Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Two Faces of Wonder

Religion and mythology were born from human wonder. This wonder has two faces—one that is hidden, and one that everyone sees.

The second face is the wonder of existence: that anything exists at all, and (accompanying this primal sense) the overwhelming variety and complexity of that which exists.

The first face is the wonder of subjectivity: that the world is experienced, perceived, known and felt by living beings, and (in the case of human beings) that we are conscious of ourselves as living and experiencing, and that this reflective consciousness has developed into thought, reason, and imagination.

The first face is hidden because we are that face. In more abstract terms, since subjectivity is the basis of all experience, we can only indicate it indirectly, and can never actually perceive it, since it is the precondition of perception itself.

All experience, without exception—past, present, and future—is experienced in one mind, or as one being, and this is an inextricable and essential aspect of individuation itself. Just as there can be no phenomena without individuation, so there can be no life without the individuation of subjectivity.

It may seem strange that I would characterize the wonder of existence as the second face of wonder, and the wonder of subjectivity as the first. Existence is prior to experience—by the very definition of these categories it could not be otherwise. But in speaking of the origins of religion and mythology, subjectivity is the first face of wonder. Without self-consciousness, however indirect and consciously unacknowledged it may be, there would be no imagination. Whatever thoughts we had would be strictly in the service of our needs in the present moment; metaphor would be unnecessary and indeed impossible. Only when we become aware of the experiencing subject are we then capable of wondering about existence itself, and the variety and complexity of form.

I have written elsewhere about the ineffable nature of experience. Suffice it to say at this point that the experiencing subject can only be described through metaphor. The most common terms in English are: self, spirit, and soul. Language necessarily involves abstraction, which in turn always implies division or separation of one thing from another. But the ineffable nature of subjectivity is such that it is the context of experience, (and not a specific content within it), and thus literally inseparable from it. Thus we find that the self, spirit, or soul, conceived as an entity somehow separate from the mind-body complex, does not withstand the scrutiny of scientific investigation. Nevertheless, they emerged as primary metaphors, as central to our thought and discourse as the word “I.”

When human beings awoke into self-consciousness, then, both faces of wonder became fertile grounds for imaginative representation, for the metaphor-making that we know as religion and mythology, and eventually as poetry and art in general. The first face, subjectivity, was intuited as hidden and ineffable, and thus eternal. The second face, objectivity, was intuited as conditioned and subject to change. In concrete terms, the self-conscious human awareness of the world was marked by the awareness of death. That the spirit, intuited as eternal, could be subject to death (the extreme boundary, if you will, of change), seemed an essential contradiction. For the very context of life, subjectivity itself, to have an end, seemed inconceivable. And although I here describe this in abstract terms, as if it were a rational development, it is in fact fear, born of the need for survival, (a need that is prior to all thought or reason), that is the cause or motivating force of this felt conflict, this division between spirit and world.

The idea of spirits that exist independently of bodies, then, arises because of the human intuition of eternity, accompanied by the fear of death. The intuition of eternity is a basic aspect of subjectivity. In order for anything to be conditioned, reality itself must be unconditioned: this is one concise form of representing this intuition in rational terms. But the intuition itself is of course not rational—it arises simply because of the nature of subjectivity as context of all experience. Just as the figures in a painting cannot exist without the blank canvas on which they are painted, so our experience of the world, the very content of our life, is impossible outside of the context of our subjectivity. Here, as always, we must recognize the importance of metaphor—for whereas the canvas can exist without the painting, subjectivity is only separable from experience through abstraction, not in the concreteness of reality.

Spirit is the essential element of culture. The spirit was plural because human beings were plural, therefore life was experienced as a world of spirits. The development from this world of spirits to a world of gods may seem to us like a huge leap. In fact it wasn’t a leap, or even a step, but a simultaneous occurrence. The intuition of eternity extended its subjective nature to the world. Behind experience was the experiencing subject—the spirit, soul, or self. Behind the world, then, behind the second face of wonder, there must also be an experiencing subject, one far more powerful than the puny human being who is subject to birth, change, and death. This spirit was plural, just like human beings, but unlike human beings, who are experienced merely as the selves of their bodies, these spirits, these gods, as we came to call them, are the selves of the world, of existence itself.

--This is the second in a series of articles about the debate between religion and reason.

1 comment:

whig said...

I like this very much so far.