One of the more salient intellectual events of 2019 for me, personally, was my discovery of the work of Peter Kingsley. Unlike most of the books I read—which I tend to regard rather soberly—Kingsley's work left me irate, inspired, bemused and delighted, all at the same time. I am anything but indifferent to it, which is probably the greatest compliment I could pay to any author. The implication of Kingsley’s argument is that non-dualism and idealism aren’t purely Eastern insights, but the metaphysical and spiritual root of the West as well. This is what I set out to discuss in this essay.
Kingsley's central premise is that all cultures have a sacred source and purpose, including our own Western civilization: "everything, absolutely everything, anyone can name that makes our so-called civilization unique has a sacred source—a sacred purpose" (C: 228). The seed of every culture, including our own, is planted through visionary experience. It is prophets who learn, and then inform us of, what our purpose is: "western civilization, just like any other, came into being out of prophecy; from revelation" (C: 231).
In our case, we can trace our roots back to visionary Greek philosopher-poets living in southern Italy about two and a half thousand years ago, particularly Parmenides. In Parmenides' poem On Nature we can find the origins of our Western culture.
However, Kingsley argues that we have been misinterpreting and misrepresenting Parmenides' ideas since Plato. Parmenides is considered by mainstream scholars to be the founder of logic and rationality, of our particular way of discriminating truth from untruth, fact from fiction, through reasoning. According to this mainstream view, the Promethean powers of Western science, as embodied in technology, are the culmination of a way of thinking, feeling and behaving that can be traced back to Parmenides' manner of argumentation in his famous poem.
But Kingsley argues very persuasively (R: 1-306) that what Parmenides was trying to say was nothing of the kind. According to him, logic for Parmenides wasn't a formal system based on fixed axioms and theorems, meant to help us discern true from false ideas about reality; it wasn't grounded in some metaphysically primary realm of absolutes akin to Platonic Forms; it didn't derive its validity from some external reference. In summary, Kingsley argues that, for Parmenides, logic wasn't what we now call reason, but something much broader, deeper, unconstrained by fixed rules and formalisms.
As a matter of fact, according to Kingsley Parmenides' logic was a kind of incantation. The context is the notion that we live in a world of illusions, caught up in our own internal narratives and made-up categories about what is going on, completely oblivious to the true world that surrounds us and from which we derive our very being—i.e. reality. This illusion is persuasive, has tremendous power and momentum. So to help one see through it and ultimately overcome it, an even more persuasive rhetorical device is required, a kind of spell or incantation woven with words, meant to disrupt our ordinary mental processes. This incantation is the true logic Parmenides gifted us, a kind of spell meant to trick our internal storytelling, make it catch itself in contradiction and thereby release its grip, so we can escape the illusion.
This is a critical point, so allow me to belabor it a bit. If I were to use Parmenides' true logic on you, I would weave whatever argument line I felt would be compelling to you, irrespective of whether the argument is strictly rational or not, strictly consistent with a given set of fixed axioms or not. The ultimate goal of true logic is eminently pragmatic: it is to get you out of the bind in which you continuously tie yourself up. True logic, thus, is a semantic trick meant to break the spell of illusion, like cracking a crystal by gently tapping on it in just the right spot.
Kingsley explains that, for Parmenides, there were only two ways to approach reality: either we judge that everything that is felt, thought, perceived, imagined or otherwise experienced exists as such—regardless of any correspondence with ostensibly objective facts—or we must ultimately dismiss everything as non-existing. The latter option goes nowhere, for obvious reasons, which leaves only one viable path. The bind we find ourselves in is due to our hopeless attempt to find some compromise or middle ground between those two canonical options: we try to discriminate which mental states correspond to actual existents—i.e. to some external reference—and which don't. This, according to Kingsley's interpretation of Parmenides, is the core of the illusion. And true logic is a rhetorical tool meant to show that all such discriminations—if pursued consistently to their final implications—are ultimately self-defeating.
The implicit metaphysics being adopted here is, of course, idealism: "for Greeks, the world of the gods [i.e. reality] had one very particular feature. This is, that simply to think something is to make it exist: is to make it real" (R: 71-72). Therefore, "whatever we are aware of is, whatever we perceive or notice is, whatever we think of is" (R: 77). Everything that has mental existence exists as such—i.e. as a mental existent—and there is no other way in which it can exist: "There is nothing that exists except what can be thought or perceived" (R: 78). Therefore, the use of reason to discriminate between what exists from what doesn't exist is ultimately unreasonable: "To choose good thoughts is to reject the bad ones—and to reject something is to entertain it, is to make it exist" (R: 80). The act of deciding that something does not, or cannot, exist immediately backfires and makes it exist, by the mere fact that the act forces us to think it into existence to begin with. Reason, as we normally apply it, is thus ultimately incoherent, even though it has its practical applications within the context of the illusion.
It is the idealism he attributes to Parmenides that renders Kingsley's interpretation internally consistent: once a world ostensibly outside consciousness—not necessarily your or my seemingly personal consciousness alone, but outside transpersonal consciousness—is done away with, all criteria of truth and existence become internal ones, and thus logic boils down to persuasion: what exists or is true is whatever consciousness has been persuaded to make exist or true. There is nothing outside consciousness to make it otherwise.
Kingsley explains: "facts are of absolutely no significance in themselves: it's just as easy to get lost in facts as it is to get lost in fictions. ... All our facts, like all our reasoning, are just a façade" (R: 21-22), they hide something more essential behind them. And this 'something' is reality: pure stillness, a realm in which nothing ever moves or changes, in which everything is intrinsically connected to everything else in an indivisible whole, and where no time but the eternal present exists. That's why true logic is "a magical lure drawing us into oneness" (R: 144)—i.e. back to reality.
Kingsley explains that, because we have historically misinterpreted and misrepresented Parmenides' intended meaning, we've ended up conjuring up reason out of what was meant to be true logic. But reason is a tool precisely for discriminating between mental states that ostensibly correspond to facts outside consciousness from those that don't. Under the metaphysical view that to think is to make exist, such discrimination is incoherent.
Therefore, by misunderstanding true logic, we've also departed from what was meant to be Western culture's foundational metaphysics. We've invented external references outside consciousness—i.e. outside reality—such as matter, energy, space and time. And then we've forced true logic "to operate, distorted and disfigured, in the world it had been designed to undermine" (R: 144)! The result is reason, the rational discrimination of fact from fiction in an ostensibly autonomous material world.
For Kingsley, it is reason that keeps us stuck in the middle ground between the two canonical paths—namely, between judging either that everything that is conceived in consciousness exists as such, or that nothing exists. This, according to him, is the seminal mistake that has put our entire culture on the wrong footing. Logic is no longer regarded as a magical incantation meant to persuade us out of illusion, but has turned into a tool for perpetuating the illusion: "All our attempts to discriminate between reality and deception or between truth and illusion are exactly what keeps on tricking us" (R: 211).
But what was it that we were originally supposed to do? What goal are we supposed to pursue? What is the "burning purpose at the heart of our Western world" (C: 205)?
Kingsley is not terribly explicit about it, but he does drop enough hints. For instance, he says that the modern attitude towards the divine can be summarized in the words,
“Let’s make sure the divine takes good care of us. But as for finding what, in reality, the divine might possibly need: let it look after itself.” From here onwards one can sit back and watch how the idea of looking after the gods starts, almost by magic, vanishing from the western world. ... And now it never for a moment occurs to us that the divine might be suffering, aching from our neglect; that the sacred desperately longs for our attention far more than we in some occasional, unconscious spasm might feel a brief burst of embarrassed longing for it. (C: 29-30)
The suggestion is that the meaning and purpose of our lives is to help fulfill some divine need, which can only be fulfilled in, or by means of, the state of consciousness we call life. This is reinforced by the fact that Kingsley overtly associates himself with the thought of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, particularly Jung's book Answer to Job. And in that book, we find Jung saying:
What does man possess that God does not have? Because of his littleness, puniness, and defencelessness against the Almighty, he possesses ... a somewhat keener consciousness based on self-reflection: he must, in order to survive, always be mindful of his impotence. God has no need of this circumspection, for nowhere does he come up against an insuperable obstacle that would force him to hesitate and hence make him reflect on himself.
It seems to me that all cultures have the purpose to serve the divine by means of the state of consciousness we call life, the latter not being available to the divine itself. But each culture is meant to fulfill this sacred task in its own particular way, according to its own particular dispositions or strengths. In the case of Western culture, our strength is our sharply developed meta-cognition, or self-reflection: our introspective ability to turn our own thoughts, emotions, perceptions and fantasies into objects of thought, recursively. Western culture is thus meant to serve the divine by contributing to it the meta-cognitive insight of self-realization: through us and our Western science—"a gift offered by the gods with a sacred purpose" (C: 229)—the divine recognizes itself.
However, Kingsley ultimately concludes that we, in the West, have failed in our divine task. We've failed not only because we've misunderstood Parmenides—and thus bungled our metaphysics and became unable to properly use the sacred tools we were given, namely, true logic and science—but for other, more insidious reasons as well.
Indeed, to serve the divine requires "a deeply religious attitude, the sense that it's all for the sake of something far greater than ourselves" (C: 122). But to nurture and sustain such religious attitude, people must "step out of their personal dramas" (Ibid.). Yet we, in the West, indulge in personal dramas, having conflated individual freedom and expression with egocentrism, even subtle forms of narcissism. We've forgotten that, "as humans we are archetypes" (C: 143), instances of a universal template of being, so that "Whatever we think of as personal is in fact profoundly inhuman, while it's only in the utter objectivity of the impersonal that we find our humanity" (Ibid.).
Worse yet, Kingsley maintains that there is no fixing the problem, no rescuing Western culture, no finding our path again: "this world of ours is already dead. It existed for a while, did the best it could, but is nothing more than a lifeless remnant of what it was meant to be. ... And this is the moment for marking, and honouring, the passing of our culture ... to keep on indulging in optimism is a shameless dereliction of our duty" (C: 442).
Well, I am not an optimist... But I don't agree.
The first thing to notice is that, although Kingsley has convinced me that we did misinterpret Parmenides, and that the correct interpretation is that offered by Kingsley, the fact of the matter is that what we call 'Western culture' embodies and is based on the values, premises and modes of cognition set by Plato, Aristotle and the rest of the post-Socratic philosophers and scientists. According to Kingsley himself, Parmenides was misinterpreted already within a single generation, so there has never been a 'correct' Western culture, so to speak. Factually, even if it is based on a seminal misunderstanding, being Western effectively means what Plato and his successors defined it to be; it has never really meant anything else.
Moreover, I don't think that the seminal errors of the West were a waste of time either. Wisdom sometimes comes only with error, as any wounded healer will know. Sometimes a misstep is more useful and important than the correct way forward, because of the experiences and insights it creates the space for. Getting to the right answer only after having exhaustively tried, and failed with, seductive but wrong ones arguably leads to a deeper, fuller insight than getting things right first-time round. For in the former case, one is more intimately acquainted with why and how those seductive answers are actually illusory, and therefore has an equally fuller comprehension of the right answer.
More specifically, by having embraced objective facts and reasoning fully, unreservedly, we are making sure that every stone is turned, particularly the most seductive ones; we are laying the ground for a deeper future insight than what those shooting straight for the end can achieve. The destiny of Western culture may entail experimenting with extremely seductive but deluded answers first, exhausting the alternatives, and only then setting itself straight. Of course, the price we pay for this is unfathomable. Generation upon generation have endured grief, despair, unspeakable suffering of every kind for having followed the siren song of illusion. This is the West's sacrifice. The only question is whether we will eventually get it right or not.
But just how can we eventually get out of this bind and unveil reality? Kingsley talks often about μῆτις (mêtis), a kind of cunning wisdom that can be used to trick, enchant or persuade. The illusion we live in is a product of μῆτις, and only more persuasive μῆτις, such as true logic, can get us out of it.
Now ask yourself: What would be truly persuasive for the Western mind? What kind of story could short-circuit our internal narratives, expose its inner contradictions and force us to review our unexamined assumptions? The answer seems absolutely crystal clear to me: reasoning consistently pursued to its ultimate implications.
The Western mind only acknowledges reasoning as a valid story. It will dismiss anything else without even looking at it. So if one wants to use true logic to trick the West out of illusion, this true logic must come disguised as reason; it must entail embracing the illusion fully, objective facts and all, and judiciously applying reason within it. That's the μῆτις required here; there's just no other way.
To free the West from illusion, we must first break into the prison wherein the West finds itself, and then break out again carrying the rest of the culture with us. We must fight the duel with the weapons chosen by the opposition, for those are the only weapons the opposition recognizes as real. Kingsley himself is well aware of this approach: "there are methods that reality can use to work its own way into our illusion and start to draw us out" (R: 255). Ditto. What a fantastic movement of μῆτις it would be to use pure, strict, sharp reasoning to undermine reason itself.
And, as it turns out, if pursued to its ultimate, final implications, reason does undermine and relativize itself. Through reasoning we can demonstrate, in multiple redundant ways, that reason isn't absolute; that, although applicable and useful in many situations, it is relative, a convenient invention, not a fact of reality etched into stone. As a matter of fact, I've written a whole book about it, Meaning in Absurdity.
The relativity of reason isn't a new insight. The West has been refining it for a long time, at least since Agrippa's famous trilemma, also known as the Münchhausen trilemma. Modern scholars like Graham Priest have further developed the associated insights. In the 20th century, Kurt Gödel has demonstrated that no axiomatic system—such as e.g. arithmetic—can be both complete and sound: they either fail to express every truth about themselves, or they contradict themselves. And since physics—our very description of the universe—is based on axiomatic systems, a fundamental limitation seems to be established for the ability of reason to comprehend reality in both a sound and complete manner. Finally, the insights of Quantum Mechanics in the early 20th century led to a long and deep academic debate about the ground of logic: Is it empirical? Is it invented? Where does it come from anyway? All these developments illustrate how far reason can be brought in undermining itself from within, under strictly rational conditions.
I discuss all this and much more in Meaning in Absurdity, my first foray into true logic. I invite interested readers (and Kingsley) to peruse it. Here is a passage from the book:
It is ironic that science, through the diligent and consequent pursuit of a materialist, strongly-objective view of nature, would lead to the very evidence that renders such view untenable. As we will later see, it is a recurring theme in different branches of science and philosophy that the pursuit of a rational system of thought ultimately leads to its own defeat. There is something perennial about the idea that any literal view of nature, when pursued to its ultimate ramifications, destroys itself from within. It is as though every literal model carried within itself the seeds of its own falsification; as if nature resisted attempts to be limited or otherwise boxed in. Whatever we say it is, it indicates it is not; whatever we say it is not, it shows it might just be. These are built-in mechanisms of growth and renewal in nature that we ignore at our own peril. Nature is as fluid and elusive as a thought. Indeed, it is a thought: an unfathomable, compound thought we live in and contribute to. The world is a shared ‘dream.’ In it, as in a regular dream, the dreamer is himself the subject and the object; the observer and the observed.
The Western path towards transcending reason is through the strictest, most consequent pursuit of reason possible.
However, the realization that our reason ultimately undermines itself from within could be destabilizing for Western culture, unless and until we grok the fact that all existence unfolds in consciousness. I say this because only under idealism—as opposed to materialism—can we reasonably accommodate the understanding that reason, like anything else, is but a mental construct. The embrace of idealism is the first and indispensable step in the West’s return to reality. Only then can we accept the following statements made by Kingsley (in which I've added clarifying comments between brackets):
Embracing idealism within the constraints of the game of reason is a necessary first step in our path forward; it is the step that creates the space required for all other steps.
One could say that understanding and embracing idealism is merely an abstract conceptual game, which isn't transformative. Conceptual conclusions don't sink into the body, but instead circle around in our head as loops of thought; they don't change much the way we feel and behave. Only direct experience is transformative, for it percolates throughout our entire being. To know what reality is, one must experience it directly, not only grasp it intellectually. Otherwise one stays stuck in mere descriptions—like a would-be traveler who only knows places by the information in brochures—and never becomes acquainted with what it is all about. In Kingsley' words: "Until we have the direct experience of reality we are ... totally helpless. We can't understand a thing" (R: 255).
And I concur. Only direct experience is transformative. However, given the mindset of Western culture, one must first give oneself intellectual permission to have the experience, to be rationally open to it, in order to have any chance of experiencing it. One must be conceptually primed to accept the experience if and when it comes, for otherwise our rational defense mechanisms will instinctively and promptly shut ourselves off from it. It is critical that we first bring down our defenses through μῆτις suitable for the prickly Western mind—i.e. reasoning—because the intellect is the bouncer of the heart. In the West, what the intellect dismisses as impossible, or nonsense, or woo, or flakey, bounces off our head and never sinks in.
This is why embracing idealism as a metaphysics is a crucial first step in the West. We must first give ourselves intellectual permission to experience what is currently considered impossible or nonsensical, for only then will we truly recognize and accept the experience when it comes.
As a matter of fact, it is plausible that, even without direct experience, we could grasp some of the more counterintuitive characteristics of reality that Kingsley describes. For instance: "Cunning and trickery ... are woven into the fabric of the universe. Everything around us is an elaborate trick" (R: 219); or "the origin of the universe is now" (R:169); or "everything is one, whole, motionless" (R: 255); etc. If one has intellectually bought into idealism, these seemingly contradictory and even outright absurd statements can be made understandable through suitable argumentation; suitable incantations that gently hold the intellect by the hand and take it beyond the boundaries of its domain; a kind of μῆτις much more subtle and delicate than that required to argue for idealism itself; in summary: true logic.
Arguments based on true logic need to skirt and transcend the edge of rationality, exceed the envelope of strict, explicit, unambiguous reasoning. They are really a kind of conceptual spell meant to take one beyond conceptual thinking. And it is extraordinarily difficult to compose them correctly, for the slightest fault brings down the whole building.
For instance, it is true that reality is constructed out of belief; pure belief, nothing else; if there is no belief, there is nothing. But if one is to make this statement and leave it at that, one is bound to be misinterpreted and dismissed. For we will fall and die if we jump off a building, even if we believe we can fly; the world doesn't seem at all acquiescent to our beliefs. The point here, however, isn't that reality is constituted by personal, egoic beliefs; the foundational beliefs in question aren't accessible through introspection; they underlie not only a person, not only a species, not only all living beings, but everything. They aren't our beliefs, but the beliefs that bring us into being in the first place.
Another example: As Kingsley says, trickery is woven into the fabric of the universe. This is entirely true, but if he or I were to just leave it at that, the intellect of our readers would trounce the statement: obviously the physical world is just natural, it is doing merely what it is compelled to do by natural laws; it isn't the product of trickery by some god up in the sky. The actual point, however, is different: since reality unfolds in consciousness, and consciousness is also its own witness, the only way for things to feel real is if consciousness tricks itself into believing that its own imagination is an external phenomenon. Consciousness’s prime directive is to trick itself, for if it doesn't, nothing is left but a void. That's the point.
And yet, there is much more to the point. This 'more' isn't at all easy to describe in words in a manner that wouldn't sound totally foolish and self-contradictory. That's the challenge facing authors who want to go beyond rationality, to unveil a little more of reality than what can be corralled into explicit and unambiguous concepts. It really requires a kind of incantation or spell.
I have tried to do it. This is what my book More Than Allegory is all about. Despite its subtitle ('On religious myth, truth and belief') it is really a book about reality; about aspects of reality that can't be captured by analytic philosophy. In the book, I use true logic to try and convey ideas that transcend reasoning. And yet, I attempt to render these ideas in a manner friendly to rationality—i.e. I try to help the reader go beyond the intellect in a way that isn't threatening to the intellect; that doesn't scare off our conceptual reasoning but, instead, makes an ally of it. Indeed, I try to make ultimately unreasonable ideas as reasonable-sounding as possible. This is the book's μῆτις.
To give you a sense of how I went about this challenge, here is a passage from the book wherein I touch on the subject matter of the following statements by Kingsley's: "Cunning and trickery ... are woven into the fabric of the universe" (R: 219), "the origin of the universe is now" (R:169), and "everything is one, whole, motionless" (R: 255):
Despite its intangibility, all of existence must fit within the present moment, for the present is all there ever is. Even the past and the future, as myths experienced in the present, exist within it. Thus, out of the quasi-nothingness of the now somehow comes everything. ... The present moment is the cosmic egg described in many religious myths … It is a singularity that births all existence into form. It seeds our mind with fleeting consensus images that we then blow up into the voluminous bulk of projected past and future. These projections are like a cognitive ‘big bang’ unfolding in our mind. They stretch out the intangibility of the singularity into the substantiality of events in time. But unlike the theoretical Big Bang of current physics, the cognitive ‘big bang’ isn’t an isolated occurrence in a far distant past. It happens now; now; now. It only ever happens now. ... Existence only appears substantial because of our intellectual inferences, assumptions, confabulations and expectations. What is actually in front of our eyes now is incredibly elusive. The volume of our experiences—the bulk of life itself—is generated by our own internal myth-making. We conjure up substance and continuity out of sheer intangibility. We transmute quasi-emptiness into the solidity of existence through a trick of cognitive deception where we play both magician and audience. In reality, nothing ever really happens, for the scope of the present isn’t broad enough for any event to unfold objectively. That we think of life as a series of substantial happenings hanging from a historical timeline is a fantastic cognitive hallucination. Roger Ebert’s last words, illuminated by the clarity that only fast-approaching death can bring, seem to describe it most appropriately: 'This is all an elaborate hoax.' And who do you think is the hoaxer?
The value of Kingsley's work for me has been the precise opposite of what he overtly tried to achieve: instead of convincing me that the West is dead and must be mourned, I now have renewed faith that it is not only alive, but viable. Perhaps this was, all along, Kingsley's covert intention with the book. For nothing motivates people like me more than facing a contrarian attitude; nothing mobilizes more energy for action than being told that our efforts are hopeless.
We, authors, are slaves to our daemons, which is symbolized by the circular chain in my coat of arms. My own daemon is particularly ruthless, so I couldn't just stop my work even if Kingsley or anyone else had convinced me, intellectually, that there is no point to it. I just can't stop. But importantly, the fact that my daemon is more energetic than ever after I read Kingsley suggests to me that there is still hope. Perhaps Kingsley's own daemon tricked him (daemons are masters of this sort of trickery): by announcing the death of Western culture, Kingsley may have inadvertently revitalized it; prompted me and many others to redouble our efforts to prove that this isn't the end, that there is still much to be done. Maybe that was the plan of Kingsley's daemon all along...
I emerge from my in-depth engagement with Kingsley’s thoughts with more clarity regarding the role my various books play in a broader historical and cultural context. Some of them—Rationalist Spirituality, Brief Peeks Beyond, Why Materialism is Baloney and The Idea of the World—comply fully with the premises and constraints of rational thought, strict reasoning, aiming to convince you that idealism is the most reasonable interpretation of reality. Others—Dreamed up Reality, Meaning in Absurdity and More Than Allegory—are instances of true logic: they seek to use reasoning to transcend reasoning, to help you glimpse certain mental landscapes or insights that cannot be captured in explicit and unambiguous words.
The West is alive, it only looks lost. I know it because my daemon knows it. I am myself a quintessential embodiment of Western rationalism: have the highest academic degree in both the sciences and the humanities, from two of Europe's top universities; have been raised and educated immersed in Western thinking; have worked in some of the most recognizable Western scientific institutions; earn my living in the cut-throat world of Western high-tech business; the life streams of my ancestors—my own dead—from Northern, Southern and Western Europe meet in the river of my veins and life. And still, despite all this, I recognize where Kingsley is coming from (or at least I think I do); I am not lost (hopefully). So if I take myself as a representative example—which is the only thing I can do, since I don't have access to other people's inner lives—the West is, just under the surface, still very vital. We do have a future and a destiny to fulfill.
Onwards we go.
Fritjof Capra answers questions from the audience at SAND18 US
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How to find a sense of coherency, peace and a deepened sense of spirituality.
Grief and loss touch us all, arriving at our door in many ways.
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A conversation with Dr. Gabor Maté, hosted by Maurizio & Zaya Benazzo.
An overview of oppression as the environment for intergenerational trauma
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