On Knowing

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Last January, police in South Carolina released a sketch of a possible murder suspect, drawn by artificial intelligence, based on information from DNA found at the crime scene. No eyewitnesses and no cameras had observed the murderer’s face, yet the computer produced an approximation of it, and the authorities believe it might help them solve the crime. (Pollack, NYT, 2/24/2015)

Holy Family Shrine, Gretna, NE - ExteriorInformation is recorded in matter – light and dark in the photosites of cameras and the optic nerves of animals, actual events of history in the earthy layers of archeological digs and the hyper-connective fibers of the internet, the stories of our lives in the genes that shape our bodies and the memes that shape our minds. Of course, information is all too often recorded falsely. But materially recorded information is the ocean in which we swim and the ocean which swirls within us. And suffused throughout that ocean of matter, that dark and jumbling press of factoids and implications, is an ocean of Light.

Mystical experience is essential to the nourishment of any life worth living – for each of us individually and for our common humanity. Each of us has mystical experiences, sometimes fleeting and sometimes sustained; they are not the special purview of capital-m Mystics.  “. . . all truth is simple when we free ourselves from the improper bias of tradition and education, which rests as a burdensome stone on the minds of most of the children of men . . .” (Elias Hicks, 1823) Neuroscientists call this burdensome stone the “default-mode network” of the brain, a hub of activity that links the cerebral cortex – with its “higher order thinking” – to the “older” parts of the brain. By the time we are adults, this network has learned to provide us with fairly reliable methods for observing and testing reality, which in turn allows us to invest ourselves in the activities that seem most likely to benefit our survival.

But we can pay a high price for that helpful order. We can devote ourselves too rigidly to the store of information that we have gathered already, which happens to be a grab-bag of truths and falsehoods. Through mystical experiences – which can be attained through a broad range of mind-altering activities, including prayer, meditation, time spent in nature, artistic production, scientific and mathematical theorizing, sports and dance, music and poetry, and even by eating hallucinogens – we can step away from the grab-bag of information that restricts our view of reality, and we can look at it afresh, if only for a moment. Neurologists have observed that the default-mode network of the brain quiets down during mystical experiences. Experimental subjects often report that these experiences feel like little deaths. Months after such experiences, researchers observe that subjects have reliably broken previously long-entrenched bad habits and have completely reordered their lives’ priorities and purposes. (Pollan, The New Yorker, 2/9/2015)

Holy Family Shrine, Gretna, NE - interiorProfound mystical experiences, however, do not always lead to helpful wisdom. They can also lead to fanaticism or to insanity. This is where we can rely on our fellows to help us determine where wisdom does lie – some place that usually straddles mystical insight and traditional teaching. Although the great wisdom texts of the world today are rooted in the profound insights of a very few men, these are also texts that countless other learned individuals took centuries to disseminate, debate, deliberate, and distill into the orthodox canons we have today – the Vedas, the Hebrew Bible, the Tao Te Ching, the Tripitaka, the New Testament, and the Quaran being among the most notable.

The Christian Church debated for fifteen hundred years what it was that Jesus actually said and did. Then with the Council of Trent, they locked the story down. As Quakers, we are called to conduct a new Council of Trent every day, without locking anything down. We are called to unlock our minds and our hearts, knock on the door to the mystery of life, and wait for that door to be opened. Our Quaker faith and practice give us the means to work together to carry our new insights into the world. “. . . the great mass of people, even in this enlightened country, are not prepared for a sudden change, but . . . that ought not to hinder those who are prepared and who clearly see . . . from spreading their prospects and giving them all the force they can; [for] such an improvement of their time and talents is clearly [required], both in their duty to their Creator and to man, their fellow creature.” (Elias Hicks, 1817)