On the New Age Movement, Metaphysical Amnesia, and the Denial of Evil, Pain, and Suffering 1.2.0

Members of the New Age movement say a lot of things, but 3 unifying principles appear to be these (New Age Principles):

  1. We choose to forget who we are (That we are infinite beings having finite experience).
  2. What is positive or negative (right or wrong) depends on the interpretation we place on events (There is no such thing as objective morality).
  3. The purpose of life is become aware of who are are = infinite beings having a finite experience.

Principle 2 is an unambiguous restatement of the ancient doctrine of relativism, to be rejected because the existence of objective right and wrong, and objective truth and falsity, is a condition of the possibility of inquiring into the difference between right and wrong and truth and falsity in the first place. Suppose there is no such thing as objective morality, i.e. suppose that we have no moral duties or obligations and to act in a certain way or to or believe certain things, that there are, as Nietzsche once suggested, no facts only interpretations:

Against that positivism which stops before phenomena, saying “there are only facts,” I should say: no, it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations…

Then it is a merely matter of interpretation that this doctrine is itself true, and the contrary doctrine has an equal claim to validity. But the contrary doctrine -that some facts that are not open to interpretation- is incompatible with relativistic doctrine that there are no facts only interpretations.

I was watching a New Age oriented you-tube video about Past Lives in which the vacuous speaker (who imagined people describing him as an “awesome guy” because he was “very nice, and very polite”)  at one point made the statement that

I often think of this life much like a theatre play, that you are I, and all the other characters, are part of a play, and that when the curtain closes, all the characters, back stage, no matter what role they played, be it the hero or the villain, it doesn’t matter, because when the curtain closes, we can all look eye to eye, and be like “That was the most amazing time ever. Let’s go out, let’s party, and let’s do it again.”

My blood boiled, and my stomach turned, at this statement of moral nihilism, and the denial of suffering it entails. My first thought was that the speaker is implying that sufferings of Jesus of Nazareth were for the the sake of amusement, and that eventually, Jesus will look his tormenters in the eye, and all will agree “That was the most amazing time ever. Let’s go out, let’s party, and let’s do it again.”

My second thought was that the child and the child molester, after the metaphorical curtain closes, will look each other in the eye, and will both declare “That was the most amazing time ever. Let’s go out, let’s party, and let’s do it again.” No, they will not, and these implications are reductio ad absurdums of the New Agism , which promotes narcissism (as evidenced by the video above, New Agers love nothing more than to talk about themselves and their own fine qualities) and the selfish disregard of the sufferings of others.

Before pronouncing judgment on Principles 1 and 3, let’s consider three movies made on the interesting theme of forgetting of one’s true identity. The first is the 1987 Angel Heart directed by Alan Parker in 1987. Based on William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel, the film tells the story of a man -played by Mickey Rourke- who, as a popular singer named Johnny Favorite, struck a proverbial deal with the devil for fame and fortune.  In order to avoid paying the cost of damnation, Favorite performs a magical ritual in which he takes over the body and the mind of another man -Harry Angel- thereby forgetting his original identity as Johnny Favorite. But it turns out the Favorite-identity has not been entirely submerged and that the devil (played by Robert de Niro) is hot on his trail…

This form of amnesia is the same as the New Age notion in that Johnny Favorite has voluntarily adopted another identity, but the difference is that the motive for this act of self-forgetting is clear: Johnny Favorite is trying to escape eternal damnation, and to escape it, he is prepared to pay the cost of losing his identity as Johnny Favorite. The second film is The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1988. Based on a historical novel first published in 1955 by Nikos Kanazantakis, the film takes an unorthodox perspective on the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth (played by Willem Dafoe) in that Jesus is portrayed as flawed and neurotic and unsure of himself. The reason for the expression “Last Temptation” is that, whilst in the process of being crucified, Jesus is tempted by Satan to imagine the possible world in which his life has continued in a normal way, that he has married Mary of Magdalene, had children by her, and lived to a ripe old age.

While Jesus is having this vision of a normal possible world, he forgets that he is on the cross, and the idea of both the writer and the film-maker is that, if he in some sense accepts the vision, then he can thereby escape his fate. In order to complete his task, Jesus must resist this final temptation. There is a blurring of the difference between voluntary and involuntary, but again there is for a time a a partly-voluntary forgetting of identity, and again for a clear motive: Johnny Favorite gave up his memory because he wanted to escape damnation, Jesus in the Last Tempation gave up his memory because he wanted to escape the pain of the crucifixion experience. But what is the motive for the voluntary giving up of the memory that we are infinite beings that New Agers say underlies human experience ( Principle 1), given that they also say that the purpose of this experience is to regain this same memory (Principle 3) ?

To answer this question, we consider finally The Matrix (1999). Directed by the Wachowski Brothers, and starring Keanu Reeves, it tells of a takeover of the world by machines (more particularly by computers), which have imprisoned human beings in life-supporting vats of nutrients. A computer program program called “The Matrix” creates the illusion of sensory experience, and that life going on as usual, while the bodies of those in the vats are somehow being used by the machines as batteries, as energy-sources. “Waking up”, as per the New Age principle 3,  in this context involves realising that one’s body is in a vat and one’s world is an illusion created by The Matrix:

At a critical point in the story, after having had the nature of the Matrix explained to him, the main character is offered a choice between a blue pill and a red pill:

Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill-  the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill-  you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

The forgetting in The Matrix differs strongly from the forgetting in Angel Heart the The Last Temptation of Christ and the the forgetting of the 1st new Age principles in that it is in some sense involuntary. It also differs in that the forgetting in the The Matrix doesn’t serve the purposes of the amnesiacs, but rather the purposes of nefarious outside influence which involve the exploitation and the destruction of that amnesiacs. The Matrix is flawed in that it presents artificially intelligent devices as capable of possessing, and of simulating real intelligence and of consciousness, when from the Halting Problem they are incapable, and nor is any explanation offered for the unnecessary pre-established harmony there is between the conscious experiences of those entrapped in The Matrix, but its great strength is that it emphases the essentially negative nature the human condition. The vision of the forgetfulness of humanity presented in The Matrix is the opposite of the New Age Vision where one forgets voluntarily and for one’s own good.

Morheus (Laurence Fishburne): The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo (Keanu Reeves): What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

For the New Ager, one is pulling wool over one’s own eyes for sake of one’s own amusement, for amusement is the only motive that the New Agers can offer that is capable of explaining how it is the case both that we have voluntarily forgotten our identities, and that the purpose of life is the remember them. For the New Ager, the human being sacrificing their memory is like a millionaire who gives up all of his money only to go through the amusing process of starting from scratch and making all the lost money back.

In essence, the thing that New Agers deny is the reality of evil, pain, and suffering, and of human limitation. The 3 principles of the New Age under discussion -that we voluntarily choose to forget our divine status, that good and evil are in all in the mind, and that the purpose of life is to recall our original divine status-  all boil down to the single principle that evil and human limitation don’t exist. They are a self-created illusions put in place for our own amusement (at a pinch one might say “education” rather than “amusement”). It follows therefore that humans are the divine or semi-divine masters of their own destinies and that they do not need a saviour. If humans are as it appears, not in fact the divine masters of their destinies, and they do in fact need a saviour, then the New Age is the age in which everyone -not merely the emperor or the president- fiddles (both musically and carnally) while the world burns around their ears. It is our age.