Prometheus and Atlas – Great Book Number 1
Charles T. Tart
This month has been a rich time for receiving books that I not only ought to, but definitely want to read! This is to tell you about one I received today and have already done some reading in, Prometheus and Atlas, by Jason Reza Jorjani, a philosopher on the faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology who teaches on science, technology and society. It’s about that theme that is become so central in my life, building bridges between the best of science and the best of spirituality.
I don’t usually even attempt to read books by philosophers anymore. When I was young, I picked up a relatively accurate image of philosophers as very wise people who thought deeply about human life and the nature of reality, and who shared their reflections and understandings with us. I thought of them as driven by that old maxim attributed to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
For most of my adult life, however, I’ve found that most philosophers now seem to be caught up in word games.
In some ways, that’s OK and important. We are verbal creatures, and deeper understandings of the way we use words (and the way words use us!) can be very useful. One of the most important aspects of psychological and spiritual growth in my own life has been realizing that I’m too good with words, I can get entranced by them and lose touch with reality. But it’s apparently too easy for philosophers too to get caught up in the formal, intellectual, grammatical properties of language and forget that what we really should look at if we want deeper understanding is the reality that those words either point to and/or distort our understanding of.
Jorjani’s book is not casual reading, but it’s not a swamp of philosophical jargon and word games either. If you’re interested in the roots of both Eastern and Western cultures, and the conceptual systems driving so much of modern culture, including spiritual culture, it’s an excellent book. Particularly, Jorjani is aware of parapsychological phenomena, the specters as he calls them, which official culture tries to banish, but which are very important to our full understanding of humanity and reality. These “ghosts” just won’t go away in spite of our extensive use of “magic words,” masquerading as reason, to banish them!
I looked for his book when I received a notice that the Parapsychological Association, the professional group devoted to scientific and scholarly study of the paranormal, gave it an award for the best book in the area this year. I can see why they did. As I initially thought from a lunch conversation with him several years ago at one of the annual Parapsychogical Association meetings in Concord, Jorjani is very comprehensive in his understandings, so much so that I felt able to tease him about it after I started reading the book. I wrote him, “For example, are you certain that you haven’t missed some relevant footnote by some obscure Western or Eastern philosopher that is relevant to your theme? You seem to have gotten everybody and everything else!”
I started reading systematically from the first page, and quickly found I wanted more, I wanted to skip around sampling little gems here and there. For instance Jorjani talks about how we had such rigid ideas that there are real facts out there facts that we have to distinguish from our theories from, whether they are just theories given us by our enculturation or with the prestige of modern science, but, as he notes on page 14 of the introduction,
“Theories produce “facts” on account of observational ideologies that are deeply implicated by them, so it is deluded to think that the validity of theories can be tested against “the facts of Nature”– as if these had an autonomous and objectively accessible existence.”
Part of me strongly objects to that statement, I want, I insist that there be facts, to check all our concepts on… But I do know an awful lot about how our psychological processes selectively construct the apparent “facts” we perceive…
As another example of Jorjani’s insights, I wrote him:
“As you know from our conversation back in Concord, I certainly am in great general agreement with you. We love to feel smart, and that’s even better if we get along well in the world because of our apparent smartness, so it so easy to become overly attached to one’s intellectual concepts. I don’t agree with all aspects of Buddhism, e.g., but I certainly admire the emphasis there on the dangers of attachment, although I would argue against the dangers of over-attachment, rather than any kind of attachment at all.
You may remember that I routinely carry two knives on my belt, one of the big models of the Swiss Army Knife, and a Leatherman tool. People sometimes ask me which one is better, and I asked them better for what? There’s no absolute better or worse, it depends on the task. And sometimes I find that I have to use both of them at once to adequately do a task. But I also get lots of demonstrations of attachment. I like both of them so much that I tend to automatically reach for them when there’s some mechanical problem, even though it should be immediately obvious that there’s some specialized tool that I will need, and I’d better go down and talk to the people in the hardware store…
I also have frequent demonstrations of how overly attached I am to the way I’ve been taught to perceive. When I’m looking for some misplaced object in the house and can’t find it (of course I have to ask my wife where it is and she marvels at my inability to find things, it’s so stereotyped!), I’ve reflected on this and realized I call up a visual image of the missing object in my mind, and I’m projecting that image around the room with the expectation that when it’s projected on the actual object I will feel a sensation of matching, “mental bell” will ring, and then I’ll actually look and see the object.
It’s not a bad technique in some ways, but a lot of times it doesn’t work because my visual image is slightly different from the orientation of the real object. Then I have to fight my habitual attachment and look in a more comprehensive and open-minded way.
One other example of where I’m sure we’re in agreement, years ago I came up with a systems approach way of theorizing about what was meant by a state of consciousness and altered states of consciousness (described in my States of Consciousness, not to be confused with my earlier Altered States of Consciousness book). I still use this conceptual approach in my thinking, although it didn’t generally get picked up, it’s too complex rather than having the simplicity people crave. But eventually I realized that the structure of my theoretical approach was essentially identical to Thomas Kuhn’s idea of paradigms. A particular paradigm/state can be very useful when dealing with stuff that is actually behaving the way the paradigm/state calls for, but is a real blinder when that’s not the case.
A highly recommended book! And also an incredibly unusual book, because almost all modern philosophers totally ignore the existence of paranormal phenomena, and insist on trying to explain everything in material terms. That leads to a lot of very forced and incorrect explanations…