Through the random posts of a couple of Facebook connections, I came across a remarkable little essay, just over ten years old, by a pair of otherwise unremarkable scholars named Mark Van Atten and Robert Tragesser about the nature of mysticism. In particular, they took a left-field, but deceptively simple, tack on the Common Core Thesis in the philosophy of mysticism. This idea is that, underneath all the divergence of mystical visions, there is a common set of truths at the core of all mystical visions and visionaries.
The notion speaks to our contemporary spirituality of the market of everyday enlightenment. When spirituality can come in a pill, there’s a shaman in every drugstore and on every street corner. But mysticism has played its role in all of humanity’s spiritual traditions. A mystic vision is described as an experience of the Absolute Good, and so that Common Core Thesis would seem to be the only way mysticism could offer genuine guidance in life. When Van Atten and Tragesser discuss contemporary mystics, they’re comparing two people in a profession that’s rarely associated in its popular image with such thinking: L. E. J. Brouwer and Kurt Gödel, the logicians and mathematicians.
|I think if I had ever decided to pursue contemporary|
philosophy of mathematics itself in any substantial
way, I'd build on the concepts of Kurt Gödel.
Not all visions of an Absolute Good are defined in mystical terms; sometimes they’re couched as political movements, ideologies based on the realization of a single core concept. This is how theories of mysticism can operate in my Utopias project. But I don’t think they’ll play a very central role, and perhaps can play only an underlying role to avoid bogging down my analysis of the religious fervour of politics in the fervour of a singular vision. Singular visions are at the heart of both phenomena, but for an ideologue, that vision can be shared and acted upon, while the mystic vision would appear incommunicable.
Their essay analyses Brouwer’s and Gödel’s different conceptions of the Absolute, and examine the implications of that comparison for the Common Core Thesis. They describe Brouwer as a pure Kantian in one pivotal way: he considered time to be a construction of subjectivity. Going beyond Kant, Brouwer considered mathematics to be an elaboration of the intuitions of discreteness (moments) and continuity (passage or flow) of time. But Brouwer considered this a falling away from the Absolute in which time is not sensed. We are able to achieve practical actions, but in doing so, we are isolated from the true nature of things.*
* In conceiving of the faculty of intelligence or intellect as the ability to quantitatively take stock of the world and focus our thoughts for practical action, Brouwer greatly resembles the ideas of Henri Bergson. Of course, he differs from Bergson in a variety of other, more fundamental, ways. Bergson is an interesting figure in the philosophical tradition of trying to understand mysticism. His treatment of the subject in his last major work, Two Sources of Morality and Religion, is fascinating and nuanced. I don’t quite have the space to go into it here, and I don’t even have a solid enough memory of it to put anything in pixels again just yet. But his entirely immanent conception of what the mystic intuits or experiences wildly differs from virtually every other mystic or analyst of mysticism I’ve ever found, who focus on mystic visions as contact with a transcendent Absolute. It also has no room for any version of the Common Core Thesis. If mysticism becomes an important conceptual pillar of the Utopias project’s analysis of ideology, Bergson’s concept may be a critical alternative to the political absolutisms.
Gödel, meanwhile, conceived of mystical insight as an intellectual matter entirely. His Platonic conception of mathematics made mystical contact with pure mathematical concepts the centrepiece of his epistemology of math. Mysticism was Gödel’s path to intellectual enlightenment, the truth of mathematics. He considered himself extremely influenced by Schelling in this regard.** Contrasted with Brouwer, our trusty co-authors saw them together as disproving the Common Core Thesis. Their concepts of mystical experience, and how they described their own experiences, stand in total opposition and contradiction to each other. There could not be a single universal truth underlying every mystical experience if the content of each of those experiences includes incompossibles, notions that can’t both be true, where the truth of one falsifies the other.
** I’ll say it right now. I’ve never read Schelling. Not one iota. I don’t even really know where I’d start. If any of my friends who have read Schelling have some recommendations on his best books (I don’t want any ‘introductory’ or ‘the easy stuff’ first; I can handle the pure shit), let me know.
If I decide, for at least one dimension of analysis in the Utopias project, to understand ideological absolutism as the worldly articulation of a mystical vision of the Absolute, this paper has been remarkably valuable to me. It offers grounds for the discord underlying all absolutism.