Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Reality Check

This Christmas season I’m essentially at a loss as to what to write. And it may be that the underlying cause for my blank slate is the blank state of the world, of our country, of Christmas itself. To begin with, Christmas, the birth celebration of the man-god called Christ on December 25, is essentially a concoction. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t really born in December (Clement of Alexandria in about 200 C.E. actually chose May 20 or April 20-21 as Jesus’ actual birth date, while the New Testament stories don’t give an actual date). According to Andrew McGowan, dean of the Divinity School at Yale, two different theories still exist about December 25, a date not actually mentioned until centuries after Jesus lived. The first theory claims that December 25 was chosen to coincide with the midwinter Saturnalia festival of the Romans. The Romans celebrated an actual birth festival on December 25, that of the Sun God, Sol Invictus, and the theory is that early Christians thought to hitch a ride (and gather more Romans to their faith) on this celebration. The second theory, and the one McGowan seems to prefer, is that which links Jesus’ birth (date unknown) to his crucifixion date, which was more or less known—being linked to Passover. So, if Jesus was crucified on the Jewish 14th of Nisan (March 25 in the Roman calendar), then thirty-three years earlier, he should have been conceived on the same day (this linking of conception and death derived from Jewish belief), which, adding nine months to March 25, would make December 25 his birth date.  According to McGowan, Tertullian of Carthage mentions this very calculation in about 200 CE. The point is, that however you calculate it, December 25 is a wholly made-up date for Christmas, derived from quite other (including pagan) beliefs and considerations. (To read McGowan’s whole discussion, see

            Of course, Christmas in the modern world has little to do with the birth of Jesus in any case. It is a mostly commercial holiday, meant to enrich merchants who exploit what was once, presumably, a celebration of something holy. This reality might easily seem unsettling to some. I mean, if billions of Christians around the world celebrate the birth of their savior on a day that has nothing to do with reality, then what is the reality of their god in the first place? And equally important, what is the point of the horrific series of wars and crusades meant to establish this man-god as the one true god if we can’t even get his birthday right? And on the other side, what is the point of the horrors even now being committed in the name of other proselytizing religions—to wit, the beheadings and exterminations that have always been carried out in the name of Judaism or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism? In the name of ‘our God is the only God and anyone who disagrees deserves to die’? Where do these certainties unto death come from? What is the point of making up some version of reality, insisting that it is the only reality, and slaughtering hordes of unbelievers to defend it?
            I don’t know. People like to be right. People are desperate to confirm their ways and beliefs, their versions of reality. Our current political scene dramatizes this in the most nauseating way. Ted Cruz is a fundamentalist Christian and he has recently said he would, if elected president, “carpet bomb ISIS into oblivion.” Later, at a Tea Party rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he is reported to have added: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.” Though the NY Times claimed it didn’t know what his words meant, Robert Parry of had no doubt that it was a clear reference to Cruz’s readiness to use nuclear weapons. The fact that neither carpet bombing nor nuclear weapons have any way to limit their destruction to combatants, and that an immense number of innocent civilians would be killed via “collateral damage,” doesn’t seem to faze either Cruz or his fellow aspirant for the nuclear trigger, old “bomb-the-shit-out-of-them” Trump. In short, both Cruz and Trump (and essentially all of the other Republican aspirants) are quite certain, or project that they are, that they know not only what’s right, but what’s real (i.e. what they say it is). They have no doubts about what they would do with the unrivalled capacity of the United States military to inflict death on whatever desert infidels seek to challenge them. Doubt is for sissies. Doubt is for the “politically correct.” Uncertainty is for the “others,” including scientists and academics who worry about such ‘nonsense’ as global warming and the unprecedented die-off of species, about whether the United States should help developing nations get beyond carbon-based power. To them it’s all bleeding heart liberalism, which is to say, wasting time worrying about losers and unbelievers.
            The trouble is, this sort of certitude plays well with far too many voters. Most people want their leaders to project confidence. To project doubt, to express uncertainty about how to solve a problem or even acknowledge that a problem has several aspects and no simple solutions (as scientists and those well-versed in a subject almost always do), is a sure-fire way to be left at the starting post. To be an also-ran, a has-been. And yet, most of the science of the last century has been in the nature of casting doubt on previous certainties. There’s even a principle with that name, the Uncertainty Principle, and it is almost as if uncertainty has become the bedrock principle behind virtually everything we thought we once knew. Including reality. What is the nature of reality, anyway? Time was when you could say, “I know what I saw” or “I’m dead certain because I saw.” That would hold up in conversations with friends, or in a court of law where eyewitness proof was a kind of gold standard. But more and more we see studies showing that eyewitness testimony is commonly tainted with opinion. With uncertainty. Though we think ‘seeing is believing’, most people can be totally fooled by experiments showing that even eyewitnesses paying attention can miss a gorilla walking by in the background. It depends what you’re paying attention to. If you’re closely watching something in the foreground, you can completely miss something as startling as a gorilla in the background. So what is reality?
            Nor does it stop there. Even what we are certain we see, and see objectively, turns out to be shaped and controlled by our presuppositions, by the visual system we have as humans, by our evolutionarily-shaped need to see only those objects or events crucial to our well-being, our search for food, our need for security. Thomas Metzinger is a philosopher of neuroscience who makes this rather unsettling point of view quite clear. In a recent blog, he wrote this:

…being conscious means literally creating models—both of what is “out there,” and what is “in here.” We have brain-generated images of what the world “is” and what we “are”, and they work quite well in most cases; but they are not “real” in the sense we think they are—i.e. that “we” are in direct contact with what “is”. They are “virtual,” models that create a center for us, a center we experience as ourselves, as our first person perspective, and which we use to great advantage to do everything needed to survive.

In short, we as humans call “real” that which we as humans have evolved to see or feel, that which accords with the models (both of the outside world, and of ourselves) we create. It is not an objective view of ‘the world’ nor is it the same as what other beings will ‘see’ or ‘hear’ or, in the case of dogs, ‘smell.’ It is not even what scientists, using instruments, assure us is really real. For example, in a later phrase, Metzinger clarifies again that what we see as a pink sky is not really what exists:

There are no colors out there in front of your eyes. The apricot-pink of the setting sun is not a property of the evening sky; it is a property of the internal model of the evening sky, a model created by your brain. The evening sky is colorless. The world is not inhabited by colored objects at all…out there, in front of your eyes, there is just an ocean of electro-magnetic radiation, a wild and raging mixture of different wavelengths….

It is our human brains and their visual and perceptive and interpretive systems that create an order—a model—out of the wild mix of nature. And that Metzinger is not just conveying his opinion about this is indicated by his citing of the brain injury called “apperceptive agnosia.”  As he points out, the “injury prevents the brain from forming a coherent visual model of the outside world, even though the patient’s visual apparatus is intact.” So though such patients can technically “see,” they cannot recognize what they are looking at. In Metzinger’s terms, their brain’s modeling capacity is disabled. And without that modeling capacity, they cannot see or recognize “the world” that we all take for granted.
            Evan Thompson in a recent book, Waking, Dreaming, Being (Columbia U Press: 2015), delves even deeper into this uncertainty. Thompson is a philosophy professor who writes about the mind, employing information from both neuroscience and phenomenology (phenomenology here means personal accounts of consciousness events, often derived from ancient spiritual practices, but increasingly buttressed by the neuroscientific studies). His unique perspective comes from his willingness to take dreams and dream states seriously, particularly as Indo-Tibetan practitioners have long taken them. Starting with ancient vedic practices as evidenced in Vedanta philosophy, Thompson valorizes dreams as both informative in themselves, but also as occasions that lead practitioners of “dream yoga” to be able to have “lucid” dreams (where the dreamer awakes within the dream to realize he or she is dreaming), and thereby to draw conclusions on waking reality itself. Briefly, the appearances in a dream (where the dream events seem perfectly real and convincing to the dreamer) are seen as metaphors for the similarly mind-influenced appearances in real life. Indeed, so deeply are our perceptions of reality influenced by our minds that, in the extreme case, it is difficult to tell—from experience alone—whether waking life is not also a “dream,” as in Shakespeare’s phrase in the Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” It is a commonplace these days (especially after the film, The Matrix) to say that we do not know, and cannot prove, whether what we experience is ‘real,’ or whether what we take as ‘reality’ is projected by an outside ‘computer program’ shaping virtually the experiences all us earthlings seem to have (see  Thompson puts it like this:

 In an ordinary dream, we identify with our dream ego [the “I” that has the dream] and take what we experience to be real…Whatever we see or feel seems to exist apart from us with its own being or intrinsic nature. This confused state of mind serves as a model for our waking ignorance of the nature of reality. We think our waking ego exists with its own separate and essential nature, but this belief is delusional, for our waking ego is no less an imaginative construction than our dream ego, formed by imaginatively projecting ourselves into the past in memory and into the future in anticipation (Thompson, 173; emphasis mine).

So if, as Thompson suggests, both the dream world and the waking world are constructed of appearances, then both worlds are made of “mind stuff”—which means they cannot be separated from the mind that makes them. And that mind, in its usual, un-awakened state, is essentially dreaming. This is why, for both Thompson and for those engaging in Indo-Tibetan “dream yoga”, having lucid dreams is heuristic. It is a kind of “waking up” in the midst of a dream. The lucid dreamer “wakes up” and realizes that he or she is dreaming, and therefore that the dream is a construction of the mind that has no substantial reality. The lucid dreamer, in fact, in some instances can help shape the dream itself, and take it in a more positive or less threatening direction. In the same way, Thompson points out, traditions like Buddhism that counsel “awakening” offer a more heuristic way to view fears and apparent dangers in real life. It is not that awakening gets rid of reality; rather “It aims…to effect a fundamental shift in our understanding of what it means for something to be real” (173). What this leads to, in turn, is waking up to the deep involvement that our minds—our thoughts, our projections, our emotions—have on what we take to be ‘real.’ We realize the extent to which what we take to be the “real world” depends on our own minds. Again, as Thompson puts it, “waking up to our participation in the creation of our world—resembles becoming lucid in a dream.” We begin to see, not that the world “out there” doesn’t exist, nor that it is separate from us and our mental experience of it, but that the physical world and the mental world are entwined and mutually dependent.
            What then, does this mean about ‘reality?’ Hard to say. But in some sense, it means that reality is an entity not objectively “out there,” but rather something more subjective, something we have a rather bigger hand in producing than we might have thought. It’s a little like Christmas as God’s birthday: it’s not that Christmas doesn’t exist, nor that it hasn’t existed for a thousand or more years. It’s that humans, Christians (and for reasons not always clear, but certainly reasons less than ‘objective’ or even ‘spiritual’), have had a rather larger hand in its construction than at first meets the eye. And that most “truths” or “certitudes” would partake of this same behind-the-scenes machinery if we were to look hard enough—if we were, in short, to wake up. Or, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, see behind the wizard’s (who might just turn out to be ‘us’) curtain.
Lawrence DiStasi

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an eloquent, insightful exploration of our communal Christmas mythology, Larry, much appreciated by this fellow writer who once worked as a department store Santa.