Secular versus Religious Enlightenment

A dialogue on the nature of God and enlightenment

Image by Robin Benad, from Unsplash

The following is a dialogue I had with another Medium writer who goes by the name of Sender Spike, on the nature of enlightenment. I defend a secular, naturalistic view, whereas Sender Spike defends a more traditional, monistic kind of mysticism.

This was a written dialogue in which we both addressed the questions, “What is enlightenment? In other words, what is a person’s highest goal in life, in philosophical and religious terms?”

Modernity and Secular Enlightenment

BEN CAIN: 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.

SENDER SPIKE: “God is dead,” proclaimed Nietzsche.

“Nietzsche is dead,” said God few years later.

Although, in my opinion, the above joke encapsulates the reality to a T, it’s only because how I understand Nietzsche and subsequently existentialism. Just to elucidate my grasp or lack thereof — according to Nietzsche, it’s the madman, now without compass, who bemoans the absence of God killed by natural science, God whose shadow humanity still has to overcome, and whose absence causes the world to seem absurd; hence the man goes mad in panic. The “western enlightenment” presented him with the inevitable problem of meaning with no possibility to fall back to previously authoritative texts and explanations — it poses the question “What will you do as a random cog in a ruthless meat grinder that makes no sense without the untenable image of God?” Existentialism then laughs at that cosmic joke and gives a Sisyphian middle finger as its solution. According to some anecdotes, Nietzsche died, in conventional terms, a madman, seen dancing naked in his room, which, however, also could have very well been his last moment of revolt, perhaps even liberation.

Your proposal then brings aesthetics and art to the table as the means to “a sustainable, honourable way of improving ourselves in light of reality’s absurdity and of the death of God.”

I would say, why not. Listening to symphonic orchestra playing Haydn or Brahms, getting absorbed into paintings of Vermeer or Alfons Mucha, but also creating walls of feedback noise to a grooving drum beat are, in essence, as old as Homo Sapiens could be classified as such, since they are no different from listening to stories, beating the drum and dancing in ecstasy around campfire, or observing jumping sketches of animals on the walls of a cave in the flickering light. Especially when high.

But, why reinvent the wheel?

To me this problem boils down to the most fundamental question, “Who am I?” Most fundamental, because its solution also reveals answers to all whys.

Now, the problem naturalism is facing is that it thinks it has killed the God. But it’s only a false image of what ancients at some point started to call God, and what during ages became filtered and understood merely on the level of mind, which led to various misinterpretations ending with (in the case of monotheism) a sole (even anthropomorphized) image of the Absolute. So, this problem is ironically equally false, in the sense that it causes naturalism to lose the awareness that what it deals with are aspects of All-That-Is, in ancient parlance — God.

Therefore I think that science should seriously re-embrace old traditions, strip them of all obvious bullshit that goes contrary to obvious natural facts, and let itself be inspired by ideas that modern science does not provide. On the other hand, e.g. Oppenheimer was quite fascinated by Bhagavad Gita and Indian philosophy, and today’s philosophers like David Chalmers are very close in their views to what is for ages already known in Indus valley as samkhya philosophy (or some interpretations of Kabbalah, if you want an Abrahamic example).

It’s not clear to me whether Chalmers was, indeed, inspired by Indian thought (or “spiritual ideas” in general for that matter), but if not, he would be a prime example of reinventing the wheel, nevertheless, slowly closing the remaining gap in the second evolutionary circle of knowledge.

The main problem I see, and why scientific naturalism at large refuses to go to the old sources, is that it thinks of our ancestors as idiots. I know it’s a pure speculation, but I doubt that the first person to have the courage to contemplate lightning or storm jumped to conclusions and imagined invisible fairies hurling winds and throwing thunderbolts. They more or less considered everything very personal, subjective, and dreamlike (see Aboriginal “dreaming”) with attributes assigned to perceived phenomena according to the language of the day (which was, however, taken literally by many who came later and didn’t make the effort to observe the phenomena themselves).

Of course, like with everything, there’s a catch.

To answer the question of one’s true nature and identity one cannot do an experiment on an object, because, obviously, one’s own subject is the subject of the inquiry.

Now, if that is a no-go simply because the nature of the problem and implied methodology, then science is actually rather limited and should not make claims about God in any way. If that’s not the case, everyone, but first and foremost scientists, should be able to answer that primordial question. That would inevitably translate into education, and then we could finally start to create well.

BEN CAIN: The reason to reinvent the wheel when it comes to spirituality and enlightenment is that modern science was revolutionary. Although of course Nietzsche physically died, his point was that God wasn’t real enough in the first place to have died except in an ironic, cultural sense. Modernity ended only God’s relevance as a basis of our values. We can no longer take theism for granted or live out a theological life plan without wondering whether we’re acting like fools.

That applies more to monotheism than to Eastern mysticism or to certain kinds of esoteric spirituality, since the latter are more philosophical than religious or at least oriented more around practice than dogmatic theology. Still, science and the complementary philosophical naturalism throw into doubt many spiritual assumptions, such as that Atman equals Brahman or that souls can reincarnate or that escape from nature is metaphysically possible or that natural events have inherent teleological or moral value.

I don’t think it’s a mystery why scientists ignore old spiritual texts and traditions. You suggest it’s because scientists are prejudiced and beholden to a view of human progress according to which old and especially prescientific answers become obsolete or untested and risky. Sure, but scientists are also pragmatic, meaning they’re methodologically naturalistic. They see that scientific methods of inquiry work and they’ve made a business out of understanding phenomena by naturalizing them.

Scientists may see that certain spiritual practices likewise work, in which case they’d have to uncover the mechanisms involved and naturalize meditation, inner peace, and other perennial concepts. (There’s quite a conflict between scientific and Eastern medicine, and between the underlying ideologies.)

Even if scientists were barred from passing judgment on philosophical and religious issues such as whether God exists, mystical spirituality would hardly be in the clear. The problem is that the spiritual notion of enlightenment conflicts with the naturalistic worldview, and the latter is sustained by the overwhelming advances in scientific understanding and technological applications. Therefore, if you want to be spiritual in the late, hypermodern period, it looks like you’ve got to ensure your concepts and practices are consistent with the scientific worldview. That’s why we’ve got to reinvent the spiritual wheel. Otherwise, the spiritual practices are in danger of seeming like pseudoscientific frauds.

When I gestured towards aesthetics, I had more in mind than just advocating for an interest in art. I’ve written a lot about this, but it would take us too far afield. I’ll just say that my suspicions along aesthetic lines are at least twofold. First, we may have to reconstruct moral discourse in aesthetic terms — again, to naturalize the former and render it comprehensible and respectable in light of scientific knowledge.

Second, I suspect the mystic’s vision of the world might likewise compare with universalized aesthetics, according to which everything can be perceived as though it were art. This needn’t entail a design argument for God, since the “artist” behind nature would be the mindless and absurd, but nevertheless supremely-creative natural forces and elements. In line with Nagarjuna’s Buddhism of “emptiness” and insubstantiality, we would need to detach from things and refrain from superimposing our essentialist presumptions, just as in an art gallery we focus on the artwork’s surface features.

Monistic Mysticism and Cosmicist Pantheism

SENDER SPIKE: Nirvana is samsara. All forms are empty and emptiness is form. Simply, world is illusion and only Brahman is real, Brahman is the world, because Absolute is omnipresent. Thus also omniscient and omnipotent. Yet, in its unmoving original state, the absolute existence is merely blissfully conscious. One can also say that consciousness exists in a blissful homeostasis outside of time and space, life and death, good and evil. The sole existence that ever was, is, or will be. Not as an entity, but as existence that causes all being as such. As a singular consciousness, an ocean of bliss.

Thus, big bangs of ecstasy should not surprise us, and the karmic streams of natural causality should not startle us. Their perfection in simplicity of the concept as well as execution are both miraculous and awe-inspiring equally as brutally logical and efficient at the same time. This is the perfectly still Absolute in motion. These are the waves and torrents raging through that ocean of bliss that hovers as a perfect non-dimensional point…nowhere.

What is enlightenment, then?

Well, it’s merely to know all of the above. Not understand, not acknowledge, not read about or discuss, but to know. Because, how does a chicken taste? All meanings are inherent, one could say solipsistic.

Yet, the usual response is to envision Absolute as another entity, as another “thing” among many. It’s understandable, because from within the universe, and each and every mind, which seem to be split into observer and observed, it’s the most intuitive way to go about it. Still, the split is illusory. Exactly as one cannot pinpoint the exact boundaries of oxygen between a tree and a human being standing in front of it — both are completely permeated by it — in a similar vein, Absolute not only permeates, but is all there is.

What is reality, if not that which is rendered into whatever form for me to perceive? Who is real, if not I who is and knows only oneself?

Thus, there is no highest goal in life except the unbearable lightness of being in the midst of eternal recurrence. To quote a classic, “All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t.” So, maybe that goal could be the ability to recognize such paths with a heart. For which the direct knowledge of true nature of all that is, and acting in accordance with it would be essential.

Honestly, as a human being, I don’t envy Devil his role one bit.

BEN CAIN: I, too, subscribe to a kind of pantheistic mysticism, drawing from Spinoza, Schopenhauer and Lovecraftian coscmicism. Rational knowledge is pragmatic and so are our very concepts and conceptions. We mentally carve up the whole of the world (and now the universe), humanizing it in our attempt to understand it in something like the way Kant explained. The noumenal, transcendent whole is still real even though it’s beyond our rational understanding.

The difference between our interpretations of this absolute reality has to do with whether any such reality should be a comfort or a terror to all human beings.

In some of their moods, monotheists like to speak of the need for the fear of God. Clearly, that view of God as a tyrant to be feared has been used as a political tool to scare the mob into submission. But plenty of prophets and visionaries who claim to be speaking from religious experience and revelation speak of God’s reality as having dreadful, horrifying implications. Traditionally, those implications in the West were framed in terms of divine judgment. So the idea was that God is always watching, and he’s pitiless when it comes to the violation of his laws, so he’s prepared to punish wrongdoers in hell forever.

I take it that philosophical naturalism and scientific understanding of nature render that kind of exoteric theism obsolete. Luckily, existentialist philosophers provide us a way of reconstructing what may be some kernels of insight in the theistic diatribes. The idea is that natural reality is fundamentally absurd, meaning that it’s inhuman, alien, indifferent, and beyond socialization, personalization, and morality.

To be able to intuit events — in something like Spinoza’s sense — as deriving from the flow of that “Absolute” or from the essence of natural being would be dehumanizing, meaning that such knowledge would entail a loss of confidence in social conventions and in our biological instincts and egoistic, self-centered preferences. The upshot is a stew of awe, horror, and disgust in the enlightened person: awe and horror for the alienness of absolute being, and disgust for what the spiritualist calls the “illusions” that create ignorance-based suffering.

But there’s a further, promethean or quasi-satanic kind of disgust, which is disgust for the mismatch between the real world’s absurdity and the human-centered meaning and value found in our corner of the universe, which we create. We’re disgusted with the alien indifference of the wilderness, so we create a world that’s fit for godlike beings to inhabit. That’s what’s evidently happened in the Anthropocene.

However, Eastern mystical or spiritual traditions often present this Absolute as a comfort. Nirvana, the direct experience of that depth of being is supposed to be a point of tranquility, since that enlightened person likewise transcends the flux of natural events.

Yet in the illusory world of samsara, which in scientific terms is rather an emergent reality from subatomic interactions in something like the way wetness emerges from H2O, social outsiders renounce conventional life and are duly marginalized. In turn, like the Cynics and Daoists, they mock the confusion and vanity of mainstream society. These ascetics live in poverty and are only inured to their suffering, since unless they’re mentally ill, they inherently prefer to succeed in social and evolutionary terms. Thus we have the culture war between the alphas and the omegas.

Here, then, are some questions I have for the Eastern spiritualist. Is the talk of absolute reality as a tranquil state of transcendent consciousness meant to whitewash the existential, cosmicist implications of mysticism in something like the way the exoteric televangelist anthropomorphizes God, calling him a loving father?

Why think that the source of the entire, mostly inhuman universe would be essentially conscious? How is that not an exoteric personification, a mental projection and a humanization that can have only pragmatic value like all our other fallible conceptions?

If we grasp that reality transcends all our parochial prejudices, doesn’t that entail that all life lived in virtue of those prejudices is absurd, foolish, and dishonourable? To be sure, conventional life can be pleasurable and successful, because ignorance is bliss. But philosophy and genuine religious experience would have to come at the cost of happiness (comfort and contentment), but the enlightened person is resigned to understanding and accepting the absurdity and the tragedy.

SENDER SPIKE: Ignorance of conventional life can be bliss, however, rather a short-lived one. Indeed, a much more fitting word is pleasure. Hence, ignorance is pleasurable in the short term. I’ve yet to meet an “ignorant” person who does not suffer in one way or another, who is not chasing a carrot dangling always few inches beyond reach, or who barely manages to escape the stick of some looming punishment.

Ambition and fear are the two forces that hold our current civilization together. It is therefore obvious why Abrahamic God is pictured as an angry and unforgiving Father and Eastern Absolute is tranquil and blissful.

However, the way these concepts are used within institutionalized religions and all their codices, is but a propaganda tool to keep masses obedient to the bidding of the powers that be, that is, the higher echelons of thus constructed hierarchy. The fact that priests are at the top of this social structure in all “civilized” cultures across the globe should be a clear telltale sign. But, as with all propaganda, there is a truth hidden within it, only twisted, perverted, and embedded into a falsified context, merely to suit the particular agenda.

It’s true that in the natural face of God there’s little to no room for error. On the other hand, this same nature provided everything, humans included, to build the human civilization, whatever we may think of it. It’s equally true that the absolute reality is tranquil and motionless, however, the image of an emotionless non-thinking “zombie sage” utterly passive and detached from everything is exactly that — an image, a social expectation, the last trap of becoming, the final Buddha to be killed on the quest for truth.

Universe is hardly inhuman when everything each of us knows about it exists “merely” in our minds (whole universe literally fits in there), and the proof that universe is essentially conscious is the fact that we both are conscious. It does not matter one bit whether consciousness is emergent or fundamental. If it’s fundamental, it just means that universe plays a hide-and-seek with itself and if that is the case, then it’s the best RPG ever. If it’s emergent then it simply means that universe has the capacity to be conscious of itself, which makes the whole affair even more marvelous. In both cases the identity of that universe is what we call “I” (the reality of existence then being “am”).

Ever wondered why there’s only first person singular perspective in this place?

However, as I see it, you try to reason yourself out of the box (so to speak). Which is fine and merely points out your strong predilection for jnana yoga, still, no one can capture the whole picture from one angle only.

As far as I can tell, in addition to asking the right questions and searching for reasonable answers (philosophy or jnana yoga), one has to master witnessing oneself at least to the point of being able to catch even the noises and disturbances in otherwise homogeneous perception (meditation, concentration, psychedelics, or raja yoga), accept one’s mortality as a fact not tinted by absurdity of nihilism or salvific expectations (detachment, letting go, acceptance, or bhakti yoga), and also act the knowledge out to see how it fares in the face of strict, cold, pitiless laws of causality (morality or karma yoga).

Then, with a bit of luck, one can know and also understand why compassion, or unconditional love, is the default modus operandi for an enlightened being even though it’s the pinnacle of selfishness.

Should the Sage show Compassion or Transhuman Amorality?

BEN CAIN: 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.

SENDER SPIKE: First, I’d like to clarify that when I use examples from Eastern spiritual traditions, they are only examples. Enlightenment is enlightenment whether it’s Eastern or Western. The resulting realizations must match since the underlying reality to realize is the same and has nothing to do with culture. Similarly, I used Hinduism only as an example of a system that, although mindbogglingly twisted and misinterpreted, which already Buddha realized, still has the key components needed for said realization intact (together with core premises, which Abrahamic tradition contains but also “explains away”).

Second, when I say that one has to embrace all four cardinal directions of a path to knowledge, I don’t mean mastery in the sense you seem to imply. I simply mean that a philosopher who never seriously meditates, whose life is a mess and in shambles, and who cannot accept the only absolute in the relative world of phenomena (aka death), cannot hope to know the truth. And the same is equally true for a consigned believer who never questions his beliefs, mindlessly goes through the ritual motions, and his life is in no way in a better shape than the life of the philosopher from the first example. The same dynamic also explains why there are more psychonauts who rely solely on psychoactive substances that end up as crazy wrecks instead enlightened sages.

I’d also like to set the record straight in regard to “zombie sage”. As you said, the common expectation is an always blissed-out individual lacking any motivation whatsoever. This romanticized image is also at the root of the most common argument I’ve ever heard coming from people who outright reject the pursuit of absolute truth (“What’s the purpose of it, if it just turns me into an indifferent zombie?”). Of course, the doubt about genuineness of the bliss is then more than just. You seem to contrast this image with what I would call the image of “spiritual warrior”.

Now, while the image of “spiritual warrior” is more or less based in reality, it’s also firmly established in dualism. And dualism is the home turf of conflict. The same conflict that induces desire for equilibrium, return to homeostasis. And the image of “zombie sage” is obviously living within the confines of the same dualism. Thus, it seems as if you are trying to pit yin and yang against each other and choose one from the two.

Of course, you can argue that reality is, indeed, dual in its true nature and that’s that, to which I can only reply that to make up one’s mind one really has to see the “matrix” for oneself. By which I mean, that one has to see yin and yang as Tao, or that one has to realize that children of men are the children of God. There is really not much more one can say about it. But rest assured, the perceived duality does not disappear. The universe will continue the same as before, only the focus shifts. Then again, that shift makes the whole world of difference.

So, to answer your question, your dilemma is kind of false dichotomy. Then again, all dichotomies are false even though they are all real.

BEN CAIN: I think what we’re grappling with here is the necessary mysteriousness of “enlightenment,” of the moment when conventional ignorance is transcended. A sage who had seen through the matrix and who lacked any delusion or self-deception would have to be in some sense alien to ordinary people. Indeed, the sage would have absorbed the inhumanity of the real world, whereas the unenlightened herd is ensconced in the refuge of human delights — cultures and civilizations — which we create to flatter and distract us.

By analogy, we could say that the relation between the unenlightened and the enlightened is like that between the human and the posthuman, the latter pair being separated by the technological singularity. We can’t now predict what we’d do or be like if we were given technological omniscience and omnipotence.

Similarly, there’s the mystery of how a spiritually enlightened person would think and behave. This is why sages are treated as odd characters in movies. Think of Yoda, Oogway from Kung Fu Panda, or Pai Mei from Kill Bill Vol. 2. I take it these characters derive from Buddhist or Daoist literature, which presents the sage as a lovable taskmaster who mystifies his pupil until the moment of satori when the pupil finally realizes the hidden truth and the reason for the master’s seemingly-bizarre outbursts: the master isn’t trying merely to indoctrinate, but to shift the student’s mindset.

Thus, the sage seems strange to the unenlightened just as technology seems magical to the uninformed.

Notice that the strangeness of being beyond good and evil, in Nietzsche’s sense, entails that certain comforting depictions of the enlightened state are whitewashes or propagandistic distortions. As in the Tao Te Ching (and Ecclesiastes), “Heaven and Earth are impartial. They regard myriad things as straw dogs (for sacrifice). The sages are impartial. They regard people as straw dogs” (ch. 5).

Is the enlightened, psychologically-posthuman sage entirely happy, tranquil, and compassionate? Nonsense, I say! Either such a person hasn’t fully grasped the truth or we’re deceiving ourselves in characterizing enlightenment in those reassuring terms.

I’m inclined to interpret the optimistic take on enlightenment as being as political and dubious as the exoteric, literalistic theist’s personification of “God” or of the First Cause. If I’m mistaken about that, I’d like an argument for why we should expect a Buddha figure to be happy (content), compassionate, and basking in inner peace.

I can supply part of this argument, since such a figure would have surpassed egoism and thus one major cause of stress. That much I understand. But why wouldn’t a Buddha be forced to suffer on behalf of everyone else, having given up on his or her self-centeredness? How could any selfless person be at peace until the whole world had been repaired and everyone had been liberated?

If the sage were impartial or heartless, he or she wouldn’t be compassionate. Compassion entails empathy, which entails suffering on behalf of victims, which entails a lack of inner peace, given the predominance of victimization.

Presumably, the full spiritual answer is supposed to feature monistic ontology: the Buddha doesn’t see the world as consisting of suffering selves, but as one interconnected whole or as a single flow of illusory events that testifies to an underlying, unified source.

In that case, if enlightenment depends on such mysticism, I pose these questions: Why would the Buddha (or any spiritual sage) care more about one illusory part of the whole than another? Why be compassionate towards a fake self? Why deem suffering to be something important which needs to be ended, if suffering is unreal? If enlightenment is about the one universal Self awakening to itself via the puppet or avatar of a particular human, why would the Self’s awakening be better than its slumbering?

The real problem is that this monistic scenario is as absurd as monotheism. If ultimate reality consists entirely of a single Self, surely that Self dreams up universes to avoid going mad from being the only thing that really exists! In that case, ignorance, delusion, selfishness, and suffering would be laudable, and the spiritualist’s utilitarian reason for mindfulness would be merely a timid defense of conventional, egoistic morality, after all.

Those who prefer happiness to suffering do so because they’re self-centered and unenlightened, so why should an enlightened person share those parochial values? Why would God share them? The same question afflicts the monotheist: Why would the transcendent Source of nature share the values of one species of glorified ape, namely those of justice, morality, love, and so forth?

SENDER SPIKE: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

As I said earlier, it all boils down to the question, ‘Who am I?’ for the simple reason that that question has one unambiguous answer — consciousness, or that which knows, in other words, subject. It cannot be seen, heard, or touched in any way — it’s that which allows all observations in the first place, resembling an eye which, too, cannot see itself directly — yet, it’s what we really are, it’s where our sense of identity originates, and to which we are taught to affix the name “I”.

Upon closer inspection one can see that consciousness is not defined by any attributes. They all appear as if outside of it, as objects to be aware of, even though all phenomena are merely perceptions living in our (observed) minds, be it a rendering of the universe while awake, fantastic sceneries of dreams, or awareness of absence as it happens in deep sleep or during meditation. Thus, consciousness is identical wherever we suppose it to “reside”.

Notwithstanding the question how could billions of unique brains produce something unobservable and completely identical, the implications become even more serious in the light of consciousness being that which enables the regulatory feedback loop influencing the arrangements of phenomena. In other words, it’s obvious that (what we call) animals must be conscious since their perceptual world, which we are able to decode, has to need consciousness to make that world aware to itself (even if the process itself remains “unconscious” for the particular being). So, one may also ask whether e.g. trees are conscious, too.

As you can imagine, neither of these concerns would be foreign to our ancient ancestors. Thus, instead of reinventing the wheel of spiritual knowledge, we should concentrate on drawing parallels. Then we can see that modernity ended only relevance of particular misinterpretations of God.

How is fate or karma (literally meaning action) any different from causal nature of universe where each action, no matter how random, is a cause for subsequent effects and is recorded within current state of the system as one of the compounds of momentary outcome occurring to consciousness that is always the same? How hard is it to see inevitable rebirths of individuals with particular circumstances (down to subtle mental “self-perpetuating” programs) shaped by previous events, individuals whose life will be known by the same identical unknowable knower who is to be known in order to answer the fundamental question, ‘Who am I’?

When you know that it will always be ‘I’ who will be aware of this world, and although it’s the pinnacle of selfishness, the only rational response is to be compassionate, which, however, may have as many forms as there are beings. From “interest in art” to baking a perfect bread just for the sake of it.

BEN CAIN: On the contrary, people’s mental states aren’t identical, because they’re mediated by the background memories, personalities, and dispositions that define our individual identities and are stored differently in each person’s brain. If the form of human consciousness is the same for everyone and is eerily featureless or seemingly “ghostly” (immaterial and witnessed by a hidden observer), that could be due to the brain’s production of the same magic trick or illusion of a Cartesian spirit in each brainpan.

After all, we not only all feel like an immaterial spirit, but we each have a human brain ensconced in our skull, behind the blood-brain barrier, being fed information from the senses. So either there’s a single, divine observer of all recorded human experiences, or the same natural trick of emergence is being performed in billions of human heads.

Indeed, science-centered modernity invalidated certain interpretations of reality, but it also cast doubt on religious methods of acquiring knowledge. Mystics appeal to direct experience from practices of mindfulness and meditation, but the theological interpretation of what it’s like to be in those peak states of awareness is more like art than science. The theology is often arbitrary and in some cases outdated.

For example, if the principle of karma were just about causality, it might be consistent with the scientific worldview. But karma is supposed to preserve moral values across time, as the consequences of actions build up. If moral values aren’t objective, there can be no such physical accumulation of goodness or badness. In that respect, the karmic principle is pseudoscientific and is comparable to the so-called law of attraction, which says the universe gives us what we want, in that good or bad desires “attract” the corresponding outcomes. That reference to “attraction” is likewise pseudoscientific.

What scientists showed is that causality is amoral. In the West, this manifested in the abandonment of Aristotelian final causes or ultimate purposes in the explanation of natural developments. Scientists explain how one thing follows another and don’t posit any inherent moral value in those events. We’re free to assign such values, but that’s not what the principle of karma implies. Karma is like a final cause in that it takes the moral value to be objective and inherent in the relation between cause and effect.

The monist who says there’s really only one observer, namely God who perceives the world through us, can say that compassion is as rational as egoism. If we think it’s wrong to hurt ourselves and we come to think we’re fundamentally identical to everyone else, we should refrain from harming others since we’d only thereby be harming ourselves. I think that’s the argument you’re assuming.

But this assumes the rationality of selfishness, and that’s not self-evident. What if we deserve to suffer? In that case, maybe we should punish ourselves. If the only real observer is divine and can’t be harmed, what would be wrong with harming God’s illusory avatars? (Compare this to the scene in Spielberg’s movie AI, in which some people advocate for the harming of artificially-intelligent robots, to protest their phoniness.)

Or what if enlightenment has rendered us insane and beyond the distinction between good and evil, when we realize we’re identical to God who is the only reality and who in turn has been driven insane by loneliness, which has compelled him to create universes and avatars in which to hide so that he can forget his horrific nature and responsibilities.

In short, an enlightened person in this mystical tradition still faces the existential choice of how to respond to the knowledge or the feeling that only God is real and that all humans are fundamentally one. If anything, popular culture depicts sages as wishy-washy and mercurial, on the suspicion that sages haven’t figured out what to make of the absurdity of our existential situation, given monistic spirituality.

SENDER SPIKE: Your use of the expression “the form of human consciousness” pinpoints the very reason why we have this conversation in the first place. As far as I’m concerned, consciousness is formless and is that “hidden observer” itself. All forms, “Cartesian spirit” (and even nothingness) included, are not it because of the simple fact of them being what is observed. That is an experientially verifiable fact, although, as you correctly point out, the methods of acquiring that knowledge are far from what “science-centered modernity” considers objective and valid. Sadly, to this day science did not provide an alternative method (although Hindus and Buddhists would argue that their philosophies are scientific, and would be, to an extent, correct).

On the other hand, even science demonstrated that underlying reality of our perceptions is fundamentally different from their actual shape — no one perceives photons or neural signals directly. Then again, even the concept of an almost homogeneous “quantum soup” is just a perception, too. Thus, science, as it is today, can be said to merely dissect and explain the mechanics and essence of dreams.

You are correct that what “scientists showed is that causality is amoral”, but it’s equally true that karma preserves “moral values across time”. Yes, there’s no “physical accumulation of goodness or badness” simply because goodness and badness are merely preferential labels. What gets physically accumulated, however, is mental conditioning. Hate, fear, desire for revenge, but also love, trust, or gratitude, etc. And these mental programs inevitably shape the material world when acted out. So, morality only means conditioning that leads to reduction of pain and is designed only as a common sense guide until one knows what’s the actual “deal”, because when we talk about realization of absolute (as in knowing but also materializing it) we also talk about seeing all conditioning merely as our personal responses to events. Therefore, we hardly deserve to be punished or rewarded. It’s us who punish and reward ourselves and others, while we go through various degrees of mental gymnastics rationalizing it all, as the rules of the game are, indeed, impartial (not to mention that reward and punishment are mental concepts, too).

And it’s similar with the “law of attraction” which is basically just a strong intent, whether we are plainly aware of it or whether it’s hidden in subconscious layers of our minds. Obviously, and despite certain inherent limitations, if you want something strongly enough, you will get it in the end in one form or another. And that might be a pile of gold just as a life-and-death conflict. In your case it would be “horror for nature”, I guess ;)

Anyway, enlightenment, for a fact, takes you beyond good and bad. That you equate it with insanity in the same sentence tells me that you contemplate nature of enlightenment more than the nature of reality. Thus, you are probably full of contradictory expectations how that “state” ought to be like and if it’s worth pursuing. But, as I said earlier, you cannot think yourself out of the box, if only for the simple fact of thinking being just one aspect of the whole. It is the same problem why language falls short when it comes to expression of the knowledge of all-that-is and why you say that “the theological interpretation of what it’s like to be in those peak states of awareness is more like art than science”.

The greatest fallacy of this conceptual approach to enlightenment is that one quite naturally assumes those “peak states of awareness” are it.

While it’s true that people can manipulate their perception to the point of being able to publicly self-immolate without as much as moving the eyebrow, that’s not the aim of these practices (even though even current-day Buddhism devolved into such gross meditation Olympics … and don’t get me started on the mainstream Buddhist’s cult of personality which is obviously even more detached from the original purpose of Buddhism). In the context of knowing the absolute, the goal of mindfulness, meditation, lucid dreaming, using entheogens, or what have you, is merely to see the nature of mind. I.e. no matter how bizarre or mundane the perception, it’s still but a perception. Thus, there is no special, mystical state of enlightenment, and one can do jack shit to consciousness.

Yes, “we’re identical to God who is the only reality” and he may have “been driven insane by loneliness”, though I would rather say shocked instead of driven insane. Indeed, as it seems it “has compelled him to create universes and avatars in which to hide” but don’t forget it’s ‘I’ who is God and “his horrific nature and responsibilities” are ours, while they are also equally happy and ecstatic (still, both exist only within said created universes).

All in all, don’t exclude yourself from the big picture. Then again, the game is perfect and you are free to do so, even if that position encapsulates the essence of delusion and comes with its own set of pointless suffering. But to each his own, I guess.

BEN CAIN: Your account of karma is more reasonable, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to settle here the nature of consciousness, although clearly that disagreement is central to the difference between spiritual and secular enlightenment.

You say that the point of spiritual enlightenment isn’t to bask in a peak mental state, but “merely to see the nature of mind. I.e. no matter how bizarre or mundane the perception, it’s still but a perception. Thus, there is no special, mystical state of enlightenment, and one can do jack shit to consciousness.”

We can agree on that for the sake of argument, so we’re led to the question of what a person does once he or she has made that discovery, has peeked behind the curtain to understand what we are as perceivers. I’d like to focus on the revealing point you make at the end, which is that egoistic behaviour comes with “pointless suffering.”

Can you explain why such suffering is pointless? Is that suffering any more pointless than happiness, joy, tranquility, rationality, or any other human mental state, given the spiritualist’s monism? If there’s only one self in reality and that divine self is eternal and infinite, God surely passes through every conceivable mental state in every imaginable incarnation in all possible universes that this God eventually dreams into being.

In particular, why would it be pointless to suffer in honour of the fact that even God isn’t what we hoped he would be, that God can’t be troubled to create an independent reality but can only fool himself into thinking he’s done so, thus tricking and making fools of each of us who identifies with our apparent bodies?

Is all suffering pointless, according to spiritualism? Is suffering necessarily so? Why is contentment a greater sign of enlightenment than horror, awe, and disgust in light of the magnitude of God’s joke?

Why doesn’t that spiritual situation lead to the kind of absurdity and despair featured in the Rick and Morty show, with its portrayal of the multiverse? Again, given that the difference between selves is illusory, why are pleasurable mental states better than painful ones? They are, according to biological impulses and social conventions, but those would be parts of the grand illusion, so appealing to them would be empty.

As I see it, there’s a popular, optimistic take on this spiritual monism, which is exoteric and which isn’t as profound as the pessimistic and tragic one that draws on existentialism and that I’m trying to explicate.

SENDER SPIKE: I wouldn’t say that “contentment [is] a greater sign of enlightenment than horror, awe, and disgust in light of the magnitude of God’s joke”. As I’ve said after the “revealing point”, this is a thing of preference in my book. It’s obvious to me that once contentment is realized it is present exactly as horror, awe, and disgust. The joke then has a “I’ve been fckn’ had,” kind of feeling. For me the laugh came partly because of the presence of contentment and partly because it was hilarious to see how stupid I can be. Very humbling experience I must say.

When it comes to suffering, I wonder how far we could go to alleviate it completely. You ask why we should do it in the first place when everything is the same (or, as you imply, the tragic view corresponds more with reality than the naive optimism of exoteric perspective), if I get it right.

Well, maybe because we can? Or do you think we should not be content? Is it something that should be left untouched?

So, if you know contentment but still like to walk the path of horror, disgust, sensual pleasure, or any other absurdity, it’s absolutely understandable and it would be most probably that path with heart I have mentioned. If you, on the other hand, discard contentment even after you known it yet go with the other approaches, it’s a delusion because you deny the wholeness of the picture you have realized. The other reason is that if you dismiss contentment you obviously cannot be content or satisfied. And lack of satisfaction without the privilege of potential contentment always turns into strife, thus suffering. Unnecessary, because one already knows what’s the “deal”. Yeah, sometimes the strife can be fun and not necessarily suffering. I can also believe that some people simply prefer suffering without the option of contentment even if they know it, but that’s completely beyond me, especially if they complain and ask why they are not satisfied. That’s pure idiocy in my utterly humble opinion.

And no, the deluded false optimism of exoteric “take on this spiritual monism” is not what I’m talking about when I imply that peace is the default “modus operandi” of the universe. Simply speaking, when one discards hope and faith, one must also discard despair and disbelief. When one discards contentment one must also discard suffering. Thus, one ends with peace (but that is, too, just a word).

So, maybe sulking about the nature of reality makes sense, but I’m a lazy person and sulking is a lot of work — hence, I prefer acceptance of things I have no influence on or are not for me to meddle with. Well, sometimes my assessments completely miss the mark, but whatever, I still learn.

BEN CAIN: We might be able to close on this apparent agreement, when you say that, “once contentment is realized it is present exactly as horror, awe, and disgust.”

It’s a question of seeing past the mainstream, happiness-industry’s take on spiritual enlightenment, to recognize how the pessimistic, nontheistic version merges with the perennial insights.

I’m not in favour of all forms of suffering and I don’t mean to defend sadism or anything like that. But there are honourable, perhaps inevitable kinds of suffering that seem to me to characterize an enlightened state of human being, a radical grasp of our existential situation. Blissed-out contentment strikes me as a sign of being duped, as in the “brave new world” that reflects the automated happiness of consumers who are addicted to empty, unsustainable pleasures.

Compassion seems to me to be complemented by suffering, since the empathy for others or the admiration for the world’s wholeness will entail suffering on behalf of victims such as fellow human minds or God who falls into a universe-creating trance which would itself be the cause of all suffering.

Towards the end of the Pixar movie Insight Out, there’s a scene that depicts the bittersweet mental state. There’s a kind of elevated, perhaps condescending suffering that’s reserved for enlightened people, I suspect, a dread mixed with joy, awe, and disgust. Whatever the enlightened person’s mentality, I don’t see how it could be purely peaceful or joyful. Such a mentality would lack existential depth.

We can always train ourselves to feel only this or that; we can delude or practically lobotomize ourselves. We can subscribe to this or that ideology and practice this or that lifestyle which in turn sustains a certain emotional range. The defender of each worldview will declare the latter’s superiority to all others, in which case it begs the question to speak of enlightenment. In some sense, there are only kinds of enlightenment.

I think the secular kind I explore is the most profound, but the spiritualist says the same about hers. At least they may meet in the middle when it comes to the radical implications of any elevated, genuinely philosophical or spiritual perspective.

Postscript: Why would God Create a Universe?

BEN CAIN: Do you accept any of the traditional ideas of why God creates the relatively “illusory” universe? In short, what’s the enlightened, esoteric theodicy? If he’s hiding from himself, why would he do that? The explanation I offer in this article seems to me disturbing and ironic enough to be true (assuming theism, for the sake for granted). In particular, this explanation isn’t just wishful thinking and it gels with what we know from history and from the psychological effects of having access to absolute power.

The question of why God would create strikes me as a trap for the mystic, because it invites her to commit to a psychological metaphor for God. If none of the metaphors should be taken seriously, that means we have very little understanding of God’s character.

A point I make elsewhere is that a great deal of human experience drives us to take seriously the possibility that God in any monistic system would be very much like a human tyrant. Practically all of human history, politics, and psychology support that judgment.

The mystic insists that none of the metaphors is adequate, including the comparison to tyrannical kings, but in that case the mystic has no answer at all to the question of why God creates a universe, why he hides, and why he creates this particular, seemingly amoral, indifferent, and physical plane. The moment you start answering that question, even just by hinting that God is playing or putting on a show, you’re implying that God has a certain character, which means you’re appealing to an anthropocentric metaphor.

SENDER SPIKE: Well, it’s a trap for sure. But I would say that it’s a trap only for an apprentice, a.k.a. aspiring mystic. I seriously doubt that anyone, after their final “Aha!” moment, would be fooled by inadequacy of metaphors. Quite to the contrary — the mystic who found the truth can finally appreciate their clever ambiguity that was always hinting at what he was searching for (and also discern the ones that are pure BS).

As I said earlier, it all boils down to the problem that language simply cannot fully express or name God. Even using the word God itself implies (for a seeker) some external entity, yet that what we call God predates space, time, entities, characteristics, attributes, and, of course, language, too (while not being separate from them, mind you). No wonder that Jews, who are forbidden to speak out the God’s name (or use it in vain), use in casual conversations simple title Hashem which translates as “The Name”. Though, considering the plethora of other names they use, I doubt they are aware of the true reason.

Essentially, whatever name or metaphor we use, it describes God, but it can also be misleading for the “unenlightened”. This poses a problem in transmission of knowledge, because people often mistake map for the territory, or, in Buddhist terminology, mistake the finger pointing at the Moon for the Moon itself.

Thus, I really don’t care whether someone assumes that using finite and relative metaphors to describe the infinite and absolute means “implying that God has a certain character, which means [I’m] appealing to an anthropocentric metaphor.” Those who want to understand, in the end, will. And those who want to dismiss or twist it will dismiss and misinterpret, too. I guess, there’s nothing one can do about it.

BEN CAIN: So your answer to my question about the real reason God created a universe is that there’s no such answer in language form. All answers that can be given in language rely on distortions of metaphors that pose traps for the intellect?

What are the metaphors you would use? That God is playing? Is God childlike?

SENDER SPIKE: Basically, yes. But all reasons emerge with and within the created universe. Thus, you may also say that there’s no real reason to creation at all and you would be (probably most) correct. As I said previously, I would say that God plays an adventure game or hide-and-seek with himself, or that he creates to experience himself in form. However, before one knows who or what God actually is, these metaphors are pretty misleading, vague, or bogus-sounding (either way, they are most of the time pretty unsatisfactory, and their choice also says more about my personal predilections than “God’s reasons”). And after the fact the whole “why” becomes more or less moot. You may shudder at the possible implications, but “knowing God” amounts to finding the answer to the question “Who am I?” Discovering one reveals the other, and it works both ways.

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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