January 27, 2007 Self Improvement

Overcoming Symbol Sickness vs The Virus of Faith

Richard Dawkins presents and interesting idea in Viruses of the Mind and The Root of All Evil? in which a believer (amongst other things):

is impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn’t seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, the believer feels as totally compelling and convincing.

The believer typically makes a positive virtue of faith’s being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based upon evidence.

There is a conviction that “mystery,” per se, is a good thing; the belief that it is not a virtue to solve mysteries but to enjoy them and revel in their insolubility. – Wikipedia

After a lot of Alan Watts and Zen in general I think there might be a connection to some of these ideas:

We are sick with fascination for the useful tools of names and numbers, of symbols, signs, conceptions and ideas. Meditation is therefore the art of suspending verbal and symbolic thinking for a time, somewhat as a courteous audience will stop talking when a concert is about to begin. – Alan Watts

Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary! The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head’s effect. This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat.
       The cat wasn’t born as a head which, some time later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece, a head-tailed cat. Our observer’s trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn’t see the whole cat at once.
       The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way in which we look at life by conscious attention, for when we attend to something we ignore everything else. Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together–as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam. Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of thc wold after another, and one feature after another. And where there are no features, only space or uniform surfaces, it somehow gets bored and searches about for more features. Attention is therefore something like a scanning mechanism in radar or television, and Norbert Wiener and his colleagues found some evidence that there is a similar process in the brain.
       But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bigs, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.
       We also speak of attention as noticingIt seems that we notice through a double process in which the first factor is a choice of what is interesting or important. The second factor, working simultaneously with the first, is that we need a notation for almost anything that can be noticed. Notation is a system of symbols–words, numbers, signs, simple images (like squares and triangles), musical notes, letters, ideographs (as in Chinese), and scales for dividing and distinguishing variations of color or of tones. Such symbols enable us to classify our bits of perception. They are the labels on the pigeonholes into which memory sorts them, but it is most difficult to notice any bit for which there is no label. Eskimos have five words for different kinds of snow, because they live with it and it is important to them. But the Aztec language has but one word for snow, rain, and hail. - Alan Watts The Game of Black and White

Our idea of the Lord God, as we shall see, is different from the Hindu idea. You notice that Hindu images of the divinities usually have many arms, and that is because they are conceived of as sort of cosmic centipedes. The centipede does not think how to use each leg, just as you don’t think how to use every nerve cell in your nervous system. They just seem to use themselves; they work automatically. Well, many things working automatically together is the Hindu idea of omnipotence, whereas our idea is more technical. The person in supreme control would have to know how he does every single thing. You would ask, “God, how do you create rabbits?” as if he doesn’t just pull them out of hats like a stage magician but actually knows in every detail down to the last molecule or subdivision thereof how it is done and could explain it.
Hindus would say that if you ask God, “How do you make a rabbit?” he would say, “That is no problem at all-I just become it.” “Well, how do you become it?” “Well, you just do it, like you open your hand or close it. You just do it. You don’t have to know how in words.” What we mean by understanding and explaining things is being able to put them into words. We do that first by analyzing them into many bits. In the same way, when you want to measure the properties of a curve, which is complicated, in order to say how that curve is shaped, you have to reduce it to tiny points and measure them. So you put a grid of graph paper across, and by telling the position on the graph of where the curve is at every point, you get an accurate description of what that curve is, or how it is, in scientific terms. That is what we mean when we talk about understanding things, but obviously there is another sense of “to understand.” You understand how to walk even if you can’t explain it, because you can do it. Can you drive a car? Yes. How do you drive a car? If you could put it into words, it might be easier to teach people how to do it in the first place, but one understands and learns many things about driving a car that are never explained in words. You just watch somebody else do it, and you do the same thing. - Alan Watts The Philosophies of Asia

And this is the great problem of Western civilization, not only of Western civilization, but really all
civilization, because what civilization is, is a very complex arrangement in which we have used symbols –
that is to say words, numbers, figures, concepts to represent the real world of nature, like we use money
to represent wealth, and like we measure energy with the clock. Or like we measure with yards or with
inches. These are very useful measures. But you can always have too much of a good thing, and can so
easily confuse the measure with what you are measuring; the money with the wealth; or even the menu
with the dinner. And at a certain point, you can become so enchanted with the symbols that you entirely
confuse them with the reality.
    And this is the disease from which almost all civilized people are suffering. We are therefore in
the position of eating the menu instead of the dinner, of living in a world of words, symbols and
are therefore very badly related to our material surroundings. - Alan Watts Time and Eternity

More directly to the point it seems to me that along the way some people may have gotten confused about not being able to explain and conceptualize.  They may have misunderstood and faith was born.

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