Friday, May 16, 2014

Objectifying Your Subjectivity

This is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me (if for no other reason then I'm really trying to get back on the horse, blogging-wise).

I read an article a few weeks ago. It discusses the discovery a little while back that much of what scientists thought were ingrained, unalterable features of human thought were, in fact, quite culturally dependent. Tests and games which had been well established as providing consistent, predictable results would produce very varied results when run on other cultures. What scientists thought was "human tendency" was actually just "Industrialized Western tendency."
At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
The article goes on to talk about how many parts of human cognition were once thought of as universal, but were later revealed to be very, very particular. Even some optical illusions were perceived differently, based partly on your culture, something which I found deeply fascinating, just from a scientific point of view.

But, from a religious/spiritual point of view, it's incredibly important. Because (quite unfortunately, in my opinion) so many religious people make the mistake of thinking that their valid, subjective beliefs, opinions are worldviews are actually objective reality.

If I have a religious experience, then that experience is absolutely true. For me. It really happened, and I really experienced it. But, that experience is not valid for someone who never experienced it. To use a very clunky metaphor, if I see a movie and love it, then that movie might be, to me, the best movie ever. When I tell you that, I'm expressing my experience of that movie, not an objective fact about it. If, however, you go see that movie, and hate it, then that's your honest experience. My experience of it being awesome no way negates, and is in no way negated, by your experience of it being terrible.

Like I said, it's a terrible, clunky metaphor. But, it's getting at something. Let me try another angle.

People from all cultures and backgrounds have had mystical experiences. And, in some ways, those experiences are described in remarkably similar terms (a sense of oneness with everything, a sense of peace, a sense of great joy). But, the form of those experiences can vary, greatly. A devout Christian mystic is very likely to see, for example, a clear vision of the Virgin Mary during such a moment*. A Buddhist might see the Buddha or (probably more accurately) not have a particular, physically-based vision at all.

* I learned about this from one of the best books I've read in recent years, Why God Won't Go Away.

Here's the thing. That Christian really did see the Virgin Mary. That was an accurate description of his/her vision. But, it would be a totally inaccurate description of the Buddhist's vision. And, it would be an equally inaccurate description of objective reality. It might seem like objective reality to the meditator, just like the awesomeness of Star Wars might seem like an objective reality to me*. But, it's not**.

* Bad example. Star Wars actually is objectively awesome.

** Yeah. It is.

To me, religion is at its best when we acknowledge and celebrate the reality of our own, and each other's, religious experiences.

Religion is often at its worst when it (when we) insist on the objective reality of our religious experiences.

What's interesting is that the work that I've been doing with Spiritual Practice has led me to the same understanding. Spiritual Practice--meditation and the like--is in large part about trying to separate from the world as we see it, from the world as we conceive it, and to just experience it, as it is. To stop constantly putting our own understanding on the world around us, and try to apprehend it on its own terms, even if only for a moment.

It's not possible to truly do. At least, it's not possible for a novice like me. My own biases and preconceptions are too strong. Much too strong. But, frankly speaking, it's nice to try. It's nice to take a quiet moment, breath deeply (literally and metaphorically) and try to let the world exist as it is. And, to acknowledge that my understanding of that world is exactly that--my understanding, not the world itself. Everything I see, everything I think, everything I understand is filtered. It's true, to me. And, maybe, not to you.

And, that's good. It might even be true.

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