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The case against the case against the spirit world

I was about to post a followup comment to James' case against the spirit world post, when I realized that I could get more people to read it by actually using the awesome influence granted me as an editor.

I think a kind of agnosticism is the only sane way of dealing with these things. One need only ask James Kent what kind of scientifically final proof he might expect to be able to offer which would finally, objectively and incontrovertibly convince every explorer, shaman, tripper, guru, lama, priest, and new-age party kid that his theory is "more real" then their own personal experience.

The very idea is contradictory: a person who believes someone else's theory over their own experience is not rendered more sane, more in touch with reality, merely because the theory in question happens to be James Kent's.

Clearly there are countless people who have had spiritual experiences through various means, which they experience as valid. The Catholic Church, as an institution spanning back almost 2000 years, has refined the art of using devaluation of individuals' own spiritual experience as a way of cementing their own authority.

Clearly there are countless people who have had experiences which they believe to be valid or beneficial (even if not spiritual) as a result of the use of mind-altering chemicals. The drug war establishment has refined the art of using devaluation of individuals' assessment of their own experience (i.e. defining all use of illegal substances as abuse) to its own immense profit.

In the end, if you want to play the game of saying that your interpretation is "more right" than other people's own interpretations of their own experiences, you're not doing anything different than what every other authoritarian institution has done throughout history. The mere fact that you're propping yourself up with the dominant religion of your time and place (i.e. scientific materialism) does not change that.

Having said all that, a truly enlightened agnosticism, as I am referring to it here (which is inspired by Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs, incidentally) does, in fact, lead one to question one's own experience. The spiritual experience is very much worth questioning. An unquestioning attachment to and reification of a spiritual experience is probably the root of many of the worst horrors of all human history (including all the damage done by the Christian institution over the centuries alluded to above.) Questioning one position naturally places one functionally in an opposing position, and that is exactly the way it should be: if you're going to question your assumptions, don't hold back! But the secret is to be comfortable enough with uncertainty to damp the oscillations that can arise from such a system. Don't swing from one extreme belief to another. Just because the military-industrial complex is killing Gaia doesn't mean you have to be a new-age flake; just because so many psychedelic users become new-age flakes doesn't mean you have to be an angry materialist. There is room for all these (and more) in reality; true sanity requires making room in your head for them, too.

Posted By omgoleus at 2007-12-08 14:42:40 permalink | comments
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psymen : 2007-12-24 04:35:15
We must allways be disturbed by the truth
gerbix magic : 2007-12-09 18:04:00
I'm manufacturing jenkem in a Lilly-style isolation tank so as to fully immerse myself in the trip. I've just sort of been living in the thing for a few days.
silas : 2007-12-09 13:37:19
This thread is getting far too preachy for my taste... we need some more stupid drug user/jenkem stories to liven things up.
gerbix magic : 2007-12-09 10:46:33
benzyme : 2007-12-09 10:44:47
sounds like something straight out of waking life...except you forgot to mention neo-humans.. evolution of existentialism
graphicequaliser : 2007-12-09 10:24:08
If postmodernism is so widespread, why does nearly everyone behave as if to maximise their conformity to the norm? Everyone seems to think the same thing rather than a varied cornucopia or hodgepodge of beliefs. They seem to fear being branded "the odd one out". This lends to, rather than opposes, a streamlining of belief structure amongst the population. Postmodernism should give the opposite - a rich tapestry of different modes of thought. That is not what I am currently experiencing in the modern Western world. Thought patterns are more crass and stultefied than ever before, IMO. Language is responsible for a lot of this conformity, along with religious belief (altered forms of Sun worship) and cold, scientific rationale. We need, in fact, crave mystery in our lifes, but our over-secure existences lack just that. Any unsurety leads to insecurity, so there is no room for mystery in modern life. Postmodernism is actually premodernism.
amazingdrx : 2007-12-09 02:25:25
"It must have a natural cause."

"It must have a supernatural cause."

Let these two asses be set to grind corn.

- Malaclypse the Elder, The Book of Honest Truth

benzyme : 2007-12-09 00:25:45
nosir. I'm benm, different person.. biochemist with my own beliefs (which are quite flexible, actually). Not actually an agnostic, I do believe in this higher power which resonates with any matter/energy form, it's the idea of spirit entities that I'm uncertain of; and I observe no single person's philosophy as fact regarding the matter, not even Hegel. zen is one of my fav philosophies, albeit not all of its ideals (too many ambiguities)
omgoleus : 2007-12-08 23:01:24
Agnosticism can certainly be it's own trip, as Scotto says. Once you describe something and call it an "ism", then you have a handle to grasp onto it, to become attached to it, to distill it down to its essence and manufacture it in large quantities and sell it for a profit, kill people who disagree, etc. I would love to write a sci-fi story of a totalitarian agnostic regime where people were executed for appearing too certain about anything, that would crack me the hell up. Almost as much as Iain M. Banks's mercenary band of solipsists in Against a Dark Background!

Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference between grasping on to a philosophy, religion, or attitude, and not grasping. As RAW said so well, quoted here by charlie25. The point is that what you believe is one mental process, but how flexible is your belief is a separate question, rooted in separate mental processes. The buddhist madhyamaka school of Nagarjuna is very obviously designed this way, incidentally. Often the koans in Rinzai work this way, too. But that would be a whole other long story.

Finally, I have to say to graphicequalizer that although I appreciate the comment, I am surprised you would find it "refreshing to hear someone say... that nobody's interpretation is any more correct than anyone else's." This was the very essence of postmodernism and has been said ad nauseam and way, way, WAY beyond (I mean, beyond nauseam, well to the point of convulsions and death) in every liberal academic discipline for decades. It happens to be somewhat going out of style, or at least it was until the Bush era re-galvanized all the liberal looney-tunes, but nonetheless that's hardly new. It's not really what I'm saying, though. To demonstrate, come over here and try "disbelieving" my fist as I punch you in the face... Unfortunately, usually someone's interpretation is more correct than someone else's. Not in such an absolute way as the absolutists would have it; and not in such a relative way as the relativists would have it. :-)

As an aside, I apologize for accidentally thinking benzyme's comment was from jamesk.

charlie25 : 2007-12-08 19:31:29
It's one thing to say that a spiritual vocabulary isn't necessary to "explain" the psychedelic experience, it's another to proclaim that all shaman's and priests are simply protecting their employment benefits by using a spiritual interpretation.

I've had Robert Anton Wilson on my mind this whole time. Specifically his famous encounters with "entities" from Sirius as discussed in Cosmic Trigger I. First he believed it outright, then he dismissed it outright, then he eventually settled into saying "it's best not to try to solve these questions, because your next experience will probably contradict it.."

I consider myself an agnostic in some sense, but I'm also aware of the pitfalls. Contrary to appearances I've been constantly questioning my position here.. it's an endless process. My mind is made up only to value above all else the primacy of personal, felt experience and to be suspicious of over-arching assertions about such subjective matters. Everyone has their own little Occam's razor inside them, it's up to us personally to keep it sharp and effective and... personally substantiated.

We could argue about the merits of agnosticism for aeons, but I still think it's a safer & more intuitively pleasing bet than the alternatives. As for belief being the death of intelligence, I don't believe that, but I sure do have a strong suspicion. ;)

Scotto : 2007-12-08 19:11:11
Dunno, doesn't sound to me like anyone in this comment thread is "constantly question[ing] ones own experience and subjective interpretation"; sounds like minds are made up. Agnosticism is its own reality tunnel, which brings to mind the goofy old saying "how far can you open your mind before your brain falls out". I don't mind James positing that a spiritual vocabulary isn't necessary to "explain" the psychedelic experience; there's an Occam's razor appeal to that perspective.

On a completely separate and probably irrelevant note, Robert Anton Wilson used to say that "belief is the death of intelligence," but I always thought if you believed that, you were an idiot. Ha!

charlie25 : 2007-12-08 18:44:46
Good post, & especially good to point out that most important of all is to constantly question ones own experience and subjective interpretation, whether it has a rational or spiritual favoritism.

In regards Jk's comment below, "Nothing will convince the shamans and priests that there is no spirit world, because then they would be out of a job" - that's ludicrous, and... it has such a mocking and cynical tone to it... I've heard you say pretty much exactly the same in one of your criticisms of Terence Mckenna, that if he had stopped talking about self transforming elf machines he would have been out of a job, etc.

I'd rephrase Jk's quote "The end of *my* spiritual journey was not finding spirits, it was finding my self." All that we will ever know is our own felt experience. This is fundamentally important and true, imo.

graphicequaliser : 2007-12-08 15:32:40
First off, I would like to compliment the author on a wonderful article. It is more than refreshing to hear someone say the individual interpretation of the universe is what makes their reality real, and that nobody's interpretation is any more correct than anyone else's. Imagination is the key to flexibility of universal appraisal - the more you have, the more likely you are to be further evolved. Bigotry stems from inflexible idea apparatus and is all too commonplace nowadays for my liking. Let's hope things improve before "demons" overrun the world. Spirituality is, in itself, just another framework for trying to understand this beautiful and mysterious place all consciousness inhabits.
omgoleus : 2007-12-08 15:32:30
Then wouldn't someone else whose spirituality would be as deserving of respect as your own automatically be someone who wouldn't need you to tell him what to believe?

I'm serious about this. Claiming to know the truth about the spiritual path is the most fundamental tool in the oppressive arsenal of the world's major, historically destructive, religions, and in my opinion any religion (or religion-equivalent, such as communism or capitalism) only manages to be destructive on a large scale to the extent that its institution convinces the people that its way is the right way. Why would you want to play that same game?

Another way of looking at it is the damped oscillation I mentioned. Just because you don't need a shaman to tell you what to believe, doesn't mean you should try to tell the shaman what to believe instead! :)

And as an aside, what exactly is this "self" the finding of which is so important? Where do you find it? What's it made of? How long does it last? There are quite a few extremely insightful and knowledgeable buddhists who would take issue with the way you talk about the self! I'm not one of them, though. At least, I'm not insightful and knowledgeable; I might still take issue just for the sake of arguing... ;)

benzyme : 2007-12-08 15:20:41
perhaps it's semantics, but to me, spirituality doesn't stop at finding one's self, but also realization of the connectedness of self to everything else. the thermodynamic law of conservation of energy is applicable to the individual. matter and energy are never destroyed, merely transformation. I recognize a spirit as a theoretical anomaly of this premise, however, my belief is absolutely separate from a religious person's belief: I do not need to be told what to believe. I don't need a shaman, priest, or other spiritual guide to tell me what spirituality is, anymore than I need to take an exogenous chemical agent to clue me in onto it; though I would certainly attribute past psychedelic experiences to changing my view on the matter, made me somewhat more aware.
omgoleus : 2007-12-08 14:54:17
Why do you need to reject spirits to legitimize the experience? If your experience is legitimate, and their experience is legitimate, why is it more or less legitimate if it's explained your way or their way?

And how can you be so sure you are the one who knows what the end of the spiritual journey is?

jamesk : 2007-12-08 13:25:59
Nothing will convince the shamans and priests that there is no spirit world, because then they would be out of a job. Anything that enhances appreciation and enthusiasm for life is "spiritual", but you do not need to invoke spirit entities or spirit worlds to legitimize these experiences. I have had very "spiritual" psychedelic experiences just being in nature, without needing the presence of spirit beings or spirit world to have a greater appreciation for my own life and fellow living things. I do not need spirits to tell me how beautiful and wondrous creation is, all I need is to open my eyes. The end of the spiritual journey is not finding spirits, it is finding the self.

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