Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sheep and Goats

Does humanity really divide into the sheep and the goats? I think so. I don’t think the concept controversial. What I have in mind here is the difference between believers and scoffers. There is a phenomenon in parapsychology called the Sheep-Goat Effect. Those inclined to believe in the psychic experience it more and score in tests above average; goats score below average. The phenomenon is well proved.

I don’t doubt the phenomenon; what interests me more is how to explain it. The classification reminds me of William James’ distinctions between the healthy- and the sick-minded, meaning roughly the same thing as “goat” and “sheep” respectively—the well-adapted and the sickly sensitive. The sickly-minded are more likely to be intensely religious; the classification appears in James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. If we define reality as simply the world of stimulus and response, being adapted to it is much favored in our secular age. In religious times, being in harmony with God matters more. Realistic adaptation is the hall-mark of Freud’s mental health, the core of Darwinism, neo and otherwise. To be sure, if you can’t breathe, there is little else to talk—or think—about. Adaptation to the world is a good thing, as Martha Stewart might say. And healthy adaptation makes perfect sense if our criterion of value is physical survival for as long as possible. This model might be “collectivized” to make it a little more descriptive of what we really see. What we see is people willing to sacrifice themselves for the collective good, not least in the profession of arms. Modernity sees genetic engineering behind this behavior. We’re chemically programmed to be altruistic; sociobiology has spoken. Darwinism can explain virtually anything by simply invoking the invisible hand of Survival.

But here I demur. Survival needs justification. Translated into plain English Darwinism says that matter in one form strives to maintain itself by persisting and reproduction. The doctrine doesn’t explain why this is so. If its proponents claim merely to be descriptive, they’re not descriptive enough. Why would something that can’t be destroyed in the first place strive so hard to maintain extremely complex forms of itself? Survival as such lacks meaning. The word demands a qualifier, as in survival for what? A roses is a rose is a rose? Ultimately this means that the goats, so-called, adhere to an excessively primitive form of belief. What you see is what you get, they say. They feel no need to explain the strangeness of the world. Not feeling any need, they don’t. All right.

But this gives me a vector of approach. Indeed in parapsychology (if not in religious thought) the sheep and goats simply behave in a certain way; parapsychology does not say that sheep will to believe, scoffers will to doubt. People simply are. Some people are open to psychic reality; others are not. My personal experience confirms this. Interest can’t be compelled. There are those, both sheep and goats, who actively promote their point of view, eager to persuade those who don’t share it: the missionaries of faith and of atheism. I consider these people busybodies, well-meaning but often a pain.

Here is a reasonable hypothesis. Real differences in degree of perception mark different individuals. In effect that seems self-evident. If we wish to give the life-phenomenon some reasonable meaning, we would imagine it is a process of development. Those who sense, feel, perceive, intuit (however vaguely) another dimensionality would, of course, appear from a certain perspective to be sickly, in the Jamesian sense. They are looking out of this world rather than being busy about its laundry and dry-cleaning. From the perspective of the process itself, however, they may be healthier in that they are beginning to adapt to their future environment.

I often think of this as dense and open. I picture openness as having, as it were, a hole at the top of my head by means of which I can feel the airs of another reality moving. I don’t see sheep as having and goats as lacking merit. I also see the difference but as only one of degree. Even the densest have some inkling of the zone beyond the border. Nor does sensitivity equal intelligence. Some of the most sensitive people are very stupid, some of the densest very bright. Matters of merit exist on yet another level. The issue is to make the most of the state in which we are. But this view goes a long ways to explaining why it is that humanity divides into camps and why it is so difficult to have a single great system of belief.

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