This begins with a memory of a dream this morning. Whatever circumstances led to the present situation are unclear. I remember a room, or some other confined space, grey or rusted. Uninviting. I remember someone, probably Asian, standing in front of me, or before whoever I happened to be at that moment. He must have been tired, sweaty. I remember a white long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves folded up. There must have been blood.
He was leaning forward, one hand on a knee, another holding some weapon. I remember a large, metal beam. Sometimes it appears to be a cutlass, or a rifle. Whatever it was was meant to kill me. Perhaps that was his intention - to strike out and kill me. There was enough hostility in the atmosphere. A spark could have provoked any one of us to lethal action.
I too was armed, with what, I don’t recall. The perspective I held was panting, and waiting, like the man in its sight. The tension was palpable. I could feel it as I lay on the floor. I recollect knowing I was on the floor, just as I knew was on my feet in the scene with my adversary.
The sense of imminent mortality was sickening. It was like the height of expectation as the time draws closer for some unavoidable event to occur: we both knew it was coming. In moments, one of us would be dead. I was scared.
Then I woke up. In that instant my adversary, the scene and the tension we felt were replaced with the ache one feels when one lies too long on his side on a concrete floor. I felt something of a release: it was only a dream. My gaze shifted upward, toward the chest of drawers several inches beyond my head.
I looked and saw, sitting at the foot of the chest, between the edge of my mat and the foot of the chest, a short, square-headed demon. The little man, I remember, looked at me with not particularly hostile beady eyes. Perhaps they were red, or the reflection of red light shining from where I do not know made them seem so. His face was red, and evidently sweaty. He squatted at his station, looking down on my head, with something like a mallet in hand. His implement looked like it was made with red wood (or it may have been the red light playing the trick), and it’s handle was carved like a honey stick, to a point, like a giant screw. It was like a mallet, but one end was sharp. That end - he kept striking the air above my head with it.
He meant to kill me where I lay.
I recall screaming, or imagining myself doing so. I don’t know what I wanted to say, who I wanted to call for. I was calm, but there was an inaudible scream from someplace other than my bedroom. And that scream had come from me, but I also recall making no attempt to shout.
I recall reaching a hand out into a distance, though there was no great distance between where I lay and where the demon squatted. My memory tells me my hand reached out into a greyish-reddish cloudy sky, that I was in the clouds, and they were laden, and ready to rain. I do not recall making an actual attempt to stretch out my hand, because there was a demon squatting there, watching me with a mallet in hand, waiting to kill me where I lay.
The next moment saw the little demon recede from my view, into a distance that was no real distance, and slowly dissolve, lower bodice first, into nothing - as though he were a mere image on an imaginary screen that were being wiped off by an invisible hand with a duster.
After he was gone, I got up from my mat and stared at the spot for a long time. At once I knew this was punishment for my misbehaviour. If I had checked the time, it was five minutes to five. The room was lit briefly around that time: my dad was awake - confirming the time - and he had turned on the corridor lights. He turned them off, and again my room was plunged into darkness.
I was tired. I wanted to go back to sleep. I crept up on my bed and slowly stretched myself, fearing that any carelessness will admit that demon into my midst. I put my head on the soft mattress and, as I closed my eyes one more time, the question I had been asking myself since waking up to see the uninvited guest remained the last thing on my mind: was it real?
My mind was closed to this question when I woke up for the second time, and the third time (to my mother’s protest) to prepare for church. I was left alone to lock up and walk to mass. I made it just in time for the processional hymn.
As I walked down the aisle to my favourite pew, the question I started the morning with had evolved into the monster I had once failed to confront several months before. I had no need to rearticulate the question: it was like an old friend. The familiarity made any formal introduction unnecessary. I jumped right to the matter at hand: God, I need an answer to this question today. It was the first time I had invoked the name of the Lord this morning.
Is all that “spiritual stuff” real?
I’ve had a difficult time admitting both materialistic and spiritual worldviews into some consistent, trustworthy scheme. I am not about to outline exactly why this has been so. One thing I realize is I have both feet planted sufficiently strongly in each camp. Depending on my circumstances, I lean more toward one point of view and express such cynicism toward the other that you would think I were two different people in each case.
This morning, at mass, I reached another point in my understanding that, at least for some time, seemed to suggest a framework that simply made sense. I will attempt to retrace my reasoning from several hours ago and share this synthesis as it now appears to me.
The first problem I encountered was the definition of “real”. Colloquially, my hands are real, because I can feel them and touch them and use them to alter real things in a real world. Better people than me have tackled this problem and discerned ways of thinking about reality that are more rigorous than anything I can invent, I am sure. All I offer is wild speculation.
“Real”, as I used it in the previous paragraph, may be more appropriately described as “material”. The word as I used it previously fails when describing such things as my thoughts and the feelings concerning people in my life. Love, anger, jealousy, are “real” in a sense that my hands are: I can possess them, and lose them. The side-effects of those emotions are “real”. The existence of those things have consequences that cannot be dismissed as “not being real”. In another sense - the material sense - those things are not “real”. They are immaterial. That word, “immaterial”, can be used dismissively to describe things that aren’t “real” in the sense of having (or lacking) meaningful consequence. To not confuse these two senses, I must capitalize Material and Immaterial when describing those things that are made of matter, and those that are not “of matter”.
I quickly saw how the Materiality of a thing had little predictive power in determining how “real” that thing was. In approaching a definition of “real”, I took the road inspired by Jordan Peterson in organising things into the Positively Useful, the Negatively Useful, and the Useless. Those are my proper descriptors of the three classes into which everything in the environment of a motivated observer can fall in. Jordan perhaps has better ways of talking about this stuff.
My working definition of “real” constituted anything that had the potential to cause some perceptible change by virtue of its existence, action or nonexistence. While this does not attempt to be a rigorous definition, it helped me parse things up quite neatly.
For one, reality depended on perception, and so, on an observer. If a mother in some Balkan country lost her child today, I shouldn’t consider her, and her tragedy, as constituting reality, unless it caused some change I could perceive. If I read a Tweet about her, that would constitute enough change in my environment (the introduction of new knowledge) to bring her into my sliver of reality. If her child’s death caused the price of Bitcoin to fall a fraction of a percent (such stuff happens, I’ve heard), she still might not be admitted into my reality, until I were made aware that his death caused the value fluctuation.
If I were to regard reality that way, then many, many things were real. God, for instance, however Immaterial, had to be real.
I remembered a quote from a famous atheist that suggested that he believed in God as much as he believed in fairies and imps and other creatures from European folklore. Was I to admit into my reality such “fairytales” and put them on the same pedestal as the Christian God? The answer was a quiet yes.
Certainly, mythological figures and creatures are to be taken seriously. Afterall, isn’t this religion we revere mere mythology, a silver-lined lie we tell ourselves, an approximation of something inaccessible - by definition - to the human experience? I have argued this before in a private essay, and I will make the point again: if the height of human intellect can find in the Sun the qualities that make a thing God, there is no sin in worshiping the Sun as God. Fortunately, the light of Christian thought seems to have rightly placed this definition at its most perfect extent, and we can look on pagan Sun worship as quaint ignorance, a shadow of contemporary revelation.
The matter of what constituted reality didn’t end with God. It went on to other matters, that highlighted another aspect of this idea I was playing with. Words, my reasoning told me, were Immaterial and real. Were we to lose one word from our vocabulary, its absence would be felt. Concerning synonyms, the effect of losing the redundancy may be somewhat less than the effect of losing one word that had no perfect substitute.
Then it hit me that things which constitute reality, as I was considering it during mass, aren’t necessarily“equal”, just as there is a spectrum of inequality among Material things.
I’m still not sure why this basic observation was not obvious to me from the start. I used the ball-in-the-mattress analogy from my learnings about Einstein’s gravity to illustrate the model of reality I was considering: objects in the field had different “masses”, and the magnitudes of their effect varied significantly. If this was the case, I was essentially arguing that some things could be “more real” than others. I saw nothing wrong with that.
Secondly, the question of reality wasn’t a concrete affair. If reality depended on the collision of the observer with some perception event, the state of an observer avoiding such an event must be equivalent to the state of that event existing outside the observer’s reality. This seems to answer the position one author took concerning reality when he suggested that reality is whatever remains true even when you choose to stop believing in it.
I will explain: reality exists as long as one collides with it. If “belief” in the previous paragraph describes an internal model of the universe the observer carries with it, that internal model will be modified when the observer “collides with” ie. perceives a new object that was previously not accounted for in the internal model.
To make the above explanation concrete: let us assume an observer, Alice, does not believe in the Material existence of Kweku Ananse. In Alice’s internal model of the universe, Ananse is not accounted for, or is misplaced (this being more likely, since Alice definitely has heard of Ananse, and chooses to place Ananse in a category of Immaterial objects she calls “folk fictions”). When Alice eventually encounters Ananse in a way that contradicts her internal model “beliefs”, she has experienced a collision event (meeting a figure called Ananse in a non-mythical place) and so, must integrate the non-mythical Ananse into her current model of the universe. Whether she chooses to update her model does not change the fact that the collision event which violated that model occured.
This simple illustration already admits several things: the apparent existence of some universal ledger which objectively records realities that may not agree with subjective “beliefs”, the agency of the observer exercised when it (Alice) chooses what to integrate into its internal model, and of course, that internal model that is the subjective reality I arrived at earlier in this text.
Between the universal ledger and the private record, our experience shows us another layer of reality: the shared, communal reality. Within communities at different times, this model of reality is defined and shared by many individuals. This reality can be in conflict with the apparent universally objective model, or any of the many subjective models carried within individuals, or they can completely agree with each other: the important thing is they are different.
The fluid nature of reality is a seductive idea. I was (re)introduced to it when I took to reading the work of Scott Adams and I learned of the work of Donald Hoffman from his TED Talk that relied on the “Desktop” metaphor to deconstruct “reality” into the abstraction it seems to be. My internal journey at mass was another step in the conversation I have been having since the height of the Trump campaign in 2016.
So was the demon at my bedside real?
I could argue that it was. Immaterial, because it was not embodied as I am, but it was real. The “spiritual stuff” was all real. All Immaterial, yet all real.
The next issue that came to mind concerned the nature of the Immaterial. I juxtaposed it with the nature of the Material, to further ground the idea. In common terms, the Material is concrete. It is discrete and finite. The Material is bound by limits: we are born, and we will die. Mountains erode, food goes rotten, termites eat wood and technology becomes obsolete. Entropy is master, and matter is slave.
The Immaterial is abstract. It is the world of thoughts, emotions, the will, of ideas and behavioural [a] patterns. It may also be the world of dreams. I thought about that too. The Immaterial is the world of numbers and words, of concepts, of infinity. It is the world of Ideals. I capitalize Ideals, because this thought brought me to Plato and the idea of some “plane of existence” in which numbers and shapes are real; not real in the concrete, Material sense, but real in the “has consequence” sense.
This brought me, one more time, to God. As an Immaterial reality, God is abstract. By the definition of God the church adheres to, he (by tradition) is infinite and perfect. The Material, we are aware, always seems to fall short of perfection. We could argue that “perfection” only exists in the abstract. Perfection is real because we, as observers, identify it and aspire (sometimes) towards it. More painfully, we are not alien to the experience of the lack of perfection. Yet, our cunning minds have not ruled out the existence (reality) of such a thing as perfection, even when we might admit it is not possibly Material, ie. it most likely cannot be manifest as Material.
In the place were perfection lies, we can argue that God as conceived by Christian theology, exists. As do the fairies and whatnots from the traditions of our species. A rose by another name still looks the same.
Holding these two - planes of existence - in mind, I next thought about how they coexisted. This was the crux of my question, it seemed: which was more important? Which came first, the Immaterial, or the Material? Is the world primarily Immaterial, or Material? I have read convincing arguments for both.
One view of the “spiritual” that I have been warming up to recently concerns the interpretation of events such as demonic possession, as it is described in sacred texts and in real life. Partly inspired by Julian Jayne’s remarkable book, I’ve come to regard most of these manifestations of possession as uncommon mental states rooted in some material cause. It is common knowledge that religious experiences can be induced with the right substances. In fact, if my memory is right, this was a common practice in antiquity: oracles were literally high on something anytime they were in contact with the “spirit”. People possessed by spirits are exhibiting not fully understood psychosis: they are mad.
This mode of thinking shows itself in our ordinary use of language: people can be in good or foul spirits. An artist is led by their muse to create something remarkable. Mental illnesses can have freakish outcomes that mirror descriptions of demonic possession. Hallucinations are a known side-effect of some types of fever. Perhaps I hallucinated the demon at my bedside. The hallucination may have been real - as real as the idea of Capitalism, of running software, of gratitude - but it still remains Immaterial, and perhaps immaterial in a primarily Material world. I have found no problem with this point of view, and its grounding in the materialistic worldview. This world, after all, might be primarily Material, and the Immaterial is only apparent: a projection that we have rationalized into the “spiritual world” of religions and Ideals, a very common disease of extremely complex brains.
A world that is primarily material explains a lot of physical and a good deal of “spiritual” phenomena - we have the corpus of scientific knowledge as a mountain of evidence, and our technological sophistication as proof of the utility of this point of view. The reduction of the Immaterial to mere “side effects” arising from the Material is a very powerful model that survives a lot of the reality thrown at it. It rightly tells us that software exists on the basis of hardware, and music only comes into existence when instruments vibrate. But does it tell us, rightly, that our yearning for God and all that is infinite is simply chasing after a carrot on a stick, hanging from our own foreheads? That is the experience.
A world that is exclusively material seems untenable to me. The success of the material worldview and its tools becomes a problem when it reveals to us how contingent its truth and fact is on arbitrary premises. The materialist is limited by the limits of the sense and what it can perceive. All that is real is all that is observable. Our definition of “observable” is more abstract than it probably has ever been, thanks to the remarkable tool that is Mathematics. The materialist may consider things to be Mathematically possible, but Materially improbable, or impossible. But even in that consideration, the Materialist admits the existence (or at the very least, the utility) of some form of the metaphysical. By this approach, a purely materialistic view of the world is impossible to uphold.
The primarily Material world seems to succeed everywhere but at the familiar edge-cases: taking my example of software and music used previously, one could argue that the Material basis of these Immaterial realities has as its source, the Immaterial. Someone must design the hardware first. And if we argue that the Immaterial mind that designed the hardware is itself a projection of a highly specialized Material organ, one must ask further: “Whence was it designed?”
The Immaterial overlords discovered by our own methodical enquiry into the Material have simply replaced the Immaterial gods that our creative minds must have conjured when they first encountered the Material. In principle, we have not moved any further. The Immaterial that guides us is still sovereign.
Post communion, I returned to the question at hand: which was more important? To ignore the Immaterial, the world of visions, dreams, hallucinations and hopes, the world of ideas and thought and powerful abstractions, was to reduce what we consider the human experience to mere animal instinct. Were I to put this in religious terms, to ignore the Divine removes from man what makes him man.
The consequences of a colourless life seemed to me more bearable that the cost of ignoring the Material and steeping oneself wholly in the Immaterial - the supernatural. Such an existence, I could guarantee, would be brief and sickly. All play and no pray would make Jack a jackal, but all pray and no play would kill the little boy.
It seems, from the above, that the Material carries with it such immediacy that, in our experience, it takes a primary role. Or does it?
We could argue that these things we are discussing: the so-called “Experience”that tells us the Material is immediate, the “Life” of the little boy that will be better colourless than gone, are Immaterial. And if we do, does this make the Immaterial primary, as it is the abstract perspective from which we act?
This is not a road I am prepared to take now. It seems the question is not easily answered by an either/or, since both the Material and Immaterial are equally relevant to us as organisms so evolved.
If the Immaterial is secondary, and the Material primary, what becomes the importance of such things as the realm of ideas, of hope, faith, of God and of the fairies, of words and thoughts? The way we live gives us some relevant clues.
Take the example of Mathematics. It is an Immaterial reality and one of the most powerful tools available to the modern man. The chief importance of Mathematics does not lie in what it is, in and of itself, but how it impacts the Material world. If you have heard people dismiss Pure Mathematics as an abstract game for extremely brilliant people, you have heard them express this sentiment.
Like any abstract system, Mathematics attracts a caste of people who revere it for what it is - an Immaterial reality with the power to enamour those who stare too closely at it. It also surrounds itself with a larger body of people who value it for its usefulness - as a tool with which to modify the Material world. The former group preserves and advances Mathematics, the latter provide the testimony of why it should remain relevant.
Perhaps this is the fate of the Immaterial realities we surround ourselves with. They live and die by their power to attract consecrated adherents, and their utility in the material world. It is easy to swallow this pill when it concerns things as low-risk as language, economic systems, money, dreams and political ideologies. When this is brought into the realm of faith and of God, do we dare tell a similar story?
The world of the subordinate Immaterial is at war - the “marketplace of ideas” looks rather like a battlefield with competing armies winning and losing alliances, evolving to stay alive or running rampant in bursts of conquest. The God of Abraham is at war with a commonwealth of opponents reeling from two millennia of his patriarchal dominion. Just as he ripped apart a beleaguered Judea and then swept through pagan Rome like a virus, overturning thousands of years of crude tradition, he too faces an opponent whose time has come, and whose influence is growing. If my thesis has any merit, this story, however tragic from the Christian’s perspective, is true.
A primarily Immaterial world is not hard to conceive. It is essentially the worldview of the majority of humans, and probably has been for the longest time. This may be because it is instinctive: and though that instinct may be misguided, our own rational enquiry into the nature of our world tells us that we were not far from the mark.
The difficulty of the Immaterial is that it is essentially made-up. If the concept of reality I looked at earlier has any merit, it speaks to this fundamental property of the Immaterial. If the assertion that the laws we have discovered have now replaced the gods we had made is true, we must only look beneath the facade of reality as it exists to us to discover its underlying arbitrariness that hints of deliberate design, whichever way it is cut. And this leads to those questions that have been asked and have remained unanswered for millenia.
The most truthful representation of the primarily Immaterial world I can see is as tragic as the primarily Material was a few paragraphs ago. It appears that we inhabit a Material sliver of concreteness, perpetually surrounded by the incomprehensible Immaterial, from which we take our being and to which we will return. And we are completely subordinate to this world we hardly see through, like men stranded on a narrow shore assaulted by an eternal storm that tosses the sea against their little haven, taunting them with the profound, always reminding them that they are of no consequence.
And this is the basis of our religious instinct, that, under the mastery of such powerful things, we rightly reply reverently to the cry of God through the darkness of our existence.
Examined one way, the demon at my bedside is a useful fiction conjured by my brain at a time when I was waking up: a vision of no material consequence, but real enough that it should cause me enough concern and perhaps, lead me to modify my behaviour in whatever way will prevent it from making another appearance in the future.
Examined the other way, my uncouth visitor was another glimpse into what lies out there, and in my blindness, I must tread this small plain of my existence carefully, lest I encounter something even more dreadful than the beady-eyed dwarf with his lethal mallet.
It is almost a month since that night and the following morning, and I am yet to pick my poison.
[a] Are we to take spirits as analogues to behaviour patterns?