Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Divine Universe?

[WARNING: You may need a special helmet for this one.]

I bought a bike helmet the other day. It reminds me of my hockey helmet when I was a kid. Hockey is an expensive sport: ice-time fees, new equipment every few years, regular out of town trips often overnight, etc. My parents indulged me; and yet, though we had more money than most, every time the style in helmets changed, my teammates all had new helmets, and I still wore the same one, of a boxy, antique European design, well used when we bought it when I was just learning to skate, a style I don't think I ever saw on another Minnesota hockey player's head. It was adjustable, and I never did outgrow it, exchanging it only in high school when I was issued one like everybody else had. I remember that being a relief, though my new helmet was not nearly so safe, and wearing it, I cut my chin requiring stitches a half-dozen times. It didn't occur to me that there was something very cool about my old helmet, nobody else having one like it, that it was made to last; anymore than I was aware of the global consequences of the middle-class consumer lifestyle that made my hockey playing possible, or that hockey helmets are derived from fossil fuels, or that you can make plastic helmets that don't toxify the biosphere.

I haven't been wearing a helmet, biking around the city. I rationalized that I didn't need one, because wearing one wouldn't make me any more aware. I never have worn one, even biking around the neighborhood when I was a kid. I even went over the handlebars a few times. Personally, I think television is more dangerous than city bike riding. But a few recent local incidents have reminded me of the fragility of the human head, and I take all information coming at me as a potential sign.

I recently found a helmet I liked, bright fluorescent green, but I didn't want to spend the $60. The helmet I did buy cost me twenty-five cents. The guy who sold it to me said his teenage daughter was embarrassed to ride with him because of it. It may not be cool from a mainstream, pop-cultural perspective, and it's not likely as safe as the spendier one, but it cost me a quarter dollar, and it's more protection than I had.

I felt like I needed a helmet this week, prowling around HuffPost, commenting on various blogs and articles, participating, as I like to think, in civil discourse, and otherwise trying to generate interest in this blog. I particularly needed it, after commenting on a blog post about the origin of spirituality, by the writer and neuro-scientist Michael Graziano, suggesting that spirituality arises out of the internal chemistry related to social intelligence, the emotions that arise out of our interaction with others. In other words, spirituality having a purely physical origin - and so being delusional, insofar as it supposes the existence of some inherent meaning beyond the physical (that last part is me extrapolating from Graziano's argument.)

For suggesting in my comment that Science has become something like a Religion, I was upbraided with language like this, by an anonymous fellow commenter, gunnerfan5:

How often is this piece of utter idiocy going to be repeated by people who do not have a clue about science? There is nothing of religion in science. It's a method of enquiry [sic], nothing more. The fact you have a computer shows how dependent you are on the products of that method but you use it to carp and whine about the intellectual processes which gave it to you.
This comment of yours is SO stupid and ignorant I am astonished that anyone could write it.


HuffPost didn't publish it, though I did have the opportunity to reply that I was not hiding behind an assumed name. That didn't stop him from saying quite a bit more about me, much of which was published. He was not alone, several others replying to my comment, not much of it positive, hardly a word of it actually apprehending my actual point. I think I have a right to expect critical thinking and the ability to apprehend an argument, especially from those who claim to be versed in the scientific method. But then, we don't really teach critical thinking in America. Nor do we value it. More, we like to take a single word or sentence and extrapolate from it whatever we want, condemning the whole, secure in our righteousness, slowly closing ourselves off to a world of ideas.

On HuffPost, my words are rarely received so viciously as when I dare to suggest that Science is something more than simply a method. More than a method of inquiry, it is also a framework for looking at the world, which is reinforced by our limitless desire for a better life and our insatiability for consumer goods. Scientific materialism, grounded in evolutionary theory, excludes any sense of the divine nature of being. Removing any sense of the divine, it opens the door to the exploitation of anything, at any time, for any reason. It does this because it has supposed itself to be a counterpoint to Religion, and not merely a method of inquiry into physical processes. It has come to suppose itself the arbiter of all understanding, blind to the reality that scientific materialists fall into the same traps of orthodoxy that ensnare the religious, or the ways in which scientific materialism is a kissing cousin to the capitalistic pursuits that are driving the biosphere to the edge of ecological oblivion.

Consider that one can not really suggest evolutionary theory has serious flaws, without being cast as a raging fundamentalist in service to a violent God; one cannot reason with such absolute thinking. Within evolutionary theory there are inexplicably radical transformations in the appearance of life at various evolutionary stages, some creatures seeming to arise without precedent. That the DNA molecule and its seeming code could have arisen out of any primordial ooze accidentally, for no reason, strains the boundaries of the absurd. But none of this prevents many scientific materialists from acting as if even the mention of the word divine is a sign of profound mental illness demanding heavy doses of pharmaceuticals, and preferably restraints.

To be fair, the abuse I've taken on HuffPost isn't like being burned at the stake. I don't expect the children of Science to stoop to the kinds of evil the children of Religion have been capable of. Religions, just about one and all, preceded Science in the divesting from the world any sense of the divine, placing the divine in some nether world unreachable, until such time as death - accessible so long as you have done all you have been told to do, including even the slaughter of innocents. Religion not having much to do with the divine, really, but more a temporally derived system of social organization reinforcing hierarchy, or the right of the few to rule over the many.

Science, as a method, is indeed responsible for much of the good that has come in the evolution of civilization, lifting us out of the darkness of religious rule. It has helped awaken us to our place in the Universe. Science is deeply important to our continued evolution on this planet.

As a paradigm to align ones world view, it is limited however. It is subject to both the vagaries of hubris and greed. It has blind spots miles wide. If I say the universal vehicle is consciousness, Science can say nothing, because from a material perspective, it is a statement without meaning. If I say the universe is divine, and you are of the universe, then you are divine, science loses its capital (as does religion), and can only proclaim that it does not know, or that I am simply wrong. And while my only evidence is myself, I can only otherwise offer, that as everyone is divine, then all that has been said and done by humanity is available to us as a guide, to be used in the exploration of that immeasurable infinite inside. Which is as scary for a scientist as anybody else. Though really when you think about it, if I am in fact divine, the point would be to be as clear as possible, as a medium for the flow of energy. The process of opening up isn't always pleasant though. Which is a massive understatement. Though it is equally an understatement to say how much better one feels the more freely energy flows.

I don't know what Science has to say about what, if anything, is emanating out from the center of the galaxy, but I feel something like love. And humor. Like it's being amplified by the sun, and so there's an abundance of new energy available to each of us, right now. To choose to open oneself to the divine is a choice we all have. Few of us know we have that choice, and if we do we tend to think we have to follow a path someone else has defined. As if the only way to express energy is to filter it through some widely accepted, though tired, restrictive, limiting channel. From the perspective that the universe is divine, then the only path that can be yours is the one that leads to and from the internal life. Only you can know the man or woman you wish to be. Only you can truly know who you are and why you are here.

Of course, from most perspectives, that's just crazy talk. But I don't write for those who are afraid of the infinite, or for those who wish to dominate others, or be dominated. I write for the courageous ones who are willing to look inside, so as to look clearly at the world outside, to be clear in this world. And never have times called for a greater need to get clear within oneself, in relation to the biosphere and the culture, in the midst of a profoundly mysterious universe.

And really, saying the Universe is divine doesn't in any way negate the notion that spirituality arises out of the physical, as Graziano suggests. It simply means that the physical out of which the spiritual arises, is in itself divine. Which opens up the physical to infinite possibilities.

Anyway, I've got a helmet now, to protect me on my travels in this crazy world. I was thinking I might paint it copper, maybe stick some hawk or turkey feathers in it. Though I don't invest much energy in standing out for the sake of standing out. I'm fine too, just looking like an idiot who needs a special helmet. Such judgments being for those who do not know themselves.

He


Said


What?

24 comments:

Luciddreams said...

Well I typed a comment that when over the 4096 word limit and so I copied and pasted my comment into my own blog. I'm not shamelessly trying to vie for your readers attention and time by doing what I'm doing, but I felt that my comment needed it's own place. Don't worry, I give you credit. So here is what your philosophical questioning resulted in:

http://emtmusings.blogspot.com/2011/08/stolen-blog.html

Thardiust said...

Your latest peace actually reminds me of The Phenomenon Of Man, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."

http://rappamelo.com/2010/08/exile-radio-amfm/

mwk said...

Actually, that's a pretty decent looking helmet, that style is coming back, you know?

Justin said...

That is straightforwardedly true though. Science, all of it, is the business of creating theoretical models of the physical world. Those models are abstract constructs that are supposed to do the job of reasonably predicting real world phenomena. One must, by definition, have faith that those models describe the world as it is, even when they appear to prove accurate. That is a leap of faith, no model or theory has ever been proven correct, it has only been refined to a high degree of predictive and repeatable accuracy. However, even then things go haywire unexpectedly at unexpected time when the assumptions of the models are compromised by real world events.

There is a faith to it in a very literal sense.

Continuing this though, science is very much akin to religion. Religion attempts to predict and explain the physical world through conscious deities, science does the same through constructs and models lacking any morality or conscious.

The sciences of humanity are probably the worst faring of all branches. Economics and sociology or psychology have offered very little in my view to actually explain humanity, and serve the function of providing tools of control to elites through something akin to Heisenberg's Uncertainty applied to humans. If you want a society of atomized sociopaths who elevate money and illusions of wealth above the health of their landbase and community, then drill it into their heads that they are self-interested rational men, they will perform to expectations. Likewise, if you need to create zombified underclass, manufacture a gillion psychological diseases and medicines to treat them, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, a 'disorder' of being too independant to authority.

Justin said...

Mr. Duncan,
I invite you for further discussion of my own view. I am interested in these topics immensely, especially having lived most of my life as an avowedly Cartesian atheist with a very dead sense of spirituality and bleak outlook on humanity.

I don't mind if you withhold this comment from publish, I think it is tacky to link whore oneself, or, rather, I don't want to be seen as hijacking. (I've been writing a book since the spring since what I would call my own awakening moment. )

http://conepost.blogspot.com/2011/06/man-and-god.html
http://conepost.blogspot.com/2011/07/narrative.html
http://conepost.blogspot.com/2011/08/on-immortality-skipping-stones-across.html
http://conepost.blogspot.com/2011/07/social-networks.html

Skye said...

I happen to enjoy your blog, but I'm one of those atheistic scientific materialists, so allow me this attempt at a defense.

We should distinguish between science and scientists. Science as an ideal is adaptive in that it adjusts to new information. The "perfect scientist" would not be so attached to scientific theories that he would insult or reject legitimate data that appears to weaken them. For him, such challenges would represent an opportunity to expand our knowledge. Just as importantly, he would find no fault in admitting that he does not have every answer, though he might be inclined to add "yet."

The responses to your "Huffington posts" show that we are still far from this ideal. When our cherished beliefs are challenged or even questioned, we all too often perceive an attack, so we respond in kind. I have no doubt that, had our world developed slightly differently, it could have been the scientific materialists burning others at the stake. To be fair, however, sometimes the sort of response you received is merely conditioned by repeated exposure to religious people who oppose scientific theories on principle rather than over data or logic. Over time, those people come to represent the opposition in its entirety. That, too, is a mistake, but understandable.

...

I don't agree that "removing any sense of the divine...opens the door to the exploitation of anything, at any time, for any reason." Although I understand the sentiment, I have to ask a fundamental question: what is the source of ethics? Have all people with a supposed sense of the divine been models of ethical behavior? Have all people with no sense of the divine been models of unethical behavior? The door to exploitation is always open. Whether we walk through it or not is another matter.

Of course, I may simply be misunderstanding your notion of divinity, but I wonder if you would even be willing to define it in the first place. And that is one of the great obstacles for people like me. The more poorly defined a concept, the less meaningful it is to us in a practical sense. The less one can say about God, for example, the less it seems to matter in our lives. Certainly, a concept without definition eludes testing, which is the foundation of science.

But I am also too aware of cognitive biases (of which we have very many) to be so quick to apply meaning in the patterns I perceive--or so I tell myself. Pattern-seeking is essential to our intelligence, but it is also detrimental when we make too much of our perceptions, apply causation to mere correlation, connect completely unrelated events, etc. This is largely the process behind partisanship, conspiracy theories, literary analysis, and quite a bit of religion. All it often takes is a small desire to see something for confirmation bias to take effect.

I know it's all too easy to use that argument to dismiss anything that doesn't fit into one's own worldview and I know that science as practiced is also not free from its effects. But I do believe that the scientific method, when practiced properly, produces the most reliable information about our universe. Something might exist beyond the scope of science, but without a method to test it, it appears that we are as likely to, say, face a benevolent god in an afterlife as we are to face a malevolent one.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Luciddreams,
I drank some craft beers last night and thought more about it. But I'm definitely starting to push the boundary of drinking too much. What was it the Oracle at Delphi said? Know Thyself and All Things in Moderation?

Thardiust,

Yes, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I've never read his work, though I'm familiar with the quote. What I speak of is something like that, but I make no claims to know anything about spiritual beings.
Good to see you back.

mwk,
I like to tell people I shaved my head before Michael Stipe or Billy Corgan did.

Justin,
Your last sentence reminds me of the the confusion around the word Anarchy, in people generally and among self-described anarchists - which I may be alluding to in the next post.

Skye,
I wish more scientific materialists thought as clearly as you do. I'll be expanding on what I mean by divine in the next post. I think you'll find, that my notion of the divine is more inspired by science than anything Religion has told us (with the possible exception of Taoism, which is a bit of a stretch to call a Religion.)

Luciddreams said...

Skye,

You ask where ethics come from but I'm not sure you gave your answer. I believe this question is only a couple of questions away from where philosophy begins.

What do we know to be true about our existence as humans? Individually all we can know is empirical. Science is a system for gaining knowledge about the physical world, but it fails to provide information about the mental world. The experience of I, or "I think therefore I am." Just because something is reproducible 99% of the time doesn't make it 100% true. I've seen things in my own life that defy physics, but I can't use those things to convince you or anybody else of anything.

For me it comes down to the question of where this all came from. That question cannot be answered by science. The big bang conveniently started from something, or did it? I would like a rational and scientific explanation to explain how something emanates from nothing.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Justin,

"...having lived most of my life as an avowedly Cartesian atheist with a very dead sense of spirituality and bleak outlook on humanity."

Dude, I feel for you. I spent most of my adult life recovering from an evangelical/alcoholic upbringing. I think that may explain too, some of the difference in the way we use words. You are harsher than I am, I think, but then I didn't spend a decade(s) as a Cartesian atheist. I'll be happy to look into your work. What I like is the basic soundness of your reasoning, which is a rare thing, even among atheists.


To Everybody Above,

Thank the Goddess, I've drawn some serious intelligence.

William Hunter Duncan said...

Justin,

I looked at your blog Americana. I tried to post a comment, but couldn't. Here it is:

Justin,

I think you are suffering from a Cartesian hangover in a divine world.

I wrote a book, the working title of which was Leaping From the Precipice. I too gave up everything of my middle class life and went on a journey. Though my journey was in part, in service to a woman and her children. It made no sense to anyone but me. I am no longer with them, I'm back in the house I left, and I have begun to see the world again in a way similar to the way I did when I was a child. I don't believe you will fail at all, unless you intend to. I recommend instead, you cultivate in yourself balance, wholeness and healing. If that is what you want for the world, find it in yourself. To me, you already seem well on that way.

WHD

Skye said...

"You ask where ethics come from but I'm not sure you gave your answer."

My own answer is not as important as the question. Different ethical systems have different origins, from rationality to tradition to emotion. What they are based on, what results they produce, and what sort of people they make (is someone who does "good" out of tradition as morally praiseworthy as someone who does it out of concern for his fellow humans or out of careful reasoning?) break ethics down even further. The point of the question was really just to challenge the idea that scientific materialism necessarily leads to exploitation or that an alternative system necessarily leads to harmony.

"Just because something is reproducible 99% of the time doesn't make it 100% true."

That is precisely why an attachment to scientific theories is inappropriate for a good scientist. It is good and necessary to admit the possibility of error. But I don't think that the possibility of error outweighs the massive advantage science has over alternative methods of understanding the world.

"Science is a system for gaining knowledge about the physical world, but it fails to provide information about the mental world."

The mental realm is an interesting case, but I'm not sure that it's impenetrable. As neuroscience and technology develop, we might come to a very different understanding of consciousness and thought. How would we perceive ourselves and our world if we could freely program memories, personalities, desires, and skills? If we could upload an identity to a new body or a machine? I'm not qualified to say whether we'll ever be able to do these things, but I do know that we can already see how changes to the brain--through damage or surgery, magnetic fields, medicine, or manipulation--can alter a subject's thoughts and behavior whether he wants the change or not and can reproduce some supposed out-of-body or otherwise "paranormal" effects. There are also some pretty bizarre mental disorders out there that deal with identity, with "I." I'm not going to call science a failure on this subject when it is just now beginning to understand.

If by "mental world" you meant something entirely different, do clarify.

"The big bang conveniently started from something, or did it? I would like a rational and scientific explanation to explain how something emanates from nothing."

I really can't say. I've heard some strange proposals from quantum physicists that challenge conventional logic on sub-atomic levels, but I certainly wouldn't be able to do them justice. In any case, it's not a terribly important question. Theists want to posit an illogical, untestable, supernatural origin for the universe, but usually reject the possibility of a universe that has always existed for the same reason atheists reject a Creator. To my knowledge, neither "side" has much of an advantage in the argument, but at least the question remains open for those who do not explain it away with a deity. Perhaps more importantly, the cosmological argument, even if valid, offers us no information about the Creator besides that it exists. It could be benevolent or malevolent, it could have rules for our lives or not, etc. It may have even ceased to exist since then.

You want a rational and scientific explanation. I can't give it to you. The best I can do is critique alternative explanations and, like everyone else, wait to see what we discover.

Luciddreams said...

Skye,

By "Mental World" I simply meant the experience of I and thought in general. Pertaining to substances causing certain experiences in the human mind, I would say that while we can recreate reactions in the mind what does that prove? Other than that certain substances affect the mind in certain ways. In my mind the brain is like a receiver and the body like the speakers. We are receiving our "humaneness" from spirit, or soul, or God if that's what you want to call it.

Having said that I must clarify that I do not believe in a creator God. I answer the question by saying that I have no problem with existence always having been with no beginning or ending. Consciousness has always been. I don't think science has that luxury. The work of science is finding out...eventually, but here the scientist has faith that is no different than the theist.

The scientist can say, "look, here are the physical results," to which the theist (or pantheist, or whatever religious/spiritual voice) can say, as the Buddha did, "do these things and you will know what I say to be true," however you must do them. They can't be reproduced in any objective way.

"You want a rational and scientific explanation. I can't give it to you. The best I can do is critique alternative explanations and, like everyone else, wait to see what we discover."

I appreciate your honesty here. So your faith or belief, is in the truth of science? Do you believe anything subjective about the nature of the human experience? Or is everything you believe summed up with the changing winds of scientific truths? In many ways the spiritual journey is no different than the scientific method. You are just employing that method subjectively within yourself.

Skye said...

"I would say that while we can recreate reactions in the mind what does that prove? Other than that certain substances affect the mind in certain ways."

For scientific materialists, it suggests a purely physical origin for consciousness, thought, etc. I'm not sure what alternative explanations would account for all of these effects. Would you suggest that the brain is simply a conduit for a soul? If that were the case, wouldn't we expect that alterations to the brain would merely impede or enable communication from the soul, not sometimes change personality or sense of identity altogether?

"I don't think science has that luxury. The work of science is finding out...eventually, but here the scientist has faith that is no different than the theist. "

I simply see no reason to believe anything in particular about the origins (or eternal presence) of existence itself. It is simply unknown right now, perhaps forever. I subscribe to scientific materialism not because I am certain that it will one day be able to resolve this problem, but because I see it as the only method that might. (What other scientific materialists think is their problem.) If we could somehow establish that this question is forever beyond the grasp of science, I would accept that and move on. After all, even if science can't explain the origin of existence, there is much more to learn and no guarantee that anything else is beyond our understanding. But I doubt that we'll abandon this issue, so it remains a project for science.

I hope I have shown that faith isn't really a part of this, or at least that faith applies only insofar as we believe that we do not live in the Matrix or a similar illusion. I'd say that that sort of faith is reasonable, as we have no reason to think that nothing is real. Other types of faith are not as reasonable, as they posit something beyond logic and perception. We might also distinguish between faiths through one's level of attachment to beliefs. I accept evolutionary theory, but I could replace it with a better model if one were presented. What would a better model be for the religious? Will they replace their holy text? No, attachment itself is largely what maintains religious beliefs.

"So your faith or belief, is in the truth of science? Do you believe anything subjective about the nature of the human experience? Or is everything you believe summed up with the changing winds of scientific truths?"

I will grant that a personal experience with something apparently supernatural/spiritual would reasonably lend weight to a belief in it from the individual's perspective. We just have to be careful about how we understand our experiences if we want to use them to talk about reality. For example: are ouija board experiences genuinely supernatural or can they be explained by the ideomotor response? Is speaking in tongues a spiritual experience or merely a neuroscientific phenomenon or learned behavior? Some might say that they can be all of the above without conflict, but that understanding of spirituality is unconventional and not really the issue here. My concern is the tendency to extrapolate objective knowledge from singular subjective experience, especially with all the cognitive biases from which our minds suffer. We all do this on a regular basis, but there is a difference between learning on your own to not put your hand in fire and learning on your own that there is a higher plane of existence wherein dwells all manner of fey creatures. The requirement of peer review in the scientific method keeps much of what may be hallucination or misinterpretation out.

Luciddreams said...

Skye,

How about an anecdote...I think it may illustrate where I'm personally coming from better.

I had a very lucid OBE (out of body experience) when I was 18 years old. I had been seeking for about a year at the time. I believe the OBE was brought on by two things: I had been practicing some pretty intense visual meditations at the time, and I wanted to KNOW what the truth of the human experience was.

Now, I'm 31, and to this day this particular OBE was the most real thing I had ever experienced. I've since had OBE's and I've gotten pretty proficient at lucid dreaming so I can tell the difference between the two. I have also tripped on LSD and shrooms before (after the OBE by the way) so I know what those states are like. I've been delirious with fever as well.

At one point during this OBE I turned around and saw myself sleeping approximately four feet away from my conscious self. That instant changed my life permanently. At the time I was a recovering Christian turned Atheist.

I have had other experiences similar to this since. These experiences are the only reason I "believe" there is more to consciousness than just chemical reactions in my brain. You see, I KNOW via experience. What I experienced was real and proof of consciousness beyond my body, but that only works for me subjectively. I get that it doesn't have much place in this discussion and i will gladly answer your other questions after this comment.

So you believe in the scientific method because it's the most correct vehicle for explaining the physical world. Now it's bleeding into the mental world. Zoloft will change your brain chemistry and I'm certain it messes with your "receivers" ability to receive truth.

Let me ask you an important question. What is sacred to you? As in, what does the idea of sacred mean to you? It would seem that it would mean nothing framed in a purely scientific world view.

Justin said...

"For scientific materialists, it suggests a purely physical origin for consciousness, thought, etc. I'm not sure what alternative explanations would account for all of these effects. Would you suggest that the brain is simply a conduit for a soul? If that were the case, wouldn't we expect that alterations to the brain would merely impede or enable communication from the soul, not sometimes change personality or sense of identity altogether?

Only if you assumed that the 'soul' has a personality rather than that the interpretation of a soul through a physical body results in physical behaviors that can cumulatively be interpreted as a personality by observing actions over time.

Take a metaphor, imagine a perfect musician, meaning someone who can play any instrument. If you modify the instrument he is playing, you may get much different sounds. If you remove all but one string from his violin, you are going to get a muted sound (read brain damage.) If you give him a different instrument, more different still. And so on. The character and texture of his music is determined largely by the condition and characteristics of the instrument.

To pull it back, I would say that science labors very hard to say very much at all about consciousness as a phenomena of human experience. Given that all of science is metaphorical in the sense that they are models, I find the model of a soul to have far more explicative power than any empirical model offered by science. And if the power of a model is determined ultimately by its explicative power, then I think science loses hands down.

A friend of mind thinks emotions are false because they are just illusory phenomena of biochemical reactions that we experience internally. I suggest to him that maybe it is not the emotion that is false, but the way in which he tries to understand it. Try and tell anyone that feeling sad is false, and illusion. That's a pretty stupid thing to say, and only possible if you are locked into appealing to the authority of scientific determinism to de-humanize any and all phenomena as a series of electric and chemical responses and dosages.

I am not anti-science either, I just think we have a tendency to appeal to its authority as some objective measure of what is real, and whatever is not explained by it is considered suspect.

Skye said...

Luciddreams,

"These experiences are the only reason I "believe" there is more to consciousness than just chemical reactions in my brain. You see, I KNOW via experience. What I experienced was real and proof of consciousness beyond my body, but that only works for me subjectively."

Assuming you can, during these OBEs, gather real-world information that would be otherwise unavailable to you in an unconscious state, I can accept your explanation of your OBEs. But the question isn't really whether or not consciousness extends beyond the body. The question is whether or not this extension is at all supernatural. We conventionally think of such phenomena as mystical, but we have done the same in the past for what we did not yet understand scientifically. Could there be physical explanations for your experiences? Could consciousness be affected by, say, magnetic fields outside the body? How all of the aspects of the physical world work together is yet unknown.

"What is sacred to you?"

As the term "sacred" is generally tied up with religion and/or spirituality, the question has no meaning for me. If you can define it outside of that context, I might be able to answer you.

Skye said...

Justin,

I suppose I can't imagine and argue against every possible definition of the "soul." The issue is, as you say, whether or not the particular model has explicative power and how it fares against alternative models. But I don't agree that the soul model has "far more explicative power than any empirical model offered by science." Precisely what does it explain? It suggests some supernatural origin for apparently physical phenomena, but what do we know of the supernatural? Your musician model seems plausible, but can you provide evidence that it is accurate as an analogy to consciousness? If we accept that proposal, shall we abandon the attempt to understand consciousness in purely physical terms? I would say that there is too much to lose for too little reason and that any supernatural explanation carries an enormous burden of proof by definition.

"A friend of mind thinks emotions are false because they are just illusory phenomena of biochemical reactions that we experience internally. I suggest to him that maybe it is not the emotion that is false, but the way in which he tries to understand it."

I agree with your words, but not with what you mean by them. What does it mean for an emotion to be false or illusory? What is real emotion? I think that this language and these thoughts help to perpetuate the problem they describe. Why must biochemical reactions be considered illegitimate and unsatisfying? What is the ideal to which we are comparing them and what are its implications?

I am reminded of the age-old free will vs. determinism debate. We cherish the concept of free will, but does a universe with free will really look any different from a universe without it? And is the reality of free will as important as the perception of it?

"...whatever is not explained by [science] is considered suspect."

Is this not fair? Is the burden of proof not on the one who makes the new claim? Some people view science as a fortress with impenetrable or nearly impenetrable walls, designed to keep out what it does not want. I see it as a filter to keep out misperceptions and misunderstandings that arise from the mind through cognitive biases that reinforce culture and personal interests instead of our closest approximation of reality. Of course, whether or not science is used properly is another matter.

I also see the world clinging to old ideas for the sake of comfort, wishing for them to be real so that the universe has some sort of objective meaning... whatever that means. I see a species resistant to paradigm shifts led by scientific discovery. I understand every bit of it and am guilty of it myself quite often; our brains may in fact be unable to truly process and accept what they are capable of discovering. That may even be for the best. (Yes, I think some illusions are acceptable for utilitarian purposes, provided they aren't abused. Just because we recognize on a scientific level that emotions are largely biochemical reactions does not mean that we must abandon our day-to-day perception of them.) But the resistance to these new ways of thinking is, in itself, nothing more than an obstacle if our goal is to understand the universe, improve medicine and technology, better predict human behavior, and so much more. I happen to believe that we can do this without remaining forever stuck in an economy and society of exploitation.

Justin said...

Skye,
"Your musician model seems plausible, but can you provide evidence that it is accurate as an analogy to consciousness?"

No, I have no evidence of it being accurate. Does the analogy/model resonate with you? Does it make more explicative sense to you as a model for understanding the accumulated experience of humanity being human than a series of charts and brain scans? If an alien landed on planet earth and interviewed you about what it was like to be human, and what human conciousness was like, how would you try to explain the experience of being human to it?

This is what I think is often lost on science. Its most cherished models and theories, like quantum physics, are no more reality than my pulled from thin air musician model. Mathematics and advanced calculus are similar constructs, they are not reality nor proofs of reality. In many contexts, they do a very good job of describing reality, but that does not mean they are reality. Reality is reality.

What I am trying to get at is that a model is only as good as its ability to communicate some kind of abstract information. In many contexts, scientific constructs work very well at this, especially for those who learn the language of science. In other contexts, like explaining human conciousness, science does a very poor job, in my view. And it will take it a long, long time and much effort to do about as good a job as my musician analogy did.

I also see the world clinging to old ideas for the sake of comfort, wishing for them to be real so that the universe has some sort of objective meaning... whatever that means.
Here we are in pretty close agreement. Platonic truth is an appeal to authority. In my view, we make our own meaning and we should own it. I don't see why we ought to trouble ourselves over subjective meaning, meaning is meaning. But, I suppose that gets to a crisis of self-confidence. Christian religion certainly has a vested interest in fostering insecurity on this point as a source of its power.

I see many of the current problems we have as a society due to our acceptance of this paradigm. Those of us who cling to the old religions are on one side, and those of us who feel there is no meaning outside of whatever we can get for ourselves are on the other. I believe a merging of the two ideals is in order. We can agree that meaning is subjective, and so long as we all more or less agree on what and how issues are meaningful, those become de facto objective standards. That is what I was getting at in my narrative article I shamelessly posted upthread.

Justin said...

I agree with your words, but not with what you mean by them. What does it mean for an emotion to be false or illusory? What is real emotion? I think that this language and these thoughts help to perpetuate the problem they describe. Why must biochemical reactions be considered illegitimate and unsatisfying? What is the ideal to which we are comparing them and what are its implications?
I don't think it means anything to say that an emotion is false or true. An emotion is, now how do we describe it? If a biochemical reaction explanation actually communicated the experience of an emotion rather than leading one to conclude it is meaningless, then I would accept it. The ideal question is one that I am not sure what you mean.

I am not saying that the science of human conciousness is a total waste or false in any objective sense, I am saying that it has not seemed to have added much to the discussion.

Conciousness in my view is an interesting subject, its primary purpose so far as I can tell is for socialization in complex systems so that we can work together (or apart.) It is best understood in metaphorical explanations and through systemic rather than atomic analysis. We are in an age of individualism, and I think as we try to understand consciousness in its atomic form at the individual level, we are left chasing our tails because much of its purpose and function is meaningless in a single unit. I think I might have gotten off track here...

Luciddreams said...

Skye,

"But the resistance to these new ways of thinking is, in itself, nothing more than an obstacle if our goal is to understand the universe, improve medicine and technology, better predict human behavior, and so much more. I happen to believe that we can do this without remaining forever stuck in an economy and society of exploitation."

I wish that I could be this optimistic but I'm not wired that way. The best I can do is optimistic pessimism.

I've been thinking a lot more than usual on the matter we have been discussing. I think my hang up is that I'm not able to imagine consciousness scientifically. The fact that I have awareness and can experience life can't just be electrochemical reactions. I suppose consciousness could be just that, but I am unable to believe it. I cannot understand consciousness without spirit. But then what breaths this consciousness into spirit itself? This is sort of the same question as how does something come from nothing. The answer is that it just does.

If this is true than how can one thing be more true than another? If consciousness came from nothing than how is science going to explain it? How can science ever explain it? It's the journey and not the destination that is important. Science will be forced to journey for eternity because the destination is nothing and nowhere.

All of the seriousness is perpetuated by our main flaw as beings. We want to know and that is the meaning behind the tree of knowledge and man's original sin. That one action sets everything else into motion because we already knew before we questioned. The point is to just be. All action should be towards reducing suffering and nothing else. Unfortunately our want gets in the way of this sacred goal.

Life is sacred. Sacred is tied up in religion but it doesn't have to be. Religion does not get to lay claim to truth, nor does science. I'll stop here in fear of becoming repetitive.

gotfredsonjp said...

Interesting, all of it. Everything being discussed here, of course, is human thought influenced by human language and limited by the human capacity to reason ("the mother of all burkas," as Richard Dawkins might call it).

Having passed through many philosophical extremes in my life, from fundamentalist Christian to angry atheist to "can't we all just get along," I wish there were a way for humans everywhere to respect the journeys of our fellows without resorting to judgment or anger. The judgment and anger, too, have to be respected, I suppose, since we all must pass through the "I'm-right-and-you're-wrong" defensive phase on one or more occasions during our life journeys.

I am currently trying to lessen my impact on the earth, be an understanding friend/son/brother/colleague, and find ways to gladden my heart and the hearts of others while I'm here. Sounds simplistic and unproductive, but it's what matters to me now. I reserve the right to pitch it all if I find a better way, but I'm thankful that I have the freedom to change my mind as often as I must.

Nice helmet, Hunter! It's very "you." You continue to inspire me.

Jeff G.

Justin said...

Skye,
In light of the last comment by gotfredsonj, I should add that I am not saying the scientific is an objectively wrong way of understanding conciousness or that a soul based understanding is objectively right; I am saying that one or the other carries more subjective meaning for me. I am going on to speculate that for most people I know, they run into seeming dead ends because the same is true of them, but they believe science is an objective standard, so when science tells them that conciousness is a few chemicals and nothing more, they believe it in spite of their own experience.

I should also say that both ways are right on their own terms; there is no dichotomy here. I choose one or the other because it carries more meaning for me and my life. I am ok with the subjective nature of that choice, we may as well be arguing over whether chocalate or vanilla is the best flavor of ice cream.

We are meaning making machines, if some way of making meaning does not describe some phenomena of our existence very well, find another way. If you believe science is doing the best job of interpreting and understanding what human consciousness is, then go with it, my only point is that you should not labor under any illusion that you are getting close to a Platonic truth. I say this as an atheist with a background in biochemistry.

Luciddreams said...

I agree with Justin's last post pretty thoroughly.

I think science gets a pass by scientists that they would not give to other methods of gaining knowledge. Yet science itself is pretty fluid and accepting of new information. It has the same problem religion has I think...it's practitioners give it a bad name more often than not. Just by their actions.

For instance, I can say that 9 times out of 10 when having this discussion with somebody in person who represents the scientific paradigm, they always come off as thinking themselves intellectually superior to any other view. This is where the something from nothing argument always comes up because to my mind it points out the absurdity of claiming science as superior to other ways of knowing.

Back to the pass I referred to that scientists freely hand out to science. Take the atom as an example. It's still taught with a nucleus of protons and neutrons with electrons orbiting like planets. Yet we know this is not accurate. It works for most all applications where understanding atom's behavior is concerned, but it's still not correct. As in, it's not true, yet science still teaches it because it's good enough. I'm not concerned with good enough. I concerned with true.

But Justin is right, we might as well be arguing about flavor of ice cream. I'm with Socrates on the matter. I'll argue about the flavor of ice cream if I think I might learn something from it, and more often than not...I do. Here again it's the journey that matters.

Skye said...

I was away for some time, so I only now have the chance to respond. Hopefully this comment isn't lost as the blog continues forward. In any case, I can't possibly respond to everything, so I'll focus on a few lines.

Justin,

"In other contexts, like explaining human conciousness, science does a very poor job, in my view. And it will take it a long, long time and much effort to do about as good a job as my musician analogy did."

I still don't see any value in the musician analogy, and certainly no more than the current scientific model has--at least not in the context I have been using. How is speaking of instruments or strings superior to speaking of the specific areas of the brain that regulate particular behaviors and perceptions? I'm not sure that we will ever be able to grasp a scientific model of consciousness intuitively, but that is largely because everything is filtered through consciousness and the "I" resists such quantification. It doesn't mean that the scientific model lacks objective explanatory power or that a Taoist metaphor has more; it only means that simpler analogies resonate with us. It might be comparable to how we process large numbers: we cannot truly fathom a trillion of anything even though we recognize that there can be a trillion of something, but if we break a trillion of that thing into parts or compare it to smaller and greater quantities, we can better grasp it. If that is the sort of explanatory power you see in the musician analogy, I can agree with you. I think this response covers your other reply to me as well.

Luciddreams,

"I think my hang up is that I'm not able to imagine consciousness scientifically."

I doubt anyone can--and I think that's for the best. But I do not allow this inability on my part to stop me from acknowledging the superiority of a (theoretical) scientific model. Justin's musician analogy is quaint and has explanatory power in the sense that others can intuitively grasp the explanation, but that's somewhat like explaining rain as nature's tears to people from a tribe that knows absolutely nothing about the natural processes behind it. They can grasp the "mystical" explanation because it fits the worldview they have developed, but it doesn't really explain anything in the way that the scientific model does. I admit, however, that consciousness is a unique subject whose nature in relation to us may make it forever incomprehensible except through the metaphors of philosophy or art.

Why are you pessimistic about our ability to maintain a scientific mindset while avoiding an economy and society of exploitation? Whether we will achieve this or not is another matter; I'm interested in the ability.

(In the process of writing all of this, I went on to read Justin's last post. I think we have converged now, unless one of you finds something in this post to discuss further. For me, the key is to walk the line: recognize the value and meaning of science as our best method of determining objective reality, but also recognize the place of art and philosophy and experience and meaning in human life. We have mortal, biological limitations that cannot be wished away, so we might as well not bother to pretend that we can be as gods. I believe that the cognitive dissonance arising from that pretending is largely responsible for the misery among scientific materialists--including me.)