I think you missed my opening statement. You’ve now given your opening answer to the question and replied to my reply to that opening answer of yours, but you leapfrogged my opening answer.

Could you reply separately to it? It’s the one from July 19 that starts right after I ask the question or pose the topic, where I say, “Traditionally, in perennial philosophy and spiritual practices…” I’ll repost it below for your convenience. (It’s easy for comments to get lost in this labyrinth of embedded comments in Medium.)

Reply to your July 20 post:

We agree, more or less, on how organized religion is largely propagandistic and spiritually perilous. But of course you want to distinguish real enlightenment from that fraud, and the question is whether the reality is more as you and many Eastern spiritualists describe it or as existentialists, cosmicists, and I do.

You say the “zombie sage,” that is, the notion of the nihilistic guru who’s detached from his or her emotions and instincts represents only the last stage before nirvana or complete enlightenment. But curiously, you suggest that a person would have to master all the Hindu yogas or paths to “understand why compassion, or unconditional love, is the default modus operandi for an enlightened being even though it’s the pinnacle of selfishness.”

I believe the eclectic nature of Hinduism is such that any of the paths (philosophy, religious devotion, or karmic action) is supposed to suffice for enlightenment. In any case, if there’s no answer for non-Hindus, the religion would begin to look as suspicious as a cult like Scientology, which keeps its answers a secret to be revealed only for those who sign up and pay the fee. You’d have to be a Hindu to have first-hand experience of Hindu enlightenment, but I’d have thought Hindu philosophy can answer this elementary question of why enlightened individuals tend to behave as they do (or as they’re presented in certain popular discourses).

The ultimate objection here is that the conventional notion of the compassionate, happy sage is still only part of the exoteric misunderstanding of the purest spirituality. This is what we want to think about sages, that their grasp of reality somehow inclines them to the deepest compassion and tranquility. And sages may even perform to meet those expectations, for reasons Leo Strauss explained, namely so as not to be alienated from society. For if enlightenment ends in horror, why would mass society support the religious or philosophical enterprise?

Perhaps the most authentic human reaction to the nature of reality isn’t marked by compassion, inner peace, or contentment, but rather by horror, awe, disgust, dread, confusion, the dark night of the soul, and the fear that most of human history is an absurd joke, that mass cultures are based on delusion and fraud, and that the true sage or shaman can only summon heroic courage and creativity to overcome those doubts and confront the world’s monstrousness with some honourable act of will, such as one that inspires the creation of art that helps less enlightened folks come to terms with the unsettling truths.

In any case, are you saying you don’t know why spiritually enlightened people are compassionate and tranquil (or are conventionally expected to be such)? Or are you saying you know but you can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t mastered all of the Hindu paths (not even just one of them)?

You also say it’s all the same whether consciousness is metaphysically fundamental or is only an emergent byproduct of mindless natural processes. I agree that in the latter case, the universe must have some broad potential to generate the awareness of itself (although not necessarily a predictable capacity, given chaos theory and indeterminacy). You think this dynamic would be “marvelous,” but I’d say the rise of consciousness and of intelligence could just as well be a curse, since those byproducts would doom creatures to fall from the state of Edenic, childlike innocence (to put it in Judeo-Christian terms).

If consciousness isn’t fundamental and the real world is the objective one described and explained most fully by physicists and other scientists, then indeed we have the makings of an existential conflict. The mindless physicality of the atomic interactions would be perfectly inhuman, contrary to religious mental projections. That inhumanity gives rise to the lethality of most of the universe (e.g. we die if we go into outer space, unless we have all sorts of fallible protections), and to the counterintuitiveness of chaos, black holes, quantum mechanics, and the sheer preposterous scale of the universe (it’s billions of years old with trillions of galaxies).

A sage would be cursed to reckon directly with the conflict between her animality and ego, on the one hand, and the real world’s alien indifference on the other: she’d be inclined to prefer one kind of world (which drives us as a species to replace the wilderness with self-centered civilization), but she’d be met instead with absurdity, with the lack of metaphysical purpose. She’d have to accept that human life is more like a tragedy than like a comedy with a happy ending.

That’s the existential predicament, and I’m asking why the Eastern spiritualist’s conception of enlightenment is more plausible than the darker kind I’m outlining here.


Opening Statement (from July 19):

Traditionally, in perennial philosophy and spiritual practices, enlightenment meant realizing that God, the ultimate source of reality has been with us all along. God’s been with us because God is everywhere, and we have backdoor access via self-consciousness. We ought to realize that we, too, are manifestations of God. When we take ourselves to be independent, free, rational, naturally self-sufficient persons, minds, or egos, we identify only with certain illusions that cause us needlessly to suffer.

Then another institution arose in Europe, which has been called (somewhat problematically) “modernity.” Its hallmarks are skepticism, science, liberty, and progress. What the spiritualist calls “illusions,” the modern naturalist calls “emergent properties,” and whereas the spiritualist takes the source of reality to be conscious, transcendent, or at least comforting to those who identify with it, the naturalist considers that source to be material, nonliving, inhuman, and absurd in the sense that reality plays us for fools.

There are two kinds of promethean, secular-humanistic enlightenment or progress, one for the masses and one for outsiders. While they may not have recognized what they’ve been doing, most people have been trying to enlighten themselves (to live well) for thousands of years. We’ve been seeing past the illusions of animism and theism, and learning how nature works; moreover, instead of wallowing in disgust with the universe’s absurdity, we’ve been creating an artificial world (civilization) to replace the horrors of the impersonal wilderness.

We’ve been celebrating the tragic emergence of the personal, suffering but godlike self, and creating a world that caters to that self. By contrast, the wilderness randomly creates and destroys life for no reason. At least the human-made worlds are full of meaning, purpose, and value, since they’re intelligently designed.

That form of progress has its severe drawbacks (such as consumerism, plutocracy, Kafkaesque bureaucracy, war, politics, and destruction of the biosphere). It’s based more on technoscientific than on psychological or moral advances. Thus, in each society there are marginalized outsiders, including the saints and founders of spiritual traditions who search for more honourable ways of living with the real world’s absurdity. As soon as their ideas are offered, they’re bastardized by the more conservative mob that compromises its integrity with conventional, largely dubious “wisdom.” Exoteric religions are fashioned out of their antisocial, antinatural, or otherwise subversive visions.

As far as I can tell, aesthetics presents us with the makings of a sustainable, honourable way of improving ourselves in light of reality’s absurdity and of the death of God. We can improve ourselves with art and by seeing natural and artificial developments in aesthetic rather than in more illusory or degrading social terms. The highest goal is to create well, knowing that everything is, at best, temporary art.

Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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