There is an ongoing and heated debate that reaches who knows how far back into the past. A discourse that is today — probably due to our pressing socioeconomic and ecological problems — exacerbated to an extent unprecedented in known history. And although the altercation takes a variety of forms and encompasses a plethora of different topics, its leitmotif still fits into two words forming one expression: ontological dichotomy.
Out of the many manifestations of that polemic, I’d like to concentrate on a single specific set of conflicting propositions, a disunion that clearly appears as the epitome for, and perhaps is even the foundation of, all remaining dichotomies. The primordial discord I allude to is the problem of illusion and reality as it manifests in clash of idealism and materialism, spirituality and science, or religion and atheism.
One of the best descriptions of this dichotomy and also its solution comes from the iconic book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda where the author questions his out-of-body experience:
Finally, before I left that evening, I had to ask him, “Did I really fly, don Juan?”
“That is what you told me. Didn’t you?”
“I know, don Juan. I mean, did my body fly? Did I take off like a bird?”
“You always ask me questions I cannot answer. You flew. That is what the second portion of the devil’s weed is for. As you take more of it, you will learn how to fly perfectly. It is not a simple matter. A man flies with the help of the second portion of the devil’s weed. That is all I can tell you. What you want to know makes no sense. Birds fly like birds and a man who has taken the devil’s weed flies as such.”
“As birds do?”
“No, he flies as a man who has taken the weed.”
“Then I didn’t really fly, don Juan. I flew in my imagination, in my mind alone. Where was my body?”
“In the bushes,” he replied cuttingly, but immediately broke into laughter again. “The trouble with you is that you understand things in only one way. You don’t think a man flies; and yet a brujo can move a thousand miles in one second to see what is going on. He can deliver a blow to his enemies long distances away. So, does he or doesn’t he fly?”
First, we have to realize that it’s the character of Carlos who is both the idealist as well as materialist still trapped within the conflicting dichotomy. Not because of the actual nature of the experience as one may think — mere dreams or hallucinations don’t throw anyone for a serious loop — but because some experiences collapse the boundary between the hallucinatory and material world in a very palpable and verifiable way (e.g. anomalous knowledge of, or inexplicable influence on, phenomena).
Second, science has nowadays (not a complete but) a pretty good grasp on how e.g. vision works. How light entering the eye is transformed to electric signals. How these signals get projected onto primary visual cortex where they create a map of primary visual patterns. How the impulses further spread into visual association area where the complete map of the visual world is constructed, and how they propagate to the rest of the brain to finalize the visual perception that gets cognized. Science has also quite a solid understanding of how entheogens influence our brain. Thus, it’s only natural that the more we know about brain and its correlation with our perceptions (but essentially with our whole “internal” subjective world), the stronger the evidence that all dreams, hallucinations, and visions are just that — mere products of our brains, or better said, images within the image of what we suppose to be our brain.
However, don’t be mistaken. Even in the stone age, if you were one morning animatedly painting a colorful picture of you talking to some strange furry creature in the forest after a night spent by a campfire being high as kite, your kin would just roll their eyes or laugh their asses off while joking about how you were running around naked, rolling in shrub mumbling and shouting, chasing poor startled squirrels. The situation would be of course quite different if you told your tribe that the furry being told you that mammoths come tomorrow in the afternoon, and, lo and behold, the mammoths would appear exactly as foretold (of course this is just a fabulation, because, as it seems, the first shamans were in many cases physically handicapped individuals, most probably heavily “medicated”).
Nevertheless, the whole situation inevitably begs the question how those individuals reconciled the two conflicting accounts. The answer is as straightforward as it is obvious, and, as also the quote from Castaneda demonstrates — ancient animists simply didn’t bother with the mechanics. They took the empirical data at face value. The experience revealed what looked like a different world superimposed on, and evenly immanent in, the everyday material world. And since accessing that other world had practical purposes because it revealed otherwise hidden associations between phenomena, and they found out that this knowledge could be channeled into the everyday world as a beneficent force, they assumed that that force also imbues the everyday world with its rules. So they rolled with it, named the force Spirit, and the rest is history (of religion).
Although that was merely a speculative attempt at reconstruction of origins of animism, it’s obvious that our ancestor didn’t jump to hasty conclusion — they didn’t invent unreasonable things as gods right off the bat. At least not all of them did. There must have been some who were fascinated by “spirit world” yet inquisitive enough to disentangle its mysteries and patterns, otherwise we would not have science and technology as we know them today. Then again, there were certainly many who turned their knowledge to ritual dogma, and obviously there was a considerable amount of those who blatantly misused it for personal gain.
So, where does that leave us several tens of thousands of years later?
The situation is surprisingly not that different from where the first shamans started. Well, except that enormous historical baggage we are dragging with us, which, however, might be also our greatest boon.
On one hand, science ruthlessly stripped down our worldviews of all dogma, religious farce, and pretense. We see the naked nature more clearly than ever, which brings us in a great twist of irony very close to our naturalist ancestors. The downside is, however, that we also try to discard the very notion of “spirit world” just because of idiocies that got accumulated around it during the last few millennia. Yet, we fail to see that we have merely lost sight of what it actually means. On the other hand, we swear by the “spirit world” and defend it, but don’t realize that we lost sight of what it actually means, and so defend also the idiocies that got accumulated around it during the last few millennia.
Thus, exactly as Carlos, we are conflicted by the same seemingly unsolvable paradox that the idealist and materialist who reside in us present us with. We ask again and again which one is right, but what we fail to recognize is that we ask a wrong question. Faith or placebo? What about incredible self-regenerating capabilities that can be induced by mere thought? Astral travel or subconscious processes? What about enormous perception faculties of the five senses plus brain whose real depth science still cannot even fathom? Higher intelligence or random causal evolution? What about a universe where intelligence can happily manifest from random causal evolution?
Similarly, if you pursue this line of thought, you stop asking whether what you perceive are hallucinations and delusions or if those visions are literal higher levels of reality inhabited by literal gods. Exactly as our ancestors did, you stop obsessing about the underlying mechanics, because when you are honest with yourself, you simply cannot know — your visions are merely an interface that will always point to you.
Thus, to discern what that interface is communicating to you and where those messages are coming from, you must uncover and acknowledge your fears, biases, desires, emotions … you know the drill. You must clean up the house so you can understand your unique personal language. In other words, you must know yourself.
And when all is said and done, the only meaningful question you can really ever ask is, “Who am I?”