Today I'm happy to present a guest post by Matt Rouge, a frequent commenter at this site.
Thank you, Michael, for having me guest-write for your blog. Considering the caliber of the host and commenters here, it is an honor.
What inspired the invitation was this very interesting post back in July: Overthinking it. Michael wrote:
In the modern world, a world steeped in technology and the fruits of the physical sciences, it's exceedingly difficult to believe in “spirits.” Something about the idea just seems too simple, almost childish. There's a natural tendency to want to dress it up in more scientific terms—to talk about discarnate personalities and fifth-dimensional geometry, or a matrix of information, or quantum theories of consciousness.
I'm not saying there's no value in these ideas. But ultimately they’re just ways of repackaging the simple, basic truths obtained by psychical researchers. If people in the modern Western world don't go in for spirits, maybe they will go in for higher-dimensional manifestations of quantum consciousness. It sounds a little more sophisticated, a little more 21st-century. But it amounts to the same thing.
Great truths are often simple. The essential truth about life after death may be simple enough for a child to understand.
In the comments, I disagreed:
Overthinking the evidence for the Afterlife to the point where one loses sight of the big picture and perhaps even loses hope that the Afterlife exists at all can be a problem. It's very easy to do in our culture, in which these things are regularly treated as impossible. But philosophizing based on that evidence is not the same thing.
Michael suggested I explain my view of how things work. Yet simply listing the elements of my belief system didn’t feel like the correct approach. It has taken me several months to ponder and discover the way of answering the question that feels right to me.
So I’d like to start with a quote from John Keats. He’s known more as a poet than a philosopher, of course, but to me this is one of the greatest quotes I know pertaining to philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. As Wikipedia explains, “The Mansion of Many Apartments is a metaphor that the poet John Keats expressed in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated Sunday, 3 May 1818.” Here's the relevant excerpt:
I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me—The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by awakening of the thinking principle—within us—we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one's vision into the nature and heart of Man—of convincing one's nerves that the World is full of misery and Heartbreak, Pain, sickness and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken'd and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages—We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist—We are now in that state—We feel the burden of the Mystery.
This, I believe, serves as a direct answer to Michael’s “Overthinking it” post. Throughout history, the vast majority of people have lived in the “Thoughtless Chamber”: they’ve accepted the belief system that predominates around them without any particular thought or enthusiasm. Most people are not of an intellectual bent, and most people have been too busy surviving to have the time to think. Today, people in this chamber could be attending a particular church because they were born into it and have built their social circle around it. Perhaps they nominally believe, perhaps they doubt the religion somewhat, but they put no particular effort into discovering the truth. Or maybe they are atheists in China who have a similar relationship with non-belief, as the Party told them that was the truth. From my years in Japan, I would say that the vast majority of people there have a belief system that hovers lukewarm between the two poles: “Maybe there’s something out there, not sure.”
Containing a smaller portion of humanity, the “Chamber of Maiden-Thought” also includes both believers and non-believers. A person might convert to a new religion, and the belief system feels empowering, it just works, and everyone around him or her is so welcoming. At last, the truth! Or one may become an atheist and experience a similar elation, throwing off the shackles of dogma and superstition. Suddenly, all that stuff that people believe is so obviously, so laughably untrue. Reality is simple! In any case, the inhabitants of this Chamber are putting some energy behind, and receiving energy from, their beliefs, but they have yet to experience the catch, the rub, the fly in the ointment.
Yet, if one is in fact open to the truth and one has the negative capability to do so, one proceeds into the “Mist,” the “burden of the Mystery.” In my experience and parlance, one feels the needs to “connect the dots,” but the dots never completely connect.
The Mist comprises an infinite number of facts and experiences, as well as the inferences one may draw from them, but it admits no dogma. That is, it is supremely inhospitable to beliefs held because Revelation grants them or an authority requires them.
If one feels no discomfort in one’s belief system, one is most likely not in the Mist. I must admit I find traditional religions wholly inadequate in explaining Reality, and I am puzzled at how their advocates of an intellectual bent can persist in their belief. I think, however, they are often more troubled than they let on. For example, Mother Teresa:
She was reluctant to talk of her inner trials because she wanted to talk about the person who motivated her. But there is no mistaking the depth of the darkness in her mind from the late 1940s until her death in 1997. "I am told God loves me," she wrote, "and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul."
It is worth noting that these words came in a prayer that she wrote directed to Jesus, in whom she continued to have faith—faith without any discernible response.
If you Google a bit, you can read more of what she said. It is pretty harrowing. I think such a state counts as being in the Mist.
Further, whereas self-titled skeptics would have us believe they have completely thrown off the shackles of dogmatic belief and have achieved a pure and unprejudiced view of reality, we are liable to disagree who acknowledge the existence of NDEs and mediumistic communications with veridical content, poltergeists, ghosts, psi as demonstrated in the laboratory, and many other “paranormal” phenomena with overwhelming evidence to support them. We are likely to view them has having vastly oversimplified reality, joined a community characterized by crushing peer pressure, and taken up stubborn residence in the Chamber of Maiden-Thought.
To me, the suggestion not to “overthink” the “dots” of the phenomena we discuss here is a suggestion to remain in—or return to—this chamber. Now I know that Michael does not really think this way. He is constantly investigating the phenomena on a deep level, and he has a theory of Reality as information that largely overlaps with my own worldview. He is thinking it, not overthinking it, and I perceive Michael, as well as the majority of regular commenters here, to be open to the “burden of the Mystery.”
Just as the self-labeled skeptics are prone to look down upon those as yet clinging to their comforting beliefs and congratulate themselves on their ability to embrace the harsh truths of materialism, I am tempted to pat myself on the back for having accepted the “burden of the Mystery.” I am open to all of the phenomena out there! I do not simplify! I’m a true intellectual, dangit.
But when one is truly in the Mist, one finds difficulty cashing that check. There is no teller at the window. There is no one to confirm that, yes, one is just so right about everything. Indeed, the contradictions and issues one perceives impugn one’s ability to sort them all out, to paint the Big Picture once and for all. Should Michael permit, it is lack of ease and comfort in the Mist that I would like to explore in my next guest post.
And, as I try to wrap up this post, I perceive all the oversimplifications in which I have engaged. The metaphor of the Mansion of Many Apartments is but one angle from which to view things. Seeing everything through an intellectual lens is not necessarily the better way to live. Some people are born “solid”: they have an easygoing spirituality and a quiet wisdom that nothing can rattle. They transcend dogma not through thought but through being. Maybe, at the end of the day, I really am overthinking it.