What I Did Not Say In My Watson Proposal

The Truth according to Justin Stein

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship Program is pretty much the best deal ever for a fresh college graduate who wants to do anything but get a job. Any senior at fifty participating colleges can come up with a proposal to do anything in any foreign country(ies) that can be passed off as "independent study." About sixty students are actually awarded the money to go do it.

In applying to get large sums of money to conduct independent study abroad, one generally avoids questioning implicit assumptions our culture makes concerning individuation, causation, and agency. Indulge me here for an aside regarding philosophical integrity. In expressing oneself in proper English, so many tacit metaphysical claims lie embedded in the grammar of our language that one simply cannot escape implying the existence of conscious subjects who make free, rational decisions despite one's own beliefs on the matter. Even now, you see how awkward my syntax has become in order to avoid gender-specific language, fulfilling certain ideals contemporary intellectual culture has come to reify concerning an essential equality of the sexes.

Now, imagine coming to the conclusion that all phenomena are simply temporal chunks in the cosmic soup of energy which both constitutes and runs the engine of existence. No sentence with a subject and predicate can avoid insinuating that individual subjects exist, hence the irony of such statements as "Everything changes," or "The ego is non-existent," that betray themselves with the same self-defeating logical feedback as "This statement is false."

Imagine believing Nietzsche when he writes, "there is no 'being' behind the doing, acting, becoming; the 'doer' has simply been added to the deed by the imagination --- the doing is everything." How then is one to express oneself? "The doing is everything," betrays itself by making activity a subject. This said, you can certainly understand why my metaphysically-afflicted mind refrained from questioning the validity of our tacit cultural posits frozen in grammar with twenty-five grand on the line.

My proposal was originally intended to be a broad investigation into the phenomenon of energy healing of all sorts --- from acupuncture to shamanism, ancient methods to New Age, Israel to Indonesia. I wanted to conduct studies of energy as an empirical biophysical force as well as the historical and social dynamics of the community surrounding healing with that vital elan variously known as spirit, prana, or chi. Despite its being a perenially timely topic, thanks, in part, to its elusive intangibility, I felt passionately engaged in making visible the invisible, like a young detective working on a famously unsolved case.

However, it is in relation to my beliefs concerning energy that I feel most deeply that fragmentation of self has become a part of our collective post-modern identity. Factions within me wage armed combat within my psyche, clouding my focus and resolve. There is at once a reductionist metaphysician and a scientist who thirst for empirical validation of the field theory of the self that implies a fundamental material unity to all phenomena. They claim that the skin is not where each of us has a boundary with "the outside world" but rather the locus of the steep drop in the three-dimensional probability bell curve of our spatial existence. Yet I also feel that this mode of understanding is so basic and, to paraphrase Schopenhauer, as practically useless as the molecular model of water is to a storm-struck sailor.

This thirst for experiential and empirical validation for the functioning of energy is ludicrous. For almost three years I have been practicing a form of energy healing based on the Indian Kundalini tradition of seven chakras, or energy centers, that run up the spine from the coccyx to the crown of the head. I can feel each chakra "spin" and pulsate, energy accumulating in my hands, just by breathing and focusing a certain way. Yet my healing powers are limited, perhaps because of the damage my skepticism has had on my faith, despite the empirical evidence present which would support my belief.

Yet the reductionists have a good deal of the resources in the medical field, and there is now a science in studying the physiological benefits of belief. Placebos and "expectancy effect" are well appreciated by the psychological literature, and empirical links are being made between a positive attitude and good health. However, a faith healer's "knowledge" that a patient's trust in him or her is largely responsible for the physical effects of "healing," will certainly affect the quality of the healing, as would a patient's concerns regarding the same thing. If you're thinking about whether the treatment is based on believing in it, your belief is undercut. This reductionist model of the benefits of belief thus creates a self-reflective vicious cycle of doubt and disbelief, leading us into the mental snare of "understanding" with the sexy bait of Truth.

Positive belief in energy healing for a reductionist psychosomatist is a bit like Pascal's faith resulting from his famous wager (the utility of believing in God outweighs that of not believing). As William James puts it in "The Will To Believe," any actual choice between two beliefs which one could viably hold, is a matter of the passions, not reason. Any good skeptic could tell you that, of any two opposing propositions, neither is logically necessary but simply a reflection of opposing presupposed values. Reason is the incorrect tool to use in the investigation of what there is.

Furthermore, as it becomes more and more clear that there may be no "real world out there," that our linguistically-bound notion of truth may not be suitable for describing the reality of embodiment and consciousness, Nietzsche's "will to illusion" elucidates itself. The will to truth, begun by Socrates, that attempted to explain the world in terms of language has eaten its own tail in the form of the hermeneutic circle. We cannot cut off our own head to look back at ourselves --- we see that our language itself, the tool of reason, is founded on the illusions of permanence and agency. The quest has become the creation of the most useful illusions and the responsibility of actualizing them.

But knowledge kills action --- one must forget that one's abstract ideals are illusory if one is to be convinced by them. So in order to be an authentic overman and devise a personal quixotic crusade, one must be a master of both creation and mental forgetfulness. After realizing the mountains are not mountains and the rivers are not rivers, a Zen student is truly homeless until satori --- when things achieve their true nature. As Nietzsche writes, with the "real" world (of truth) we have also abolished the merely "apparent" world of social construction and are finally embodied.

But, for the Watson folks, I played ignorant of the inherent non-duality of existence and the inability of language to refer to the real. I pretended that I was bound to uncover truth, as if that were even a possiblity.






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