The call of the Immensity: An interview with Brendan Myers, philosopher – part 2

Brendan Myers on a dock

“This new way of thinking about things… attempts to actually restore some of the magic and wonder of things, and to restore meaning and desirability to life.”

Snowflake by Simply InnocuousWinterviews continues!  From the Solstice (Dec. 21st) till the next Cross-quarter (Feb. 4th), we’re bringing you non-stop interviews and other goodies from big-name authors.  Mark your calendar!

Our interview with Dr. Brendan Myers concludes today with an in-depth discussion of the revelation of “presence” in nature, and a peak at his upcoming book Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear.

B. T. Newberg:  Last time we talked about the universal experiences you call Immensities, and whether gods might have some relation to them.  I don’t want to push the gods question too far, but there’s another of your key concepts that seems too relevant to pass up: your notion of presence.  One of the issues we’ve been discussing on this blog is how to talk about gods in a naturalistic way without reducing them to archetypes, metaphors, etc.  We need to find a way to let the sense of the numinous come through.  Your book Loneliness and Revelation speaks in an almost numinous way about the revelation of presence by nature, works of architecture, and other entities.  What is this “presence”?  What does it mean for something to “reveal” its presence?

Brendan Myers: Presence is, quite simply, the here-ness and the now-ness of something-that-is-not-nothing. It has to do with something’s being in front of you, available to your senses and to your contemplations.

Presence is also that aspect of a being’s identity, reality, or selfhood which that being reveals to you. It is what you experience when someone or something shows itself to you, or deliberately allows you to see and to hear what it is. And here I do mean a “being”, not an object or a mere “thing”: presence has to be revealed as a statement, a deliberate act.

But perhaps controversially, my thoughts are rather flexible concerning what could count as a presence-revealing statement. Much of the time, a being asserts its presence just by showing up. You are here, and you are now, and your very existence here and now makes a statement to others who might be in a position to see and hear it. At minimum, the statement is “I am here!”.

Remember, not all statements are expressed in words. Some are expressed in gestures, symbols, artworks, bodily postures, and other movements. And I’m also open to the possibility that animals and plants reveal presence in a similar way.

But it seems to me that the very possibility of speaking intelligibly about ethics, and the very foundation of eudaimonia, the good and worthwhile human life, begins in the revelation of presence, where two beings show themselves to each other and they do not fear.

Incidentally, my understanding of the importance of presence is one of the places where my thinking diverges away from existentialism. Existentialists always claim that existence precedes essence; or in other words, the fact of your bodily existence on earth comes before any discussion of your nature, your character, your soul, your fate or destiny, or anything else that could count as an “essence.”

By contrast, my argument is that existence and essence always come together: that the revelation of your presence is an essence, of a sort, which is always bundled with your existence. The two are inseparable, and there is probably no point in asking which one came first.

You ask about the gods. For the most part, I am inclined to leave questions about the gods to more theologically inclined pagan writers, such as John Michael Greer (his book A World Full of Gods seemed to me very well-reasoned).

I am a big fan of the idea of apotheosis, which is the immortality of a person’s life-story which continues to be told long after her death. I’m mostly convinced that the gods are, or rather were, living human beings from many centuries ago who lived outstandingly heroic or exemplary lives, and whose stories continued to be told, and exaggerated too, until they became the mythologies we have today.

Add a little animism to the mix, in the form of the belief that the souls of these people survived death and may be seen in dreams or in omens, and you have the basis of a Pagan polytheism.

The interesting thing about presence and revelation, as I have described these ideas in my work, is that while existence and presence are inseparable, it may not always be strictly necessary for a body to be in front of you for a revelation to present itself. A person’s presence can be revealed in the story of that person, even when that person is elsewhere, or long dead. You tell the story of your grandmother on the anniversary of her funeral, and she is there with you, in the story.

The storytelling event is the existing thing, inseparable from the presence. You may also experience this presence when visiting places in the world that figure into that person’s story: this is why we make pilgrimages to the birthplaces or the graves of famous musicians, for example (the graves of Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison come to mind here).

Some people may also experience something like presence revealing itself through nonhuman events, like thunderstorms, sunrises, blizzards. Some people experience presence in landforms like great mountains, mist-shrouded lakes, vast deserts, and the sea. The experience of encountering such things often produces in people the feeling of being in the presence of a god.

The idea that the world as a whole has a presence is perhaps the basis of monotheism, although I think this is a direction well worth pursuing for anyone, whether monotheist or polytheist.

Whether the god of revealed presence is the same as the creator-god of Genesis or the Koran, however, and whether the appropriate relationship to have with such a god is “worship”, is entirely another question. If the gods are presences that reveal themselves through heroic storytelling and environmental events and the like, there doesn’t seem to be much point in worshipping them, or even “believing” in them in the usual way.

As the philosopher Beaudrillard wrote, “If God exists, there is no need to believe in Him. If people do believe in Him, this is because the self-evidence of his existence has passed away.”

BTN: Experiencing presence in this way, especially through thunderstorms or mist-shrouded lakes, strikes a powerful chord.  I certainly have felt it, and no doubt many others have too.  There’s one part that thoroughly confuses me, though: “presence has to be revealed as a statement, a deliberate act.”  How is the statement “I am here”, delivered just by showing up, deliberate?  It seems quite unintentional to me, accomplished without deliberation and whether you like it or not.  To push it further, how can animals or especially plants make deliberate statements?

BM: The basic statement of presence, “I am here”, is only the very simplest, very first movement of the whole revelation. It is always bound together with whatever else you may be doing at the same time. The deliberateness of the basic statement of presence underlies or hides behind your other purposes and projects, yet also participates in them.

In the book I discovered this statement by following a method invented by the philosopher Husserl, called “epoché”, or “reduction”. The method involves looking at the world and “standing back” from all the utilitarian or practical purposes that things appear to have, in order to see what remains.

If, for example, I am watching a man plant a tree, I see that he digs a hole, places the seed in the ground, waters it, and so on. But I also see that together with these practical actions, he also exists, shows up for life, reveals his presence, makes himself available to be seen and known by others. The revelation of presence, the “I am here”, is the substance, the hypostasis, of your practical way of being in the world, and inseparable from it, no matter what it is.

Yet just showing up is only the first movement of revelation. There are three more that follow it, which account for these practical matters more closely.

Concerning animals and plants: I also understand “a deliberate act” in a very flexible way here. This is because adult human beings are clearly not the only creatures in the world who act with intentionality. Newborn babies do too; and so do our pets, as any dog owner could tell you.

We normally assume that intentionality flows from consciousness and will. But following the work of philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, I’m suggesting that the truth is the other way around: that consciousness and will flows from intentionality. Any living organism which acts intentionally – hunting for food, or turning its leaves to face the sun – is acting in an intentional way, whether it is “conscious” of its act in a human sense or not. And bound together with its way of being will be its own peculiar way to assert the basic statement of revelation, “I am here.”

A scale of complexity is in play, from the simplest and smallest intentional movements, such as a paramecium swimming, to the most sophisticated and self-aware examples, such as a human reading these words.

Perhaps we are stretching the word “deliberate” a little bit too far here; and it may also be too difficult to see this kind of intentionality in sunrises or thunderstorms. Perhaps this is my last concession to animism.

I recognize this problem right in the book itself – writers should be honest with their readers, and should not pretend to know everything – yet I’m confident that I or some future writer may be able to solve it.

In the meanwhile, let us not lose sight of the more ultimate aim of this new way of thinking about things. It attempts to understand the world systematically and logically, but without at the same time stripping away its magic and wonder. In fact, it attempts to actually restore some of the magic and wonder of things, and to restore meaning and desirability to life.

BTN: Fair enough.  And yet, perhaps this line of questioning can lead us to other insights.  Let me try to explain what I mean…

First off, how can a person deliberately reveal their presence to generations to come through story, if it is not in their power to control whether and how their story is told?  For that matter, if your story is told exaggerated to god-like proportions, how is it still a revelation of your presence, and not something entirely different?

The kind of revelation of presence described seems decidedly unintentional, completely without deliberation, a presence that goes beyond any kind of egoistic deliberation, and cuts to the heart of what we share with all things in the universe: existence itself.

If there is any deliberation, it seems like it is on the part of the beholder: we may deliberately open ourselves to seeing a presence in the person or thing before us.  We might intentionally allow ourselves to see not a “mere thing” as you say, but a “being.”  Would that be a misunderstanding of your work?

BM: In the case of storytelling, we find that the storyteller supplies the material: the words that are spoken, the act of speaking them, etc. But from that material emerges more than just the teller’s own presence. We also find the presence of the characters in the story.

Think of how an excellent actor can sometimes portray her role so well that you forget you are watching a scripted and rehearsed performance. You sense that character’s presence in the actor’s gestures or the storyteller’s words; you know that something more is there. In this way we can understand the old proverb of the Celtic bards, that a seannachie can raise the dead.

The revelation of presence is, indeed, that which cuts through the ego and reaches the very heart of existence itself. Yet I want to understand this existence without falling into the black hole of solipsism. Revelation is something that you experience, but it is not an anthropomorphic projection. There’s something out there, revealing itself to you. A closed-minded or fearful person might prevent himself from seeing it. But it’s out there nonetheless.

And the more self-aware its intentionality is, the more it will reveal to you. And the more it will want the same things that you want: to not be alone, to know that it is something-and-not-nothing, and to know that its existence matters.

And this, it seems to me, is the very foundation on which we can build healthy relations with each other, and lead worthwhile lives.

BTN:  Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in this interview.  Or should I say, thank you for revealing your presence to us? (grin).

Before we conclude, can you give us a brief teaser about your next book?  What’s it about, and when can we expect it on store shelves?

BM: I have several irons in the fire for the near future. In March of 2012, I will publish Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear.

In this book we’ll see how sacred places, sacred writings, relics, and rituals, holy days and magical times of year, and so on, are actually representations of relationships that people have with each other and the elements of the world.

Some of these relationships environmental: they involve landscapes, animals, and the streets of your home town. Some are personal, such as families, friends, and elders. Some are public, involving musicians, storytellers, medical doctors, and even soldiers. This book studies twenty-two of them, from a variety of traditions, and shows their place in “the good life.”

Yet these relations are always fragile, and threatened by fears, from the fear of loneliness, to the fear of the loss of personal or political freedom, to the fear of death. To escape from these fears, people often trap themselves into ways of life that are bad for everyone, including themselves. This book studies how that happens, and how to prevent it.

Just this week I signed contracts for two short books to be part of the “Pagan Portals” series from Moon Books (O Books’ pagan imprint). One will be about Druidry and Celtic mysticism, the other will be about philosophy.

A few months ago I invented a strategy game that I used to teach basic political science to my students. It turned out to be surprisingly popular, so I will be publishing it very soon.

And before the end of this year, I will self-publish my first novel: “Fellwater”. This is the story of two lovers who, while having problems in their relationship, accidentally get caught in the conflict between two factions of an ancient secret society.

News and information about these projects will be announced on my web site, my blog, and my Facebook page, as publication dates arrive.

BTN: Wow, let no one say you are not prolific!

Thanks for talking with us, Dr. Myers.

BM: Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak to you and your readers!

Brendan Myers' books

The interviewee

Brendan Myers

Canadian philosopher and writer Brendan Myers is the author of several well-respected books on mythology, folklore, society and politics, ethics, and spirituality.  His work is studied by college professors, social activist groups, interfaith groups, Celtic cultural associations, and even Humanist societies, in many countries around the world.  In 2008 he received OBOD’s prestigious Mount Haemus award for professional research in Druidry.  Since earning his Ph.D in environmental ethics at the National University of Ireland, Galway, he has lectured at several colleges and universities in Ontario, and toured much of Canada and Europe as a public speaker.  In his varied career Brendan has also worked as a musician, a labour union leader, a government researcher, an environmentalist, and as a simple country gardener.  Brendan’s books in print to date include:

Brendan is also one of the hosts of Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast.

Bio text courtesy of Brendan Myers’ Facebook page.

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7 Comments on “The call of the Immensity: An interview with Brendan Myers, philosopher – part 2

  1. I must admit I never could quite follow the argument about non-human and even non-organic things “intentionally”, “deliberately” “revealing” themselves to you, etc. Nor could I understand why the “black hole of solipsism” is necessarily implied if the intentionality is on our part, in the act of intending to view things as beings rather than mere objects. I don’t see how simply asserting that “there’s something out there” overcomes whatever threat of solipsism or anthropomorphism there may be. Saying something does not make it so. It just makes the anthropomorphism unconscious.

    But other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and the interview. Thank you, Brendan!

  2. Wouldn’t a ‘sense of the numinous’ be in line with relating to the supernatural? Do you mean (to use Brendan’s words) ‘eudaimonia’ (with the definition of, “A state of pleasant well-being”)?

    “A person’s presence can be revealed in the story of that person, even when that person is elsewhere, or long dead.”

    Isn’t the entity of that person required for there to be a presence of that person? As I can understand it, it appears that the presence is that of the story rather than the person the story involves. So would it be more the memory of that person being present then?

    Some people may also experience something like presence revealing itself through nonhuman events, like thunderstorms, sunrises, blizzards. Some people experience presence in landforms like great mountains, mist-shrouded lakes, vast deserts, and the sea. The experience of encountering such things often produces in people the feeling of being in the presence of a god…

    The idea that the world as a whole has a presence is perhaps the basis of monotheism, although I think this is a direction well worth pursuing for anyone, whether monotheist or polytheist.

    I recall a great discussion that monotheistic beliefs at the time of their origin began in deserts. Wouldn’t that have something to do with it?

    “If God exists, there is no need to believe in Him. If people do believe in Him, this is because the self-evidence of his existence has passed away.”

    So to believe in something is to acknowledge that it no longer exists as an entity but as something remembered through storytelling? Cool 😀

    The method involves looking at the world and “standing back” from all the utilitarian or practical purposes that things appear to have, in order to see what remains.

    That is pretty neat.

    We normally assume that intentionality flows from consciousness and will… I’m suggesting that the truth is the other way around: that consciousness and will flows from intentionality. Any living organism which acts intentionally – hunting for food, or turning its leaves to face the sun – is acting in an intentional way, whether it is “conscious” of its act in a human sense or not. And bound together with its way of being will be its own peculiar way to assert the basic statement of revelation, “I am here.”

    WoW! That makes so much sense! So consciousness is something that forms, or evolves, after intentionality, being the presence of physical life – “I am here”. Or at least that is how I interpret it.

    Perhaps we are stretching the word “deliberate” a little bit too far here; and it may also be too difficult to see this kind of intentionality in sunrises or thunderstorms. Perhaps this is my last concession to animism.

    Ah. I understood it kind of being two separate things but related. That sunrises and thunderstorms are entities and therefore have a presence like that of any other entity. The aspect of something being deliberate, or being intentional, is to say that entity is an organism, is life. But no more an entity than the stars, because all have a presence that can be observed and experienced. Like someone being remembered through story. The story is observed and experienced and becomes an entity even though the entity of the person in the story no longer exists as an entity – their remembrance is an entity. Making them something that is believed in because their existence as an entity has passed away. *brain implosion*

    “If God exists, there is no need to believe in Him. If people do believe in Him, this is because the self-evidence of his existence has passed away.”

    Wow, I am looking forward to seeing that strategy game and novel! Brandon, please remind us when they become available 😀

  3. “… the very foundation of eudaimonia, the good and worthwhile human life, begins in the revelation of presence, where two beings show themselves to each other and they do not fear.”

    This statement reminded me of Emmanuel Levinas who (as I understand him) theorized that the primal encounter with the Other, the epiphany of a face-to-face encounter with another person, is the basis of all ethics, and indeed, all philosophy.

  4. Pingback: Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism

  5. Great interview! This term “Immensity” is really wonderful. I think the first gods were these Immensities. How else would our pre-literate ancestors talk about such things except by using god language? I like to talk about gods, but I do think the label as generally used in modernity is too narrow, too narrow to contain the Immensities.

    “We normally assume that intentionality flows from consciousness and will….. I’m suggesting that the truth is the other way around that consciousness and will flows from intentionality.” I find this statement very interesting. It seems to want to return a sense of beingness to the world and its participants, as oppose to thinking of the world as composed of things which are essentially of a mechanical nature. This reminds me of a similar reversal of emphasis being brought about by evolutionary psychology.

    We in this culture often think of the mind as our being and the body as the machine which supports the mind. Evolutionary psychology is revealing that the body has its own will, is aware of much more than the conscious mind, and is often much more in the driver’s seat than we care to admit. The mind has evolved to help the body (or if you like the genes) be better able to get what it wants, not the other way around. Of those things which matter to the body, it is often the body that chooses instantaneously and sends an emotional “command” which the mind then interprets, coming up with a post-hoc rationalizations as to why it has chosen what the body wants it to choose.

    Many people find evolutionary psychology distasteful, feeling it reduces the mind to mere body, to a deterministic machine. But I feel very different. It makes me feel connected with the innate intentionality of being. I am a part of, an expression of the intentionality of nature, the same sort of intentionality that turns a leaf toward the sun.

    • Wonderfully expressed. I feel much the same, but without the mind your body wouldn’t function, so I view it more as interrelated rather than one controlling the other. At least that is how it is for our particular species. Like the phrase, “what came first the chicken or the egg?” and which was decided to be first somehow was considered more valuable. The answer is egg by the way :p

      It is very plausible that the first gods were immensities and evolved from there in the customs and culture of man (or perhaps other species too, who knows!) and I personally don’t doubt that was the case.

      It seems to want to return a sense of beingness to the world and its participants, as oppose to thinking of the world as composed of things which are essentially of a mechanical nature.

      Yes, and I am hoping that continues, as it appears to be here and elsewhere, *yays* ^_^

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