Why life on Mars may help change the paradigm

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

Mars. Source: Wikipedia.

There has been growing speculation this weekend that NASA has discovered complex organic molecules in the soil of Mars, or perhaps made an even more significant discovery. See this article on space.com. I've asked people around me whether they thought the possible confirmation of microbial life on Mars would be a paradigm-breaking event. The response was mostly on the 'no' camp. This is completely understandable, for scientists have been acknowledging for years that life may be common and widespread in the universe. So why would the discovery of life in a neighboring celestial body break any paradigms? Yet, I think we are missing something here. Below, I will argue that such a discovery would not only be extraordinary, it would also pose difficult questions to our reigning scientific paradigm.

Our culture's mainstream view is that life is a mechanistic phenomenon explainable entirely by the known laws of physics. In other words, life is not a fundamental aspect of nature, but an epiphenomenon of dead matter. There is supposedly nothing to life but the movements of subatomic particles; the same kind of movements behind erosioncrystallization, the weather, etc. As such, life is supposedly no different from erosion or crystallization, except in that metabolism operates a little faster. Biological organisms are supposedly mere 'robots,' entirely analogous to the computer or handheld electronic device you are using to read this. Life supposedly arose by mere chance, through the random collisions of atoms and molecules in a primordial chemical soup on primitive Earth. So the question is: If life were to be discovered in a planet next door, would that raise new and difficult questions for such a mechanistic view of life? I think it would.

Nobody knows today how life could have emerged from dead matter. There are dozens of theories and even more avenues of speculation, but no one has ever managed to create life from dead matter in a laboratory. Therefore, there isn't even proof-of-principle that life could arise from non-life through purely mechanistic means – so-called 'abiogenesis' – let alone proof that abiogenesis actually happened in the remote past. Yet, abiogenesis is essential for the paradigmatic view that life is merely a mechanistic epiphenomenon of physics. Otherwise, the implication would be that there must necessarily be something extra – something fundamental, irreducible – behind the phenomenon of life.

The problem is that not only all the structures absolutely necessary for the processes of life – like metabolism – need to arise together in an organism, but very complicated mechanisms for the replication  of all these structures – that is, reproduction – need to arise along with them. Otherwise, life would arise and disappear within one generation. Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize laureate and co-discoverer of DNA, once thought it impossible for the self-replication mechanisms essential to life to arise spontaneously, by chance, from a chemical soup on primitive Earth. He thought the complexity required was just too great. Although Crick later felt that he had been a little too pessimistic in his original assessment, the key point stands: Abiogenesis, if at all possible, is extraordinarily unlikely by pure chance. Anyone willing to disagree with this statement has an enormous burden of justification, worth of a Nobel Prize.

Now, how does all this tie in with our story about the possible discovery of microbial life on Mars? Well, if we were to find independently-arisen life on our immediate cosmic neighbor – right here, next door – the obvious implication would be that the rise of life is a very common occurrence in the cosmos. After all, what are the chances that a hugely unlikely event would happen, independently, twice within the distance between the sun and the asteroid belt? This would make it yet more difficult to defend the notion that life is merely a chance, mechanistic epiphenomenon of matter, for all scenarios behind such notion require exceedingly unlikely circumstances on Earth, let alone on Mars. It would just compound an already excruciatingly difficult problem. As such, if the independent rise of life is indeed a common affair in nature, one would be forced to take seriously the possibility that life isn't merely an epiphenomenon of mechanistic physics, but is itself built into the fabric of nature as a primary, fundamental aspect of the cosmos. This, by any measure, would be a paradigm-breaking notion.

Naturally, a possible way out would be if it could be shown that life on both Mars and Earth had a common origin. This is not unthinkable, for planetary impact could theoretically have thrown life-infested rocks into space, seeding life from one planet into the other. But such scenario would itself be yet another layer of speculation and contrivance necessary in order to argue for the validity of the current paradigm. As it is today, the argument seems to have enough layers of speculation and contrivance already.

This article is, in a way, jumping the gun: There is no official discovery yet of microbial life on Mars. As such, I am just speculating about the implications of possible future developments. Be it as it may, if the independent rise of life can eventually be shown to be commonplace in the universe, it will certainly pose yet more serious challenges to the reigning view that life is but a chance, mechanistic organization of dead matter. For this reason, I believe that a possible announcement in the coming weeks or months may indeed bear significance to the question of whether a new scientific paradigm may be imminently required.

UPDATE 3-Dec-2012 ~19:00h CET: I am watching the live broadcast of the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, where NASA is announcing the much-hyped 'historical discovery on Mars,' as I write this. As most people, I had expected at least a conclusive measurement of various, complex organic compounds in multiple soil samples. Instead, they announced inconclusive trace measurements of very simple carbon compounds, whose origin they can't even determine to be really Mars yet. These results aren't even interesting, for we knew from previous missions that simple organics exist on Mars (as well as in many other places in the solar system). Now, I understand that what a scientist considers amazing is not necessarily what lay people would find even interesting. I also understand that scientists get carried away in their enthusiasm sometimes. But even taking all this into account, I cannot wrap my ahead around why lead investigator John Grotzinger would have described these results as 'one for the history books,' as he did in an earlier interview a few days ago. If the results presented today are all there is, there is just no conceivable reason for Grotzinger's original assessment. He has just been confronted by a journalist about this and his answer was, frankly, more evasive and hollow than political rhetoric. He looks uncomfortable and awkward on that podium. I am at a loss, but will stop here not to get carried away myself into a kind of speculation that I don't like to touch even with a ten-foot pole...

Space.com just released their own update here.

Pragmatism, applications, and the meaning of life

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

© vladgrin - Fotolia.com

When talking to people about my ideas and writings, be them friends, radio hosts, or event managers prior to a talk, I often hear the following question at the end of the conversation: 'OK, but now, how can people apply all this in practice?' In the beginning, the question struck me as very reasonable and legitimate, so I felt a little guilty and embarrassed for having to think about the answer. But as I stepped back to ponder about the motivations behind the question, a whole new avenue of insight regarding our culture opened up before me. To anticipate the conclusion of this article, and without for a moment meaning to blame or criticise anyone who has ever asked me this, I think the question reflects a generalized state of psychic imbalance in our culture; so generalized that it comes across not only as perfectly normal, but appropriate and even smart.

Ultimately, all human reality is an internal phenomenon unfolding in mind. Even if there were indeed an outside world independent of mind, all of our experiences of that world would still be entirely in mind. Without the dynamics of mind, the whole universe might as well not exist. Therefore, any interaction we may have with the 'outside world' in the form of pragmatic applications or actions ultimately only has any meaning insofar as it translates back into something unfolding in mind. For instance, as a technology marketer, if I apply a new marketing technique that leads to more revenues for my company, such result will have human reality only insofar as it is experienced in my and other people's minds. At the end of the day, it all comes back to an internal phenomenon in the medium of mind. The 'outside world' is just an intermediary step; a means to an end. Only the internal reality of mind can confer any meaning to human life.

Now, my work is an expedition into the land of understanding, whether valid or not. It seeks to address the question: 'What the heck is going on?' And understanding is already an internal reality; a gestalt unfolding in the human psyche, not in the so-called 'outside world.' As such, my own journey, which I invite others to join through my writings and talks, is already a journey in mind. It requires no 'applications' for it is not a means to an end, but addresses the end-goal directly. It enriches life (or so I hope) not in a round-about, indirect way, but by nurturing the very matrix of life itself: the psyche. Asking about the 'applications' of what I do is akin to asking how to get the bus home when you are already at home. Why did you get an education? To be able to work. Why do you work? To make money. Why do you want to make money? To buy things. Why do you want to buy things? To live and be able to have certain experiences. Yes, exactly! At the end of the day, it's all about experience; that is, what unfolds in mind. Everything else are means to arriving at experiences. And since understanding is a primary experience that frames, shapes, and colors most – if not all – other experiences, why wonder about its applications as far as people's actions in the world 'outside?' We're already dealing with the core issue; already sitting comfortably on the couch at home. So why ask about the bus?

Even after reading the above, I bet you still feel that something is off with my argument; that everything should have some kind of concrete, pragmatic application in order to have any value or meaning. There is a kind of uneasiness associated to embarking on an intellectual journey when the journey's guide tells you upfront that he doesn't care at all whether the journey will have any practical application. But fear not, you aren't alone in this feeling. It is shared by our entire Western culture; a culture that has now infected the entire world, the East included, like a virus.

The problem is that we, Westerners, project all meaning onto the outside. We stopped living the inner-life of human beings and begun living the 'outer life' of things and mechanisms. The answers to all why's must lie somewhere without and never within. I even dare venture an explanation for how this came to pass: Because of Western materialism, we believe we are finite beings who will, unavoidably, eventually cease to exist. Only the 'outside world' will endure and have continuity. As I argue in my fourth book, which I am now writing, this is nothing but a fairytale. But fairytale or not, it causes us to project all the meaning of life onto the 'outside world,' for only things that endure can have any significance. The world within, though remaining the only carrier of reality we can ever know, is seen as ephemeral and, therefore, meaningless. Such is the unsustainable imbalance of our way to relate to life. We emptied ourselves of all meaning and placed it all outside. Yet, even that 'outside world' is, ultimately, an abstraction of mind; an abstraction of the world within.

When people talk to me about my ideas and their own philosophical speculations, I sense that, intuitively and deep inside, they know that life, ultimately, is a journey in mind and nowhere else. They know that what we are talking about is already it; it's already all that matters. But towards the end of the conversation, when the enchantment of the discussion wanes and concedes ground to the analytical ego, they seek the reassurance the ego requires in terms of finding 'practical applications.' It is as though they needed to cover that ground for completeness sake, even though their intuitive minds know that everything of real importance has already been covered. They need to tick the box, like a compulsion or obsession that endures despite lacking any substance.

Life is a laboratory for exploration along only two paths: feeling (as in love and fear) and understanding. Nothing else exists but as evocative devices; 'tricks' to evoke feeling and understanding. All meaning resides in the emotions and comprehension unfolding within. While I, as a human being, also walk the path of feeling like the rest of us, my writing focuses on the path of understanding. Are there practical applications for my philosophy? Probably there are many. However, in my current phase, I can't care to elaborate on them, because I see them as means to an end that I am already tackling directly. So if you are looking for recipes, techniques, and other pragmatic procedures to apply to the world 'outside,' I am not your man. But if you think the world can only change when human beings make peace with, and nurture, their feelings while advancing their understanding of self and reality, then let's have a beer.

Sam Harris: proud and prejudiced?

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

Illustration from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Source: Wikipedia.

Sam Harris is at it again. Not content to have carried out what I see as a cheap 'drive-by shooting' of a neurosurgeon in his previous blog post, which I commented on here, he is now taking his act to a whole new level. Have a look here. Below, I intend to deconstruct Harris' argument, showing it for the display of intellectual blindness and misleading prejudice that I believe it is.

Here is the first segment that caught my attention. Harris is referring to Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):
Unfortunately, these experiences vary across cultures, and no single feature is common to them all. One would think that if a nonphysical domain were truly being explored, some universal characteristics would stand out. Hindus and Christians would not substantially disagree—and one certainly wouldn’t expect the after-death state of South Indians to diverge from that of North Indians, as has been reported.
Here Harris is committing what I call the 'conclusion-by-inability-to-think-of-alternatives fallacy.' He is projecting onto all conceivable realities a particular aspect of one known reality; namely, the apparent objectivity of phenomena in ordinary consensus reality. But it is fallacious to infer, without further reasoning, this same characteristic for all conceivable realities. I extensively discussed this in an NDE article I wrote earlier, which I encourage you to read and which I make integral part of this commentary. Moreover, as I also discussed in my NDE article, there are indeed many commonalities across NDEs, regardless of the cultural background of the experiencer. This is elaborated upon in the very book Harris quotes from.

Harris' thinking seems to be the following: 'Since the phenomenology of NDEs is such that I can eliminate all other theoretical possibilities that I can think of, then NDEs are delusions and confabulations, despite all evidence to the contrary.' Well, this thinking doesn't say much about NDEs; though it says a lot about Harris' ability to devise theoretical alternatives.

He goes on:
And those who have reported leaving their bodies during a true medical emergency—after cardiac arrest, for instance—did not suffer the complete loss of brain activity.⁠
This is ridiculous. Harris is suggesting that a patient, after minutes of cardiac arrest and no blood flow, may still have sufficient, and sufficiently coherent, brain activity to confabulate unfathomable journeys into other realms; complex, coherent, peak experiences that change people for life and which they consider the most significant they've ever had. If the brain can do that with a few firing neurons hidden somewhere, what the heck do we need a fully-functional brain for? This is akin to claiming that if you damage every component of a car, except for, say, the spark plugs, the car can drive even faster than when everything is working in perfect order!

Harris has to decide whether he thinks human conscious life needs the brain or not. If he thinks it does, he must be self-consistent and acknowledge the obvious fact that a few neurons firing somewhere deep inside the brain, even if they are there, cannot possibly explain peak experiences like NDEs. After all, we seem to 'need' measurable neocortical activity even to dream of the clenching of a hand, as this study shows; let alone to dream of lifetimes in parallel universes. And if Harris doesn't think the brain is needed, then he has to bite the bullet and acknowledge the obvious implications. Harris cannot have if both ways: 'The brain is everything! Oh, wait... but in these cases we hardly need a brain at all.'

Unfortunately, Harris is not alone in this tendentious dance of contradiction in modern neuroscience, as I discussed before here.

There is also a rumor circulating online that, after attacking Alexander from the safety of my blog, I have refused to debate him in public. This is untrue. I merely declined the privilege of appearing with him on a parapsychology podcast, in the company of an irritating and unscrupulous host.
This is not a rumor; it is a public fact that Harris refused to debate, when he was given the chance to do so, the man he had earlier taken the initiative to attack in an intellectual drive-by shooting. The record of his refusal is publicly available online in this page. And the email exchange that leads him now to characterise podcast host Alex Tsakiris as 'irritating and unscrupulous' is also publicly available online here, so you can judge for yourself.

Now a pearl:
The very fact that Alexander remembers his NDE suggests that the cortical and subcortical structures necessary for memory formation were active at the time. How else could he recall the experience?
Here Harris seems to be casually taking for granted that memories are encoded as physical traces in the brain, just like files stored in a flash card. Yet, decades and decades of research have failed to find these physical traces. Modest recent progress in that direction is self-contradictory, as a cursory comparison of this and this article shows. The fact that brain damage can impair memory only establishes that one can physically impair access to informationbut doesn't establish at all where this information comes from. I discussed some of my thoughts on memory in an earlier article and in a related discussion thread of this blog. I could write pages on this, but someone else already summarised the key points cogently. So I invite you to read chapter 7 of biologist Rupert Sheldrake's book Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.

Memory formation is a mystery, as Harris must know. We don't know enough about it to use it either to dismiss or substantiate accounts of NDEs. Harris' argument is, thus, illegitimate. Moreover, that he so casually passes theoretical speculation for established scientific fact seems, to me at least, suspiciously tendentious.

Now, let's see what is perhaps the very 'best' part of Harris' comments. Pay attention to this:
If the brain merely serves to limit human experience and understanding, one would expect most forms of brain damage to unmask extraordinary scientific, artistic, and spiritual insights—and, provided that a person’s language centers could be spared, the graver the injury the better. A few hammer blows or a well-placed bullet should render a person of even the shallowest intellect a spiritual genius. Is this the world we are living in?
Yes, it is! Harris seems to ignore the vast literature on so-called 'acquired savant' cases. For a cogent overview, see this article from the Wisconsin Medical Society. It shows countless cases of people who developed genius-level skills in arts, maths, and many other areas of intellectual activity as a consequence of bullet wounds to the head, stroke, concussion, and even the progression of dementia. Nearly every conceivable source of brain injury can potentially trigger a savant. (Update: Popular Science magazine recently did a great feature on acquired savant syndrome).

Harris also asks why spiritual insight isn't triggered as a result of brain damage. Well, it is! Let's forget the anecdotal evidence and focus on controlled studies. A 2010 study published in Neuron shows precisely a correlation between surgery-induced brain damage and spiritual insight. Moreover, most, if not all, techniques for the attainment of spiritual insight seem to operate by causing a reduction of brain activity—think of ordeals, hyper-ventilation, sensory deprivation, psychedelics, meditation, and even prayer—which is entirely consistent with the hypothesis that the brain limits conscious experience. I elaborated extensively on this before, in the article linked here.

Again, Harris seems to be, at best, confused and ignorant of the facts; or, at worse, wilfully biased in his appraisal of the available data. His quote above describes precisely the facts as we know them, even though he uses it rhetorically, as if it were all obviously untrue. The irony would be sweet if it weren't concerning as far as what it seems to say about Sam Harris. The only part of the quote that I think is false is Harris' statement that 'most forms of brain damage' should lead to new insights. We don't know whether this should be the case for 'most forms,' for we do not yet understand how the brain filters and limits conscious experience. All we can say is that, for at least some forms of brain damage, insights should be triggered. And that, as I argued, is empirical fact that Harris, as a neuroscientist, should be aware of.

As I said in a previous post, I used to have special respect for Sam Harris and what I perceived to be his unbiased attitude. I regret to admit that such special respect is gone now. Harris' last post, in my view, is disgraceful. It is intellectually weak and flawed, it ignores empirical fact, and embodies either a dangerous form of purposefully-misleading prejudice or an astonishing lack of ability to devise theoretical possibilities. In my view, given his latest writings, Harris is as blinded by fundamentalist beliefs as his fellow 'horsemen.' It is easy to make a sport of wiping the floor with soft targets like religious apologists and new-agers, but it is a whole other story to stand to proper intellectual scrutiny and empirical fact.

If Harris ever reads this article, here is a note for him: Yes, I am taking what I think is a fair shot at you. But if you like to debate this, in contrast to your refusal to debate Alexander, I am game. Take on a real debating opponent for a change, Sam.

Addendum 17 Nov 2012

Harris wrote an addendum to his post, which you can find here. In it, he equates the 'filter hypothesis' to what is known as the 'transmission hypothesis,' according to which consciousness is a kind of radio signal received by the brain. He then proceeds to correctly point out the problem with the transmission hypothesis, which is that we are supposedly the signal, not the radio.

However, although the transmission hypothesis entails the filter hypothesis, the filter hypothesis does not necessarily entail the transmission hypothesis. As a matter of fact, the filter hypothesis doesn't even entail dualism! My own metaphysical position, for instance, is not dualist. Yet, the filter hypothesis holds well under my views, as I wrote about in this earlier article, which I encourage you to read. According to this article, the brain is the partial image of a process by means of which mind localizes itself, 'filtering' everything else out. Notice how this solves Harris' question: Instead of being an external 'signal' that is no longer being received, but which we still are, in my formulation mind folds in on itself in the form of a vortex, limiting its own breadth. We are mind, and yet mind self-limits. Under this formulation, to say that electrochemical processes in the brain are the cause of consciousness is as illogical as to say that lightning is the cause of atmospheric electrical discharge; or clots the cause of coagulation; or fire the cause of combustion. Fire is the partial image of the process of combustion as viewed from the outside and, as such, correlates very well with the process it depicts; just as electrochemical processes in the brain correlate very well with conscious states.

Currently, I am 2/3 of the way through writing a new book that will explain all this in details, and very specifically. That book will be my ultimate reply to Sam Harris. So please bear with me while I finish and publish it. It should be available at some point in 2013.

It is true that even I have used the radio metaphor when discussing the filter hypothesis. After all, the analogy is a very handy, metaphorical device to convey certain ideas. For instance, I once wrote a fairly elaborate explanation of the filter hypothesis under an implicit dualist metaphor. The article is available from here. But my use of the radio metaphor does not mean that I believe consciousness to be literally some kind of external signal being received by the brain. I don't. Assuming that would amount to taking the metaphor way beyond its intended scope.

Overall, Harris' understanding of the filter hypothesis seems to be based on an extremely casual and limited reading of it. Huxley wrote two paragraphs about it in The Doors of Perception. When Bergson wrote about it in Matter and Memory, his point was to discuss memory. Before Harris can pass judgment on the hypothesis, he needs to, at the very least, acquaint himself with a proper articulation of it. For instance, he should read my paper on it, and then my idealist formulation of it.


The membrane metaphor in images

(The subject of this article has been elaborated upon much more extensively and precisely in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Most of you know that I have been working on a metaphorical model of reality that looks upon mind as a kind of membrane, the vibrations of which give rise to all subjective perception and, as such, to all reality. I have discussed this in a number of previous posts in this blog, amongst which:

Mind as a Hyper-Dimensional Membrane;
Categories of Consciousness;
Subject, Object, and Instincts; and
The Brain as a Knot of Consciousness.

Now, a video has been produced where I discuss the ideas behind these articles in a, hopefully, more evocative manner. See above.

Notice how the membrane metaphor described in the video provides a different, but perfectly coherent ontological framework upon which to interpret the mathematical formulations of M-theory, the leading edge of theoretical physics today: The hyper-membrane M-theory works with, in this case, is the medium of mind itself, not a strongly-objective entity outside of mind. I believe the entire mathematical formulation of M-theory could be seamlessly ported onto this ontological interpretation, leading to a much more parsimonious, clean worldview, where the 'hard problem of consciousness' disappears naturally.

This video, and the accompanying articles mentioned above, form a kind of preview of my fourth book, which I am working on now. I am working for it to be a thorough, well-substantiated, coherent, strong, and rather complete articulation of my idealist views and general philosophical system about the relationship between mind and reality. I hope for it to be a reference work in reviving the philosophy of idealism; that is, the notion that all reality is in mind.

Though I am quite satisfied with my current publishers, I want to take the opportunity to drop the following note here: I am interested in maximizing the degree of exposure of my upcoming book, and would wholeheartedly entertain the possibility of switching to a bigger publisher, prepared to commit serious resources in promoting the book. If you have ideas on this regard, please contact me privately through the link provided here to the right.

Magic and Truth: A myth

In my latest Story Time episode (see video above), I tell a little fantasy about the nature of magic and its relationship to the more subtle notions of truth that have been lost to our modern Western culture. As in other Story Time videos of mine, the attempt here is to give a new, more modern language to rather old ideas, so we can hear and appreciate the underlying notions without the knee-jerk reaction of dismissing them outright as superstition. For emphasis, I do not put this myth forward as literal truth, but as a kind of intellectual artwork aimed at stimulating the imagination; that most crucial part of what it means to be a human being. Now, while the myth, as told in the video, keeps things rather simple, I felt the need to go a little further with the audience of this blog; an audience that certainly 'can take it.'

Let me start with a summary of the key ideas behind the myth:
  • Fractals are efficient and economic ways to create variety of form out of very simple principles;
  • In a fractal, the principle of self-similarity rules: different parts of the fractal correspond to each other at different levels, and look like the whole fractal. The same 'themes' emerge over and over again, recursively;
  • The 'trick' behind Creation may be that nature is itself a fractal: Creation may have used fractals as an efficient and economic 'technique' to recursively create the variety of existence out of rather simple principles;
  • If nature is a fractal, then the principle of correspondence applies to nature: Objects, substances, and concepts may correspond in a fractal, rather non-trivial and non-causal way to other objects, substances, and concepts;
  • The fantasy is that operations on an object, substance, or concept have a non-local and non-causal effect, through some form of fractal resonance outside of space-time, on the other objects, substances, or concepts that correspond to it;
  • Moreover, if there are many different realities unfolding in the great medium of existence, the fantasy is that all of these realities ultimately arise from the unfolding of a kind of 'cosmic Source fractal.' Therefore, the principle of correspondence applies across realities as well. An operation on physical substances or objects may have a non-causal, fractal resonance with the dynamics of other 'realms;'
  • In our culture, we only lend validity to literal truth. To us, metaphorical truth is just an indirect way to refer to some literal truth at the end. But, according to this myth, there is a kind of actual truth that is not literal and not metaphorical in the way we normally mean: A statement formulated with words and concepts of our reality may ultimately refer to objects and ideas of another reality, which they correspond to through fractal correspondences. Since it is impossible to refer directly to another reality with language (we just don't have the words), this kind of non-literal truth-statement is the best that can be done as far as communicating a direct, transcendent experience. What is unfortunate is to mix it up with more ordinary, literal truth-statements.
Now the bit I'd like to add. When the myth says that there are non-trivial fractal correspondences across aspects of our reality, the correspondence here is meant to be more subtle than a mere similarity of spatial, three-dimensional shapes. The myth uses the word 'form' in a broader sense: 'Form' here refers not only to shape, but also sounds, textures, ideas, subjective gestalts, emotions, insights, impressions, intuitions, principles, algorithms, etc. All these are parts of Creation and, as such, given the myth, must also all be parts of the 'cosmic Source fractal.' The cosmic Source fractal generates shapes, sounds, textures, ideas, subjective gestalts, emotions, insights, impressions, intuitions, principles, algorithms, etc., in a kind of synergistic apotheosis of morphogenesis. Therefore, a correspondence of 'form' is meant as something much, much broader than a similarity of shape. It encompasses correspondences between, for instance, shape and feeling (round/whole), sound and insight (harmony/cohesion), texture and taste (rough/salty), color and passion (red/love), etc. It is naive, according to the myth, to believe that only correspondences of shape apply, or even that all correspondences of shape have some form of deeper fractal meaning regardless of other, more subtle aspects. It's not about pushing needles into look-alike dolls as in voodoo black magic. Things supposedly are a lot more subtle and elusive. According to the myth, only true 'alchemists' will see the correct correspondences and be able to operate on them.

If you were alert, you will have noticed my attempt to give new language to old concepts. The fractal correspondences, for instance, are new language for the old alchemical principle that states 'as above, so below.' Fractal resonance is new language for what the tradition has simply called 'correspondences,' without further explanation. The notion of a 'cosmic Source fractal' behind all Creation is analogous to what Plato has called the 'Ideal Forms,' as well as to the creation myth of Sacred Geometry. The idea of different realities as different segments of this cosmic Source fractal is modern language for the different 'realms' of existence, like physical, spiritual, ethereal, etc., which the ancients referred to.

Much lies in mere language... just mere language. The exact same idea can be correctly articulated in language in a form that will evoke immediate dismissal, or in a form that will be appealingly believable even in the absence of any direct evidence. Funny, isn't it? How much must we miss out on because of this peculiarity of the human ego in its current cultural milieu?

Many of the philosophical underpinnings of this myth are extensively elaborated upon in my book Dreamed up Reality.

Sam Harris' critique of Eben Alexander

Cover of Newsweek magazine with Eben Alexander's story.

Newsweek Magazine's cover article this week is Eben Alexander's report and analysis of his own Near-Death Experience. Alexander is a neurosurgeon and Professor at Harvard School of Medicine who underwent an unfathomable NDE while suffering from acute bacterial meningites, which reportedly shut down his neocortex. His description of his NDE is rich and nuanced, with many Christian undertones. One might wonder how seriously one can take an experience that seems to be so much coloured by cultural idiosyncrasies but, as I agued here, I do not see this as contradictory to the reality of NDEs. As a matter of fact, my intuition is that Alexander's story is authentic; it certainly matches well with my own metaphysical model of consciousness and of what should happen upon cessation of brain activity, as I elaborate on in my books and many of my articles. But well-known atheist activist Sam Harris seems to disagree, and it is his critique of Alexander's case that I want to comment on below.

I believe there to be a couple of faulty assumptions and unfair, implicit suggestions in Harris' critique. The most glaring one is reflected in this segment of his post:
His experience sounds so much like a DMT trip that we are not only in the right ballpark, we are talking about the stitching on the same ball.
Here the implicit suggestion is that, because of similarities between a psychedelic experience (DMT is an endogenous psychedelic) and Alexander's NDE, the latter was likely generated by brain chemistry and, therefore, had no reality to it. Underlying this suggestion is the completely unsubstantiated notion, or assumption, that no valid transcendent experience can be initiated by physical means like alterations of brain chemistry.

You see, it is a fact that there is such a physical entity as a brain, and that there are correlations between brain states and subjective conscious states. This is not in dispute by any serious commentator on NDEs.  The question is: What is the relationship between physical brain states and subjective conscious states? This is what is in dispute. So Harris' assumption that a physical trigger cannot lead to a perfectly valid NDE seems to completely miss the point in contention. After all, most NDEs are initiated by physical events anyway. Yes, Alexander's NDE bears similarities with psychedelic trances, at least as far as descriptions go. But psychedelic experiences can, and probably are, entirely valid transcendent experiences not generated by the brain, as the latest research suggests. The comparison does not at all defeat the validity of Alexander's NDE.

The latest research indicates that psychedelics, just like hypoxia, hyperventilation, or brain injury, reduce brain activity. Harris is well-aware of this, for he even updated a much earlier post, where he discussed psychedelic experiences specifically, with a reference to this research. Here is the relevant passage of Harris' earlier post:
Unfortunately, Huxley was operating under the erroneous assumption that psychedelics decrease brain activity. However, modern techniques of neuroimaging have shown that these drugs tend to increase activity in many regions of the cortex (and in subcortical structures as well) [Note 1/24/12: a recent study on psilocybin actually lends some support to Huxley’s view.—SH]. (my italics)
I wrote more extensively about this psychedelic research here, in case you are interested.

As I also argued before, there is a broad and striking pattern correlating transcendent, non-local experiences with reduction or even cessation of brain activity: G-force induced loss of consciousness, psychedelics, hyper-ventilation practices, strangulation, ordeals, certain forms of meditation, brain damage, cardiac arrest, etc., all lead, yes, to similar transcendent experiences. This strongly suggests that the brain is a localisation mechanism for consciousness, restricting it in space-time, but without generating it. Reduction or cessation of the right aspects of brain activity should then lead to a de-clenching, a de-localisation of consciousness, which thus expands and gains access to aspects of reality otherwise unavailable to ordinary egoic states. Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) once described the process of death as "removing a tight shoe," which makes the point here rather evocatively. This, in my view, is precisely what happened to Alexander. The potential similarities of his experience with a psychedelic trance, which Harris is hurrying to point to, rather corroborate the reality of Alexander's NDE.

Much of Harris criticism rests on an old materialist argument against NDEs: It cannot be shown that all of Alexander's brain functions were off, so it is conceivable that there was enough brain function left to confabulate an unfathomable dream. This is as promissory as it is unfalsifiable, for there might indeed always be a neuron firing somewhere. But that's not the point, is it? The point is whether the kind of brain function that ordinarily always correlates to the experience of complex dreams can be realistically expected to have been present in Alexander's case. If chaotic, impaired, residual cortical function could explain the confabulation of a complex and coherent trip to "heaven," then such residual cortical function would probably suffice ordinarily too, wouldn't it? Harris argument is analogous to claiming that a car should still drive normally when everything in it is broken except for the spark plugs. And to claim that a bacteria-infested neocortex, at the level verified in Alexander's case, retains enough coherent function to do this seems to stretch credulity under the materialist notion that experience is coherent brain activity. To dismiss Alexander's experience on the basis of warped speculation about residual neocortical function amounts to dismissing extremely interesting, anomalous data. Something extraordinary has happened, and true skeptics should take a critical look at it while retaining a healthy dose of skepticism towards the standard explanations too; that's how science historically has moved forward.

Studies on the neuronal correlates of consciousness (for instance, see this) have shown that neocortical activity correlates with the kind of experiences described by Alexander. Thus, to claim rather speculatively that such experiences could happen with a highly malfunctioning neocortex seems to entail a rather biased and contradictory interpretation of the evidence and to raise a deeper question: If Alexander could confabulate that kind of sharp, coherent, complex, ultra-realistic dream with a severely debilitated neocortex, what the heck do we need a healthy neocortex for? Even when we dream of something as trivial as the clenching of a hand, we see clear correlations with neocortical activity; so how come we can supposedly confabulate entire alternative realities, rich in landscapes, entities, and significance, with a highly impaired neocortex? Materialism cannot have it both ways, as I wrote before here; either you need the brain or you don't.

The more unfortunate aspect of Harris' criticism, which I personally believe is beneath him, is a subtle attempt to discredit Alexander's capacity to judge whether his NDE could be explained by traditional neuroscience. This is embedded in a quote Harris adds to his post; a quote from his UCLA thesis advisor. Here is the relevant part:
Neurosurgeons, however, are rarely well-trained in brain function. Dr. Alexander cuts brains; he does not appear to study them.
Now pause for a moment and read this quote again. The notion here is that Alexander, a practicing neurosurgeon and Professor at Harvard Medical School (here is his resume and here his extensive list of academic papers), does not understand what part of the brain does what while he is hacking at people's brains every day. He supposedly does not understand what parts of the brain are correlated to confabulation, dreams, feelings, etc., yet he has a license to slice your brain if you so need. Maybe neurosurgeons are not doing research at the leading-edge of functional mapping, but Alexander is most certainly well qualified to understand what parts of the brain should correlate to what kinds of experience. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise.

The bottom-line is this: Alexander not only has the scientific credentials required to interpret his experience properly, he also has the unique perspective of having had the experience himself, something Harris didn't. It is Alexander that is in the best position to judge the situation, both from an empirical and from an academic background perspective.

I will grant to Harris that the Newsweek article is written in a rather sensationalist tone, and with rather loose language. Personally, I also do not like that. But it is an article meant for lay people, not scientists or philosophers. Alexander is trying to reach people, which I do think is applaudable. In the process of doing so, he will inevitably have to sacrifice the more conservative and cautious tone that is usual in science.

I will go even further: Scientism activists (among which I do not count Harris, but do count some of his collaborators, like Richard Dawkins) casually take the liberty to throw all scientific caution to the wind when peddling the notion that consciousness ends at death, even though there is exactly zero direct evidence for that, and even though there are other coherent ontological approaches that seem to fit the data better and which do not entail the end of consciousness at death (as I myself attempted to do in a recent Paranthropology paper). Their activism flies in the face of philosophy, passing speculation and hypotheses for fact, and aims directly at influencing lay people. In this context, I find it perfectly legitimate that Alexander is attempting to do the exact same thing, just from another perspective. If anything, his attempt can help reduce the imbalance currently reigning in the more educated segments of society.

Addendum 16 November 2012: A follow-up to this article is now available here.


Apparitions, ghosts, and mediumistic communications

I have recently been asked by several people about my views on so-called apparitions, ghosts, and spirit communications through mediums. This is certainly a fascinating subject, so I think it is worthwhile to discuss how I map all this onto my philosophical views. I will organize the discussion below into five parts: a summary of my general philosophical views as they apply to this subject; what I think is true regarding the many theories advanced by those interested in the subject; what I think is not true; my own interpretation of the evidence; and then some final commentary.

My general philosophical views

As most of you know, I hold an Idealist stance: I believe the most logical and parsimonious interpretation of reality is that all of nature is in mind, including the human body; mind itself being the sole irreducible ontological primitive. I have argued elsewhere why I think there is sufficient empirical evidence to discard the notion that the brain somehow generates mind. As such, the dissolution of the body represents merely the dissolution of an image in mind, not of mind itself. Further, it is my position that space-time is a phenomenon of mind. Life in space-time, as such, is a kind of collective, consensus dream that multiple differentiated segments of the broader fabric of mind – that is, multiple individual conscious beings – partake in jointly, somewhat like in the movie Inception.

To me, the human body-brain system is the image of the process by means of which an individual conscious being partakes in the collective dream of space-time. Think of it in terms of some analogies: The image of the process of combustion is fire; the image of the process of blood coagulation is a clot; the image of the process of sudden high-energy electrical discharge is lightning. In an analogous way, I think of a live organic body as the image of the process of an individual consciousness partaking in the collective dream of space-time.

What I do believe regarding apparitions and mediumistic communication

Clearly, I believe that mind itself persists upon physical death. I also believe it is possible that some form of individualized mind, as a differentiated segment of the broader fabric, persists upon physical death as well. Since mind, as argued above, is not generated by the brain, the dissolution of the brain does not imply the end of mind. The dead body is merely an image of something a particular segment of mind has stopped doing, which persists as an 'echo' in other segments of mind, as I discussed here. Given all this, it is fair to say that I am a proponent of the hypothesis commonly referred to as 'survival.'

Now, the most parsimonious notion is that there is only one, continuous fabric of mind, which differentiates itself so to create the appearance of individuality. I once tried to illustrate this with a topological  metaphor, which you can find here. This avoids the inelegant, unreasonable, and inflationary notion that mind arose irreducibly countless times in nature. In this context, all differentiated segments of the fabric of mind – each one corresponding to an individual conscious being – are fundamentally one; in the same way that all the waves of an ocean are fundamentally one ocean in movement. This entails a complete interconnectedness at the most fundamental level of reality. It is thus conceivable that, through the broader fabric of mind that unites them, an individual consciousness that is no longer associated with a body (that is, a deceased person) can resonate in some way with another individual mind that is alive in space-time. Michael Larkin illustrated this cogently here. To put it in simpler and more direct terms, I believe it to be conceivable that the consciousness of a 'dead person' can, in some form, communicate with the consciousness of someone alive. This can be called mediumism and, as such, I grant potential validity to mediumism.

What I do not believe regarding apparitions and mediumistic communication

I do not think that the consciousness of a dead person can inhabit or otherwise interact physically within space-time, even if temporarily, as in the traditional conception of ghosts. The reasons for this are various. First, as I said above, I think the partaking of consciousness in space-time is a process that has an image; an image which we call a physical body. To expect consciousness to partake in space-time without a correlated physical body is like expecting combustion without fire; or coagulation without clots. The body simply is the image of the partaking. Second, the idea that there is a more subtle but fully-functional 'copy' of a physical body (that is, a ghost) that survives death and can pop into, and interact physically within, space-time seems to render the physical body entirely redundant. If we fundamentally are immortal ghosts that can watch sunsets, push tables around, and communicate in regular language, all without a biological body, then why the heck do we have a body to begin with? The notion that nature would come up with such unfathomably contrived redundancy seems illogical and beyond inelegant to me.

Based on a similar rationale, I do not think that disembodied consciousnesses (that is, 'discarnate spirits', 'dead people,' whatever term you prefer) can think or communicate in language. Language represents a very particular, linear way to organize the flow of thoughts; that is, the flow of the oscillations of mind. When mind organizes itself so as to think in language, I believe the image of such organization is what we call a human brain. Note that I am not as much saying that 'a human brain is necessary for language' (though that is a useful metaphor) as I am saying that, when mind organizes itself to flow according to the modality we call language, the result of that organization is what we call a human brain. Do you see the subtle difference?

Therefore, if an individual consciousness is not organized in the form of a human brain, I do not think that its thoughts (that is, its oscillations) can be articulated in language form. By definition, a disembodied consciousness is not organized in that way, so I do not think that it can communicate in language either. Nor does it need language to convey meaning, since locality constraints are more-than-likely not in effect in the after-death state, as I discussed here.

The phenomenology reports of some very observant and thoughtful people who claim to have had contact with disembodied consciousnesses (like dead relatives or friends) seem quite consistent with the view I expressed above. Consider, for instance, Anita Moorjani's very observant and precise commentary on her Near-Death Experience below:

At the 30:48-minute mark she says: "I encountered my [deceased] father..." At first sight, many people would think of this as a meeting with the 'ghost' of a dead person. But then she immediately goes on to qualify that encounter as something much more like what I am describing above: "...because it was as though I became his essence; I understood him." Clearly, she didn't meet a ghost inhabiting space-time; she became the essence of her father, in the way differentiated consciousnesses can 'tap' into each other's oscillations through the broad fabric of mind. Such encounter does not take place in space-time; it does not take place within the consensus dream we call physical reality.

At the 43:06-minute mark she goes on to say: "It's interesting because there is no language, you don't speak. It's like you just understand; there's just the knowledge." Again, this is consistent with my postulate above that a disembodied consciousness will not 'think' in language form, but communicate by a direct, largely unfiltered sharing of mental contents. Overall, Anita's description of her NDE seems to be entirely and precisely consistent with my philosophical positions on the nature of reality.

My interpretation of the evidence

A source often cited for evidence regarding the reality of apparitions and survival is Erlendur Haraldsson, an Icelandic academic who has investigated cases of apparitions and communications with the dead for over 40 years now. Haraldsson has amassed a file with thousands of reports of such cases, and publishes extensively. Although, taken individually, each of Haraldsson's cases is nothing more than anecdotal evidence (as he acklowledges), taken together they are very indicative of a real phenomenon taking place.

Haraldsson published a book this year, called The Departed Among the Living, which provides a comprehensive overview of his life's work in the field. It is, one could say, Haraldsson's most definitive pronouncement on the matter thus far. The book is bursting full of testimonies of people who appeared to have seen, heard, felt, or otherwise perceived ghosts of the departed. Most of the cases occurred when the witnesses were awake and performing daily routines, so many of the apparitions are very suggestive of ghosts interacting physically within space-time, even if temporarily. What do I make of this, given what I said above?

Well, as it turns out, Haraldsson himself has already worded my own views on the subject in a very cogent way. I will take the liberty to quote a passage below under non-commercial, fair educational use provisions. The passage is the very opening of Chapter 10, titled Who or What is the Source of the Apparitional Experience? Therefore, there is no sense in which this quote can be taken out of context. The emphasis is mine:
We have mentioned two possible explanations for apparitions. Either encounters with the dead are created by the minds of the perceivers, or the dead are making us aware of them by creating a sensory image in the mind of living observers ... If the latter theory/explanation is true, ... it is easiest to imagine that the deceased person creates a perception in the mind of the perceiver. We find a similar phenomenon in hypnotism ... the perception can be so real that the perceiver experiences it as an outer physical stimulus ... There can hence only be a cognitive or telepathic connection between the living and the dead. The deceased moulds [sic] the perception in the mind of the living person. It appears that such a perception can range from sensing an invisible presence ... to the perception of an outer physical reality just as with any other sensory perception we know of.
Clearly, Haraldsson is not granting reality to quasi-material, ghost-like bodies inhabiting and interacting in space-time. He is stating that the apparition events occur in the mind of the perceivers, not in the so-called 'outer world' of consensus space-time. In other words, the apparitions are not part of the collective dream of consensus reality. Indeed, Haraldsson cannot escape this conclusion, for his files contain cases that directly contradict the ghost interpretation of apparitions: cases where the dead appear as a photograph on a wall (case no. 5033), or as a ball of fire (case no. 7003), or even as a floating jacket without a body (case no. 2210). Naturally, as a scientist, he will not selectively ignore evidence that does not conform to a particular interpretation of the data; he will, instead, seek the most economical interpretation that fits all validated data.

In all fairness, Haraldsson does go on to discuss what he calls the "third explanation": that, and I quote, "the deceased person creates or materializes in some inexplicable way a physical form." (p. 69) But he quickly concedes that his entire set of data provides no support for this alternative, and that one has to go back to the 19th or early 20th centuries to find case reports that suggest it. He acknowledges that "such material phenomenon have [sic] rarely been seen around mediums since then." (p. 69) Candidly, he also acknowledges that reports from this early era are difficult to consider valid, because "later some unscrupulous men managed to produce what appeared to be similar perceptions with tricks alone." (p. 69) My own view is that, if one needs to go back to the turn of the 20th century to find evidence supportive of a certain interpretation of a phenomenon that is supposedly happening all the time, then one simply does not have a case for such an interpretation.

Here is what I think is going on in authentic cases of apparitions and mediumistic communications, where the information conveyed is verified to be veridical: There is indeed a contact with a disembodied consciousness, but not a manifestation of that disembodied consciousness as a ghost in consensus space-time. The communication happens as a resonance of thought through the very medium of mind, the most fundamental level of reality. It takes place outside of space-time and is not in the form of language. Instead, it is in the form of a direct sharing of pure subjective ideas and feelings, as Anita Moorjani described in the video above. It is only after the communication that the perceiver's consciousness retroactively translates the subjective meaning perceived into a storyline and images that make some sense according to ordinary concepts and language. This can take place, for instance, as an overlay of the image of a dead person onto the actual physical scenery, or as a semi-automatic wording of an otherwise wordless intuition or feeling. In both cases, in my view, it is the perceiver's mind that architects the storyline, while the underlying meaning, or impression, or intuition may indeed be an authentic, veridical communication.

That the unconscious mind can seamlessly and autonomously convert pure meaning into recognizable and concrete images and words is well-established in depth-psychology since the time of Freud and Jung. Such process is entirely transparent to egoic awareness, which thinks that the images, words, and storylines created are literally true, in the sense of being actual physical stimuli. To say that the psychologists who came up with such notions are unaware of how concretely the phenomenon is experienced is naive: Jung himself used to 'see' and 'hear' an autonomous psychic complex of his unconscious mind, which manifested to his ego as a winged being ('Philemon') who used to 'walk' with him in his garden while they 'talked.' (See Jung's biography Memories, Dreams, Reflections). Yet, despite his own dramatic experiences with apparitions and communications with the dead (one of which Haraldsson makes a point of recounting in his book), Jung did not think those apparitions where actual ghostly manifestations in consensus space-time.

I think that any valid communication with a disembodied consciousness must necessarily entail a subtle (perhaps practically imperceptible) shift in the state of consciousness of the witness, which renders her more open to psychic influences. In other words, it is the embodied consciousness that must temporarily and partially free itself from the locality constraints of space-time so to gain access to a frame of reality that allows for the communication. It is us, metaphorically speaking, that 'need to go to the dead;' not the dead to us. They cannot 'come to us' without our (unconscious) cooperation because being in space-time entails taking upon ourselves a number of constraints and 'filters' that insulate us from the broader reality of mind. It's like putting on blinders. We isolated ourselves in the process of partaking in the consensus dream, so we cannot expect those who left the dream to come to us on their own (unless, of course, they rejoin the dream, a process that has the image we call 'birth'). Expecting otherwise is, in my view, as unreasonable as someone who puts on earplugs and proceeds to complain to his wife that he cannot hear what she says. "Dear, would you please speak up? I can't hear you!"

Some further commentary

When discussing the potential validity of a reality that transcends the physical, scientists and philosophers are often restricted to evidence in the form of phenomenological reports. In other words, they have to rely on what people say. In such cases, it is a sound practice not to patronize the witness. After all, it is the witness who is in the best position to describe what she witnessed, not the researcher who is interviewing her. Fundamentalist materialist scientists often commit the fallacy of thinking they know better than the witness what was actually witnessed; which is, of course, preposterous.

But it is also a naive fallacy to believe the witness to be in the best position to interpret what was witnessed. Interpretation requires a capability to model, something that depends on a deep understanding of science and philosophy. It is unreasonable to expect ordinary witnesses to do that. The problem is that witnesses often pass interpretation for observation. For instance, when a witness says "I've seen a ghost!" that is already an interpretation. It is up to judicious researchers to look past the haze of interpretations and extract from the witness what was actually observed (for instance: "What I've actually seen was a very realistic image that corresponds precisely to the looks of a dead relative of mine"). It is also up to qualified people to then interpret those observations according to a broader and logical framework.

When communications with apparitions are validated as far as the veracity of the information received, some argue that the simplest explanation is simply to take everything at face value: that is, that ghosts are real. For instance, imagine that someone reports to have heard the ghost of her dead mom tell her where some lost keys were. Imagine also that, thereafter, the lost keys are found exactly where described by the supposed ghost. Then, some people claim that the simplest explanation is simply to acknowledge the reality of mom's ghost (It knew where the keys were!).

The notion that the simplest explanation of a phenomenon is what it appears to be at face value is preposterous; it entails an embrace of intellectual laziness and lousiness. If such notion were valid, we would still believe that the sun orbits the Earth; after all, every human being on the planet will see that as the face-value explanation for the day-and-night cycles we all witness every day. Take that for consensus!

You see, it is true that the simplest explanation is preferred in science. But what constitutes the simplest explanation has nothing to do with what the phenomenon appears to be at face value, or even with what relates best to familiar concepts and notions. The idea of a ghost interacting in space-time sounds very familiar, for it is a verbatim copy of another very familiar notion: people and their behavior. Yet that has nothing to do with simplicity in the way it is meant in science and philosophy.

The simplest explanation is that which requires the lowest possible number of new ontological assumptions, while still explaining the observations. Postulating autonomous ghosts in space-time requires a mind-boggling number of new ontological assumptions: some kind of matter that can't be detected by normal means; some kind of energy that can't be detected by normal means; some kind of biology that is unknown; contrived laws of organization that are yet unknown; means of interaction with regular matter that can't be detected by normal means; etc. It is ludicrous to claim this as the 'simplest' explanation for apparitions.

Yet, none of the power and meaning of apparitions or mediumistic communications is lost if the explanatory framework proposed above is correct. Consciousness and individuality still survive death; communications with the deceased are still possible; information can still be validly received and verified. These are the key elements of meaning for those inspired by cases of apparitions and mediumistic communications in their spiritual journeys. And they are all not only preserved, but validated through a logical and internally-consistent explanatory framework that does not need to invoke ghosts interacting physically in space-time.

Transcending Our Brain Created Reality

Medieval illustration of transcendence.

An article I wrote for New Dawn Magazine, published in print a few weeks ago, is now freely available online thanks to the kindness of David Jones, the magazine's editor. I'd like to make it this week's blog post, since I believe the message in it is quite important. Below, you will find the first paragraph of the article and a link to the full text on New Dawn's website. Enjoy!

The study of non-ordinary states of consciousness is quickly becoming an established area of scientific and philosophical inquiry. Yet, all the enthusiasm about finding out what these non-ordinary states are somehow obfuscates much bigger, important, and urgent questions: What as-of-yet unknown aspects of reality do they give us access to? And what significance do those hold for the human adventure in space-time?

Continue reading on New Dawn's website...

The Great Cosmic Split: A myth

What follows below is a myth, a story; not a philosophy, a model, or a theory. I share this myth here for the cultivation of what William Blake once called "The Divine Imagination." May the Divine Imagination not be forgotten in this age of misguided pragmatism and cynicism.

The "story time" video below tells the complete myth of the "Great Cosmic Split," in case you prefer to hear it instead of reading. The text that follows, however, does contain more substance.

At the beginning of time the cosmos was subject to a split: a deep slice across the core of existence. The universe became then divided into two very different halfs: the Physical Realm and the Mythical Realm. All the meaning of existence went into the Mythical Realm, while the Physical Realm retained all form.

In the Physical Realm the unfolding of existence became governed by laws of cause and effect, or 'causality.' These causal laws are blind, mechanical automatisms; there is no meaning in them. They operate based purely on relationships of form: Given the right configuration of circumstances, the laws kick in and certain events are automatically triggered regardless of their meaning. In the Mythical Realm, on the other hand, the unfolding of existence became governed by associations of meaning, instead of form. These associations are not mechanical, blind, or automatic, but link events with related meaning through corresponding evocations of emotion.

Some examples may help elucidate the above: In the Physical Realm events are governed by chains of causality. For instance, if you jump off a building (the cause) you will fall (the effect). Chains of causality operate dispassionately and purely according to form: You will fall because the configuration of circumstances is such that there is nothing stopping the law of gravity from pulling you down. You will fall whether you want to fall or not; whether the fall makes you scared or not; whether you are desperate or enthusiastic about life; whether the fall holds any significance for you or not. You will fall simply because there is a blind, mechanistic law whereby mass attracts mass at a distance.

In the Mythical Realm, on the other hand, events are governed by chains of associated meanings. For instance, if you see a baby crying, it may evoke in you the feeling of pain; this feeling, in turn, may unfold into the image of a medical doctor wearing a white jacket and approaching you with a flask of healing medicine; the image of the doctor may then evoke a soothing feeling that, in turn, may unfold into the image of your sitting at the edge of a beautiful waterfall, surrounded by the trees, immediately after having drunk from the flask; and so on, with endless associations of meaning leading to the unfolding of rich, fairytale-like mythologies that, in the Mythical Realm, are entirely and palpably real. Note that there is no relationship of formal cause-and-effect in the way events unfold there; only associations of meaning operating through evocations of emotion. The Mythical Realm is akin to dreams: it does not obey physics, reason, or logic. In a sense, meaning associations are the 'physics' of the Mythical Realm, while the evocation of affections is its 'logic.' Yet, both the Physical and the Mythical Realms are equally real and palpable. There is absolutely no sense in which any of the two Realms is any more or less abstract, 'gaseous,' ethereal, or concrete than the other.

Note how symmetrical and complementary these realms are. In the Physical Realm events unfold mechanically, according to form; in the Mythical Realm events unfold affectively, according to meaning. From the point-of-view of the Physical Realm, the Mythical Realm is absurd and illogical: there is no consistency of form in the way events unfold. From the point-of-view of the Mythical Realm, the Physical Realm is dead and vacuous: there is no significance in the way events mechanically cause other events. But there is a yet stronger relationship between these two realms; a historical secret that has been carefully guarded since the dawn of time.

And here it is: Every chain of causality in the Physical Realm has a twin chain of meaning in the Mythical Realm, like the two sides of the same coin. In other words, there is a chain of meaning in the Mythical Realm that corresponds closely, according to a certain 'translation function,' to each chain of causality in the Physical Realm. This correspondence between chains of causality and chains of meaning is not accidental; it is absolutely necessary for the flow of existence. Indeed, chains of causality cannot unfold without a form of input from the corresponding chain of meaning. Analogously, chains of meaning cannot unfold without a form of input from the corresponding chain of causality. No one chain can kick-start the process of unfolding without the other; they form what Douglas Hofstadter called a 'tangled hierarchy.'

Now you may be thinking: "Nonsense. The physical world is causally-closed; that is, it can run itself like a clock without any influence from other realms." In fact, that is not quite true. The laws of physics define merely envelops of probability about what events can, and are likely to, occur. But there are no laws in physics determining what specific event actually occurs. This is a mystery called the "collapse of the wave function." And this is where the input from the Mythical Realm enters the Physical: it is the evocation of a particular meaning in the corresponding chain of meaning that allows and chooses one specific event to materialize in the chain of causality. Without that input of meaning, nothing would ever materialize and unfold in the Physical Realm; it would forever remain a cloud of abstract possibilities.

An analogous dependence plays on the other side of the divide. As mentioned earlier, after the cosmic split all form has ended up in the Physical Realm. Without form to evoke emotion and meaning, no meaning associations can unfold in the Mythical Realm. In the example above, the crying baby, the doctor in a white jacket, the flask of medicine, and the waterfall were all images derived from the forms that unfold in the Physical Realm. Those images are necessary to evoke the corresponding affective states of meaning. Without images, no chain of meaning could ever unfold; the whole thing would grind to a halt. This is where the input from the Physical Realm enters the Mythical Realm.

The Physical and Mythical Realms are locked in a dance of co-dependence across a tangled hierarchy. The Physical feeds the forms required to evoke meaning in the Mythical. The Mythical, in turn, feeds the meaning required to collapse probabilities into matter and energy in the Physical, thereby creating new forms. And so the dance of existence unfolds, like the intertwined snakes of the caduceus, the double helix of DNA, or the Ayahuasca vine.

Ayahuasca vine
DNA double-helix

Living beings exist in both Physical and Mythical Realms simultaneously. Life is a bridge. The part of us that inhabits the Physical Realm has historically received the label "body." The part of us that inhabits the Mythical Realm has historically received the label "soul." These are just labels, and no meaning should be read into them other than what is described in this myth. The aspects of your life that relate to the Mythical are your emotions, dreams, creativity, intuition, heart-felt fantasies, and yes, even your very use of language. After all, what is language but a chain of evocative symbols associated to each other by meaning? Language is Mythical. Similarly, the aspects of your life that relate to the Physical are your sensations; the forms they create in your awareness; the consistency with which these forms are associated through cause-and-effect; your ability to model, explain, and predict their behavior; etc. Science is Physical when done, yet Mythical when communicated through language.

Body and soul are equally real and concrete. Attributions of 'gaseous' or ethereal qualities to the soul derive from historical misunderstandings about the nature of reality. Body and soul also correspond in form. After all, the soul imports forms from the body, while the body imports meaning from the soul. Soul and body are integral parts of one single system. You are both simultaneously; right now. Your soul isn't a separate entity with a separate consciousness; it is you in the same way that the multiple split-off personalities of a patient with Dissociative Identity Disorder are, despite their assertions to the contrary, the same person. You aren't a soul having a bodily experience any more than you are a body having a soul experience. The illusion of an asymmetry biased towards the Physical arises only from the amnesia and dissociation resulting from the split across Realms. As I write this, my soul is living her life in the Mythical Realm in as real and concrete a manner as my ego lives his life in the Physical Realm right now. My soul is also under the illusion that life is biased, but towards the Mythical! During our nightly dreams we can experience more of the world of the soul. Studying her dreams is the art of the seeker in search of her soul.

The life of your soul in the Mythical is constantly influencing your body's journey in the Physical through a steady input stream of meaning. When that influence is particularly noticed, due perhaps to sharpened sensitivity, one speaks of uncanny syncronicities. Similarly, your body is right now influencing your soul's journey in the Mythical through a constant output stream of images (forms). When those images, for whatever reason, begin to dry up, the influx of meaning from the Mythical is consequently reduced and one then speaks of loss of soul. To cultivate the life of the soul, one should pay attention to the images one provides to it; not only visuals, but 'images' of all sense categories: beautiful landscapes, uplifting music, enriching philosophy, etc. Images are the sustenance of the soul. Like fertilizer, with the right images added in one can later harvest a wealth of meaning. A meaningful life, in turn, is more conducive to unfolding into rich images, closing a positive and constructive feedback loop. But beware: negative feedback loops also lurk in the depths of the psyche, and I personally know only too well about them.

Indeed, since the chain of causality unfolds intrinsically in lock-step with the chain of meaning, one has two levers to influence the course of one's life: through influencing the chain of causality and through influencing the chain of meaning. Our culture is myopically obsessed with only one of these levers: the chain of causality. By thinking exclusively in terms of cause-and-effect, we prune our own freedom in half. We enter into a desert of images, which stunts the growth of the tree of meaning in the Mythical, thereby throwing our entire culture into a downward spiral of psychic misery. We're handicapped.

Our culture's myopia has other surprising consequences: since we only acknowledge the chain of causality, we've developed an arbitrarily restrictive logic whereby only one answer can be true at a time; a kind of mutual-exclusivity. Allow me to explain this with an example: A patient goes to a Chinese traditional medicine practice. There, the Chinese practitioner diagnoses her condition as a blockage of the Qi energy flowing in her body. The diagnosis is explained through elaborate, rich, and evocative images of energy lines, flows, congested junctures, etc. The images make the human body seem to light up with meaning. Later on, the same patient goes to a conventional doctor, who diagnoses her problem as a straight-forward, and very physical, backbone misalignment. The patient then thinks: "Either the Chinese practitioner is right, or my doctor is. Both cannot be simultaneously right, since there can be only one explanation for my condition. It's either Qi blockages or backbone misalignment!" This is a very logical line of thought in our culture; who would dare question it?

Yet it is wrong. The notion of mutual-exclusivity is arbitrary. The video below explains an alternative logic that does not entail mutual-exclusivity of explanations (keep watching past the introduction to computer architecture). The backbone misalignment may indeed be the way the chain of causality is unfolding, but let us not forget that there is necessarily an equivalent symbolic unfolding in the corresponding chain of meaning. There has to be a meaning behind the backbone misalignment, or it wouldn't have occurred. The unfolding of the chain of meaning can be understood and interacted with through images; Qi is one such image, or symbol. Many other images or symbols could be used to evoke similar meanings: Tao, cosmic energy, prana, etc.; or even 'loss of soul.' What matters is not the image per se (that is, it's not the form), but the feeling it evokes; there lies its true meaning.

This way, it may very well be the case that both the Chinese practitioner and the conventional doctor are simultaneously correct; they are simply talking about different chains: the former about the chain of meaning and the latter about the chain of causality. Influencing either chain will inevitably translate into a different unfolding of the other, and a potential cure to the diagnosed condition, since the chains are in lock-step. The more consistent with the laws of physics our actions in the Physical Realm are, the more effectively they will influence the chain of causality and change our lives. Similarly, the more evocative and meaningful our myths and imagery in the Mythical Realm are, the more effectively they will influence the chain of meaning and change our lives. Reason without myth, or myth without reason, leaves half the job undone.

It is ludicrous to believe that, because a very physical explanation has been found for a phenomenon, the earlier symbolic or mythological explanation is somehow invalidated. Both the chain of causality and the chain of meaning are always at play in a co-dependent manner; one cannot unfold without the other. As such, the Physical explanation merely complements the Mythical explanation. Traditional cultures around the world, in their many myths, have been biased towards the evocative symbolisms of the chain of meaning: Shamans talk about forest spirits and ancestors, pagans talk about Earth energies, etc. Modernity, however, has brought this one-sidedness all the way to the other extreme: we now only acknowledge the chain of causality. Both cultural approaches are imbalanced and miss the broader point. The meaning associations of the Mythical Realm – the world of myths and symbols – is no less, but also no more, real and concrete than the mechanical cause-and-effect relationships of the Physical Realm. Human beings span across both Realms. To live our lives to the fullest, we must acknowledge and embrace as real both the meanings of symbols and the forms of matter. Form and meaning.

This has been a myth; one which I hope will contribute to the cultivation of the Divine Imagination and to the fertilization of the Mythical Realm for the growth of the soul. May its images accelerate the unfolding of rich chains of meaning that find their way back into our empirical lives in the physical world. "But is this myth actually true?" I hear you ask. I can only answer this: probably not in the logical, causal sense prevailing in the Physical Realm! But then again, that's not the point, is it?

If you would like to read some more about the ideas behind this myth, I recommend three works to get you started: