Thursday, March 27, 2008

William Blake and the Doors

Jim Morrison's 1960's rock group, The Doors, took its name from one of William Blake's poems, in which Blake laments the spiritual blindness of humans:

If the doors of perception were cleansed,
Everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
Till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.

Blake's concern here revolves around the relation between reality and perception. He sees that, as a result of the Fall, as a result of the imperfections which have become part of human nature, our perception of reality is inaccurate. Can we fix our perceptions? Can we learn to see things as they really are? In addition to being a poet and a painter, and engaging in other forms of the visual arts (e.g., drawings, engravings, etc.), Blake is here concerned with what is fundamentally a philosophical question: to what extent can humans have clear and unhindered access to reality? To what extent can I escape my own bias and prejudice to see things as they really are?

Blake's answer is found in the title of one of his short writings, "There is No Natural Religion", and places him into the midst of one of the great philosophical debates, not only of his era, but also of our era.

The discussion revolves around two possible versions of religious thought: "natural religion" is a view championed by rationalist philosophers, who thought that the most accurate information about God is available to human reason through the process of logical reflection; "revealed religion" is alternative, endorsed by empirical philosophers, who state that only by examining external evidence (mainly texts) can humans correctly inform themselves about God.

By endorsing the idea of "revealed religion" and rejecting the idea of "natural religion," Blake joins Issac Newton, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. For Blake, then, rational thinking and logical argumentation alone are not enough to fully inform us about reality. To "cleanse the doors of perception," Blake wants us to use our five senses to learn additional information, important information, about God. Logic and reason, says Blake, will tell us perhaps, at most, that God exists, and that He created the universe. But to learn the more interesting and relevant facts about God, i.e., that He loves all humans, that He forgives sins, etc., Blake tells us to use our senses, to study nature, to study texts and language, and to see the ultimate power which lies at the base of all which we experience.