The moments of purest joy in my life have come at those times when I forget about myself enough to pay attention, with absolute purity, to the world in all its beauty. I watch my children at play, and instead of seeing their play through the filter of my own desires and concerns, instead of thinking about how their play is affecting me, I focus so completely on every laugh, ever twirl, that there’s no longer any room for the other stuff.
For my stuff. My son likes to “make smoke” by throwing Oklahoma red dirt into the air. And more often than not I think about the bath he’ll need to take, even though he just had one. And he’ll probably leave his bath towel on the floor, and a dirt ring in the tub.
As simply as that joy eludes me. But sometimes I manage to stop and look, to silence my own stuff enough to let what is out there in. To really let it in, unfiltered by my own stuff. To let it be, for me, what it is.
To pay attention. And in that moment the beauty and goodness of my son, flinging dirt into the air to see it turn to smoke, hits me with heartbreaking power.
I think we tend to underestimate the significance of attention. One reason I love the philosopher-mystic Simone Weil is because she didn’t. For her, attention was a centerpiece of her philosophy. She took attention to be the essence of both love and prayer, and she saw it—not willpower—as the crucial element in self-transformation.
The other day, I was directed to the website/blog of my dissertation director, Newton Garver. Of the occasional thoughts/reflections appearing there, I was particularly caught by the ones that focused on attention. One entry was nothing more than a single sentence from Irish Murdoch: “If I attend properly I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.”
About half an hour after posting this—perhaps after meditating on it for a time, thinking about its significance—he posted the follow up comments:
Iris Murdoch holds that proper attention both reduces choices and increases freedom. Wow! When we get our minds around that inspired thought, we will have put some distance between ourselves and the stultifying dogmas of our outcome-oriented civilization.In reading this comment, I was struck by how often I am accused, by atheist critics, of failing to attend to reality, of seeing everything through a filter of hopes and desires. Atheists almost inevitably—perhaps irresistibly—perceive religious conviction as precisely this: an exercise in projection, as the outcome of imposing one’s own wishes and cultural prejudices onto the field of experience and staunchly refusing to see the stark reality underneath.
Paying proper attention, which is especially important with respect to other people, means appreciating the inherent reality of what we are attending to. Simone Weil took mathematics or formal logic to be good training for paying proper attention, because it is so difficult in these fields to hide reality under hopes or desires. Seeing other people as they really are is much more difficult than seeing mathematical reality.
And there certainly is much religion that looks exactly like this—which is undoubtedly why Simone Weil, devoted as she was to a philosophy of pure attention, was inspired to describe atheism as a purification. “Of two men who have no experience of God,” she says, “he who denies him is perhaps nearer to him than the other. The false God who is like the true one in everything, except that we cannot touch him, prevents us from ever coming to the true one.”
And for Weil, the opposite of attention is imagination, which she calls the “filler of the void.” She claims that “if the imagination is stopped from pouring itself out, we have a void.” And the existence of such a void is crucial to attention. Paying attention means establishing within ourselves a space free from our own stuff, our own desires and anxieties and presuppositions and imaginings, a space of emptiness into which reality can flood.
Imagination is the enemy of such attention. “The imagination,” Weil says, “is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.” The true God, for Weil, is not the superman fashioned by our imagination to satisfy our subjective needs, but is, rather, that which floods us at precisely that moment when we achieve this void and thus find ourselves open to reality—attentively present to it—in all its mystery.
In other words, God is what fills us when we love reality for itself, absolutely and perfectly, apart from our preconceptions and imaginings, and no matter how it affects us for good or ill. Weil’s fixation on affliction may be seen in this light: To love reality even in the face of affliction—even when it shatters us—is to relate affirmatively to reality apart from its propensity to serve our desires. In that moment of afflicted love, we have stopped filling up the fissures with imaginings that suit us.
We can understand Weil’s comments about atheism in the following way: When atheism is arrived at based on a rejection of imagination and a desire to attend to the truth, the atheist has thereby adopted the attitude that is essential for any authentic experience of God. And this remains the case even if theistic belief is in important ways closer to the truth about God than is atheism. Even in the face of similarities in appearance, there’s a huge difference between believing an invention and experiencing reality free from the filters of invention. The latter happens when we pay attention. And attention to something means openness to it that is unconditional, that does not wait on its worth, that is prepared to accept whatever comes.
Given much of the history of religion and much of what goes by the name of religion today, it shouldn’t be surprising, I think, that many atheists see themselves as more serious about paying attention to reality than are theists. But it seems to me that both atheists and theists can be bad at paying attention to reality—although, perhaps, bad in different ways. Both can and (probably inevitably) do see the world through the filter of their preconceptions, through the lenses of their desires, through the unconscious reification of speculative imaginings.
Those who imagine an empty room beyond a locked door are just as guilty of filling the room with the products of their imagination as are those who fill it with imagined furniture, or imagined crates. The only difference is that refusal to imagine is easier to confuse with imagining emptiness than with imagining a room full of stuffed clowns. Likewise, those who imagine that there is nothing beyond the boundaries of what science can discern are just as guilty of filling in the fissures with their imagination as are those who populate the transcendent with personality.
And those atheists who immediately dismiss religious experiences of a transcendent love at the root of reality, who immediately cast away such experiences as of course nothing but delusional projection of wishful hopes—well, isn’t it clear that, in confidently attributing imagination as the source of these experiences, they are assuming that ultimate reality can’t be anything like what this religious experience teaches? If so, they are not just begging the question in their dismissal of these religious experiences. They are, more significantly, basing their dismissive assessment of such experience—their conviction that the experience must be rooted in imagination rather than attention—in their own exercise of imagination.
It is not this sort of atheism that Weil takes to be a purification.
I think atheists sometimes adopt a self-congratulatory attitude towards their powers of attention because they—unlike too many religious believers—take very seriously the lessons of science. The fact is that science is built around the effort to pay attention in much the way that Weil describes. For this reason if for no other, those who are drawn to Weil’s brand of religiosity need to take science and its conclusions seriously. There may not be a single “scientific method” that correctly describes all the various things that scientists do—but it is clear, at least, that science pays attention to the empirical world, to its building blocks and to the laws that regulate it.
But it is one thing to praise the attention of a good scientist. It is something else again to conclude that Simone Weil’s religious experience cannot be the outcome of sincere attention, because to treat it as such would require that there be more to reality than what attentive scientists study. It is one thing to say that scientists pay attention to their subject matter. It is something else again to insist that the subject matter of science exhausts what there is to pay attention to.
And there clearly is more to pay attention to. But to make this point, I don’t want to focus on religion. I want to focus on what my former mentor and teacher, Newton Garver, focuses in on: paying attention to persons.
What does it mean to pay attention to a person? A person is a whole, the sum of many parts, and what is most definitive of persons is not our syntax but our semantics (if that metaphor makes sense). I do not pay attention to you if I am focused on the hairs protruding from your nose and the way that they flutter when you exhale. I might be paying very good attention to those hairs, but in so doing I am not paying attention to you.
But the same is true if I pay attention to your nervous system, or your skeletal system, or your brain. If I study you the way a scientist might, I am failing to pay attention to the person. I am focused on the grammatical structure of a sentence, or the word order, or the use of punctuation, or the shape of the letters—not on what the sentence means.
I don’t want this point to hinge on what we think about the relationship between mind and brain. But it certainly is true that I cannot pay attention to a person if I am not paying attention to them as conscious beings—beings who experience, believe, hope, fear, anticipate, plan, intend, do. Subjectivity and agency, whatever their ultimate explanation, are clear loci of personhood. Persons experience the world and act in it. And even if you think that both of these things have their roots in brain processes, it’s still clear that I would not be paying attention to you as a person if I were fixated on understanding the inner workings of your brain.
It is one thing to attend to a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, something else to sit down with one’s music theory background and the score, and study how Beethoven constructed each movement. Both can be worthy exercises of our attention—but in each case, we're attending to something different. Perhaps what we're attending to are aspects or dimensions of a reality that's bigger than we can encompass all at once, in one single act of attention. Perhaps once we engage in piecemeal attention—to this, then to that, then to the other—we can arrive at an integrated attention to the whole that is more complete. Nevertheless, to experience the emergent whole is not the same as to study the parts out of which it emerges.
Loving a person means paying attention to the person—the subject who acts in the world, who grasps meanings and expresses those meanings in both verbal and nonverbal ways. To pay attention to a person means paying attention to what they’re doing, what they’re communicating, how they’re feeling, what they think and believe.
You don’t pay attention to a person if you reductionistically explain them away. You don’t pay attention to a person if your focus, when hearing what they say, is on attempting to understand how they could come to be so stupid. Nor are you paying attention if you’re trying to understand how they got to be so smart. Nor are you paying attention if your main goal is to understand their psychology so you can later manipulate them. Attention is a matter of openness, of having who they are enter into the fissures that you leave room for. This kind of attention does not primarily lead to propositional knowledge. You may not be able to come up with a list of facts about them. Nevertheless, if you’ve paid close attention, you know them.
What such attention to a person allows for is grasping something of their more private experience, as opposed to an array of empirical facts about them. And part of what paying attention to a person involves, I think, is treating what one thereby grasps as important, as meriting respect, even if it isn’t reducible to any empirical fact.
You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to atheists if you immediately assume that their atheism springs from a desire to be free from obligations to a creator to whom, were theism true, they’d owe their existence. You don’t pay this sort of respectful attention to theists if you immediately dismiss their religious experience as nothing more than wishful thinking.
None of us can communicate our whole selves to each other without considerable work, considerable efforts at self-expression on the one hand, and open, unprejudiced attention on the other. And even then, the communication will be incomplete. Nevertheless, there is a big difference between knowing someone as a subject, however incompletely, and knowing them as objects. It is the latter sort of knowledge that science is after, and insofar as we regard persons with nothing more than scientific attention, we are not attending to them as persons. We have reduced them to mere things in our sight—and however much we may be attending to their parts and processes (including psychological ones) we are not attending to them.
I think it is also possible to attend to the universe in something like the way that we attend to persons: holistically, focused on knowing it as opposed to knowing a litany of facts about it. Is it possible that this sort of attention—which is, I believe, what Weil has in mind when she speaks of prayer—opens us up to an aspect of the universe that is not available to the scientific eye? The universe as subject rather than mere object? Is it possible that this distinctive sort of loving attention is precisely what brings us into contact with the meaning beyond the universe's syntax, the person for whom the universe is an endless form of communication?
There are those who have sought to pay attention to the world in something like this way, and who report the same thing that Simone Weil reported on the basis of her efforts at absolute attention: a personal presence brimming with love.
Dismissal is, of course, easy. Not everyone has this experience. It could be mere delusion. But is dismissal required? By what? By the urgings of our own imagination, which fills up the spaces beyond science’s limits with emptiness?
As I said, sometimes I pay attention to my children while they play. I really pay attention, so fully that I lose myself and my agendas. And it is then that I’m most overwhelmed with the beauty and goodness of what I see. Put simply: In my experience beauty and goodness overwhelm me, they most seize hold of me, when I am least invested, when my desires and dreams and hopes have been pushed back to make a space for what I’m attending to, so that it may flood in. Does it then make sense to say that beauty and goodness are nothing more than subjective projections, that these things aren’t part of reality, that they must be imposed upon reality by me in that moment, even though it seems to be the very moment when my stuff has been most successfully put away?
Why? Is this judgment really rooted in the weight of evidence? Or is it, rather, rooted in an exercise of imagination, one which, again, fills up those dimensions of reality outside the domain of scientific inquiry with gobs of emptiness?
It may, indeed, be very hard for all of us to distinguish between the products of imagination and the outcomes of pure attention. Real attention may be so hard that few of us actually achieve it, even when we tell ourselves that we have. It is possible that my religious experiences (far less vivid than Weil's, but of the same general kind) are the outcomes of my imagination filling up the void, and I'm just telling myself that I'm paying attention? Of course that's a possibility.
But there are other possibilities. And in our efforts to attend to each other, we fall short to the extent that we treat some possibilities as certainties, and others as impossible.