Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Truth and Transcendence

A month ago, I had an incredible idea that I haven't been quite sure how to express ever since. If you read down, you'll notice that I made a dramatic shift with the last blog. I have to admit some influence by Robert Anton Wilson and particularly the Principia Discordia. Hopefully, you'll find both interesting.

More to the point, like most reasonable people, I've always found religion to be a little confusing. When I was a kid, I was constantly amazed that, of all the religions out there, I had just happened to be born into the precise religion that knew the absolute truth in its entirety. I was amazed by the concept of an infinite God, and I often wondered about what made reality real.

I remember sometime around the age of four sitting in the back seat of the car on the way to grandma's house. I was watching the road and thinking about the danger of jumping out of a moving vehicle. What exactly was it that prevented me from getting out of my seat, opening the door, and leaping out? Was sitting in the car the only possibility, or could somehow both possibilities be true? If I thought about jumping just for the sake of jumping, I couldn't absolutely be sure that I wouldn't do it, which changed the idea of the future from something sure to something unsure, a matter of probability. Of course, I didn't jump out of the car, and never really wanted to, but the idea of the possibility of random, dramatic things happening for no reason was intriguing. I wondered if the future could come in both ways, so that time was actually shaped like a tree rather than a line, growing in complexity as each possible outcome happened apart from each other.

Time and free will are two of the most important questions religion addresses, and this is where we come to the idea of truth. Any philosophy that attempts to explain the metaphysical will run into a crisis of truth. How exactly can the principles that underly reality be explained in terms of reality? Some theories on the limitations of consciousness and particularly artificial intelligence have theorized that a thing can never be conscious of the basic principles that form its consciousness.

The diversity of religions confuses the issue further, because each one claims a different truth from the others. Logic would dictate that truth can never contradict truth, and so there must be either one or none that have the real truth. Some of the most reasonable people rely only on what can be scientifically proven and reject the idea of religion altogether. If we can't explain it through science, it's probably just an uninformed opinion or a means to manipulation. Religion purely as a cultural phenomenon, a matter of tradition spreading ignorance, is definitely the most reasonable response to some of the wild claims religion makes.

But accepting that requires another look at the idea of truth. Truth could be generally defined as everything that is real, what objectively exists. But we don't understand reality objectively. Although we can comprehend some of what objectivity might consist of, everything we think is informed by our subjectivity. This is the limitation of consciousness.

So we require another kind of truth to understand what's real: the sign. A true sign is not one that is identical to reality, but one that points to reality. It's an abstract concept that only achieves truth through the process of interpretation. Therefore two signs written in different languages can be equally true to two different observers, even though objectively they look completely different.

Hopefully, you'll see the connection to religion here. One thing all religions have in common is that they don't claim to accurately represent everything. The idea of God or infinity is beyond any normal language and cannot be described in its entirety. Therefore, if we're going to examine the claims of religion logically, we need to understand the claims of every religion as a sign attempting to point to the truth and judge whether their intended audiences are correctly directed.

This is the point in any conversation about religion where many genuinely religious people will start to become upset. They interpret different religions very differently and are pointed in contradicting directions by various faiths. They see where the signs lead, and they see that they do not all lead to the same God, but to completely different ideas. This is a real problem. Then, of course, the atheist sees a conversation about God and, having examined the wild and self-contradicting claims of magic and the supernatural that religion so poorly supports, stops paying attention entirely. This is also a real problem.

When all logic fails, it comes to a matter of faith, and this is where the world is today. But is there a way to examine religion beyond faith? If there is, it would have to be beyond the normal process of logic, and this is not uncharted territory. Plenty of religions and philosophies have attempted to find altered states of consciousness in which the mind can understand things that appear as contradictions. These states have been achieved through discipline, meditation, drugs, and many other means, but what's most interesting about them is their similarity.

The transcendental experience is the unity of opposites, the joining of self and other. And it's happened to many people of many different faiths. It's also been explained somewhat by science as a function of the brain, but then it might be more than that. It also tends to reinforce the beliefs of the person who has a transcendent vision, but this might not be a problem. It has been responsible for art, music, and many of the most enduring aspects of human culture. So far, it has never been completely explained with words but has only been understood through experience. But it can be discussed, dissected, and examined. And it will be.


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