Rationalist Spirituality Questions and Answers

Cover of Rationalist Spirituality.

In the context of the PR campaign around my first book, Rationalist Spirituality, a Q&A was produced that touches on the key points and ideas elaborated upon in the book. It is a very nice and short overview, and I thought it would be nice to share it with you here. It takes the form of a brief interview with me; see below. And if you have already read the book, I'd certainly welcome an honest review on amazon.com and/or amazon.co.uk!

Q: Today’s science appears to be able to explain everything in nature, leaving little or no room for spirituality. How is it then that you claim in your book that spirituality is compatible with science?

A: There are at least three ways in which science does not explain everything, which I discuss extensively in my book. First, our “theories of everything” are verified experimentally only at a microscopic level. We believe that the same theories could explain everyday things like life and the weather; but we don’t really know if they do, because nobody today can perform the necessary simulations to see if it all checks out. Second, there are many mysteries in science today. More than 95% of the universe is composed of so-called dark matter and dark energy, things we know nothing about. Moreover, the latest theories in physics postulate many extra dimensions of space beyond the three dimensions we ordinarily experience. This is a lot of room for unknowns. Finally, the most familiar and obvious of all phenomena – conscious experience itself – is a baffling mystery to science. We have no idea how supposedly unconscious matter can give rise to conscious experience in the brain.

Q: Why is it that consciousness is such a mystery? After all, brain science seems to have made enormous progress in explaining mind states through the workings of the brain. We often see images of brain scans that seem to explain all kinds of human behaviors and emotions.

A: Yes, neurology has made enormous progress in explaining what happens in the brain alongside conscious experiences, but not the origin of those conscious experiences themselves. In other words, we have discovered that certain states of mind come together with certain states of the brain, but we do not know how or why we experience those brain states subjectively. Let me illustrate this with an analogy: Take your personal computer; it is a very sophisticated machine capable of interacting with its environment in highly complex ways. To do what it does, it performs lots of computations. These computations are analogous to the brain states neurologists can measure with brain scans. But most people would assume that computers do not experience those computations the way we experience our brain states. Most people would indeed assume that computers do their job “in the dark,” without conscious awareness. Why not us? Why and how do we subjectively experience the computations in our brains? Why don’t we also operate “in the dark” like computers seem to? Nobody today has an answer for that.

Q: How does that link up with what people normally understand by spirituality?

A: Historically, there have been many properties people have attributed to the human “soul.” But one stands out: conscious experience. If consciousness cannot – as it currently appears to be the case – be explained by the behavior of matter, then it must originate from aspects of reality completely unknown to science. These yet unknown aspects of reality may be related to what seers of all ages have called spiritual realms. Moreover, if consciousness is not generated by the material brain, then there is no rational reason to believe that consciousness ceases after bodily death.

Q: Okay, but then I still insist on an earlier question: If consciousness is not generated by the brain, then how come neuroscientists find such perfect correlations between conscious experience and measurable states of the brain?

A: The hypothesis here is that, although the brain does not generate consciousness, consciousness is coupled to the brain in such a way that brain states frame what one experiences. In other words, you are only conscious of what happens in the brain, so if one messes up with the brain, that alters what one experiences. You see, because we cannot explain consciousness through the behavior of matter, we must postulate that consciousness is a fundamental property of nature, like space-time itself. As such, it is reasonable to postulate that consciousness is like a field, grounded on yet unknown aspects of reality. This consciousness field then manifests itself in material reality wherever a suitable structure, like a brain, is present. You could think of consciousness as radio waves that manifest themselves mechanically whenever the suitable substrate – namely, radio receivers – is available. Since the interaction of the consciousness field with material reality is mediated by the brain, it is expectable that brain states determine what one consciously experiences. For instance, if you interfere with the brain through the use of substances – like alcohol or anesthesia – such interference will frame conscious experience to the extent that consciousness, while coupled to the brain, perceives material reality only through the workings of the brain. Yet that does not imply that the brain generates consciousness; merely that it frames conscious perception.

Q: So brains are mechanisms for allowing an otherwise transcendent field of consciousness to interact with material reality?

A: Precisely. In fact, I discuss and substantiate this hypothesis quite extensively in my book, on the basis of recent scientific evidence.

Q: But why would a consciousness field need to interact with material reality? 

A: Well, I think there is a very good hypothesis for why such mechanisms may have naturally evolved. You see, if consciousness is not coupled to a discrete brain so to assume a localized perspective – a particular point-of-view, if you will – in space-time, then consciousness cannot experience information. In order to access information coming in from a world “out there,” consciousness must be anchored to a brain “in here.” It is this anchoring of consciousness to a discrete space-time identity that enables the experience of the world “out there.” Such contrast between a localized identity “in here” and an apparently external playground of experiences is an essential ingredient for learning and evolution; it may be the evolutionary motivation behind the very existence of material reality.

Q: So, in a way, you are saying that our brains and bodies are tools for learning and evolution.

A: I indeed believe that to be a very reasonable and likely possibility on the basis of everything we know today. This is a central idea in my book.

Q: So the meaning of life is to learn?

A: This sounds pretty cliché, doesn’t it? Yet, having thought about this carefully for years, I concluded that there can be no other answer here. But allow me to convey a few more nuances so to substantiate this conclusion a bit more. You see, the meaning of life can only be something that survives our existence in a way that transcends time. Whatever achievement of our lives cannot survive eternity must be fundamentally meaningless, in the sense that it will not add anything perennial to the fabric of reality. As such, the so-called “second law of thermodynamics” – a law that basically states that everything will eventually dissolve into disorder – informs us that nothing in material reality survives forever. But since we have concluded that consciousness fundamentally transcends material reality, then experience itself is not subject to the second law; experience survives eternity and fundamentally adds something to the fabric of reality. Therefore, the only avenue open for meaning is the avenue of subjective experience. The meaning of life must be, in this sense, the learning and integration of new experiences.

Q: It sounds like you are talking about some kind of cosmic memory where all experiences – and corresponding learning – are stored for all eternity. Yet we often forget things in our ordinary lives. If memories are stored in the brain, wouldn’t the memories of all experiences be lost upon physical death? How could this learning then survive eternity?

A: Our ordinary awareness is coupled to the mechanisms of the brain in such a way that all we are conscious of are the cognitive symbols circulating inside the brain. As such, when we “run out of room” in the brain to circulate cognitive symbols related to past events, we appear to “forget” those events. But notice that the idea of “forgetting” only makes sense insofar as consciousness is coupled to the brain. In its fundamental state, we have no reason to infer that material limitations would still apply to consciousness. Indeed, transpersonal psychology has empirically observed the existence of ordinarily unconscious levels of the human mind. We all seem to share this collective unconscious mind, which constitutes a universal repository of all conscious experiences. It is a reasonable possibility that such collective, universal level of the mind corresponds to the fundamental state of consciousness prior to coupling to brains. So we should not extrapolate the material limitations of the brain to the fundamental state of consciousness. Every conscious experience may indeed survive, forever, in ordinarily unconscious levels of the mind.

Q: Returning to the idea of the human soul; how would you place such idea in your system?

A: There are many definitions for the word “soul,” so I must be careful in answering this question. Let us say that soul is a form of identity that survives bodily death. Now notice that our sense of identity is fundamentally associated to memory. If tomorrow you were to forget everything you went though in your life prior to that point, would you still have the same sense of identity? Probably not. You would instead begin to build up a new sense of identity. Now, as we discussed earlier, if all conscious experiences survive forever at the most fundamental level of consciousness, then all which gives us our sense of identity also survives forever. All of our memories, experiences, and self-image, everything that has anything to do with the concept of “I” as an entity, will thus survive bodily death. From this point of view, the concept of an immortal soul seems indeed to make good rational sense.

Q: What about wars, famine, injustice, loss, despair, and all kinds of “evil” actions and negative experiences we are all exposed to? What sense could those have in this process of learning you are describing?

A: This is tough to answer in that it is difficult to avoid passing moral judgments in the answer. But let me try: Every experience entails learning. Personally, I’ve had periods of explosive insight and even heightened creativity that have been triggered by some of the worst experiences of my life. They made me reevaluate my conception of reality, my choices, and my views of others. My book is itself the result of an attempt to integrate a very difficult period of my life. To the extent that negative experiences eventually turn out to be tools for a broader view of reality, they make absolute sense as far as the meaning of existence we have been discussing. Even if one is in a coma and, therefore, unable to have experiences, his or her situation may in itself be a tool that enables other people’s experiences: those of his or her family and caregivers, for instance. There is a way in which the worldview described in my book frames every conceivable experience in life as a valid and meaningful one, though it also validates moral choices. If such a view is correct, then life is always meaningful and worthwhile, whatever the circumstances.

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