Beyond Intellect

I posted on my Facebook page the other day a quotation from the famous Robert Oppenheimer (theoretical physicist and to his everlasting regret, one of the “fathers of the atomic bomb”). This goes to show, I suppose, how unsuited I am to Facebook and such as a medium of communication– when others are posting pictures of their pets, and raving about the coffee they had this morning, I still can’t help but want to talk about something substantial!

Anyhow, in contrasting intellect and intuition Oppenheimer had this to say:

“These two ways of thinking, the way of time and history, and the way of eternity and timelessness, are both part of man’s efforts to comprehend the world in which he lives. Neither is comprehended in the other nor reducible to it………each supplementing the other – neither telling the whole story.”

Ideas and concepts are part of the foundation for our understanding of the world. But of course in the physical sciences and in mathematics which have helped us so greatly understand the material universe we find purely perceptual constructions and ideas, that whilst helpful in aiding our understanding, lie beyond the capacity of our physical senses to understand. Nobody has ever observed curved space or felt quanta, for example. The usefulness of these unsensed phenomena is that they can help us accurately predict relationships in the physical world. The physicist and the mathematician do not hold that these ideas necessarily represent any concrete reality, but see them as tools, like a compass, a ruler or numbers, which enable us to handle and measure that reality.

So physics and mathematics have concrete concepts that are useful, but which we can’t connect to with our senses. Intuition on the other hand is something we can experience viscerally but can’t explain logically. This represents the uncomfortable but necessary dichotomy that Oppenheimer relates above.

The incomparable Alan Watts had this to say:

“Spirit, then, is distinguished from nature as the abstract from the concrete, and the things of the spirit are identified with the things of the mind – with the world of thoughts and thought symbols – which are then seen, not as representing the concrete world, but as underlying it.”

It becomes apparent then that language is severely limited in its ability to explain “spirit” or intuition. And of course language itself is serial and linear which renders itself easily as a tool of the rational intellect but can never do holistic intuition justice. Things are separable in words which are inseparable in nature because again quoting Alan Watts “words are counters and classifiers”.

Direct experience is almost impossible to classify. It always results in obtuse language. In Buddhism the direct experience of the concrete world is called ‘suchness’ (tathata). Such experience can not be conveyed by words, it can only be known by sensory perception.

The Eastern wisdom traditions counsel us to ingest such experience in wordless contemplation (kuan). These traditions teach us that just as we need to be silent in order to hear what others have to say, so thought itself must be silent if it is to think about anything other than itself.

Kuan is no more a mind that is merely blank than li, the pattern of the Tao, is a featureless blank. Indeed, as Alan Watts explained, “kuan is not so much a mind empty of contents as a mind empty of mind.” It is mind or perhaps “experiencing” at work without dualism dividing the world into subject and object. Once a subject is created, ego arises and we can no longer see the world just as it is. Once ego intervenes the observed world is always interpreted in a self-serving, defensive way. Using the “love vs fear”model of the good Dr Phil, fear arises and distorts our view of the world.

Eickhart Tolle in “Stillness Speaks” wrote:

“In you as in each human being, there is a dimension of consciousness far deeper than thought. It is the very essence of who you are. We may call it presence, awareness, the unconditioned consciousness. In the ancient teachings it is the Christ within, or your Buddha nature.”

For the intellectual then, the truth about nature is the verbal explanation or reconstruction of the world. This is a logical, deterministic construct that builds up a piecemeal picture of a physical reality and unconsciously seeks to preserve the ego.

For the esoteric, nature is nothing else but the experience itself that needs no words to embellish it. Such experience is received passively. There is no compulsion to explain it, even if we had the means to do so.

In the words of Lao-Tzu:

“The great Tao flows everywhere,
To the left and to the right.
All things depend upon it to exist,
And it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claims.
It loves and nourishes all things,
But does not lord it over them.”

After I had written this a friend sent me a nice little passage written by Bishop John Shelby Spong wherein he attempted to define his concept of God. “Suppose we think of God, not as a being to whom we have to relate, but as a presence that can be experienced, but not defined, a presence understood as the source of life flowing through the universe, the source of love enhancing life in all its forms and the ground of being discovered when we have the courage to grasp and even to be what we most deeply are.”

I was struck by how closely Spong’s definition match the concept of Tao!

Buddhism teaches us that meditation practice enables us to clear the mind so as to experience the world as it is without encumbrance by the self-talk that ego generates. It also teaches that our well-being is enhanced by detachment, such that we can stand apart from the physical world when necessary. The Sufis, from a different tradition altogether taught, (according to Thomas Needham) that we should “be in this world but not of this world”.

Alfred North Whitehead said this:

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception (kuan) of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality.”

I am not here to disparage intellect. It has helped us come to an understanding of the physical world, expanded our understanding of science, created technologies that have improved our material quality of life. But we need to look beyond intellect if we are ever to reconcile ourselves with the true nature of the universe!

8 Replies to “Beyond Intellect”

  1. My FB (facebook for those less familiar with the acronym) comments are often from a genre other than the norm, and attract minimal likes and comments accordingly.

    I find it very interesting to contemplate the theories and ideas promoted by Peter Singer, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Steven Pinker, that attempt to found morality/ethics, selfishness/altruism, free will (or not) consciousness, and language in biology (evolution). That is, a materialist and explicable world view without supernatural/spiritual mystery.

    Without going so far to say that I accept those explanations I do find that such intellectual rigor and thinking causes me to be far more skeptical of spiritual based theories that stem from something other than reason and evidence.

    Ted, with your many years of wisdom and your refining/distilling of philosophical/religious/scientific thinking, I am sure you must have confronted this over and over to reach the understanding/world view that you have.

  2. The same underlying truth exists in all religion. The great men and women of all faiths abandon their religious beliefs in favour of this common truth in the end. The great physicists end up along side them. As Anthony De Mello puts it.

    The Master would insist that the final barrier to our attaining God was the word and concept “God.”
    This so infuriated the local priest that he came in a huff to argue the matter out with the Master.
    “But surely the word ‘God’ can lead us to God?” said the priest.
    “It can,” said the Master calmly.
    “How can something help and be a barrier?”
    Said the Master, “The donkey that brings you to the door is not the means by which you enter the house.”

  3. Rest in peace Father Robin. Although we have never met I feel as if I know you. I will miss your cryptic comments. They were brief, amusing and often insightful. They certainly always made me ponder a little more than I would otherwise.

  4. Matt, thanks for your comment. I don’t find an exclusively physical explanation of the Universe very satisfying. And as I have written in previous blogs, those far more well-versed in science (Bohm, Einstein etc) came to the same conclusion. As I have previously expressed, it seems to me unlikely that we will ever have the capacity to understand the universe in totality directly. That is why I have suggested previously we must give some credence to “other ways of knowing” as the biochemist Darry Reaney once termed it. Most of the major jumps in our knowledge of the world have come from intuitions (right brained process) that we then laboured to explain with serial logic (left brain process). My understanding of the world is as limited as anbody else’s but I must confess it is informed as much by the thinking of mystics as the thinking of scientists. Mind you I would also sound a note of caution. There are many crackpots out there who would have us believe unbelievable things and we need to have the appropriate filters to detect what is wild imaginings from what is truly inspired. But many of the concepts I have come to believe underlie many of the world’s wisdom traditions. Not that I would propose that you should believe something because there are many such believers (eg water divining, the power of crystals, speaking in tongues and so forth). I normally maintain a healthy scepticism. But my intellect can on occasions be led by my intuition and I gain some comfort that great thinkers in both the past and the present have come to similar conclusions.

    Greg, thanks for reminding me of the Anthony De Mello parable. I tried to express a similar thought in Augustus Finds Serenity.

    Takygulpa Rinpoche and his pupil were walking down to the river to fetch water. The Master walked in front and, deferentially, Augustus walked in the rear. It was late afternoon and the forest path was largely bathed in shade. The little Buddhist’s head was full of the teachings of the sage. After a time he spoke to his Master. “Master you have taught me so much that I fear I will struggle to remember all the wisdom you have imparted to me.”

    The sage marched on without turning his head. He smiled but the pupil could not see his smile. In a clipped voice he said. “Good! That is appropriate!”

    Augustus was surprised at this response. He marched on determinedly, with the two empty wooden pails swinging on the ends of the pole slung across his shoulders. “But surely Master, you would not want me to forget the wisdom that you have painstakingly strived to deliver to me over all these years?”

    Takygulpa Rinpoche strode purposefully towards the river. “That you should forget my teaching in the future is a matter of no moment to me.”

    Augustus shook his head. “Sir I do not understand. Are not your teachings valuable?”

    “Oh indeed they are! But they have a specific function.”

    “How do you mean sir?”

    “Well, Augustus, an unenlightened pupil is like a person in a prison. The prison is an enclosure with high walls and the only way that the person might escape the prison is to scale the walls. The teachings I have provided you these many years are like a ladder I have given you to scale those walls. Once you have done this and acquainted yourself with the nature of freedom you will no longer need the ladder. In fact, once the walls have been scaled, carrying the ladder could well prove an impediment to your future progress.”

    “But Master, your teachings have meant so much to me! I would be loath to put them aside.”

    “Then you misunderstand the nature of my instruction.”

    “How so?”

    “My teachings have always been about helping you to understand the nature of the world. They have no inherent value in their own right. If they do not advance this objective they are useless, but once that objective has been achieved they have little more purpose. Once you have scaled that prison wall and see the world as it is, there is no reason why you should cling to the lessons. We teach a child the alphabet so they might read. Once they can read, reciting the alphabet is largely a waste of time.”

    Augustus mused on this for a while. “But sir you tell me that your teachings are like a ladder to help me scale the walls that constrain me. Won’t there be other walls to scale?”

    “Perhaps – but more than likely the next obstacle you will confront will be a swamp or a river or a desert. Carrying a ladder on your back will prove a great impediment when you confront these.”

    Thanks also to all of you who have phoned and e-mailed to express your sorrow in the passing of Father Robin. You will all have to increase a little your irreverence and confronting humour in your comments to compensate for his departure! humour in your comments

  5. Hi Ted, Thought I would send a greeting since we seem to have a similar interest in what lies ‘beyond intellect’. I enjoyed your post and since my book is titled: Beyond Intellect: Journey Into the Wisdom of Your Intuitive Mind, I thought it would be appropriate to at least know about each other.
    I get ‘google alerts’ when anything is posted under Beyond Intellect. Usually I am the author referenced but this time I have been provided with the opportunity to meet you (even if it is in this thing called cyber-space). Greetings and Best Wishes from Laguna Beach, Caifornia!

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