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Column: Must we choose sides?

The Duel

... I’m abandoned and destitute, an absolute simpleton, this mind of mine so muddled and blank. Others are bright, clear. I’m dark, murky. Others are competent and effective: I’m pensive and withdrawn.”    -- Tao Te Ching, 20  [David Hinton translation]

Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”    -- Desiderata

Introduction: Being of two minds, I must make up my mind

My title to this introductory section cites two English idioms revelatory of how we understand ourselves and our mental process. When you cannot draw an unambiguous conclusion you are “of two minds” on some subject. When you choose, you “make up” your mind.

The first little phrase captures the feeling of holding contradictory thoughts in one mind, what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” It is not a comfortable feeling, but hardly unfamiliar to all of us.

If you saw the sequel to the film 2001, a space odyssey, you will know that cognitive dissonance caused the HAL supercomputer to make a lethal choice, but humans can entertain unharmonized ideas and not be psychopaths!

Eventually, in word and deed, one tends to come off the metaphorical fence and choose a side. Being able to process feelings of remorse or regret for a “wrong” choice is one topic I want to address in this essay.

The second colloquialism enshrines a wisdom. Our choice and decision all through life shape who we are, our mind, character, social persona, interior landscape. A million tiny choices – in a digital metaphor, between a one or a zero – make you the person you are. I do not know whether a member of homo sapiens can be otherwise.

There’s one vast area of human life governed by our mind that is crucial to how one lives: the manner in which one chooses to comprehend the real and the true. It has engrossed the deepest thinking of thousands of philosophers through human history.

One can be of two minds about how one makes one’s mental constitution. One might well balance back and forth on a see-saw of not committing to one or the other way of comprehension of the cosmos. My fascinated interest is in the cognitive dissonance I perceive in our culture in a very significant, consequential way now. The pandemic makes us confront our attitude to science and scientific authority, in a fashion I have never witnessed heretofore in my own experience.

Duality: the either-or habit

It’s likely you have a friend who is a fervent advocate for science and rationalism and logic. And, you have another friend who is all about mysteries, spiritual pursuits, counter-culture, and new-age attitudes to what is “real.”  No?

I certainly do. In fact, I feel rather often challenged to know, do I have to choose one camp or the other? I live in Nelson, where alternative values are prominently on display, but educated pro-science voices speak out in criticism of what they term a culture of magical thinking. Nelson’s a fine specimen of living with dual cultures.

This duality of poles, this either-or world, is very much apparent in human affairs. The human mind confronts the physical choices of right or left, up or down, front or back, inside or out, stop or go, daily. In our bodies we are bifurcated, with the view from the top of our head presented by twinned organs. Only the heart, liver, and spine are singular, with most other body parts having a mirror image on the other side of one’s body. We feel it in our minds too, the subject/object, inner/ outer, duality.

The physical dualism operates in human social spheres also. In politics, there are poles, in philosophies, two schools of thought, such as stoics and epicureans, Plato or Aristotle, theists and atheists. Third ways are idealized, but rather rare.

Epistemology: Real Truths and False Fantasies

Reality is only that which the physical, natural sciences say is true – that we embrace their presentation of the cosmos without reservation, by virtue of their proofs of experimental and mathematical evidence.

But if one allows that “scientific reality” has not got a monopoly on the factual and the true, one will accept varied non-physical phenomena to have truth also.

The examples of unscientific ideas are endless but let me make a short list: God, soul, karma, rebirth, magic, alchemy, feng shui, homeopathy, Tarot, I Ching, ayurvedic healing, astrology, Chinese medicine, qi gong, geomancy, spiritual beings, seance channelling, telepathy, clairvoyance, telekinesis, astral projection, vampirism, lycanthropy, and/or immortality of eternal life in a location [heaven, hell, Hades] where eternity refutes entropy.

The pandemic offers grand scope to anti-science.

In religion, dualisms are rampant. God and Satan, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the chosen and the damned, Israel and the gentiles, the Light and the Dark, the truth and the lie, yin and yang, pure and impure, gods and demons, life and death. In fairy tales and high fantasy – think J.R.R. Tolkien or J. K. Rowling – duality is the foundation of alternate worlds. It is almost the cultural air we breathe.

We also breathe a more toxic air: science and religion have been at times locked in what appears to us as an irreconcilable war, with battles waged in many fields.

You and I: modern minds in search of truth

There is more under heaven than is dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”    -- William Shakespeare. Hamlet

For modern, Western, secular, humanist, post-Christian and non-religious humans of moderate education in the middle classes of democratic, rights-based, capitalist societies, the typical, dualist choice is what I sketched above: Science / Or.

By “or” I intend to denote the various alternative non-materialist understandings which share the label of “un-scientific”. These various traditions with their corpus of knowledge that Science scorns, cannot prove their truth-claims by methods Science validates. For readers who have not been paying attention to the conflict of science with its deniers – I mean those who deny science alone has truth – I offer three quick reads online to give you a flavour of the debate. I direct your focus to the largest of all disagreements between scientists and their detractors, the disagreement over the reality or not of God...

Western Enlightenment”: it happened in history

Being historically-minded, I will assert that the dualism of modern affluent people like my readers originates most significantly in the Western Enlightenment and the so called Age of Reason and Revolution. We in the West followed the elites of many fields of human study – physics [Newton, Boyle], chemistry [Lavoisier], math [Descartes, Leibniz, d’Alembert] politics [Montesquieu, Locke – also a giant in psychology], history [Gibbon, Vico, Condorcet], biology [Humboldt, Harvey, Buffon] economics [Smith, Malthus] and philosophy [Holbach, Hume, Kant] – into Rationalism. That is, the intellectual faith in human reason that made the Enlightenment such a distinct period of intellectual history unique to Europe and colonial America. Without the exaltation of human reason, the West would not be so distinguished from all other cultures of the time, and from its own past.

The modern world began with this era; but according to many thinkers in the present, we have left modernity and entered post-modernity, where the Enlightenment project is under siege. Investigate this perspective in many of the writings of Yuval Harari or Jurgen Habermas.

A good introduction to the many questions about the Enlightenment is here

The Founding Fathers of the American Republic were eminently rationalist men like Jefferson and Franklin; the Jacobin revolutionaries of France also held reason in highest regard, men who articulated the deist religion, the Worship of Reason. The human subject was a being of reason, and the objective world would be brought to comprehensible, orderly, and scientific control by the application of reason, with its two great handmaidens mathematics and experimentation.

One horrid tangent branch of rationalism is a belief in engineering improved human beings by moulding them inside a grid of cultural, social, economic, political, religious, and ideological dogma, treating the human as a construct that can be engineered. Plato was an engineer of sorts in theory when he wrote The Republic.

Social engineering would encourage men to be rational / new men / superhuman – and thus we have encountered the terrors unleashed on humanity by Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, fascism, Bolshevism, Nazism, the Reverend Jim Jones, etc. etc.

Peace between “opposed” values?

There is an argument that all phenomena will eventually be explained by one grand scientific, unified rational theory where quantum physics and math, matter and energy, can account for magic and mystery, if only human mind would generate that theory. Perhaps only a genius will comprehend it, but it will be a science, not magic.

Many people seem fascinated by the possibility that mysterious and non-rational things – such as “spooky-action-at-a-distance” or “the principle of non-locality” or “the Heisenberg uncertainty principle” accepted in physical science as hard definitions of phenomena -- will eliminate the metaphysical, spiritual, and immaterial “nonsense” found within religions, ideology, mysticism, and the superstitious ideas of credulous individuals.

I would like to recommend a film, made purely for entertainment, written and directed by James Cameron, to vividly illustrate how the West confronts any culture not accepting science and materialism as the foundation of reality. This commercially-successful, artistically-pleasing movie was titled Avatar.

If you know the film, you know the dualism it portrays so very imaginatively. Planet Earth comes to an alien world as the empires of Europe came to the New World, and with results one might guess. But in the end, the conquistadors and their weapons do not win the victory in the war of matter against magic.

One will also notice a third way depicted in the story as a kind of softer-hearted imperial agenda, as offered by ethnologists and biologists led by Doctor Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver. Weaver’s character is a scientist and says so very decidedly: “I’m a scientist, I don’t believe in fairy tales.” She is of course the one sympathetic human leader, who wants to document the aliens in the way that anthropologists study primitive native cultures on Earth, and she is laughed at by the Army commander and the corporate CEO who rule the human colony.

Weaver represents the kind of scientist who believes there is room for magic and religion in a scientific world -- so long as her science can dissect it with its own method. She believes in a third way, a single, unified, synthesized grand field theory.

I am not of this opinion myself. There will not likely be any such unified theory, ever. God is not explained and disproven by memes, as militant atheists like Sir Richard Dawkins seem to think. I personally doubt that human consciousness is going to be explained by the methods of science such as we now understand science. But perhaps the Hegelian dialectic – where thesis and antithesis integrate within a harmonious synthesis – will prove more powerful than my skepticism, and humans develop the grand theory and a single view. Ray Kurzweil calls it The Singularity.]

The Western Enlightenment enshrined a culture, an entrenched belief among the intellectual leadership of the West that one can summarize fairly easily: The scientific method is supreme. Scientific minds will vanquish ancient pseudo-science. Reason will crush unreason. Intelligence will defeat ignorance. Consciousness will be de-mystified.

For the reader interested in current disagreement over human mind, I recommend you start with an easy read here to introduce you to the opposed camps discussing just what consciousness is:

For a deep analysis of what is wrong with scientism, the conviction that science has a monopoly on truth-validation, one must read Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion. [

Physics or Astrology: Richard Tarnas

Richard Tarnas, the late author of a respected textbook on Western intellectual history and another very large book on astrology, quipped that astrology is “the gold standard” among Western scientists for the least-respected superstitious pseudo-science. Tarnas was convinced that astrology possesses truth.

The standard narrative in the history of science regarding astrology goes like this: astrology had respectable scientific origins in the ancient past when humans observed the night skies with intense and intelligent study, and came to know the regular, predictable movements of planets, sun, moon, stars and seasonal cycles – and with this observation came a body of teachings about human affairs, called astrology.

But then Truth dawned, a factual, valid, physical science in the form of astronomy. After this breakthrough, all the irrational, metaphysical, absurd charlatanry around the zodiac, personality horoscopes, predictions of the future, and the false ability of astrologers to know occult secrets from the motions of the heavenly bodies, was seen for what it is, superstition. Astronomy is science and astrology is magic, and never the twain shall associate.

Tarnas is amusing on this topic, for he is himself an astrologer. His reputation as a fine mainstream historian is a paradox. In his thick tome on astrology, Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas writes a history that is explained by astrological concepts, or at least demonstrates regularities that suggest a link [“synchronicity”] between human history and heavenly bodies.

He begins the book with a metaphor for how the cosmos can be best understood. Do we follow the rationalist sciences like physics and chemistry which assumes matter is not “ensouled”, or align with a sympathetic “non-science” like astrology which assumes meaning, purpose, and soul exist in creation. The choice is stark and we all face it.

Tarnes calls his analogy “the two suitors” because the cosmos will give up its secrets only to the suitor who treats it with respect, as if it has a soul, a meaning, and the suitor which does that is most definitely not Western physicalist science and its method. The book is very long, but the first chapter alone is an essay on this dualism and an argument for astrology. You can read the gist of it here

It is worth mentioning, and this is an apposite place to do so, that Isaac Newton was an admitted alchemist, and Alchemy is as much detested by scientists as Astrology. This aspect of Newton’s mental constitution has been censored by orthodox historians of science who want their consensus materialist view of the great physicist to be received by the public and by educators as the whole truth.

Here ends Part One of this discussion.

Part Two will appear next week.