Enlightenment & Reductionism
I was reading about enlightenment the other day (from a thread on twitter I can no longer find). The basic premise was that, a lot of people teach themselves/one another to have distance from their thoughts and feelings, plug into pure stimulation that has no valence in and of itself. Pain becomes a signal that is neither good nor bad, that doesn’t have a story behind it. The author (rightly I think) points out that following this thread can lead to disengagement, potentially even suicide at the outer limits of the drive.
I think this approach (to meditation/enlightenment) is more or less like taking the mental/spiritual approach to reductionism. We strip the subjectivity out of a moment, and we discover the ‘self is an illusion.’ Well… of course.
The metaphor I like to deploy here relates to gazing at a pointillist painting. You can say ‘there’s no figures here, there’s just dots’ or -one step further- ‘there’s no dots, there’s just pigment and canvas… arrangements of mostly carbon atoms’ or ‘there’s no carbon atoms, there’s just protons, neutrons and electrons’ or some other deeper levels that I don’t know the physics terms for (though, the quantum weirdness means that I’m in good company, at a certain level there’s only things that physicists understand via equation, maybe, not by word). Or, you can say you see figures.
Just because the self is mutable, transitory doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Or, rather, when you feel up the elphant while wearing a blindfold on you can experience different animals depending on your approach angle (in this case, existance or non-existence of an entity called you).
I believe in emergance, I believe in patterns and games with agency… their own dreamings and directions interacting with other patterns and games with their own dreamings and agencies in a recursive swirl of complication. But if you break everything down using the tools of reductivist negation, you won’t find the game. The pawn is not the game of chess, even the entire board with all its pieces is not the game - the pattern swirls of following rules creates something we call ‘a game of chess’ which we know even if we can’t point to it in the pieces themselves. There is a figure in the pointillist painting (or, perhaps we can better understand this as a figure we evoke with or through the painting). And in the same way, I think there is a self with agency that exists even if we won’t find it by sieving our way to constituent parts.
So does the self exist or not? It depends on how you frame your view; the world is made/unmade by how you look at it.
As a game, I think we as moderns are impossibly good at breaking things down into smaller, component pieces. We can find the flaws. We can spot the paradoxes and contradictions. What would happen if you, if I, spent a bit more time looking at things on a human scale, what meanings could emerge, what figures could we see?
Taking once step further, all of this points to the suggestion of super-selfs. If we are made of atoms & void dancing together till we see the figure in the painting, then for what figures are we merely the dots of? For what figures are the planets and stars evoking or can thereby be evoked? With such thoughts, egregore being the quasi respectable term these days I think, spirits, gods, archetypes make much more sense.
What can you see, what you can you hear, if you let there be a figure rather than just a lot of meaningless dots?