An Intellectual Deep Web?
Recently, I wrote an essay called The Intellectual Dark Web is Dead. This might have been a good ruse if mathematician Eric Weinstein, who coined the term IDW, wasn’t one step ahead of my game—irony was part of the effectiveness of his label. (See his video: Why the “Intellectual Dark Web” has such a crazy name.). Still, there needs to be a counter-narrative to the counter-narrative of the IDW—a third way. Rebel Wisdom’s Alexander Beiner coined the term ‘Intellectual Deep Web’, which might be the next step. The substitution of the word ‘dark’ with ‘deep’ could add a whole new dimension to a continuing and evolving story.
This story accompanies the new Rebel Wisdom podcast, “The Intellectual Dark Web, a deeper perspective” (link left).
The IDW is a mixed bag and are united only in heterodoxy. On the most superficial level, the IDW makes a frontal attack on post-modern relativism and ideology — and has created a passionate plea for common sense and sense making. The virtue of the group is to shun any over-arching value system or orthodoxy — and to take a stand against the rising tides of authoritarianism on the left and the right.
To give a brief summary of a few of the IDW ‘members’: Eric Weinstein and his brother Bret have a deep view of human behaviour, game theory, and biology, and, while being atheists, have a nuanced and sympathetic view of religion; Sam Harris, on the other hand, holds fast to a materialistic view of consciousness while promoting secular spirituality; Steven Pinker is an evangelist of the western enlightenment; Ben Shapiro is a conservative and a traditionalist. Jordan Peterson is less easy to pigeonhole, and in my view has the most daring and wide view, which includes the psychological, evolutionary, and mythopoetic aspects of being.
In any case, despite their similarities and differences, the IDW have opened the cultural space for longer, more nuanced conversations on the left and the right and have done a great service to everybody—even their enemies—by making a mockery of all the narrow categories and narratives which govern the conversation. However, now the net needs to be widened further to include other deep thinkers, especially in the developmental and spiritual arena. Being merely ‘intellectual’ or ‘dark’ won’t work. One also has to also be deep.
How to be deep instead of merely intellectual? I will try to put forth some summary principals for a hypothetical ‘Intellectual Deep Web’.
Beyond The New Atheist and The New age
Mysticism and metaphysics are either fetishised by the new age or dismissed by the new atheist. Generally new atheists privilege the brain and new-agers the heart—the latter is largely contemptuous of reason, the former rejects spiritual phenomenology. Spiritual types are always telling us to ‘get out of our heads’— hard nosed rationalists tell us that only ‘faith’ in human reason can save us. However, these two views in isolation leave us dangerously lopsided. We need to find a middle way—which is actually not a path of compromise, but the difficult work of not falling into monological world views.
New atheists promote western enlightenment values without noticing that these values arose out of a deeper mythos—their story is profoundly incomplete. We are not just ghosts in the machine—or mere collections of atoms—but actors in the play of being, driven by deeper archetypal movements. The new age is similarly shallow, with its endless spiritual ‘techniques’ and platitudes torn from deeper traditions. We need to go beyond the cults of materialism and the neo-shamans of the new age—both materialism and spiritual materialism, in other words.
Science AND Soul
Both science and soul, empiricism and deep intuition — the perspectives of the left and the right hemispheres of the brain — need to be honoured, as Iain McGilchrist has so eloquently written about in his book The Master and his Emissary. The beauty of the rational mind is the gift of articulation; however, it has a dark side. To ‘ration’ literally means to separate or divide. Without the deeper, intuitive mind, the rational mind gives us fragments instead of a living landscape. McGilchrist’s distinction between reason and rationality is helpful here. Reason has a holistic, integrative perspective, whereas rationality can be reductive.
The left hemisphere has a convincing story: it controls the media with instrumental language, is the the technocrat and the paranoid control freak—it’s story is limited, despite the fact that it is absolutely necessary for ordering the world. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, redeems a fragmented broken world and gives us embodied knowledge and context, as well as access to mythopoetics, art, music, romance, and the ‘varieties of religious experience’.
Jordan Peterson, in the footsteps of Carl Jung, has shown that deep evolution and science emerged out of western archetypes: that Logos, or sacred articulation, began to be articulated in ancient religion with the rise of consciousness. Peterson’s contribution is to be one of the few contemporary pundits to successfully walk this razor’s edge between science and religion, the sacred and the secular. He has helped put the soul back into science and science back into the discussions of the soul.
The difficulty of walking this razor’s edge is reflected in our language. For instance, it is very hard to use terms like sacred, soul, or logos in the modern world. Such words have a mystical flavour, a deep but indefinite meaning — the quality of magical incantation. Words like ‘the sacred’ cause panic among those attached to 19th Century materialism, and stir up fears of a dark mysticism. These fears are not unfounded, but need to be surpassed if we don’t want to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Different ways of seeing the world
We see the world through different modes of consciousness. For instance, G. I. Gurdjieff, an eccentric mystic of the early 20th Century, claimed that human beings have three brains, or overlapping interpenetrating spheres of consciousness. These brains are interdependent but view the world in radically different, often contradictory, ways. There is the intellect, which gives us time and abstraction (the head or brain); the intuitive mind with its emotional depth (the heart); and movement (the domain of the body).
This is neither a commentary on Gurdieff’s 4th Way, nor does it pretend to be hard science—it could be taken as a metaphor or even a myth. As we have been saying, mythopoetics would be valued in an intellectual deep web. William Blake said that the the Bible (and other spiritual texts) contains a ‘ Great Code’ of being or the metaphorical substrate of consciousness, but the wisdom of such text is neither literal nor scientific. A deep text would have to appeal to intellect, feeling and the body—or all three of Gurdjieff’s brains.
Thinking and Feeling
The intellect is our curse and our blessing, the source of this strange anomaly of abstract thinking and language, which appears to be uniquely human. But true Logos (or sacred thought) is incarnate, not disembodied or merely intellectual. According to Heidegger and his commentaries on Heraclitus, thinking is about revealing the hidden truths (Aletheia) of being, which is radically different than just building conceptual sand castles in the sky. Profound thinking is how we inhabit time and space and the contours of our lives; it is not dry or unfeeling but a house of being as Heidegger famously put it. That is why the deepest kind of thought is often expressed in poetry, metaphor, and mythology because only these can express the subtle mysteries of existence.
Discrimination, judgment, and thinking should not be reduced to mere conceptual games; in the same way, compassion and care, without discriminating wisdom and judgement fall into the worst kinds of errors—what the buddhist calls ‘idiot compassion’. The point is: we need to re-connect the intellect to those deep realms of feeling and embodied experience or risk becoming disembodied talking machines or hysterical drama queens.
Let us respect the rational mind but not make another cult of reason or have contempt for the great traditions. It is also good to remember religious thinkers have been empiricists as well, and that science and soul are not irreconcilably divided. Let us not separate Logos from the feeling heart, in other words.
Incidentally, some spiritual systems actually locate our intelligence in the heart, rather than in the brain (see Tibetan Buddhism). That is to say, an intellectual deep web would have to be profoundly ‘heart’ oriented as well as intellectually sharp, and would honour the phenomenological world, not just separate ‘things’.
Iain McGilchrist has often pointed out the insufficiency of the machine metaphor when describing the body—there are times when poetry is more apt than science in expressing truth. As the Zen master Hakuin said: ‘This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha’. Such ecstatic expressions from spiritual practitioners point to the reality of transcendental experience, which can’t be understood in merely rational terms. For an intellectual web to be deep it would have to acknowledge these deeper spiritual realities.
Today we have a reductionist view of the body and the brain: we are obsessed with the physical body but don’t understand what has been called the subtle or spiritual body. Actually meditation, yoga, and the various spiritual gymnastics are not merely techniques for acquiring a healthy body, nor are they particularly about developing ‘inner calm’ or psychological well-being. Spiritual practices were once adventurous and/or dangerous ways to cultivate the spirit and embody meaning (Yoga literally means to yoke oneself to the divine)—today they have been reduced to technique, marketed for cash and stripped of deeper import.
Materialists and humanists like Sam Harris try to extract the technical aspects of meditation without acknowledging the poetry of traditions, lineages, and the deep experiences of those who brought these practices into the world, and thus throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the new atheist attack on religious fundamentalism, thinkers like Harris have been all too literal in interpreting reality, forgetting that dream, metaphor, and vision may be at the base of all our more abstract knowledge.
Many of these phenomenological and mythical expressions arose in the axial age — two thousand years of years before the western enlightenment. The axial age gave birth to what we know as modern religion, philosophy, and high art. And the search for goodness, truth and beauty began long before that.
Conclusion: A Sacred Word
The current meaning crisis in the modern and post-modern world is an opportunity to rediscover and renew what was once called the sacred. Man is a spiritual as well as an intellectual being, a religious as much as a philosophical creature. Religion is no matter for snide contempt, real mythology is not a game for children—all these are descriptions of the sacred world and ways to navigate that world.
The point of this essay is to say: the circle of rebels needs to be widened and deepened. An Intellectual Deep Web might be a place where where one can go beyond the ‘bullshit’ of one-sided materialistic or new age ideologies—where we can rediscover the perennial paths of goodness, truth and beauty. While the apocalypse rages on.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits
- Gurdieff’s 3 brains are just one possible trinitarian view of the body. Buddhism has the concept three kaya’s, or three bodies: the non-dual, the subtle, and the incarnate (Dharmakaya, Sambogakaya, and Nirmanakaya), bodies that arise simultaneously as a total expression of enlightened reality. The hindus say the world is made of 3 gunas: tamas, rajas and sattva—or inertia, energy, and harmony. The Christian trinity, is another example of three bodies which express one totality. And on and on.