The Visions Revisited

on May 25, 2011

As anyone who’s been following this blog will know, much of my attention has been focused on developing a theory that all of human history is the product of a series of successive visions of the dynamics of the world around us. These visions are of three different kinds — drawing their inspiration variously from science, society, or inner experience — and new ones emerge in regular succession to replace older ones of the same type.

In my set of entries on the “Dance of the Visions,” I was chiefly concerned with examining how each vision interacts with those of the other two kinds that immediately precede and follow it in the sequence — sometimes contending with them and at other times engaging in mutually fruitful partnerships.

That’s not the only way to look at things, however, and my latest excursion into the nature of higher knowledge has got me thinking more deeply about the process by which each vision is born, gradually assumes the power to transform the world, and finally fades into irrelevance.

I’ve been suggesting for some time that every vision grows out of a combination of mysticism and practical experience, but I’ve always been somewhat fuzzy on the details. Last fall, for example, I proposed that the visions are the product of “a raging desire to make sense of the world” fueled by an “ineffable glimpse … of inherent pattern and meaning beyond the disorder and uncertainty of ordinary existence.”

I wouldn’t exactly disagree with that now — but I think I went way overboard on the “raging desire” and “ineffable glimpse” part. I’d say instead that evolution has gifted us with two distinct ways of perceiving the world — ordinary knowledge and higher knowledge — and that the visions represent a series of ambitious but imperfect attempts to understand them as varying perceptions of the same reality.

These two separate pictures of existence might be compared to the two views of the world that present themselves to me as I sit working on this entry. On one hand, there are the things I can see out my window — houses, trees, sidewalks, squirrels, the occasional passer-by. On the other, there are the images displayed on my computer screen, which are far more varied and often entirely unfamiliar or even incomprehensible.

In this comparison, ordinary knowledge is like the view from my window, while higher knowledge is more like the internet. It is information that comes from somewhere outside our normal sphere of awareness and speaks to us of things that are foreign to our personal experience.

Unlike the internet, however, higher knowledge can’t be interpreted as a sampling of other people’s knowledge and experiences. It’s an alien transmission from a source we cannot trace, and it brings us fragmentary messages about a reality unlike anything we have ever known.

And how can we make sense of something like that?

The short answer is that we can’t. The best we can do is seek out some aspect of ordinary reality that reflects our intimations of higher reality and study it for clues to the original.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. One of the things I enjoy doing online is browsing through photographs on Flickr — and I noticed some time ago that those which appeal to me enough to save almost always carry some hint of transcendent mystery.

This includes big, obvious stuff like mountains, sunsets, and oceans stretching to infinity. There are also more subtle images, like roads that head out of the picture to some unseen destination, dark forests that open into light, or fields glowing in the rays of a setting sun that might almost be shining from another dimension. And then there are the scenes that remind me of the fairy-tale books of my childhood, like narrow medieval lanes and paths that wind over the hills and far away.

Some of these dreamlike pictures evoke the sense of another world that is almost-but-not-quite within our grasp, while others seem to open a passage into a realm of magic. And it is often clear from the captions and the comments that these effects were explicitly intended by the photographer and valued by other viewers.

None of the subjects of these photographs is actually transcendent, of course. It’s only the special nature of the light, aided by careful composition, that makes them appear that way. But images like these form part of a visual language of transcendence that we humans naturally understand and embrace.

I believe the historical visions are born of that same search for objective manifestations of transcendence — but instead of being limited to single images, they incorporate broad areas of experience: new scientific discoveries that promise to reveal the fundamental nature of matter, life, or mind, social groupings in which we experience being part of something larger than ourselves, or previously unexplored corners of our own inner landscapes.

Whenever the necessary conditions fall into in place for one of these areas of experience to be perceived as having a transcendent aspect, it starts to attract increasing amounts of interest and energy. That is what gives the visions their extraordinary power to transform both our cultures and the world around us.

But when all is said and done, even though the visions may bring about sweeping changes in ordinary reality, they cannot turn it into the higher reality of our dreams. At best, their accomplishments represent a new wing built onto the house of ordinary reality — and even that soon loses its transcendent glimmer.

In mid-20th century science fiction, for example, the idea of the first moon landing was a crucial metaphor of transcendent achievement. But by the time of the actual first moon landing in 1969, the magic had faded, and the moon became just like any place else: dry, dusty, and not all that interesting.

This is not to say that higher knowledge is a fraud or an illusion. It was the dream of transcendence, after all, that got us to the moon. But higher knowledge is a constantly receding target — it exists only within our own minds, and it slips through our fingers any time we try to pin it down and make it permanent.

In certain ways, the visions serve the same function for entire cultures as initiation does for individuals in archaic societies. They pull us out of our familiar routines, run us through a series of bewildering ordeals, whisper in our ear that we are about to learn the secret teachings of the elders, and then send us back to rejoin the tribe at a somewhat higher level of personal functioning.

But the awareness of the initiate as to the nature of his or her experience only goes so far. Beyond it lies the awareness of the shaman — who realizes that the whole shebang is only a form of mummery, designed to raise the initiate’s consciousness, and that even the “secrets of the elders” are carefully scripted for effect.

To speak of initiates and shamans, however, captures only a small part of our situation with regard to the visions. For one thing, the visions are constantly shifting and evolving, which makes it harder to see through each one’s claim to have finally gotten the story right. This may be why our society consists of far too many initiates and not nearly enough shamans.

And there is a further complication, which is that the visions do not simply fade away as they lose touch with the changing state of ordinary knowledge. At their peak, they give rise to sophisticated philosophical, political, and religious systems, and these long outlast the visions themselves.

In part, this is because they preserve useful metaphors and ways of thinking about higher knowledge that more recent systems may lack. A phrase like “the Lord is my shepherd, ” for example, is completely disconnected from the everyday experience of people who have never met a genuine shepherd (not to mention a genuine lord). But the psalm which begins with that line still effectively conveys the notion that there is a higher reality, which we may understand no better than sheep understand the doings of shepherds, but which we can trust to look after us and keep away the wolves.

And that raises a second point — which is that on the popular level, there is still a strong attachment to the visions that were at their peak two thousand years ago: cosmic order, aristocracy, and the personal soul. It seems as though all the visions since then have been designed primarily to provide direction to the leaders of society and have far less ability to give the average person a sense of meaning and direction in their own life.

This is why we still seek out astrologers and other fortune-tellers for their sense of a subtly-interconnected cosmos in which every individual life is an important aspect of the whole. We similarly maintain tribal loyalties or follow charismatic leaders because, in an era of emotionally sterile bureaucratic governments, these attachments offer us a sense of being part of something larger that recognizes us personally and values our contribution.

And we adhere passionately to religions which tell us that we are not merely creatures of materiality — intelligent animals or self-aware machines — but contain within our being an inextinguishable spark of higher reality.

In certain ways, the persistence of these obsolete visions is a problem. They are the source of much of the conflict and social turmoil in the world today. But they also serve as a challenge — a sign that recent visions have fallen out of touch with human needs and that the visions emerging now will need to do better.


A listing of all my posts on emerging visions can be found here and a listing of 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.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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