusions and delusions that we create for ourselves in the course of our lives. It’s useful to listen to what another is saying who is “calling us” on “our stuff” or, even better, to call ourselves.
To do that we have to “try on” the perspective of another – in this case, the one who may be calling us. We try it on and test it out and, if it fits with our experience, then we adopt it. Without trying it on and testing it out, we may never accept a new or different viewpoint on any one question.
Accept Provisionally First and Watch for Contrary Evidence
In law, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. As a human-rights decision-maker, I and my colleagues went further. People fleeing torture or imprisonment often were not able to bring documents with them to support or prove their case. So we were encouraged to accept everyone’s credibility until evidence was produced to the contrary.
The most obvious source of evidence was their own speaking. If they said things that were inconsistent, contradictory, improbable, implausible, etc., or proven mistaken by the country documents, and could give no reasonable explanation, that might be grounds for rejecting their account as not credible. (Little did we suspect that the country documents could be contrived in a post-9/11 world.)
An effective remedy to the need to have all our ducks in a row before we act, to do things perfectly, etc., is to use and accept successive approximations. Vilfredo Pareto used this in the development of new disciplines and B.F. Skinner used it in the the development of new lines of trained behavior.
I in fact use it in my writing. With each pass at the subject of vasanas, I made an entirely new statement, gradually honing or polishing the concept more on each occasion.
Allowing myself to approach a subject through successive approximations relieves stress and prevents me from thinking of any one statement as a finished product. It builds in change, flexibility, adaptability, and growth in our efforts at meeting and understanding a subject.
Thomas Kuhn looked at the subject of paradigm change and saw that the willingness to “be with” paradox, confusion and distress allowed for there to be a moment of realization in which all things rearranged themselves. Often it consisted in “putting one’s arms around” an entire subject. It could mean dividing a subject between two seemingly conflicting matters (Durkheim’s distinction between “value” and “fact” is an example).
It could bring forth a view of a relationship that was not apparent before, as Benjamin Lee Whorf was so adept at doing. Whorf discovered that the way we described things determined how they showed up for us: describing something as an “empty drum” might hide the fact that flammable vapors existed in it, leading to a fire when a match was thrown into the drum; describing a switch as a “light switch” when it operated a cone heater might lead to a fire if a coat was thrown over the heater; etc.
Metaphors We Live By
Examining the impact on us and our beliefs of the metaphors we use to understand and experience our world can release us from points of view that no longer serve us. This is very close to Whorf’s work, in that we look at the linguistic symbols that define our world and our response to it to free us from constraints we had not realized even existed before.
Oh my, we could go on and on, looking at the constraints of our conceptual boxes, but I think you get my drift.
When we’re about to meet beings from other planets, other dimensions, and maybe even other universes, when we’re about to see our own cherished and treasured views largely overturned and quickly so, these are the conceptual devices I’ll be turning to to remain open, available and sane.
They describe philosophically or operationally a path that’s useful to open to. They help us to try out things we may be shown in the times ahead that are novel or strange. They help us move from rigidity to suppleness, conventionality to flexibility.