Sunday, July 05, 2009

Metaphor and the selling of "enlightenment"

The recent pointer here to one of the TM organization's websites - in this case, the "Mother Divine" organization - led me to comment on just a few sentences from that site in which I brought up, as I put it, "the misuse or abuse of metaphor to create the false impression that something exists which clearly is a figment of imagination."

Mahesh, or Marshy, or Maharishi (take your pick) allegedly came up with the phrase, "knowledge is structured in consciousness." The phrase stuck, to the point that it became the motto of Maharishi International University. While most of Mahesh's little catch phrases are of questionable validity, perhaps he was leaving us all a big hint as to what he was actually doing, if we change the last word from "consciousness" to "metaphor."

That is to say, then, "knowledge is structured in metaphor." Conceptual metaphor is one way in which we make sense of the world, and if it's possible to change the conceptual metaphor map by which we understand the world, then perhaps it's possible, by doing that, to make people believe things that just aren't true, even if they match some underlying metaphorical conceptual framework.

(For more background on conceptual metaphor, I recommend Lakoff and Johnson's book, Metaphors We Live By, or for the short form, their 1980 paper in The Journal of Philosophy.)

Here are the few sentences from the Mother Divine website I quoted earlier, along with the graphic which I think plays a key role in the monkeying with metaphor that occurs here.

Like a radio transmitter sending sound waves through an invisible field, individuals practicing these meditation technologies radiate their peaceful influence through the abstract, transcendental field of consciousness. Even on the far side of the globe, this peaceful influence can be measured.

Now whenever you see a sentence in the TM movement's propaganda that leads off with the word "like," you can rest assured that it's likely that you're looking at an instance where they're monkeying with conceptual metaphor to mess with your mind. Here is certainly no exception.

The metaphor here is that meditating individuals are like radio transmitters. In a previous age this would have made no sense, and Mahesh, were he have been around at the time, may have had a harder time getting people over the hump to believe the falsehood that their meditating brains had influence on the surrouding environment. But since today everybody is basically familiar with the idea of a radio transmitter, the idea of being able to cause things to happen by invisible means at a distance has become plausible. Sound comes out of radios because of invisible radio waves sent by radio transmitters (and a considerable amount of technology on each end unknown and not understood by many if not most people).

But this metaphor clearly doesn't describe reality, it describes wishful thinking. If I think a particular set of thoughts, or do particular things in my mind, specific action at a distance will not occur, no matter what I do, and likewise nothing will be measured as a result.

In reality, an invisible electromagnetic field is produced by a radio transmitter. And in fact, if a certain electric current is sent into a radio antenna, the effects of that current can be precisely measured at a distance. Further, if we know a number of parameters - transmitter antenna current, distance, frequency, physical antenna sizes, conductivity of the earth - we can even predict with considerable accuracy the electric voltage that will be measured at the receiving antenna. All of this is possible because of the scientific understanding of things like electromagnetism, that may be invisible but is completely understandable, measurable and predictable. These phenomena are easily measurable and repeatable, and not buried down in ambiguity or under excuses, where if the measurement can't be reproduced, "you're just not doing it right."

All of this is not so for the so-called "discoveries" attributed to Mahesh and his minions, which rely largely on his own people to provide scientific-sounding justifications by setting up the conditions to manufacture positive results out of the background noise. He played with the average person's passing familiarity with certain things, like scientific-sounding language and certain aspects of science and technology, against which he could set up metaphorical, though tenuous and largely invalid, relationships. He even went so far as to label the thing he was selling a "technology," again trying to do all he could to associate his quackery and fictions with science.

There is no evidence that meditation produces any kind of "invisible field." Nor is there any evidence that this nonexistent "invisible field" radiates any form of "peaceful influence." There is simply no evidence whatsoever that such a mechanism exists in nature. That's why such things generally fall under the heading of "religion" and "faith." But unfortunately today, with the evident triumph of rationalism, people often seek scientific and rational basis for "faith."

There's likewise no evidence that there is a "transcendental field of consciousness." They even hint at the reality of this lack of evidence by preceding that phrase with the word "abstract." Well, if it's abstract, I suppose, it's not concrete, and if they're insisting that this abstract thing, a product of their imaginations, actually exists and has effect on the world then they are hopelessly confused, and presumably hope that others will join them in their state of confusing the imaginary with reality.

Unfortunately this pitch appeals to some who would like to think some version of the notion that simply thinking happy thoughts will automatically change the world and make the world a better place. This is a particularly extreme and outrageous version of that conceit, that claims that through some mechanism that doesn't exist, simply sitting with one's eyes closed will bring world peace. Down this way lies madness, and empty wallets. "Enlightenment" merely becomes a quest to buy or do the right thing to maximize one's imaginary sense of personal influence, an imaginary sense manufactured through brain-warping metaphors that imply that one's brain is somehow like a radio transmitter that just needs a little tuning.

So if you remember, or even today see Mahesh on some old videotape holding a rose and babbling about sap, you remember another one of these metaphorical manipulations. A rose is just a rose, a radio is just a radio. People and their meditating brains are neither. Perhaps the fact that we want to be healthy, comfortable, influential and just plain special makes us vulnerable to the sales pitch that tries to convince us, through colorful metaphors, that we are similar in some way to something else in our experience that we have some familiarity with, when we clearly aren't.

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