Expressionist absurdity

Rehe im Walde, 1914, by Franz Marc. Image source: Wikipedia.

In Rationalist Spirituality I suggest that a possible answer to the perennial question of the meaning of existence is that physical reality is a kind of expressionist artwork: a device or allegory whose aim is to evoke certain subjective states – emotions and ideas – for the sake of experience and insight. A peculiar characteristic of physical reality, as an expressionist allegory, is that we all experience seemingly the same allegory from slightly different points of view. As I discuss in Dreamed up Reality, what guarantees this consistency of experience across subjects are the laws of physics and logic that give reality its continuity, self-consistency, and predictability. Thanks to this consistency, reality provides us with a common playground of shared experiences, instead of isolating each one of us in a unique, idiosyncratic universe of private reveries that would forever prevent us from communicating meaningfully with each other. So the laws of physics and, more fundamentally, those of logic are enablers of this common playing field of shared experiences we call reality.

However, physics and logic have the ‘side-effect’ of limiting the degrees of freedom available for evoking the strongest and most meaningful emotions and ideas. In expressionism, the artist parts with these limitations: expressionist art often seems to defy physics and logic; its use of vaguely realistic symbols and images go only as far as the artist considers it useful for evoking certain subjective states. Beyond that, the artist will freely depart from realism and go deep into the land of absurdity to achieve his or her expressionist goals. An example of this is Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893), whose utterly absurd appearance has a powerful and obvious evocative effect in most people.

In my upcoming book Meaning in Absurdity I argue the hypothesis that, below its more superficial layer available to ordinary experience, reality is indeed fundamentally illogical and absurd. One can then fantasize about a cosmological future when reality will manifest higher degrees of absurdity for the evocation of deeper subjective states, while somehow still preserving the consistency of experience that enables us to share and evolve together in a common allegory. I touch briefly on these thoughts in my TEDx talk of last MayTo complement that talk, and to illustrate what I mean when I say that absurdity has higher evocative powers than logic, I want to share with you a highly illogical dream I had earlier this year.

In the dream, I was back to a small coastal village where I used to spend weekends as a kid. It was a very quiet, sedate village with narrow streets and people going about their business without hurry. I was walking on a sidewalk and needed to cross one of the streets in order to get to where I needed to go. But as I turned to cross, I realized that the very narrow street was, concurrently with being a narrow street, also an immensely broad channel of churning, stormy seawater where huge waves crashed and deadly currents lay hidden beneath the surface. Naturally, this was profoundly illogical on the face of it but, in the dream, with my pre-frontal cortex partially deactivated, this did not stop me from allowing the contradiction to be completely real to my experience.

The cognitive dissonance in my mind was palpable. While the reality of the narrow street made the crossing very tempting, due to the tantalizing proximity of the other side, the concurrent reality of the wide water inferno was a deterrent to any attempt at crossing it: I would most likely be swallowed up by the huge waves or dragged under by the currents.

As I stood there contemplating this impossible dilemma, I suddenly saw a group of classical ballerinas, dressed in full attire, run on the other side of the street towards the water. They ran in a line and, as the first one approached the edge of the sidewalk, I thought to myself: ‘If she jumps in she will be as good as dead, for there is just no way such a small, delicate creature can survive this raging water inferno.’ But with no hesitation whatsoever, she jumped in, immediately followed by the next one, and the next, until all of them had jumped, imbued with an incomprehensible confidence in their actions. In the reality of the narrow street, this all took place just a few meters away from me, so I could witness, in horror, every detail of their suicidal behavior. My immediate thought was: ‘Damn it, now I have to jump in and rescue them, otherwise I will have a few casualties in my hands!’ And in I went…

Once in the water, my worst expectations were fully confirmed: despite being a relatively good swimmer, I could barely hold my head above the water; the force of the currents was incredible, the waves gigantic, and I thought I had just made the last mistake of my life. Now the ballerinas seemed to be very far away, all the way across this very broad channel of churning seawater. With difficulty, I kept track of their position so I knew where to swim to, but the effort was exhaustive.

And then I made a striking observation: beyond all my expectations and common-sense, the ballerinas seemed to be in no trouble at all. Somehow, they were timing their movements in such a way that they swam effortlessly along with the flow of water, not against it; yet they were going precisely in the direction they wanted to go. Their movements were unfathomably gracious, delicate, and effortless, as though they were gliding through, propelled by the water itself. I was in awe. This phenomenal display was akin to a dance of two partners in perfect synchrony: a ballerina and the ocean she was immersed in, ‘flowing around one another’ like a couple dancing the tango.

Yet I was still in trouble, straining every muscle of my body to stay afloat. It then occurred to me that I could try to imitate the movements and timing of the ballerinas' swimming style. And it worked. The more I observed and tried to imitate them, the better I got at it. Soon it became second nature to me and I was gliding along effortlessly just like they were. I was literally ‘in the flow,’ a state where I tried to exert no conscious control of the situation and, instead, simply allowed myself to move by my newly-acquired instinct. The water had become my partner, not my enemy. Ultimately, the otherwise scary and threatening situation turned into a very pleasurable and rewarding dance with what is. I was lost in it, in bliss, until I eventually woke up.

The absurdity of the dream is self-evident. Not only did it defy physics and common-sense, it defied bivalent logic itself – the core of our rationality. Yet, precisely because of it, the dream evoked a level of subjective feeling and understanding that would have been impossible to convey with an otherwise logical, coherent scenario. For personal reasons I do not want to touch upon here, the lesson it contained was the thing I most needed to grok at that point of my life. And because of the absurdity of the way in which this lesson was delivered – exploring degrees of evocative freedom unavailable in a logical reality – I not only understood it intellectually, but felt it in every bone of my body. Obviously, the lesson was this: Go with the flow; don’t try to control the world. And it was a lesson for life; an example of what we miss because of our civilization’s insistence in dismissing all translogical realities.

Evolution, intelligent design, and other myths

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

Structure of DNA. Image source: Wikipedia.

When I think of, and talk about, the big questions of science and spirituality, I do not adopt the notion of a supernatural being separate from nature as the external ruler of reality; somehow the form of such notion doesn't resonate with my intuitions. However, I am indeed sympathetic to the possibility that there may be intelligence and awareness intrinsic to nature. In other words, that as our knowledge of nature advances we may find a natural intelligence and awareness – not just mechanical laws – woven into the very fabric of reality at multiple levels. As I sought to elaborate on in Chapter 6 of Rationalist Spirituality, our science today is very far from showing that it has uncovered all causal influences determining the observable phenomena of nature. The notion that it did simply reflects a pervasive but ultimately unjustified extrapolation grounded purely on subjective values (a paradigm), not on empirical evidence (I discuss this in another article in this blog). Therefore, there is indeed plenty of room for such a causally-effective, underlying intelligence in the phenomenology of nature we observe every day.

Cut to the raging debate between evolution and intelligent design. I confess to have largely ignored this debate until very recently, and to be still largely ignorant of the fine points of the argument (which I will not touch upon in this article, opting to remain conservatively agnostic of them). The reason was – I confess – a pre-conception: I have always thought of intelligent design as creationism. In other words, I equated intelligent design with the notion of a supernatural being standing outside of nature and designing it like an architect designs a building. As I explained above, I have always had, and still have, a strong tendency to reject this story as simplistic, logically inconsistent, and somewhat arbitrary.

Then, a couple of weeks back, I wrote an article on this blog that seems to have been identified by both the materialistic and the religious sides of the debate as bearing relevance to it. That motivated me to have a brief look at what intelligent design actually is. In the corresponding page at Wikipedia, intelligent design is defined as ‘the proposition that certain features of … living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process.’ The article goes further to state that intelligent design ‘deliberately avoids specifying the nature or identity of the intelligent designer.’ Ignoring for now the possibility that there might be – as some claim – political or religious agendas and biases behind either side of the argument, the statements quoted above, taken on face value, seem quite reasonable in light of the discussion in the first paragraph of this article. If there is an underlying intelligence woven in the very fabric of nature and causally contributing to its phenomenology, then this underlying intelligence is consistent with the definition of the ‘designer.’

It is important for me now to state very clearly and explicitly what I am saying and what I am not saying regarding the debate between evolution and intelligent design. Within the context of our current scientific paradigm, and ignoring a potential contradiction built into it, evolution by natural selection is, in my view, an overwhelmingly established model for how we’ve got here as living beings. The evidence for it is, in my view, very clear and solid. Indeed – and remembering that I, as a Jungian, like to call all human models of reality ‘myths’ – evolution by natural selection is one of our best myths.

Now, by stating the above, what I am saying is that the notion that organisms evolve over time through environment-selected mutations is a well-substantiated one. But there is one key aspect behind the modern notion of evolution that I consider non-provable and inelegant: the idea that those mutations are always random. In other words, that the changes in the DNA of organisms that later get selected for are, at origin, purely the result of blind chance.

There is a sense in which saying that something is random is saying nothing at all. In this sense, appealing to randomness is a precarious attempt to conceal our lack of understanding of what is really going on. Indeed, randomness is defined as something that cannot be predicted. As such, it is a human-centered abstraction; a label for our inability to find any coherent pattern in a set of data. And even as an abstraction, randomness is a difficult one: tests for randomness in information theory are notoriously tricky and often unreliable since, theoretically, there is always a chance to find any pattern in random data; somewhat of a contradiction.

Going further, all evidence for evolution by natural selection, as the name indicates, is evidence either for the idea that organisms change over time (i.e. evolution) or for the notion that genetic mutations are selected for based on survival fitness (i.e. natural selection). Both can be entirely correct regardless of whether the genetic mutations are random at origin or the manifestation of an intelligent pattern. Even if genetic mutations in the past were not the result of blind chance, there would still be – as there is – evidence that these non-random mutations were selected for based on survival fitness and, thereby, led to genomic evolution.

Strictly speaking, there isn’t any solid empirical evidence that genetic mutations in the past have had a purely random origin. Evidence for that would require statistical data of a magnitude way beyond anything that could be realistically expected from the fossil record. And even then, the statistical checks for randomness, tricky as they are, would have questionable validity since this data would not have been collected under sufficiently controlled conditions. In my view, it is simply impossible to state that all genetic mutations at the basis of evolution by natural selection have had blind chance as their sole causal agency. Stating it is merely a somewhat arbitrary necessity of the current scientific paradigm – i.e. a set of subjective values and beliefs – but cannot be firmly grounded on empirical evidence.

The hypothesis here is not that a superior intelligence already knows exactly what all organisms should look like, or even that it already knows how to get there. Were this to be so, evolution would be unnecessary: This intelligence could simply manipulate all DNA, in one direct step, into its final desired state. Clearly, empirical evidence contradicts this. So the hypothesis here is that, instead, the underlying intelligence we postulated above is rather experimenting in the laboratory of nature. It may be iteratively seeking an 'optimization' of DNA according to an unknown, but subjective and intentional telos. At each iteration, it may 'observe' the resulting outcome and refine its next attempt through a shift in the balance of genetic mutation probabilities. Evolution by natural selection in the theatre of nature may be its feedback mechanism; its necessary tool in the realization of its intentionality.

To the extent that an appeal to randomness reflects simply our lack of understanding of the causal forces behind genetic mutations, it leaves room for this kind of underlying intelligence. And that, interestingly enough, is not in contradiction with evolution by natural selection; on the contrary: it may be the driving engine behind the variety of all living organisms. Moreover, this hypothesis remains entirely consistent – I dare claim – with all scientific evidence relevant to the debate.