Saturday, May 7, 2016


By Morris Dean

[Published originally on April 17, 2009.]

Funny thing. I don’t believe in god or heaven, but [on the morning of April 17, 2009] I was feeling so extraordinarily buoyant that, quite spontaneously, I exclaimed to my friend Jeff, “I feel so good—as though I’ve been apotheosized!” [The painting shown to the right is “The Apotheosis of St. Ignatius” by Giovanni Battista Baciccio (1639-1709). Ignatius is still, I suppose, believed by some to have been literally apotheosized after being killed by one or more lions for the entertainment of the citizens of Rome.]

a⋅poth⋅e⋅o⋅sis [uh-poth-ee-oh-sis, ap-uh-thee-uh-sis]
–noun, plural -ses
1. the elevation or exaltation of a person to the rank of a god.
2. the ideal example; epitome; quintessence: This poem is the apotheosis of lyric expression.
Origin: 1570–80; < LL < Gk. See apo-, theo-, -osis
William Pennell Rock (from his website)
One possible contributor to my characterizing my feeling as an “apotheosis” could be the juxtaposition of two [then] current readings, that of neuroscientist Antonio R. Damasio’s 1999 book about consciousness, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, and philosopher William Pennell Rock’s essay, “What If Jesus Never Existed?” on his website, The Heart of Reason. Pennell, an old acquaintance from my history of art class in college, writes that
Ontology, which questions the suppositions of our suppositions about what-is, or Being, has been the deepest of all studies in the West, but as it reached closer to the subtle truths of the knower, it became so obscure that it is almost incomprehensible, as anyone who has attempted to read the works of Martin Heidegger can attest....
    To say that the truth of Christ is “merely a state” may seem an enormous comedown, compared to the epochal and miraculous events recounted in the New Testament and celebrated by Christians for centuries. But it is far more radical, intimate, and fundamental. This description as a “state” reflects the words attributed to Jesus, that the kingdom of God is within. Before we live in the world, we live in consciousness. Before we live in a circumstance, a set of facts that we call the reality of the world, we live in states of being, either going upwards towards life affirmation or going downwards towards dissolution. Living from the state of gnosis is optional consciousness. All the promises of the kingdom are figuratively present. With gnosis, in the quiet depths of your being, you know who you are, why you are here, and where you are going.
    Damasio’s book lays out his theory of the biological basis of consciousness. While he says [on p. 4] that
No aspect of the human mind is easy to investigate, and for those who wish to understand the biological underpinnings of the mind, consciousness is generally regarded as the towering problem, in spite of the fact that the definition of the problem may vary considerably from investigator to investigator. If investigating the mind is the last frontier of the life sciences, consciousness often seems like the last mystery in the elucidation of mind. Some regard it as insoluble,
he nevertheless seems to me—a layman in neurological matters, even if a philosophical student of epistemology—to have a plausible theory and one that honors the full range of human experience. From Chapter Seven, “Extended Consciousness”:
Extended consciousness allows human organisms to reach the very peak of their mental abilities. Consider some of those: the ability to create helpful artifacts; the ability to consider the mind of the other; the ability to sense the minds of the collective; the ability to suffer with pain as opposed to just feel pain and react to it; the ability to sense the possibility of death in the self and in the other; the ability to value life; the ability to construct a sense of good and of evil distinct from pleasure and pain; the ability to take into account the interests of the other and of the collective [emphasis mine]; the ability to sense beauty as opposed to just feeling pleasure; the ability to sense a discord of feelings and later a discord of abstract ideas, which is the source of the sense of truth. Among this remarkable collection of abilities allowed by extended consciousness, two in particular deserve to be highlighted: first, the ability to rise above the dictates of advantage and disadvantage imposed by survival-related dispositions and, second, the critical detection of discords that leads to a search for truth and a desire to build norms and ideals for behavior and for the analyses of facts. These two abilities are not only my best candidates for the pinnacle of human distinctiveness, but they are also those which permit the truly human function that is so perfectly captured by the single word conscience. [emphasis mine] I do not place consciousness, either in its core or extended levels, at the pinnacle of human qualities. Consciousness is necessary, but not sufficient, to reach the current pinnacle. [p. 230]
    Jesus and the Gnostics were all suppressed, co-opted, or made over by the official Roman church. But was the “optional consciousness” of their gnosis not the “current pinnacle” of the neuroscientists? (I take “current” to be meant in evolutionary terms, in which terms the two thousand years that has elapsed since Jesus’s time is but the blink of an eye.)
    Indeed, much to think on. And it [was] apparently time for me to re-read Sam Harris’s own Chapter 7, “Experiments in Consciousness,” from his 2004 book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.
    It has been [over fifty years] since Pennell borrowed my copy of Martin Heidegger’s What Is Metaphysics? I wonder whether he will write a book and what his seventh chapter will contain? [Apparently he has not yet written a book, but, then, neither have I.]

Copyright © 2016 by Morris Dean


  1. Funny thing, too, that the day I republished yesterday's post, and less than a month after my wife and I stood on the sidewalk outside Marcel Proust's birthplace (at 96 rue La Fontaine, Paris XVIe), I should come across the following passage in Adam Gopnik's review (in the January 18 issue of The New Yorker) of Henry James's biographical writings:

    "James’s language, a kind of circular earthwork, famously resembles that of the other great circular sentence maker of his time, Marcel Proust....
        "But the masters are very different, too. Proust is always telling us that each thing contains the world, that a cup of tea opens onto the whole of all he’s known and felt. James says, 'Just let me look at one thing, and I can infer all the rest I’ve never seen.' One cup of tea, drunk in New York, lets him imagine what it must be like to be English....Proust believes that he can make a science of attraction and jealousy: we fall in love with an image apart from the person who incarnates it, and, because the image is stronger than its incarnation, we end up enslaved to it. James wants to undermine the scientific pretensions of people who, like his brother [William James], think that human psychology can be a science, rather than an enigmatic, unfolding experiential art.
        "And yet Henry’s theory of experience as the thing in itself was closer to his brother’s psychology than either quite knew. William’s take on religious ecstasy, related in his great Varieties of Religious Experience – basically, that if you think you’re in the presence of the divine, you are – is very much like Henry’s take on all experience. If looking at a little gathering of blue uniforms in camp gives you a strong sense of the Union Army and its morale and its 'vibrations,' then you have gained all these things. If you think that what you’re seeing is everything there is to see, then you have seen it all. William’s version feels energetic, and Henry’s feels elegiac, but they share the same basic American belief: in the absence of God, you can get all the ecstasy and transcendence and numinosity you need just by showing up."

    1. A friend of Montmartre writes:

      Along those lines, I remember well reading something written by Heimito von Doderer, in his "Overture" to one of the most remarkable books I have ever read:

      "And yet – in fact you need only draw a single thread at any point you choose out of the fabric of life and the run will make a pathway across the whole, and down that wider pathway each of the other threads will become successively visible, one by one. For the whole is contained in the smallest segment of anyone's life-story; indeed, we may even say that it is contained in every single moment; start up your dredging machine and you will take it all up, no matter whether ecstasy, despair, boredom, or triumph happens to fill the moving buckets on their endless chain of ticking seconds….
          "…the past masses like clouds to the right and left of your head, as it were, and the sharp sweet tooth of memory sinks to the heart's core. Out of that past there floats toward you, as though composed of mists, all that combines to form the truth; things we were scarcely aware of now join themselves together, one related image to another. They form a bridge across time, although in life they may never have touched, may have existed in different years, at different places, so that between them no really traversable pathway of circumstances is visible...." –Heimito von Doderer, Damonen, Overture. (Knopf, 1961)

  2. I read this post having just read Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor" in preparation for our Great Conversations group tomorrow. Dostoevsky raises the question whether human beings are really capable of freedom of consciousness. That question dovetails within the discussions in this post. I intend to read "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris. Thank you for reference to it. It seems to me that I might develop some new insight into the connectedness of these issues. (And to think it was written before the Trump phenomena!) William Silveira

    1. Perhaps ironically, Bill, Sam Harris makes a case, in his little book Free Will, that we do not have free will. You might like to read that book as well.