Wednesday, October 28, 2009


What is, for want of a better phrase, the God-dimension of thought? Let's equate it with the whole strange menagerie of irreal entities we invent: art, ethics, theories, predictions and all the rest. Do we have anything more in these structures than mere grammar bamboozling us into thinking that the phantoms of language are substantial entities? Or is language doing something different here?

At some point in our evolution, our ancestors acquired the ability voluntarily to represent to themselves the world of their experience; and this ability was presumably related to the development of language. Rather than simply perceiving the world and reacting to our perceptions by patterns of instinctive behaviour released as reflexes, as non-human animals largely do, we (this sense of identity with them is part of the phenomenon) acquired the ability to conjure up experience in our own heads, to imagine and to anticipate. We must have started imagining the things of most interest to us, the animals, fruits, roots and suchlike that we fed on, the diurnal rhythms, the weather and so on. We conceivably acquired such tricks as representing to ourselves not only the type of circumstances in which interesting things would be found and where these circumstances could be encountered. We must have begun to recognize typical conditions required for our favourite plants and to search for these purposively as promising the reward of food. We must have done the same with the typical haunts of our favourite animals. We presumably began to represent to ourselves the types of behaviour these animals might be expected to indulge in and having recognized this, we conceivably began to anticipate the behaviour of these animals. Once we could anticipate the behaviour of animals, our ability to surprise and overwhelm them at our convenience was presumably massively enhanced.

But the ability to imagine and predict possible events clearly became the occasion for something else: for a riot of creativity that conjured up in our heads not only possible events in our environment, but also a more phantasmagoric world that gave presence to our emotions, our fears, our hopes, and our curiosity concerning those features of the world that struck us as full of fathomless potential. This realm of the imagination has never been ours to command. It has always forced its scurrilous imagery upon us with intrusive urgency, overwhelmed us with its threats and promises; and to the extent that it just happened to us, much as did the outside world, we began to consider it as a world in its own right.

This type of second-order perception, whether associated with the day or with the night, that super-imposed itself upon immediate perception of the world in front of us, must have truly become second nature to us and must then have given rise to the explosion of imaginative planning that propelled us into the universe of culture that made us human. Once we had acquired the ability to conjure up possible scenarios of interest to us we must then have become very good at designating these possible experiences by means of abstract symbols. We can assume that this was so even if we do not know precisely how the language modules evolved in our brains or to what extent our ability to represent the world to ourselves was dependent on the evolution of speech. If this ability to articulate our imaginings had not developed, the ability to imagine would have been useless to us because it would have remained a private possession locked inside the heads of individuals. The big step forward in our evolution was the alliance of language with imagination. This was the basis of symbolic thought. No-one knows precisely how this came about. Nobody knows why. The stories told by the Darwinians, although clearly part of the truth, have the character of ‘just-so’ tales and do not get us very far beyond the niggardly notion of ‘survival’. But by whatever means and for whatever reasons our language-engine got going, it provided us with a virtual world inside our heads which we could compare and contrast with the world of brute perceptions before our noses. This ability to compare a multiplicity of possible types of experience with our actual experience must have developed slowly, but at some point during its development, presumably the sense of self arose, and along with it, a sense of the other.

The sense of self has to do with a relation to the world which is not immediate, not simply one of experience. One could almost say that the self is in essence a relation – a relation between a present brute reality of immediate pain and joy, life and death, and an infinity of possibility. It is a relation of the reality of immediate awareness to that of unlimited possibility. The question whether the self is no more than the superposition of multiple drafts of possible experience or action within the theatre of our imagination is a complex one; but it seems clear that something more is going on. We should at least entertain the notion that our imaginative ability and symbolic language-engine may not have simply created the world of the psyche, other minds and God, but may have simply grown out of our access to the realm of the objective psychic. As a remark intended to indicate no more than a hint as to how this might be possible let us refer to the meaning in quantum physics of the term ‘superposition’ and suggest that what we call ‘mind’ may be some sort of access to the many worlds it allows. Those accustomed to characterising the world of immediate sense-experience as the ‘real’ and that of mental experience as the ‘unreal’ should reflect that in the notion of quantum superposition, any clear distinction between real and unreal disappears.

At all events, once the powerful combination of imagination and language had got started and we had begun to get good at thinking up and describing possible worlds, we must have begun to wonder about the ontological status of the things we encountered inside our heads and shared with our fellows. The very fact of naming and talking about entities of our imagination must have given them objective existence. The mere confirmatory nod of understanding from a fellow-creature – perhaps descriptive gestures leading to the discovery of the existence of shared inner pictures – must have begun the process which was to mushroom rapidly to include not only possible experiences that we might have had, but also the representation of impossible experiences that we could never have had in the world of everyday experience, but which would have engaged us nonetheless simply by their apparent possibility.

But this sort of anthropological aetiology of the creatures of our imagination does not necessarily do any more than give us the illusion of understanding. We are suckers for a coherent story. Narrative is what we live by. If the story coheres, we are more likely to entertain the possibility that it corresponds to supposed facts of the matter. Our wishing for particular stories to be true is also a notorious facilitator of belief. We might want to believe that our imagination represents truth to us for all sorts of reasons. But there remains a very big question nevertheless over the entire irreal realm of gods, demons, spooks, spirits and the like. There seems to be a qualitative difference between our ability to picture to ourselves possible experience and believe that we might encounter such experience in our real everyday lives, on the one hand, and to believe as strongly, and maybe more strongly in things that know we could never encounter in everyday life, on the other. The question then is still this: did our imagination and our power of symbolic representation give rise to the irreal, the world of God, or did it simply give us access to this world, access to a realm of mental experience as objectively real as the world of three-dimensional objects?

Did we invent the infinite world of coherent possibility, or did we encounter it.

Did we invent God or did we discover him? I think that we could at least look at the possibility that our imagination and language did not spawn the realm of God, but simply gave us the means to deal with it, share it with our fellows and talk about it. We do not have to assume that God is a creature of our imagination in the same way that planning an expedition is the creature of our imagination. We do not have to assume the priority of the imagining of the real over the imagining of the irreal, or that the latter developed necessarily out of the former. It may be that our ability to designate the world of imaginary experience that we knew we could have in the everyday sphere gave us the tools and the vocabulary for discussion of the entities that we did not encounter in the everyday sphere, but only in the sacred. If this is so, then their confusion is clearly also a possibility. But the confusion of a concrete object of perception with an irreal entity or vice versa does not imply that the irreal is ‘nothing but’ the concrete.

It is easy to conduct a reductive ‘explanation’ of our belief in God in the anthropological manner tried out above. It would be easy to say ‘symbolic thought derives from concrete perception and God is nothing but the power of symbolic thought and imaginative representation raised to a high degree and confused with reality’. But is it as easy as that? Is there an obvious continuum between our ability to represent to ourselves virtual worlds that correspond exactly to the world of brute daily experience, and our need to believe in worlds and entities that we would never ever confuse with the world of everyday experience? It seems to me that despite overlaps in vocabulary, the two are so completely distinct as to require different treatment. We would never really confuse a deity with some real being of our everyday experience without invoking the category of the sacred. We might, and frequently do, decide that this or that real-world entity, animal, man, plant, heavenly body, or whatever is the physical presence of this or that divinity, but we would never make the mistake of thinking on the basis of this that there is no difference between the sacred and the profane. This distinction was fundamental to our very consciousness for a very long time indeed. Its essence was not a confusion; on the contrary, we knew exactly which items of our experience were profane or non-sacred. So it seems impossible to accept that we began to believe in the real existence of the entities of our imagination by mistake. The belief in the sacred was not a mistaking of the real for the imaginary. The distinction between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the ordinary was never in doubt to any human beings who made use of it. It may well be that the sacred cow in front of us was after all just a cow, but we did not designate it as ‘sacred’ because we were confused about its difference from other animals. The sacred cow in front of us is sacred because of what it stands for, what it represents and what it represents is an entity of our imagination that we could never confuse with an entity in our everyday perception. The parallel between the sacred and the profane is a parallel of shared vocabulary, shared imagery, shared grammar, but no-one who uses the categories of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ is ever in any doubt that two fundamentally different objects of thought are at issue.

Since the continuation of the world of our imagination beyond the mere picturing of possible scenarios for practical reasons into dimensions of reality that lie above or beyond the everyday cannot be based upon a confusion, it would seem that in the picturing of real-world things and events and in the picturing of non-real, ‘irreal’ things and events, we have two fundamentally different uses of the imagination. Since this is so, does it make sense to equate the God-dimension with our grammatical prowess, say, as Nietzsche thought? I think not. I think that it is far more likely that once our ability to use symbolic thought with reference to our real environment had developed to a level of sufficient complexity – and that level of complexity would seem necessarily to involve metaphor and abstraction – we simply used the same trick to deal with the experience of the mental which we always knew to be quite distinct from the physical. It is perfectly conceivable that human beings had been wrestling with the mental along with the physical, as two distinct realms, long before they acquired the knack of imaginative and linguistic representation. It strikes me as somehow silly to assume that the mere ability to represent to ourselves possible experience would as a matter of course detach itself from the everyday sphere of brute reality and spawn a fictitious realm of God. It is conceivable that the realm of God is as much a realm of our experience as physical experience is, and that though we cannot use our physical senses, we use by default the same linguistic tricks to communicate it as those used to communicate the concrete. This possibility is one which the reductive predilections of the scientifically minded will render as difficult to accept as belief in the tooth-fairy. But unprejudiced minds should consider it nevertheless.

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