Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Innocence and Experience

Who are you? When I ask my Golden Retriever, Sam, that question, the only answer I get from him is his typical smile and gleam that make him look like he's waking up to Christmas morning- for the eighth time today! Let's go back to you though: If you were to rewind what played out in your mind in the brief time it took you to read my account of Sam, what will you see? What ever its contents, you probably experienced something akin to a bb's impact of a windshield where its impact sets off a random crazing; each line zig-zagging you through holidays, pets, adjacent meanings and maybe even a new connection of insight. Unpacking your moment in this way, shows you that these moments exist like genes: unraveled, they're thousands of times bigger! Welcome to World; and like Dorothy you're not in Kansas any more.

That is to say, you don't just exist in environment any more. Put into the poetic language of Genesis and the Garden of Eden, my dog Sam still lives in the Garden: I don't. And neither do you. Sam inhabits a place of Innocence. Ours is the place of Experience.

So what is this place that we inhabit? Why have we thought of our place as a fallen one? Why is Experience so difficult compared to Innocence? What do these questions have to do with physics, quantum or otherwise? Why does the Canada Goose, though gliding along water- moments from ice, under grey skies bombarding it with sleet, make its existence of dunking its head for green bits, make life look so easy? Why can't we, no matter how hard we try, revert to the way-of-being exemplified by a simple goose? Why can't we, now that we have World, go back to Nature?

Composing thousands of years ago, before writing came into existence, the poets behind the Garden story, told of the gates which bar human kind from returning to the garden, as being guarded by God's servants with flaming swords. Re-entry, no matter how desolate we feel in our "expulsion", is for ever out of the question. In a very real way, when I pet Sam, I'm reaching through steel bars when I do so. He lives in a realm of Innocence; You and I live in the realm of Experience.

We can't let words like God and Evolution detract us from the real issue at hand: we live through World and we can't go back to living through Nature; that is, we can't go back to the life of Sam or Canada Geese. Like it or not, we are stuck in Experience, and any attempt out of it by way of escaping into Innocence is for ever barred.

If we are to understand what it is to ultimately be Human, we have to grasp what it is to live in Experience- through World and not Nature. You are not an object, you are a world: the bb's impact shows you that. This world-ness of our existence is full of implications that cannot be mastered or even understood by forms of measurement- the language of science. We have to employ the methods of the Poet as well.

So we haven't left our discussion of Faith; we are only bringing into the spotlight, the context of our Human Complexity to better understand how Faith fits into the life of Experience.

What are your thoughts so far?


  1. Although I think you're right that we are to a significant extent governed by our experience and that innocence is inaccessible, I want to distinguish, albeit carefully, between memory and our use of memory. To some extent we have no control of what we remember, but to some extent we make decisions to remember one thing instead of another because we believe it will be useful in the future. When we memorize something, consciously or unconsciously, the way we do it, and the relationships it has for us when we do it, to some extent controls our future use of it.

    It feels to me that I can more flexibly use what I have remembered than other people, but there is a desperate cost, which is that I cannot use what I know quickly. It's as if I have a relatively undifferentiated mass of data, through which I have to search forever until I find what I want, whereas other people put things into memory ready sorted, so it's easy to do rat run kinds of things. I'm not claiming that my head works better --- indeed I regularly curse my inability to remember vital things quickly enough --- only that it makes a significant difference to what sort of things my memory is useful for.

    There is an uncomfortable meta-level to this account, which is that although memory might be relatively unstructured, there is also the question of how memorized our ways of using memory are. If we structure our ways of using a relatively unstructured memory enough, it becomes as inflexible as if the memory has the structure. Furthermore, I'm unclear, from this introspection at least, how well I understand my ways of thinking about my memory, whereas I have a relatively clearer idea of what basic facts I know. Most of the process, I suppose, is below being noted by conscious thought. There is, I suppose, also a strong sense of what I know how to find out, what dictionaries, encyclopedias, web-sites, and whatever else I might use to satisfy a given need for data. I have a librarian friend who knows that kind of search strategy immaculately.

    What does this have to do with innocence? I would say that memory that is relatively unstructured is relatively innocent. Dogs remember that they get treats for certain behavior, and act more or less instantly once such pathways are triggered. Complex or sophisticated ways of storing memories and complex or sophisticated ways of using memories, however, make huge differences to our behavior and our reasoning about our behavior.

    I think we can to some extent recover innocence by deciding not to use complex strategies, if we make an effort to understand what strategies we use. As a more-or-less visceral example, it requires careful use of memory to get away with lying as a routine behavior to get what we want, whereas not lying does not have as much need for us to remember what we said. But this puts Behavior in the mix with Experience, and I suppose that brings me back to my harping on commitment and what we do as the active part of Faith, as well as our internal lives. I'm by no means an outright behaviorist, but I feel that what we say and do is as telling as what is inside, unsaid. Interestingly, the behaviorist can sometimes draw quite compelling conclusions about how we remember from delays in our responses to different kinds of stimulus-response pairs.

  2. Peter, I think your thinking about memory here, is important. It's not just that I have more memory capacity than my dog, it's something wholly different in terms of quality.

    An interesting thinker that I'll be getting to is John Ralston Saul, who argues that we interact with reality through our qualities (as opposed to only drives and instincts), and one source of our suffering today is that we have made reason the dictator and marginalized the rest of our qualities, which he lists as: common sense, imagination, intuition, ethics, reason and MEMORY. He's calling for us to put reason back in dynamic tension with our other qualities, as each quality has its own needed capability for participating fully in reality.

    He devotes a chapter to each quality and begins his chapter on memory with this line:

    "Memory isn't a repository for things that happened long ago, it's the water we swim through."

    I've come to feel memory as a quality in the same way we have felt reason. And if reason is our quality that thinks and argues, then memory is our quality that forms the myriad of information into our meaningful whole; it has the attributes of an architect as it literally re-members "pickup sticks" into a meaningful superstructure on which to assemble our world view. Even when we're not trying to stow a phone number, memory is at work.

    I think what we're pointing to, is that there is something substantial to memory that involves something more than tricks to help us recall data.

  3. On a more humorous note, I struggle with quick responses in conversation at times for the reason you mention. When I explain to someone new to me that my pauses stem from having to choose from ten ideas that show up at once, they usually nod in relief. :)

  4. I'm interested in hearing about Saul.

    I think our self-reflective abilities are responsible for shearing away the innocence you bring up. We are constantly churning over memories and integrating them with experience and new ideas thought patterns. At least some of us are doing this, anyway.

    It's a turbulent environment to exist in! Which is why people tend to duck out to maintain the patterns and customs that they have deemed good and fine.

    Maybe that's why our self-reflective ability is often looked at as a fall. Because cultures generally support this fearful response of ducking out.

    We have come into this incredible gift - our conscious abilities - yet we profane them because we haven't figured out how to live with it progressively.

    So, strangely enough, an increase in capacity and capability has come to be viewed as negative - because we haven't mastered it yet.

    Sorry to digress somewhat, but the 'fall from a perfect state' concept is so very strange. Really not sure what to make of it.

  5. Stephen, the "fall scenario" is strange indeed. Its development I'd say stems from coupling the Genesis poetry with Platonic philosophy. For me as I seek to understand the expression of Christ in our modern cosmology, what changes is that now I see Earth as a fulfilling reach of "God's" hope rather than a fall from a platonic ideal.

    So instead of Christ existing as one who atones for a fall, I see Him as one who embodied the heart of God and leads into a courage of being- and into Experience. I see the crucifixion as a lynching carried out by those whom Jesus threatened.

    When you mention Saul, are you referring to the Jewish king or the Jewish Rabbi? I like all the thinking you're doing btw. :)

  6. Oh I just meant John Raston Saul, who you mentioned earlier, haha.

    I see the value in Christianity residing mostly in the character of Christ; his care and unselfishness.

    Crossed with the perspective of evolution, Christ represents a definite statement in human history, a turning point even, where we've decided that being unselfish is a good thing.

    I like the image you wrote about in describing memory. Sometimes I forget that just taking an observational perspective on mental processes is pretty awe-inspiring.