Saturday, February 13, 2010

Gregory Bateson: Atheist Prophet Of The Sacred

The following, starting with the story of the oak beams, is a collection of Gregory Bateson quotes. Bateson was a fourth or fifth generation atheist, fascinated by the sacred.

By default, I guess I'm an atheist, but I imagine there's a high correlation between atheism and Asperger's Syndrome, and I'm fairly empathetic. I wonder what is sacred, and what do we owe to it? Is there anything more important? It must be timeless, and unchanging. Esthetics and ethics must square with it, and those are definitely situational. Bateson seemed to understand.

The teachings of traditional religions become mere metaphors, from an informed 21st century perspective. An expanding universe, evolution, and a periodic table of the elements, filled in like a crossword puzzle, are the beginnings of a hard-won global understanding of existence. Archaeological and anthropological reconstruction of scripture's anecdote, show us the feet of clay, or even emptiness where we had imagined footsteps. We analyze scripture itself for vocabulary and diction to identify and date its authors. How far did Jesus have to ascend before he got to heaven?

Here is a story that Gregory Bateson told.

New College Oxford is of rather late foundation, hence the name, It was probably founded around the late 16th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top, yes? These might be eighteen inches square, twenty feet long.

Some five to ten yars ago (circa 1960), so I am told, some busy entomologists went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife, and poked at the beams, and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays.

One of the junior fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be non College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the College itself for some years, and asked about the oaks.

And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well, sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the college was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became bettly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for four hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the Colege hall.”

A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.


I surrender to the belief that my knowing is a small part of a wider integrated knowing that knits together the entire biosphere or creation.


Love is contrary to conscious common sense, because love involves the total systemic mind.


We never see in consciousness that the mind is like an ecosystem -- a self-corrective network of circuits. We see only the arcs of these circuits. And the instinctive vulgarity of scientists consists precisely in mistaking those arcs for the larger truth, i. e., thinking that because what is seen by consciousness has one character, the total mind must have that character.


Magic is what the vulgar and purposive consciousness snipped out of religion.


The point is that even before modern technology, something had to be done about the innate split between consciousness and the rest of mind, because the unaided consciousness would always wreck human relations.


Religion is what they did.


Because the unaided consciousness must always combine the wisdom of the dove with the harmlessness of the serpent.


Here is “The Garden of Eden” -- the myth in biblical form (as is so oftent he case) upside down. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge, an apple high on the tree. They had to place one box on top of another to reach it. They then ate it -- the sweet reward of a successful short-sighted scheme, consciously planned. This made them drunk with partial arrogance.

The arrogance was partial in the sense that what they were arrogant about was that miniscule part of themselves which achieved the consicous plan (no arrogance is total)”

In this arrogance, they threw out all the rest of themselves -- thus breaking up the total systemic thing they called “mind.”

I. e., they threw god out of the garden.


After that, the ecosystem of the garden got out of kilter -- because God is the inner and outer systemic character of everything -- mind and garden. So they said, “It’s a vengeful god.”


Cain was, appropriately enough, an inventor. He invented agriculture. God (Cain’s total systemic mind, or the systemic human ecosystem in which Cain lived) refused the cabbages which Cain sacrificed. God then told Cain that Abel loved him (Cain). “His desire shall be unto thee, and thou shalt rule over him.” (c. f. the curse on Eve in the previous chapter -- “Thy desire shall be unto thy husband and he shall rule over thee.”) This was the last straw because love is precisely that to which the pragmatic headstrong purposive consciousness must be allergic.


Eve began to resent the process of coition and reproduction, which always somehow reminded her of that larger life which Adam had sacrificed in order to buy her a washing machine -- which she had asked for.


The lineal arguments of human purpose necessarily conflict with the cybernetic arguments of physiology, sociology, and ecology, and that therefore, following his purposes, man almost ineveitably messes up his own physiology, social sytem, and ecology.


I suggest that one of the things man has done through the ages to correct for his shortsighted purposiveness is to imagine personified entities with various sorts of supernatural powers, i. e., gods. These entities, being fictitious persons, are more or less endowed with cybernetic and circuit characteristics.

In a word, I suggest that the supernatural entities of religion are in some sort, cybernetic models built into the larger cybernetic system, in order to correct for non-cybernetic computation in part of that system.


We shall have to ask, for example, what sort of corrective is introduced into an otherwise purposive system by the Mass.


Von said...

Love it! Tradition, respect, preserving the ancient but not tugging the forelock!

Tom Roark said...

Well, it was fifty years ago.