Tabooing and Handles   6 comments

In a 15 Feb 2008 post “Taboo Your Words,” Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term “God” taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word “faith” taboo, and asking them why they believe it … When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all. Or any of their short synonyms. And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don’t use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

There’s a truly breathtaking number of assumptions I could examine in this short excerpt. To name only a few: that any unity across religions is or isn’t an “illusion”; that any such unity hinges on either “God” or belief; that the only acceptable kinds of evidence are “outward observables and interior mechanisms”; that arguments or philosophical defenses establish truth; and that language, let alone philosophical discussion, is even possible without “handles,” which is what all words are. (In the beginning was the Word …)

But let’s set those issues aside — because we can. I recommend taking on this challenge for what it can teach you. Take an hour and get down in words what it is you actually believe, and why. Whatever else is calling to you online, including this blog, can wait.

For Druids, the word to make temporarily taboo is definitely “nature.”

After all, we use it as shorthand for an enormous range of referents: an object of our reverence; a source of our metaphors; the set of patterns, relationships and movements of energies that we claim accounts for all life, including the workings of human consciousness; the antithesis to human excess and imbalance, often symbolized by urban blight; a kind of deity or pantheon of deities; a characteristic quality that is the opposite of the word “artificial”; everything that exists, including those human activities that produce counter-currents and eddies in its ever-flowing stream; an impersonal force or being, and so on.

So I’ll take on Yudkowsky’s challenge: what is it that I believe, and why?

I believe that to be alive is a chance, if I take it, to be part of something vastly larger than my own body, emotions, and thoughts (or if I’ve learned any empathy, possibly also the bodies, emotions and thoughts of people I care about). These things have their place, but they are not all.

I believe this because when I pay attention to the plants and animals, air, sky, water and the whole wordless living environment in and around me, I am lifted out of the small circle of my personal concerns and into a deeper kinship I want to celebrate. I discover this sense of connection and relationship is itself celebration. Because of these experiences, I believe further that if I focus only on my own body, emotions, and thoughts, I’ve missed most of my life and its possibilities. Ecstasy is ec-stasis, standing outside. Ecstatic experiences lift us out of the narrowness of the life that advertisers tell us should be our focus and into a world of beauty and harmony and wisdom.

I believe likewise that the physicality of this world is something to learn deeply from. The most physical experiences we know, eating and hurting, being ill and making love, dying and being born, all root us in our bodies and focus our attention on now. They take us to wordless places where we know beyond language. Even to witness these things can be a great teacher.

I believe in other worlds than this one because, like all of us, I’ve been in them, in dream, reverie, imagination and memory, to name only a few altered states. I believe that our ability to live and love and die and return to many worlds is what keeps us sane, and that the truly insane are those who insist this world is the only one, that imagination is dangerous, metaphor is diabolical, dream is delusion, memory is mistaken, and love? — love, they tell us, is merely a matter of chemical responses.

I believe that humans, like all things, are souls and have bodies, not the other way around — that the whole universe is animate, that all things vibrate and pulse with energy, as science is just beginning to discover, and that we are (or can be) at home everywhere because we are a part of all that is.

I believe these things because human consciousness, like the human body, is marvelously equipped for living in this universe, because of all its amazing capacities that we can see working themselves out for bad and good in headlines and history. In art and music and literature, in the deceptions and clarities, cruelties and compassions we practice on ourselves and each other, we test and try out our power.



6 responses to “Tabooing and Handles

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  1. Reblogged this on contemplativeinquiry and commented:
    I was starting to work on a piece like this one. This is better.

    • Thanks, Contemplative Inquiry. I’ll be returning to it and tweaking it for my own benefit. Once one gets even a preliminary version down, one sees how large (and useful) the challenge of attempting such a thing really is.

  2. To add even a comma to your philosophical ( with the actual meaning of the term) thesis would be a flirtation of one’s ego. And there lies one issue, isn’t it? Do we really listen to each other with full attention, examine what someone is saying prior to an automatic response which only serves as a way to confirm our assumptions?
    “..that all things vibrate and pulse with energy, as science is just beginning to discover.” -your line brought to mind a unique aspect of this matter : Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk : My stroke of insight.
    Brain researcher J B Taylor studied her own stroke as it happened and gained a rare & insightful perspective.
    And if I may add a wish for the season: May the new year be guarded by the blessed spirits of your ancestors & filled by your dreams.

  3. Spira, by (no) coincidence, my wife just finished reading Bolton’s book a few months after we’d seen her TED talk. Hers is indeed an amazing (and needed) perspective.

    I agree we don’t listen enough — I get reminded of this almost daily, so listening is one of my key practices. So simple, so challenging, so fulfilling. And to listen to what the trees and wind and water and birds and beasts are saying takes attention to a whole new level. That old 60s song “Everybody’s talkin’ at me,/I don’t hear a word they’re sayin” could be applied to all of us.

    Thanks for your lovely seasonal wish. I’ll be posting a favorite passage in the next post that you’ve anticipated with your very Druidic words.

    Oh, and if you do detect a missing comma, especially one that obscures the meaning, please let me know. The relentless English teacher in me still polices my posts days after I write them, looking for just such glitches 🙂

    • By no coincidence , indeed!!

      About listening, allow me to add the Indian chant “Listen to the song of trees”; I have it at the Music? section of my site. (By no means an indirect invitation to my “place” ).

      My wish was sincere and you honor me.

      Haha, I’m no grammar police mate 🙂 It was a simple metaphor to emphasize the joyous resonance your post caused.

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