Sunday, November 26, 2006

Quality in mysticism

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;

this appears as darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

- Tao Te Ching

Some people recognise as True the greatness inherent in the universe, the lack of distinction between subject and object, and other similarly fuzzy ideas. Some people think that all this is silly. From a Quality perspective, who is right?

The Mystical defense mechanism

As a staunch member of the Reality-Based Community for many years now, I have a strong intuitive perception of mysticism as a load of fluff excreted by people who wish to protect their precious worldview from scrutiny.

And there's no doubt that, in some cases, this perception is accurate. It's interesting how many religious people, when pressed hard enough, spontaneously become post-modernists. The same holds for practitioners of many alternative medicines - the moment they're hit with a genuine evidence-based challenge to their therapies, they switch gears and start discussing the importance of spiritual health. Once the skeptic has wandered off, they promptly switch back again. It's similar to the way that squid shoot clouds of ink to confuse predators.

Why is this poor Quality? These people claim that their beliefs are part of the objective universe. For their behaviour in this respect to be high-Quality, they must consequently meet certain obligations that in practice are equivalent to showing their model is predictive. Not only do they not attempt to do this, they actively attempt to prevent anyone else managing it. Their bait-and-switch tactics merely add a dab of hypocrisy to this unpleasant cocktail.

Such behaviour is repugnant to reality-based individuals, with good reason. This variant of mysticism attempts to rhetorically undermine the reputation that evidence-based enquiry has legitimately earned for itself, and quite often succeeds. "Emergency mystics" of this sort are actively damaging the Quality of society as a whole in order to feed their personal delusions of objectivity. This is not a victimless crime - non-trivial numbers of people die in agony each year because they relied on a quack rather than seeking proper medical assistance.

What's outside the box?

I'm increasingly coming to believe, however, that carefully targeted mysticism can be an extremely effective tool. The act of temporarily shutting down the "reality checks" that keep us all moderately sane allows us to explore concepts further removed from our current understanding of the universe. At worst, that wider view helps us place our current stance in context better, a labeling that means we can . At best, the search can lead us to powerful concepts that we'd never otherwise have discovered.

My views in this area are partially bolstered by objective evidence from Prof. Richard Wiseman, who has fairly conclusively determined that "luckiness" is tied to the ability to relax one's focus. He tested this by asking individuals who self-assessed as particularly "lucky" or "unlucky" to count the number of pictures in a newspaper he'd had specially produced. Placed on some of the pages were large adverts containing captions like "Tell the experimenter you spotted this and you'll win £100". Overwhelmingly, the lucky people spotted these; the unlucky people were so focused on the counting that they read straight past them.

As best I can tell, a certain amount of mysticism - be it Buddhist meditation, classical religion, New-Age spirituality or simply a sense of joy and wonder at the universe - can be a useful means to this end. It can snap us out of the daily grind, give us a new perspective on life, and return us refreshed, revitalised, and ready to improve the Quality of our world.

Verdict: mysticism is valid for some individuals. It's not necessarily valid for everyone, and its abuse should be avoided, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it if applied judiciously.

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