Monday, July 07, 2008

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in

Spent the better part of a week replacing the roof on my garage (about 600 square feet, and I don't recommend the process!). Didn't stop my mind from wandering, however, and part of what I heard was an excerpt from this Fresh Air show on the weekend recap that my local NPR station carries. I will say upfront that what I know of Jill Bolte Taylor I know from that excerpt; but what I heard made the think, once again, what complete claptrap is paraded under the name of "science."

It's a bit touchy, this, as Dr. Taylor is one of Time Magazine's "100" for 2008, and she's been on Oprah! And I don't begrudge her whatever insights her experience gave her. But in the interview with Terry Gross, she asserted that her experience with the stroke was a "mystical" experience, and she went on to draw connections between her experience and the religious impulse in general, concluding with the wholly unoriginal and unfounded idea that religion arises from a human need to have a narrative.


First, the experience of her stroke. The excerpt from her book sounds almost like a Robin Williams routine about drug use ("Reality! What a concept!"):

When the shower droplets beat into my chest like little bullets, I was harshly startled back into this reality. As I held my hands up in front of my face and wiggled my fingers, I was simultaneously perplexed and intrigued. Wow, what a strange and amazing thing I am. What a bizarre living being I am. Life! I am life! I am trillions of cells sharing a common mind. I am here, now, thriving as life. Wow! What an unfathomable concept!
But in the interview she said the stroke shut down the left hemisphere of her brain, so she experienced a sense of "oneness" with the universe that she attributed to the functioning of her right hemisphere alone. It was this sense of "oneness" with the universe that she called a "mystical" experience.

And I almost stopped listening right there. Undoubtedly her description of the experience was accurate, but it sounded more like the bad joke about the Buddhist who asks the hot dog vendor to "Make me one with everything." That experience may (or may not, I'm not a Buddhist scholar) be the goal of Buddhism, but her "Mystical" experience sounds nothing like the experiences recorded in The Cloud of Unknowing, or by St. Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, St. John the Divine, Paul of Tarsus, or even Doris Grumbach, much less the decidedly non-Christian visions of Black Elk. There's a long history of mystical writings in Christianty alone, and I know of no experiences that sound even vaguely like Dr. Taylor's; and that doesn't even consider the mystical experiences of other cultures and religions, or the fact that there's little recorded evidence of any other well-known or little-known mystics apparently taking years to recover from a physical problem that prompted a seemingly mystical insight.

So if this was a "mystical experience," it was one only because Dr. Taylor doesn't understand what "mysticism" means to almost any metaphysical system of thought or in almost any human culture. I've no doubt Dr. Taylor is reporting her experiences accurately: what I question is how those experiences can be accorded any label that could validly be regarded as "religious."

And then there's that whole "narrative" bit, as in "religion is a narrative we seem to need.". Well, alright, narrative seems to be a common thread of human cultures, and much can be made of that with regard to religion. But the narrative of the Hellenistic Greeks is radically different from the narrative of the Assyrian culture of the Gilgamesh Epic, or the narrative of the Egyptian culture of the Pharoahs, or the narrative of the Native Amerian cultures behind Black Elk and the Ghost Dancers, or the Aztecs, the Incas, the song lines of Australian aborigines.... And if you really want to talk about the subject, you have to consider and take into account the work of Paul Ricouer (at least), not to mention Saussure and Levi-Strauss (at least), and the 19th and 20th century German Biblical scholars (and philologists, like Neitzsche), at least, and...

Well, you get the idea. Any casual idea that religion is just the product of our brain chemistry or our brain structure still runs into at least, on the empirical side, the same objection Hume raised to the concept of a self: when I look for it, Hume said, I can't find it. All I find instead are a number of impressions, but no "self" observing, recording, and interpreting those impressions. (Which, yes, raises Yeats' question: how can we know the dancer from the dance? Or the existential question Kierkegaard raised: how can we stand at a point outside ourselves and have an objective view of ourselves? How can the knower know all about itself, without being involved in the observation?). Whenever I go looking for this common denominator that supposedly explains the persistence of religion in human culture, I find many more denominators than I do commonalities, except that we lump certain practices, behaviors, and ideas, under a rather broad umbrella labeled "religion."

What I object to, though, is the idea that religious belief is so casual, or so simplistic. The experience of a stroke is the same experience as a mystical vision? And Dr. Taylor knows this, how, precisely? Because she's also had mystical visions? Because she's a student of mysticism, or mystical literature, or comparative anthropology?

I'm not even saying she's wrong. But she's presented absolutely no basis for saying she's right, except that she's a scientist, and she's experienced these sensations, and explained them from the point of view of her discipline. Which is actually no more insightful than the visions of Julian of Norwich or Teresa of Avila, and her explanation is no less culturally determined, than theirs were. Besides, we can't even say their experiences were the same as hers. Which is, finally, the problem, isn't it? And puts us back where all the ladders start; in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Now, if I can just get that hole fixed....

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