Monday, September 5, 2011

Polytheism and the cosmic unity

I suspect many of you readers have found at least one problem with polytheism, but I further suspect most if not all of the problems you've found with it are on your own terms, using your own assumptions and values. But some of you who've paid attention these last few posts and stirred some neurons may have spotted a problem with polytheism on its own terms—a way in which it's rendered self-defeating. That problem is: Because polytheism ranks religious experience as more important than theology, what does it mean for billions of monotheists to have experienced a one, true God or some other cosmic unity?

There's no fully satisfying way around this. You can't claim both that religious experience is #1 and also that some people's religious experiences are wrong. Just as with having and eating cake, one of two must budge.

Greer budges a little and provides an answer in the pay dirt chapter I wrote about last Monday. He points out how most of us—myself included, upon first reading the chapter—are confused about the term ineffability. Ineffability is not (as many of us believe) an absolute quality but instead is a relationship. Specifically, it's a relationship between an idea and some given language whereby the language can't fully describe the idea. For example, quantum physics is ineffable in the English language. (And if you think it isn't, then you don't understand quantum physics!) We can approximately talk about atomic and subatomic particles using such terms as wave-particle duality, but our grasp of such small scales is incomplete and hazy. Just as planetary orbit was ineffable in the ancients' languages because they lacked laws of motion, quantum-scale motion is ineffable to us today. But someday quantum physics may not be ineffable. (Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.)

Saying that something is ineffable—that is, ascribing ineffability as an absolute property of that thing—is equivalent to claiming that that thing can't be described in any language. That includes all possible languages—forgotten languages from the past, languages we'll know only in the future, and languages we'll never realize. Can we know something is indescribable in all of these languages? Computation theory deals with this very problem from a purely logical perspective, what with Turing completeness and so on. In short, limitations indeed seem to exist in the most powerful languages, which would make some things ineffable in all languages, but we can't be sure that any proof of such limitations isn't an artifact of the language we're using to make such a proof. So it's inconclusive.

Within this wiggle room Greer has his answer. Religious experiences may be fully describable in a language, just one we don't possess. (A theory of mind is a candidate for such a language.) Religious experiences, including those of an exclusive God or other cosmic unity, may be imprecise ways of talking about phenomena that are in actuality precise, just as planetary motion turns out to be precise though it was once ineffable to all known languages. Thus, while religious experiences may rank higher than theology to the polytheist, religious experiences may not signify literal meanings—they may be interpreted in many ways. As for experiences of cosmic unity, here are Greer's own words.

As we have seen, people experience and revere many different sacred entities, some personal, some not. The fundamental unity of the cosmos is one of these, but not the only one. Many people worship it, and many have experienced in it one way or another, but the same is true of other sacred presences and powers. Nor is it automatically true that a cosmic unity is necessarily a better god to worship than some entity closer to human existence.

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