Sunday, April 17, 2011

Definitely Maybe

Mitch Horowitz:

For all of its inroads into mainstream life, New Age became a term (and sometimes an epithet) that for many serious people connoted nothing more than a softheaded jumble of spiritual-therapeutic remedies or bromides. But the New Age did, in fact, have a core set of beliefs and a definable point of view. Most people, thought schools, or movements identified as New Age from the 1970s through the early twenty-first century shared these traits:

  1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas
  2. Belief in a mind-body connection in health
  3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages
  4. Belief that thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality
  5. Belief that spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine

Most twenty-first century Americans, whatever their background, would probably agree with a majority of those statements.

Well, let's see how I do:

1. Meh. I'm sure a lot of spiritual or religious ideas are comforting and reassuring, especially those that reinforce core features of our identity, the ones we don't like to question. On the other hand, Catholicism, to name the most obvious example. Assuming you're not forced to spend a lifetime in therapy to recover from being raped by a priest, you're still going to have all that infamous guilt to work through. And on the other other hand, I see intelligent people put themselves through unnecessary anguish over the state of their soul and the purpose of their life, straining their third eye to try to perceive supposedly hidden clues to the Meaning Of It All behind the presumed façade of empirical reality. And that doesn't even touch on whether believing in manifestly false ideas can be said to be truly good for you in the long run (assuming, of course, that at least some metaphysical ideas are indeed false), regardless of whether they make you temporarily happy or not. Is ignorance truly bliss, then?

2. Given that the mind is part of the body; more specifically, the brain, then yes, obviously. The problem comes when you're asked to rigorously define "connection".

3. No. And what does "higher" mean anyway? Better? In what way? I have a terrible suspicion that a lot of people think there can and should be an ideal world in which nothing "bad" or "negative" ever happens, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how necessary those things are in order for there to be anything "good" or "positive". I don't need to elaborate here, since Alan Watts wrote many fine books about this concept before I even existed. Check them out.

4. Thoughts can determine how effectively you act upon and react to reality, but there is still something going on out there independent of your ego that you simply do not control with the power of your thoughts, no matter how much of a market there is for books telling you otherwise.

5. First, we would have to agree that there is such a thing as "spiritual understanding", rather than just metaphysical nonsense, so once again, let's define our terms. Even if we can't, though, I can certainly agree that ordinary individuals are perfectly capable of coming up with their own nonsense without having to be instructed in the proper methods by any supposed authorities.


  1. What's this? Rigorous logical thought applied to MY worldview? How dare you!

    Seriously, though, that was pretty refreshing. I could pick at you all day with the minutiae, but we both know that would go nowhere. We agree on the basics.

  2. The joke is, these statements are all true in a way, just not in a fuzzy, easy way.
    1. Understanding that you are a part of something bigger that can't die is very therapeutic. But it doesn't mean life won't be painful and difficult.
    2. Some mental states make people less anxious and more motivated to behave in a responsible way, which can be very beneficial to health.
    3. Individuals' consciousnesses are evolving all the time. Sometimes cultures allow that evolution to be expressed on a large scale. Invariably they are then killed by brutes.
    4. Scientists have discovered that observations affect reality. However, people who believe they can use thoughts to control reality are deluded. But thoughts are part of reality.
    5. There is a problem with the idea that you have some kind of understanding which is superior to spiritual understanding. All understanding is spiritual understanding. Efforts to make sense of reality may be nonsense or not. Use judgement, not prejudice. Of course all religions are fairy tales; they're fucking corporations! They're not trying to find Truth; they're trying to make money! I'm trying to get you away from playing king of the mountain on your imaginary rock of security. What is it you think is so certain? Empirical observations? Measurements? Reason? Faith in your own judgement? All subject to certain error. We never have all the information, so we're stuck with doing the best we can. Which means keeping our understanding fluid; changing to accommodate our perceptions. Otherwise, you've made your own false security blanket, which looks like religion to me.

  3. All understanding is spiritual understanding.

    This seems to me to risk broadening an already vague term to the point of meaninglessness. What is "spiritual understanding" and how does it differ from, say empirical understanding or philosophical reflection? Does it necessarily entail an acceptance of the same old spirit/matter dualism that needs to die already?

  4. Brian M5:45 PM

    Not sure I would agree with the idea (maybe I am misinterpreting what you are saying) that pain and suffering exist for a "purpose". That's too close to Christianist excuses for their tribal thuinder god's various genocides and tortures.

    Other than that...I agree that the terms are so vague as to be meaningless.

  5. Not for a purpose in any teleological sense, just that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin and can't exist without each other.

  6. Brian M6:29 PM

    Is that really true, though? Both are states of the nervous system but are they really inter-related?

    I mean, I would agree that people who never face adversity tend to be weaker/softer people...but I'm not sure each state is dependent on the other state. Except in that the states allow the body/mind to avoid or seek certain behaviors/states/ etc.

    I'm not sure reducing pain is a bad goal for a society...I have no desire to experience 19th century dentistry, for example :)

  7. spirit/matter dualism ...needs to die

    ...needs to be replaced. You're right that there are no disembodied beings, but bodies may have more to them than you think. To me it looks like you are still using Descartes' mind/body dichotomy, just without the "mind" part. I think a better solution is to recognize that matter is not as mechanistic as we thought.

  8. "All understanding is spiritual..."

    seems to me to risk broadening an already vague term

    Well, yeah, an exageration to make a point: by "spirituality" most people just mean the belief that each of us is connected to the rest of the universe in an essential way. I think awareness and understanding are related to this connection, whether we know it or not.

  9. Is that really true, though? Both are states of the nervous system but are they really inter-related?

    I mean in an abstract, conceptual way, like how you realize how many bad experiences were a necessary part of a good one that followed, or how many times a good result carries an unforeseen downside to it, stuff like that.

    To me it looks like you are still using Descartes' mind/body dichotomy, just without the "mind" part. I think a better solution is to recognize that matter is not as mechanistic as we thought.

    A better way to put it would be "bodymind", all one thing. I think it's more of a metaphorical problem, one of language, than anything else. I don't think we're "just" animated meat, I think that being animated meat is a necessary precondition to the so-called higher functions.