The taboo against meaning

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Philosopher in Meditation (detail) by Rembrandt. Public domain image.

Many people, scientists included, believe the greatest taboo in science to be the taboo against "magic." After all, science is a method for deriving explanations for everything in terms of other things. Nothing happens "by magic," but is the outcome of a long, and sometimes nearly unfathomable, chain of causality.

However, there are many historical examples in science of what we would today call "magic." For instance, during the Renaissance scientists attempted to explain electrostatic attraction by postulating the existence of an invisible substance, called "effluvium," streching out across bodies. Strange as it may sound today, at the time effluvium was considered as legitimate an explanation for empirical observations as subatomic particles (equally invisible) are now. As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, scientists began trying to frame every phenomenon in terms of the action of small corpuscules interacting through direct contact. Any explanation that did not conform to this template was considered "magic" and, therefore, invalid. That is why the ideas of an English scientist called Isaac Newton were ignored and even ridiculed for decades: Newton dared to proposed that objects attracted one another from a distance through an invisible, mysterious force he called "gravity." Yet we know how that story developed.

You see, magic is not really a taboo in science. It has never been. After all, the chain of reduction has to end somewhere. One cannot keep on explaining one thing in terms of another forever. Eventually, one must postulate fundamental properties of nature that are not reducible to, or explainable by, anything else. These fundamental properties are what they are simply because that's how nature is; period. This is where science legitimately accepts "magic." Electromagnetic waves vibrating in a vacuum sounds pretty much like magic (after all, what is it that vibrates, given that it all happens in a vacuum?) but that's just how nature is. Imagining the fabric of space-time twisting and bending in the presence of condensed energy (what is energy, by the way?) also sounds like magic, but who are we to judge it? It's just the way things are. In the course of the history of science, we have chosen different things to label as "fundamental properties." Each time this choice changed, the previous one was made to look like silly "magic." But at all times have we accepted "magical," fundamental properties of nature; indeed, perhaps never more so than today, with the advent of quantum mechanics and the new multiverse cosmologies.

No, magic has never been the real taboo. The real taboo is meaning.

Once scientists thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. Ptolemaic astronomy could explain nearly all astronomical observations of its time, based on just such an assumption. That gave us humans a sense of being special, significant, meaningful: we were the center of existence, after all; the heavens turned around us. But it was not to last. And once scientists realized that our planet was just a rock going around the sun along with countless other rocks (i.e. the other planets, moons, and the asteroid belt), a great sense of shame must have ensued. How ridiculous and stupid astronomers must have felt; all their aspirations of meaning and significance shattered beyond repair.

And it happened again; and again. For instance, for centuries we believed that living creatures differed fundamentally from inanimate objects in that we were powered by a special force later called "élan vital," or "life force." Indeed, we were special because, out of all of creation, we were animated by this divine force. Our existence must, therefore, have had a special meaning to motivate such distinction. Life had a purpose; we had a purpose. But again, it was not to last. Today, the vast majority of scientists extrapolate the little we know of molecular biology and assume that life is merely a mechanical process at a molecular level. In other words, we are just machines, not fundamentally different from rocks except in that metabolism operates slightly faster than crystallization or erosion. Again we fell flat on our faces. We are not special or meaningful; we're just like everything else.

Psychologically, these are very powerful experiences. When you have aspirations of significance and the world conspires to show you, very publicly, how deluded you have been and how unimportant you are, the shame and sense of inappropriateness that ensues can be devastating. It is easy to imagine how this could have built right into the culture and values of science a deep phobia against delusions of meaning. No, it is better to assume the very worst and be positively surprised than to expect some kind of meaning and be, again, ridiculed. Let us thus assume, as a matter of principle, that there is no meaning, and then let nature prove to us that we are wrong. This way, we turn the tables on nature: we challenge her to try and humiliate us again, if she can! For this time we are ready with our shields of skepticism and cynicism. Never again will we be made to look like fools... or so the subconscious thought might go.

The problem is that, over time, such cautious value system can (and, in my view, did) turn into a taboo. Don't get me wrong: having spent time with some of the greatest bastions of science, I do not think this is, in any way, a Machiavellian conspiracy. Scientists are overwhelmingly honest in that they do believe they are following the correct intellectual avenues. The taboo against meaning is a cultural value that has been unconsciously taught and learned over generations, and which is now so deeply ingrained in the way-of-thinking of most scientists that it goes undetected.

Nonetheless, and leaving aside its built-in bias, a taboo against meaning has the potential to be as naive and delusional as the aspiration of meaning itself. The idea behind the taboo is that we are not special: Who are we to assume that our existence has any meaning anyway? But you see, who are we to decree that it does not? What do we know anyway? The historical instances where our aspirations of meaning were proven hollow represented very naive conceptions of meaning. Today, who would associate the idea of meaning to being physically located in some kind of cosmological center? Our conception of meaning has become much more sophisticated and subtle.

The fact is, the universe exists; life exists. Assuming that it all came out of nowhere for no reason is, I believe, as much a leap of faith as anything else.

The God Helmet

Photo by Dr. M.A. Persinger. Public domain image.

A research team in Canada has, for some time now, used a strange device to induce, on demand, religious-like experiences in volunteers. The device is a modified helmet with attached magnetic coils. The idea is that the coils produce fluctuating magnetic fields that affect the volunteers' brains in such a way as to induce quasi-mystical states, including the feeling of an ethereal presence.

Many TV documentaries, including a normally reliable and trustworthy British series, have now portrayed the so-called "God Helmet" experiments as evidence for the hypothesis that religious or mystical experiences are "nothing but" the product of mere brain physiology. Although such a reductionist hypothesis is clearly consistent with the experimental results, I take exception with the implicit suggestion that it is the only hypothesis the results support. In my view, such suggestion is, at best, the reflection of intellectual laziness, unconscious bias, or faulty logic.

Eminent Cambridge philosopher C. D. Broad had already postulated, decades ago, the idea that consciousness may be a broad, non-local property of the fabric of nature at large. As such, brains are like reduction valves: they provide a space-time locus to anchor consciousness, but they do not generate consciousness. The nervous system (including sense organs) may have evolved to focus conscious perception on what is relevant to the immediate survival of the physical body. It filters out everything else so we are not overwhelmed with torrents of perceptions that do not correlate with the space-time location of the body. This is, to this day, a very reasonable hypothesis. Indeed, it seems more conducive to a resolution of the "hard problem of consciousness" than the idea that brains magically generate consciousness out of an unconscious material substrate.

In Rationalist Spirituality, particularly in Chapters 7 and 8, I extensively elaborate on this idea. We have a wealth of empirical evidence, namely from the field of transpersonal psychology, that human consciousness transcends the boundaries of the brain at ordinarily subconscious levels. In that book, I hypothesize that the brain is like a transceiver of conscious perception. As such, the role of the brain is to constrain conscious perception to a space-time locus, enabling the emergence of what we call "information." The brain does not generate consciousness, but provides a mechanism for constraining and localizing the range of consciousness. Logically, if such mechanism were to fail or be interfered with in just the right way, it would allow conscious perception to jump back to its unconstrained, non-local state. In the book, I mention scientific studies supportive of this hypothesis.

I submit that the God Helmet results can be construed to lend support to the hypothesis that the brain is a mechanism for constraining and localizing consciousness, the latter being a primary (i.e. not epiphenomenal) property of nature at large. By interfering with the volunteers' brain functioning through fluctuating magnetic fields, the helmet is merely interfering with the ability of the localization mechanism to perform its job. As a result, the consciousness of the volunteers partially and temporarily escapes the space-time locus it was ordinarily constrained to, leading to religious-like experiences.

The correlation between consciousness and brain function is undeniable. But it is simplistic and intellectually lazy to assume that this correlation necessarily entails a direct causal link between the two. We must maintain the rational discipline required to not discard alternative hypotheses that are equally supported by the empirical evidence at hand. It is perfectly reasonable, in light of the data at hand, to postulate that physical interference with the functioning of the brain (be it through a God Helmet, meditative breathing, psychoactive substances, brain entrainment machines, sensory deprivation, ordeals, etc.) can qualitatively modulate conscious experiences, even when we assume that consciousness is not generated by the brain.

Pandeism, Pantheism, and Panentheism

The symbol of Pantheism, by the world Pantheist movement.

Reader Knuje asked me to comment on the following question:

I'd like your opinion as a scientist on a spiritual question -- given our current state of knowledge of the mechanics of our Universe, is it plausible for an entity to be "omniscient" and "omnipresent" and yet exist as detached from our physical Universe?

It appears to me that the question centers on the difference between what has traditionally been called "Pandeism" and "Pantheism" on the one hand, and "Panentheism" on the other hand.

In the philosophies of Pandeism and Pantheism, the deity and the universe are one and the same. There are two ways one can approach this. First, if one simply defines the deity to be synonym with nature itself, then one is simply playing a game of words; no new qualities are attributed to nature other than the known qualities of nature itself. Second, one may postulate that qualities normally attributed to the deity (consciousness, intelligence, omniscience, etc.) are, by operation of the identification of nature with the deity, inherent properties of nature itself; in other words, one postulates that the underlying fabric of nature embodies the properties of being conscious, intelligent, sentient, etc. It appears to me that only the second approach to Pandeism or Pantheism is a philosophical position interesting to debate, since the first is merely an arbitrary word definition.

Now, according to the philosophy of Panentheism, the whole of nature is in the deity, but the deity transcends nature. In other words, although nature is God, God is not limited to nature. Here, the entire approach hangs on how we define "nature," since the deity is supposed to transcend that definition. Indeed, if we define "nature" as the totality of existence  both known and unknown aspects  then Panentheism is, by mere definition, incorrect, since we leave no space for anything that might transcend such definition.

What alternatives are we left with? I submit that there is one reasonable alternative: What we call "nature" is but the totality of our current perception and understanding of existence. This encompasses everything we can possibly attribute to nature at the present time, but leaves room for aspects or properties of nature that are, today, entirely unknown to us. In that case, Panentheism states that the deity transcends nature (according to this definition of nature) to the extent that our apprehension of nature is incomplete. The difference between Pandeism and Pantheism on the one hand, and Panentheism on the other, then boils down to an epistemological question centered on human cognition.

It would, in my view, be presumptuous to assume that our cognition of nature is mostly complete. History has shown us that people who have held such optimistic position in the past have been proven wrong again and again. Famously, physicist Lord Kelvin stated, only a few years before the Relativity revolution led by Albert Einstein, that physics was done and only required minor fine-tuning. Therefore, if we leave open the possibility that, in the future, we may become cognizant of aspects of nature that would be even more unimaginable to us today than Relativity was to Lord Kelvin, then we could say that Panentheism seems like a reasonable philosophical position to take (at least as far as the semantic definition of the word).

The real question, of course, is whether such yet unimaginable aspects of nature would be compatible with, or at least suggestive of, the qualities we normally attribute to the deity: consciousness, intelligence, omniscience, etc. That is a question probably nobody can answer today. Yet, the paradigms of scientific thought have gone through many surprising revolutions in the past (as Thomas Kuhn masterfully uncovered). The possibility that science may come to embrace fundamental natural properties unthinkable within the scope of the reigning materialistic paradigm cannot be discarded.

Meaning in Absurdity

Cover of Meaning in Absurdity.

It has been many months since I last wrote in here. Such gap has not been planned and is not the result of mere neglect or lack of interest. Indeed, there have been several subjects I have been meaning to touch upon and share ideas on with you here. However, one of these ideas has taken on a life of its own: It has developed into a major research project that has demanded most of my free time. The hard fruits of that work have now turned into the manuscript for a third book, tentatively titled Meaning in Absurdity, which has just been accepted for publication.

Here is the tentative blurb of this new book, exclusively for you:

This book is an experiment. Inspired by the bizarre and uncanny, it is an attempt to use logic to expose the illogical foundations of logic; an attempt to use science to peek beyond the limits of science; an attempt to use rationality to lift the veil off the irrational. Its ways are unconventional: weaving along its path one finds UFOs and fairies, quantum mechanics, analytic philosophy, history, mathematics, and depth psychology. The enterprise of constructing a coherent story out of these incommensurable disciplines is exploratory. But if the experiment works, at the end all these disparate threads will come together to unveil a startling scenario about the nature of reality and our condition within it. The payoff is handsome: a reason for hope, a boost for the imagination, and the promise of a meaningful future. But it does not come for free: this book may confront some of your dearest notions about truth and reason. Yet, one cannot dismiss its conclusions lightly, because the evidence it compiles and the philosophy it leverages are solid in the orthodox, academic sense.

If all goes to plan, it should be out late in 2011. Hopefully, you will consider it worth the wait! In the meantime, Rationalist Spirituality has now been out for 2 months. You can have a look at it at Google Books. If you've had the opportunity to read it, and have some spare time, I'd much welcome an honest review on Amazon USA and/or Amazon UK.