About Dr. Richard Grego
Richard Grego, a professor at Florida State College, Jacksonville, holds M.A. degrees in philosophy, history, and Hindu philosophy, along with an interdisciplinary doctorate from SUNY Albany. His research delves into cross-cultural themes in religion, science, and philosophy, covering comparative mind-consciousness theories, metaphysical implications of physics and cosmology, and connections among world religions, philosophies, and civilizations. He has published on history-philosophy of science, nature conceptions, and comparative mind-consciousness perspectives.
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Shai Tubali: Hello, everyone. I am honored and overjoyed to engage in discussion with Richard Gregor as a part of 1000 Reasons for Feeling Awe. Richard Gregor is a professor of philosophy and cultural history at Florida State College in Jacksonville. as a founding philosopher and researcher. is particularly interested in cross-cultural themes in the philosophy of religion and science, including comparative theories of mind and consciousness, the metaphysical implications of theoretical physics and scientific cosmology, and comparative world religions, philosophies, and civilizations. I’m so happy to have you here, Richard.
Richard Grego: Thanks. It’s an honor to be here, sir.
Shai Tubali: And I’m so curious to hear what your chosen reason for being in awe is. I’m sure that your work as a philosopher is steeped in awe, but you are also, I think, a spiritually engaged human being, and probably both fields intersect somehow. So perhaps we could start by just hearing what your selected reason for feeling awe might be.
Richard Grego: You know, I guess to some extent, to begin with, I hesitate even, and I think you’d understand this as a fellow Krishnamurti scholar in some sense, to even try to describe personal experiences of awe, although I can do that, and I will, if you wish, just for the very reason that I think not just Krishnamurti but the whole philosophical tradition that you are also familiar with, right? From Nagarjuna and the Tao, Taoism. The Tao that can be named is not the Tao, and Nagarjuna’s notion of emptiness. And St. Augustine in the Christian tradition talking about how he knows what God and time are, but if you try to ask him what they are, that’s when he loses it.
And even Alfred North Whitehead, the famous philosopher of science in the 20th century, talked about things like what he called reification and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, where the minute you try to summarize something in quantifiable, measurable, or even verbally descriptive terms, you kind of lose it as well. I guess I’d say any personal experience I describe would come with the qualification that probably any terms I use to describe it really don’t do it justice. I think you get what I’m talking about, right?
Shai Tubali: Yes, I do. Yes. Nevertheless.
Richard Grego: Okay. Having said that, one of the ways that I think personally I connect with awe, and really, God knows, I’m sure everybody does. If they don’t, God help them in life, right? I think awe is essentially the Summum Bonum of a worthwhile existence. But for me, I can’t point to a particular epiphany I’ve had or anything like that. But I think my moments approaching awe, at least, have a lot to do with experiences in nature and engaging with nature in the natural world. Just standing on a beach with the blue sea and sky and an infinite expanse around you and the thunderclouds towering dreamily into the heavens over this horizon that seems to stretch away into the boundless reaches of eternity I think that’s certainly something about living in Florida that is an experience that generates awe within me.
And I think even if this is what you want me to address, I assume that is the question you want. Am I answering the right question?
Shai Tubali: Well, you are describing experiences of awe. I’m wondering, by the way, as a philosopher, do your self-reflective philosophical tendencies enter into such moments?
Richard Grego: That’s a great point. I think largely, as that monologue I went on about Taoism and Krishnamurti and everything and Alfred North Whitehead would suggest, I think sometimes they enter into those instances in a negative way, in the sense that, as Krishnamurti reminds us, as soon as you start thinking about it, there’s a sense in which you lose it, right? The experience. And what did he say you would remember? Didn’t he tell a kid one time during one of his talks that if you watch a bird and you teach the kid to name the bird, he’ll never see it again? I don’t know. Do you recall that?
Shai Tubali: I’m aware of the quote, yes.
Richard Grego: Yeah. So, in some sense, I think intellectualizing experiences via philosophy can be an impediment. But I do think that after the fact, upon reflection, when I’m trying to integrate those experiences into my life and into my sense of purpose in life. And then I think, the philosophers that I’m interested in, the philosophies, the schools of philosophy, and the themes they explore resonate really profoundly with what I’ve experienced. Is that sort of what you’re asking about?
Shai Tubali: Yes. So here is what interests me because you’re describing this kind of disconnect, or the moment in which there is a separation between the awe experience or the direct experience and the philosophical musing, right?
Richard Grego: Right.
Shai Tubali: What I’m interested in isn’t the philosophical act itself; doesn’t it start with awe? This means, isn’t that a continuation or an extension of this awe experience and, is in itself, an expression of awe? Because when I’m beginning to introspect, when I’m beginning to contemplate, for instance, my own consciousness, doesn’t that start with a question that originally started in a state of awe?
Richard Grego: Yeah. And again, I wonder if this is a persistent theme when you speak to people about that subject. I was just thinking of a cosmologist. I wonder if that’s what Einstein and some of the great cosmologists of history used to say. And the philosopher Aristotle, I believe, said that philosophy begins in wonder, which is a great quote. I don’t really care for Aristotle that much, but that’s a great quote, and I think it’s very true. So yes, I guess ultimately my own philosophical quest began certainly, I mean, I would have become a lawyer, a doctor, a dentist, or something, if the experience of something deep and wondrous about existence didn’t fill me with a sense of awe. Is that what you mean?
Shai Tubali: Yes, that’s wonderful. Could we delve into that? Could you try to bring us closer to your own experience that propels you to philosophize because of awe?
Richard Grego: Yeah, gosh again. I think, to some extent, when I’m working as a professional philosopher, I tend to be so immersed in arguments. And again, this may be one of the limitations of that analytic philosophical tradition. I tend to be so immersed in arguments and addressing arguments that I’ve heard, working within a very particular intellectual tradition, and writing for an audience that’s going to be scrutinizing my arguments that sometimes, when I’m doing philosophy again, I lose touch with the awe that inspired my interest to begin with. But again, I think some of these experiences in nature don’t necessarily have to be that way. I remember one time just sitting in my backyard and hearing the whisper of wind chimes on a summer breeze on a calm day.
That brought to mind a poem by Rumi and a poem by William Blake, or at least verses from them, that then made me think about what it is that thinkers like, say, Lao Tzu are talking about when he’s just trying to describe the ineffable. Because for me, those moments of hearing wind chimes on a summer breeze and their significance are probably best described through poetry rather than philosophy. I think, like Heidegger, I’m ultimately all for the poets over the philosophers. But I think those are times in which my experience leads me to philosophical reflection, if that helps. How about you? I’m curious, Shai. You’re on a completely different level spiritually than I am. But you don’t seem to have any trouble.
You seem to have completely overcome that disconnect I’m talking about between philosophical reflection and deep spiritual revelation, if that’s the right word for it. I think you certainly seem to, listening to you, listening to your talks, and speaking with you, I get that impression. I don’t know if it’s wrong for me to ask you questions, but I just wonder: was that always the case with you? That you just had this sort of nondual experience of mind versus experience?
Shai Tubali: Yes, exactly. This is exactly my experience. Because if there is a certain experience that takes place, then naturally the mind that begins to reflect on it, that begins to observe it, and that begins to name it, and to theorize about it, and so on, they are not really different from one another. It’s a continuity. It’s something that flows from this experience.
Richard Grego: So there’s a difference, then, between, a constructive difference between a purely analytic or reflective kind of philosophizing and a kind of living philosophy, which is a living revelation that you’re experiencing even as you’re engaging in it. Does that make sense?
Shai Tubali: Yes, exactly. I think, for instance, if we experience an expansion of our consciousness, then understanding the nature of the expansion of consciousness and what is consciousness, these questions arise from the very same place that awe arises from, or that the direct experience arises from. Because I think that it all boils down to the very essence of a question. Right? Because when I ask, “Who am I?” And when I ask it philosophically or spiritually.
So, this is what I’m interested in. Because you seem to be able to embody and synthesize these two interests, right? The mystical, the spiritual, and the philosophical. So I’m really interested in where this question mark starts in you?
Richard Grego: Yeah, where it starts in me. That’s interesting. I guess it depends on what you mean. Do you mean where the experience of awe begins or where the experience of awe, translated into philosophical terms, begins? Is that what you mean?
Shai Tubali: Yes. How do mysticism and philosophy, for instance, meet for you? In you?
Richard Grego: Yeah. Gosh, it’s such a profound question. It’s hard to address, in a sense, I guess, to some extent now I think it’s evolved as I’ve matured, I guess, hopefully through life. And I suppose that’s the same for everyone. I think my big philosophical questions very often stem from the dawning realization of mortality, which, again, was an abstract sort of proposition when I was younger. But now, as I’ve gotten older and I’ve really lost people that I deeply and profoundly know and love, it’s become more of an existential reality to me, although I suppose it always was, or I wouldn’t have been so interested in these philosophies. But I think it’s become a more visceral and pressing concern for me. So that when I hear a philosopher like Socrates say that the purpose of philosophy is to prepare everybody for death, or when I read the Katha Upanishad, right, when there’s this dialogue literally with death. And about mortality and about the limitations and meaning of life. Or when I read Heidegger talking about nothingness and being, and that ultimately, what all of our struggle for purpose in life is, even if we’re unaware of it, involves our confrontation, all of us that we know about, even if it’s only in the back of our minds. And we hide from it all our lives until we are confronted with the vastness of non-being in some sense, or nothingness, which may be something subtly different from non-being. So I guess that for me now is the notion of mortality, which is not just, I guess, the end of biological life but the end of all the things you’ve lived throughout your life. That, I think, is largely where my philosophical interests and my deep, visceral experience of awe meet. Is that kind of what we’re getting at?
Shai Tubali: Yes.
Richard Grego: This is a lot like therapy.
Shai Tubali: And do you think that philosophy has therapeutic value in this kind of self-interrogation or questioning of the nature of immortality?
Richard Grego: Yeah, I think so. I think it can. I think it gives you, like poetry, a way of working through and expressing the ineffable in human experience. Well, something like that, yeah, expressing the ineffable and making it somehow a problem, if that’s the right word, a phenomenon that you can articulate and develop a framework or guideposts to help you understand it better in some ways. Or, if not better, at least help make it more authentic in your actual life. If that helps. Do you find that that’s the case?
Shai Tubali: Mostly not. Not when it comes to philosophy that, let’s say, separates itself from actual engagement in the questions and ponders in a way objectively or abstractly these questions. But when it comes, for instance, to Socrates or to the Katha Upanishad, when it comes to these types of philosophies that have really made it their purpose to resolve actual problems in life.
Richard Grego: Definitely. Yeah. And I can see that in your writing and in your scholarship, you really seem to want to work with thinkers like Krishnamurti, for instance, and Socrates, certainly, Lao Tzu, I guess, and the authors of the Upanishads, for whom the philosophical reflection and the experience of awe were interconnected and interdependent in such a way that you were experiencing and engaging awe in the very act of reflecting on it, I guess, right? You were working through the living experience of it while you were reflecting on it. Boy, that’s difficult, I think. And maybe it’s me. It doesn’t seem difficult for you, obviously, because that’s what you do in your work. I mean, in your teaching. So you tell me, since this is such a great therapy session, what’s the reason for that disconnect?
What do you think the reason is for that disconnect among so many thinkers? Is it a Western problem? Is it the kind of thing that Western philosophers are particularly hung up on? Is that my problem? Was I conditioned to think that way more? Or is it something deeper than that?
Shai Tubali: Well, I think perhaps we tend to forget when we begin to philosophize that our questioning arises from an existential crisis. This is where the disconnect begins. Because I think, for instance, when you’re talking about seeking answers to the problem of immortality or to the dread of immortality, this is an existential terror or an existential confusion. But then, when we enter the world of philosophy, we begin to conceptualize it to a degree that eventually we don’t speak about death. We speak about ideas about death.
Richard Grego: Yeah, yeah.
Shai Tubali: And this is definitely a Western tendency, yes.
Richard Grego: Yeah.
Shai Tubali: An objectifying tendency.
Richard Grego: Yeah.
Shai Tubali: Yes. That separates subject from object.
Richard Grego: Right. And I guess now you’ve mentioned it’s endemic to the human condition, as, you know, Freud would probably describe that as sort of an ego defense. Right? And certainly other people did. Abraham Maslow and his famous philosophy of science, a psychologist Abraham Maslow and his famous book “The Psychology of Science” talked about intellectualizing or rationalizing as literally an ego defence by which we can really escape the profound experience of entering into these questions and the places where that can take us by turning it into an abstract problem. And then you can remove yourself from it, like you said, from a safe subject, object, or distance, and just sort of think about it with critical analysis as opposed to experiencing it with your whole being.
Shai Tubali: Right. So would you say that, usually, philosophers tend to be troubled by philosophical problems that originate in their own existential crises?
Richard Grego: Sure, yeah, I do hear them talking about that very often. You hear psychologists doing this very often. I’ve heard people give that kind of testimony that, gosh, I went into this field because of all these existential questions in my heart that I was passionate about because I was living them. And then I got processed through an academic system that trains you—literally trains you—and you know this as well as I do. You’ve just been through it. It trains you to turn living experience into abstractions so that you can say very safe things about it, put it down in books, and have other people who are involved in the same game that you are reflect on it and say clever things and get recognition for it without ever really suffering. And maybe is that what it is?
Is that why I’m afraid, or are other philosophers afraid to encounter awe in its depth? Is the suffering not melodramatic but inevitably, right? The pain or the suffering that it entails despite the great things I’m sure that it entails. Do you think that’s the problem? Is that why people do that?
Shai Tubali: These are really provocative questions.
Richard Grego: Sorry. I know you’re supposed to be interviewing me. I come to you for wisdom. So, I thought this would be a great opportunity.
Shai Tubali: Yeah. But I will insist on my role as an interviewer now.
Richard Grego: Fair enough.
Shai Tubali: And I will ask you: let’s take the position of one who observes those who have managed to have reflection as a continuation of awe-experience, or a reflection that really involves existential crises, and existential insistence on resolutions, and so on. How would you describe this awe of reflection? How could reflection be an act of awe? When you look at figures like Socrates or Yama in the Katha Upanishad and so on?
Richard Grego: Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s a kind of mode of inquiry that involves your whole being. And I think that’s something that they all have in common from Socrates to Krishnamurti. Right. I think something that they all have in common is that they’re inquiring, or they’re at least inviting you to inquire into something with your whole being. I think with your, just reading this fascinating book by a neuroscientist named Iain McGilchrist, I’d recommend it to you. He wrote two great books. One is called “the emperor and his messenger”. Another one is called “The Matter with Things.” Absolutely fascinating. He’s a true Renaissance thinker. He was both a literary scholar and a neuroscientist; he literally had degrees in both. He taught at Oxford, and he talks extensively about the connection between all these fields.
And he was talking about the difference between, you know people always talk about the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain division. And he does very much what we’re talking about here. He connects to awe. He thinks that the purpose of not only intellectual thought but also human life is to connect with awe. And he thinks that the separation between many people’s lives and awe, which is particularly reinforced in contemporary society, has to do with employing different hemispheres of the brain. I guess that was one of his specialties as a neuroscientist. And of course, the right hemisphere is all about intuition, imagination, art, aesthetics, and emotion, which allow you to essentially enter into experience in a visceral, primal kind of primordial way.
And then you’ve got the left hemisphere of the brain, which tends to abstract, to rationalize, and to turn experiences, rather than being mysteries to be lived, into problems to be solved. And his theory is that our society has generally reinforced the development of these left-hemisphere powers to their exclusion. And it has sort of marginalized these right hemisphere capabilities such that left hemisphere capabilities, literally in our neurology and our neural pathways in the mind, have become so trained to rationalize, and abstract, and solve problems that we have started to notice that the other dimension of our intellect has begun to atrophy, literally not only in our intellectual experience but literally in our brain. We don’t develop those neural pathways.
And I think philosophers who managed to turn philosophy into a true existentially awakening experience, you could see it in those terms, right? They’ve learned to activate those centers of the brain and make them primordial. And the dimension of the intellect of the brain that turns those experiences into problems. They have learned to be subservient to the more important right hemisphere.
I don’t know if that’s a good illustration of what I’m trying to say or not, but I think that’s what enlightened philosophers like yourself seem to be very adroid at doing. Here’s the point where I want to start asking you questions, but I’ll refrain. I wonder if you would think that’s one of the problems, not just in the west, although I think this society is particularly adroid at getting people to be more left-brained than right-brained.
But I wonder if that’s one of the problems with human experience generally. I don’t know. But in answer to your question, I do think you need to be able to do that to experience awe. And you certainly need to be able to do that to incorporate and manifest the experience of awe in any practical experience or practical task. And I think the philosophers and thinkers who’ve been able to do that are the ones who are really the truly profound ones. And maybe that’s why I like poetry so much, because I think maybe poets do exactly that, don’t they? They experience the ineffable through the depths of their imagination and intuition. They are able to manifest that in the immediacy of beautiful words, somehow describing what’s indescribable. Does that make sense? I don’t know.
Shai Tubali: Yes, I think they all originate from the same source. Again, this kind of question mark or being in awe in the face of existence, and then the question begins. So the poet captures this kind of pure experience of awe or the purity of the moment, and then the philosophical mind begins to ask questions about it. What is it? What is the nature of it? So in a way, I think the philosophical mind can be at the service of this kind of pure moment.
Richard Grego: Yeah. And I guess it’s difficult when you’re a professional scholar because you’re constantly stepping out of the deeper dimensions of that. You’re sort of working in that more narrowly confined, objective, analytic space. So that’s, I think, one of the challenges of doing that. And maybe that’s why the truly seminal philosophical figures were people like Socrates, like Lao Tzu, like Confucius, who maybe were not as much Confucius but in general were not primarily men of letters or professional scholars. They were people who were working through the existential problems and crises that they were addressing, even as they were philosophizing. Krishnamurti’s and Socrates’ dialogues may be great examples of that, and I think you’d agree. As a matter of fact, this is one of your themes as well in your own scholarship, isn’t that so?
Shai Tubali: Yes, so you’re saying something quite radical, that actual philosophy takes place outside the academic quarrels.
Richard Grego: Really. Right. I mean, you have these seminal figures like Socrates and Confucius and the Neo-Confucians and the Upanishads and all these traditions that were founded and established by people who were able to do “living philosophy,” if that’s a good word for it. And now, you have generation after generation in the 20th century, 21st century, and 18th century of people developing ideas about what these people said. And talking about making abstractions out of what they said and talking exclusively in terms of those. Right. I think Nietzsche once said, the existentialist philosopher, of course, somebody asked him about or maybe his writing about Jesus, the significance of Jesus, another living philosopher, and then about Christianity. And maybe you’re familiar with the quote he said: “Well, the last Christian died on the cross.” And you knew you had Jesus, and then after him everything else is just footnotes. Right?
They’re people arguing over abstractions they created about his deep insights. I think that’s a genuine problem. I mean in terms of an awe-deprived life that I think most people and in our culture have, and this isn’t just intellectual; I think people who are staring at their phone screens all day and thinking about work, doing their 60-hour-a-week jobs, are all about, again, just this left-hemisphere kind of mind and mode of consciousness, have a really hard time connecting with awe, with the experience of awe, and maybe don’t understand it anymore as much as perhaps people who have a lot of that way of life turned off. I don’t know. What do you think?
Shai Tubali: I will still insist on asking you one last question, because that’s really tempting. But I will still ask you the question. Does reading or studying philosophy sometimes leave you in awe? Are there certain philosophical texts that leave you in awe, just as you would feel when you are on the beach?
Richard Grego: Wow. Yeah, that’s a great question. I think some come close; some great poems, like the Romantic poems by poets speaking of nature, really do. I mean, some of those are poetic verses. There’s nothing more beautiful. Music, right? A beautiful piece of music comes close. And there are great philosophical concepts there. I think some of the greatest philosophers in the world are poets, musicians, and artists. But there is, to be specific, Krishnamurti’s “Freedom from the Known”, chapter ten. I could quote you paragraphs. As a matter of fact, I was just working on something. I’ve got them in front of me. That’s what’s bringing them to mind. Heidegger’s essay “What is metaphysics?” and his other essay, “The Essence of Truth.”
And interestingly, those are two very different, you could juxtapose those two explorers very creatively because, on the one hand, Krishnamurti is all about the immediacy of what you’re feeling and thinking through things in their immediacy. Whereas Heidegger at least sounds, when you read him, so abstract. But there is something about his abstraction that sort of forces your mind to be quiet. And in that stillness, what he would call the “soundless voice of being” is capable of emerging. And you feel this profound immediacy of existence and presence of the world that sort of reveals the magnitude of its beauty, and wonder, and meaning in a way that you wouldn’t normally. And maybe it’s because they force you to a place where your mind does become still, and maybe that’s the key. Does that answer your question? I’m not sure.
Shai Tubali: Oh yes, oh yes.
Richard Grego: Those are two examples for me. I mean, you’ve written about the other existentialists, like Camus, certainly his thing, and even Jean-Paul Sartre, you know, a colleague of his who talked about concepts like being and nothingness, and the absurd, and existential freedom, and things like that. But he pushed them to the extent where he had you enter into those experiences if you give him a chance, right? If you give his writing a chance, you enter into that kind of mode of consciousness. And those can bring about, I think, a sense of awe, maybe just as much as standing on the beach. And you know in some of the great stories, too. In contrast to the existentialists, for whom life is absurd and meaningless.
You have the other side of that same coin with philosophies like Vedanta, in which everything is sacred, right? Because it recognizes the absurdity at the same time. Or Taoism, right? Where you have this ying-yang confluence of meaninglessness and ultimate meaning. And some of the stories, I think, from the Upanishads or from religious traditions. I remember there’s a great story from the Sikh tradition about Guru Nanak when he traveled through the Middle East. He was traveling through the Middle East, and he was sleeping one night with his feet pointed eastward. I guess that for him, it would be west. Anyway, some imam, a local imam, was around, and he started screaming at Guru Nanak because he said, “You’re dishonoring God.” And Nanak said, “Why?”
And he said, “Because your feet are pointed toward Mecca. And you’re dishonouring God by doing that sign of disrespect.” And Nanak said, “Well, fine, I’ll sleep however you want me to, but just show me a place where God isn’t residing, and I’ll point my feet in that direction.”
I think that’s a great juxtaposition, right? As Sartre said, it doesn’t matter because everything is absurd. Nothing matters. Doesn’t matter. I think one great quote was “It doesn’t matter if you spent your whole life drinking in a bar or you became a saint.” Either way, it’s all the same. Right? Because everything’s meaningless. Whereas you have some of these great traditions that remind us everything, in a sense is meaningless, because it’s meaningless as an abstraction, but it’s also God-imbued, right? It’s filled with God in that sense.
And in a deeper sense, you find that everything is sacred if you’re willing to face the sort of nihilism that some of the great existentialists would like us to experience. So that, to me, is also I think an invitation to awe.
Shai Tubali: That’s absolutely wonderful. And I’m so grateful for this lively, engaging, and thought-provoking, and heart-provoking discussion. So, thank you so much, Richard.
Richard Grego: Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it.