One of my early memories is two sets of human feet, dangling in the water, off the embankment behind the Notre Dame cathedral, in Paris. As I lurked around this intriguing sight, I soon learned that the four feet belonged to two seminarians who seemed to be in love and were right now in the midst of pouring out their hearts to each other. The two men were sitting in the shade of a tree, next to each other, with their pants rolled up knee-high and their feet in the water, their beaten up and dusty black shoes heaped together to the side. They were experiencing – it seems
– a crisis of faith and that unique sense of trepidation when you realize that you have found yourself in a pirouette of mutual self-disclosure. Their topic wasn’t space but the space between them was nevertheless relevant to my philosophical investigations. Here’s what I heard:
“Religion, my dear friend, at its worst, uses a child’s imagination against himself. When working with kids, the fire-and-brimstone dogmatics know that they have a unique opportunity to convert an impressionable mind, not through logic, but through imagery, through the horrible image of hellish fires and unquenchable thirst … These commis-voyageurs of faith, these 71
peddlers of morality know that a rational mind will inevitably correct its own cognitive distortions. They know that and, instead, they, quite prudently, choose to invest into imagery rather than into reason or logic. The fact is, my dear friend,” continued the young man on the left, “one could make a logically irrefutable argument for God, but these pirate-priests don’t want to bother with theosophy. They know that logic – even good logic – is a low octane fuel… With kids, they aim for the stars – they try to hijack their imagination, to turn a child’s mind against itself. And it is all too easy to do. And when that is accomplished, the water of logic can never put out the fire of imagination… A young mind that has imagined hell in detail can never truly break away from that kind of indoctrination. This is emotional faith. It lives deep within, below the thinking, analytical mind. You can cut the leafy limbs of logic but you can never uproot this limbic stump. The conceptual space of the mind, my friend, is pre-populated, pre-configured, and pre-shrunk … A mind that is afraid is too small to appreciate the all-forgiving implication of divine omnipresence … If God is everywhere, as I believe, then God is everyone and everything
… But the mind that has been cornered by the four tigers of fear dares not to leave its cage of alienation … The tragedy here is that in selling God, such tactic also manages to sell separateness … The conceptual space, my friend, must be liberated if we are to successfully share the word of God … Only an open mind can be spacious enough to accommodate the vastness of God … but a mind that is afraid is too conceptually small for a true epiphany, don’t you think?”
“Is that what happened in your case?” said the seminarian on the right and put his hand on the other man’s knee. A silence ensued, and then more human words followed but I no longer listened to them talk. I remember shuddering with a strange vibration, moving just enough to counteract the lazy flow of the Seine, which was quite easy so close to shore and so near the surface. The question that I wished the other man would ask was to clarify the phrase
“conceptual space.” So, I got even closer, now and then tickling their feet with my rubbery black whiskers. But I waited in vein, eavesdropping on their touching fall from grace; no clarification of the term came; they themselves now became a topic to each other, their feelings and fears of what they felt; they were now talking about expanding their hearts, not minds, which too, they said, was very important… But, by now, I gave up on listening to them, and I went down deep, as far as I could go, until I came to the other surface; no, not the one between water and air, but the one way below, between water and bedrock.
The phrase “conceptual space” made me think of furnishings, clutter, and inner décor. Is consciousness a space that we populate with objects of abstraction? Is consciousness like a belly for thoughts? Do we digest information the way we process food? Is there a limit to how much we can hold in our minds and learn? Is our inner life a kind of limitless self-storage? As I burrowed into the silt of the Mother-Seine, I also thought about thinking itself; I thought about thinking as a kind of spawning, and I thought of thoughts as some kind of “conceptual caviar.”
And then I thought of thinking about thinking, and I discovered that there was yet another kind of space, a gap of sorts within me between my own thoughts and my awareness of them. And I thought of that gap and realized that this meta-cognitive gap was a kind of “non-conceptual space.” A “pure space,” perhaps? A field of primordial awareness?
And then I thought to myself: “Who is thinking this thought? Where is this thinking coming from, how is it emerging, who is generating it?”
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