The Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle came up with an amazing thinking tool, the idea of a category mistake outlined in his book, ‘Concepts of Mind’. I would argue that this tool that has relevance to those who are interested in religion and spirituality. A category mistake is where we place something into the wrong category or where we assign something properties it does not have. The example Ryle gives is of a foreigner who while visiting Oxford University sees the colleges, offices and libraries then asks when he will see the University building. Ryle argued that the foreigner has mistaken the university, which is how the buildings and people in them are organised for another physical building. The foreigner has assigned University to the wrong category and thinks it is something extra to the viewed buildings, i.e. another building.
Ryle argued that it was preposterous to join two things belonging to different categories with conjunctions in the same sentence. So it would be silly to say, “I drove past the colleges, the libraries, the people, the offices and the university”. What we should say is, “I drove past the colleges, libraries, the people and the offices” or “I drove past the university”.
Ryle pointed out that not all nouns or noun phrases pick out actual entities or objects. For example the noun ‘nobody’ does not pick out an actual person. I argue that when we talk about spiritual energy (for example) as an actual thing or object we are making a category mistake. Perhaps the noun ‘spiritual energy’ does not pick out an actual object in the same way that ‘nobody’ does not point to an entity.
However a literal believer could argue that it is legitimate to say “I saw the stones, heard the wind and felt the spiritual energy”. But Ryle pointed out that not all category mistakes are so easy to detect. For example it seems we can legitimately say “the tides and stocks are rising”. However stocks and tides are still different categories and we mean different things by using the word ‘rising’. In relation to tides the word is used literally and in relation to stocks it is used as a conceptual metaphor. And so in our example we are using the term ‘feel’ in a different way (i.e. a different meaning) to how we are using it in relation to the other sense words in the sentence. I felt his hand and I felt nervous are two different meanings to the word ‘feel’ and allow the two categories to be linked by a conjunction.
So if we are making a category mistake, what are the categories that we are mistaking?
Perhaps the answer can be found in an epistemological position offered by the historian of religion Karen Armstrong in her books, ‘A Short History of Myth’, ‘The History of God’, and ‘The Case for God’. Epistemology is the study of knowledge and it is concerned with what knowledge is and how we can know what we know.
Armstrong argued that the ancient Greeks reckoned there were two type of knowledge referred to as Logos and Mythos; both of which were valued equally. Logos was concerned with facts and empirical knowledge. It operates within the domain of true or false. Logos is the knowledge of science and other forms of empirical investigation such a history where facts need to be checked against evidence to determine their truth. It is also the knowledge of rational investigation such as that of analytical philosophy and mathematics which can be proven through logic. If Logos knowledge and facts turn out to be correct then they can be believed.
If Logos is about describing the world then Mythos is about making sense of it. Mythos is harder to understand than Logos and takes a mature approach. Essentially it is what things mean; it is about making sense of life and the world in a way that speaks to people: Armstrong describes it as a form of early psychology. Mythos knowledge is not about being true or false, so it is not supposed to be believed in the same way that Logos is, but rather it operates in the domain of interpretation, the figurative domain of myth, stories, music and art. Mythos is not in the field of being true or false, but perhaps is best judged or evaluated by its aptness.
We make a category mistake when we think that one kind of knowledge belongs in the category of the other. It occurs when a Christian creationists mistakes the book of Genesis which is Mythos, for history. They have moved Genesis from the domain of the figurative into the domain of being true or false. When it is checked against the world they are left in the uncomfortable position, no matter how much they deny it, that the evidence shows the myth is not history. They have thought scientifically/historically about their myth and so have ascribed to it inappropriate properties, rather like ascribing the property furious to the colour blue. It is inappropriate and unskilful for myth to be ascribed the property of being literally true. But this does not mean that the myth does not have value. Its value lies in what it means, its pedagogical interpretation that can prepare us for life and it inevitabilities, how it creates a sense of wonder and makes sense of our relationship with the world.
So should our example of spiritual energy be in the category of Mythos rather than Logos? When we experience the ‘positive or negative energy’ of a stone circle perhaps it is a description of how we relate to our subjective feel of the place. Perhaps the spiritual energy is in the meaning that the place has for us.
When we use it to describe the vehicle of spiritual healing or magic (the term power is preferred in initiatory Witchcraft- because it more obviously connected to a state of being), is it not the feeling of empowerment, or the rapport and relationship between healer and patient we are referring to which facilitates the powerful placebo? When we are using spiritual energy in reference to soul and spirit perhaps we are speaking about our own character, about what makes us unique as individuals, how we see ourselves, how others see us and our relationships rather than a literal thing, a something extra. Perhaps it is what the American philosopher Dan Dennett metaphorically calls the centre of narrative gravity rather than the Cartesian confusion of a ghostly consciousness.
When we imbue objects, places, feelings and characters with a spiritual energy perhaps we are ‘seeing as’. The 20th Century philosophy Ludwig Wittgenstein puts it as experiencing these things as having a quality, see-as in terms of something else- perhaps we ‘experience-as’ having spiritual energy. The America philosopher John Searle would call it aspectual shape. It is an act of imagination where we see something in the light of something else. For example spiritual energy is what Michael Tye would call a fine grained ‘fact’, i.e. a particular way of seeing things as; an adjective or perspective rather than a noun or thing.
If we see ‘spiritual energy’ and other such things as Mythos, then whether it is physical or non physical, existent or non-existent or whether it is subject to the second law of thermodynamics becomes in the words of the Buddha, unskilful questions. They are simply not relevant as meaning is not about literal fact; it is about interpretation, subjective relationships and making sense of. Logos and Mythos become two different categories, both with value and both influencing each other. For each Logos discovery there is the corresponding Mythos of meaning and making sense of. Each Mythos shapes the way we see the world and can have physiological impacts on our bodies and the plasticity of the brain, not to mention the profound effect it has on our beliefs through which we filter our experience of reality. To my mind there is a great deal of magic in the employment and manipulation of meaning.
We make category mistakes when we mistake ‘knowledge’ that is about meaning for knowledge about facts of the world. Armstrong makes a strong argument that Mythos is not something to be believed like facts, but rather experienced in the same way that art is experienced, bringing meaning into our lives. We commit to it rather than believe in it. Science is about facts and literal description of the world, religion is about meaning and making sense of. Once we separate meaning from facts, myth from science all conflict between the two vanishes in a puff of epistemological smoke.
Although I should know better and haven’t done so for years, and will probably not do so again for many more, I recently took part in a debate on the Craft on the inter-web. Generally speaking I think this is a bad idea as the anonymity the internet provides tends to make some folk feel that politeness is optional. Also the net does not convey body language and tone of voice which can lead to misinterpretation of intent, context and meaning. Happily this remained a civil debate amongst, for the most part, intelligent people. However one of the participants was someone who used the debate to have her own faith position confirmed and became defensive when it wasn’t. Her position was that you could only be in the Gardnerian Craft if you had a literal belief in the Gods.
My experience of initiatory Craft is that it does not have or require orthodoxy of belief. As a mystery tradition it does not offer easy ready-made answers in the way that exoteric religion does. There is no faith position, but positions as numerous as the individuals that practise; hard won through the processes and arts of mysticism and liable to change in light of new experience. This lady had a religious faith, and a faith can’t be changed in accordance with evidence or experience, else it would not be religious faith (as commonly understood). She was told by someone that a certain faith was required for initiatory Craft and she expected everyone to think the same.
“Why then”, this person asked, “do we have the word ‘Gods’ if we don’t all have to literally believe in them?” To my mind it is because the meaning of words such as ‘God’, ‘Goddess’ and ‘Divine’ are not as fixed in meaning as she might think.
In the theory of language called descriptivism a word’s meaning depends on its extension and intension. Its extension is what the word refers to in the real world. This is what Hillary Putnam meant when he said that ‘meaning is not in the head’ (Putnam as cited in Barber, 2010, p., 193); the conclusion he came to from his famous Twin Earth thought experiment. So water means water because it refers to a substance in the real world. That substance has the chemical formula H2O and it does not refer to something that looks exactly the same as water with a different formula says XYZ (Barber, 2010, p. 43), even if we can’t tell the difference. The lay person learns the meaning of a word through deference to an expert who fixes its meaning. However, as you have no doubt have spotted, this can’t be the whole story as we have words for things that aren’t real, such as phlogiston. There can be no extension of the word phlogiston to fix its meaning. So a words meaning is also fixed by its intension. This is the lexical description of what the word means which we carry around in our heads. For example water is wet, colourless, falls from the sky, can drink it, swim in it, favoured by fish etc.
This would seem to make the Lady’s assertion that Gardnerians should all believe the same thing by the word ‘Gods’ to be correct. So far it seems that for the word to have meaning it must have an extension, but it is more complex than that. Descriptivism also claims that words can have intension and no extension. For example we can talk about Santa and Phlogiston without them existing (Ok, ok so Santa is real). But should the words we use all have the same intensions? Ned Block says no, because meaning can be narrow or wide (Block as cited in Barber, 2010, p 248). Narrow meaning is when concepts vary from person to person. For example Jocasta is Oedipus’s mother and wife is the wide meaning of the concept Jocasta, but the narrow meaning for Oedipus is that Jocasta is my wife and not my mother (Barber 2010, pp 245-246)- until he finds out differently. So if narrow meaning varies amongst individuals then how can words such as ‘Gods’ be used in discourse amongst those who hold it to mean different things?
To my mind Ludwig Wittgenstein, without a doubt one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century provides us with an answer.
In his famous thought experiment from his book, ‘Philosophical Investigations’, he writes.
“Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine that such a thing is constantly changing. But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? If so it would be the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language – game at all; not even as a something; for the box might even be empty.” (Wittgenstein as cited in Beaney 2010 p., 131-132).
Wittgenstein was using his thought experiment to illustrate how it did not matter what the subjective meaning of pain meant for the word pain to mean what it means. But I think the analogy can be extended and even works better for the experience of the Gods and the mysteries. For example, In the Craft we all have individual subjective experiences of what we call the Divine. For some, it is see as an experience which is interpreted as a literal god, for others it is interpreted as a Jungian archetype, for others it is simply interpreted as a mystery. We cannot look into each other’s heads to directly see what the experience was. Even if we could, we could not have that experience of the other person, in the subjective first person and in the same context. The only way we can know anything about what the other person experienced is by using language.
Here in lies a problem. Experience of the mysteries is transcendent of language. This is the definition of mystery; it comes from the Greek musterion, meaning to close the mouth. It is ineffable and can’t be adequately described with words. Perhaps it would be better to follow Wittgenstein’s advice in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus where he says “whereof what we cannot speak there-so we should remain silent”.
However we are a chatty species and do like to communicate using words. The words we are using in this case are words like ‘God’, ‘Goddess’, ‘Divine’ and ‘Mysteries’. These words from Wittgenstein’s perspective have a function in discourse which is not directly attached to their extension, or even intension. They are words that are learnt when we learn English and are used in a specific way, in this case they are words used to describe our own gnosis (gnosis when used in English refers to spiritual knowledge). Therefore the words refer to different things to different people but can be still used in discourse where the function need not rely on the direct reference of the experiences that they pertain to. In other words in using the language of the Craft, when we are engaging in its myths and ritual, we can use the same words, as their functions are not fixed by lexical intension or literal extension, but by discourse. Therefore Initiatory Crafters don’t all have to believe the same thing to share a common language and use words like ‘Gods’.
Barber, A., (2010), Language and Thought, Milton Keynes, Open University
Block, N., (1994), Advertisement for a Semantic Psychology, in Barber, A., (2010), Language and Thought, Milton Keynes, Open University
Putnam, H., (1994), The Meaning of Meaning, in Barber, A., (2010), Language and Thought, Milton Keynes, Open University
Beaney, M., (2010) Imagination and Creativity, Milton Keynes, Open University
The current polytheistic trend in Popular Wicca is a fairly new phenomenon. Since its inception in the late forties or earlier depending on your point of view, the Craft had until recently only two deities, the Goddess and the Horned God. These two deities came into the Craft through a complex process inspired no doubt by the Egyptologist Dr Margaret Murray’s highly flawed treatment of the Witch Trials, ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ and ‘The God of the Witches’. British historian Prof. Ronald Hutton has very lucidly described the cultural and literary forces which have shaped the perception of the two deities since the romantic period in his classic book ‘Triumph of the Moon’. That being said the Craft originated with two deities representing the two human sexes who were personification of life and death, summer and winter, female and male etc. etc. These in turn were seen as aspects of a pantheistic numinosity. Thus the whole language of earlier initiatory Craft was couched in terms of mysticism and mystical experience.
As far as I can determine the polytheistic religiosity of popular Wicca began with the books of the Farrars, particularly ‘The Goddess of the Witches’ and ‘The God of the Witches’. Certainly at the time of writing this essay Janet Farrar is a strong advocate of literal polytheistic religiosity. There may also have been an influence by ceremonial magic which uses invocation techniques of Gods for various occult purposes; however ceremonial magicians do not tend to worship polytheistic gods or necessarily view them as literal as Popular Wiccans do. Wherever the trend started Popular Wicca is defined by its religiosity and belief in literal polytheistic deities.
Despite it being extremely unlikely that literal Gods exist they seem to play a part in some forms of Witchcraft, but how are we to view them? The answer is, of course, as metaphors.
In his book ‘Religion without Beliefs: Essays in Pantheistic Theology, Comparative Religion and Ethics’, Fred Lamond a long standing Gardnerian Witch and one time member of Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood coven posed the question “Are the Gods real?” In the book Fred concluded that there were three ways, or perspectives, of looking at the gods. Firstly as thought forms in which people invest time and emotional energy. He used the analogy of saluting a flag every morning in the same manner as those in the American Military do, investing the symbol with emotion. Fred suggested that the occultist or religionist would be able to withdraw some of that energy banked in that thought-form in times of need. For example the soldier could be inspired by the flag to persevere in order to carry out great deeds in times of need. Secondly, the Gods could be viewed as archetypes. These are the Jungian concept of the originating patterns or functions which underpins characters in myths and stories. The examples that Fred gives are the archetypes of Mother Earth and Father Sky. Lastly they may be seen as gateways to cosmic forces. By this rather grand sounding statement, Fred meant that they may be anthropomorphic representations of the forces of nature, for example life, death, sexuality etc. In the chapter he goes onto suggest that individual deities could be encountered at all three different levels, for example Isis may be viewed as the personality in the myth, a thought form that can inspire a person to live up to the ethics she represents. She may be encountered in the archetype of the mother, a function that represents an aspect of our universal ideas of motherhood, or that aspect of our own characters played out in the narrative of ourselves. Or she may be seen as a gateway and metaphor for the experience of life, of reproduction and all that entails. So which level of the Gods do we deal with? It depends, according to Fred, on how one views the deity as to how we encounter them.
To my mind Fred Lamond has done the Craft and the occult a great service. He has shown that the Gods if you view them from an esoteric perspective are far more complex and interesting than if they are assumed to be as in the literal religionist’s conception. It rescues them from being seen as literal entities, a position for which there seems to be no more room for in our current understanding of the universe, thus saving them from becoming irrelevant. With this in mind this essay seeks to examine Fred’s idea of the gods in more detail and to determine what, if any, relevance they have to the Craft.
Let’s begin with Fred’s first level of the Gods, as thought forms. What exactly is a thought form? According the coiners of the term, the theosophist Annie Besant and co founder of the Liberal Catholic Church C. W. Leadbeater, a thought form is a manifestation of mental energy. The theosophist believed that this energy was the shape of a thought, a construct of some kind of spiritual energy that would take on the shape of a particular person, a particular object or organise into its own shape. They believed that thought forms influenced the way we used language, for example when we ‘look daggers’ at someone, it is because there are little literal thought form daggers that we direct at the object of our displeasure. Soon their conception a thought form as a deity would be all the mental energy built by people into building up the character of the god or goddess which manifests on some other plane of existence.
It seems somewhat naive to think of spiritual or mental energy manifesting on a different plane or hovering in the aether but perhaps it does have some metaphorical truth, but if so what? It has not escaped the notice of some astute occultists that thought forms seem similar to the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ concept of memes.
Dawkins first coined the term meme in his classic book of Neo-Darwinism, ‘The Selfish Gene’. In the main thrust of the book he outlines the power of the gene as a replicator, the unit of natural selection. But he also asks the question “is there was another type of replicator on the planet?”. Dawkins hypothesised that the units of ideas that make up culture fitted that bill. He called these replicating ideas memes based upon a play on the Greek word mimetismos meaning ‘something imitated and the word gene. Although hardly without controversy, memetics is the science of how these ideas or units of cultural information are replicated through mimicking. This includes copying other people’s behaviour and ideas, through language, body language, books, the internet or any other medium of communicating information. The environment in which these memes exist is the human mind which like the outer environment is shaped by physics, chemistry and biology and also other memes (the equivalent to other genes). In the environment of the human mind some memes do better than others, for example memes about life after death do better in the mind environment that the meme that death is the end. The psychologist Susan Blackmore in her book ‘The Meme Machine’ has also suggested that memes that spread other memes like mobile phones also often tend to do better. As such memes are subject to their own natural selection pressures from the mind environment and ‘competition’ with other memes. Blackmore argues that every thought you have, every piece of technology you use, every piece of entertainment which entertains you, and even your sense of self are all memes. Memes like genes can group together for mutual benefit. For example the, ‘you must believe in God’ meme comes with the, ‘faith is a virtue meme’. Both memes reinforce each other and so better increase their chances of survival in the mind environment. A group of memes such as a religion are called memeplexes. Memes have no real agenda; they just thoughtlessly replicate from mind to mind using the human ability to mimic; which is something that makes for a very uncomfortable thought.
This being the case I would argue that we can think of the concept of thought forms as an early groping towards the science of memetics. They may not be literal free floating emotional energy but rather information encoded in the structure of the brain, but they do metaphorically give a shape to our thought and exist in the complex mixture of the physical and informational that metaphorically we call the mind environment. If this is the case then at one level Gods can be seen as memes or perhaps more accurately memeplexes. If as Dr. Blackmore argues that our narrative of ourselves, in other words how we view our own characters, are made of memes, then why not the same be true for the characters of the Gods?
Would the Gods as memeplexes have what it takes to survive in the mind environment? According to Douglas Fox writing in the 27th November 2010 edition of the New Scientist they would. He writes that the anthropologist Steward Guthrie suggested that anthropomorphism is rife throughout the world’s religion. Most religions have Gods with more or less human characteristics. Even Gods with animal appearances such as Baast and Anubis in Egyptian mythology are endowed with human like personalities and job roles. The Greek philosopher Xenophanes commented 2600 years ago that people tend to worship Gods that look like them, so black people worshiped black Gods etc. He wondered whether if horses had Gods they would tend to be horse shaped. While Xenophanes observations are not always true, for example Christ always seems to be portrayed as pale skinned even in Southern European countries, it does seem to be generally true. Fox reports that we infer anthropomorphism for evolutionary reasons similar to those described by the anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Dan Sperber. Evolution has shaped our minds to project agency onto things and situations where there is none and this is particularly true of situations that are unpredictable and unexpected. For example we often attribute (though often in jest) agency and personality to our computer when it suddenly freezes. Somehow it feels personal and we wonder why the computer picked that moment of maximum annoyance to let us down. This is a classic example of our tendency to infer human like qualities. What is more the psychologist Nicholas Epley has discovered that people tend to project their own opinions and beliefs onto situations, especially if we are unsure about them or were confused or uncertain. For example we judge how people will respond to rude jokes before we tell them by thinking about how we would respond ourselves. Likewise we imagine that the Gods hold our own moral standards, we project our own beliefs into the void.
This tendency for humans towards anthropomorphism means that memeplexes, characters with human like tendencies are likely to appeal in the mind environment. Added to this is the human tendency derived from evolving in groups towards a hierarchy with a dominant male or female in charge. All this means that god and goddess memes which naturally play on these tendencies are likely to be communicated and copied. The mind environment is fertile place for such memes and scientifically we could predict that the Gods memes are likely to do well, as indeed they have.
This I believe has certain practical applications and goes some way to explaining the genuine experiences of invocations and deliberate possessions of religions such as Voodoo. If Dr. Susan Blackmore is right, and she is not the only person to suggest this, as Daniel Dennett makes similar claims in his book ‘Consciousness Explained’, then our sense of self is a collection of memes, it is a collection of stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves. It does not seem to me to be too much of stretch of the imagination that in altered states of consciousness the narratives of the self can be put to one side and the memeplex (character) of the ‘spirit’ inferred by the individual can come through. Likewise if we have the memes of a god in our mind, especially if we believe that the character of that deity is different to ours (bearing in mind Nicholas Epley) then we may be able to get access through a relationship and ‘conversation’ (via unconscious inference) to a different perspective of the subjective world. In other words we may be able to see the world from the perspective of the God or spirit which might be a valuable insight and a guide (both for good and ill) to our actions. As Fred suggested in his article they also serve as role models and sources of inspiration. This is something that psychologists may be able to construct an experiment to test and I would love to see the results. Perhaps we could look at it in this way Humans have genes while Gods have memes
When we talk about the Gods whether in the positive or the negative, we are serving them. We serve them by communicating their memes. But memes need not lead to our benefit. What matters from the memetic perspective is simply that they are replicated and spread. For example at the Further Education College where I teach there are students who have taken to rasping the skin of their knuckles against the wall to make them look like cage fighters. The meme was detrimental to their health but appeals to minds shaped by other memes about ‘being hard’ and macho. As a result it spread through a certain proportion of the student body infected by those memes despite the pain it causes. Likewise suppose we have the memes that some evil entity wishes to cause us harm. Remember memes in our mind are not necessarily for our benefit, only their own (metaphorically speaking) and those memes; that represent the evil character and our belief in it could bring us to harm. I have seen this happen to a literal minded dabbler in the occult. This means that angels are as potentially dangerous as demons, as both ‘use’ humans for their own metaphorical ‘agenda’; to be spread from mind to mind. So it is with the Gods.
The next perspective that Fred discusses is that the Gods could be viewed as archetypes. The term archetype was first coined by the famous 20th Century Swiss Psychologist Dr. Carl Jung. Jung was part of the psychodynamic perspective of psychology whose model of the psyche was somewhat different to that of Freud, though both were within the same broad tradition. What makes Jung quite interesting, if we take on board Dennett’s and Blackmore’s idea of the self as a collection of narratives, is that the Jungian perspective (which underpins some of the ideas of Joseph Campbell on myth) is particularly useful in understanding stories. For example, the Hollywood producer Christopher Vogler in his book, ‘The Writer’s journey: Mythic structures for Writers’ suggests that many successful scriptwriters are mindful of the contributions made by Jung and Campbell.
Jung was particularly interested in myths and dreams and from this interest and through a period of intense self analysis he noticed that certain themes seemed to reoccur. He was not the first person to notice this as the 19th Century the German anthropologist Adolf Bastian spoke about the elementary ideas that underpinned the folk stories and myths of various cultures. However it was Jung who coined the enduring term archetype referring to these reoccurring themes. Jung suggested that archetypes were universal; this means that they are central to the way all humans see the world and themselves. They underpin how we create narratives. Perhaps the best way to think of archetypes is as character functions within a story. In movies Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter fulfil the archetypal role of hero while Obi Wan Kenobi and Dumbledore fulfil the archetypal role of mentor. Likewise in Arthurian legends King Arthur or Sir Lancelot perform the hero function while Merlin is the mentor function with Sir Mordred fulfilling the role of the Villain/shadow. In myths you have many heroes in the shape of Hercules, Beowulf, Jason, Balder, Apollo, Thor, etc, etc, while you have paternal king archetypes in the shape of Jupiter, Balder, Osiris etc. Every culture in the world and every person understands the concept of a hero and the function they fulfil in stories. The characters of the individual heroes may be different from story to story but their function is always the same. This applies equally to the archetypes of mother, father, child, dweller on the threshold, mentor, villain, shadow, trickster etc, etc, etc. They are all have roles in narratives, they all influence they way we tell stories about ourselves, other people and the world. Essentially they are the product of our evolution and according to Jung dwell within the collective unconscious. This is the part of our minds of which we are unconscious but whose content is the same as every other member of our species.
Gods are characters and myths are stories, and the roles the Gods play are archetypal. From this perspective the characters of the Gods may be different but Odin has the same function as Zeus and the Buddha (depending on how you wish to look at the story) plays the same function as Mithras who fulfils the same function as Christ. This is important, as the myths are the product of the human psyche and the archetypal functions highlight aspects of the narratives about our own psyches. As such the Gods represent functions within our inner lives; they are part of our semantic landscape. This has practical applications as by invoking the Gods we activate the archetype in our own narrative influencing our subjective reality. For example, the magician who wishes to bring love into their life may perform a ritual to Venus. Venus a symbol that points to the archetype of love which means that by identifying with the archetype, we identify with love. By invoking Venus and taking on her archetypal characteristics which changes our subjective view of ourselves increasing the probability, if the archetype is left to do its work, of getting the magician what he or she desires. By using the archetypal god to change our subjective view of reality we can change ourselves from someone who is loveless to someone who is loved.
For Jung archetypes were important to personal development and individuation, especially the archetypes of the shadow, the anima/animus, the mana personalities and the self. Jung suggested that these archetypes were represented by mythological gods, for example the Shadow is represented by the devil, Aphrodite could represent the animus, the earth mother and sky father the mana personalities and Christ or the Buddha or even God representing the self. By invoking, working with and understanding these archetypes and these God function within the narratives of our self we come to have a more realistic and balanced sense of who we are. We can become more inclusive of all our narratives allowing us to match it to a more congruent view of reality. By accepting this larger sense of ourselves, warts and all, it allows us to deal with the world in a wiser way. We have a truer and more integrated sense of self, leading to individuation, the process of becoming who we truly are. Because the Gods are archetypal, patterns common to all of human kind it is natural to project them onto the divine. And through these archetypes, these myths and patterns, we can like an artist through the medium of canvas or music, reveal and form a relationship with numinous, leading to profound and life changing experiences.
Lastly Fred spoke about the Gods as ‘gateways to cosmic forces’. He argues that the Gods can be seen “as anthropomorphic images to aid human relationship to cosmic forces”. The example he uses is that Shaivite and Shaktiie Hindus can see Kali in the primordial energy/matter of the universe. As such perhaps witches choose to see the Lady in the processes of life and fertility and the Dark Lord in the processes of death and change. Perhaps we could view the Lady as among other things as anthropomorphic symbols and metaphors for the first law of thermodynamics and the Dark Lord as the second Law. The first law of thermodynamics states that nature is neither created nor destroyed and the second states that energy has a tendency to move towards entropy (another example of life and death). It is this level of Gods which is discussed in the chapter, ‘The Lord and Lady for the Non Theist’. This is the level of Gods which Prof. Joe Campbell describes as being transparent to the transcendent. From here we can go beyond the metaphor, the symbol that is the God to the experiences that it represents. If we are able to do so then the experience of the divine, the experience of the mysteries is open to us in a way that is forever closed to those who are stuck with on the literal concept of their God. Fred argues that this level is an empowerment source for the Witch, for we are relating to the forces of Nature herself; a source of wonder and of terror, the experience of mysterium tremendum coined by the German theologian Rudolph Otto.
Is there a role for the Gods as metaphors in the Craft from any of Fred’s perspectives? From my own view point I prefer the rule of parsimony as laid out by the scholastic mediaeval philosopher William of Occam who said, “Never multiply entities beyond necessity”. The Craft already has two deities which symbolise Nature and the human condition and who act as ‘gateways to cosmic forces’; does it really need more? That answer is up to the individual of course, but to my mind using any symbol takes time and effort to get to know it, to build up the connections in the semantic landscape. For me, and my personal subjective experience, while I find the myths of all these Gods and Goddesses very interesting, they do not appeal to me living in the modern world in the way the Lord and Lady of the Craft do. All these many mythological Gods seem to me to belong to another time and as such these polytheistic myths appeal to my intellect and academic curiosity but not to my spirituality. That of course is not to say that they don’t appeal to others and bring them a profound sense of spirituality and provide deep personal relationships. For me and my own sense of spirituality I experience numinous through the metaphors of the Lord and the Lady of the Craft, the Old Ones, in much the same way that others experience numinous through art. Like artists we create that experience for ourselves, through the memes, the archetypes and metaphors of the Gods.
I applaud Fred Lamond for he and other mystics like him have shown that the occultist and Witch need not look at the Gods in any simple literalist way. To my mind this makes them far more interesting and relevant than outdated literalist beliefs in supernatural beings; something very difficult to sustain if we want our beliefs to be in some way congruent with how we now understand reality. Fred does ask the question, are they real? He concludes that they are as they sometimes answer prayers and have a real effect on those upon who they are invoked. I would have to agree with him as I have experienced such things myself although my experience is subjective. But such phenomena do not require the existence of literal objective deities as the unreal can have an effect on the real. So in answer to Fred’s question, are the Gods real? I would have to answer, “that all depends on what you mean by real”.
On Midsummer’s day the corn stood half grown and green; knee high in Suffolk fields. The bumble bee buzzed as it flew from flower to flower and overhead high above the corn the skylark sang. The midsummer’s sun beat down from the clear blue sky as I walked along the footpath than ran between the field and the hedgerow. I hadn’t drunk enough water so as I walked I noticed the sleight effects of dehydration. But still I continued onwards, creeping thorns grasping at my boots, while the stinging nettles failed to penetrate my jeans. The heat of midday, the smell of the corn, the summer flowers, the humming bee, the singing skylark all swirled in my awareness. And then it seemed to me that time stopped, it stood still.
I was in eternity, in faerie land, out of time. The experience and the realisation of timelessness were both beautiful and horrible. Beautiful as there is no ageing and no sting of death, but it was also horrible for nothing reaches its potential in faerie land. The corn never ripens and babies are never born; trapped in between time beautiful and horrible, both and neither.
Then the air moved again and a breeze stirred the corn which began to ripple and sway. I heard the buzzing of the bee and the skylark continued to sings up high. I was back in time, back in the field. Did I ever really leave it? Had I really been in faerie land? Is it really a real place?
For some people it is, they believe that fairyland is an actual literal place. They may have had experiences similar to mine or more likely may have read about it in books on popular Wicca or even in books on mythology. Many of the ‘Celtic’ myths feature stories of fairies, the Sidhe or the Tuatha de Danaan. How are we to view such things as intelligent people who are interested in a view of the world which is life enhancing but still congruent with what we know about reality? There just seems to be no way that faerie land can be a literal place. Although perhaps by remembering as Doreen Valiente reminds us in her book An ABC of Witchcraft that faerie comes from the Old French meaning enchantment, it could still be saved as a metaphor.
Metaphors are essential to how we use language; linguists tell us that we could not have complex language without them. Simply put they are when we describe something (called the target by linguists) by analogy (the source). So, for example, we might say that my child is a fairy. The child is the target and the fairy is the source. This does not mean that we believe that our child is literally a fairy rather we are suggesting that she has some fae like qualities. Interestingly we somehow know which fairy qualities to apply to the child, so unless we are on the autistic spectrum we would not think that the child is an immortal with wings or likes to steal babies and put changelings in their place (remember no babies are born in faerie land). Rather we would assume that the metaphor meant that she was small and cute looking or perhaps full of mischief. So the description of my experience is a metaphor, an analogy. But what is it a metaphor for?
This metaphor is how I would try to communicate what my experience is like and what it means to me. Quite simply we and use metaphors to hint at things we can’t describe directly or in any other way. To understand this we shall examine three types of metaphor although there are in reality many more. The three we are interested in are conceptual metaphors, paralogical (or absolute) metaphors and extended metaphors. My experience falls under the heading of paralogical and extended metaphors but let’s first discuss conceptual metaphors.
Conceptual metaphors are used to illustrate one concept with reference to another. It sounds complicated but you may be surprised to learn that you use conceptual metaphors all the time. Consider for example when we say, “it was the high point of my life”; a classic example of a conceptual metaphor. If you think about it unless you were parachuting or bungee jumping you were not literally high up. It is a metaphor which we use to describe how we feel about a particular time in our lives. Another example is “I turned the music down”, after all music noise does not literally have a direction. What is especially interesting about conceptual metaphors is that they are indicative of our subjective view of reality. They illustrate some of the filters through which we perceive the world. Consider for a moment what we mean by high point. It rests on an assumption that high is something that is good and desirable, while conversely low, as in “it was a low point in my life” is seen as bad and something that we intuitively see as undesirable. The American magician and Linguist Patrick Dunn in his book, ‘Magic, Power, Language, Symbol’ (a book well worth reading) suggests that metaphors are so ingrained in our though patterns and assumptions that they often fall under the radar to all but linguists. Yet language and thought are fundamental to how we subjectively experience the world. The underlying metaphors which make up beliefs are so important and taken so literally that Professor Joseph Campbell has lamented, “People are dying for metaphors all over the place”. Conceptual metaphors are worth a great deal of consideration and I recommend keeping your ears open for them and meditating on how they underpin your assumptions of reality, a very worthwhile and illuminating exercise.
Without paralogical metaphors the Craft, the occult or religion in general could not operate. Paralogical metaphors are utterances where there is no obvious link between the source and the target. So when we say, “the weather is pants”, you have to be in on the metaphor to understand what is being said. There is no way to infer the link between weather and pants if you were not already in on the expression and understood what it meant. It also makes some underlying assumptions on pants suggesting that they are not very nice things. I wonder what assumptions are made by people who use the term, “the dog’s bollocks”.
Paralogical metaphors can be seen as being symbols and the study of symbols is called semiotics. The discipline of semiotics includes not just written things like pentagrams and ankhs as symbols, nor even just spoken language, but body language, haircuts and the deliberate arrangement of trees; in fact anything that carries information. Some postmodernists such as the magician Patrick Dunn argue that as everything we perceive and experience is represented by information (via symbols to consciousness) in the brain, so our whole subjective experience is a symbolic representation. There may be an objective world out there, in fact there probably is, but we can never know it directly. We only know it indirectly through our senses that provide us with symbolic a representation filtered through attentional bottleneck based on biology, biases and the symbolic information of our beliefs formed by experience. We live in our own little reality bubbles, in our own stories and narratives created from our symbolic representations. This is an idea that is finding considerable favour with many modern occultists, mostly because it seems to be backed up from the finding of perceptual, cognitive and discursive psychology.
The most obvious example of paralogical metaphors in the Craft are tools, symbols, the elements, and the gods. Let us take tools to illustrate what I mean. In the Craft, as in ceremonial magic, there are several symbolic tools which represent certain things. These are paralogical metaphors because these symbols are not obvious and difficult to infer the target (the concept/experience we are trying to understand) from the source (the tool and metaphorical expression). As the Craft is organised into small autonomous covens which tools are used depends upon the Craft tradition and the coven. In the coven in which I am a member the tools used are the besom, the athame (sword), the dish, the chalice, and the censer. We also use other symbols such as the stang, the cords, the skull, the hare and others. Like all good symbols these parabolic metaphors have loose associations allowing room for individual investment of meaning. Roughly speaking the stang is a metaphor for the Dark Lord (who is himself a metaphor), raised during the winter months between Halloween and Beltaine, the besom is the union of male and female, the cords for masculinity or femininity depending on the colour and the skull for death. The elemental tools are the athame for will and phallus (a metaphor for masculinity), the dish for the body, the censer for thought and the cup for both emotions and the mystery of femininity, life and the Lady (again more metaphors for metaphors). The tools themselves are not important, it is what they are metaphors for, in other words what they represent which is.
This is all very well but you would be justified in asking why bother with this talk of metaphors? The answer is that these metaphors have a semantic content in the mind of the practitioner. In linguistics semantics means meaning. So in other words the tools and symbols of the Craft hold meaning for the practitioner. These symbols activate the meanings in the mind of the Witch when they are used. For example, if the Witch uses the athame to cast the circle (another paralogical metaphor) then its meaning infers and invokes the will of the Witch. These metaphors are like keys that flip the mind into the state that the metaphor represents provided they have been invested with their semantic content.
As such the Witch can deliberately buy into and build up these semantic connections. As paralogical metaphors are not obvious associations they need to be built and the assumptions about reality implicit in the metaphors need to be examined. The witch builds up a semantic landscape, a landscape of meaning and metaphor. It is in this semantic landscape, itself a metaphor, in which the Craft operates; the world of faerie, the world of enchantment.
Occultists, philosophers and scientists have a long history of using metaphorical places in order to better understand difficult concepts and meanings. For example in the Western Mystery Traditions we have the astral and inner planes. The problem with using metaphor, especially in the Occult, is they are often taken as literal, in other words some people believe that the astral and inner planes are real places. Rather they are analogous to the ideas of ‘prime space’ in mathematics, ‘design space’ in evolutionary biology and ‘possible worlds’ in philosophy, though these are used to understand different concepts.
Prime space is a metaphorical space which helps mathematicians understand how reality would be effected if the mathematical language of the universe was different in some way. It is a useful tool because by understanding what would happen under different conditions it helps mathematicians to get to grips with why the maths of the universe behaves the way it does. Likewise with design space, in enables the evolutionary biologist to understand why organisms are the way they are by exploring the way they could be but are not. The ‘possible worlds’ in philosophy allows philosophers to conduct thought experiments which highlight our intuitions about concepts and the way the world is. These are metaphors, conceptual tools and so are astral and inner planes. In a sense like myth, they are extended metaphors. They go beyond just one symbol, into many symbols which are analogous to states of mind, complex concepts and help us to understand complex information.
The astral plane is a metaphor for the emotional mind while the inner planes are a metaphor for the deeper levels of the psyche. They describe states of mind where the characters of deities, elementals and other spirits (more metaphors and memeplexes) can communicate with the occultist, or if you like where the unconscious mind can come through, communicating according to Freud and Jung, through the language of symbols. Likewise the semantic landscape is not a real place, but rather it is entering into a state of mind where one is aware of the symbols as metaphors and what they represent. The more one connects with and builds up these metaphors then the richer ones semantic landscape becomes. For example, if you learn the folklore, the medicinal and magical properties of local plants, a walk in the countryside becomes richer in the sense that you will also be taking a walk through a semantic landscape full of meaning and association. Each plant will be a metaphor for various states of minds, various experiences, various connections, enriching your life and being put at your disposal.
You may be tempted to ask the question so what? And that would be a good question to ask. Why bother building up our semantic landscape and considering what assumptions our metaphors make about reality? The answer is as mentioned before, we are as Stewart and Cohen suggests ‘the storytelling ape’. We perceive and communicate our reality as a narrative. This is why Jung’s ideas about archetypes are so powerful even though we know they are not literally embedded in our brains (if you cut open a brain you won’t find a single archetype anywhere). Rather they are embedded in how we tell stories, including the stories of ourselves. Stories are metaphors, they are full of meaning, which operates on many different levels, but they are not directly the way the world is. If they were a direct reflection of reality then we would have discovered evolution, germ theory, the heliocentric solar system much, much sooner than we did.
By building up our semantic landscape, by taking control of our stories of reality, we can then change them if we wish. And if we are really good at it, and understand other people’s stories, we can change those as well. By understanding that our experience of the world (and entities) is a collection of narratives we can also avoid the obsession and eventual mental breakdown that has afflicted some literally minded dabblers in the occult. When we build up our semantic landscape, when we weave meaning and metaphor it gives us some power over the narrative, though the narrative will always have some control over us.
My experience of wandering through faerie land is a metaphor for an experience. It is a metaphor for the state of mind where I experienced the wonder and horror of eternity. Faerie land is not a real place, there are no literal fairies out there, but the experience none the less like many other experiences was real, meaningful and very useful. The experience of faerie is the state of mind that we enter into when we cast the magic circle. Putting aside the results of operant conditioning of casting the circle (in that after a period of time and experience it automatically puts us into a certain state of mind), the circle becomes the semantic landscape. It is the world of metaphor, representing not only the totality universe but also the state of mind that is both out of time and all of time. The circle represents the whole of time, a metaphor for all the year, the whole of our lives and so, like faerie land, it is a mind state of eternity. We are metaphorically between the world of the physical and the semantic landscape of our narrative minds, wandering through the story, wandering through fairy land. And it is from here, in those states of mind that we can experience and change the stories and we can encounter the characters of our narratives including the narrative of the self. It is when we are wandering through faerie land that we meet that grand narrative which we know as the Divine.
Is the brain a necessary condition to having religious and mystical experiences? Is there a biological underpinning to the experiences of deities and spirits as reported by religious people? Is there a connection between the brain and consciousness of the whole as described (metaphorically) by those who have undergone mystical experience? The established science of Neuro-theology, a branch of neurology suggests that there is.
The brain is an amazingly complex organ, containing millions of neuronal connections, the product of eons of evolution by natural selection. It is through the complex interactions of these neurons, with the rest of the body and the environment that consciousness, unconsciousness, cognition, and emotions emerge. Pretty much everything that we experience, everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, feel and believe is mediated through the brain; so it seems to be the case that religious and mystical experience are no exceptions. We know this because whenever we imbibe alcohol or drugs they influence the bio-chemical processes that occur within the body and brain which in turn influences our state of consciousness. Likewise in those tragic cases where people suffer brain damage or from Alzheimer’s Disease, then the sufferers beliefs, memories, behaviour and even sense of who they are radically altered. This strongly suggests that in order to have any kind of experience at all it is necessary to have a brain (and body).
I can almost hear the sharp intake of breath and tutting from any religious or new age people reading this book. What about the Gods and spirits, what about astral projection and out of body experience. Surely Gods and spirits don’t have physical brains and yet from a religious person’s perspective they are conscious and have beliefs etc. I shall discuss Gods and Spirits in the Chapter Spirit and Character, but what about out of body experiences? I have had this kind of experience myself and it where you have the sensation and experience of leaving your body. This has long been used as proof by new agers and some occultist of a separate soul independent of the brain and body that is the source of our identity and is capable of surviving bodily death. Putting aside the problem of how alcohol and brain damage would influence a non physical soul, these kinds of experiences are very genuine for those people that have experienced them and so they deserve some kind of explanation and study. Fortunately there are plenty of psychologists that agree, but they believe the basis of such experiences is not to be found in some immaterial soul but in the brain.
According to Professor Richard Wiseman in his book Paranomality Susan Blackmore suggests that out of body experience are down in part to something called sensory habituation. I am sure that you have all had this kind of experience, It is when you walk into a room and smell coffee, but after a few minutes you can no longer smell it. Essentially your brain has become habituated to the smell and so no longer registers its presence. In order to smell the coffee again you would have to go out of the room for a few minutes and come back in. The same phenomena explains why chewing gum seems to lose its flavour, but when you take it out of your mouth and replace it a few minutes later then the flavour seems to return.
Blackmore argues that this phenomenon is central to out of body experiences. She claims that people tend to have this kind of experience when their brains are receiving very little information from the senses as they are often very relaxed. As a result the brain soon becomes habituated to the small amount of sensory information that is coming in and struggles to create a coherent picture of that person’s location. Prof. Wiseman says that Blackmore claims that the brain then starts to generate imagery as to what the person is doing and where they are giving them the feeling that they are leaving their bodies. Blackmore’s studies suggest that those people who have a greater capacity for visualisation are much more likely to have experienced and out of body experience than those people who do not. Also she has demonstrated that those people who tend to become absorbed into their fantasies, and while doing so find it harder to separate reality from fantasy are more likely to have reported having these kinds of experiences,
What is more, it is now possible to induce out of body experience in the lab. Henrik Ehrsson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden was able to reliably induce out of body experience in healthy participants. In the study the participants had a dead mounted video display which covered both their eyes. Connected to these were live feeds from two cameras situated a couple of metres behind them. This resulted in the participant seeing a 3D image as if they were someone sitting directly behind them. A researcher would then take two rods and out of sight of the cameras prod the participant in their real chest the second rod was then used to poke were there perspective chest would be in sight of the camera. All the participants felt that they were sitting behind where they were actually sitting. In later studies participants were even made to feel like that they inhabited the body of another person.
Experience similar to Out of Body were have also been induced by Olaf Blanke in Switzerland by the stimulation of the area where the parietal and temporal lobe of the brain come together, again suggesting that Out of Body experiences are a product of the physical brain. However by understanding the process we can more readily induce these kind of experience in ourselves. Ehrsson’s research seems to show that manipulations of the senses are important to induce out of body experience. And if Dr. Blackmore is correct then they can be induces with deep relaxation and visualisation which indorse the techniques practised by occultists. However it does seem to suggest that instances of out of body experiences are products of the brain and therefore can’t be used as evidence that consciousness can occur independent of them.
The same also seems to be true of mystical experiences. The neurologist and Zen Buddhist, Dr James Austin, underwent a spontaneous mystical experience while waiting for the tube in the London underground. He claimed that he saw things as they really are; that he had a sense of eternity, the sense of I, and self, had disappeared and that he had been graced with the ultimate nature of everything.
As a neurologist Austin reasoned that the parts of the brain that deal with the orientation of the self in space, separating the self from the rest of the world, had gone quiet. These functions are located within the parietal lobes at the back of the brain. The amygdala, often cited in connection with religious experience, and is most famous for its flight and fight response, also monitors the surroundings for threats had ‘closed off’. Also the frontal and temporal lobes, which contain the functions of self awareness and recognition of time, must have according to Dr. Austin dropped away.
All this was corroborated by Dr. Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili who suggested that these kinds of mystical and religious experiences seem to share common themes across all cultures. In other words those that experience mystical states all experience broadly the same kind of thing. This suggested to them a neurological underpinning to these kinds of states for they carried out an experiment which involved the scanning of brain activity with a single photon emission computed tomography machine, SPECT for short. Essentially what they did was to scan the brains of meditating Zen Buddhists at the peak of their meditative experience, and compare these with the SPECT scans of Franciscan Nuns at the climax of their prayers. Although both groups interpret their experiences differently, bound up in their own mythology, the underlying experience of unity (with God or whatever) is the same. What the SPECT scans showed is an increased level of activity in the prefrontal cortex, where, as you would expect as both groups were in deep concentration, the function of attention is located. However there was also a drop off in the parietal lobes; that part of the brain mentioned above which is to do with the location of self in space. Dr. Newberg concluded that it was this shutdown in this region of the brain that forces the self to associate with the entirety of the whole. In other words the meditating Buddhists and praying nuns don’t know where they stop and the rest of the universe begins. This of course is a familiar experience for those us that have engaged in magical operations.
Interestingly Newberg argues that certain kinds of practices which we would associate with the Craft and paganism have a direct affect on the brain. For example, drumming, dancing, invocations, rituals, scourging, sex, chanting, etc, all focus our attention onto one source of stimulation. These practises can also invoke heightened states of emotions within us, which seems according to Newberg, to be the key to their success. No doubt these techniques will sound somewhat familiar to those you practise the Craft and other Occult traditions. It adds further weight to the claims made by Chaos Magicians and some Witches that such techniques are more important than individual belief systems in inducing these altered states of consciousness. Often they involve rhythm to induce trance states and often concentration on a source of stimulation that occupies the conscious mind, theoretically allowing what is required to be seeded in the unconscious mind.
These techniques can have the effect of stimulating the hippocampus. The hippocampus is located in the medial temporal lobe and amongst other things is associated along with other parts of the brain with maintaining neuronal activity equilibrium as well as with episodic memory. Apparently it can put the ‘breaks’ on neuronal activity, limiting the flow of activity to the parietal lobes and other parts of the brain associated with religious and spiritual experiences. This again leads to the sense of loss of self and identification with the whole. We lose the sense of where we stop and the rest of the world begins.
So there does seem to be a biological underpinning to mystical experiences and there appears to be neurological connections to religious experiences as well. More often associated with religious experience is where individuals hear the voice of God, gods and spirits. Does neurology explain George W Bush’s assertion that God asked him to invade Iraq? There seems to be some evidence that it did.
The famous Neurologist Dr, Ramachandran suggests that religious feelings may be caused by naturally occurring activity within the temporal lobes. This is born out to some extent by Michael Persinger’s helmet, a strange device that creates an electro-magnetic field around the participant’s head so as to stimulate the temporal lobes. The result is that participants experience strange sensations, such as unseen presences; even within arch atheist and psychologist Susan Blackmore when she wore it as reported on a recent Radio 4 programme. This part of the brain is also associated with speech perception. However it should be noted that Persinger’s experiment was repeated at the University of Uppsala in Sweden by Pehr Granqvist. Grangvist was concerned that people were wearing Persinger’s helmet with the expectation of feeling something. As a result in his experiments the helmet was not always turned on and this seemed to make no difference to the participants reporting intense spiritual experiences. Richard Wiseman in his book Paranormality also reports how Chris French from Goldsmith’s University in London created a ‘haunted’ room by putting electro-magnetic generators into the walls. Again whether the magnets were turned on or off made no difference to the experiences people felt. As a result it now seems unlikely that electo-magnetic fields stimulating the temporal lobes of the brain are associated with religious feelings and expectation is much more relevant.
The Psychologist Richard Bentall suggests that when people hear the voice of God, they are actually misinterpreting their own inner voice. The Brocca’s area of the brain which is associated with speech production turns on, and when sensory information is restricted such as in mediation and in the use of other altered states of consciousness techniques, such as prayer, the practitioner may be fooled into thinking that the inner voice has an external source. This is also likely to happen in time of high stress and heightened emotions such as in times of jeopardy.
There is also evidence that the anterior cingulated part of the brain activates when people hear actual sounds in the environment and also when they hallucinate sound, but not while they imagine hearing something. This part of the brain may be responsible for deciding whether a sound is external or not, and if it is appropriately activated it may fool us into believing that our own inner voice comes from an external supernatural source.
Does all this mean that mystical and religious experiences are all the result of biology? I would suggest not, though the evidence does suggest that the brain is a necessary condition of spiritual experience, as it is a necessary condition for all aspects of our lives, but it is not a sufficient condition. Our experience of numinous depends not just on our biology, though it underpins it, but also on our complex interactions with our environment, including the enormous complexity of the culture in which we live. Within our culture we encounter the myths (the metaphors) and the science and philosophy which we use to interpret our experiences, enabling us to weave our personal patterns into the warp and weft of the world. It is a two way process, the metaphor of myth inspire within us spiritual experiences, and we reinterpret them in accordance with these myths thus socially constructing our complex realities.
However it does mean that mystical and religious experiences are not merely wishful thinking, but can be rooted within the natural world with potentially life changing consequences. In other words they are genuine experiences that really do matter. As to whether this biological underpinning refutes or confirms the literal existence of supernatural beings, or the literal existence of other levels of reality, that is for you as intelligent people to decide.
It seems that spirituality means different things to different people and perhaps as spirituality is a very individual and subjective experience this is only right and proper. However as the word is often used in different contexts I believe that it is a phenomena that is worthy of some thought, so for those of you that may be interested here is my take on this difficult subject.
If you care to look at the Oxford English dictionary you will find that it says that spirituality is “1 Relating to or affecting the human spirit as opposed to material or physical things. 2 Relating to religion or religious belief”.
For me this raises more questions than it answers. What exactly is meant by the human spirit? Is it really something that differs from material and physical things? Is it a literal human spirit as believed by followers of some religions; a dualist point of view of a spirit that is of a different substance to the body which survives after death as the 17th Century French philosopher Descartes claimed? It certainly seems to imply this, but that just does not seem to describe my experience of spirituality or those of some others that I know; especially as I am someone who finds the dualism pill a hard one to swallow. These are perhaps questions for another time and are discussed in the chapter Spirit and Character.
Then there are those people who do not feel that they can’t fit their beliefs into any particular religion or religious belief. These people often regard their beliefs as their spirituality, but are they just splitting hairs as others might describe their beliefs as religious? That aside there does seem to be the intuition that spirituality is different to, though related to religion in some important way. Perhaps the key word here is ‘relating’, perhaps spirituality is about relationships. Within this chapter I am going to argue that spirituality is actually a special kind of relationship that has particular qualities and we shall be exploring what these qualities could be.
In his highly recommended book, ‘Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’ the American philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that people’s belief in God may be in part down to the idea that people love God, or at least the idea of God. Dennett argues that some people continue to believe in God despite a wealth of scientific evidence that doesn’t exactly disprove his existence but does make a personal God seem unlikely simply because they are in love with the idea of him. So is love a necessary and sufficient condition of the relationship that defines spirituality?
Of courses Dennett is not suggesting that it is, after all someone who really loves Manchester United or their brand new convertible car is in a loving relationship of a kind. But however entertaining harbouring the notion might be, it would be a very long stretch of the imagination to believe that they were engaged in spirituality.
Love is not sufficient for spirituality and neither is it necessary. After all it is not hard to imagine someone who has a relationship with ‘God’ that is based on resentment and even hatred. Several Hollywood films seem to be based on this premise, though the characters may still feel that they have a spiritual relationship with the deity. The characters in the films Dogma, Signs and the Poseidon Adventure seem to fit this picture. In real life I dare say there are many practising Christians who feel a sense of hatred or resentment (perhaps unconsciously) towards God for how their lives may have turned out. One wonders how Job might have felt towards God as he was plagued by misfortune in the myths of the Old Testament. Pretty bloody annoyed I should imagine.
Who is to say whether historical pagans felt that they loved their gods? They obviously felt that they had a relationship with them and no doubt felt a sense of spirituality (thought they may not have expressed it in quite that term) but they did not always seem to love them. The Egyptians use to get in right huff with their Gods if they didn’t do what was expected of them. In modern times the anthropologist Pascal Boyer described how a traditional community banished one of their local goddesses from their village for not fulfilling her side of the religious bargain. Perhaps rather than love, the pagans took a more pragmatic approach to their deities based on appeasement of powerful ‘beings’ or the reciprocal altruism of ‘if I worship you will you be nice to me’. I can recall reading an account of a reconstructionist pagan (these are modern pagans who are literal polytheists and seek to reconstruct pre-Christian pagan religions within, one assumes, the bounds of the law), who suggested that despite having a spiritual relationships did not feel any particular love for his gods. Mind you he later changed his allegiance to a Chinese Goddess for whom he did feel it but nevertheless it seems from the evidence that love is not sufficient.
It seems to me that spirituality involves the kind of relationships that feels to the people who pursue them as being extremely important. These are relationships that are so important that we would feel the poorer or bereft in some way if we could not pursue them. This kind of relationship reminds me of the relationships described in the essay written by the phenomenologist Jane Howarth entitled ‘Neither use nor Ornament: A Consumer’s Guide to Care’ (an essay that I first assumed to be about middle managers).
In the essay Howarth uses the concept of cherishing, an idea similar to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of care, to describe the relationship between subject and object. In other words she says that cherishing something comes from a history of interaction; the relationship between the parties involved. For example imagine two old friends that have gone through the hardships of life together, supporting each other through tough times, cried on each other shoulders, looked after each other’s kids and been through hell and back. They have also shared the good times, partied together and rejoiced at each other’s triumphs and shared each other’s joys. They have a history together; a history of interaction. It could be argued that perhaps from their perspective it is the relationship that is cherished as much as the other person. The relationship has an instrumental value but it is also intrinsically important and cherished due to the history of interaction. By this I mean that you can have other friends, but you can never replace that specific person, you can never replace that relationship. The other friends and other relationships are just not equivalent. The experience of the relationship, the history of the interaction can never be repeated. Admittedly in her essay Howarth was talking about relationships and interactions directed towards objects that we cherish and her ideas are often used in arguments within environmental philosophy, but it could just as easily be applied to people or characters.
Before we go on, I should just note that you don’t necessarily have to love something to cherish it. It could be argued that people have all sorts of habits and personality traits that they cherish. They may cherish certain traditions not because they particularly like them but because that is what they have always done and it gives them a sense of familiarity and positioning within their lives. They may also have relationships with people that they simply cannot stand but cherish these relationships none the less, if only to cause annoyance and upset to the other person. I daresay there are a few marriages that are carefully cherished for that very reason. However surely this is still not sufficient for our idea that spirituality is about relationships. After all, the fanatical football fan and car fancier could still conceivable fall into this category. For surely they too have had a history of interaction leading to cherishing their object.
To me it seems that spirituality is an important relationship so important that many people who experience spirituality whether religious or not, says that it has helped them to endure times of hardship and difficulty. I would argue that this was the kind of relationship that the existentialist psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had with his wife.
During the Second World War he was imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Nazis. As a Jew he was stripped of his psychiatric practise and forced into slave labour and endured terrible hardship including being separated from his wife who was imprisoned elsewhere. Frankl tells the story of being forced to march through the dark accompanied by guards driving them with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with sore feet was supported by their neighbours and a man stumbling close to Frankl murmured to him from behind an up turned collar, “If only our wives could see us now”. As they stumbled through the dark, Frankl’s mind turned to his wife, and he later wrote that he saw her image in his mind eye with uncanny accuracy; that on that cold dark night she seemed to him more luminous than the rising sun. And in that most horrific of places by contemplating his beloved he could still know a bliss that helped him endure. Sadly his wife was later murdered by the Nazis at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp.
Is this an example of a spiritual relationship? Many people might not consider the idea that Frankl’s experience is spirituality but I personally think that it is. Perhaps it is similar to the kind of relationship that a Christian has with God or Jesus. It is of the upmost importance and sustains them through adversity and even, if genuine, sustains them in the face of death. Though I should add that this does not necessarily imply that the object with which they form the relationship has any literal reality. For me it is the same as the relationship and connection I have for and with the wonders and horrors of nature as personified through the Lord and the Lady of the Craft. My pattern’s relatedness and connection to the rest of the wider pattern related through such symbols; that which the famous mythologist Professor Joseph Campbell describes as ‘transparent to the transcendent’. It could be argued that Frankl felt this wonder in his relationship with his wife, and I see no reason why we can’t experience this in and through another person. It was the quality of the relationship that sustained Frankl and led him to bliss in the most horrific of circumstances. I daresay that no matter how much the football fan loves their team or the car fancier cherishes his car their relationships with these objects are not sufficient to sustain them through hardship, grief or terminal illness; it does not connect them with something more important.
The relationship of spirituality, from my perspective engenders a sense of wonder. By wonder I mean that spirituality connects us with something other, it is a relationship which is perceived as something greater and more potent than ourselves. It takes us beyond ourselves, beyond limiting self service and the limited sense of self. It connects us with something wider and other, yet intimately the same. It is that kind of relationship beyond ourselves that leaves us with that sense of awe and wonder which can’t really be adequately described in words and hinted at only with metaphor.
The 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill said that it was familiarity not understanding that destroys wonder. I would argue that it is mystery and awe despite an intellectual understanding that can fuel the wonder and awe in the relationship. Often intellectual understanding can add to the wonder experienced. For example I understand intellectually the process of evolution by natural selection and yet the process fills me with wonder at the blind power of nature. We intellectually know the stars are thousands of light years distant, that it takes thousands of years for their light to reach our retinas. We know that when we gaze at the night sky we are looking back in time. Is that not wonderful and is it not awe inspiring, perhaps more so because we know these facts about them? The British philosopher Ronald Hepburn claims in his essay on Wonder that, “if problems should arise over the philosophical basis of belief, and worship becomes impossible for a person, wonder is probably the nearest intense appreciative attitude and emotion that is free of problematic metaphysics and so remains available”. It is this relationship of wonder that changes our outlook, adding depth to our existence relating us to the mysteries of life and death. It is sustaining and life changing and so very important. It is our connection and interaction with the larger picture.
To my mind spirituality is not necessarily about spirits or spirit (what spirits are, is another question). Rather it is found in the quality of a relationship or the character of that relationship. It is not simply a love for something, or just a history of interaction within the relationships. Nor really is it simply about relationships which are seen as being very important, although these factors are part of it. Rather, I consider spirituality to be about a relationship that is bigger, more powerful, with greater potency than just ourselves; a relationship that is based upon wonder that can sustain us in times of extreme adversity as it did with Frankl, and so provides us with a sense of meaning in times of extreme hardship. It is a relationship that takes us beyond ourselves and our limited self interests.
To sum up with a metaphor, I think that spirituality can be likened to beer; life without spirituality is like drinking pub larger, bland and flavourless, whereas life with it is like supping real ale, richer, more fulfilling and with greater depth and flavour.