Before it gets forgotten, here’s an article by Madeleine Bunting from last Monday’s Guardian. I want to draw attention to it because it is an instance of a mainstream article touching on an obvious fact that almost the entire human race is in denial of, especially the western intelligentsia, and most pertinently secular rationalists. It alludes to findings like this from neuroscience research, but could also have pointed to this kind of thinking from Galen Strawson from current western philosophical discourse.
Why I mention secular rationalists in particular is because the recent upsurge in militant atheism (several books by the likes of Richard Dawkins appearing in the best seller lists, along with TV programmes that support the arguments), which appeared at first to be a response to the assertive electoral power of the Christian right in the USA and maybe also the Islamic theocratic terror movements, might in fact have a much more personal cause.
Because it is easy enough to position yourself against religious militancy that, in both cases, pursues world domination, in order to help build a coalition of pluralistic mutual tolerance against such extremism. But that’s not what they do. Dawkins, Dennet and Hitchens, the three biggest sellers, attack all thinking that doesn’t comply with their own favoured rationalist dogma, accusing all who deny the absolute authority of scientific method of being stupid. Could the overly aggressive stance possibly be born of the inherent uncertainty of their own position? Most people who bluster are covering an obvious insecurity.
The logic of findings that demonstrate the human brain acts before thoughts occur, is that thoughts are only how actions taken objectively by the organism in relation to its environment appear to us. It suggests we are not a privileged species standing above or outside of the world. That we are suffering a delusion when we think we can effectively assert our personal and collective authority. Human action is just action occurring within an entire cosmic process, though to an individualised instance of that process occurring, namely the human body with its configured brain, nervous system and sense of self awareness, it feels as if there is some personal agency.
This actually puts the spiritual dimension back in the frame. If only because that’s what spiritual systems of thought have always said. (I should be clear, here, that I am not talking about religious dogma directed at the mass of worshippers. All spiritual systems from Hindu, through Buddhist, Taoist and Christian to Islam have their ritualistic popular ceremonial activity, but all also have a tradition of philosophical enquiry. And the enquiry is usually an enquiry into just this question.) But more so, because the findings suggest that awareness is not decisive to the process that causes humans to act. This is a staggering discovery.
It suggests that awareness, far from being the decisive turn that separates the human species out from the rest of the organic world, effecting how we act, is simply a fact of existence, there going on in the background. And if that is so, then it is no more or less than endemic to the world itself. Of course, this kind of idea is nothing new to spiritual enquiry, that in all traditions has always maintained this to be the case. They assert that the awareness we experience as human organisms connects us to the greater awareness that exists as an underlying basis of the cosmos.
Spirituality is about recognising that, and personal spiritual practices are about allowing the individualised sense of awareness to merge with the wider dimension – which in essence is infinite and transcendent. God is only a word used to describe that. The jealous, demanding God of the militant theists and, because they too are obsessed with it, the militant atheists, is like a child’s fantasy projection onto a shadowy wall, born of ignorance and their own fears.
Of course, it being the Guardian, Madeleine Bunting’s article is not about these kind of ideas. Instead she grafts a socialist political theory onto the findings, never thinking beyond her discursive remit, though she does touch on Buddhism in the last but one paragraph. Though even here, she presents this as somehow supportive of the compassion and courage required for a new political approach. But it is not so easy as that. The logic of the argument here should carry it beyond its restriction to this or that ideology. Asserting a programme for change will only lead us back to where we already are.
Buddhism, like other spiritual systems, in its essence, is about the realisation of a direct experience of the transcendental. It is about the annihilation of the limited mind. Nirvana actually means the extinction of thoughts that arise in ignorance. When that has occurred and infinite awareness is directly perceived, the individualised organism becomes entirely harmonised with the totality of the cosmos, and all actions arise spontaneously out of that. A human organism in this state exists solely as an example of benevolent, harmonious living, with no ego grasping impulses toward status or wealth beyond what is required to exist in the environment. That’s not politics, it’s life lived at peace with the world.
James Wood responds to this article here.