Saturday, 21 September 2013

BJ's SOLSL: My friend Ryan on Science, Polytheism and Dualism

Ryan and I connected as a result of Facebook.  Unlike loads of people I know, I’ve had mostly only good experiences with Facebook when it comes to meeting people.  I was chatting away to authors I had been reading, and looking for neo-pagan groups of interest and suchlike, when I noticed Ryan’s comments kept coming up in threads I was finding interesting.  He was always reasoned, erudite and calm.  Very readable.  He also had the most amazing head of hair and for a man with a beard, seemed astonishingly rational (yes, I have made a long term generalization that I don’t know many men with a properly ambitiously grown beard who can think clearly; this is merely my personal opinion!!).  So Ryan and his beard and I started a conversation which is still going now.  He is a Heathen, a modern follower of the Norse pantheon, and a thoroughgoing student of the mythology and history associated with the Norse and Germanic countries.  Any of his blogs will show you his level of commitment to his study – we’re talking footnotes, people, proper research.  He’s also unashamedly lefty in his political leanings, which are anarchistic (in the proper political sense, go and look up, don’t just think of the connotations of the word in pop culture). 

He did a massive trip over to Europe earlier this year before going back to university to do postgrad work and continue with his political activism (he's way braver than me), and lots of us who had hitherto only appreciated his coolness in debate and argument on politics or religion got to meet him in person.  Fluffhead and I had a good afternoon in a local playground with him, where Fluffhead swung contemplatively on a swing for ages, while Ryan and I chatted.  It turns out this really brainy and scarily good arguer is, in person, gentle and quiet, and just as articulate.  I was sad I had promised to *not* take home any Nutters I Had Met On The Internet (caring friends had made me promise), so I couldn’t be properly hospitable (as a Heathen would have been, to me).  But next time he visits, I have promised him cake, so who knows, he may just come back.  In the meantime, here is a specially written piece for this blog, on something he’s been musing a while – and also, since he is aware of my idiosyncratic introductions, here is his intro to himself too – way more succinct, huh?  Thankyou for this blog post Ryan – as usual, making me think…

Ryan is a graduate student, activist, long-time Pagan, and practicing Heathen in San Francisco.  When not in class, causing trouble, working in the Heathen community, or unwinding between all of the above he likes to write about a lot of things although most often questions of spirituality, philosophy, and how they intersect with society and our place in the world.  If you're interested in reading any of that his sporadically and unpredictably updated blog can be found at

Science and Polytheism: not a contradiction

In modern society there is an automatic assumption that science and religion are polar opposites.  According to the mainstream narrative in the United States it is becoming a knock-down drag out fight to the finish with yearly rituals like the March for Life and the alleged War on Christmas.  Hand in hand goes the narrative of progress; the driving idea behind modern industrial civilization.  Progress argues any movement forward is automatically an improvement, no matter what that movement actually is, and that which was in the past is in some way or another automatically inferior.  After all, if it was worth doing it people would still be doing it as argues the story of progress.

The whole mess is a product of the influence of centuries of dualistic thinking in European civilization.  These attitudes would have a profound impact on how the consciousness of modern science developed and these ideas would be carried along with the methods when they were exported to the rest of the world during the waves of European colonialism, imperialism, and continues with modern corporate colonialism.  While scientific thinking sought to break free from the constraints of religious dogma and lock-step orthodoxy the influence of Christian dualism remained a pervasive element.  This most strongly manifests in the false dichotomy of science vs. spirituality.  

From a polytheistic perspective the question is a very different one.  As is shown the world over in a number of animistic polytheistic cultures from Pharonic Egypt, Viking era Scandinavia, and classical Greece to the Mayan city-states, Great Zimbabwe, and Sengoku Japan animistic polytheistic peoples had no problem living in a world where science and spirit worked side by side with no real conflict to speak of.  This is thanks to their radically different approaches to cosmology and philosophy.  In a polytheistic setting there is often a broader struggle between cosmic order and cosmic chaos but this does not take on the tones of the Christian, Muslim, or Zoroastrian black and white battle of good and evil.  

In the world of a polytheist not only are things not black and white or shades of grey, they're shades of every color imaginable.  Issues, circumstances, and explanations can be complex and multifaceted.  It is very likely there will be unsolvable ambiguities.  All of this is perfectly OK in the polytheistic context in a way that is not in the monotheistic, dualistic context.  When you have multiple mighty but limited powers each of which are complex entities with their own motivations, drives, pitfalls, and goals it is very possible for more than one thing to be true about them at the same time.  Rather than arriving at a single, infallible answer to each question to the polytheist issues and questions are examined, tested, and evaluated based on multiple perspectives, possibilities, and levels.  What is true on the level where science operates is equally true as that which lies in the realm of spirituality.  For one to be true does not mean the other is automatically false or vice versa.  To say the Rain God brought the storms that watered the crops does not mean the measured and proven explanations of meteorology are wrong.  For the polytheist both are equally valid answers because they approach the question in different ways.

It is the same with the alleged conflict between spirituality and science.  When you apply the multifaceted approach of the polytheistic mentality to this question the dilemma fades away like morning mist.  From this perspective the scientific explanation describes an event, thing, or process in terms of the how, what, and why based on what science is capable of discerning and measuring.  The spiritual explanation covers that which lies outside of the capabilities and purview of scientific tools and discoveries.  This doesn't mean one abandons reason in the process of shifting from one to the other; far from it.  Rather what it means is there is acceptance that two explanations can be equally valid based on what they are explaining, why, and how.

There are also the interesting moments where mystical insight reaches conclusions later affirmed by scientific inquiry.  The first that comes to mind is the age-old belief that all living things have some form of energy which cannot be seen or touched but is present in all life.  Whether it is called ki, chi, or ond there are several places where such an idea emerges and is commonly accepted.  On its face this seems preposterous and at odds with scientific research.  If everything had some kind of energy that we could sense and manipulate it certainly would have been quantified by now.

Except it has.  Meet electrophysiology, the study of the effects of electricity on living forms.  The foundation of electrophysiology lies in a very simple truth which has been proven by modern medical science.  Throughout our bodies tiny strands of nerves carry information and instructions between different parts of living beings.  Whether you're talking something as simple as a slug or as complex as the human brain this system is found in all animal life-forms.  These instructions, known as nerve impulses, are carried by tiny electric currents that run along the nerve fibers.  Without these nerve impulses life as we know it would not be possible; not unlike mystical theories of chi which posit this intangible energy is essential for and present in all life.

Another example is the existence of alternate planes of reality.  In many polytheistic, animistic cultures there is a belief in some kind of existence beyond that which we are familiar with where the great powers of the universe reside.  Many also include stories of other worlds where people go after they die.  Yet like the theories of energy in all life-forms these are unproven ideas which many dismiss as superstitious nonsense.  It's rather ironic that a similar idea, multiverse theory, has risen to prominence in the last hundred years and seen very vigorous debate and discussion in many intellectual circles.  Even then it's still just an unproven theory, food for thought if you will and nothing more.

In 2010 Roger Penrose at the University of Oxford and Vahe Gurzadyan at Yerevan State University in Armenia excitedly announced they had found something rather interesting during their many surveys of the night sky.  According to these two researchers they observed what they described as possible "cosmic bruises" from other universes bumping into ours.  These findings were later verified by Stephen Feeney at University College London.  While the astronomers have admitted considering the massive amounts of data they're working with such anomalous readings are a near-certainty these findings are rather interesting.  Is it possible these alternate universes are the homes of places like Asgard, Olympus, and other divine abodes?  Could these be the residing places of the dead after they have passed on?  While these findings at this point are not conclusive again it brings to question how off-base mystical insight and examination really is.

And of course there is the example of mystical experiences ranging from meditative states to possession by ancient spirits.  Many of these are dismissed as the consequence of primitive minds attempting to grapple with altered states of consciousness which at the end of the day have a psychological or physiological explanation.  Set against this is a well-publicized body of research into the brain activity of Tibetan monks in meditative states.  These studies have found the brain behaving in ways which were previously inconceivable and totally unknown to science.  In many such studies the results have found parts of the brain being optimized in ways that are almost completely unknown in any other state.  One can debate whether or not there is a genuine mystical experience going on but there is no question something is definitely happening.  

The assumption of conflict between science and spirituality is the leftover baggage of centuries of intellectual domination by dualistic, orthodox-obsessed ideologies.  As has been discussed such a conflict is completely unnecessary and only possible if it is assumed that truth is singular and infallible in nature.  As polytheistic practice and the scientific method argue in day to day life this is rarely, if ever, the case.  Answers are arrived at by examination, observation, testing, and experience with many leading to more questions and exploration.  In a universe rich with possibility and new horizons there is too much out there to limit ourselves to whether or not one specific method is the one, true method that all should use at the exclusion of all else.  Keeping an open mind, exploring all possibilities, and examining ideas on their context and merit is far more rewarding.

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