Practically a Polytheist

I’ve said before that (roughly speaking) atheism is how I think and pantheism is how I feel. That’s describes my intellectual and sentimental positions, but I thought of a third one: pragmatic (and a fourth – see below).

It seems to me that, in practice, I am a polytheist, as we all must be. I don’t mean to say that there is a pantheon of metaphysical or elemental beings controlling or influencing our lives. What I mean is we are surrounded by multiple forces that we must constantly navigate and negotiate with. There are of course the natural or non-human ones embodied in the powers of sky land and sea, and the flora and fauna that inhabit them. There are also the psychological forces that embody themselves in the mass psychology of humanity, influencing and structuring our choices and behaviour. Then there are the cultural, social and economic forces we must contend with, embodied in a multitude of institutions, organisations, corporations, moral values, abstract principles, symbols, rules and laws, traditions, trades, industries, arts, sciences and technologies.

There are multiple “tendencies” in the world that have, or seem to have, a life of there own. With all that, can anyone honestly call themselves a monotheist or atheist? I must say, I have my doubts. It seems futile and impractical to reduce the many powers in our lives to one or nothing. We are naturally polytheistic, whether we call it that or not. We don’t have to take the myths of ancient polytheistic religions literally to understand that the complexities that they represent are very real.

So that’s pragmatically, so how about spiritually? I would say that all theology, from monotheism to polytheism, from pantheism to atheism are all inadequate in representing what we might call the divine, sacred or numinous. Maybe there’s “something” and maybe there’s not, we’re just playing with concepts that can’t reach that far.

What Do I Really think?

Underneath the layers of conscious thoughts there are, apparently, layers of thought that represent “what I really am”. In times of trauma, stress, drunkenness or exhaustion they may arise, revealing the “true me”. In my experience there tends to arise a rather thoughtless animal that knows how to use words for offense, defence or silliness, but there is no cognitive coherence to these thoughts, just a visceral reaction. Is this me? Well, this is me as well.

As an animal I am endowed with instincts, but I have the power to reason and elucidate. The “real me” can craft an elegant architecture of words and reason, but it can also collapse that architecture and take any words that may best serve its brief and instinctive purpose. Neither is more or less sincere (in their respective moments). The test of sincerity is what thoughts I allow to flourish, which ones I choose to persist with and live by. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I succeed, but I always persist.

Years ago, in a New Age book shop in Canada I bought a sign with a quote saying “don’t believe everything you think.” I’m not in the habit of trusting all of my thoughts; I can easily be wrong. On one side I may have beautifully crafted and coherent thoughts, but they may be too abstract and have no practical value in life. They aren’t “real thoughts”. On the other, I may fail to reason and “fall back” on thoughts that have no rational coherence to them, just instinctive reactivity. These aren’t “real thoughts” if I don’t allow them to flourish beyond the brief moment they manifest. What I “really think” deep down is that thoughts aren’t what I really am; their function is to serve as an abstract reflection of the life unfolding before me.

My thoughts, whether instinctive or reasoned, may indicate something of who I am, or at least my abilities and limits, but I am not them. They may partially reflect who I am, but I am the thinker, not my thoughts. To put it another way, I am what I think in the present moment. The present moment is always changing, and so are my thoughts.

Balance and Moderation

The Buddha suggested the middle way between extremes, to find a balance between hedonism and asceticism, but I’m not sure that statically staying in the middle was what was meant. The Middle Way can be seen as the middle point between extremes, or it can be seen as the way that encompasses extremes in balance. This reminds me of another saying: All things in moderation, including moderation.

The Fate of Humanity on Earth

The Earth’s last human / will observe their last sunset / and write a haiku.

What will life be like for the last human on Earth? That’s something I’ve sometimes contemplated.

The Earth has a lifespan and cannot go on forever. Like us, Gaia is mortal. The Earth’s ability to filter greenhouse gases to keep itself at survivable temperatures will reach its limit as the sun expands and grows hotter with time. But before then, human civilisation will come to an end as complex life becomes more and more a burden to Earth’s life-sustaining powers – the last organisms will be as the first: single-celled organisms. Here I’ll contemplate one possible future for humanity, as positive as this vision of the Earth will allow.

The last humans on Earth will be something akin to Buddhists, contemplating, quite appropriately, the impermanence of it all. With equanimity and perhaps a bit of melancholy, they may realise that enlightenment is not needed to “cease suffering,” but that entropy will eventually achieve this anyway. Some, who cannot face such an end, may take off in their rocket ships to colonise the stars or other dimensions, if at all possible, but not everyone will be able to achieve this, and not everyone will want to.

How do we reach that point?

If we do not destroy our habitat or blow each other up we will survive and resolve the problems that currently face us, and we will achieve a complex global civilisation based on sustainability, creativity, diversity, equality, peace and cooperation. Our technological capacity will increase as time goes on, making life easier and letting us concentrate on being free and creative entities.

Over time, as noted before, the Earth’s capacity to sustain complex life will become limited, so civilisation will have to face its own mortality, and its citizens, freely and peacefully, will understand this and dismantle civilisation so that it doesn’t have an abrupt and catastrophic end. In the end, a small community of people will remain, celebrating and affirming the legacy of humanity to the end.

Society, Identity and Compassion

In the past I have used the words “there is no society,” not realising their neoliberal connotations. They have been used to justify a hostile world where solidarity and mutual support are naughty words, where what matters is the efforts of the individual, and any sense of community or cooperation (social obligation) is an impediment to the individual’s freedom and success in life. In this mode of thinking, as private individuals, we owe each other nothing, and we can’t oblige each other to part with our property without consent.

My own use of those words couldn’t have been further from this idea. For me “there is no society” means there is no such thing as “collective identity,” that the cultural identities of the world are abstract things whose function is to serve human interests, not vice versa. I don’t resent their existence, but I do rather resent that the individual human is subordinated to their cultural identity, a mere “cog in the machine”. Do I serve my cultural identity or does it serve me? To paraphrase Jesus Christ, “Humanity was not made to serve culture, culture was made to serve humanity.”

Society is an emergent property of the interactions of many individuals, ranging from momentary interactions to more permanent relationships and institutionalised community; it can be identified by its traditions, customs, symbols, institutions, history, underlying principles/values, territory and population. As far as I’m concerned, these are tools “in service” to humans, and the world is upside down when these cultural features dominate human life instead of being tools for our development and liberation. That’s what was behind my “there is no society”.

But to be honest I don’t see why the absence of society should negate any sense of compassion, solidarity or duty with other human beings. Human solidarity doesn’t require shared identity (culture, nationality, ethnicity, class, etc.) or group belonging – it shouldn’t have to. It just requires empathy, which happens when you recognise the personhood of another human being, or even the sentience of other creatures. An authentically ” individualised” person will be aware of the social and ecological connections surrounding them, and the interdependence that upholds them and that they uphold – not so the shallow egoism that’s made to appear like mature individualism.

The societies of the future now emerging look more like networks than coherent groups, but we can’t let that prevent us from creating a more compassionate world – on the contrary, it is an opportunity to do so.

(what confuses and amuses me is that there are neoliberals that court ideas of nationalism and patriotism that, in my opinion, run contrary to the principles of rampant individualism – at some point profit and patriotism have to come into conflict, and “free market” sounds like a recipe for cultural homogenisation and the undermining of national sovereignty. It just seems ironic)

Devotee of the Greenman

The image of a person whose form and nature are intrinsically meshed with nature (whether animal or vegetable) are the most compelling images of divinity for me. Spirituality and ecology always have been, in my view, fundamentally linked, almost identical.

We have become “disconnected” from our ecological roots by industrialisation, urbanisation, and values that see life (human or otherwise) as an object for plunder. In this day and age spirituality cannot be about transcending the material realm or leaving it behind for another; it must be about connecting to it, incarnating into it, becoming more deeply involved with it and the other beings we co-exist with. Spirituality must connect us with the Web of Life of which we are a part so that every aspect of our lives and society participate creatively in the Earth’s ecosystem, which we depend upon for our lives!

Humanity is an expression of Nature, and everything we call “human” (culture, economy, society, spirituality, etc.) are also expressions of nature. They emerge out of the ecological matrix and then weave back into them, adding extra dimensions to the Web of Life. We don’t have to make a “return” to older ways that we perceive as somehow more ecological, but we should take the political and technological advances we have made and reintegrate them into a broader ecological context – the continued existence of our species and civilisation depends on this.

If there’s is anything I have firmly believed in over the years, it is this, and if there is ever a symbol that represents this, it is the Green Man, of whom I am a firm devotee, whether I have known it or not.

Speling Riiform

I’m taking a break from all those philosophical and political blogposts and doing something somewhat lighter(!). Spelling reform is something I’ve talked about here before, and though it interests me, I don’t see much future for it, though I still appreciate it as a aesthetic exercise. This blogpost is just an excuse to discuss it and share some reforms I’ve worked on.

English spelling can be quite tricky, enough that there’s a whole poem about it (The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité). If you look on Wikipedia for any language’s orthography page (such as French or Spanish), you’ll find a nice table that matches letters with their corresponding sounds. There was a time that there wasn’t one for English orthography – I’ve recently seen they’ve added one, though it’s understandably complex.

I remember when I was a boy the frustration of learning a few regular words, then learning that many words are quite irregular. Later I discovered there’s groups dedicated to reforming English spelling, and I thought yes! this is for me. English spelling needs an overhaul; it would make it easier to learn if it were more phonetically consistent. [compare this paragraph with the two spelling reforms below]

But the obstacles to getting it done are great. Can you imagine teaching everyone familiar with English a whole new spelling standard and republishing everything it it? That’s a huge logistical problem, not to mention it would face huge cultural resistance. I sometimes contemplate introducing something in my own writing, but fear that it would put a lot of readers off.

And what dialect should we base it on? Being pragmatic, I’d just use the dictionary standards, the UK’s Received Pronunciation and the US’s General American, and leave them open to adaption for other regional accents as necessary. I base my reforms in RP, but adapt them to my accent where they diverge.

The only way I see a spelling reform possible is if a regional dialect diverges so far form the standard dialects that it’s necessary to create it’s own orthography – even more so if there is a political purpose behind it, with a nation or region that wants to create its own identity distinct from others. The other way I imagine it happening is changing one spelling convention at a time (Spelling reform 1: bread>bred, thread>thred said>sed – though it makes me wonder about says: seys? ses? sez?), but Australia tried this and even this didn’t quite catch on.

Generally speaking, there are two styles of reform: romic and glossic. Generally speaking, romic is any reform that uses Latin as a base for reform, and glossic uses traditional English spelling conventions and regularises them. Below I offer two spelling reforms I’ve invented, one romic and the other glossic, based on one of the paragraphs above.

Romic (roumik): Ai remémber hwen ai woz e boi dhe frûstration ov lûrning e fyu regyeler wûrdz, dhen lûrning dhat meni wûrdz ar kwait irègyeler. Leiter ai diskûvered dher ar gruups dedikeitid to refórming Inglish speling, and I thoot yes! dhis iz for mi. Inglish speling niidz en ouverhool; it wud meik it iizir tu lûrn if it wer mor fenétikly kensístent.

Glossic (glosic): I remember when I woz a boy the frusstraishon ov lerning a few regueular wurdz, then lerning that meni wurdz ar quyt irregueular. Laiter I discuvverd thair are groops dedicaitid tu reforming Inglish speling, and I thaut yes! this iz for me. Inglish speling needz an oaverhaul; it wud maik it eezeer tu lern if it wer mor phoneticly consistent.

Reason and the Life Force

We don’t need a “reason” to live or want to live. Reason is of the intellect, which not all creatures are endowed with – they don’t need it. What they do have is vitality, instinct, life force or will to live. Call it what you want, but it is present in all living beings, and if you need a “reason” to live, then this basic impulse of life has become repressed or inverted against itself.

When we have run out of “reasons” to live, we are left with the will to live – pure, biological, instinctive. And if we find “nothing” under that pile of intellectual reason except apathy, doesn’t that mean we have become disconnected from life itself, and that our perception of it has become too abstract?

As I see it, life comes first, and our abstract “reasons” or “motives” are secondary to this. The body contains an energy that transcends the mind’s need for reason.

Tradition, Progress and Relativity

There is a time and place for pre-modern, modern and postmodern thinking. They all come with their advantages and disadvantages and they are all tools in our cultural toolbox – we just need to know how to use them.

Pre-modern (traditional) thinking gives society continuity and coherence, a cultural narrative to make sense of things, but its prescribed social roles can be extremely oppressive.

Modern thinking has its standardised criteria and gives us structure and direction with which we can mark progress, but this focus on progress and standards can be too narrow for everyone to conform to – cultural diversity and personal idiosyncrasies aren’t its top priorities.

Postmodern thinking relativizes perspective and frees us from any particular one, so we can experiment with and understand multiple perspectives, but this lack of direction or structure gives us no practical means to make decisions or define our lives and society.

They can all be useful in the right combination.

Unity, Diversity and Federation

There are two competing worlds: a centralised one that is peaceful and cosmopolitan, cooperative and universal, but comes with a price of political hegemony, colonisation and cultural, economic and ecological homogeneity. The other is a decentralised one that is culturally, economically and ecologically diverse, with political autonomy for each nation and tribe, but which suffers from parochial thinking that shades into competitiveness, belligerence, xenophobia and bigotry.

I hope these aren’t the only two options, but I sometimes feel that they are, and that there is a thin path to tread between them, enjoying the positives of each one and keeping the negatives at bay.

UN, EU, British, English and Sussex flags together, representing something of my multi-level “affinities” (to be honest, there’s more flags to fit in there, but this’ll have to do for the blog).

There has to be a balance between centralisation and decentralisation, between independence and coordination. The answer, I believe, lies in federalism, that allows autonomy of local levels, and allows for coordination and cooperation on national, continental and global scales.

International institutions like the EU and UN are essential is today’s world, to avoid parochial thinking and promote peaceful cooperation between peoples, but their potentially “imperialistic” tendencies have to be offset by retaining sovereignty at local and national levels.

I hope, with a graded sovereignty from local to global levels, unity can be ensured without loss of diversity, and diversity can be preserved without a loss of unity.