Rational Materialism or Spirituality? How they’re both right
Some friends and I were discussing things metaphysical. One friend, a believer in “woo,” said something to the effect that coincidences were a sign that greater forces are at work in the universe beyond what we can ordinarily perceive. Another, a staunch rationalist, reacted strongly — reality is physical, end of story. A coincidence is a coincidence is a coincidence, and nothing more. Being conflict-avoidant friends, our conversation pivoted to a safer topic.
Later, a simple thought experiment came to me that suggests both are right. I say “suggests” because I offer this as food for thought, not a declaration of absolute knowledge. (Let me acknowledge that this idea came straight from Edwin Abbot’s book Flatland, first published in 1884. I read it decades ago and it stayed with me.)
All it requires is to pick up a piece of paper and pencil.
Imagine you are living in (or on) a two-dimensional universe, represented by the paper. All beings in your world have complete freedom to move across its surface, like chess pieces. This is all they know because it’s all they can know, based on the nature of this particular universe.
Now take the pencil and punch it through the paper, intersecting the 2D surface. Easy for 3D creatures like us. Next, imagine how a 2D person living in this flat world would perceive the pencil. For that person, any other dimension beyond the given one simply does not exist. What they can perceive is the cross-section, that thin circle of pencil that’s composed of different materials than the paper substance of their world.
Since the 3rd dimension is not a reality for these beings, they don’t perceive the rest of the pencil. They simply glide through it as if the pencil doesn’t exist.
The scientists in this world can measure the circumference of the ring; they can observe and perhaps chemically analyze the thin layer of paint on the outside; they can move across its surface and feel the different textures of the wood and the graphite core. They can conduct experiments to better understand the nature of these materials, and they develop theories about what the circle might mean. What it might be. But except in theory, and this is the critical point, they can’t conceive that the rest of the pencil exists.
Mystics and poets in this 2D world might claim to know more, but the scientists are, in one sense, completely accurate in dismissing these visionaries.
To us from our 3D point of view, the reality of the pencil is obvious.
I believe it’s the same in our world. Are angels a result of wishful thinking, or are they real? What if it’s both? Recently I have experienced a spiritual upheaval in which I feel my identity, largely developed in response to patterns of survival I adopted in response to early childhood trauma, is being unmade and remade. Things that never used to phase me now unsettle me, and I cling to familiar routines like a moving dot on a piece of paper.
But recently I have been experiencing synchronicities. Coincidences. Seeing patterns in nature and coming across unusual sights that move me in ways I used to dismiss. These don’t frighten me, rather they speak to me of a divine sense and order that is at once “larger” and at the same time embraces and welcomes my 3D perceptions.
In the wooded park where I walk almost every day, I have seen this blonde squirrel twice now. I think it’s absolutely beautiful. I was stunned the first time I saw it, and a couple who happened to be standing nearby were equally startled. They asked me to share the photo I managed to snap. “It’s beautiful!” I exclaimed. “It matches you,” the man observed. With my blonde hair, tan coat and brown scarf, I knew what he meant.
Seeing the squirrel lifted my heart in a wonderful way. In my corner of the United States, the vast majority of squirrels are gray. There are the occasional black ones and once in a while, a red one. I had assumed it was albino, but a quick Google search after I got home corrected me: an albino squirrel would have white fur and pink eyes. No, this one was…
…A sign that the Divine Mother is with me in ways I am only beginning to perceive.
…An interesting and beautiful result of genetic mutation that I happened to see on a particular day.
In this non-dual world of duality, perhaps we can have it both ways. Poet T.S. Eliot spoke of this in the “Burnt Norton” section of his long poem, Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.