Monday, March 29, 2010

Fascinating Parallels

Those who read very obscure books and have the stomach for extraordinarily outlandish ideas—such people sometimes stumble across fascinating parallels.

To maintain, for instance, that there are choirs of angels that concern themselves exclusively with kidney functions most people would dismiss as beyond—and I mean way beyond—the pale. Yet Emanuel Swedenborg offers this idea in all seriousness not only in his Heaven and Hell, which he intended for the general public, but also in his Arcana coelestia (Heavenly Secrets) intended for the learned. Swedenborg arrives at this idea because he learned, in his contacts with the heavenly realm that—

It is an arcanum still unknown in the world that heaven reflects a single person if it is fully grasped, but in the heavens this is most common knowledge. Knowing this even in specifics and details is a specialty of the understanding of angels there. Many things follow from it, things which cannot be crisply and clearly conceptualized without this as their pervasive first principle. Since angles know that all of the heavens—even all of their communities—reflect a single person, they actually call heaven “the Greatest and Divine Man.” The term “Divine” is used because the Lord’s Divine makes heaven. [Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, VIII, §59]
Such ideas are jarring unless you get used to them—gradually. John von Neumann once said, and his quip applies elsewhere too, “In mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” So let’s get used to the idea, for the moment, anyway. You can discard this, if you like, after you’ve absorbed the message here, namely that the heavens are organized “organically” into communities of angels that relate to Swedenborg’s “Grand Man,” the higher reality—and that what is in heaven has direct correspondences down here on earth. As above, so below, we might say, echoing Hermes.

With that, let me go on to the archangels of Mazdaism. In the theology of that religion we encounter, first of all, heavenly counterparts to every living individual here on earth; they are the fravartis—and if you’re reading this, Zoroastrians would say that you have a fravarti too. We also have, above them, holy beings, spentas, archangels, who have charge over—and importantly also act as guides for—humanity, animals, plants, fire and light (we might say energy), minerals, earth, and water. I learned of these matters in Henry Corbin’s Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth. That book contains a summary of the cosmology of Mazdaism. The formulation is much more ancient than Swedenborg’s, to be sure; Mazdaism, indeed, has been classified as the oldest known higher religion of humanity. Old it is, but the structure of this cosmology is functionally very similar to Swedenborg’s—and like Swedenborg’s correspondences between a material and a heavenly reality, we also find, in Mazdaism, the notion of interacting realms or dimensions a higher one above guiding and constituting the lower. The difference is that Mazdaism conceives of the upper realm as an infinite column of light rather than as a “Grand Man.” The column of light enfolds the heavens—and their mountains, rivers, waterfalls, plains, cities, and habitations. There too, as above, so below—but in the lower realm another column, of infinite darkness, is mixing with the light. And we, engaged in the work of the creation, will either succeed individually or descend into the darkness if we’re tempted by its allurements.

Now to complete this picture, I would offer the proposals of Rupert Sheldrake, a modern, living scientist. Sheldrake is a biologist. Sheldrake suggests that undetectable morphic fields exist and correspond to all material phenomena. They contain the forms and patterns of the material, not simply statically but dynamically as well, thus they also hold patterns of motion and behavior. And these fields are alive in the sense that they can and do change over time. They are a cosmic memory. And all things are in active contact with these fields at all times. We thus have a scheme that parallels Mazdaism: not only living entities but inorganic stuff also takes its guidance, as it were, from vast accumulations of highly organized banks of memory, the morphic fields. Fields exist at all levels and are hierarchically arranged. There would thus be a morphic field specific to mammals as well as for, say, rabbits and people, the latter fields hierarchically beneath the field for mammals. And above the field for mammals would be a more general field for all living entities. The interesting parallel here is that this undetectable but physical reality is proposed as a naturalistic explanation forced on us by looking at matter. We infer these fields from what we see on the ground—and we need the fields as a hypothesis in order to explain certain categories of events that, thus far, we cannot reduce to a chemical or a mechanical sets of causes. The embryo’s development is usually cited as an example. Our science has not been able, thus far, to offer what might be a hard chemico-mechanical explanation for the changes we actually behold.

Sheldrake’s most relevant works here are A New Science of Life. The Hypothesis of Formative Causation and Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature.

Swedenborg’s proposals, and Mazdaism, too, for that matter, are dismissed as outdated religious mumbo-jumbo. We’re beyond such things today. Sheldrake is dismissed on the grounds of parsimony, chopped away by Occam’s razor. Modern science says it doesn’t need yet another level of explanation. Just wait until we’ve figured things out the hard way, by patient experiment. All right. But that view—alongside the earlier mumbo-jumbo dismissal—depends on a hard commitment to the notion of materialism and its consequent affirmation of the meaninglessness of existence.

People like me don’t wish to make that commitment. And for those who don’t, the ideas sketched in here—just enough to become visible—can take on a certain level of interest. To delve deeper, of course, means to endure trials and tribulations not unlike those that science is condemned to accept. But these may lead to insight; those of science promise more of the same old, same old until the sun burns out.

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