I know something about rabbit holes. I've been down quite a few -- of the psychedelic variety and otherwise.
Graduating from high school in 1966, I headed to college in the San Francisco Bay area just at the time Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane wrote "White Rabbit." I still get a chill up my spine (tiny LSD flashback?) when I watch a video of her singing it.
Speaking as a proud Flower Child babyboomer, Man, they don't make music like this anymore. Suffer through the brief ad at the start. Two and a half minutes of Jefferson Airplane are worth it.
This morning I got to thinking about how far down the rabbit hole it is possible to go while reading a terrific chapter in David E. Cooper's "The Measure of Things: Humanism, Humility, and Mystery," a book I blogged about several days ago.
Cooper's philosophically dense, but always stimulating, book examines the extreme humanistic notion that man is the measure of all things. Extreme, because taken literally it posits that "there is no discurable way the world anyway is, independently of human perspective and interest."
Existentialism takes this idea and runs with it. Sometimes a long ways down the rabbit hole.
If it is up to us to choose what life is all about, if existence precedes essence, if there is no solid objectively real foundation to the cosmos we can stand on, then seemingly we enter a whirlpool realm of absurdity, nausea, no exit's, angst, and a lot of strong coffee consumed while smoking filterless cigarettes in Paris coffee houses, talking about the meaningful meaninglessness of life.
And yet... Cooper says that it really isn't possible to live that far down the rabbit hole. At least, not without going certifiably insane.
Almost all humanists, along with non-monotheistic "faiths" like Advaita and Buddhism, embrace compensations that stop them from falling all the way down into the depths of nothing matters because there is nothing to lean on, not even Nothing.
Cooper argues for the near-necessity of compensations in various ways. Here's how he speaks about one way non-believers in an absolute objective reality, religious or scientific, compensate for the loss of being sure about the world "anyway is."
As inveterately teleological creatures, human beings need to view substantial stretches of their activity as having significance. (I use 'significance' as a portmanteau term for what we want such stretches to possess -- point, worth, meaning, importance, the distinction of mattering, and so on.)
Typically, at least, to assign significance to an activity is to display its appropriate connection with -- say its contribution to -- something beyond itself that then serves as a source of its significance: a wider project, perhaps, that provides measure for the activity.
This is why activity is typically regarded as devoid of significance when perceived as so limited and enclosed as to fail appropriately to connect up with anything beyond itself.
...There is little doubt, surely, that a final source is sought, or simply assumed to reside, 'beyond the human' -- in , say, an independent, discursable order of facts.
...The thesis of 'the human world', once 'deeply cultivated', turns out to be one with which human beings cannot live. If our need for answerability is to be satisfied, human life must indeed answer to something beyond itself.
l agree. I'm reminded of my first LSD trip, circa 1968.
A friend experienced in "tripping" took LSD along with me, to be my guide down the rabbit hole where reality As We Know It fades away. Soon, though, I'd convinced him that we had gone crazy.
Not just temporarily. Permanently.
After discussing what life for us was going to be like from now on (we remembered taking LSD, but couldn't fathom ever not being in our current state of consciousness), we reached a fairly satisfying conclusion:
Crazy is good. Yes, we had gone off the deep end. But, hey, it's nice paddling around in those weird waters.
This fits with Cooper's thesis. My friend and I had entered a LSD-created mental world where anything was possible; what we were experiencing was what there was; like Grace Slick sang, "logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead."
And yet... we couldn't handle the idea that we'd entered a completely topsy-turvy world. Our strong inclination was to talk things out and arrive at an understanding that we weren't in a genuine Nowhere Land, we had just entered a realm where things were going to be crazily dependably good.
Cooper gives examples of how "Asian" traditions (not always literally Asian, but within that philosophical framework) compensate for the lack of absolutism found in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other "this is how things are" traditions.
If humanism is the thesis that there is no discurable way the world anyway is, independently of human perspective and interest, then Samkara was a humanist. For while he thinks there is an independent, absolute reality, brahman, this is not discursable.
...The important point in the present context is that the doctrine of brahman is a good example of one that 'compensates' for the thesis of 'the human world'. Samkara's view is that that thesis would be unendurable without the further compensating doctrine.
...In the Advaitin case, as we know, compensation comes in the shape of the doctrine of brahman. In appreciating that 'all that we can see...is not real in itself', the enlightened person also enjoys a sense of 'the reality behind everything'.
While this reality is strictly ineffable, he or she knows it to be, if only in extended senses of the terms, 'truth, consciousness and bliss (satchitananda). Life then has its point -- the effort to identify with this reality -- and the world is saved from being merely a dream that passes us by.