To my knowledge all metaphysical systems that have held cultural weight are either dualistic or monistic. I count animist / polytheist systems among the monist metaphysics, since all (again, to my knowledge) eventually reduce to a supreme deity (e.g., The Great Spirit, Atman, etc.). On the latter point see Radin’s Primitive Man as Philosopher. Science is, of course, a monistic system, reducing all to “Nature.”
When I was younger, I rebounded from my lost Christianity with the energy of a pinball, bouncing from ideology to ideology — anything to fill the terrible void. At each serious turn, everything I believed prior seemed foreign to me. How could this be?
There is something in the human consciousness that yearns to make connections, to impose some kind of order on the “outside,” which it perceives through its senses. If there is a will to believe, man has seemingly unlimited ability to identify with any knowledge-system and even to become trapped in it. But ultimately, each of these knowledge-systems can explain their corner of the human experience fairly well, and if he so chose man could flit between them, dance between them, as he wished. Cf. Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchy.
If we follow the theories outlined in “Toward a Human Rewilding Method,” note III, then civilization is enabled by man’s prolonged gestational phase outside the womb (see the field of neotony). Civilization is therefore possible without human domestication (that is, genetic changes we see in, e.g., dogs) because it is somehow able to extend childhood. Savage in Teenage, for example, writes extensively on the creation of the adolescent stage of human development and its usefulness to totalitarian and capitalist regimes. And Freud, Reich, and other psychoanalysts demonstrate how at least a portion of the civilizing project is made possible by sexual repression and a sense of guilt (see “Taking Rewilding Seriously“).
This may explain why we find a suspicious unity in mystical systems across civilizations (see The Perennial Philosophy by Huxley and the Times comment: “It is important to say that even an agnostic, even a behaviorist-materialist…can read this book with joy. It is the masterpiece of all anthologies.”). While civilization works to infantilize and civilize man, there is an eternal Wild Will that possesses him (see TK on the need for autonomy in ISAIF, paragraphs 42-44). Everywhere man yearns for manhood, woman yearns for womanhood. Thus, humans go through great pains to devise theories that express their internal, unfulfilled needs. Yoga and chakra systems restore man’s body; Kabbalistic and gnostic systems restore man’s mind; etc. These tend to replace satisfiers that were once built into primitive modes of life: the freedom of nature, coming-of-age rituals, religious mythology, a concrete, rooted community, unrepressed sexuality… (But see “The Truth About Primitive Life“; see also the concept of “surrogate activities” in ISAIF, paragraphs 38-41).
Psychedelics may help us achieve a state I am calling “strong nihilism” (see “Meditation Notes 1,” notes I-II), disrupting the individual’s normally strong identification with one knowledge system or a particular complex of knowlege systems, and encouraging his identification with another. This may help explain, e.g., the use of psychedelics in dealing with smoking addictions or depression.
Before I erroneously said that any kind of nihilism is a distinctly modern phenomenon (see “Meditation Notes 3,” note VII). I have to backtrack here. While it may be true that early to middle Paleolithic societies did not have a social faction of “strong nihilists,” that is, a Nietzschean upper-class, by the late Paleolithic the archeological record shows all the elements of culture and symbolic thought that would define human life since (see “Paleolithic Art: Imagined and Real“). Studies of primitive and traditional societies across the board show the presence of mystical systems with initiations for some chosen elect (see, e.g., the Greek Mystery religions or the Jew’s Kabbalah). So I cannot say that strong nihilism is distinctly modern. Rather, like Nietzsche, I can only say that this pyhology must now infect great swaths of the world, because soon we will see the “question of civilization posed.” Result: a return to the local, a degradation of world institutions, the resurgence of nature and Dionysian religions — the return of the wild.
Science does not escape from this relativism. The history of Western philosophical critique has thoroughly decimated the oft-repeated claim that science is an absolute knowledge-system. See Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, “Defense of a Modest Scientific Realism,” and Hume on the philosophy of science. For summary see “The Revolutionary Importance of Science.”
While certainly science is a powerful mode of thought, and well-suited to observational and predictive corners of human experience, it is ultimately just another philosophical system, with its roots in early Greek concepts of “Nature” or the “atom.” But no one can really explain what “matter” is, at bottom, and many thinkers have begun to theorize that perhaps we have reached “the end of science.” That is, perhaps we cannot extrapolate much more from the starting assumptions of scientific materialism.
All this even makes sense within science’s own evolutionary theory — for how can we say for sure that man has evolved the ability to “truly” know the “real” world when the means of selecting traits have to do with reproduction? In other words, when we get to the bottom of the scientific knowledge-system and ask “Why?” we will only hear the technician class implore us to “have faith” — like the Priests of Christianity before them.