If you have ever felt like you are living more than one life at the same time there are reasons for this. The usual suspects include social role conflict, serial relationships both at home and at work, and the transitions between life phases. But there is a deeper structure to our diverse sensibilities, and this has to do with the structure of consciousness, no less. Structures, plural, should we say, as there have been three types of metaphysics known to human existence. Their appearance is associated with the kind of social organization and subsistence pattern followed by respective human groups.
Transformational metaphysics hails from the period of ‘social contract’ societies; small groups, intensive hunting and gathering, pastoralism, and horticulture. Here, humans and animals interact intimately in a spiritual realm. One’s ‘animal spirit’ is a commonplace idea. Forces of nature and other kinds of objects also embody spirits. The level of abstraction and metaphor is low. Such relations are to be taken more or less literally. Upon death, one’s soul cycles back into the group at hand with little delay. Time is static and thinking practical.
Transcendental metaphysics is the hallmark of large-scale intensive agrarian societies. It is familiar in the doctrines of the religions that survive from that historical period. The gods are either personifications or abstractions, their communications with us are metaphoric and upon death, the soul is evaluated, either returning to embody some unlike form or never coming back, destined to dwell in some other realm. Time is cyclical and thought mythical.
Anti-transcendental metaphysics is the dominant mode of consciousness at present, and its recent advent is associated with industrial states and the rise of science. It is literalist, ‘realist’, and rationalist in its outlook. There are no gods or other realms of being, and no soul. Upon death, it is one’s material form that returns to the cosmos but it does so most modestly. Time is linear and thought ‘logocentric’, or linguistic.
All of this is old hat, but if you reflect on your own personal beliefs, which ones hail from which of the three forms of metaphysics? Often enough, each of us harbors an unquiet mix of unkempt beliefs and passions. One of many examples would include the sectarian person who is a creationist but drives a vehicle based on the same science that states evolution as a fact. We don’t generally even attempt a cohesive and coherent world view at the level of the individual, and we probably shouldn’t. More on this later on.
But at the cultural level it is a different story. Witness, for lack of a better term, the ‘naked kidnapping’ case from Alberta, where four sectarians abducted their neighbours, hoping to save them from the apocalypse. What next, you say? The two teenage daughters were arrested but not charged, which was reasonable. Indeed, if a church were to send naked teenage girls to our homes to ‘save us’ I wonder if many men would not in fact go rather quietly. But the prelude to paradise, perchance? That aside, such an event was inevitably interpreted by the psychopathology of the day as an aberration, and that the family suffered a rare form of shared delusion, in other words, something diagnosable.
No, no, and no. What occurred cannot be so simply dismissed at such a personalist level. This, and other less piquant episodes, are rather the symptoms of a conflict of metaphysical narratives. Transcendental metaphysics initiates the idea of history, yes, but also the end of history, the end of time. This event, the most important in this version of human consciousness, translates what already occurs to the dead into the world of the living. We are to be judged as we stand before a god; and naked, by the way. What occurs ‘after’ this is neither history nor time, but some other form of Being to be announced in its detail to those worthy of redemption. The naked family’s intents, by their own normative rubrics, were of the very best standard. They do not suffer from a mental illness, shared delusion, or criminal passion.
What they are, are anachronists, real ones, unlike the thespians who dabble in Renaissance fairs and the like, and cannot by definition be considered to be like most of the rest of us in any important way. They have, in fact, managed to construct a more coherent set of beliefs and intents – though they drove their unwilling victims off in a BMW SUV no less – than the average ‘normal’ person. But for this feat of self-coherence they pushed themselves so far off the spectrum of the everyday they cannot but be shunned and now, medicalized as well. Fine, we might say to ourselves, the rest of us have to live in the real world so also should they.
This reaction too is incorrect. Like a Pauline figure, the anachronist asks us ‘what is our world, after all’? What is the ‘everyday’ made of, and why? Why do we expect that the future is not only open-ended but also indefinite? How can human judgement be objective when the world is so diverse? How can one know what the right thing is? In a word, such a person questions both our metaphysics and our ethics and is, ironically, kindred to the thinker and culture critic. Now the philosopher does not abduct people, let alone doing so in the buff. Nevertheless, the questions themselves remain and they cannot be dismissed by mere psychologism, even if such persons appear to be so.
In anti-transcendental metaphysics right and wrong, good and evil, are irrelevant. Correct and incorrect, and perhaps even good and bad, yes. The first is based upon the mathematical sciences and the second on an humanistic ethics. These are the foremost tools of human reason available to us as moderns and they are impressive. Even so, the questions they allow us to ask of ourselves are quite different than those someone hailing from another metaphysics would ask, and indeed, would have us ask. Just so, we cannot know with certainty the outcomes of our ethical actions, nor is infinite certitude available to our evolutionary cosmology. We live in a godless, finite world of often cynical politics and self-absorbed hedonism; a world not entirely unlike that which Paul imagined himself confronting.
Which brings out both the sense and sensibility of the sectarian line: If the world seems threatening, then why live as we do? Why not change the world, why not save ourselves? This question has its origins in eschatological thought, that which promotes a self-understanding in the light of divine reason and the end of history. A ‘Kairos’, or arbitrary and yet decisive starting point, a moment where the world ends and a new world commences, is at the heart of the environmentalist, peace, women’s and subaltern movements. These quintessentially recent social critiques seek to both save us and begin a different kind of world. They are also immensely practical, for the end of life on earth seems to be a most impractical development. So how ‘modern’ are they, after all? The same question may be asked of ourselves as human beings.
In fact, these recent ideas are as mixed a bag as almost everything else human history brings to the table each morning. Their presence and their diversity argue forcefully that we should not attempt to be overly and overtly consistent within any one of the three metaphysical forms. The hard-nosed rationalist misses the mark existentially, the sectarian finds pragmatism incomprehensible, and the practical-minded communitarian forgets the larger picture and thus as well cannot accede to the cosmic question. If it is true that human consciousness has undergone three sea-changes over a period of some half a million years or so – its very origin, its shift into agrarian thought, and its recent upshift into that technical and scientific – it may be equally true that we as living human beings carry bits and pieces of all three around within our just as living and present consciousness.
So I am going to gently suggest that we remember to ask the questions a being from some other guise of ‘human nature’ would ask. Just so, those few who remain amongst us but appear as anachronistic must be introduced to the questions we moderns have invented and must, with increasing and dramatic urgency, respond to. This last is the metaphysical underpinning to any psychotherapy the two daughters from Alberta will no doubt now undergo; likely years of it, given that they stated they thought the RCMP officers were demons attempting to drag them to hell. No doubt as well, Freud and his followers have been called the devil often enough. However that may be, and whatever the outcome of such ‘rehabilitation’, unless we take seriously the critique of consciousness that emanates from the entire history of that self-same consciousness we may well be doomed in a much more literal manner than any sectarian had ever the literary flair to imagine.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books on ethics, religion, aesthetics,
and social theory, as well as metaphysical epic fiction.