The Parameters of Higher KnowledgeCory Panshin on October 15, 2011
I’m not done with my survey of wacky 1940’s science fiction, but I’m finding that I can’t proceed without taking a break to define more clearly what I mean by “higher knowledge.”
I’ve made a variety of assertions about higher knowledge in the course of these entries. Each of them is true within its own frame of reference, but they come at the subject from different angles and have different implications, and I suspect that even my own thinking on the subject has gotten a bit fuzzy and could use some sorting out.
I suggested two years ago that from a scientific viewpoint, higher knowledge can be understood in terms of a theory that the human brain generates sudden “neuronal avalanches,” which spark intuitive insights by creating novel connections among scattered bits of information.
When I first mentioned this idea, I associated it with recent speculation that an evolutionary leap to a new form of brain organization around 80,000 years ago might have distinguished us modern humans from our equally intelligent but less creative forebears. I still believe that, but I’m now convinced that the change must go back fully 200,000 years, to the very dawn of our species, and that we humans have from the start been the people of higher knowledge.
The theory of neuronal avalanches, however, can only take us so far — because our sudden intuitive flashes lead not only to the recognition of new relationships among existing information, but also to what appear to be profound insights into the nature of reality itself.
The most familiar of these is a mystical conviction that the universe is much larger and stranger than we commonly realize — and also that we are an integral part of this larger universe. That is the pivotal message of all art, philosophy, and religion, and it appears to exert a particular influence over the lives of highly creative individuals.
It also seems that some inkling of this mystical perception may be essential to even routine intuitive insights. In stories, at least, the climax typically involves the protagonist resolving a problem, finding the answer to a mystery, or figuring out how to defeat an enemy — and surprisingly often, that solution grows directly out of a moment of mystical recognition. I suspect that in real life, as well, we become able to integrate A, B, and C into a meaningful whole only if we first perceive all of existence as a meaningful whole.
On this basis, it might be reasonable to conclude that neuronal avalanches are merely the physical manifestation of a general destabilization of consciousness, during which we gain access to some level of reality beyond ordinary rational awareness. But to say as much immediately takes us beyond the permissible boundaries of contemporary science.
And there are other aspects of higher knowledge that are equally difficult to reconcile with our notions about ordinary reality — such as a distinctive way of looking at the world that is based on “magical” rather than logical relationships.
In this magical way of seeing, events are connected not by cause-and-effect but by a kind of symbolic resonance. For example, certain people, objects, or actions may be perceived as having a natural affinity that draws them together or enables them to act in concert without being coordinated by any external force.
One way of describing this magical outlook is that it results from viewing the stuff of ordinary reality in the light of higher reality. The pieces of the world remain the same, but the patterns that connect them are radically different — and the importance of people and things is measured not in terms of visible power or wealth but by their position in those patterns.
This kind of reorientation of perception is fundamental to art and literature, but few individuals seem able to maintain it on a regular basis. At moments of extreme social upheaval, however, it is capable of bursting out and taking over the public consciousness — which is precisely what appears to be happening in the Occupy Wall Street protests.
In the development of these protests over the past few weeks, we have seen a sudden coming together of strangers based on affinity rather than on prior acquaintance. We have seen them arrive at a recognition that their separate issues and causes are all aspects of one larger whole. We have even seen the employment of traditional shamanistic methods — the marking off of a sacred space and the use of drum circles and a call-and-response format — to unify the consciousness of the group.
And the same magical spark — the sudden intuitive perception of a new pattern falling into place — is now spreading the model of Zuccotti Park like wildfire to hundreds of other cities worldwide. It is as though people already held the image of this pattern in their hearts and needed only a single manifestation of it in reality to inspire them to do the same.
However, that brings up a further aspect of higher knowledge — which is that it is invariably associated with a powerful moral imperative. This imperative can be expressed in many different ways, but one way of putting it is that the ultimate purpose of life is to transform ordinary reality to more closely approximate our intimations of higher reality.
The dream of bringing the world-as-it-is closer to the world of our desires is what empowers all social, religious, and artistic movements. It gives them the courage to persevere in the face of adversity and ultimately enables them to literally transform the world.
It also underlies the entire cycle of visions — though it affects different types of visions in different ways.
Scientifically-based visions, for example, are rooted in our mystical intimations of a vast, unknown universe held together by hidden forces and affinities. They focus on aspects of the material world that display such affinities most strongly and strive to uncover recurring patterns or formulate physical laws that illuminate the hidden truths of existence.
Socially-based visions grow out of our sense of being part of a larger whole — a family, a tribe, or a nation — and also draw heavily upon the moral component of higher knowledge. They serve to create increasingly complex systems of social organization that can implement our yearnings for justice, liberty, or the reconciliation of old antagonisms.
Inner experience-based visions, however, seek to illuminate the nature of higher knowledge itself. The greatest mystery surrounding higher knowledge is that it appears to comes to us from outside our ordinary consciousness and grants us wisdom which we could never obtain through normal means — and successive inner experience visions have presented increasingly sophisticated models to account for those two facts.
In the spirit vision of prehistoric and early historical times — which was influenced by the discovery of hallucinogenic drugs — higher knowledge was believed to come from direct contact with the spirit beings encountered in shamanistic trances.
By the time the revelation vision of classical and medieval times was constructed, a belief that gods or spirits could literally walk the earth had come to seem implausible. Higher knowledge was therefore reinterpreted as inspired teachings or visions projected by celestial messengers to the mind of a prophet or saint.
In early modern times, even the idea of revealed truth had come to seem like rank superstition. For the reason vision, the human mind was conceived as a microcosm of the Mind of God, which could arrive at higher knowledge through either philosophical introspection or the study of God’s Creation.
But by the early 20th century, any kind of faith in a higher spiritual realm outside the material universe had become intellectually untenable — and that made it very difficult to believe in the reality of higher knowledge at all.
There was, in fact, an almost perverse effort to deny the insights of higher knowledge. Material reality was seen as devoid of meaning or moral purpose and lacking any inherent structure except what was provided by simple physical laws. Without an underlying sense of wholeness, the universe became absurd and incomprehensible. Existence was chaotic, human life was chaotic, and claims of higher knowledge were the ravings of drunks or lunatics.
To the extent that higher knowledge was acknowledged at all during the mid-20th century, it was considered to be purely a function of mind, with no connection to physical reality. At most, certain manifestations of intuition might be interpreted as a result of extra-sensory perception or related to the mysterious workings of the unconscious mind.
In the course of the 1960’s, the chaos vision was reoriented away from scientific materialism and towards holism, and since then it has become more tolerant of higher knowledge — but only to a degree. The latest tendency, for example, is to suggest that intuition, creativity, and altruism are hard-wired into the human brain because they offered our ancestors an evolutionary edge over the competition. But the mystical foundations of higher knowledge are still routinely ignored or explained away.
I’m quite sure this won’t be the final word on the matter. I anticipate that in years to come, the creative imagination vision — which is currently in a very early stage of its emergence as a successor to chaos — will develop a completely new theory of higher knowledge, possibly combining quantum physics, the hidden properties of “junk” DNA, and a perception of the material universe as a place of transcendent mystery and magic.
Any such theory is still a long way off — but simply keeping the possibility of it in mind can be a useful means of gaining perspective on the chaos vision and the ways in which its limitations continue to shape our culture.
A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
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